Outside Mardon Hall in 1942 (larger image below)
Living through WWII at Exeter
When Matthew Broad climbed the steps to Mardon Hall at the start of his studies in September 2017, he was literally following in the footsteps of his grandfather, John Saunders, who lived in the same building during his degree in the early 1940s.
Matthew's Exeter experience is going to be rather different from his grandfather's though, as John Saunders lived in Mardon Hall during significant bombing raids by German forces. He wrote letters home detailing his experiences, and thanks to his daughter (and Matthew's mother) Emma Broad, these accounts are now available for all alumni to read. Below are transcripts of four letters kindly shared.
U. C. S. W .E.
Dear Mother and All,
I thought I had better write a letter to let you know that I am still alive. I told Helen on the phone about the raid of the night before last. Well, that was a picnic compared with last night. The siren went about 12.30pm and soon afterwards Jerry started dropping a lot of flares - they fell all around Mardon here and lit up the pace light daylight. Well, we all went downstairs (I’ve run out of blue ink so I’ll have to continue in red) and then the bombs started to fall - the noise was terrific at times.
Once they dropped a stick of four - and each succeeding bomb got louder and louder - made you think the fifth would get you - but luckily for us the fifth never came. There was no ack-ack so quite a few of the chaps went outside and lay down behind hedges and things. The bombs kept dropping for about an hour and then the raiders cleared off. Most of the hall, myself included, then went out to see what we could see. There were about half a dozen houses well ablaze about ½ a mile from Mardon. A little house right next to Hope (one of the women’s’ Halls) was blazing furiously. The men at Kilmorie Hall had been busy and had put out all the incendiaries that had fallen on their roof, but a row of houses further along from this Hall were also burning away.
These were the only serious fires in our area. We didn't have any incendiaries within about 100 yards of Mardon - we had high explosives instead! After having a good look around our area of the town we went back (at about half-past two). The roads were littered with bits of tree trunks, incendiary bombs which had burnt out and some which had failed to go off, and various other curiosities. When I got back to hall I was just about to get into bed when the siren went off again. However, the second warning didn’t last long and I got to bed finally soon after three o’clock. I got up early this morning and went out to explore the damage. About 100 yards on our right we found a huge crater - about 30 ft. across & 20 ft. deep.
Up at the back of the hill here - only about 70 yards away! - we’ve got an even larger crater - about 40ft across. Then, about 150 yards down our drive there’s a large crater in the front garden of a house. Most of the tiles are off the roof and all the windows are out of the house, but the blast must have blown the other way as our drive has been covered with about 6 inches of earth for fifty yards - great stones and limbs of trees are scattered all across the road - it’s just like walking over a plowed field to go across it. Then about the same distance away, there is another large crater at the back of our library. Besides that, within a radius of about ¼ of a mile there are several other craters - some in the woods at the back of us.
Reed Hall, which is right beside us, has had most of its windows blown out, but curiously enough Mardon is practically intact - only two holes in the windows. The shutters were wrenched open in the front of the building and a handle of one of the French windows was blown through the window of the common room. The reason is probably that all the bombs around us fell in soft earth. Anyway, we have had a narrow escape. One line of craters is in a straight line over us, two on each side, so it looks as if Jerry dropped a stick of bombs - (probably the four terrific explosions we heard) right over us and we were lucky in being in between where they fell. There are hundreds of burnt out incendiaries around. In one valley about 300 yards away there are at least a hundred.
Many of us have been around collecting the fins of them - I’ve got half a dozen. I’ve also got many pieces of shrapnel - (or rather of bomb casing) one huge piece about 2ft long and 6 inches across. I found this but in a great crater in the middle of a field about ¼ of a mile away. I should think this crater is 50ft across. The water pipes have been hit in this crater and water is pouring out of the side of it and running down the side of the field. We went down to college for a nine o’clock lecture this morning but found the place all roped off & a couple of policeman standing by. We have got some unexploded bombs in amongst the college building s so we shan’t have any lectures until they are removed - or go off!
They removed a delayed action bomb from the woods just at the back of us at 3 o’clock this morning and now an airman has been up looking for another one they think has dropped up there somewhere. The woods are only about 50 to 100 yards away from Mardon so if anything goes off it will shake us up O.I.
The damage in the town is not terrifically heavy, but several houses have been burnt to the group and a few rows of houses have been demolished. One bomb fell right beside the Cathedral but did not damage the actual Cathedral building. Several people have been killed and in some places they are still dragging them out. I wonder what would have happened if all the incendiaries they dropped in the valley not far from us fell on the town!
All our halls have had either high explosive bombs within a few yards of them or else incendiaries on their roofs. The house right next to Hope Hall which I saw blazing last night has been burnt to the ground.
Lots of our chaps have been bringing in complete unexploded incendiary bombs. There are about 6 in a room next but one to mine!! A workman went down by a few minutes ago with a whole stick of unexploded incendiaries in a case - it is a part of a “Molotov Cocktail”.
Well, I must close now as its nearly time for dinner. Thank you very much for the food - it’s very welcome.
The buns, especially, are very nice indeed.
Please excuse my hurried scribble only I want to finish this letter before dinner and I should take ages unless I wrote quickly.
Our invasion exercise which was to take place over the week-end has been cancelled. Probably they expect Jerry over again tonight. It’s a good job they have been cancelled as I only had a few hours’ sleep last night & I should be tired out if I had to stay up all tonight as well.
Well, I will close now,
The airman who was up here looking for the delayed action bomb said that the bombs dropped beside us here were 2000 pounders!! They shook us up enough anyway but it’s no wonder if they were as large as that. I have just found out, too, that four of the fellows from here were only about 25 yards from the bomb that went off up at the back of us.
Dear Mother and all,
First of all let me thank you for the parcels you sent me. I have eaten everything except 3 rashers of bacon which I shall probably polish off tomorrow. I also received the parcel of clean clothes O.K. and the shoes with the packet of cheese. I wrote my last letter to you on Saturday last, and since then we have had very little in the way of bombs.
On Saturday night three of us went out into the country for a long walk so as to get away from any raiding that might occur. We set off at about 10.30 and walked about 2 miles. Then we went up into some fields and lay down for an hour or so, till about one o’clock. At about this time the Exeter sirens sounded the ‘all - clear’ so we picked up our ‘traps’ and started to return home. There were no bombs dropped that night although another alert went from 4 o’clock till about six - thirty.
However, we had a nice walk and were amply repaid for our exertions by the fact that, coming back through some woods we heard a nightingale. We couldn’t believe our ears at first. I should think they are pretty rare in Cornwall and Devon. I had never heard one sing before except on a gramophone record, but there was no mistaking the fact. We sat and listened to it for about ¼ of an hour and even when we left the bird was still singing. The variety of the tunes it sang was remarkable and the clarity of the notes as well as the beautiful tone was something I shall never forget. The bird was only about 20 yards away from us, I should say.
We were tired on Sunday morning, but our tiredness was nothing to what we felt like on Monday. Errol and I volunteered to go on the roof on Sunday night. The siren went at about 11 o’clock and we were up there from that time till 3.15 A.M. There were Jerries over practically all the time. Flares and incendiaries were dropped a few miles out of the town and one or two bombs were dropped in the town, but it was nothing much.
They had brought some guns into the city by then and there was quite a considerable barrage of Ack-Ack, some of which seemed more, or less over our heads.
The more I think about the bombs on Friday night, the more fortunate I think we are. About 200 yards down over the hill, or valley side rather, from us, and in the direction of St David’s Station two very heavy bombs fell right beside each other - within about 50 ft, and the craters are side by side. A house once stood where one of the craters is, but now there is absolutely no sign of it - just a great crater. The house was only a bungalow and it was blown up completely. The road, which runs quite near where the craters are, is in an awful state - all the surface for about 30 yards has been torn up by splinters from the bombs, bricks etc.
I have been down around the center of the town and seen the damage there. The bobs are numerous - but widely scattered.
They fell mostly on poor homes and all of them seem to have been heavy ones as the houses on which they fell have been completely demolished and many houses around them have been seriously damaged. Down through the main street many of the shops windows have been blown out, especially in the vicinity of Exe Bridge. The Mint has had its upper windows blown out. The Cathedral had a very narrow escape. Two bombs fell right beside it - demolishing the choir boys’ school. Apart from a few broken or bent windows, however, no damage has been done to the building itself. We get many rumors as to what the casualties were, but, taking the average, I should say there were about 70 people killed and 200 causalities including killed & wounded.
We have been having gorgeous weather here lately. The time bomb which fell in our College buildings was only removed yesterday. Apparently it had a double fuse and they had to wait a week before it was safe to dig it out. If it had gone off it would have blown up quite a bit of college.
As it was an ordinary bomb fell a few yards away from the delayed action one, and we have a little minor damage - a few broken windows - holes in some of the roofs & large stones all over the place. The result has been that we have had no lectures for a week. Consequently, I have been able to do my work outdoors in the sun. Sometimes I go up on the roof - part of which is flat. All you have to do is lay down on a rug - and you can sunbathe and work at the same time. My face and arms are the color of this in, practically. Mardon seems more like a holiday center than a College Hall at present. Practically everyone takes chairs out on to the terrace outside in the afternoons or else goes out into the gardens or woods around to work. Our common room and library each have two French windows and these are opened wide in the daytime and sun streams in (Mardon faces due South by the way).
I went up on the roof this morning and took my shirt & vest off and worked in my running shorts only. It was ten o’clock when I started this & it wasn’t a bit cold. One evening I sat in front of my opened window till 8.30 p.m. sunbathing - this will show you how warm it is up here. I am lucky in that I have much more reading to do than writing & so I don’t need to have a table or anything.
Well is gone half past eleven so I must go to bed,
Dear Mother and All,
Just a few lines to let you know that all is well. We had a real blitz last night - much worse than last Friday week.
Jerry came over at about two o’clock and started dropping flares. Then down came the incendiaries! I have never seen so many incendiaries and never want to see so many again. They fell in a long line right up the valley below us and all over the city.
There must have been thousands of them and they lit up the place in an awful glare - made you feel as if every Jerry pilot up above was able to see you. The bombs followed soon after the incendiaries. I was lying down outside when the first couple came down. We heard the plane overhead come screaming down - then came the whistling of the bombs and finally, they burst.
These two were near enough to us to fill the whole air with a cloud of dust and smoke. You could scarcely breathe for it. I cleared inside after this. In the next hour I should think twenty bombs and four land mines fell very near us! You could hear the planes diving over and then the scream of the bombs as they were released, the scream becoming less high pitched as they fell towards the ground.
By the time the mines fell all the French windows and shutters in the place had been wrenched open or smashed by blast and so we could see the flashes as they fell. You would see the flash and then you would have to wait about 3 seconds before they exploded.
Every time one went off there would be a clinking of glass as the windows were smashed by blast. The nearest we had was a landmine right beside us & only about 30 yards away. I think the only reason why we were not blown up and the fact that it hit the top of a tree and the majority of the blast passed over us. However, it brought down a great deal of plaster and wrenched some of the window frames out of their sockets.
Our dining hall is in an awful state - some of the radiators have been blown over and the floor is flooded with water. Many of the fellow’s blackouts are broken so they will have to do to bed in the dark. The only damage to my room was that the door post has been blown out. I suppose the door was blown open by the blast and it blew out the door post as well. There is a great crack in the plaster right across the room. Our water, gas, and telephone are all out of action. We have been fetching water from outside today and our meals are being cooked on a large bonfire outside. It’s quite a novelty having breakfast and dinner out in the open with no tables or chairs.
Still, we are very fortunate compare with the rest of the town. After the all-clear sounded (about 4 o’clock) I and a few others went down into the town to see if we could be of any assistance. The whole center portion of the town was a mass of flames.
From our drive the prison tower stood out against the flames just like the pictures you see of St Paul’s Cathedral in the London fires. You could feel the heat of the flames right up at Mardon.
There were fire engines from Plymouth and around - I counted over twenty. A few of us went to Gandy Street - where the college buildings are. Here the Registry and the Government Munitions Training Centre - the place which was once our handicraft workshop were a mass of flames. The other college buildings were alight in a few places and so we joined in and helped deal with them, with the help off stirrup pumps, until a fire pump arrived on the scene.
We went out on to the part of the roof and tried to back out a part of it to prevent the flames from spreading - we weren’t two successful, however, as the roof was so steep that it was hard to stand up. By the time we had finished with the fires in the College buildings it was getting light, so we decided to make our way back to Mardon. As soon as we got back we received a call for help in rescue work. A whole crowd of us went along to a place where it seemed as if a couple of bombs and a land-mine had been dropped. After searching amongst the muddle of what once had been a house, two mangled bodies were pulled out from underneath the wreckage.
I have never seen such a mess as this house was. Every brick seemed to have been separated. The bath, even, was split in tow! When our services were no longer required at this place we returned to Mardon for breakfast, which, as I have said before, we had out on the grass outside.
The dame in the city has been pretty terrific. Two churches have gone, the Post Office received a direct hit, the city library - a new building, has been gutted by fire, St Luke’s College, as you will probably know by the time you receive this letter, is burnt to the ground.
The whole of the extreme center of the town seems to have been burnt out. Bobby’s & Deller’s Cafes have been burnt out and there have been huge fires in the Central Station. St David’s Station has two landmines quite near it and bombs on either side of the line. I could prolong this list indefinitely. There has been a huge cloud of smoke over the town all day and even now the air is lays with smoke and everywhere smells of charred wood.
I had a pleasant time knocking out some of the broken planes of glass this morning. Things are looking a little more shipshape now than they did this morning, however, as everyone has cleared the plaster out of their rooms and brushed it up. There are many things more I could say but I must close now or you will not get my letter by tomorrow morning. Please excuse scribble as I only had a 2 hour sleep last night -& am rather tired.
PS: We are hoping Jerry will be satisfied with his blitzing of Exeter now!
Dear Mother and All,
Thank you for your letter which I received yesterday. I did not return the telegram as I knew my letter would get there first.
I regret to say that up to date I have received no parcel - maybe it was in the Post-Office here on Sunday night. The Post-Office had a direct hit, so if my parcel did happen to been there its goodbye to that one.
I have been all round the town and surveyed the damage - it’s really heartbreaking. I don’t know how well you know Exeter but I will tell you the main areas that have been blitzed. The High Street, from the very top of it as far as the region of South Street, is no more. Only a few of the buildings remain comparatively unharmed. All the banks have gone & as I said before, the Post Office received a direct hit.
Wheatons & another large book sellers premises have gone & so I believe has Lyons - it is difficult to tell exactly as the whole of the area is roped off & you can only see it from either end. Deller’s & Bobby’s Cafes have both been burnt out and the same applies to the ‘Bude’.
I don’t think there is one shop in the High Street which, if it is not burnt down or blow up, has not had its windows blown out. To the East of the High Street, that is, on the left as you drive down towards Exe Bridge, there are very few houses still standing.
Whole streets have been burnt out. The ‘Belmont’ area - including the Belmont nursing home were Aunty Betty was, has been completely gutted by fire. Only the blackened front walls of the houses remain. You can walk for hundreds of yards in this region and see nothing but either heaps of rubble or houses which have been gutted by oil bombs or incendiaries. Many of the roads are roped off - there seem to be hundreds of delayed action bombs all over the town. Twelve of these went off in the night & one of them was right beside our library. This one shook Mardon alright and woke everyone up. New cracks have now appeared in our walls as a result, but no more glass was broken.
Today, two new unexploded bombs have been found right beside our library - quite near the one that went off last night. If these go off there will probably be little left of the library. One of the bombs is alleged to be four feet across - haven’t been over to verify the statement. Our library has already had two very lucky escapes - one on the Friday of which I think I told you, and another, even nearer one on Sunday last. This one only removed a few panes of glass & yet it threw stones & earth over Prince of Wales’ Road about 100 yards away. It was only about 20 yards from the corner of the library - this just shows what queer tricks blast plays.
To return to the damage in the town.
The Mint, I believe, has not been greatly damaged, but St Sidwell’s Methodist Church received a direct hit - the tower was sliced in half and the remaining half is still standing. St James Church is a mere shell - another direct hit. The Congregational Church right opposite the Belmont Nursing Home also had a direct hit. All around the St Sidwell area there is havoc. Very little remains of St Sidwell’s Street. The upper half of South Street is just a huge pile of rubble.
The St David’s region, just below here, has had three land mines, I believe, so you can imagine what havoc there is down there. It’s a wonder the trains are still running. Apart, perhaps from the left hand side of the Exe bridge area I don’t think there is anywhere in Exeter where you can walk a hundred yards and not see a demolished house.
The Cathedral still stands but it has had a direct hit which did not do as much damage as you might expect. As a matter of fact, there is very little left of the center of the town at all. Every Cinema in the city has been damaged. The Gaumont is very badly mauled, but I don’t know about the rest - you cannot get anywhere near them. The Paris Street region where most of the damage was done in the Friday blitz, has been almost totally destroyed now. It has been an awful job to get through Exeter in the last few days, and new streets are constantly being roped of as they find more D.A. bombs.
I could go on like this for ages but what I have written will perhaps show you, to some extent, what the damage has been like.
The bomb which fell right beside us on Sunday night [It was a bomb & not a land mine as we first thought] landed only 15 yards away from the corner of Mardon. The only thing that saved us was the fact that the bomb hit a large branch high up in a tree and exploded. The plane which dropped the bomb was definitely aiming at us and he would have hit the corner of the building had the tree not been in the way.
As it was, we recon, the blast went, for the most part, over our heads. There must be other delayed action bombs around us as we heard them whistle over us and then did not hear any explosion. Our drive is already roped off on account of these bombs by the library and only ourselves and the people in the houses in our drive are allowed to go up.
As I have old you, I believe our water system is contaminated - this applies to the whole of Exeter. You have to boil all your water before using it. As we have no gas [and goodness knows when we shall have any!] this makes things extremely awkward for us.
It means that we can only have water at meal times when a little is boiled up. I got over the difficultly today by boiling a kettle - full on the corner of the open range affair where our cooking is now done.
Before hand the difficultly lay in the fact that the one and only kettle provided for the students use was not to be found. Well, on Tuesday I was out scouring the shops which were still standing in the town for mineral waters. I only succeeded in obtaining the last bottle of Lemon Barley Water from one little shop. This meant that I still needed water as the Bartley Water was concentrated. It was at this point that I met Barbara on the corner of a street. We exchanged bomb news.
Anyway, she said she would give me a couple thermos flasks of water if I went along to her place & so naturally I jumped at the idea. She very kindly invited me to tea - a blitz tea consisting of bread & butter & marmalade, as the bakers are only making bread in Exeter now (no cakes whatsoever).
Those flasks of water lasted me for Tuesday night & yesterday & today I have filled them up again with boiling water from the kettle & so directly I shall be able to have some Cocoa or Horlicks.
Yesterday I spent in buying provisions. A great deal of sweets, chocolates, sausages, oranges & all sorts of stuff has been rushed into the town and are being sold in the small shops which still stand in the side streets….. I bought a packet of Smiths Crisps, a tin of evaporated milk (without points) 20 bars of chocolate of all kinds (including Honey filled block) 4 oranges and a half a pound of sweets!! So in spite of the fact that we don’t get a great deal of food, owing to the difficulties of cooking in the open on a sort of bonfire, so I am not at all hungry!
There are mobile canteens all over the town including the famous “Queens Messengers”, and they are needed as there have been hundreds of homeless people wandering the streets.
We had fire engines up here from all over the place - even from Penzance. Fires were still smoldering yesterday, and even today they were playing hoses on one or two buildings.
One thing that Barbara told me was that a Mr Petherick - a brother I believe to the Petherick at Bude who keeps the shop in the Strand, was in one of the houses which were demolished in the street where I help to dig out those two people. The road that Barbara lives in has been very fortunate. None of the houses have even lost any glass.
I hope the weather remains fine here. I don’t know how they will do our cooking it if rains. It will be too bad for the boys who have no window pane if it starts to rain very heavily.
If Doc still hasn’t managed to get any clothes I might send home something. It’s a bit difficult, though. My grey suit I could spare but the jacket would be two small for him I should think. I am wearing it now but I could wear my best Sports coat instead. I could send home my second best greys if necessary. Write again soon & tell me what you think if he really is in a fix.
Mother said on her letter that she thought I enjoyed the blitz in a way. Let me tell you I didn’t enjoy it. It would be an insult to me to think I enjoyed seeing half of Exeter apparently in flames, or enjoyed being dive-bombed by Jerries who definitely had Mardon or Reed Hall, the Science Block, and the Library as their objective. It’s not a pleasant feeling to think that at any moment you may be bumped off or maimed for life. I’m not complaining - thousands & hundreds of thousands of people have had the same experience & maybe worse - only don’t run away with the idea that air raids are a picnic. If you think along those lines you might have an unpleasant shock if they raided Newquay. Unless you have some definite duty to perform the further you get away from Jerry in a raid & the more precautions you take, the better.
Well, I must finish my sermonizing and go to bed,
[P.S I forgot to mention that I am now a proper fire-guard - with authority to enter any place where there is a fire. The reason is that we have organized our selves in Mardon with fire- fighting parties& thus become City Fire Guards with an appointment card and all]
[P.P.S As, no doubt, you realise I haven’t been able to phone you up as the telephonic communication of the city isn’t functioning, as far as I know. Our own telephone lines from Mardon are down anyway. Another thing I might have mentioned while I am about it is that one of the reasons why Jerry was able to have his own way and dive-bomb the city on Sunday was that there was no Ack-Ack at all. They brought four guns into the town and had them not a long way from us but soon after the raid began Jerry machine gunned and bombed the crews and the guns were not used. Being dive-bombed was a new experience even to the Plymouth boys. They said that for sheer concentrated bombing they had not seen anything like this even in Plymouth. There the raids were of longer duration & the bombs didn’t fall one after the other as they did here. Apart from that, they said that the anti-aircraft projection prevented much of that low-eve attacking which we had here.
I have spent quite a lot of my time today digging trenches. We have taken this step ourselves as the authorities have not provided us with shelters. Another thing we have done today is that we have burnt down the gorse bushes in the front of the Hall. We have also done this without permission. The professor of botany & biology, who is in charge of our farm & the property around here seemed reluctant to hive his permission as he was very fond of the broom & gorse outside here.
So we haven’t waited for permission. A match was dropped in the midst of it and ‘unfortunately’ & ‘before anyone could do anything about it’ the gorse was all burnt down. The Prof will be raving when he finds out but that doesn’t worry us. If an incendiary bad been dropped in amongst that gorse it would have shown up Mardon beautifully. As it was today there were flames about 50ft high leaping up when the one fire was in full swing. Matron got rattled as she thought we would catch the place on fire.
I really must close now,
[The King and Queen are coming here tomorrow at 5.30 in the afternoon]
John Saunders (4th row, 5th from left) outside Mardon Hall in 1942
Date: 9 October 2017