Thursday, December 29, 2016

WW2: London's Second Great Fire

This photo by Herbert Mason of St. Paul's Cathedral,
Dec. 30, 1940, has been called "War's Greatest Picture."
December 29 – This day, 76 years ago, Nazi bombers commenced dropping 124,000 bombs in one night on London.

Most of the bombs were incendiaries, which started 1,500 fires.  The conflagration became known as "The Second Great Fire of London." In a few hours, almost one-third of the city was destroyed.

The damage included 19 churches, 31 guildhalls, and London's publishing center (Paternoster Row) along with five million books.

The timing of the air raid was planned to coincide with low tide in the River Thames, which meant water was in short supply.
It was the 114th in an unbroken chain of bombing raids over London called "The Blitz," which began in September 1940.

The fires stretched south from Islington to the edge of the St. Paul's Cathedral churchyard, a far greater area than burned in the first Great London fire, in 1666.

Winston Churchill made it a priority to save St. Paul's Cathedral, the national treasure designed by Christopher Wren. The cathedral was destroyed in the 1666 fire and was rebuilt (Wren's tomb is in it).

France, Belgium, Holland, and Norway had already fallen to Germany as of May 1940, and Adolf Hitler was bent on defeating Britain in an invasion named "Operation Sea Lion". But  the British people were stirred to determination by their new prime minister, Winston Churchill, who declared Britain would "never surrender."

Schoolchildren who had not been evacuated from London practiced air raid drills by hiding beneath desks and pinning their hands over the backs of their necks. Those who had a place to go left London for the countryside. Others purchased steel "Anderson shelters," which could be constructed in a backyard garden, or a "Morrison shelter" – an iron cage that could double as an indoor table. 

Thousands of Britons slept every night in the underground tube stations where the government brought bunk beds and extra toilets. During the day, in the rubble, people on the street tacked up "Business as Usual" signs. The motto was "Keep Calm and Carry On."

Edward R. Murrow reported from London: "Not once have I heard a man, woman, or child suggest that Britain should throw her hand." Britain never surrendered.

In June 1940, after he had accepted the position of prime minister, Winston Churchill barked in his unforgettable bulldog voice:
Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him all Europe may be free, and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands; but if we fail, then the whole world will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say: "This was their finest hour."
It was indeed.

The Blitz lasted until May 1941, when Hitler gave up, recognizing that he had underestimated British resilience, of its public and its air defenses. He switched his battleground to the Soviet Union, where his Wehrmacht destroyed everything it could on the way to Moscow and was then itself in turn destroyed, like Napoleon's army, by Russian tenacity and the frigid winter.

In 1944, the bells of St. Paul's Cathedral pealed when news arrived of the liberation of Paris.

No comments:

Post a Comment