National Geographic : 1945 Aug
London Wins the Battle There was a moment of hesitation. "Well, 'Itler ain't dead yet, is 'e?" came the reply in a broad cockney accent. A hundred yards down Downing Street, opposite the entrance to the Foreign Office, stands No. 10. At least twice the windows of the Prime Minister's official residence were bombed out. In 1941 a bomb fell on the Treasury near by. Prime Minister Churchill was at dinner with friends when the house shook and pieces of plaster fell from the dining-room ceiling. No one was injured. But with that warn ing the men around Churchill succeeded in persuading him not to sleep in the official residence. Two Famous Monuments In Parliament Square, at the end of White hall, are London's two most famous monu ments, Westminster Abbey, which every Amer ican from the three-day tourist to the highest dignitary invariably visits, and the Palace of Westminster, better known as the Houses of Parliament. The Abbey, seriously damaged at the cross ing of the nave and the transept, is still thronged with visitors. Bombs burned out the Deanery, which was next to the great clois ters, as well as the small cloisters and charm ing residences of the clergy. Westminster School was also badly damaged. On the night of May 10, 1941, in one of the heaviest raids on London, fire bombs fell on the chamber in which the House of Com mons had met for almost a century. The next morning Prime Minister Churchill and John Edwin Holman, the Clerk of Works for both Commons and Lords, surveyed the charred and smoking ruins. The two men grieved over the destruction of the hall that had seen so much history. Four years later, in the course of a debate over the design for a new Commons' chamber, I heard Churchill propose that the archway into the chamber of the old House be left as a reminder of the ordeal of Parliament during the battle for London. The rubble has been cleared away and the walls still enclose the space where once the voices of great debaters echoed. In the emer gency immediately following the bombing Par liament met at Church House, in Dean's Yard, Westminster. Then the members of Commons were in vited by the House of Lords to sit in the Lords' chamber, while the Lords moved to the King's official robing room. The Lords' chamber, which came through the battle intact, is somewhat larger than the Commons' chamber. But the visitors' gal leries are so narrow that, as the Honorable Harold Nicolson put it during debate, specta tors look like swallows perched on a telegraph wire. Westminster Hall, adjoining Commons, is almost the only remaining link with the old Palace of Westminster, since both Commons and Lords were built after the fire of 1834 that destroyed medieval structures on the site. The roof of Westminster Hall, made of tim bers hewn 550 years ago, was damaged during the raid. Put on in the reign of Richard II, son of Edward the Black Prince, the roof can be repaired, according to experts who have examined it. Britons who treasure tradition take satis faction in the fact that timbers to repair Westminster roof will come from the same forest that furnished the original beams. The forest is on the estate of a present member of Parliament, Col. Sir George Courthope, whose ancestor sold the original logs to Parliament. Big Ben's Face Lifted Parliament's famous clock, Big Ben, was also damaged in this raid (page 135). But it went on ticking in spite of the hit. So quickly were repairs made and the dam age tidied up that in most instances you would not know that death and destruction had passed by. You constantly marvel at the sameness of the city until you look more closely. Then you begin to see the cumulative damage re sulting from the three sustained attacks, each one taking its toll of life and property. When the first V-2 fell in London, censor ship prevented any reference to this new type of weapon. That was on September 8, 1944. Londoners joked about the secrecy. Those blasts you heard were gas-main explosions, they said. After some weeks the new rocket weapon was officially announced. But still censorship carefully cloaked the location of the hits and the nature of the damage. Official communiques were limited to the announcement of "bomb damage" in "southern England." There was good reason for such censor ship. Most Britishers knew that "southern England" meant London, and the Germans may have suspected it. To have furnished them with additional information, however, would have been to aid them in correcting their aim. That was what British authorities feared above everything else-that the Nazis would be able to aim the newest rocket weapon at specific targets.