St. Paul's Watch and the London Blitz

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class, from

Katie: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sara: And I'm Sara Dowdy. And Katie and I were doing some research for another podcast recently, and we were talking about the grand tour, that great trek around Europe that people have been making for so long, and I went on a condensed various of the grand tour myself because we have cheap airlines now and fast trains and not just boats and horses or whatever people used to take to get around Europe.

Katie: And you showed me your pictures, and of course I have not been, so if you have any disposable income send it my way. But I saw St. Paul's Cathedral.

Sara: I started off in London, and of course you see a lot of old monuments and really great things, but one of the things that really impressed me about St. Paul's cathedral in London was that it's got all this old historical significance, but it also has a really modern significance to it.

Katie: So we'll go back to the beginning. It was a very important place in general. The Roman temple to Diana may have been on this exact site.

Sara: And there were a lot of adorations of St. Paul's, most of which burned at some point. We don't even need to go over all of them. There were so many. Most burned, one was sacked by Vikings, one was struck by lightning, Crumwellian Calvary troops camped out in one and messed it up so bad that was about it. And then the old St. Paul's, as it's known, was burned by the Great London Fire.

Katie: Right, in the last 1600s. And Christopher Renn had been hired to make some renovations, but then it burned down completely, so he had the wonderful opportunity of building from scratch, and he came up with three different designs, two of which the board rejected, and he was heartbroken. And the third one may not have even been exactly what he wanted. It definitely was his third choice, but he made some embellishments on what was actually built.

Sara: And this design of course is a famous part of the London skyline now, probably the symbol of it if you don't count the Gurkin or the London High Ferris Wheel.

Katie: Which I don't.

Sara: No, let's not count those. But it's known for its enormous dome, and the dome itself is actually really cool. You can go up in it and there's a whispering gallery -

Katie: I've heard of that.

Sara: I was visiting by myself so I didn't get to test this out, but if you whisper near one side of the dome, somebody on the complete other side of it can hear you.

Katie: We'll have to go back Sara.

Sara: A little acoustical trick.

Katie: I heard about it because it was the wedding site of Charles and Diana, which was really unusual because normally they do that sort of thing at Westminster Abbey.

Sara: It's usually - St. Paul's is usually the site of more state occasions instead of royalty occasions, and there are a lot of famous dead folks buried there, including Lord Nelson.

Katie: And the funeral for Churchill was there, I think.

Sara: Uh-huh. But despite all this, St. Paul's is best known as being a symbol of hope for London during the blitz.

Katie: And I hadn't known anything about this until you started telling me, so I think this stuff is pretty cool. We should give you some background on the Blitz first. In July of 1940, Hitler turns his eye toward Great Britain, becaus e France has been conquered and this is the next place he'd like to take as his own. But he knows he can't just make an amphibious invasion on the great naval power Britain, so he decides to bombard the country by air first.

Sara: The Luftwaffe, which is the German air force, has no systematic plan about doing this, but the British are prepared, and they are organized. So it's not going to be as easy as Hitler had hoped.

Katie: Yeah, the British and the children of London and the other cities out to the country, which I knew about from Narnia when I was little -

Sara: Narnia, yeah.

Katie: That's why they end up in the country and find the wardrobe. And people - the people of London take shelter in the tube stations, and some people actually even move in because they're tired of going back and forth. But London is bombarded starting in the summer of 1940, and the Blitz happens in the winter of 1940 to '41, just constant assault by bombs and firebombs and much of the city burns and the intensity of it all really picks up in September of 1940 when the British actually retaliate by launching an unexpected bombing raid on Berlin, and Hitler is so angered by this that he shifts to attacking the cities instead of focusing more on military installations.

Sara: Right, so now we're right on the city of London, and the civilians and all of the buildings, and lots of buildings were damaged during the blitz, including the British museum and Westminster Abbey, and the House of Commons which is almost completely destroyed.

Katie: Even Buckingham Palace is at one point hit, so the city of London - all the monuments are taking heavy fire. But there's one that turns into a symbol of hope for all of the British people, and that is St. Paul's Cathedral. And it's because of a group called St. Paul's Watch.

Sara: Yeah, Winston Churchill actually declares that, "at all costs, St. Paul's must be saved." And it's just the symbol of resistance. And St. Paul's Watch is a group of 200 volunteers. Most of them are from the Royal Institute of British Architects, and they're familiar with the blueprints and the plans of St. Paul's, they know their way around it. And working with the city's firefighters, they guard the cathedral at night. Obviously not sheltered from the bombs! We've mentioned that people get into the tube stations or leave stations, so it's a dangerous place to be. And just sit up all night watching the cathedral and running in when a firebomb hits to put it out with water or sandbags.

Katie: It was incredibly dangerous, and it's just so cool to get that mental image of these people staying up all night to guard this building that had become a symbol for a whole group of people against Hitler.

Sara: One of them later wrote, "Eight solid hours fighting to save St. Paul's. We put out every sort of fire, but couldn't cope with the terrific HE - high explosive - crashes. It rocked so much once we were sure it was over." There were a few directs hits. Obviously you could stop a little fire, but you couldn't stop a bomb from destroying part of the building.

Katie: The high altar was destroyed by a bomb in October 1940, and another bomb fell in the north aisle in April of 1941 and damaged the crypt. But the big one was in September 1940. A 2,200 pound bomb that didn't detonate, but landed right on the front steps!

Sara: And this is actually dug up and transported. Imagine what a terrifying job that would be. It's dug up and transported to Hackney Marshes where when it is detonated, it leaves a 100 foot crater.

Katie: So that would have been the end of St. Paul's.

Sara: Apparently these unexploded bombs were also a part of London. I saw this picture of a policeman escorting a mother and two little girls past a sign that says "Danger: Unexploded Bombs." And everyone looks so cherry and happy except one little girl who must have just learned how to read or something, and she's kind of looking at this sign like, "Oh, my gosh." But why the cathedral is so indelibly recorded in our minds is because of a single photograph. On December 29th, 1940, which is actually the same night that the American news correspondent Edward R. Murrow broadcast that St. Paul's was burning and destroyed - which it wasn't - was the same night that photographer Herbert Mason took the picture of the cathedral, the famous dome, ringed in smoke of burning London.

Katie: And it was pretty much all you can see in the picture. And it just looks like death and destruction.

Sara: There's some charred buildings in the foreground, but it's just all smoke.

Katie: And then this absolutely beautiful dome rising above it.

Sara: And it was published two days later in the daily mail with the headline, "War's Greatest Picture, St. Paul's Stands Unharmed in the Midst of the Burning City." And it made it through the rest of the blitz, thanks to the St. Paul's watch and the firefighters. And I thought this was kind of a nice bookend to the whole thing, but by 1944, the cathedral bells were rung to celebrate the liberation of Paris. So it was worthwhile.

Katie: So thanks to those brave volunteers and architects, St. Paul's is still a huge tourist spot as Sara found out, and definitely a big part of the London skyline. And if you'd like to learn more about the American reaction to the Blitz, you can check out the article How the Office of Civilian Defense Works at our homepage on For more on this, and thousands of other topics, visit Let us know what you think. Send an email to and be sure to check out The Stuff You Missed in History Class blog on the How Stuff Works homepage.