In the early hours of 30th December 1940, Herbert Mason, a photographer for the Daily Mail newspaper went up on to the roof of his offices on Tudor Street (just off Fleet Street) and took a photo looking east at St Paul’s Cathedral.
Britain was at war and in the middle of a Blitz (shortened from German Blitzkrieg, “lightning war”) campaign by the Luftwaffe which bombed London for 57 consecutive nights in 1940/41. More than one million London houses were destroyed or damaged, and more than 20,000 civilians were killed.
The photo shows St Paul’s Cathedral surrounded by smoke and flames. The photo he took became instantly famous and is considered one of the iconic images of WW2. It turned the Cathedral into “a symbol of togetherness, survival and hope”. The fires that raged around St Paul’s that night became known as the “Second Great Fire of London”.
The survival of the cathedral was mainly due to the efforts of a special group of firewatchers and firemen who were urged by prime minister Winston Churchill to “protect the cathedral at all costs” and twelve fireman died that night fighting the fires.
The photo was published on the front of the Daily Mail newspaper on Tuesday 31 December 1940 and inside the paper included Mason’s account of how the photo was taken: “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”.
When St Paul’s was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren between 1675 – 1710, he included a sculpture on the south front of a phoenix rising from the ashes (of the Great Fire of London of 1666), with the Latin inscription Resurgam (I shall rise again) and after the Blitz in WW2, the phoenix still rises!