Iconic Photos

Famous, Infamous and Iconic Photos

London Blitz — 29th December 1940

with 11 comments

Seventy years ago, the Germans started the Blitz more or less out of frustration, without clear planning, as a sequel to the Battle of Britain. During the first half of the summer of 1940, the Luftwaffe focused on dominating British airspace, in preparation for a possible landing, and 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 infuriated. Nearly 600 German bombers came back during the next two weeks to bomb English cities, factories and airfields.

Then, at 5 p.m. on 7th September, the first major attack on London began. On that sunny afternoon, 348 Luftwaffe bombers crossed the English Channel, and for the next two hours ignited the city with incendiary bombs, the docks being their primary target. That same evening, the Germans were back, raining 625 tons of high explosives on working class neighborhoods in the East End. The Blitz went on for 57 consecutive nights and then spread to other cities in the U.K. 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, the English, being the English, just got on with it stoically. In stubborn, indignant fashion, the life went on. A survey taken during this period 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.”

Thus predictably, most well-known of the countless photos taken during the Blitz did not depict carnage and chaos, but rather an extraordinary tale of survival and defiance. The above photograph featured on the front page of the Daily Mail, captioned as ‘War’s Greatest Picture’, was taken from the roof of the same newspaper’s Tudor Street offices by Herbert Mason two nights before (on 29th December). St. Paul’s Cathedral was surrounded not only by fires and smoke that fateful night, but an incendiary bomb did drop inside the Stone Gallery. 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 take out the gutted remains of houses in the foreground.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the photo was telling quite a different story on the continent within days. 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. 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”. Photographs never lie indeed.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

November 12, 2010 at 8:49 am

Posted in Politics, Society, War

Tagged with ,

11 Responses

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  1. Iconic Enough? are you kidding me? @-)


    November 13, 2010 at 12:01 am

  2. […] – This photo must have hit with the emotional punch of the 9/11 Towers.  Sure England was a nation already at war when the Blitz hit, but the bombing […]

  3. I wouldn’t exactly call the Luftwaffe’s switch to London as a target as being without “clear planning.”

    At that stage of the battle, Hitler needed the RAF wiped-out, once and for all, so he could complete the invasion of England, and move on to the invasion of Russia, whose date was already set.

    It was felt by some in the German command that if they attacked London it would be a target that the RAF could not afford to not defend with everything they had, luring, it in essence, to a place that it could be finally destroyed. A trap if you will.

    It was only irony that the switch to London as a target gave the RAF the break it needed to repair its airfields, which were on their last legs, catch it’s breath, and go on to final victory.

    Nice blog!


    November 22, 2010 at 1:02 am

  4. […] the Millennium Bridge. At the other end is St. Paul’s Cathedral, which I hap­pened to read about two days prior it terms of it’s sig­nif­i­cance to the British morale in World […]

  5. […] bombs on London that it was called “The Second Great Fire of London.” According to Iconic Photos, “nineteen churches, thirty-one guild halls and all of Paternoster Row, including five […]

  6. I was born in North London on that night and can only remember the last year of the war.

    I often wonder how my inherently nervous mother dealt with the situation with one newborn and a 16 month old.

    Although about seven miles north of central London and out of the direct target area it was possible that night to read a newspaper in the street by the light of the fires.

    My father having been thrown out of the army for health reasons worked one mile from St Pauls. Part of his duty was to fire watch one night in three from the roof of the factory that he managed. His response to the blitz was that it was far safer than his time in the army.

    His fire watching involved conventional bombing, fire bombing, V1s (doodle bugs), V2s and discovering the operations of a German spy nearby.

    It feels surreal to have been bombed, having led a war free life ever since and being so remote living in the safety of Australia which I have enjoyed for the last 45 years.

    Allan Card

    April 20, 2011 at 12:50 am

    • in was just after the blitz but when i remeber and look at old phots its like i was there both my parents were born but my sisters were in it and have tolld me everythin i neeed to no my name is nell and i died in 1941


      November 30, 2011 at 10:50 am

  7. What this picture of St Pauls Church tells you: Is that the Germans (and ourselves) did not have the so called precision bombing claimed, for instance the Germans could not hit St Paul’s and destroy it. This means the RAF could not bomb the infamous two adjoining German death camps known as Auschwitz 1, and Birkenau 2, no one will admit this has it destroys the propaganda myth of ‘precision bombing was possible, and it reveals that the conventional bombing of London and Berlin by opposing sides was a disaster for both warring parties. Our house was bombed, the German aircraft that did it dropped 5 bombs during a drop of 2 miles length, all five have been traced, only one bomb did any damage, the other four were wasted – either dropping into fields or the river.

    Bob Wilson

    June 20, 2015 at 7:18 pm

  8. “Yet, the English, being the English, just got on with it stoically.” And the Germans, being the Germans were just as stoic despite suffering 10 times the number of civilian casualties suffered by Britain.


    February 10, 2016 at 2:09 am

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