Herbert Masonu2019s photograph, shot during a night of heavy German bombing in December 1940, became the defining image of the Blitz, writes David Clark
Image: Herbert Mason’s photograph of St Paul’s Cathedral was taken on 29 December 1940, but did not appear in the Daily Mail until 31 December as government censors debated whether it should be published © Daily Mail
The german Luftwaffe’s bombardment of Britain in 1940-41, known as the Blitz, began on 7 September 1940 and ended on 16 May 1941. During this period of the Second World War, the Germans targeted around 16 cities, ports and industrial centres around the UK, including Coventry, Liverpool and Sheffield, and heavy damage was inflicted.
The most sustained heavy bombing, however, was reserved for London. The Luftwaffe rained bombs on the capital 71 times, which included 57 consecutive nights of attacks.
The most ferocious bombing raids took place on the night of 29 December 1940, when German planes destroyed hundreds of buildings in the City of London. During the raid, 120 tons of high explosives were dropped, as well as 22,000 incendiary bombs. Those people who witnessed the attacks said the fires that lit up the night sky were both spectacular and appalling.
The American journalist Ernie Pyle vividly described the scene he witnessed that night from a high balcony overlooking the city. ‘Into the dark shadowed spaces below us, while we watched, whole batches of incendiary bombs fell,’ he wrote. ‘We saw two dozen go off in two seconds. They flashed terrifically, then quickly simmered down to pin points of dazzling white, burning ferociously…
‘The greatest of all the fires was directly in front of us. Flames seemed to whip hundreds of feet into the air. Pinkish-white smoke ballooned upward in a great cloud, and out of this cloud there gradually took shape – so faintly at first that we weren’t sure we saw correctly – the gigantic dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.
‘St Paul’s was surrounded by fire, but it came through. It stood there in its enormous proportions – growing slowly clearer and clearer, the way objects take shape at dawn. It was like a picture of some miraculous figure that appears before peace-hungry soldiers on a battlefield.’
Another man witnessing the aerial strikes on London that night and looking towards St Paul’s was 37-year-old Herbert Mason. He had trained in his father’s photography business in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, and worked his way up to be the chief photographer on the Daily Mail. That night, he was on fire patrol on the roof of the Mail’s building in Carmelite Street and looking towards the cathedral, which was less than half a mile away.
Mason had his camera with him and observed the unfolding scene as dark smoke swirled around the burning city. ‘I focused at intervals as the great dome loomed up through the smoke,’ he was later quoted as saying. ‘The glare 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.’
Image: Herbert Mason, photographed in 1954 © Daily Mail
His photograph is remarkable: clouds of dark smoke filled the picture, with silhouettes of bomb-damaged buildings in the foreground, while St Paul’s stood out in the background. Mason had waited until just the right moment, when the smoke from nearby fires had parted, to frame the cathedral against a backdrop of white clouds.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill realised that the cathedral’s destruction would be a serious blow to British morale and that night directed all local fire-fighting resources to give special attention to saving St Paul’s. As many as 29 incendiary bombs fell on, or close to, the cathedral, but were put out by volunteer firefighters. One incendiary bomb hit the roof and lodged in its timbers, but simply burned through and fell to the floor where it was smothered.
Other local buildings were not so fortunate: the Guildhall was severely damaged, Paternoster Row and eight churches designed by Sir Christopher Wren were destroyed, and many railway stations and hospitals were hit. More than 160 people were killed, including 16 firemen.
In the aftermath of the night of 29 December, there was some debate among government censors over whether Mason’s photograph should be published. It wasn’t until 31 December that it finally appeared in the Daily Mail. It was cropped to reduce the number and prominence of the damaged buildings in the foreground.
The image took up a large chunk of the front page, while above it ran the headline War’s Greatest Picture: St Paul’s Stands Unharmed in the Midst of the Burning City. The paper went on to describe it as ‘a picture that all Britain will cherish – for it symbolises the steadiness of London’s stand against the enemy: the firmness of Right against Wrong.’
The picture’s significance was interpreted differently in the German press, which used it to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Luftwaffe’s intensive bombing campaign. The front cover of the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung on 23 January 1941 showed Mason’s picture with the triumphant headline The City of London Burns!
Many more images were shot during the Blitz that showed blazing buildings, heroic firefighters and the rubble left in the aftermath of bombing raids. However, Mason’s photograph stands out as the definitive image of the Blitz because it goes beyond recording events to achieve a powerfully symbolic, almost painterly quality.
No matter how the Germans interpreted the image, the British were in no doubt that its depiction of the survival of St Paul’s Cathedral, despite the sustained bombing, was a boost to morale in otherwise dark days for the nation.
Books and Websites
Books: More news images of London during the Blitz can be seen in The Blitz: An Illustrated History by Gavin Mortimer. For detailed historical background, see Juliet Gardiner’s book The Blitz: The British Under Attack (published by Harper Press).
Events of 1940
- 18 March: German chancellor Adolf Hitler and Italian leader Benito Mussolini agree to form a military alliance against France and the UK
- 9 April: Denmark and Norway are invaded by Germany
- 10 May: German troops invade France and the Low Countries. Battles begin in the Netherlands and Belgium. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigns and is succeeded by Winston Churchill
- 26 May: Beginning of the evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk in France. By the end of the operation on 4 June, more than 300,000 troops were evacuated
- 14 June: Paris is occupied by German forces
- 10 July: Beginning of the Battle of Britain, in which the German Air Force tries to gain air superiority over the RAF
- 7 September: The German bombardment of the UK, known as the Blitz, begins. London is bombed for 57 consecutive nights. More than 40,000 civilians are killed and over a million houses in London are destroyed or damaged
- 14 November: Over 500 German Air Force bombers attack Coventry, destroying most of the city’s buildings and killing 568 civilians
- 16 November: The RAF bombs Hamburg in Germany in response to the German attack on Coventry
- 12 December: German air raids inflict major damage on Sheffield
- 29 December: The Luftwaffe carries out one of its most destructive bombing raids on London