Blitz spirit sees Lon­don through the ‘Sec­ond Great Fire’

A night of havoc broke bricks and mor­tar, but not the Bri­tish spirit

History Revealed - - CONTENTS -

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

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