The City has survived rebellion, fire and corruption, but it has also endured when war raised its head.
During the First World War the City was raided by Zeppelins and Gotha bombers but, although they caused alarm, the damage they did was fairly minimal. Plaques across the Square Mile mark particular buildings that were hit by these Zeppelin raids and subsequently rebuilt. Indeed, the Zeppelin building on Farringdon Road took its name from the fact it had been destroyed in one such raid.
After the Second World War, however, the damage to the City was so great that many buildings were not renamed.
Despite the precedent of the First World War, the general view in the 1930s was that widescale bombing of cities would cause collapse of the fabric of society within the first few days of war being declared. As Stanley Baldwin stated in a speech to parliament in 1932:
“I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through. The only defence is in offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves.”
It is widely forgotten now that bombing in the 1930s was seen as the nuclear deterrent of the day. This influenced the creation of Bomber Command and the emphasis on aircraft as offensive weapons in themselves, something that the father of the RAF, Hugh Trenchard, believed in strongly.
The theory sounds familiar today. Build up a force of bombers so that the aggressor will not start war for fear of having their cities destroyed. Mutually Assured Destruction, ten years before the dropping of the first atomic bomb and twenty before there was any chance of a nuclear retaliation by the Soviet Union.
So great was the general fear of bombing raids when the Second World War started in 1939, that London hospitals prepared for 300,000 casualties in the first week of war.
It was estimated that an additional 1 to 2 million hospital beds would be needed in the first two years of the war. These were acquired in a series of planning decisions very similar to the ones leading to Nightingale Hospitals. Thousands of cardboard coffins were stockpiled to deal with the mass deaths that would be caused by the 3,500 tons of explosives that were expected to be dropped on London on the first day of war.
To put these numbers in context, the firestorm started by the allied bombing of Dresden at the end of the war was a result of about 2,700 tons of bombs.
Of course, the difficulties with strategic bombing were numerous and things didn’t develop as most had feared. In fact, over the whole of the Blitz 28,556 were killed, 25,578 were wounded and approximately 18,000 tons of bombs were dropped. Even these numbers, however, are horrific and the effect on the City as a whole was catastrophic.
On 29 December 1940, 136 bombers plastered the City with 10,000 incendiary and high explosive bombs. Over 1,500 fires were started and the main water line into the City was hit, causing the water pressure to drop and making fighting the fire even harder.
St Pauls represented the City’s ability to “take it” and Churchill sent a message that it “must be saved at all costs”. Instead of sitting in his underground bomb shelter in Whitehall, which at this point was not bomb proof, Churchill climbed up to the roof of a government building to watch the evening pan out.
Somewhat miraculously, the cathedral stood fast whilst a sea of fire engulfed all around it. This is despite the 28 incendiary bombs that had fallen close to the building, and the one which fell on the dome, fortunately landing on the Stone Gallery where it could be extinguished, rather than into the rafters which would inevitably have led to the building burning.
The now iconic photograph “St Paul’s survives” was taken from the roof of the Daily Mail building and has become one of the most recognised pictures of the entire war. For those camera buffs, the proof of the strength of the fires is in the extremes of light and dark in the picture – the fire providing it’s own effective flash to the scene.
Critics of the picture say it was touched up pretty heavily before release: “more of the picture has been changed than not”. Proof that photoshopping is not a new invention, in fact some of the tools on that programme, dodging and burning for one, are actually the leftovers from the physical process in the darkroom.
That night would be christened the Second Great Fire of London and it would hit the area around Paternoster Row particularly hard. This was primarily a publishing district and it’s thought that five million books were destroyed that evening. The scale of the devastation can be seen in photographs from St Pauls at the time.
The City continues to bear the scars of that night. Paternoster Square is almost entirely a creation of the clearance of a big section of that area. Many of the modern buildings in the City are a reflection of that night and areas that we take for granted, like the Barbican, are a direct product of the bombing of the Blitz.
To give some sense of the scale of the devastation, in one six-month period 750,000 tons of rubble were removed from London and transported on 1,700 trains to make runways on Bomber Command airfields. This created an element of symmetry, as the product of the raids was used to assist the ever-increasing cycle of violence that would result in the great bombing raids over Nazi Germany in 1943 to 1945.
Perhaps the best place to consider the impact of the Blitz is in Christchurch Greyfriars Church Garden, just North from St Pauls. This Wren church was hit with a firebomb on 29 December 1940, along with another seven Wren churches. The only item recovered from the flames was the wooden cover of the font which now resides in the porch of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, High Holborn.
In 1949 it was decided not to rebuild the church and the nave has been turned into a very beautiful rose garden which is the perfect space to sit over a lunchtime in the City. Remarkably, the spire survived the bombing and is now a private residence over several floors with a viewing platform right at the top.
A visit to this garden during the lockdown illuminates how remarkably the City has bounced back and the scars created have healed. We are lucky to still have so many of the historic buildings in the City. Although some have been lost to the war, most have not – that’s a huge contrast to the experience in Germany where the allied bombing campaign increased in ferocity and sophistication throughout the war.
In July 1943, Bomber Command raided Hamburg with almost 800 planes and killed an estimated 35,000 in one night. Over half of the houses in the city were destroyed – today St Nicholas’ church, once the tallest building in the world, stands as a gutted memorial to that night. It would literally tower over Christchurch and is perhaps a reminder that, as bad as things appear now, they could always be worse.
Dan Dodman is a partner in Goodman Derrick’s commercial litigation team where he specialises in civil fraud and shareholder disputes. When not working, Dan has spent most of lockdown being taught about dinosaurs by his son and tinkering with his (growing) collection of film cameras.