As the war came to an end, one of the most enduring stories was born: St Cuthbert saved Durham Cathedral by shrouding it in mist so the Luftwaffe missed it. Chris Lloyd reports

THE heady mood of May 1945 created one of the most enduring stories of the Second World War: how St Cuthbert performed the miracle of the mist to save Durham Cathedral from the Lufftwaffe.

As the Second World War was coming to an end 75 years ago, lots of witnesses wrote to local newspapers - principally the Darlington & Stockton Times’ sister paper, the Durham County Advertiser - telling what they had witnessed in the early hours of May 1, 1942.

It was the second wave of the Blitz: the enemy was using a German tourist guide book, published by a company called Baedeker, to target historic British cities. The Baedeker raids began with an attack on Exeter on April 23 and finished with Norwich being targeted on June 27.

Bath and Canterbury were also hit, as was York on April 28, after which the BBC reported that the minster had escaped. The Lord Mayor of York complained that this was tantamount to inviting the Luftwaffe to return, and so censorship of the reporting of raids became tighter.

So we know only the barest details of the raid on the North-East of May 1, when 38 bombers targeted the region, hitting industrial places like Newcastle, Sunderland, South Shields and Jarrow, but also visiting Durham. Bombs fell around Carrville, as if the Luftwaffe was trying to hit the railway viaduct, and two dropped at Finchale Priory – could it have been mistaken for the cathedral which the Luftwaffe had some how lost sight of?

On that fateful morning, Councillor Fred Foster was on duty in the Durham County ARP headquarters.

"The night was clear with a full moon and it was almost daylight," he wrote. "The warning of enemy bombers approaching was received at 2.33am on May 1.

"When the enemy aircraft were quite close to the coast, there suddenly came over the city a dense mist. It was said by someone that a smokescreen had been drawn over the cathedral and castle. It was a ground mist because the moon could still be seen clearly in the sky.

"Telephone inquiries elicited that the fog was not widespread. For instance, Langley Moor on one side, Chester-le-Street to the north and Belmont to the east, had no sign of fog. It was confined to a radius of two-and-a-half miles of the city centre.

"The all clear was sounded at 4.02am when, strangely enough, the fog immediately dispersed."

Cllr Foster concluded his account: "I have since frequently heard that people in many parts of the country attributed this phenomenon to the spirit of St Cuthbert."

Indeed, Cuthbert's modus operandi when performing miracles was to control the weather - he once used a wind to blow out a house fire and he also saved sailors by miraculously changing the direction of the gale.

Letter writers equated Cuthbert’s performance with that of the Angels of Mons during the First World War, when heavily out-numbered British soldiers in the trenches of northern France were apparently protected by angels.

Disappointingly, though, the correspondence in May 1945 ended with a letter from George Greenwell, chief ARP warden in Durham, who unromantically debunked the whole story. The mist, he said, was a regular occurrence.

"Sir," he wrote, "the wardens had watched that mist scores of times. It seemed to come off the river purposely to add its damp misery to our shivering vigils as we were outside keeping our weary watch at draughty street corners."

In fact, said Mr Greenwell, "on many brilliantly clear nights, some hundreds of German bombers flew over Durham City".

"Even on the night of this story, it could be clearly seen from Neville's Cross that he (St Cuthbert) had carelessly left the upper half of the Lantern Tower sticking out of the top of his mist!" wrote Mr Greenwell.

"If the German intention had been to bomb Durham, a vagary of weather would not have prevented it. They would have come back again in better conditions.

"No, sir! The story runs well enough as a pretty tale for the guide book, but it is not to local superstition that we should address our thanksgiving that, in our five years of war, the only bomb to fall within Durham's boundaries exploded harmlessly beside a sewage bed."

Many thanks to Bill Bartle, of Barnard Castle, for his help with this story.