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London in the Blitz: A Christmas under fire

St Paul's Cathedral in the Blitz, London 1940
One of the defining images of war-torn London: St Paul's Cathedral shrouded in fire and smoke on 29 December 1940

Christmas 1940: the Germans had an unofficial two-day lull in night raids over the capital and then resumed bombing with renewed vigour on 29 December.

The onslaught was dubbed the Second Great Fire of London.


In the run-up to Christmas many of us will be making our final preparations for the big day.

But 70 years ago, Londoners were more likely to be making another dash for the air raid shelter than spending the day at home.

Santa makes a morale-boosting visit to the East End of seventy years ago

In 1940 the capital was caught in the middle of the Blitz, which caused huge damage and claimed the lives of 20,000 people.

All this week our reporter Matthew Morris looks back at a Christmas under fire.

In the first of the series Robert Trevor, author of Blitz Boy, and wartime evacuee Nat Roos talk about their contrasting experiences of the time.

Sleeping Underground

While many have been forced to sleep in airport departure lounges while flights have been disrupted due to the snow - imagine actually having to bed down for the night and sleep on a Tube platform.

Children decorate a tree on a Tube station platform

During the height of the Blitz in 1940 up to 170,000 men, women and children would do that every night as bombs fell from the sky each night.

Matthew Morris talks to some of the Blitz children who vividly remember spending nights on platforms as Tube trains trundled past.

Initially, these makeshift sleeping quarters were overcrowded, chaotic and mosquito ridden. Gradually conditions improved with refreshments and medical help.

Matthew talks to Len Phillips who slept underground as a child and Sam Mullins of the London Transport Museum.

Firestorm over London

Events on one fateful Christmas night in 1940 have helped shape our understanding of the 'Blitz spirit' of Londoners caught up in the war against Nazi Germany.

14 London fire fighters lost their lives on the night of 29 December 1940

On 29 December around 100,000 bombs fell in just a few hours, causing a firestorm across most of the City's square mile up to Islington.

14 fire fighters were to lose their lives that night, with over 250 injured.

As the fires raged, Prime Minister Winston Churchill insisted that St Paul's Cathedral be saved at all costs. The struggle involved fire crews and local volunteers.

Matthew Morris continues his series by meeting Stacey Simkins, who was there that night.

A symbol of defiance

This image came to symbolise London's wartime defiance

The night of 29 December 1940 - the second Great Fire of London - was captured by a Daily Mail photographer showing St Paul's Cathedral as the only thing visible through the smoke and flames after a night of devastation.

The image was a positive message of the heroic survival of London and beamed around the world. The Cathedral became a symbol of London's defiance and determination to carry on.

Matthew Morris talks to photo historian Roger Hargreaves and Terry Charman of the Imperial War Museum about the effect the photograph had and continues to have.




SEE ALSO
Tales from London's Blitz
24 Aug 10 |  People & Places
Living through the London Blitz
06 Sep 10 |  History
Rare films of London in the Blitz
06 Sep 10 |  Clips
Rare colour footage of the Blitz
06 Sep 10 |  England
1940: London blitzed
22 May 07 |  Magazine
The Blitz: Store Wars
06 Sep 10 |  History
Did the Blitz really unify Britain?
10 Sep 10 |  Magazine

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