Behind the camera: Herbert Mason
Where: St Paul’s Cathedral in London
Photo Summary: St Paul’s Cathedral during the German bombing campaign called the Blitz
Picture Taken: December 29, 1940 published on December 31, 1940
During the opening years of World War II Britain was all that was left against Hitler’s military Juggernaut. France had already surrendered and continental Europe was under Germany’s control. Hitler, through a massive bombing campaign, hoped to either knock the UK out of the war or destroy its air force in preparation for invasion. Starting in 1940, until Hitler withdrew his planes in preparation of the invasion of the USSR in 1941, the bombing campaign, nicknamed the Blitz by the British, was a regular aerial bombardment of British Urban areas. One of the greatest raids took place on December 29, 1940, when a Daily Mail reporter snapped what at the time was called the “War’s greatest picture.”
St Paul’s Cathedral
One of the most iconic buildings in London St Paul’s Cathedral was seen as vital to the morale of the British public and the government had sent out a call for volunteers to form a quick response fire crew. Drawing on members of the Royal Institute of British Architects the group was a who’s who of intellectuals, well-known architects, famous artists and the most distinguished historians of the day. They slept on site in shifts in the Cathedral’s crypt and would keep watch on the rooftop during bombing runs searching for incendiary bomb strikes. Armed with only tin hats, and basic fire-fighting equipment they laid in wait for any bombs that might strike the mighty structure.
Before the December 29th raid there were a number of close calls including a bomb strike on October 10, 1940, and another the next year on April 17, 1941. The closest the cathedral came to complete destruction was on September 12, 1940, when a one-ton land mine landed next to St Paul’s. It burrowed down about twenty-seven feet and had to be painstakingly dug out by a team led by Robert Davies of the Canadian Army Engineers. After three days they were able to carefully lift the bomb out of its hole and detonate in safely in the countryside. The bomb left a 100ft wide crater and if it had detonated where it landed the bomb would have completely destroyed the cathedral.
All bomb hits to the building were covered up by the government. After the war, a Blitz survivor who was six at the time remembers being carried into the damaged Cathedral on her fire-warden father’s shoulders. “Take a look and remember”, he told her. “You will never, ever hear about this again.”
Taking the picture
The Germans had a different take on the picture with the January 23, 1941 edition of the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung showing the picture along with a story about how London was burning and the end of the war was in sight.
The night raid of December 29th was London’s 114th night of the Blitz and the first bombs started falling at 18:15 GMT. Bombs seemed to concentrate near the famed St Paul’s Cathedral. Churchill became so alarmed by the threat of damage to the building that he ordered “all fire-fighting resources be directed at St Paul’s. The cathedral must be saved, he said damage to the fabric would sap the morale of the country.” That night there was actually a close call when an incendiary bomb struck the lead shell of the dome and then fell out into the Stone Gallery but the quick response crew was able to extinguish its flames before they were able to ignite the dome timbers.
On that same night a Daily Mail photographer, Herbert Mason, perched on the roof of the Daily mail on Tudor Street was able to take the famous picture as the cathedral was illuminated by searchlights. The image was published two days later, on December 31. The paper then took the unusual step of publishing the photographer’s account of how he took the image:
I focused at intervals as the great dome loomed up through the smoke. Glares 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.