The two great wars of the twentieth century had a contrasting effect upon the City of Norwich. In the first, the Great War of 1914 to 1918, the City lost three and a half thousand men in Flanders and Picardy and the other theatres of war. This loss, the equivalent of the population of a Norfolk market town of the time, was quite proportionate to the city‘s size. The sacrifice of the Great War makes it mark on today‘s onlooker when confronted by the Roll of Honour upon a village war memorial - the names there are an all too visible reminder of the scale of loss.Nevertheless the crowded wards of Norwich suffered too: 171 from the Parish of St. Barnabas, Heigham; 119 from St. Bartholomew, Heigham; 92 from Eaton; 141 from Holy Trinity; 133 from St James; and 148 from St Mark, Lakenham. These examples tell us something about the distribution of the city‘s population at the time of the First World War but St Mary in the Marsh (the Cathedral Close ) lost 5 to the war, and they included Albert, Arthur and John Beck.
Those who survived returned to a city changed little from the one they had left, picturesque certainly but with crowded living conditions and poor sanitation. It is probably from this time that the demand for change grew, that demand found political expression in the early 1930‘s and much improvement was brought about. New housing estates came into being and great inroads were made into the infamous Norwich Yards and other areas possessed of housing considered to be unsatisfactory. The Town Clerk‘s Minutes of the period between the wars show a catalogue of clearance orders, with the population being moved to the new estates such as Lakenham or Mile Cross. There were other changes, a fine set of public parks came into being, the City Hall was built with a Fire Station and Weights and Measures Office nearby. Some people, notably the Norwich Society (formed in 1923), although accepting the need for change, were concerned that much of value could be lost without vigilance and an appreciation of the historic worth of the old city. Even so, it was a more ordered city in 1939 that prepared itself for war again, little perhaps knowing how much death and destruction were this time to be brought home to its civilian population.
Joan Banger, in her admirable book Norwich at War puts the city‘s ordeal in statistical form. In the period 1940 - 1943, 340 people were killed with 1092 injured. The fabric of the city suffered severely, 2082 dwelling-houses destroyed, 2651 seriously damaged and 25621 moderately or slightly damaged. The total number of houses in the city in 1939 was 35569 so it can truly be said few of the citizens emerged from the war entirely unscathed. Norwich did not suffer as Coventry and Plymouth suffered but what it endured in these years deserves to be remembered. The worst year was 1942 when on the nights of 27/28 and 29/30 of April (Monday and Wednesday nights), the greatest assault on Norwich took place. The raids were to became known as the Baedeker Raids because Norwich appeared in Baedeker‘s British Isles as a place of historic interest. The raids on Norwich and other historic places were said to be a retaliation for the British raid on Lubeck. The first of these raids lasted two hours and it is said that 185 high-explosive bombs were dropped on the city, killing 162 people and injuring 600. On the Wednesday night, the pattern was repeated with over another hundred high-explosive bombs be showered on the city. This time there was a much larger number of incendiary bombs used with quite disastrous effects on the city‘s shopping areas. 69 people died in this second raid with 89 injured. Joan Banger records these raids as the 28th and 29th of the 44 air-raids on Norwich but their impact was such that the word ‘Blitz‘ entered the Norwich vocabulary for the first time. It was at this time the fabric of the city was so damaged it was to be years after the war had ended before it recovered fully. Department Stores were lost to the blaze: Buntings, Curls (later Debenhams), Bonds ( now John Lewis) and the fine Woolworths in Rampant Horse Street. The spirit at this time was admirable, stores were given a floor in the premises of their competitors and carried on trading, Buntings, the large department store on the site now occupied by Marks and Spencer, found itself trading in London Street. Woolworths had a second, smaller, store in Magdalen Street, and this in common with all of that street found it had an enlarged role to play. Churches were lost: St. Michael at Thorn in Ber Street, St. Paul‘s, and St. Benedict‘s. St. Thomas‘ on Earlham Road was burnt out but subsequently restored, as was St. Mary‘s Baptist Church in Duke Street. The Cathedral did not entirely escape and bore a temporary covering on the roof of the south transept until some time after the war.
In October, 1942, King George VI made a surprise visit to the city, meeting not only civic dignitaries but several hundred men, women and boys of the Civil Defence Services who had performed so well during the air attacks on the city. It was a vastly different place to the Norwich he had come to a few years before to open the City Hall. Norwich was cheered by this recognition and then got on with its work. The last raid was to take place on the night of the 6th November, 1943. The next year the sky was often to be full of aircraft, this time our own and those of our American ally, taking the fight to the enemy. As the war neared its end there was to be one more threat to the city as a number of German V2 rockets dropped near but fortunately not in the city. One came down on the Royal Norwich Golf Course at Hellesdon with debris strewn over a wide area and with a shallow crater of roughly 30 feet square adding to the Club‘s bunkers. The London experience has shown only too well the devastation that could have been caused had Hitler‘s last weapon found its undoubted target.
So Norwich came through to Victory in Europe Day on the 8th May, 1945. A Civic Service was held in St. Peter Mancroft Church, with large crowds watching the procession as it made its way from the City Hall. Another Thanksgiving Service was held in the ruins of St. Mary‘s Baptist Church in Duke Street, destroyed in the raids of 1942. There was still the War against Japan to be concluded with many local men involved, either as combatants or suffering as prisoners of war, but the city could at least take stock and think about a return to peacetime activity. It was a battered, rather shabby old city that greeted the peace but as Joan Banger has reminded us, one could still look down from the heights of Mousehold on to "....a fine old city truly". We could have lost the lot.