War’s Greatest Picture - 1940

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12:00pm Open for private prayer
12:30pm Eucharist
3:00pm Evening Prayer
3:30pm Private prayer ends and Cathedral closes

War’s Greatest Picture - 1940

Herbert Mason, chief photographer at the Daily Mail, was fire-watching on the roof of his office in Fleet Street during the Blitz when he captured this famous image. The extraordinary scene shows the dome and bell towers of St Paul's surrounded by a maelstrom of billowing smoke generated by the burning city. Published under the headline of ‘War’s Greatest Picture’ on 31 December 1940, it has since become a symbol of hope and survival of the City of London during the Blitz.  

The Blitz took place between 7 September 1940 and 21 May 1941. It was a period of the sustained bombing of the whole of the United Kingdom, the most devastating period for the City of London occurred between 29 and 30 December 1940. For almost twelve hours the German Luftwaffe attacked the City with incendiary bombs and high explosives causing a fire storm that became known as the ‘Second Great Fire of London’. St Paul’s was not exempt from the raid and in total twenty-eight incendiary bombs fell on the Cathedral and its precincts. With the iconic building in serious danger of being destroyed, Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued a message stating that “St Paul’s must be saved at all costs”.

In addition to the work of the firefighters who tackled the fires at street level, the preservation of St Paul's was ensured by a group of Cathedral volunteers known as the St Paul’s Watch. The Watch had originally been assembled during the First World War to protect the building from Zeppelin attacks, but were reinstated in 1939 to protect the Cathedral from predicted raids. The duties of the Watch were to keep guard over the cathedral and report gunfire, incendiaries or any damage to the building to the London Fire Brigade, and to tackle any blazes that were started by incendiaries. They were a socially diverse and multinational group noted for their commitment and camaraderie. They took great personal risks to enable services to continue daily during the war and it is thanks to them that the cathedral survived to stand for many years to come.

The Cathedral Collections department is lucky to retain a number of records and items related to the work of the Watch, including original log books and planning documents, personal papers and correspondence, press photographs, and ephemera such as drawings and Christmas cards. After their last meeting on 8 May 1945 it was suggested that they should reform into a new group to continue their friendship and love of the cathedral, which would eventually form the basis of the Friends of St Paul’s Cathedral. Without this love and dedication for their Cathedral, it is likely that St Paul’s would not have survived the ‘Second Great Fire of London’.

To see items in The Collections related to St Paul's in wartime click here