FirefightersIt was 75 years ago this year – on the night of 10th/11th May, 1941 – that the German Luftwaffe launched an unprecedented attacked on London, an event that has since become known as the ‘Longest Night’ (it’s also been referred to as ‘The Hardest Night’).

Air raid sirens echoed across the city as the first bombs fells at about 11pm and by the following morning, some 1,436 Londoners had been killed and more than that number injured while more than 11,000 houses had been destroyed along and landmark buildings including the Palace of Westminster (the Commons Chamber was entirely destroyed and the roof of Westminster Hall was set alight), Waterloo Station, the British Museum and the Old Bailey were, in some cases substantially, damaged.

The Royal Air Force Museum records that some 571 sorties were flown by German air crews over the course of the night and morning, dropping 711 tons of high explosive bombs and more than 86,000 incendiaries. The planes were helped in their mission – ordered in retaliation for RAF bombings of German cities – by the full moon reflecting off the river below.

The London Fire Brigade recorded more than 2,100 fires in the city and together these caused more than 700 acres of the urban environment, more than double that of the Great Fire of London in 1666 (the costs of the destruction were also estimated at more than double that of the Great Fire – some £20 million).

Fighter Command sent some 326 aircraft into the fight that night, not all of them over London, and, according to the RAF Museum, the Luftwaffe officially lost 12 aircraft (although others put the figure at more than 30).

By the time the all-clear siren sounded just before 6am on 11th May, it was clear the raid – which turned out to be the last major raid of The Blitz – had been the most damaging ever undertaken upon the city.

Along with the landmarks mentioned above, other prominent buildings which suffered in the attack include Westminster Abbey, St Clement Danes (the official chapel of the Royal Air Force, it was rebuilt but still bears the scars of the attack), and the Queen’s Hall.

Pictured above is a statue of firefighters in action in London during the Blitz, taken from the National Firefighters Memorial near St Paul’s Cathedral – for more on that, see our earlier post here.

For more on The Longest Night, see Gavin Mortimer’s The Longest Night: Voices from the London Blitz: The Worst Night of the London Blitz.

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The final in our series looking at London ‘battlefields’, this week we take a look at the so-called Battle of London, the air war fought over London during World War II which, along with the bombing of other British cities, is best known by the phrase The Blitz (it forms part of the greater Battle of Britain).

Blitz-memorialTaking place from the afternoon of 7th September, 1940, until May, 1941, the Blitz saw London sustain repeated attacks from the German Luftwaffe, most notably between 7th September and mid November when the city was bombed on every night bar one.

The night of 7th September, the first night of the Blitz (a short form of ‘Blitzkrieg’ – German for ‘lightning war’), was among the worst – with more than 450 killed and 1,300 injured as wave after wave of bombers attacked the city. Another 412 were killed the following night.

One of the most notorious raids took place on 29th December when  incendiary bombs dropped on the City of London starting what has been called the Second Great Fire of London. Around a third of the city was destroyed, including more than 30 guild halls and 19 churches, 16 which had been rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London in 1666.

The city was only attacked sporadically in the early months of 1941 but the night of the last major raid of the Blitz – that of 10th May, a night subsequently known as The Longest Night – saw the highest casualties of any night with almost 1,500 people reportedly killed.

The Blitz killed almost 30,000 civilian in London, and destroyed more than a million homes with the worst hit districts poorer areas like the East End.

The battle wasn’t one-sided – the RAF fought the Luftwaffe in the skies and did have some wins – on 15th September (a day known as Battle of Britain Day), for example, they shot down some 60 aircraft attacking London for the loss of less than 30 British fighters.

It was this victory which led the Germans to reduce the number of daylight attacks in favour of night-time raids which, until the launch of the RAF’s night-time fighters in 1941, meant they met little effective resistance. This included that of ground defences – throughout December, 1940, it’s said that anti-aircraft fire only brought down 10 enemy planes.

Yet, the Blitz did not lead to a German victory. For the Nazi regime, the purpose of the constant bombing of London (and other cities) was aimed at sapping the morale of its residents to the extent that they would eventually be forced to beg for peace. But the plan failed and Londoners, digging deep, proved their mettle in the face of fear.

Hundreds of thousands of people were involved in  Civil Defence working in a range of jobs – everything from air raid shelter wardens to rescue and demolition teams – and worked alongside firefighters whose numbers were supplemented by an auxiliary service. Naturally all suffered a high level of casualties.

As the weeks passed, the carnage mounted in terms of the loss of and damage to life, destruction of property and psychological toll. And yet the Londoners – sheltering Underground, most famously in the tunnels of the Tube – survived and, as had been the case after the first Great Fire of London, the ruined city was eventually rebuilt.

There are numerous Blitz-related memorials in London, many related to specific bombings. But among the most prominent are the National Firefighters Memorial, located opposite St Paul’s Cathedral, which pays tribute to the firefighters who lost their lives in the war (as well as in peacetime), and a riverside memorial in Wapping honouring civilians of East London killed in the Blitz.

This church, which survived until it was largely destroyed by bombing in World War II, isn’t completely lost – its tower still survives in the middle of Wood Street in the City.

St-Alban's-Wood-StreetThe church, one of a number dedicated to St Alban (Britain’s first Christian martyr) in London throughout its history, was medieval in origin although it has been argued its foundation dates back to the 8th century Saxon King Offa of Mercia who is believed to have had a palace here with the chapel on this site (Offa is also credited as the founder of St Alban’s Abbey).

The church had fallen into disrepair by the early 17th century and was demolished and rebuilt in 1630s. It proved unfortunate timing for only 32 years later it was completely destroyed again, this time in the Great Fire of London.

Following the Great Fire, the church, now combined with the parish of St Olave, Silver Street, was among those rebuilt to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren and completed in the mid-1680s.

It was restored in the late 1850s under the eye of Victorian architect Sir George Gilbert Scott and the four pinnacles on the tower, which stood on the north side of the church, were replaced later that century.

It survived until World War II when the building was burnt out and partly destroyed on a single night during the Blitz in December, 1940. The remains, with the exception of Wren’s Perpendicular-style tower, were later demolished in the 1950s (by which time the church had been united with the parish of  St Vedast, Foster Lane).

The Grade II*-listed tower was converted into a rather unusual private dwelling in the 1980s.

10-Downing-Street

Sir Winston Churchill lived a number of residences in London but, of course, the most famous in its own right is the traditional home of British PMs, 10 Downing Street.

Located in a short street just off Whitehall (now closed to the public), the property has been home to Prime Ministers since Sir Robert Walpole, officially First Lord of the Treasury but effectively the first PM, took up residence in 1735.

Churchill moved in following his election to the office of Prime Minister in 1940 and he and his wife Clementine took up residence in a second floor flat. It was in this property where, cigar in hand, he is famously known to have dictated speeches and letters to his secretary while propped up in bed.

The building suffered some bomb damage during the Blitz – on 14th October, 1940, a bomb fell on nearby Treasury Green and damaged the home’s kitchen and state rooms. Three civil servants doing Home Guard duty were killed but the kitchen staff were saved thanks to Churchill who, dining in the Garden Rooms when the bombing raid began, ordered them to leave their duties and get into a bomb shelter.

The Garden Rooms – which included a bedroom, meeting area and the small dining room – were subsequently reinforced with steel and heavy metal shutters although these apparently would have made little difference had there been a direct hit.

Cabinet moved out of Number 10 into the underground bunker complex now referred to as the Churchill War Rooms (see last week’s post) in October, 1939, and, after several near misses, the Churchills – Sir Winston apparently very begrudgingly – moved into the Number 10 Annex above the war rooms in 1940 (although Churchill continued to visit Number 1o for working and dining).

Much of the furniture and valuables were removed from Number 10 and only the Garden Rooms, Cabinet Room and Private Secretaries’ office remained in use (along with a reinforced bomb shelter built underneath – King George VI is known to have sheltered here when he was dining with Churchill when a raid began).

At the end of the war the Churchills quickly moved back into Number 10 and it was from the Cabinet Room that he made his Victory in Europe (VE) Day broadcast on 8th May, 1945.

He vacated the premises after his election defeat later in 1945 but returned when re-elected PM in 1951 and left after he resigned in 1955 having held a dinner party attended by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip the night before.

A couple of interesting facts about Churchill’s time at number 10: Churchill had many pets who usually had free rein in the house – even at 10 Downing Street his poodle Rufus was known to have wandered into a meeting in the Cabinet Room (before he was ejected) – while in 1958, Georgina Landemare, the cook during his time at number 10, famously published a book, Recipes from No. 10, which featured an introduction by Churchill’s wife, Clementine.

There are apparently two portraits of Churchill among those of other PMs which grace the wall of the Grand Staircase.

For more on the history of 10 Downing Street, see www.gov.uk/government/history/10-downing-street

PICTURE: Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC/Crown Copyright 

 

Following on from our post last week, we take a look at a couple more of London’s buildings that had some sort of association with William Shakespeare…

St-John's-Gate St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell (pictured): This former gatehouse into Clerkenwell Priory was at the time of Shakespeare home to the Master of the Revels and where the playwright would have had to have brought his plays for official government approval. Thirty of the Bard’s plays were licensed here and the Master of Revels during all but the final few years of Shakespeare’s career was Edmund Tilney (or Tylney), who served in the post under both Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. The gatehouse was later used as a coffee house and pub among other things and is associated with everyone from artist William Hogarth (his father Richard ran the coffee house), Dr Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens. These days, the gatehouse is part of the Museum of the Order of St John (for more on that, see our earlier post here).

Staple Inn, Holborn: OK, there’s no direct link at all between Shakespeare and this building on High Holborn but it was built during his lifetime – in 1585 – and as such is one of very few surviving examples of buildings of his era. Its name comes from the fact the site where it stands was originally a covered market where wool was weighed and taxed (the word ‘staple’ apparently relates to the duty on wool introduced in 1275). It later became an Inn of Chancery – a medieval school for lawyers which fed students through to the Inns of Court (in this case mostly Gray’s Inn), and it was members of the Society of Staple Inn who built the new building here in the 1580s. The building – which still boasts a grand hall – survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 and, albeit with considerable damage, the Blitz. Since the late 1800s, it has been home to what’s now known as the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries. The building, which was restored in the 1990s, is a great example of an Elizabethan-era structure and gives some sense of what Shakespeare’s London was like.

Where-is-it--#64

Can you identify where in London this picture was taken? If you think you can, leave a comment below. We’ll reveal the answer early next week. Good luck!

Well done to Jamie, this is indeed the tower of St Giles Cripplegate, located  just off Fore Street in the Barbican Estate. The church – the oldest building in the area – dates from about 1090 and was rebuilt in 1545 after it was destroyed by a fire. The new building survived the Great Fire of 1666 but didn’t fare so well in a fire of 1897 or in the Blitz when all but the outer shell was destroyed. Oliver Cromwell was married here in 1620 and the poet John Milton was buried here in 1674 (he had written much of Paradise Lost locally) (interestingly, his body was apparently exhumed about 100 years later, workman took some souvenirs including teeth and a rib). Others buried here include explorer Sir Martin Frobisher, John Foxe, author of The Book of Martyrs, and Bible translator Lancelot Andrews. For more on the church, see www.stgilescripplegate.com.