Eighty years ago, German bombing creates an iconic image of British resilience


 London suffered probably its most spectacular and damaging air raids of the Blitz, sometimes called the “Second Great Fire of London.” Human casualties were mercifully low: around 160 deaths including 12 of the firemen who fought the blazes, but the City of London financial business district was devastated. A combination of low tide and early bomb damage to a water main left the fire-fighters struggling for water, leading to near-uncontrollable fires throughout the area. The mediaeval Guildhall, seat of the City’s Corporation or local government, was gutted as were eight Wren churches. The print and publishing business concentrated in the narrow lanes around St. Paul’s Cathedral were hard hit but the cathedral itself survived intact. The image of St. Pauls surrounded by smoke and fire was taken by the Daily Mail’s chief photographer from the newspaper’s own office, just down Ludgate Hill. It is probably the most famous image of the Blitz and an icon of British defiance and resilience. Nothing shows the gulf between British and German propaganda thinking better than the fact that both sides circulated the picture. Just as Goebbels had circulated the image of Churchill holding a Tommy gun as supposed evidence of his gangsterdom, so his ministry circulated the St. Paul's photo to show the damage that the Luftwaffe was inflicting on London. Both moves helped British morale without any discernible benefit to Germany.

The German disguised commerce raiders Orion and Komet brought the war to the remote Pacific by attacking the island of Nauru. Even though it was an important source of phosphate for Australia and New Zealand, the island was undefended and its phosphate loading facilities were severely damaged, whilst the attackers went unscathed. It took ten weeks to repair the damage and the loss of output forced New Zealand to ration fertiliser. This was almost the culmination of a highly successful cruise on which a number of Allied vessels had been sunk. About five hundred survivors of the ships – but not European seamen deemed too useful to the allied war effort – were put ashore on the tiny island of Emirau whence they were rescued by the RAN.

The New Year’s Honours list was comfortingly traditional, an emblem of business as usual in the British establishment Despite determined attempts to present it as rewarding war service, the biggest awards went to the usual class of recipient. The Duke of Devonshire who had once held a minor ministry got the Garter. A distinguished classics professor received the Order of Merit. The press magnate Lord Camrose was given a step up in the peerage to a viscountcy with the slender explanation that he had helped the Ministry of Information. Digging ever deeper into oddity, Lord Hugh Cecil, Provost of Eton, was given a peerage in his own right as Lord Quickswood. His contribution to public life as an MP had been slight, noted chiefly for the venom he injected into the debates on tariff reform and reforming the House of Lords. He also upheld ultra-conservative causes such as attempts to maintain the legal ban on people marrying the siblings of their deceased spouses; he castigated such marriages as “as immoral as concubinage or bigamy” and “an act of sexual vice.” One of his brothers had already been made a Viscount, so three sons of Victoria’s prime minster, the Marquess of Salisbury, now sat in the Lords. In a traditional reward for inadequacy and failure, General “Tiny” Ironside, who had been successively sacked as CIGS and then GOC Home Forces was made a baron.


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