St. Paul Survives by Herbert Mason, 1940

In the first half of the summer of 1940, when the Luftwaffe focused on dominating British airspace in preparation for a possible invasion, its bombardments were limited to airfields and other military installations. On 24th August, more or less by accident, a pair of Stukas dropped the first bombs on central London. Churchill seized the opportunity, and in ‘revenge’, 80 RAF bombers pounded Berlin. Hitler was furious. Nearly 600 German bombers came back during the next two weeks to bomb English cities, factories and airfields.

At 5 p.m. on 7th September began the first major attack on London. On that sunny afternoon, 348 Luftwaffe bombers crossed the Channel and for the next two hours ignited the city with incendiary bombs. The docks were their primary target but that same evening, the Germans came back, raining 625 tons of high explosives on working class neighborhoods in the East End.

On the next fifty-seven nights, the Blitz went on and then spread to other British cities. In ‘Second Great Fire of London’ on the night of 29th December 1940, nineteen churches, thirty-one guild halls and all of Paternoster Row, including five million books went up in flames.

By the time the Blitz ended (as Luftwaffe diverted its planes east for the attacks on the Soviets) on May 16th 1941, more than 43,000 people had died in the strategic air raids. Writer Harold Nicolson compared himself to a prisoner in the Conciergerie during the French Revolution: “Every morning one is pleased to see one’s friends appearing again.”

Yet in stubborn, indignant, stoic fashion, life went on. A survey taken found that weather had a greater impact than air raids on the day-to-day worries of many Londoners. In his magisterial history The Blitz: The British Under Attack, Julian Gardiner observes, “egg rationing produced more emotion than the blitz.”

Predictably, most well-known photos taken during the Blitz did not depict carnage and chaos, but rather an extraordinary tale of survival, stoicism, and defiance. The photo above appeared on the front page of the Daily Mail on December 31, 1940 captioned as ‘War’s Greatest Picture’. Despite paper rationing, the paper still had a circulation of around 1,450,000 and the photo was widely seen across the country.

The photo was taken on the night of 29/30 December 1940, the 114th night of the Blitz, from atop the Daily Mail’s own building, Northcliffe House in Tudor Street, by its chief photographer Herbert Mason. Mason was firewatching on top of the roof when the bombs fell and destroyed hundreds of buildings. He wanted a clear shot of the cathedral and waited hours for the smoke to clear. The photo was taken in the early hours of Monday morning and was cleared by the censors for publication the same day. The photo appeared in the Daily Mail of Tuesday.

On the night of December 29, 1940, alone, twenty-eight incendiaries fell on the cathedral. During the Blitz, the importance of the Cathedral was so much so that Churchill insisted that if the church were to be bombed, all fire-fighting resources be directed there, and that “At all costs, St Paul’s must be saved.”

The Daily Mail echoed this sentiment in the text accompanying the photo that the image is “one that all Britain will cherish – for it symbolises the steadiness of London’s stand against the enemy: the firmness of Right against Wrong”. To that effect, the editors at the Mail decided to crop the photograph quite liberally to remove gutted remains of houses in the foreground. (Later analysis would reveal that the photo was very heavily retouched in the studio: “more of the picture has been changed than not”). The Mail also took the unusual step of publishing the photographer’s account:

I focused at intervals as the great dome loomed up through the smoke. Glares 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.

The photo was reprinted full page in the Illustrated London News on January 4, 1941 as, “a symbol of the indestructible faith of the whole civilised world”. “In The Barbaric Attempt by Nazis to Destroy London by Fire, Grave Damage Was Done. But St Pauls Ringed With Flames Withstood The Onslaught,” wrote the paper. In the United States (which had not yet entered the war), the photo appeared in Life magazine on January 27, 1941. It would also be featured on the April 1941 cover of Photographic Journal (journal of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain).

Interestingly, but unsurprisingly, the photo was telling quite a different story on the continent within days. On January 23, 1941, the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung announced that “Die City von London brennt!”, and gleefully informed its readers that the conflict with England too was approaching its endgame. The caption asserted that the clouds of smoke obscured the extent of the damage. For Germans, the photo, with the blazing foreground ruins included, depicted nothing more than the centre of “britischen Hochfinanz” burning in London’s biggest blaze since “Jahre 1666”.

How the German magazine acquired the uncropped photo is unclear. It could have arrived in Berlin via Life magazine (the issue was dated January 27 but typically weekly magazines went on stand days earlier than their publication dates). The Daily Mail also sent copies to the Keystone Press Agency following the destruction of the Keystone offices on January 1, 1941 for foreign distribution. Although Keystone office in Berlin was sold in 1937, the Germans could have gotten the photo from the Keystone office in Paris.

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