Together in the face of fire
Churchgoers defended their buildings during the Exeter Blitz 75 years ago by standing on their roofs, led by a minister and a priest. Their bravery has been commemorated in a new play. By Kira Taylor
Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church and South Street Baptist Church came together to watch a play devised by the Sacred Heart Arts Group, acted by congregants from both churches. It told the story of the clear night in May 1942 when the congregations came together to protect their buildings and pray together the next morning.
While the much of the rest of South Street was reduced to rubble, the two churches were saved.
It’s hard to imagine a priest and a minister throwing incendiary bombs off roofs while fire burnt around them, so close that embers landed on the very roofs they were protecting, but the play did an amazing job of retelling their stories.
The characters were drawn back to life from diaries and the memories of those who experienced that devastating night. It was a vital part of history, re-enacted in little snippets of conversation and action that captured the danger, passion and humour that protected what was so sacred to the community.
I can only imagine the effect across Exeter after that night in 1942, that feeling of intense loss and helplessness. Last year, the Royal Clarence Hotel burnt down. The whole of Exeter seemed in mourning and memories of lunches and weddings poured out. Standing on Cathedral Green, all that remains is a blackened, empty shell of what it used to be.
The audience were reminded how much the two church buildings meant, how important it was that they survived.
With song, dance and tea (key for any Baptist minister), the night came to life, full of anticipation, fear and relief. Narration took us through the night – we watched as two Polish pilots entered, asking for blessings and warning of planes approaching, saw preparations being made for the night and the horror of knowing the children evacuated from London to the adjacent convent were once again in danger.
We joined customers in Deller’s Café eating in the gilt balconies to the song and dance of its waitresses – interrupted by a deafening bang that split the air and sent red flashes across the stage, reflecting off the gold of the altar.
The café was no more.
The air raid siren screamed in a terrible wail, the sort of wrenching sound that turns your stomach with fear, even on a quiet Thursday night. The air raid warden sprinted up the aisle, trying to get the Christians off their roof. We heard the calls for more water, saw the exhausted volunteers in the morning, praying together, knowing they had saved what was undeniably precious to them.
We were sung out by children from St Nicholas Catholic Primary School in a beautiful rendition of The White Cliffs of Dover that seemed to tie the piece together. It’s a song that looks to the morning, to peace and seemed even more poignant in the peace of one of the saved buildings.
With today’s Catholic fathers playing their predecessors and the current Baptist minister and his wife playing the Revd Matthew Flint and his wife, we successfully awoke and retold the bravery of that night from the Polish pilots in the sky, to the people on their church roofs, to the children so far from home, hidden in an air raid shelter (one of whom was in the audience).
Afterwards, the room was filled with stories of Deller’s Café, of an unknown soldier, who helped and disappeared into the night, of children watching the planes fly along the Exe and finding unexploded incendiary bombs in their gardens.
I hope we went beyond recreating that night. I hope, by our witnessing it together, we continued that shoulder to shoulder ministry that kept our churches standing.
Pictures: Ola Godbeer