St. Paul’s had a very close call in World War II. On September 15, 1940 a one-tonne time bomb landed just 26 feet away but did not explode. But it was still live. It had to be dug out, taken far away and exploded. It was one of the greatest acts of heroism on the home front. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.
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London Walks here with your daily London fix.
Story time. History time.
There’s a British political expression. A three-line whip.
It’s an instruction – a written note – given to Members of Parliament by the leaders of their party telling them they must vote in the way the party wants them to vote on a particular subject. It’s called a three-line whip because it’s underlined three times to denote urgency.
Well, for me, there are dates in the London calendar that are three-line red circles. They’re circled three times. In red. They just stand out. More – a lot more – than other dates.
September 15th is a three-line red circle date. You can talk about – but I’m not going to – the birth of the Sun newspaper on September 15th, 1964. Or the first ascent in London in a balloon. That was September 15th, 1874.
Neither of those is three-line whip – three-line red circle – material.
World War II, though, that’s a different matter.
September 15th, 1940 saw the London skies black with Luftwaffe bombers and the ordnance they dropped on this city.
And for the purposes of this podcast, let’s go from that wide, big-sky, panoramic view. Let’s narrow the focus to a piece of ground just 26 feet from St Paul’s Cathedral.
A huge time bomb – a ton in weight – has buried itself in the ground there. It’s about eight feet long. It looks like a vast hog. It’s fitted with fuses that make it extremely dangerous to touch, let alone move. It’s periodically slipping further down in the black mud under St Paul’s. It gets worse. Its been highly burnished by its passage through the earth. That’s made it extremely difficult to get a purchase on it.
And now we meet the nine bravest men in London. They make up the bomb disposal squad that tackled the vast, ugly hog. They’re led by Lt. R. Davies.
They work, tirelessly, fearlessly, for three days. Digging it out. Fitting it with harnesses. And then slowly – ever so carefully – removing it. It weighs a ton, remember. Two lorries in tandem do the heavy lifting.
The streets are then cleared from St Paul’s to Hackney Marshes. Lt Davies himself drives the bomb-laden lorry – at speed – across London to Hackney marshes. Where the monster is exploded. The explosion creates a 100-foot diameter crater.
If it had gone off when it hit the ground just 26 feet from St. Paul’s – or when the bomb disposal squad was removing it – no more St Paul’s.
I’ve said it many times already but it always bears repeating – London’s stories, in the last analysis, it’s always about the people. It’s Londoners who inform those stories. This story – the saving of St Paul’s – it’s arguably the most stirring deed of heroism called forth by the full spectrum of Nazi raids on London.
And you know that old cinematic cliche of pages being torn off a calendar to indicate the passage of time, let’s run that backwards a couple of years. See those pages going back up onto the calendar. Let’s get back to September 15th, 1938. All the while keeping in mind that the past was once the prologue.
And yes it is a coincidence that it’s the exact same date – September 15th – two years previously. But the poignance that lends is not to be gainsaid.
And the set-up for this is what’s coming in a few days – we’re in the prologue now. I mean that miles-long, days-long queue of maybe a million people forming up to file past the Queen in her coffin in Westminster Hall.
Well, it’s September 15th, 1938 – and we’re going to cross over the way to Westminster Abbey. An unbroken intercession for European peace gets underway round the Unknown Warrior’s Tomb in Westminster Abbey. A steady flow of people – thousands of people – stopping there, the focal point of a great national pilgrimage for peace. Business people on their way to work and nurses at Westminster Hospital were among the first to attend – and thereafter there was a steady flow of people. So many thousands joined in the pilgrimage that the period of unbroken intercession, originally planned to end on the 18th, was indefinitely extended. So the press reported on September 21st. I don’t know how long the intercession went on. What we do know is that the prayer fell on deaf ears, was unanswered.
And, yes, there’s one more thing about September 15th. It’s not a London thing but it bears on all of this all the same. The anti-Semitic and racist Nuremberg Laws – if you don’t know about them look them up – were passed on September 15th, 1935.
And a Today in London recommendation? St. Margaret’s is the parish church of the House of Commons. It always reminds me of a little lamb tucked in next to its ewe, Westminster Abbey. On VE Day 1945 – after a session in the House of Commons – the parliamentarians all walked over the way to St Margaret’s. To a thanksgiving service. My recommendation would be to attend a service at St Margaret’s. Whatever the status of your faith.
You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from www.walks.com – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.
And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative.
That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.
It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for.
Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.
It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”
And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.
And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.