The home front
The lives of those who stayed at home were dramatically changed on the outbreak of war. They suffered through evacuation, shortages and air raids while they shouldered additional burdens in the office and in their various civil defence duties.
Office life in war
Once war began in earnest and the men began to disappear life for those left behind in the offices settled into a new routine. Unlike in the first war all offices were already employing women who, in the words of General Accident's managing director, had:
the opportunity of doing splendid work for their country by carrying on the work of those male members of the staff who have gone forward to fight for their country and the protection of us all. - Francis Norie-Miller
Mr W W Williamson of Norwich Union Life head office, where the first six women had only been employed in October 1937, wrote in 1940: "we have increased our female staffs very considerably [to 75] and I hear from all quarters excellent reports of their work". Never-the-less, the strain of training up new staff and the relatively high turn over of the female staff, especially after December 1941, was bemoaned in staff magazines.
The loss of the lady staff to war service lead one Northern Assurance branch to put their feelings in verse (Limericks by Northern Assurance Manchester staff) while the increase in both men and women staying past retirement, retention of women after their marriage and the recruitment of younger girls inspired an amusing "past and present" cartoon in the Commercial Union staff magazine.
In August 1939 the War Risks Insurance Act was passed for the insurance of ships and their cargoes and of goods in the UK. Its objectives were to ensure that the stocks of food which were essential in war time were adequately insured at a time when neither merchants nor the insurance companies could be expected to provide cover.
All commodities were insured with the Board of Trade and fire insurance companies, many of which are now part of the Aviva group, were employed to act as agents to collect the premiums and pass them on, the board minutes of Commercial Union of 15 August record their agreement to act as agents in this way. In 1942 the War Damage Act extended this to include buildings, plant, equipment and household goods, damage to buildings was covered by an increase in income tax but everything else was dealt with for the Board of Trade by the fire insurance companies.
That this was an extra burden in a time of reduced staff levels is evident in the fact that in the first year of the act's operation staff at Commercial Union dealt with premiums of £10,000,000. By the end of the war in Europe Commercial Union and its subsidiaries had issued over 1.25 million policies under the war risk schemes.
The Norwich Union staff magazine of Spring 1941 quoted from Efficiency Magazine:
This is a time to appreciate the value of insurance. It is like a huge flywheel that carries a nation steadily over the rough places and up the hills. We can now see the need for the huge reserves of our insurance companies. - Efficiency Magazine
The article continues: "they must be large enough to carry us safely through all the dangers of sea and land. We can now better appreciate the work of the whole body of insurance men who keep the great flywheel going, as we can see more clearly the usefulness of their work in these perilous days".
As war continued those who were running the offices adapted to changing circumstances and reduction in supplies such as paper. For notes and interdepartmental memos staff were encouraged to use the reverse of older correspondence and a number of interesting relics of older companies have come into the archive through being on the reverse of letters written on salvage paper in this period. Staff were not only economical with their own use of paper but also, like those at North British and Mercantile, contributed to the National Paper Salvage Drive by collecting old company paperwork for the cause.
Commercial Union staff at its 24 Cornhill head office, which was kept open throughout the war, collected 18 tonnes of paper in the three months to 31 December 1941. Seeing a potential danger in this zeal for paper salvage an appeal was put in the Norwich Union Magazine for Spring 1942 that people assisting the war effort in this way should think of the museum first and send anything particularly old to the curator rather than to salvage.
Staff at Commercial Union's head office also contributed to the war effort by saving energy. Members of staff were appointed to supervise light saving, "naturally this diminution of light, causing in some cases eye strain and headaches, was not welcomed, but it was tolerated as part of our contribution to the war effort."
All lift journeys of two floors or less were prohibited for those without physical disabilities and the company cut down the length of time the office was heated and the temperature of the boiler: "At times we felt cold, but temperatures rose as we reflected that our enemies were the primary cause of our discomfort and anathematized them, accordingly". In 1943 the company saved the equivalent of 116.5 tonnes of coal in just this one building.
Most of the staff were engaged outside office hours in civil defence work. The staff magazines are full of descriptions of work done by members of the Home Guard, Fire Watch and First Aid Crews and later the Roof Spotter Teams who helped reduce working hours wasted in the shelters by sounding an alarm only when planes were spotted on daylight raids. In his Governor's message of 1941, Francis Norie-Miller of General Accident reported: 'In addition to the 130 men who have enlisted from head office in one or another of the services, over 80 lady members of our staff at head office are in civil defence services-nursing services (32), telephonists (25), ambulance drivers, wardens, etc, and there are also two blood donors [...] every member of the staff not enrolled under these services is doing her bit, either in canteen work or in knitting for the forces. Of the male members of the staff not serving with the forces, over 90 are engaged in civil defence. No less than 47 acting as special constables, 20 are members of the home guard, while others act as wardens, stretcher bearers, auxiliary fireman'.
Several members of staff were engaged in more secret work like Peter Ives of Norwich Union who was recruited as a VI to intercept enemy radio messages and later recalled:
As to be expected, these nocturnal activities meant there was a very sleepy junior clerk at the office who received several reprimands and whose social life was practically non-existent… There was however one nasty moment when compulsory night time fire watching was enforced at the office in order to reduce the affect of incendiary bombs. I reported the situation to my controller as such duties clashed with my intercepting schedules. - Peter Ives
He continues: "I received a brief note signed by none other than Lord Sandhurst, which stated that I was doing important work for the war effort, and was not to be involved in fire watching. I was instructed to show this to one person only and maintain secrecy as to what I was doing. I saw the secretary of the life office who raised his eyebrows and had me struck me off the fire watching rota and, to give him his due, he asked no questions". Read more about Peter Ives's experience.
Another staff member thought to have had a covert mission was Basil Manbey of North British and Mercantile who died in a motor cycle accident in 1940 and is believed to have been a member of the Auxiliers, a "secret army" recruited to hide and reappear behind enemy lines after the expected German invasion.
Civil defence activity was not confined to staff in British branches, staff in the Far East, like Mr Dove of South British Insurance, quickly joined ARP squads, poems appeared in the staff magazines about the Home Guard in South Africa (The Civic Guard Anthem by WAB of Northern Assurance Johannesburg branch), Colin Little of General Accident in New Zealand joined the Home Guard in that country and a correspondent from an Australian branch of Commercial Union wrote in 1943: "Everyone has had to accustom himself or herself to regimentation by Government Regulation, has joined ARP services or is doing some other form of war work in their leisure hours; has seen Income Tax soar; and...has responded to the urge by the Government to grow vegetables and to accept rationing and short supplies as a necessary concomitant of wartime conditions".
Despite fire watching at night and working by day the staff also gave time and donated large percentages of their salaries to worthy war efforts both nationally and within the company. Thus the Northern Assurance staff magazine of autumn 1941 reported:
"Support for the knitting club during the two years of its existence has been splendid. Knitters have responded well, having knitted approximately £630 of wool. Subscriptions towards the fund have reached us from as far away as our New Zealand and Cape Town branches. These, together with the other numerous and generous subscriptions have enabled us to send, in addition to knitted garments, subscriptions to the comforts funds of the three services and through the Red Cross to the comfort fund for prisoners of war. We have also subscribed to the Merchant Navy comfort service towards emergency rescue kits for torpedoed merchant officers and semen and we were able, on your behalf, to answer the urgent appeal for chocolate for the men returning from Dunkirk. Christmas parcels are again being sent to all members of the London staff serving in the forces. Each parcel will contain: pair of socks, packet of playing cards, pocket set of dominates, saccharine tablets, razor blades or medicine pack, toothbrush and toothpaste. It is possible to obtain as much wool as we require from the various organisations, so if you will find more knitters we will promise to produce the wool (and patterns)".
By 1942 the club had dispatched over 3,000 garments. Not to be outdone, the Canadian Branch of the Northern Assurance set up a "Cigarette and Knitting Fund" which, in 1943, proudly announced that: "50,200 cigarettes have been sent overseas of which 5,200 sent to our own staff and 30lbs of tobacco sent to our staff overseas. Pipes, cigarettes, candies, magazines, and personal comforts sent to our staff both overseas and in Canada [...] During 1941 and 1942 the knitting club sent over three hundred articles to IODE for bombed-out Britons and Christmas parcels were sent to members of staff on active service. Up to September this year we have kept the boys supplied with socks and other comforts and also sent in April an Easter card and $2 to each member of staff on active service".
Staff in both home and overseas branches contributed to War Bonds, Red Cross penny-a week funds, London War Weapons Week and the like and staff at the General Accident United States branch collected enough money to provide a mobile canteen van which, over 13 months, served more than 250,000 meals to victims of the blitz, rescue parties, ARP workers, soldiers and firemen.
Contributions from staff were clearly encouraged by their employers, as early as December 1939 the board of Commercial Union agreed to support their staff in buying National Savings Certificates by advancing the full cost and recovering it without interest from the purchasers by instalments over a period of time.
An article by the Commercial Union Savings group in 1942 recorded that to date the group had collected £39,370 and ended: "The Navy, Army and Air Force are doing a grand job for us, giving up home comforts and - if need be - their lives, and it is up to us to save all we can to help them. They give – we lend, and incidentally get our money back with interest, so come along all those who are not 'one of us' and join the group".
The various boards of the insurance companies were also responding to direct appeals made to businesses and board minutes of companies like Commercial Union are full of references to contributions ranging from £100 to £1,000 made to organisations such as the YMCA War Service Fund, King George Fund for Sailors, the Red Cross and St John's War Organisation Fund, The Lord Mayor's London Air Raid Distress Fund, RAF Benevolent Fund and the Civil Defence Comforts Fund.
The Post Magazine of 2 December 1944 recorded a contribution made by Scottish Union and National Insurance Company staff to the entertainment of wounded servicemen: 'Last week 82 wounded servicemen from various hospitals in Edinburgh were entertained to supper and a floor show by the head office staff of Scottish Union and National. Entertainment included Douglas Frater and Jean Dow on accordions, the four Brandon girls, Grace Boyle highland dancer, John Bolton baritone, Stanley Lawrie impressionist, Agnes Blaikie soprano, Oliver MacKenzie conjurer, the compere was Campbell White and 30 lady members of the staff acted as hostesses'.
Similar entertainments for returning POW's and men on leave were organised by the "Our Boys Committee" at General Accident in Perth who also organised comfort parcels and a regular newsletter for staff on service.
Perhaps the most impressive contribution from a single group was the donation by Norwich Union staff of a Spitfire. The company received a reply to their offer from Lord Beaverbrook at the Ministry of Aircraft Production on 10 August 1940:
It is with very deep gratitude that I accept the offer which you make on the half of the Norwich Union Insurance Societies to provide £5,000, the cost of a Spitfire [...] this machine shall certainly be named Nuflier as you desire. May I send to you the warmest thanks of myself and the whole of this ministry for the magnificent contribution are making to the National effort. Your gift will be an encouragement and an inspiration to all who are striving to free our skies from the Nazi menace. - Lord Beaverbrook
The money was duly contributed by staff and the business and Nuflier was delivered in March 1941. She went into service at Manston on 3 April 1941 and flew with front line squadrons until July of that year when it was damaged beyond repair.
Although surviving archive records mostly provide details of events related to life for those working in our home branches it is important to note that those working in branches overseas were also involved in this 'World War'. Some staff, like those of General Accident based in Belgium, managed to escape to the UK but others continued to operate under Nazi occupation. Robert Le Sueur, who was working for General Accident in Jersey, later recalled: "Petrol was rationed so the staff collected the premiums on bicycles… Conditions in the office were very poor: no heating or lighting. Staff wore gloves with the fingers cut out and wrapped themselves in blankets to keep warm". Read more about Robert Le Sueur's experience on Jersey.
An important reminder of the strain on those working in the Far East was sent in a letter home by W T Craigie of Commercial Union in 1942: "In those fateful days before war broke out in the Far East the spirit of the CUACO staffs was decidedly good. War was expected. Internment was an 'odds on' chance for those who remained in Japan and China. Yet no thought of leaving our companies' interests unattended entered the minds of either Mr Dixon in Japan or Mr Arnold in Shanghai [...] those of military age had their minds made up regarding their course of action too. There is a good deal of courage required to carry out the nerve-wracking game of waiting – especially when you appear to be a certain loser. For this reason I would like to pay tribute to those who remained behind to face it".
Working in the blitz
The biggest impact on those still manning the various company offices in London was that of the Blitz. Although a number of Aviva group companies evacuated most staff for the duration of the war some, like Commercial Union, Northern Assurance, and Ocean Accident maintained their head offices in London throughout the war and even companies who left the capital retained skeleton staff in their buildings for the convenience of their London customers.
Fears of the danger of air attack surfaced as early as 1938 when the London branch engineering manager of General Accident informed Francis Norie-Miller that a number of his female staff would not come in to work in the event of war due to the threat of air raids, while DIB of Union Assurance lamented that 'there is something fantastic and repulsive in the thought that it should be necessary, in this year of grace, to equip a building in the heart of a civilised city with protection from attack by supposedly equally civilised people'.
Reminiscences from staff recall the daily interruption of bombs, the regular clearing of debris from bombing raids of the night before and the problems of moving around the city, according to DIB writing again in the Commercial Union staff magazine of Autumn 1940, 'the question of travelling is a problem peculiar to London, with its great distances, and it has at times been a problem indeed. So far as Cornhill is concerned the record is probably held by a gentleman who arrived one day at 2.30pm and departed at 3pm'.Her diary entry for 8 August 1941 recalls another journey in to the office:
Oh dear, why was I born? Forgot to mention I was nearly killed last night on going home – there was a horrible swishing sound and I looked behind me to see the wall of Bow church bulging outwards and breaking all over the roadway [...] police, crowds and all manner of people rushed up but I thought the fewer people the better so I went home – quite a quaking feeling though for the moment – a few more paces and I should have been one of the unfortunate people underneath – it says today that three workmen and two civilians were killed.
Pensioner Doris Page, who also worked at the Northern Assurance during the War later recalled: 'I got to know a great deal more of the City during this time. Depending on how far the buses could take you, the rest of your journey you had to walk, stepping over hose pipes and rubble and diverted around areas if not passable to get to your place of work'. Read Doris Page's description of working through the Blitz.
Yet another Northern typist, Dorothy Haines, described her journey into work after the fire bomb raid on London on the 29-30 December 1940: 'On the Monday following the raid of Friday night the tube was blocked and we were turned out at Old Street tube station and had to walk to Moorgate. Mary's office "Cable & Wireless" near Moorgate tube station had been completely "gutted" and as staff arrived they were ordered to report for duty at a building on Victoria Embankment – so she continued her walk [...] Bunny and I continued our journey scrambling over debris and fire fighting equipment as the square mile of the City was still smouldering. We became very dirty from smoke and fumes and eventually reached the Northern Assurance, No 1 Moorgate, building intact and unscathed'. Read Dorothy Haines' experience of a fire bomb raid.
Vivienne Hall, a typist at Northern Assurance, kept a diary throughout the war period which is now held at the Imperial War Museum. In her entry for 16 September 1940 she wrote:
the pavements and roads are thronged with people trying to get to work and there's absolutely no panic or grumbling anywhere. We picked up odd people on the way and two to four hours to get to work seems quite the usual time, but still we go to work, Mr Hitler! We got there and the all clear went; the siren again at 10.45, lunchtime and, after being told we could go home at 3.00, again at 2.10. This warning lasted until 6.00 so our early-leaving wasn't much help.
A R Tingey of the Yorkshire Insurance London city staff recalled a day in his life as a member of the skeleton staff there in early 1940: 'Just before 9am I diligently pick my way across dozens of criss-crossing firemen's hoses, and unlock the front door (except, of course, on the occasions when it had already been conveniently blown open) I then sweep up the glass and plaster from the main office and make arrangements for the front window to be boarded over – this having been blown out (or, rather, in) during the night'.
Tim Cheal of North British & Mercantile also remained, as one of the skeleton staff at the 61 Cornhill branch: 'After a severe bombing, kiosks appeared in the city where patient transport officials gave advice upon 'how to get home' from here' - I remember on one occasion approaching one of the officials and enquiring about transport to Tonbridge. The official looked at me and said 'you've had it chum'. That night I slept on a stretcher in the basement at head office'. Mr Cheal was far from being the only staff member to sleep at the office, indeed early in the war plans were made at Commercial Union for staff to work in shifts if transport became too difficult with one group working from Monday to Wednesday and another from Wednesday to Friday:
Meals will be provided in the first basement, work will be done in the second, and sleep will be wooed in the third. Thus travelling in the black-out, with all its delays, dangers and discomforts, will be reduced to a minimum.
Members of staff like those at Provident Mutual's, largely abandoned, office at 25/31 Moorgate were on fire watching rotas which included working all night and FEK later recalled that out of the first 91 nights of the blitz there were only four during which there was no air raid. The basement at these offices had been turned into a large public shelter which the staff were also responsible for supervising and FEK wrote: 'Many stories could be told of pick-pockets, drunks, a death, and what missed being a birth by half-an-hour…On Saturday nights we used to have a sing-song… on Sunday a film show was put on'.
Several members of General Accident staff became virtually permanent residents in the basement shelter at their offices at Aldwych in the first few years of the war due to being bombed out at home or finding the journey in an out of work too difficult. One of these men, WJ Robinson, later wrote in the staff magazine:
One memorable night… something appeared to strike the building with a terrific crash.The sound of tumbling masonry was heard. We rushed to the safety doors quite anticipating that the whole of the building had collapsed, but our luck was in. A series of three near misses had plastered us with chunks of roadway, destroying a good many windows. Outside was havoc with two burnt out buses and adjacent buildings wrecked.
One of Robinson's fellow shelter residents, David Temple, was not so lucky as Robinson recorded: 'David Temple's decision to sleep one night at the YMCS coincided with an extremely severe raid during which he received fatal injuries. His passing was a great shock to all of us.
The General Accident staff were not the only ones to get bad news of colleagues they had seen only the day before; Vivienne Hall wrote in her diary on 29 November 1939:
I managed to get safely and early to the office. It was of course damp and wet and the news that one of the men in the office had been knocked down and killed just outside the office the night before did not make us any brighter. There have been many hundreds of deaths and accidents in the blackout but until you actually know someone who has been unlucky you don't think so much about the tragedy each accident brings to so many people.
W A Clark of Provident Accident & White Cross was on ARP duty to extract the body of his colleague Helena Randlesome from the rubble of her home.
Meanwhile Tim Cheal of North British & Mercantile recalled in 1949:
One morning I arrived at the office prepared for the usual cheery greetings and braced for any of the customary leg pulls, but heard that Lawrence, who had often arrived very early, had not turned up. I later learned with deep regret that he had been killed in an air-raid the night before.
Naturally many of the London branches were damaged, W J Robinson of General Accident recorded the eventual closure of the shelter at their Aldwych office: 'The building, in the centre of a much bombed district seemed to bear a charmed existence until once morning the office clocks stopped at 3:06am, when a high explosive bomb penetrated the roof and exploded on the third floor [...] Structurally the office withstood the shock amazingly well and although the shelter (by now open to the public) was crowded to capacity, no casualties were sustained. The shelter is now officially closed to all excepting fire watchers off duty and occasional members of the staff'.
In July 1944 Vivienne Hall recorded damage done to her office at Northern Assurance: 'on Wednesday morning I got to the Bank Station and as I walked up Princes Street I heard the danger overhead warnings from the Banks – I didn't know there was an alert on even, but quickened my pace and arrived at the Northern and was waiting for the lift when all Hell was let loose about me. A deafening roar and a sickening thud, followed by our huge eight foot windows crashing in, frame and all, plaster and glass careering down the lift shaft [...] I crouched under a counter and waited for the ceilings to come down but after a few seconds things stopped falling and we who were in the department slowly got up to survey the damage. A thick cloud of dust obscured our view for a bit but as this cleared we saw that the windows and doors and fittings were all over the place and the building opposite was a horrible sight. The bomb had struck there and the inner roof had collapsed. Almost immediately the Civil Defence Service and police started getting out the casualties, poor dirty bleeding people. Had it been after instead of just before 9.30 we should of course had many more people in the office ---- our men and a number of younger girls set to at once and with every available weapon cleared the glass and broken wood from the departments and stairways and even got up the carpets. All this despite the fact that alerts and danger overhead signals were going all the morning! The coolness and bravery of these people is wonderful really [...] Stayed at the office until 3.45 on First Aid duty and then as everyone had gone home we also went home – oh I was tired and I suppose it was a bit upsetting. When I began to think of those heavy windows and the lumps of glass and stuff that had fallen around me as I crouched under a most inadequate counter I realised what an amazing escape I had had'.
Other group offices in London to be damaged included Hamilton House, the head office of Employers Liability Assurance, which was damaged by air raids four times, North British and Mercantile's Mincing Lane and Law Courts branches which were bombed out and Norwich Union's London Marine premises at 50-51 Lime Street which were totally destroyed in 1941.
War damage to branches outside London
It was not only London staff and branches that suffered from air attack, Plymouth's Norwich Union office had a near miss in the raids in March 1941 as later recalled by Wally Hirons:
On the night of 20 March I was on duty with the chief clerk when we experienced by far the heaviest raid to date, involving 125 aircraft and lasting 4 1/2 hours. The following night the raid was even heavier involving 168 aircraft and lasting three hours. The whole of Westwell Street was ablaze up to the Norwich Union building.
By then everyone had taken cover in a public shelter opposite. The manager crossed the road to the office and as he was away for some time, somebody went over to investigate. He was found with his foot stuck in a plaster ceiling, chopping away with an axe its timbers which had been set alight by the heat from the burning building next door. He prevented the fire getting a hold and the office was still standing next morning.
The staff magazine of Autumn 1941 reported that the branch was now operating between two sites and said of the original Westwell street office:
Though the nether regions hang in festoons of wallpaper, laths and cobwebs, the general office has a moderately normal aspect: consequently clients refuse to be very convinced that we are not quite ourselves. We have no records, no books, no policies, no files, no ledgers, no sir, we have no way of turning it up but we will find out for you…!
Sadly the same could not be said for the Plymouth Road Transport and General branch in Bedford Street which was totally destroyed as was the General Accident branch and that of Employers' Liability Assurance whose business was transferred to Exeter.
Working in the Maidstone office of Norwich Union Fire HJ Watts recorded the serious interferences to which day to day work was subject:
What work could reasonably be done down in the shelter was done there, but our typists, with machines on the top floor of our building, had to put forward an extra special effort during the all clear periods, and they deserve every credit for crowding much work into a sadly reduced number of hours.
The inevitable serious post and telephone delays added to the general dislocation and yet somehow the work of the branch was always maintained very nearly up-to-date.
Later the branch was damaged and staff had to move to the Norwich Union Life branch offices.
Elsewhere in the country the Yorkshire Insurance office at Castle Buildings Fisher Street, Swansea, which also housed Scottish Boiler, was partly destroyed by enemy action in 1940, the Yorkshire then moved to Castle Street Swansea which was destroyed by fire in February 1941.
In Southampton in December 1941 group companies, Road Transport and General, Norwich Union and Ocean Accident all lost their branches; that of the Road Transport and General being completely gutted by fire after a bomb hit the building next door. The destruction of the Ocean Accident premises were described in the staff magazine by WWV.
Many premises were still burning when, with great difficulty, 85 Above Bar was reached. At first it appeared we had again had a miraculous escape, but closer inspection revealed that, while the rather attractive façade of the old building had been left standing almost complete, the whole of the rest of the premises right down to the bottom of the basement was utterly destroyed, and nothing but smoking ruins remained…
A further raid on 24 June completely destroyed the Exeter branch of General Accident.
Other provincial Offices hit included the Bristol branch of General Accident which had to be evacuated after a near miss from a 1,000lb bomb and the company's Coventry and Birmingham branches which were damaged by blasts from H E Bombs.
General Accident's board minutes for 10 January 1941 record that the Portsmouth branch had been completely destroyed by fire: "The area of King's Terrace has been razed to the ground and is one of the most badly bombed areas in Britain." The board minutes of Employers' Liability Assurance similarly record damage to branches from Newcastle to Portsmouth and Sheffield to Swansea. The company's Liverpool branch was also hit on May 1941 while at Ocean Accident H Gleave was inspired to poetry (Doggerel rhymes of an evacuee) by the damage, partial evacuation and eventual requisition of that company's Liverpool branch office.
The branch relocated first to a local hotel (the Rougemont) and then to a house called Altamira in Topsham. In August 1942 the manager sent a letter to the branch agents stating,
It is pleasing to report that most of our strong-rooms and safes stood up to the fierce heat and the bulk of our most vital records were saved except our ledgers. The ledgers were destroyed as were other valuable records and all current correspondence.
As the Exeter General Post Office was also destroyed on the same night, many letters from and to our office were also lost. Some time will elapse before we are able to build up our ledgers and render accounts, but the work is proceeding apace and the indulgence of our agents is asked for in the interim.
In Norwich one of the buildings housing the head office staff of the Norwich Union Fire Society was hit in the "Baedeker" reprisal raids of April 1942 and the staff magazine reported that one member of staff, Joyce Fox, had been killed when her home was hit and another member of staff and his wife had been buried up to their necks in earth thrown up by a bomb that hit their garden.
In the same series of raids Commercial Union's York office was totally destroyed on 28 April 1942 and on 4 May 1942 the company's Exeter branch, housed in the former West of England Head Office, was bombed out.
This raid was described as follows in the staff magazine:
It started, after the city had been well illuminated by flares, with the dropping of high explosives around the perimeter… This was followed by showers of incendiaries on the main shopping centres, accompanied by some more high explosives and time bombs. And the Germans made a pretty thorough job of it all.