Blitz spirit sees London through the ‘Second Great Fire’
A night of havoc broke bricks and mortar, but not the British spirit
The Blitz halted briefly over Christmas 1940, but on the evening of Sunday 29 December the Luftwaffe resumed bombing an already hammered London. The whistling sounds of incendiaries were first heard at 6.15pm, and for the next three-and-a-half hours more than 100,000 such bombs fell. The attack was so ferocious that one American reporter telegraphed his office with the words: “The second Great Fire of London has begun.”
While most people huddled in shelters or Tube stations, an act that had become all too familiar, firefighters and volunteers tirelessly tackled the 1,500 or so blazes across the city. Dozens of buildings were utterly destroyed – but not one crucial landmark.
St Paul’s Cathedral was surrounded by smouldering ruins, while flames licked the edges of the churchyard. But Prime Minister Winston Churchill, recognising its importance to British morale, sent a message saying St Paul’s must be saved at all costs.
The cathedral’s volunteer firewatchers, the St Paul’s Watch, spent the evening putting out the fires from the 28 incendiary bombs that rained down on the building, using stirrup pumps, buckets and sand. One crashed through the dome and lodged in the support beams – causing molten lead to drip down – before it finally fell to the stone floor. Yet, incredibly, the cathedral sustained no irreparable damage.
By dawn, the fires had been brought under control by the exhausted firefighters, the ‘heroes with grimy faces’. The night left more than 160 dead and around 500 injured.
A couple of days later, once the photo had been cleared by the censors, the Daily Mail’s front page featured what it dubbed “war’s greatest picture”. St Paul’s was still standing and almost emerging, defiant, from the black smoke. It was taken by Herbert Mason from the roof of the newspaper’s office, around half a mile from the cathedral. “The shining cross, dome and towers stood out like a symbol in the inferno,” he later said.
Indeed the photo, known as ‘St Paul’s Survives’, came to represent British resolve – the ultimate icon of ‘Blitz spirit’.
Low tide on the Thames and a ruptured water main made the firefighting even more difficult