On the evening of 29th December 1940 the German Luftwaffe attacked London with devastating results. In a night that Hitler hoped would create a firestorm that would destroy central London and break the spirit of the British people, tens of thousands of incendiary bombs were dropped on the heart of the city.
Firemen and heavy rescue workers fought desperately all night to control the burning buildings as the fire raged out of control. And in it’s path was the symbolic form of St Paul’s Cathedral, which Churchill demanded be protected at any cost. Londoners were used to nightly raids, but this was on a different scale, and they fled for the protection of shelters, uncertain if their home would still be standing after the bombing. Many were to die. The following morning the survivors emerged after a terrifying and sleepless night to face the smoking ruins of the city.
At the start of the Second World War the leading powers agreed to an American-led initiative to never bomb civilian targets. But during raids over Germany, the British gradually shifted from exclusively targeting military installations by attacking warehouses, railway lines and communication centres, increasingly blurring the line. By the time they bombed Munich, civilians had become a target. Hitler retaliated by bombing Coventry. And then turned his attention on London.
The second Great Fire of London began on an icy winter’s night in December 1940, during a festive lull in the bombing raids. The first phase of the aerial attack featured a new type of incendiary device, causing fires to break out across the city, thus making it an easier target for the second phase of the attack involving the far bigger, high explosive missiles designed to destroy whole buildings. As the attack gathered pace, fires multiplied in the vicinity of St Paul’s – a prime target on the night as the Luftwaffe sought to damage the city’s morale. On hearing that the cathedral’s dome had caught light, Churchill ordered the authorities to save St Paul’s at all costs.
Within hours vast swathes of the City of London were on fire. Which was when the worse possible thing that could happen, happened: the wind picked-up, driving the fire forwards with the force of a hurricane, creating a firestorm. Buildings started collapsing, and as the heat levels in the area intensified, even unaffected buildings started to spontaneously combust. All the City was aglow: a horrific, yet beautiful vista. As fire fighters struggled to cope, water supplies started to run out: street by street, historical London was burning down. It took less that four hours to destroy centuries of history.
The City of London was on its knees and facing oblivion. It took a huge stroke of luck to save it. Once the 136 German planes had dropped their payload of 24,000 bombs, they returned to their bases in France to refuel before resuming with a final, killer raid. But as the wind dropped in London the order was given to abandon the follow-up assault. It was a fatal error of judgement that infuriated Hitler and saved London from the full effect of the firestorm.
The night of 29th December 1940 had proved that ordinary people could withstand extraordinary things. Another lesson learned that fateful night was that an aerial assault of a city needed to be continued until a firestorm was burning beyond control. It was a lesson the British military used to devastating effect on bombing raids over Dresden, Hamburg and Berlin later in the war. By the conflict’s end, the concept of civilians as a legitimate target of war had become the norm, taken to its most horrific conclusion when America launched an atom bomb attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.