80 years ago, on the night of 29 December 1940, a photograph of St Paul’s Cathedral was taken as it towered above smoke and flames.
It would prove to be one of the most iconic images of London ever captured.
The Battle of Britain had been raging since July 1940.
As the weeks wore on and the Luftwaffe failed to gain the upper hand in the skies, it became clear that a land invasion of Britain was no longer feasible.
Hitler therefore decided to change tact by unleashing a prolonged bombing campaign on British ports and cities, the aim of which was to crush morale.
The Blitz (taken from the German term Blitzkrieg meaning ‘lighting war’) commenced in early September 1940. That autumn, London in particular was subjected to 57 consecutive days and nights of bombing.
Over the Christmas of 1940, there was a brief respite from the aerial bombardment.
However, early on the evening of December 29th banshee-like air-raid sirens cranked into life across London as a wave of 136 Nazi bombers approached the city.
Their main target was the oldest part of the metropolis: The City of London, otherwise known as the historic Square Mile.
The enemy aircraft were guided to their target by a system known as Knickebein which involved two separate radio signals beamed from transmitters in Nazi occupied territory.
From their cockpit, German air-crews would hear these navigational signals as a beeping sound. Once above their target, the beams would converge, creating an eerie tone which signalled the bombs could be released.
An example of how the Knickebein system sounded can be heard in the short video below.
Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goring had timed the December 29th raid to ensure maximum damage.
The Thames was due to be at low tide, meaning firefighters desperate to draw water from the river (as the mains supply was already damaged) would face immense difficulties. They would be hampered further by unexploded bombs which had plummeted down over the past few months and lodged themselves in the muddy banks.
December 29th 1940 also happened to be a Sunday.
As the target area was London’s main financial district comprised mainly of offices and warehouses, this meant most buildings would be locked and unoccupied, thus hampering attempts to extinguish any fires which happened to erupt within empty premises.
The attack commenced at approximately 6.15pm and thundered on into the night. During that period over 100,000 bombs were dropped, mainly incendiaries.
At first glance these devices look relatively harmless; simple metal cylinders measuring just 12 inches long. However, they were packed with magnesium and designed to ignite on impact, quickly combusting anything nearby.
As the countless incendiaries peppered the city some 1500 blazes were sparked, quickly coming together to form an almighty conflagration.
As the disaster took hold, one American reporter based in the city sent his office an urgent cable: “the second Great Fire of London has begun.”
Battling the Flames
The blaze which engulfed The City of London was bravely tackled both by firefighters and fire watchers; the latter being posted at various buildings in order to neutralise incendiaries before they could take hold.
One firefighter on duty that night was the artist Leonard Rosoman who narrowly avoided death on Shoe Lane (just west of Farringdon Street and north of Fleet Street).
Seconds after being relieved of his hose, a wall collapsed where Leonard had been standing, killing two of his colleagues.
Not long after this incident, Leonard Rosoman recreated the scene in a dramatic painting which expertly portrays the noise, heat and terror of that night.
St Paul's Cathedral
At the time, St Paul’s Cathedral was London’s tallest building (and would remain so until the building of the Post Office Tower in the early 1960s).
Its size- and prominence- therefore made it extremely vulnerable.
Naturally, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was being kept up to date on the raid.
Just after 10pm, as the fires closed in around the cathedral, Churchill telephoned the National Fire Service headquarters and instructed firewoman, Beryl Morris to pass the message on: St Paul’s Cathedral must be saved at all costs.
Whilst firefighters on the ground fought back the flames, a team of 200 volunteers inside St Paul’s itself- armed with simple stirrup pumps and sandbags- hunted down and extinguished any incendiaries which threatened to take hold- including ones which lodged themselves in the cathedral’s roof.
One witness described the sound of these vicious little devices dropping around St Paul’s as being akin to “a scuttle full of coals being spilled on the floor.”
Not too far away on Tudor Street, on the roof of The Daily Mail’s former offices, Northcliffe House, chief photographer Herbert Mason was waiting patiently with his camera, eager to grab an image of St Paul’s amidst the inferno.
In Mason’s own words:
“I focused at intervals as the great dome loomed up through the smoke. Glares of many fires and sweeping clouds of smoke kept hiding the shape. Then a wind sprang up. Suddenly, the shining cross, dome and towers stood out like a symbol in the inferno. The scene was unbelievable. In that moment or two, I released my shutter.”
A similar scene was also witnessed and described by the American war correspondent, Ernie Pyle who was stationed on a nearby balcony:
“The greatest of all fires was directly in front of us. Flames seemed to whip hundreds of feet into the air.
Pinkish-white smoke ballooned up in a great cloud, and out of this cloud there gradually took shape- so faintly at first we weren’t sure we saw correctly- the gigantic dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.
St Paul’s was surrounded by fire, but it came through. It stood there in its enormous proportions- growing slowly clearer and clearer, the way objects take shape at dawn.
It was like a picture of some miraculous figure that appears before peace-hungry soldiers on a battlefield.”
Realising the symbolic importance of the photograph Herbert Mason had taken, censors allowed it to appear on the Daily Mail’s front page on 31 December (albeit with some cropping), along with the headline “War’s Greatest Picture.”
The image also adorned the cover of the German magazine, Berliner Ilustrirte Zeitung in January 1941 to suggest Hitler’s bombing campaign was proving successful- an interesting insight into the nature of perception and propaganda.
Following the raid of December 29th 1940, huge swathes of The City were left in ruins.
The fact that St Paul’s still stood strong amongst this devastation was true testament to the courage of those who’d battled to save it.
160 people died in the raid which, although clearly a tragic figure, was mercifully small considering the scale of the damage.
One soldier- Sid Feldon- was particularly hard hit. He returned home on leave the following morning to discover his mother, father and sister had all been killed whilst sheltering.
Out of those who perished on the night of the 29th and 30th December 1940, 14 were firemen.
On 4th May 1991, a memorial to the 700 firemen and 20 firewomen killed throughout The Blitz was unveiled by the Queen Mother in Old Change Court.
In 1998 it was moved a short distance to St Paul’s Churchyard, poignantly aimed towards the cathedral’s dome.
The artwork has since been expanded to incorporate the National Firefighters Memorial, commemorating all fire personnel killed both in war and peacetime.
The plaques around the monument currently bear 1,192 names.
This article is dedicated to the memory of all of those who lost their lives in London on the night of 29 December 1940.
6 thoughts on “St Paul’s Survives: The Second Great Fire of London”
I lived in London through the seventies and eighties. I was struck by how deeply the experience of WWII still shaped (or perhaps, brought out) the character of Londoners: stoic, a little cynical, fiercely protective, outspoken. My friend owned a rowhouse which had a vacant lot next to it, exactly the dimensions of the house that had been destroyed by a bomb. Incredible to think of the bravery of Londoners and also of the artists, photographers, reporters who documented the events. Glad to have discovered your blog, keep up the great work!
DR, Toronto, Canada
Thanks for sharing your experience David; very interesting insight. And thank you too for the kind words. Stay well.
The “Blitz” or “Dunkirk” spirit has been heavily invoked in Brexit discussions. The English see themselves as always as risk of attack from the continent – even from their now-allies. Speaking as a Dutch-Canadian dual living in London, there is nothing admirable in the WW2 mentality of some Londoners. (That said, London voted Remain.)
I agree Bill; the way in which the history of WWII has been utilised in the debate saddens me.
However, my primary aim in writing this article was to document the night when St Paul’s Cathedral narrowly avoided severe damage, if not complete destruction; I have no desire to bless it with a political angle. Unfortunately, this anniversary coincides with Brexit- so certain interpretations are depressingly inevitable.
When all of this was happening in Britain, my parents were barely turned 13 year old farm kids from Idaho. My mother had older cousins in that war. My father’s older brother and my father-in-law were both five years older, joined the American Army and Navy, and made careers out of it. I believe that they, and their children after them who saw that image of the dome floating above the cloud of smoke in newspaper photos or history books. likely had a different point of view than Herr Hitler and his atheistic minions. Hitler printed the photo and said, “ah, hah, all that is left of London is that one dome! Those American farmers, and, I suspect, most of the Englishmen and women of that day, saw that image and said, ” because of what that building represents, and whose house that is, it was NOT destroyed, and will not be. And in HIS name, and by HIS power, neither shall we!
Thank you for sharing Diana.