How Westminster Abbey survived the Blitz

By Ronan Thomas
City of Westminster Archives

image captionWestminster Abbey had a 40-strong Air Raid Precautions team during the war

On Friday, Westminster Abbey will take centre stage when Prince William and Kate Middleton marry.

Expected to draw a worldwide television audience numbering an astonishing 2.5 billion people, it will be the 16th royal wedding to take place at the 1,000-year-old Abbey.

Yet 2011 also marks another dramatic anniversary for this venerable institution. Seventy years ago, the eyes of the world were drawn to Westminster Abbey during the blitz.

To save it required the enormous courage, dedication and skill of the abbey's staff and London's fire crews.

Today, original civil defence documents, held by the Westminster City Archives, give an insight into the abbey's struggle for survival on the night of 10 May 1941.

Major damage

It was on that night, under clear skies and full moonlight, that the Luftwaffe launched the heaviest raid of the Blitz.

From 2300 GMT on 10 May to about 0530 GMT the next morning, over 700 tons of high explosive and 86,000 incendiaries were dropped across London.

Many of its priceless artefacts had been already dispersed to English country houses and Underground station tunnels when the war started.

And as a precaution against anticipated blast damage, some 60,000 sand bags were placed around the Abbey's royal tombs, and its leaded and stained glass windows were taped or covered over.

The Abbey had already sustained some damage in 1940, before the Luftwaffe launched its raid.

But on this night, the Palace of Westminster suffered major damage, the Houses of Parliament were hit repeatedly, the House of Commons Chamber was completely destroyed and the medieval wooden roof timbers of Westminster Hall were set alight by incendiaries.

Over 50 fire service pumps and their crews struggled to contain the huge blazes just yards from Westminster Abbey.

The abbey was not struck directly by bombs and no casualties were reported, but around midnight its precincts and roof were hit by several incendiaries.

Burning beams and molten lead began to fall on to the wooden stalls 130ft below.

Finally, the lantern roof crashed down into the crossing.

In crisis

Elsewhere, other dangers threatened. More incendiaries hit the abbey roof high above the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in the nave and on the roof the deanery.

Air Raid Precaution (ARP) wardens managed to extinguish some of the blazes, but one, at the deanery, blazed out of control.

Westminster Abbey was now in crisis. The dean, Dr Paul de Labilliere, telephoned 10 Downing Street to warn of the Abbey's plight.

In response, Prime Minister Winston Churchill relayed his own, characteristic message back to the fire crews: "The abbey must be saved at all costs."

But in the early hours of the morning, the abbey's emergency water tanks were exhausted and the hose nozzles spluttered and ran dry.

The deanery was consumed by fire, along with other sections of the abbey roof.

Salvation came, though, after fire service reinforcements finally arrived at the abbey and the remaining fires were brought under control. But it had been a close-run thing.

Princess Diana's funeral

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth subsequently visited the abbey to inspect the damage.

Westminster Abbey sustained no further air raid damage for the rest of the war.

The lantern roof was rebuilt after the war, interior stonework was cleaned in the 1960s and major restoration of the abbey took place between 1995 and 1998.

During its time, the abbey has witnessed murder, Puritan iconoclasm, damage from a suffragette bomb and Princess Diana's funeral.

With this incomparable story, it's little wonder that it remains among London's top visitor attractions.

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