Katja Hoyer Katja Hoyer

Father Christmas battles through the Blitz

Jerry White’s vivid history of war-torn London includes descriptions of children’s Christmas parties organised across the capital by the ARP in 1940

Children enjoying a Christmas party in a London bomb shelter in 1940. [Getty Images]

When the shrill air raid sirens blared their familiar warning cries over the city at 6.01 p.m. on 29 December 1940, Londoners thought they knew what was coming. Life under siege had taken on a strange sense of normality. They had been bombed systematically by the Luftwaffe for months and fully expected this to resume with ferocity after a brief lull over the Christmas period.

But the events that unfolded that night would bring horrors on an entirely new scale. The 136 bomber planes that swooped down from the sky and dropped their high explosives and 22,000 incendiaries onto the capital were intent on creating an inferno. It worked. The low tide of the Thames combined with the south-easterly breeze to create a ferocious wind corridor fanning the flames.

Lasting only five hours or so, the raid was comparatively brief, but in that time it started 1,460 fires, almost all of them in central London. A BBC reporter would later describe how he was ‘walking between solid walls of fire’. Pungent smells filled the air as warehouse after warehouse burst into flames — coffee, cinnamon, hay, tobacco, tea. Above all this was heard the crackle of burning paper: some five million books are said to have been destroyed that night.

Pungent smells of coffee, cinnamon, hay, tobacco and tea filled the air as London’s warehouses burst into flames

This ‘Second Great Fire of London’, like its infamous 1666 predecessor, found its dramatic pinnacle at St Paul’s Cathedral. Restoration-era Londoners were convinced that this building was eternal, an unshakable part of the capital itself. They were wrong. The trauma of its ‘weighty stones falling down’ as the flames bit deeper and deeper into the structures that held them burnt itself into the city’s soul.

Twentieth-century Londoners were taking no chances.

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