Second Great Fire of London

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Second Great Fire of London
Part of the Blitz
View from St Paul's Cathedral after the Blitz.jpg
The view from the roof of St Paul's Cathedral towards the Old Bailey after the second Great Fire of London
LocationLondon, England
Coordinates51°31′N 0°05′W / 51.51°N 0.09°W / 51.51; -0.09Coordinates: 51°31′N 0°05′W / 51.51°N 0.09°W / 51.51; -0.09
Date29–30 December 1940 (1940-12-29 – 1940-12-30)
6:15 pm – 4:00 am[1] (UTC+00:00)
TargetCity of London
Attack type
Air raid

The Second Great Fire of London in December 1940 was one of the most destructive air raids of the Blitz during World War II. The Luftwaffe raid caused fires over an area greater than that of the Great Fire of London in 1666,[2] leading one American correspondent to say in a cable to his office that "The second Great Fire of London has begun".[3] Fires started by the raid included an incendiary bomb that broke through the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, which was being guarded by a fire watch team at the behest of the Prime Minister Winston Churchill.


On the night of 29–30 December 1940, approximately 100,000 bombs fell on the city.[2] The Germans dispatched 136 bombers to the city. Fewer incendiaries were dropped than in the raids of 15 November or 8 December. The raid was focused on a part of the city that contained many non-residential buildings, such as churches, offices, and warehouses. Many of these were locked and were not covered by the Fire Watchers Order of September 1940,[4] which applied to places of work with at least 30 employees, warehouses with an area of 50,000 cubic feet (1,400 m3) and sawmills or timber yards with more than 50,000 cubic feet of timber.[5]

Incendiary bombs were the main armament that night. Moderately small, at 12 by 3 inches (30 cm × 8 cm) — each bomber was equipped with approximately 180 of them — the bombs carried magnesium and started fires. The raid saw 1,500 fires begin in the city.[2]


A House Collapsing on Two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London, EC4.

Firefighters' efforts were hampered by a water shortage. The main water-main in the City was bombed. Units trying to get water from other hydrants caused the water pressure to drop. Efforts to draw water from the River Thames were hampered by the low tide.[2] The fire brigade's difficulties were further exacerbated by wind, combined with the concentrated area of the attack.[4]

Twelve of those killed in the raid were firefighters, while 250 were injured.[2]

Artist Leonard Rosoman was serving with the Auxiliary Fire Service on the night of the raid. While fighting a fire in Shoe Lane, Rosoman was relieved of his hose. Moments later a wall collapsed, burying the two firefighters working where Rosoman had just been. The moment haunted Rosoman for the rest of his life. He immortalised the scene in his painting A House Collapsing on Two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London, EC4. William Sansom, a friend of Rosoman's who would go on to become a novelist and travel writer, survived the incident. The fireman who relieved Rosoman of his hose was killed.[6]

Sam Chauveau of the London Fire Brigade described the scene that faced the fire fighters: [3]

By the time we finished tackling the fires on the roof of the [Stock] Exchange, the sky, which was ebony black when we first got up there, was now changing to a yellowy orange colour. It looked like there was an enormous circle of fire, including St Paul's churchyard.

St Paul's cathedral[edit]

St Paul's Cathedral and the immediate area was struck by 28 incendiary bombs. Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent the message that "St Paul's must be saved at all costs".[7]

A famous photograph, St Paul's Survives, was taken from the roof of the Daily Mail building (Northcliffe House on Carmelite Street) by Herbert Mason. Mason was the chief photographer at the Daily Mail, and was on the roof firewatching when he took the picture. Mason described the moment he created the photograph –

I focused at intervals as the great dome loomed up through the smoke... The glare of many fires and sweeping clouds of smoke kept hiding the shape. Then a wind sprang up. Suddenly, the shining cross, dome, and towers stood out like a symbol in the inferno. The scene was unbelievable. In that moment or two, I released my shutter.

— [8]

The camera is believed to have been a Van Neck on a quarter plate glass negative. The Royal Photographic Society, Magazine Photographic Journal, remarked on the brightness of the scene,[9] saying that "The light that was available for an instantaneous exposure is an indication of the fierceness and extent of the fire."

Volunteers serving as part of the St Paul’s Watch patrolled the iconic building.[7] The Watch was first put together during the First World War. Then it was meant to protect the building from German Zeppelin raids. With the outbreak of the Second World War, the group was reconstituted to guard against the anticipated air raids.[7]

American correspondent Ernie Pyle observed the raid from a balcony:

Into the dark shadowed spaces below us, while we watched, whole batches of incendiary bombs fell. We saw two dozen go off in two seconds. They flashed terrifically, then quickly simmered down to pin points of dazzling white, burning ferociously… The greatest of all the fires was directly in front of us. Flames seemed to whip hundreds of feet into the air. Pinkish-white smoke ballooned upward in a great cloud, and out of this cloud there gradually took shape—so faintly at first that we weren't sure we saw correctly—the gigantic dome of St Paul's Cathedral. St Paul's was surrounded by fire, but it came through. It stood there in its enormous proportions—growing slowly clearer and clearer, the way objects take shape at dawn. It was like a picture of some miraculous figure that appears before peace-hungry soldiers on a battlefield.

— [8]


The publishing industry bore heavy losses in the raid. Ave Maria Lane and Paternoster Row, an area known since the 19th century as the centre of the London publishing and book trade,[10][11][12][13] were badly hit, and the buildings and stock of 20 publishing houses were totally or partially destroyed. Stationers' Hall, neighbouring offices, the book wholesalers Simpkin Marshall, and several bookshops were lost. An estimated five million books were lost in the fires caused by tens of thousands of incendiary bombs.[14]

In some opinions, the economic damage from such large devastation of a major city is thought to have accelerated the collapse of the British Empire, and the decline of Great Britain as a superpower in the decades following the war.[15]


  1. ^ Lewis, Rhys (22 May 2017). "December 29, 1940: St Paul's stands defiant as second Great Fire of London rages". BT News. Retrieved 28 August 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d e "Marking 75 Years Since The Second Great Fire Of London". Londonist. 28 December 2015. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  3. ^ a b "How did St Paul's survive the Blitz?". BBC News. 29 December 2010. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  4. ^ a b 1947–, Inwood, Stephen (1998). A history of London. London: Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-67153-8. OCLC 40517708.
  5. ^ User, Super. "Fire Watchers/Fire Guards". Retrieved 4 May 2018.
  6. ^ "Leonard Rosoman". Daily Telegraph. 7 March 2012. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 6 May 2018.
  7. ^ a b c "St Paul's Watch – Google Arts & Culture". Google Cultural Institute. Retrieved 4 May 2018.
  8. ^ a b "St Paul's Survives by Herbert Mason – Iconic Photograph". Amateur Photographer. 27 November 2012.
  9. ^ Allbeson, Tom. "VisualizingWartime Destruction and Postwar Reconstruction:Herbert Mason's Photograph of St. Paul's Reevaluated" (PDF). Online Research @ Cardiff.
  10. ^ "Districts – Streets – Paternoster Row". Victorian London. Retrieved 19 November 2016.
  11. ^ James Raven. The business of books: booksellers and the English Book Trade. 2007
  12. ^ "Paternoster Row". Old and New London: Volume 1. 1878. pp. 274–281.
  13. ^ A Pictorial and Descriptive Guide to London and Its Environs: With Two Large Section Plans of Central London... Ward, Lock & Company, Limited. 1819.
  14. ^ "London Blitz — 29th December 1940 | Iconic Photos". Retrieved 19 November 2016.
  15. ^ 1900–1978., Kingsford, R. J. L. (Reginald John Lethbridge) (2010). The Publishers Association, 1896–1946, with an epilogue. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-13084-4. OCLC 463638144.

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