St Paul’s survives London firestorm

The iconic picture of St Paul's taken by Daily Mail photographer Herbert Mason from Fleet Street on the night of 29th December 1940. US National Archives 306-NT-3173V

The lull in the blitz over the Christmas period came to an abrupt end on the evening of the 29th. It was not an exceptionally heavy raid compared with several earlier raids, when more bombs had fallen. That so many fires took hold was largely because the raid was on a Sunday evening when the commercial area of the City of London was mostly unoccupied, without the usual fire-watchers on every building.

If incendiary bombs were tackled as soon as they fell they caused little damage. This required sufficient people to be in the immediate vicinity and able to get to the burning bomb in the first few minutes. With most of City buildings locked up and vacant, numerous fires soon started in the roof space of adjacent buildings and then merged into enormous conflagrations. The problems faced by the fire Brigade were exacerbated by a low ebb tide on the Thames, making it difficult to draw water to fight the fires.

By contrast there was a vigilant team of fire-watchers at work from the start in St Paul’s Cathedral. They were on hand to deal with the 28 incendiary bombs that fell on the building. But it was only luck that prevented the one incendiary bomb that just penetrated the dome from setting the whole building alight. The dome of St Paul’s is mainly a wooden structure covered with lead, so is highly combustible. Fortunately the bomb, having lodged in the roof, then fell outwards rather than inwards, and was swiftly dealt with.

The journalist Ernie Pyle described the evening for an American audience:

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.

The streets below us were semi-illuminated from the glow. Immediately above the fires the sky was red and angry, and overhead, making a ceiling in the vast heavens, there was a cloud of smoke all in pink. Up in that pink shrouding there were tiny, brilliant specks of flashing light – anti-aircraft shells bursting. After the flash you could hear the sound.

See Ernie Pyle’s War: America’s Eyewitness to World War II

Casualties were relatively light with 163 killed including 16 firemen, with over 250 firemen needing hospital treatment. The destruction of a huge swathe of the oldest part of London and the loss off many historic buildings had to go unmourned. Instead the image of St Pauls almost immediately became emblematic of the message that “Britain can take it” and brought worldwide attention to London’s situation in the front line.

The Daily Mail first published the picture two days later but cropped out the burning buildings in the foreground.

Wars Greatest Picture – St Pauls stands Unharmed in the Middle of the Burning City
… a picture that all Britain will cherish – for it symbolises the steadiness of London’s stand against the enemy: the firmness of Right against Wrong.

The Home Security Situation for the week recorded the damage, which encompassed an area much larger than the City itself:

By night the most important attack was that delivered against London, mainly in the City, on the night 29th/30th December when a very large number of incendiary bombs were dropped, and serious and extensive fires—numbering in all nearly 1,500—were started in the City and the Docks area. In the City the fire at one period extended over half a square mile and in the Minories area over quarter of a square mile.

Damage.

London. (29th/30th December.)

54. (a) Docks.—The actual working of the docks was interfered with in three cases—Surrey Commercial, Millwall and London Docks. The most considerable damage was, however, to warehouses and sheds, with their inflammable contents.

(b) Railways.—Services were suspended at Waterloo, Charing Cross, Fenchurch Street, Broad Street and Cannon Street and sixteen underground stations were closed. By 0800 on the 31st December 40 per cent services were restored at all termini with the exception of Fenchurch Street. Though the position has greatly improved, working is still retarded, and considerable congestion remains.

(c) Factories.—Four important food-factories in the Dock area were hit, but fortunately damage was unimportant. Buck and Hickman, Ltd. (machinetools) was burnt out; otherwise Key Point factories escaped serious damage.

(d) Public Utilities.—The South Metropolitan Gas Works and the Bankside Electricity Power Station both suffered minor damage and, generally, only local and temporary damage was done to main services.

(e) Telecommunications.—Post Office property suffered severely, the Central Telegraph Office, with three Telephone Exchanges housed in the same building, were completely gutted : fires also occurred in three other Exchanges. Considerable dislocation of communications resulted, especially between London and the South-East of England.

(f) Public Buildings and Hospitals:—the most serious loss is that of the Guildhall, which was destroyed, while eight Wren Churches in the City were more or less severely damaged. St. Stephen’s, Westminster, Westminster Cathedral and Bryanston- Square Church were also affected. Trinity House was almost entirely destroyed. Damage was also done to the Royal Courts of Justice, the Tower, the British Museum and Public Record Office, County Hall, Westminster City Hall. Guy’s Hospital had to be evacuated and other hospitals and nursing homes were damaged in Hoiborn (3), Lambeth, Waltham Cross, Bermondsey, Stepney and Camberwell.

(g) Service Property.—R.A.F. stores were damaged at the. White City Stadium and three Army Huts burnt in Hyde Park. In Stepney and Southwark various A.R.P. establishments were damaged.

The attack on London on the night of the 29th/30th December produced a critical fire situation, and the fire services were fully extended; it was not until the morning of the 1st January that all fires could be reported under control

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Rihannon September 15, 2014 at 4:30 am

okay but need more so children can get information from it

Bill Wilson March 6, 2014 at 12:43 am

How can i get the names of all that died in the 29th-30th december raid. 163 on the night and more in the nxt few days?

Sandy Walsh June 1, 2013 at 4:27 pm

Hi

I need to use and image of St Paul’s Cathedral during the Blitz as a backdrop for a school show. Can you let me know how I do this and how I observe copy right on the image please?

Wills December 29, 2012 at 2:27 pm

There’s a documentary about this raid tonight at 9pm on More 4.

Wills December 29, 2012 at 2:22 pm

St Paul’s is in St Paul’s Churchyard at the western end of Cheapside. Bread and Friday Streets are both off Cheapside. Put EC4M 8AD in Google Maps and zoom in for a clearer picture.

Ivan M.Marks....google ivan marks hairdresser. November 2, 2012 at 3:49 pm

I am trying to establish whether St Pauls was in Bread St or Friday St. My grandfather and grandmother were landlords at the White Horse Inn at the time. Ivan Marks thank you.

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