As London lay smoking

On the 70th anniversary of its devastation in the Blitz, Lambeth Palace opens its archives on a brav

On 17 April 1941, as London lay smoking after the heaviest raid of the Blitz so far, the bishop of Chichester had a letter published in the Times. In it, George Bell decried "night bombing" - a tactic used by both sides to devastating effect.

It was the first move in what would become a campaign, because in 1942 there was an even more significant development: the air ministry's authorisation of "area" or "saturation" bombing, which allowed entire cities and their civilian inhabitants to be targeted.

After Bomber Command attacked the German cities of Lübeck and Rostock in March 1942, "destroying non-military objects of great value", Bell wrote to the archbishop of Canterbury of the day, William Temple, asking him to condemn the practice. Archbishop Temple replied (according to Bell) that, as he had succeeded Cosmo Lang only the previous month, he "did not want to begin life at Lambeth as a butter-in on the air ministry".
Bell then began a determined fight against the practice of area bombing, breaking ranks with most of the Church hierarchy, who had remained resolutely silent about the morality of this new type of warfare. As Bell wrote later, in November 1948:

There were moments, during the War,
When people thought I went too far
Pleading against obliteration
Either of city or of nation . . .

One who thought that Bell "went too far" was Temple. "I was rather surprised when I read the Times report," the archbishop wrote wearily to his bishop on 24 February 1944 after Bell had made an inflammatory speech in the House of Lords on the subject. "Had I been there . . . I should either have had to lie low or in part to expressly disassociate myself."

Bell was undeterred. Since before the war, he had been among the most active British clergymen supporting German Lutherans courageous enough to distance themselves from Hitler's regime. He was always concerned to "uncover Germany": that is, to make a distinction between the Nazis and the German people. He questioned policies that, in his view, denied the Germans all options other than a murderous fight to the last.
One of these policies was saturation bombing. Daylight raids had proved to be disastrously vulnerable to counter-attack and the "precision bombing" of specified military targets ineffective. In August 1941 the Butt report, instigated by Winston Churchill's chief scientific adviser Viscount Cherwell, concluded that during night bombing raids in June and July, only one in three aircraft had got within five miles of its target.

This abysmal figure did not include those aircraft that did not release their bombs because of equipment failure, enemy defences, the weather, or simply getting lost. In fact, a derisory 5 per cent of bombers setting out from Britain managed to drop their bombs within the target zone. It was not until 1944 that more sophisticated navigational aids improved this performance.

As a result of the Butt report and other studies, Cherwell proposed an ominously named "dehousing" policy: the indiscriminate bombing of whole areas rather than targeting military installations. On 14 February 1942 the area bombing directive was issued, and a week later Arthur "Bomber" Harris was appointed air officer commanding-in-chief.

Naturally, even the so-called precision bombing incurred "collateral damage" of such non-military objects as churches, hospitals, houses - and civilians. But area bombing wiped out everything in a specified area. In doing so, those in favour argued, the strategy succeeded in definitively destroying military targets and thus would hasten the end of the war.

Unpopular view

Though Bishop Bell never doubted that Nazi Germany was a pernicious enemy that had to be defeated, he was increasingly concerned about the methods used, which seemed to him no better than Hitler's own tactics. This put Britain in danger of "reaping a whirlwind" of postwar bitterness. Bell started publicly to question these tactics by writing letters to the Times, and on 9 February 1944 he raised the question of saturation bombing in a debate in the House of Lords.

Though Archbishop Temple claimed to have "an immense admiration for the courage" with which Bell took his stand, it had "always seemed to me that Mervyn [Stockwood, then a vicar in Bristol, later bishop of Southwark] was right when after the Coventry raid [in November 1940] he said that it was completely justified as an act of war and that we ought to do the same thing when we can".

Bell was "rather distressed" and insisted that "when you bomb a whole town area by area, as was so clearly the case at Hamburg and is at Berlin, you are obliterating everything in that town . . . whether they are munitions factories or churches; whether they are women and children or members of the armed forces. This I contend is a very different thing from bombing specific military or industrial objectives, in which you do also hit non-combatants."

For some, Bell was the "most hated prelate in Britain"; he infuriated Churchill and when he visited an airbase after the war, no car was sent to meet him at the station. "Let the bugger bike," the adjutant muttered. Letters of abuse arrived by every post. "What a gift your utterances will make for vile German propaganda," wrote a man from Tunbridge Wells. A parishioner in Lancing, Sussex, told Bell that the "weak sentiment found in your speech in the House of Lords is not only detrimental to Britain's war effort, but is sufficient to turn away many from the Church".

“So you want to empty the churches completely," wrote a man from Lymington in similar vein. "After reading what you think about our magnificent bombing of Germany, I can see [that] happening soon . . ."

Yet there were messages of support, too - many from fellow clergymen. "May God bless you for your words," wrote a vicar from Surrey. "True nobility of sentiment", "a great and timely contribution to an aspect of the war effort which is seriously troubling the minds of sincere and loyal people", said others, while Raymond Mortimer, the literary editor of the New Statesman and Nation, asked:

May I, without impertinence, congratulate you on your speech to the Lords? I am not certain that I can agree with all you say - it is so hideously difficult to weigh the sufferings against that of countries they oppress, and to know how far bombing can be expected to shorten the war. But your courage in expressing a highly unpopular view is really inspiring and I am sure that in ten years' time your words will command the belated admiration of all decent people.

A mass of rubble

If Archbishop Temple was inclined to "lie low" and accept the pronouncements of Whitehall, Bell found an ally in Temple's predecessor Cosmo Lang, who urged that the government should come clean and admit that there had been a deliberate change of policy. Area bombing had a very different intention and effect from targeting military objectives.

Lang knew only too well the effects of bombing. As he had written in October 1940: "It seems quite obvious that the whole of the buildings of Lambeth are in a very dangerous position because not only do they lie between the railway systems of Waterloo and Victoria, but chiefly because they are so near Lambeth Bridge and the enemy are obviously making special efforts to bomb these bridges . . . I cannot now live at Lambeth and only go up to London [from Canterbury] for necessary business."

Lambeth Palace was indeed vulnerable, as were all buildings along the Thames, that serpentine, glistening fifth column that guided the Luftwaffe to its targets. St Thomas' Hos­pital, situated almost opposite the palace, was bombed on several occasions and on 20 September 1940 a huge bomb came through the roof of the palace's large drawing room. It had "blown the room to pieces . . . bedrooms above are in ruins, the pantry etc a mass of rubble", wrote the Reverend Alan Campbell Don, one of the chaplains to the archbishop. "Four airmen sleeping under a table in the knife room next to the coal hole were only saved by the fact that they had a table over their heads. The contents of the drawing room fell on top of them, but they crawled out unhurt . . . the crypt was full of people, some 200 of them.

“That no one was injured was a miracle. The force of the blast was terrific - the furniture, panelling etc is reduced to matchwood . . . great blocks of masonry fell on to the grass."

“It is a most depressing sight," Lang wrote after seeing the damage. "I gather that the Church commissioners advise merely temporary repairs in the way of keeping the walls from falling down and what is to be done with the rest of the palace I cannot yet imagine." He worried about the cost of rebuilding: "I do not know how my own depleted resources will meet the charge."

More was to come. On 8 December Lollards' Tower at Lambeth Palace was hit by incendiary bombs. Canterbury Cathedral, too, was hit for the second time that month and Don wondered darkly, "Are the Germans deliberately trying to kill the Primate? They have had shots at the King and the Prime Minister and they doubtless have it in for CC [Cosmo Cantuar, from the standard signature for the archbishop of Canterbury]."

On the night of 16 April 1941, four more, high-explosive bombs fell on Lambeth Palace. One "exposed a grave dating from over 100 years ago and hurled bits of corpse, still not fully decomposed, all over the place - the head landed on the roof of the church and the stench was terrible", Don wrote. "The sooner cremation becomes universal the better." On 23 April five bombs fell on the library, smashing windows there and in the chapel.

Less than a month later, on 10 May 1941, which would be the last night of the Blitz (though no one knew it at the time), London suffered its most destructive raid of the war: 1,436 were killed and more than 1,800 seriously injured. Lambeth Palace was hit again, as was St Thomas' Hospital. The top floors of Lollards' Tower were burned out; the roof of the dungeon where heretics, followers of John Wycliffe, had been chained to metal rings in the wall was destroyed; the roofs of the chapel and the library collapsed in the flames.

The result was "appalling wreckage", Lang mourned as he inspected the "pitiful condition" of thousands of rare books lying open to the elements. He hoped they might be covered by "retrospective insurance" ("seems a contradiction in terms", advised a Church commissioner) and railed at the failure of the fire services to provide the water tanks, pumps and hoses the palace had repeatedly requested.

It was Don, by then dean of Westminster, who best caught the mood of that terrible night. He gazed along the river at the smouldering ruins and wrote: "The blackout was timed to come to an end at 5.30am, but the day seemed unable to dawn, for a thick pall of smoke overhung London and kept dawn at bay - it was as though the very heavens were conspiring to add to the prevailing gloom."

Juliet Gardiner is the author of "The Blitz: the British Under Attack" (HarperPress, £8.99 paperback)

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit