December 29: A Spectacular Picture on a Devastating Day

2016/12/29 § Leave a comment


On this day in 1940 the Luftwaffe fire-bombed London.

In and of itself, that event is not particularly significant within the history of the Germans bombing the English capital (71 times) during the Blitz.  What set this day apart was the presence of a photographer who took the astonishing image above.  The dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral (designed, of course, by the exquisite Christopher Wren) stands staunchly above the ruins of its neighborhood, its apparent resolve and stiff-upper-lippedness clearing the smoke away.

The picture summarizes the significance of the cathedral as a symbol, central to the the British capital as well as to British identity.  The building’s importance was obvious to all.  Churchill reportedly asked his aids to report  on the status of the church at the start of each day; Hitler is believed to have offered a reward to the airman who landed a bomb on it.  But St. Paul’s never did succumb to the German attack, even in the midst of the destruction all around it.

Many theories have been offered to explain the against-all-odds survival of the church.  Burning debris and the occasional small hit did damange to the building, but it was minimized by the corps of watchers who patrolled the rooftop at night, where hundreds of pails of water stood at the ready.  Fire-watching parties were stationed throughout the city, but no area was as closely protected as the cathedral.  Still, a bucket brigade would not have been able to fend off a direct hit.  By the rule of the “Baedeker Raids,” Germans aimed to land a bomb on every three-star building in major British cities.  Ironically, of all the other monuments that became German targets in Exeter, Bath, York and elsewhere, St. Paul’s main attraction may have actually been its saving grace: the great dome was a significant navigational device for the Luftwaffe.  Another popular notion takes the idea of saving grace literally: a divine barrier protected the cathedral from the raids.  This last is even less likely than the others to be verified by the historical record–though it is likely, if the hand of the Almighty were to move in order to spare a building, it would be one with a gracious dome.

Image: St. Paul’s and a lot of smoke and debris (from this source)

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