If you’ve seen Herbert Mason’s photo ‘St Paul’s Survives’ – the dome of the cathedral still standing proud as the smoke of the Blitz rises on all sides – you’d be forgiven for thinking that St Paul’s came through WW2 unscathed.
Although it was relatively undamaged on the night that photo was taken (29/30 December 1940) as the City of London burnt all around it, it did suffer various attacks. In particular, on the night of 9th October 1940, a bomb hit the east end of the Cathedral, exploding in the roof and destroying the high altar and damaging the reredos (the ornamental screen) and stained glass windows behind.
I’ve done so many tours of the Churchill War Rooms recently (né Cabinet War Rooms, né Central War Room) that I’m half-expecting them to give me my own office there. In March alone I did six tours, and there are another half a dozen already slotted in for this month (april).
The place is – quite rightly – a key site, particularly for US visitors, and the bounce back of small group and family tours from the USA is manifesting in the repeated requests I get to show people round. We are though, still in that happy state where although visitor numbers are up, they are not anywhere near as overwhelming as pre covid. (Shortly after The Darkest Hour came out the queues could be three hours or more long for those who hadn’t booked a timed slot.)
It’s fortunate then that I still get a kick out of the venue, both the historic rooms and the attached Churchill Museum. There’s a video I made early in lockdown about the cabinet room itself, and rather than use this blog post to give you the ‘grand tour’ of the museum, here are some of the smaller details that it’s easy to miss, but which tell some deep tales about life in the rooms and about the war.
The previous WW2 ‘experience’ in the museum focussed on ‘hinge’ points during the war, giving not a comprehensive overview of the conflict, but using artefacts from the collection to look at turning points such as D-Day, Dunkirk, the Battle of the Atlantic and so on. This was great for those of us who like seeing ‘things’, but those objects were frequently lacking context – the big picture was missing, and certain theatres were very poorly represented (most of the war in the Far East, for example, even the Eastern Front to a large degree). This made for a very anglo-centric history of the war, diminishing its global nature.
If you should come into the Abbey through the West Door and into the nave, you will walk over the memorial to Sir Winston Churchill, but everyone, whether commoner or Queen, walks around the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.
This is the last resting place of a British soldier, “known only to God” and is a commemoration of British war dead, conceived in the aftermath of WW1. The red flowers around it are paper poppies, a symbol of remembrance from a First World War poem – “In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row”. Poppies thrive in ground that has been churned up, so the bombed out land and the grave sites away from the front line encouraged their blooms.
Even with the recently announced lockdown relaxation it seems unlikely that there will be many guided tours, or indeed visitors, over the next few months.
That’s why a few friends and I have got together to offer virtual tours and talks, so that we can show you the best of London and the UK through the magic of the interweb. (See our trailer below)
You’ll find a complete list of what we have scheduled here. Some of our regular tours include the British Museum, Churchill War Rooms, the National Gallery, Bath and Roman London, and we’ll be adding more over the coming weeks.
My Instagram Live talk from today about the Cabinet Room in the Central War Rooms and how it was used in WW2.
“This is the room from which I shall direct the war” said Winston Churchill in May 1940. Click on ‘play’ to hear about the set up, the atmosphere, the tense meetings and arguments that took place beneath the streets of Westminster, and to see some of the incredible artefacts that have been preserved in the space.
During the war the London County Council surveyors chronicled the devastation caused by enemy bombing on the capital. Hand colouring street level OS maps, they plotted the buildings damaged; generally speaking, the darker the colour, the more the devastation – black was “total destruction”, purple “damaged beyond repair”, right through to yellow “blast damage: minor in nature”.
Already a huge hit with visiting Americans, the queues for the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum are only going to get longer with the releases of the Darkest Hour movie.
The film is set in the early days of Churchill’s wartime premiership when debate in the Cabinet was whether to sue for peace with Hitler. It is no understatement to say that the entire course of 20th century history would have been utterly different had such an outcome occurred.
The movie wasn’t filmed in the War Rooms, but meticulously recreated them, even down to the peeling paint on the wooden supports of the map room.
“This is the room from which I shall conduct the war”, Churchill famously said of the basement-level Cabinet Room itself, but only around a quarter of wartime cabinet meetings were actually held in the space, at times when the threat from bombing – and the later ‘V’ weapons – was most acute. But the complex was staffed by hundreds throughout the course of the war, an essential bureaucracy of information-gathering and coordination. Had the Germans landed, this would have been one of the first places to get the news, and the initial response to any invasion would have been organised here.
75 years ago George Orwell, the author of 1984 wrote, “as I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead trying to kill me”.
He was talking about the Blitz, the WW2 bombing campaign by the German airforce that attempted to destroy London’s industry and infrastructure and shatter the morale of the population. Between September 1940 and May 1941 over 18,000 tonnes of high explosive was dropped on London, up to a million and a half homes were damaged or destroyed, and nearly 30,000 people killed. It seems almost impossible to us, living here in this cosmopolitan city, that all this horror and destruction took place within a human lifetime.
And this monument commemorates some of the people who helped London survive: the firefighters – professionals and auxiliaries, men and women – the “heroes with grimy faces” as Winston Churchill called them.