St Clement Danes, Strand

10-11 May 1941

By Kristin Aratoli

“Oranges and lemons, Say the bells of St Clement's", a song the bells have sung since 1719, when James Gibbs added his steeple to Christopher Wren’s 1681 design, later inspiring the famous children’s nursery rhyme.

The bombing of St Clement Danes stands as a testament to the inescapable depravity of warfare. On 30 June 1940, Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering had ordered the Luftwaffe to focus attacks solely upon industrial and air force targets (and to make every effort to avoid civilian casualties). During September 1940 this order was abandoned. Luftwaffe tactics changed from the bombing of selected areas, to area targeting of the whole of London. Municipal buildings and hospitals were no longer exempt and neither were churches.

The earliest incident at St Clement's took place during the first month of the Blitz, on 25 September 1940, when the churchyard was damaged. City of Westminster ARP (Air Raid Precautions) wardens made their first report at 03.35am. As there was no flooding in the area from damaged water mains and relatively little damage to the churchyard itself, the ARP initially suspected a 50 kg (110lb) delayed-action bomb. An anti-aircraft shell impact was subsequently confirmed. 

A second incident at St Clement's occurred on 9 October 1940, when the church was hit by HE bomb blast. The north side was disfigured by bomb fragments, still painfully visible today. The bronze statue of 18th century writer Samuel Johnson outside the Church was tarnished by shrapnel and windows at its eastern end were blown in. A double-decker bus parked nearby was also damaged and two people were injured. Both were treated at a nearby Aid Post and recovered. 

Damage of a far higher order was inflicted on the final night of the first phase of the Blitz. On 10-11 May 1941, 86,000 incendiary bombs were dropped on London. St Clement's church roof was hit directly by incendiaries, and its wooden interior quickly caught fire. The fire ravaged the building's interior so completely that its famous tower appeared as a lantern in the city skyline, with flames blazing out of the windows. Cecil King, Chairman of the Daily Mirror, noted in his diary that: 'St Clement Dane had been gutted, and only the spire was alight half way up the top and sending out showers and sparks - an odd and rather beautiful spectacle' (Cecil King: 'With Malice Towards None: A War Diary', 1970).

However, the stone façade of St Clement's refused to succumb. Once the fire had abated, the walls, tower, and steeple of the church emerged from the smoke intact, standing proudly in the wake of the Blitz.

St Clement Danes remained a fire-blackened bomb site until 1953, when it was taken over by the Air Council. An appeal raised over £250,000 to fund the rebuilding of the church in 1956. By 1958 the church was re-consecrated as the Central Church of the Royal Air Force (RAF). The interior of the church now houses books of remembrance dedicated to the allied airmen killed on active service from the First World War (1914-1918) to the present day, as well as many RAF Queen’s Colours and standards.

Outside the church stand statues dedicated to the RAF’s most senior officers during the Second World War: Air Chief Marshal Lord Hugh Dowding (RAF Fighter Command) and Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris (RAF Bomber Command). In 2008, St Clement Danes celebrated its 90th anniversary. On 17 April 2013 the church played a major role in the funeral of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.


Photo:Bomb Map: St Clement Danes Church

Bomb Map: St Clement Danes Church

Copyright Westminster City Archives

St Clement Danes Church, Strand

This page was added by Kristin Aratoli on 13/04/2011.

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