The dome of St Paul's emerging out of a cloud of smoke that engulfs burning buildings in the foreground.
Herbert Mason’s famous view of St Paul’s Cathedral seen through the smoke and flames of the Blitz in 1941 © Associated Newspapers Limited (IWM HU 36220)
Herbert Mason’s famous view of St Paul’s Cathedral seen through the smoke and flames of the Blitz in 1941 © Associated Newspapers Limited (IWM HU 36220)

St Paul’s Cathedral

Many historic buildings suffered during the Blitz. Damage to churches had a particular impact on the nation’s morale.

The Church of England was the country’s official established church. Many people went to church - for weddings, funerals or christenings - even if they were not religious.

St Paul’s Cathedral, standing proud in the City of London, was a vulnerable target. Its remarkable survival was due, in no small part, to the dedication and bravery of some heroic people.

St Paul’s Watch

St Paul’s Cathedral was known to be at risk from fire because of the large amount of timber in its roof and dome.

During the First World War the Cathedral organised a group of volunteers, the St Paul’s Watch. Its role was to protect the building from damage in air raids by Zeppelins and Gotha bombers.

When war broke out again in September 1939, the cathedral authorities reconvened the watch. Mr Walter Godfrey Allen, was put in charge. As the Surveyor to the cathedral, he knew its layout better than anybody.

With the Dean, Walter Matthews, Allen recruited a team of volunteers to work alongside cathedral staff. This included a number of architects who responded to a special appeal to the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Allen later explained that it could take "even a most eminent architect months to master all the intricate passages and staircases of the cathedral" (Bold and Chaney, 1993, 320).

The St Paul’s Watch worked in shifts day and night so that the cathedral was never left without cover.

A night of heavy bombing

On the night of 29 December 1940, just after 6 pm, a heavy raid broke out. This was targeted directly on the square mile of the City, around St Paul’s. Incendiary bombs began raining down on the cathedral.

Dean Matthews recalled how he and the rest of the watch team faced "a number of separate battles in which small squads fought incipient fires at different places on and beneath the roof" (Matthews, 1946, 45).

Around 28 bombs hit St Paul's that night. All were dealt with by the volunteers of the watch team with their stirrup pumps. When bombs lodged in the roof timbers volunteers crawled along smouldering beams to douse the flames.

Dean Matthews and Godfrey Allen extinguished one bomb that landed on the floor of the library aisle. The Dean later admitted:

[I have] a special affection for the scar left by that bomb on the floor - it represents, I feel, my one positive contribution to the defeat of Hitler!

Dean Matthews (Matthews, 1946, 45)

Herbert Mason’s photograph

Many of St Paul’s neighbouring buildings were not as lucky. The cathedral dome was soon surrounded by the smoke from dozens of fires burning all around. From the roof of the Daily Mail offices near Fleet Street, press photographer Herbert Mason took one of the most iconic pictures of the Blitz.

The image was published in the Daily Mail two days later and described as the ‘war’s greatest picture.’ It shows the dome of St Paul's Cathedral and its twin towers rising above a mass of smoke and flames.

Mason explained how hard it had been to get a clear view:

I focussed at intervals as the great dome loomed up through the smoke … Glare of many fires and sweeping clouds of smoke kept hiding the shape. Then a wind sprang up. Suddenly the shining cross, dome and towers stood out like a symbol in the inferno. The scene was unbelievable. In that moment or two I released my shutter.

Herbert Mason (‘Daily Mail’, 31 December 1940, 1)

Bomb disposal

The efforts of the St Paul's Watch kept the building safe during the height of the Blitz. Sometimes, more expert help was required.

On 12 September 1940 a one-ton bomb, described in the press as the biggest ever dropped on London, landed in Dean’s Yard, fracturing a gas main. Cathedral staff alerted an army bomb disposal team.

A bomb of this size would bring down much of St Paul’s if it exploded where it was. A group of men from the Gas Light and Coke Company cut off the gas, then the army team worked for three days to dig out the bomb. It was loaded onto the back of a truck and a team of police motor cyclists escorted it to Hackney Marshes where it was safely blown up.

Canon Cockin, resident canon at St Paul’s, took the team to a nearby pub where he treated them to pints of beer. 

They are a band of very brave young men ... we are very grateful to them for saving St Paul’s.

Canon Cockin (‘Birmingham Mail’, 16 September 1940, 5)

Two of the team, Lieutenant Robert Davies and Sapper George Wylie were awarded the George Cross for their efforts. This was a new medal, instituted by King George VI in September 1940, to recognise acts of bravery by civilians or by military personnel not in the face of the enemy. Davies and Wylie were among its first recipients.

Another unexploded bomb

Expert help was again called in for another unexploded bomb in April 1941.

Gerald Henderson, the cathedral sub-librarian, noticed some parachute silk lying in the churchyard. Bending down to remove it, he discovered that it was still attached to an upright mine. Henderson ran to tell his colleagues who called in the police, who alerted Lieutenant Ronald James Smith, a naval mine disposal expert.

Smith realised that the disposal of the mine would be extremely challenging. It was tangled up in the parachute, which could not be safely removed, so Smith crawled underneath it and began to unscrew the fuse.

A report in 'The People' explained how shortly after he started, the vibration from a passing fire engine shifted the mine and it started ticking. Smith realised that he had to move quickly. In about 17 seconds the mine would explode, taking him and most of the cathedral with it. He managed to make the mine safe with two seconds to spare!

Smith also received the George Cross for his action at St Paul’s. After the war, it emerged that he had already saved a church in Cowdeshall Road, Glasgow in very similar circumstances.

An enduring symbol for the nation

During the Blitz, St Paul’s Cathedral became a national symbol of survival and resistance. Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared that it should be saved at all costs.

Office worker Dorothy Barton, seeing St Paul’s in the morning after the great raid of 29 December 1940, recalled:

I felt a lump in my throat because, like so many people, I felt that while St Paul’s survived, so would we.

Dorothy Barton (Mail Online, 31 December 2010)