Category Archives: 20th Century London

The second Great Fire of London

0 - St Paul's

On this day in 1940, an air raid by the German Luftwaffe led  to the so-called “Second Great Fire of London”. Tens of thousands of incendiary bombs were dropped, and the small individual fires that they set off soon coalesced into a great conflagration that threatened the entire city centre.  Around 200 people were killed, and damage to property was on a then unprecedented scale.  The area around St Paul’s was essentially razed to the ground, although the cathedral  itself miraculously survived essentially intact, thanks to the heroic actions of the firefighters of the St Paul’s Watch, who put out no fewer than twenty-eight individual incendiary-bomb fires inside the building.   Ten other  Wren churches were struck by bombs, namely, Christ Church Newgate Street, St Alban Wood Street, St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe, St Anne & St Agnes, St Augustine-by-St-Paul’s, St Lawrence Jewry, St Mary Aldermanbury, St Mary-le-Bow, St Stephen Coleman Street and St Vedast-alias-Foster.

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Of these, Christ Church Newgate Street and St Alban Wood Street were substantially destroyed, with only their towers  remaining intact.

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And St Mary Aldermanbury and St Stephen Coleman Street were essentially completely destroyed.

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Remarkably, St Mary Aldermanbury was rebuilt, out of salvaged material, and according to Wren’s original design, in Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, in 1966 (as a memorial to Winston Churchill, who had made his famous “Iron Curtain” speech there in 1946).

The London Blitz, and the London County Council Bomb Damage Maps

The London Blitz

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This year marks the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the German bombing of London, colloquially known as the Blitz.  What may be thought of as the first phase, involving attacks by night-bombers dropping high explosive and incendiary devices,  lasted more-or-less non-stop from September, 1940 until May, 1941.  Following this was something of a lull in the intensity of bombing that lasted for around three years.  The second phase of intense bombing, involving attacks by V1 pilotless aircraft or flying bombs (“doodlebugs”) and supersonic V2 rockets, lasted from June, 1944, just after D-Day, until March, 1945, just before the end of the war.  (The V1 attacks lasted from June, 1944 until August, 1944, when Allied troops captured the fixed launch sites in the Low Countries; and the V2 attacks from September, 1944 until March, 1945, when they finally forced the mobile launchers out of range of London).

Readers interested in finding out more about this dark but fascinating chapter of London’s history could do a deal worse than book themselves onto  one of the many excellent Blitz-themed walks organised by our friends at Blitzwalkers (http://www.blitzwalkers.co.uk).

The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps

By the end of the war in Europe in May, 1945, nearly 30000 Londoners had been killed in air raids, 50000 sufficiently seriously injured as to require hospitalisation, and 90000 less seriously  injured.  And 120000 buildings in the capital had been destroyed or damaged beyond repair (ten times as many as during the Great Fire of 1666), 290000 seriously damaged but reparable, and 1400000 less seriously damaged.

In the aftermath, the London County Council undertook a detailed survey of the bomb damage in the capital, essentially to assist in the planning of the post-war reconstruction.

bomb-damage-mapThe result was a series of maps showing buildings colour-coded according to the severity of the bomb damage they had sustained, from yellow, orange and red for damaged but reparable, through magenta for damaged beyond repair, to  black for totally destroyed.  The maps are as poignant as they are beautiful, none more so than that of the area around St Paul’s, which provides a stark illustration of just how many buildings were lost there (mercifully, the cathedral itself was saved essentially intact: some would say due to divine intervention; others, due to the heroism of the St Paul’s Watch).

The original maps are housed in the London Metropolitan Archives.

51sb65VRbLL._SX361_BO1,204,203,200_Now, one of the Principal Archivists there, Laurence Ward, had written a book featuring high-quality reproductions of the bomb damage maps, contextualised by equally high-quality contemporary photographs and an admirably  clear and readable introductory text.  He has done a great service.  His book is an essential although at times heart-breaking read, and should be on the shelves of every lover of London and its long and chequered history.