WWII Nazi German Blitz: Bombs Devastated London but St. Paul’s Cathedral Survived, “Second Great Fire of London” 70 Years Ago Today (video)
Posted By Vicki McClure Davidson on December 29, 2010
During WWII, the Nazis in Germany engaged in blitzkrieg, their strategic and brutally effective “lightning war” against their adversaries.
The most devastating blitz raid occurred in London 70 years ago today, on the evening of December 29, 1940. German aircraft attacked London with incendiaries and high-explosive bombs — this created a horrific firestorm in the city that has been called the “Second Great Fire of London.” By the end of May 1941, more than 43,000 civilians, at least half of them in London, had been killed by bombing and more than a million houses had been destroyed or damaged in London alone. Thousands more people were blinded, crippled, or maimed.
St. Paul’s Cathedral is the highest point in the City of London, and is the seat of the Bishop of London. The present building dates from the 17th century and was designed by Sir Christopher Wren. It is generally reckoned to be London’s fifth St Paul’s Cathedral, all having been built on the same site since AD 604. The cathedral is one of London’s most famous and most recognizable sights. At 365 feet (111m) high, it was the tallest building in London from 1710 to 1962, and its dome is also among the highest in the world.
The famous cathedral has escaped destruction several times throughout history, including the blitz attack of December 29:
On 29 December 1940, the cathedral had another close call when an incendiary bomb became lodged in the lead shell of the dome but fell outwards onto the Stone Gallery and was put out before it could ignite the dome timbers. One of the most iconic images of London during the war was a photograph of St Paul’s taken the same day by photographer Herbert Mason, from the roof of the Daily Mail in Tudor Street showing the cathedral shrouded in smoke.
Prof. Lisa Jardine of Queen Mary, University of London has written:
Wreathed in billowing smoke, amidst the chaos and destruction of war, the pale dome stands proud and glorious – indomitable. At the height of that air-raid, Sir Winston Churchill telephoned the Guildhall to insist that all fire-fighting resources be directed at St Paul’s. The cathedral must be saved, he said, damage to the fabric would sap the morale of the country.
St Paul’s service to remember the Blitz on 70th anniversary | September 2010
RT: Rare footage found: WWII London Blitz in color
The appearance of German bombers in the skies over London during the afternoon of September 7, 1940 heralded a tactical shift in Hitler’s attempt to subdue Great Britain. During the previous two months, the Luftwaffe had targeted RAF airfields and radar stations for destruction in preparation for the German invasion of the island. With invasion plans put on hold and eventually scrapped, Hitler turned his attention to destroying London in an attempt to demoralize the population and force the British to come to terms. At around 4:00 PM on that September day, 348 German bombers escorted by 617 fighters blasted London until 6:00 PM. Two hours later, guided by the fires set by the first assault, a second group of raiders commenced another attack that lasted until 4:30 the following morning.
This was the beginning of the Blitz – a period of intense bombing of London and other cities that continued until the following May. For the next consecutive 57 days, London was bombed either during the day or night. Fires consumed many portions of the city. Residents sought shelter wherever they could find it – many fleeing to the Underground stations that sheltered as many as 177,000 people during the night. In the worst single incident, 450 were killed when a bomb destroyed a school being used as an air raid shelter. Londoners and the world were introduced to a new weapon of terror and destruction in the arsenal of twentieth century warfare. The Blitz ended on May 11, 1941 when Hitler called off the raids in order to move his bombers east in preparation for Germany’s invasion of Russia.
A portion of wartime reporting of the December 29 London attack, by acclaimed WWII correspondent Ernie Pyle:
It was a night when London was ringed and stabbed with fire.
They came just after dark, and somehow you could sense from the quick, bitter firing of the guns that there was to be no monkey business this night.
Shortly after the sirens wailed you could hear the Germans grinding overhead. In my room, with its black curtains drawn across the windows, you could feel the shake from the guns. You could hear the boom, crump, crump, crump, of heavy bombs at their work of tearing buildings apart. They were not too far away.
Half an hour after the firing started I gathered a couple of friends and went to a high, darkened balcony that gave us a view of a third of the entire circle of London. As we stepped out onto the balcony a vast inner excitement came over all of us-an excitement that had neither fear nor horror in it, because it was too full of awe.
You have all seen big fires, but I doubt if you have ever seen the whole horizon of a city lined with great fires – scores of them, perhaps hundreds.
There was something inspiring just in the awful savagery of it.
The closest fires were near enough for us to hear the crackling flames and the yells of firemen. Little fires grew into big ones even as we watched. Big ones died down under the firemen’s valor, only to break out again later.
About every two minutes a new wave of planes would be over. The motors seemed to grind rather than roar, and to have an angry pulsation, like a bee buzzing in blind fury.
The guns did not make a constant overwhelming din as in those terrible days of September. They were intermittent – sometimes a few seconds apart, sometimes a minute or more. Their sound was sharp, near by; and soft and muffled, far away. They were everywhere over London.
Into the dark shadowed spaces below us, while we watched, whole batches of incendiary bombs fell. We saw two dozen go off in two seconds. They flashed terrifically, then quickly simmered down to pin points of dazzling white, burning ferociously. These white pin points would go out one by one, as the unseen heroes of the moment smothered them with sand. But also, while we watched, other pin points would burn on, and soon a yellow flame would leap up from the white center. They had done their work – another building was on fire.
The greatest of all the fires was directly in front of us. Flames seemed to whip hundreds of feet into the air. Pinkish-white smoke ballooned upward in a great cloud, and out of this cloud there gradually took shape – so faintly at first that 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.
Click here to read the rest of Pyle’s accounting of London burning.
One of my all-time favorite classic films — the theater trailer of the 1942 Oscar-winning film Mrs. Miniver, starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, which showcased the lives of an average British family and their small community in England during the German blitz.
Rent this film if you’ve not ever seen it — masterfully, it shows remarkable strength of character and spirit in everyday people when they’re faced with wartime destruction and death of their way of life and of loved ones.
Mrs. Miniver – Film Trailer (1942)
Summary of the next homemade video, which dovetails Edward R. Murrows’ WWII London radio reporting in August 1940, by YouTube contributor wheels773:
Legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow covers the London Blitz from Trafalgar Square on August 24, 1940. This was one of the first broadcasts to bring a war live to American radio audiences.
This home video of the scene is from May 2007.
Edward R. Murrow Was Here
The Blitz 1940-1941 (Tribute Video)
Evacuation of Children in London during World War II