St Paul's Wartime Near Miss - 1940

History
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St Paul's Wartime Near Miss - 1940

St Paul's has long been associated with the Second World War, the dome rising high above the destruction of the Blitz and Sir Winston Churchill declaring the Cathedral must be saved at all costs.

But Wren's great masterpiece can also owe its survival to a lesser-known act of bravery, carried out by a Cornish Officer and Scottish Sapper on 12 September, 1940.

A nighttime raid over the City had left one bomb, unexploded, lodged 30 feet deep in the road outside the main west end of the Cathedral. Weighing 4,400lb (2,000kg), the bomb was positioned close to a nearby gas main, which had been damaged by the raid.

Aware the bomb could not be left so close to St Paul's, a team of Royal Engineers, led by Lieutenant Robert Davies, set to work digging it out, all the time not knowing if the huge device would detonate, unquestionably with the loss of their lives and with vast damage to the Cathedral.

Watch a brief video preview of the bomb being dug up.

Over the course of three days, the team worked to remove the explosive, before placing it on the back of a truck and driving it out to Hackney Marshes. When it was exploded on the Marshes, a crater more than 100ft (30m) across was left - a true indication of its devastating power.

For his bravery in leading the team which disposed of the bomb, Lieutenant Davies was awarded the George Cross, the highest honour available.

The same honour was also afforded to Lance Corporal 'Sapper' George Wyllie, whose George Cross citation read: "The actual discovery and removal of the bomb fell to him. Sapper Wylie's untiring energy, courage, and disregard for danger were an outstanding example to his comrades."

Despite being the third person ever cited for a George Cross (Lieutenant Davies was the second), Wyllie, from Hurlford in Kilmarnock, disappeared from public view and his story only re-emerged in 1984 when his medal came up for sale at auction.

It is not known why the medal was sold, but it was bought by a City banker and donated to the Cathedral, where it remains to this day as a reminder of the bravery of Sapper Wyllie, Lieutenant Davies and the other members of the team of Royal Engineers.

Lance Corporal George Cameron Wyllie GC died on 1 February, 1987, aged 77.

As of today, only 410 George Cross medals have been awarded.

The George Cross medal of Lieutenant Davies is on display at the Imperial War Museum in London.