How Durham Cathedral was saved from German bombs by fog - or was it St Cuthbert?

During the Second World War the North East of England was subjected to some of the worst of the German bombing.

Monday, 3rd May 2021, 7:00 am

As hives of crucial heavy industry, places like Sunderland, Jarrow, Hartlepool and Wallsend took a significant share of the 32,000 Luftwaffe raids to hit Britain.

But one of the most curious tales from those bombing raids involves the incredible escape of the region’s greatest landmark in the early hours of Friday, May 1, 1942.

The story of how Durham Cathedral avoided the carnage that struck others sounds like something from a film. But it happened.

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Durham Cathedral is the North East's greatest and most important landmark. Picture by Stu Norton.

The Baedeker Blitz

What became known as the Blitz had taken place in 1940 and 1941. It eased off when the Germans were forced to divert more resources into their battles in Russia.

However, in April to June 1942 the German air force, headed by Hermann Göring, decided on a bombing campaign of places in England noted for their historic buildings.

To determine which sites were most suitable for this treatment the Germans consulted a guide book compiled for tourists in peacetime. This incredibly simplistic approach became known as the Baedeker Blitz after the guide book in question, which is still published today.

Without the fog, Durham Cathedral would have been very easy for the Luftwaffe to spot. Picture by Frank Reid.

The first cathedral city to be hit was Exeter on the night of 23/24 April. Last hit was Canterbury on June 1 with Bath, Norwich and York in between. But those were only the main raids and in total 1,637 civilians were killed, 1,760 injured and over 50,000 houses destroyed.

It should be noted that the RAF had already done something similar in Germany over places like Lübeck and Cologne.

Ultimately the German raids failed as awful though they were, they did not result in as much damage as intended.

The Durham raid

The nave of Durham Cathedral.

Very early on May 1, 1942 warnings were issued of a German raid over Durham.

According to the BBC’s WW2 People’s War: "The sirens sounded across the city. It was a bright moonlight night following a warm summer day in 1943 (sic).

“A squadron of the Luftwaffe were right on schedule, their target to bomb the Durham Viaduct that carried the main railway lines from the South to the North of England.

“As the plane approached, out of nowhere came a mist, descending over the city like a ghostly shroud, hiding every building, as if they had disappeared.

“They passed over, dropping their bombs on open countryside doing little damage. No one has been able to explain this phenomenon, and it has become known as ‘Saint Cuthbert’s Mist’."

Great escape

The skies over nearby places such as Sherburn and Langley Moor were, it was later claimed, completely clear. It was as though Durham had indeed been protected by the Saint whose shrine is still in its mighty cathedral. The fog then dispersed at exactly the same time as the Luftwaffe.

Or so the story goes. There is very little definite detail of the event and some stories, particularly war stories, get better with every retelling and sceptics are left to wonder why Durham’s cathedral was preserved while Coventry’s was obliterated.

But the St Cuthbert story is strewn with miracles and we are all entitled to our beliefs.

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