During the Second World War the Germans carried out a sustained bombing campaign against Great Britain and Northern Ireland which is known as The Blitz (from the German word Blitzkrieg, meaning ‘lightning war’). The attacks started in September 1940, and by the end of 1941 41,987 civilians had been killed. For many people the devastation was summed up by a photograph of St Paul’s cathedral taken by Herbert Mason and published in the Daily Mail on 31st December 1940.
The photograph was taken during one of the most destructive of all the raids which became known as the ‘Second Great Fire of London’ as it caused fires in an area greater than the original Fire of London in 1666. In just three and a half hours during the night of Sunday 29th December 1940 136 German bombers dropped more than 100,000 bombs on London. Whole streets were flattened by the blasts killing more than 160 civilians on the night with many more dying of their injuries over the following days; but the civilian population were only secondary casualties for the Germans as their main targets were train stations, communication lines, the telephone centre on Faraday Street and bridges over the Thames. The Square Mile (the part of London best known to tourists) was particularly badly hit with 19 churches (8 of which had been built by Sir Christopher Wren after the fire in 1666) and 31 guild halls being totally destroyed along with about five million books in London’s publishing district.
Many of the buildings in the Square Mile were not covered by the Fire Watchers Order of September 1940, and as they were closed and locked on a Sunday evening this gave the incendiary bombs a chance to quickly take hold. Only 12 x 3 inches, these small bombs were filled with magnesium which started intense fires that were difficult to extinguish. The raid was deliberately planned for when the River Thames was at a low ebb causing the water hoses used to tackle the fires to become clogged with mud; this, along with a drastic fall in water pressure when the mains were ruptured, made fighting the fires incredibly difficult.
As well as the bombs dropped that night there were also many unexploded bombs from the previous 113 nights of raids which made the work of the firefighters even more dangerous – 14 firefighters were killed that night with another 250 injured. Artist Leonard Rosoman, who was serving with the Auxiliary Fire Service on the night of the raid, was relieved of his hose and stepped back for a moment to rest, almost immediately a wall collapsed where he had been working and the two firefighters who had just taken his place were killed. Rosoman painted A House Collapsing on Two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London, EC4 as tribute to them.
Like Rosoman, the majority of the men who manned the pumps were volunteers; these pumps needed fuel in order to work so women carried out one of the most dangerous jobs of the night – driving vans filled with petrol through flame filled streets to keep the pumps working.
Although most of the fires were extinguished by dawn of the following day others continued to burn for days.
While most people have not heard of the Second Great Fire of London many will be familiar with the photograph taken from the roof of the Daily Mail building by Herbert Mason that night, and which has become one of the iconic photographs of the war.
The St Paul’s Watch was a multinational group first set up during the First War to protect the cathedral from German zeppelins then re-constituted when war was declared in 1939. Their job was to ensure that the cathedral was able to maintain daily services during the war, and they were on duty that night. When the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, heard that St Paul’s had been struck by incendiary bombs (28 in total) he sent a message to the volunteers of the St Paul’s Watch saying that the cathedral ‘must be saved at all costs’; and through their heroic efforts the building remained standing whilst almost everything around it was destroyed.
It was at this point that Mason took his photograph of the dome of St Paul’ still standing amidst the smoke and ruin, illuminated by the fires which raged throughout the city. The picture was cleared by the censors the next day and appeared in the Daily Mail on 31st December 1940 (cropped to emphasise the dome and to omit many of the gutted buildings which had appeared in the original). Entitled ‘War’s Greatest Picture’ it soon became a symbol of the strength of the British people to stand together in the face of unimaginable odds, and survive; as the editor of the Mail said to its 1,450,000 readers, you should ‘cherish this picture as a symbol of the steadiness of London’s stand against the enemy; the firmness of Right against Wrong’. The photograph was also used by the Illustrated London News and Life magazine (in an America which had yet to declare war on Germany) as ‘a symbol of the indestructible faith of the whole civilised world.’
But, as with everything, this picture was used in Germany as a way to tell a very different story when it appeared on the cover of the photo-magazine Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung in January 1941. Far from seeing it as a symbol of hope and endurance the headline was ‘The City of London Burns’, saying that the smoke was not a symbol of London rising from the ashes but obscured the extent of the destruction wreaked by the Luftwaffe.
Whichever propaganda take you might have on Mason’s photograph, it still remains a potent symbol of the devastating attacks which London and so many other cities endured during the Blitz.