Saturday 14 January 2012

Winston Churchill, the Iron Curtain and St Mary Aldermanbury

St Mary Aldermanbury re-erected at Westminster College (author's collection)
"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent."

So spoke Winston Churchill at Westminster College, in Fulton, Missouri on March 5th 1946. The wartime Prime Minister, by now out of office, was making his first visit to the United States since losing the Premiership at the General Election of July 1945. Since acceding to the Presidency in March 1945, following Franklin D Roosevelt's death, Truman had become a firm friend and admirer of Churchill. Following his defeat in the 1945 General Election, Churchill was invited by Truman to visit his home state of Missouri and with its British connections, Westminster College seemed the ideal venue for Britain's wartime leader, the consummate parliamentarian, to give his first major post war speech, entitled "Sinews of Peace" in which he would speak of his hopes for the future and to warn the World of the impending Cold War.

Westminster College was founded in 1849 by Presbyterians as Fulton College and given it's present name in 1851. At the time of Churchill's visit, it was not a particularly well known establishment, even within the United States. Churchill's speech expressed his fears that the Soviet Union had designs on Europe that had shattered the ideal of a free, liberated continent. Indeed, a large part of eastern Europe had merely swapped one kind of tyranny for another. Churchill feared another war, and in his speech expressed his hopes for a "fraternal association of the English speaking peoples" to work together in preventing such a war. At the time, the speech was received coolly by some but others, Truman included, embraced Churchill's proposals and within a few short years they were to become accepted American and British policy in the form of the NATO alliance which as well as the English speaking peoples, also embraced all of the non-Communist countries of Europe.

President Truman had predicted that Churchill's speech would place Fulton, Missouri and Westminster College firmly on the map and as the years went by following the speech, senior figures at Westminster College began to think of ways to commemorate both the "Sinews of Peace" speech and also the life of the man who had delivered it. In 1961, the then President of the College, Dr Robert Davidson read an article in Life Magazine about the London Blitz and how large areas of the City of London, including many historic Wren churches, were still derelict and about to be demolished for redevelopment; what Londoners used to call "bomb sites". Soon a plan began to formulate in Davidson's mind to salvage one of these churches and import it to Fulton, stone-by-stone and rebuild it as a suitable memorial to Churchill, who epitomised the spirit of the Blitz and also to the process of renewal, of rising from the ashes of destruction.

The church of St Mary the Virgin, in Aldermanbury in the City of London had been located on this site since 1148. It had been rebuilt in the fifteenth century, destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and rebuilt once again, this time by Sir Christopher Wren in 1677. It was one of the great architect's smaller creations; a parish church, one of whose parishioners had been the notorious 'Hanging Judge' Jeffreys, who had achieved infamy during the "Bloody Assizes" of 1685 following Monmouth's rebellion, where he handed out some three hundred death sentences and transported around eight hundred to the West Indies. Captured following the fall of King James II in 1688, he died in custody at the Tower of London and although originally interred there, his body had been moved to St Mary Aldermanbury in 1692 and buried there, as was his right as a parishioner of that church.

The churchyard also contained a memorial to John Heminges and Henry Condell, also parishioners, who were members of the 'King's Men', the company of actors to which William Shakespeare had belonged and who were both editors of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays. The church itself contained an ancient chest and also an altar piece displaying a picture of the Last Supper by Franck, which had been presented to the church in 1777.

On December 29th 1940, this church, along with thirteen other Wren churches, was destroyed in the Luftwaffe's great fire raid on the City of London, which was later dubbed "The Second Great Fire of London." In this raid, the Guildhall was destroyed, as was St Brides Fleet Street, St Lawrence Jewry, St Alban Wood Street, St Stephen Coleman Street, St Vedast alias Foster and many others as the Luftwaffe dropped 10,000 incendiary bombs onto the City and came within an ace of destroying the financial centre of the British Empire. Only bad weather back in France prevented the bombers returning for what would surely have been a devastating second wave.

On this night, the church of St Mary the Virgin was reduced to a shell. The bones of Judge Jeffreys were reduced to ashes; the ancient chest, the font and the altar piece were all destroyed. Practically the only thing to survive unscathed was the memorial to Heminges and Condell in the churchyard which is still extant to this day.

Some of these grievously damaged Wren churches like St Bride's Fleet Street were to be painstakingly rebuilt after the war, whilst others such as St Alban Wood Street and St Augustine Watling Street would survive in truncated form with just the towers surviving. Others like St Stephen Coleman Street would be lost forever, their memory surviving only in pre war photographs.

It looked as if the Church of St Mary the Virgin would join the ranks of those lost, for it lay derelict for some twenty years after the Blitz; four walls and the spire standing seemingly unloved and by the early 1960s slated for demolition, doubtless to be replaced by another faceless office development. It was at this point that Dr Davidson's plan began to come together. The scheme had Churchill's backing and before he died in 1965, he had written to Davidson stating that the plan to remove and re-dedicate the church at Fulton "symbolized the ideals of the Anglo-American association, on which rest now as before, so many of our hopes for peace and for the future of mankind."

It took four years to raise the necessary three million dollars for the project and to make the plans for the removal of the building. The actor Richard Burton was a major promoter and donor and appeared on the NBC "Tonight" show to make a direct appeal for funding. In 1965, the removal process began; some 7,000 stones were carefully numbered, denoting their exact position in the church and were transported across the Atlantic by sea and onto Fulton, Missouri by rail. Once there, they were carefully rebuilt in what was described as the biggest jigsaw puzzle in architecture. Former President Truman had turned the first shovel in the construction works in 1964, in October 1966, some 300 years after the first Great Fire of London, the foundation stone was laid and by March 1967, construction work of the exterior was complete. The interior fit out took a further two years and working from surviving pre-war photographs, a faithful reconstruction of the interior was achieved. The organ was reconstructed by Noel Mander, the noted organ builder who had served as an Auxiliary Fireman during the Blitz and who had watched the church burn on the night of the 29th December. His familiarity with the pre-war church helped ensure complete authenticity in the rebuild. The church was re-dedicated as a place of worship on May 7th 1969, the same day that the Churchill Memorial, located beneath the church was also dedicated.

Sir Winston Churchill himself did not live to see the church rebuilt and transported to its new location but he would surely have been pleased with the result. The Churchill Memorial and Museum, now augmented by "Breakthrough" a statue incorporating eight sections of the former Berlin wall, that tangible symbol of the Iron Curtain, so memorably described by Churchill at Fulton in 1946. Since Churchill's speech, many other World leaders have followed in his footsteps and spoken at Westminster College; Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and perhaps most notably Mikhail Gorbachev in 1992, when he declared the end of the Cold War, thus adding a neat symmetry to history.

This then, is the odyssey of the Church of St Mary the Virgin. When Harry S Truman predicted to Winston Churchill that his speech would place Fulton, Missouri and Westminster College on the map, it came true in a way that perhaps neither of them could have realised. Likewise, Sir Christopher Wren could never have imagined that one of his churches would be destroyed by fire raining down from the sky delivered by man made machines. Perhaps even more fantastic to him would have been the thought, that once destroyed, his church would rise again having been rebuilt piece by piece in the far off New World.

Today, the footstep of the Church of St Mary the Virgin is a Grade II Listed Building and remains as a delightfully quiet garden in the midst of the City of London, whilst the main fabric of the church fulfils its original purpose in its new location in America.

Published Sources:

Churchill - Roy Jenkins, Macmillan 2001
The Lost Treasures of London - William Kent, Phoenix House 1947
The City Ablaze - David Johnson, William Kimber 1980

Internet Link:

Wednesday 4 January 2012

1942; The end of the beginning

The aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour
Seventy years ago, the dawning of 1942 saw British fortunes during the Second World War at their lowest ebb but it was also a year when the tide began to turn, at first almost imperceptibly but by the year’s end, a tide which was flowing inexorably in the Allies’ favour.

Sunday 7th December 1941 had seen the Japanese attack on the American Naval Base at Pearl Harbour, which was quickly followed by attacks on British and Dutch possessions in the Far East. The British Crown Colony of Hong Kong had surrendered on Christmas Day 1941 and the Japanese were moving steadily through Malaya towards Singapore, which was to surrender ignominiously on 15th February 1942.

The attack on Pearl Harbour (pictured) did however, ensure the ultimate entry of the United States into the war, thus ending Britain’s lone stance against the Nazis. President Roosevelt initially held back from declaring war on Germany as well as Japan but Hitler and Mussolini pre-empted him by declaring war on the USA on 11th December, which was reciprocated immediately; so Britain was no longer alone but in almost every theatre of war, the British had their backs to the wall.

At sea, the Battle of the Atlantic was raging fiercely. The German U-Boats were enjoying their second ‘Happy Time’ attacking Allied shipping in the Caribbean and off America’s east coast, as well as taking a heavy toll of the convoys bringing much needed supplies to Great Britain. In the Far East, as we have seen above, the Japanese had begun their attacks on Allied possessions and in addition to Pearl Harbour had also sunk the British capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse which had been sailing without air cover to intercept a Japanese invasion force but which themselves had become the hunted when they were destroyed by Japanese aircraft. In the Mediterranean, Malta was besieged and could only be re-supplied at heavy cost by battling through naval convoys. The Royal Navy had lost the modern carrier HMS Ark Royal and the battleship HMS Barham to torpedo attacks and had all of its heavy units in that theatre put out of action by the end of the year. For a moment, it looked as if the Royal Navy might lose their superiority in one of their traditional strongholds for the first time in the proud history of the Senior Service. It was not to happen but it was a close run thing.

On land, the Nazis were masters of Europe, whilst in the Mediterranean and North African campaign, Crete had fallen earlier in 1941 and although Rommel had been temporarily repulsed in the Western Desert, worse was to follow in 1942. The British Eighth Army was to be depleted by the need to send urgent reinforcements to fight the Japanese in the Far East and despite the warnings of the Commanding Officer, General Claude Auchinleck that his command was dangerously weakened, these warnings were not heeded and in May 1942, Rommel was to attack again, which was to ultimately lead to another British military disaster; the fall of Tobruk with the capture of 33,000 British and South African troops. A headlong retreat was to follow, with the British falling back to El Alamein, a then little known railway halt only 66 miles west of Alexandria, by July 1942.

In the air, the Royal Air Force, shared with it’s sister services the problem of having too few resources to share around too many theatres of war. Fighter Command, following the successes of the Battle of Britain had followed a disastrous policy of ‘leaning towards the enemy’ during 1941 and had seemingly learned nothing from the experiences of the Germans in 1940. The tried and tested defensive team of Sir Hugh Dowding and Keith Park had been replaced after the Battle of Britain; victims as much as anything of in-service petty jealousies and in-fighting, they had been replaced as Head of Fighter Command and in command of the all-important No. 11 Group by Air Chief Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas and Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory respectively. The fighter sweeps favoured by these two had frittered away much of Fighter Command’s strength and although it was still a formidable defensive unit, many good men and fine aircraft had been lost needlessly. Within Bomber Command, the first steps had been taken to form a winning team; Air Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris was appointed in February 1942. At first, his command too was constrained by having too few aircraft and those that there were being outdated. He immediately set about re-evaluating Bomber Command’s tactics and energetically ensured the procurement of suitable modern aircraft, most notably the four engine Lancaster and Halifax heavy bombers as well as the superbly versatile Mosquito light bomber. Armed with these new weapons, Harris began to put his theories into practice; on 28th March 1942, the historic city of Lubeck was laid waste by a fire-storm started by the massed incendiary bombs dropped by Bomber Command and by 30th May 1942, the city of Cologne was overwhelmed, becoming the victim of the first thousand-bomber raid in history.

At home in Britain, the civilian population had seen no serious bombing since the bombing of Hull and Southampton in July 1941; London and Liverpool, though gravely damaged, had not been ‘Blitzed’ since May 1941 and although there had been ‘tip and run’ raids by lone raiders since this time, the feeling was that perhaps the worst really was over, although the news filtering back from overseas of what was seemingly one British setback after another could only give cause for concern.

However, the bombing of Lubeck was to ensure a resumption of the Blitz; although not on the same scale as what had gone before, this phase was to bring death and destruction to British towns and cities not hitherto affected by the German bombing. Lubeck, although it had some submarine building yards located reasonably close to it, was not a target of real industrial significance. It had been chosen as part of Harris’s new policy of affected the morale of the civil population and as he said himself – “it seemed better to me to destroy an industrial town of moderate importance than to fail to destroy a large industrial city.”

Lubeck was a historic Hanseatic city and in retaliation for it’s destruction, Hitler ordered the resumption of large-scale bombing against Great Britain. Because of Lubeck’s historic significance, the British targets were reputedly selected using the Baedecker’s Tourist Guide. Baron Gustav Braun von Stumm, an official at Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry was heard to remark “We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedecker Guide."

Thus the Baedecker Raids came to pass; Exeter (pictured), Bath, Norwich and York were all bombed by Luftflotte 3 between the 23rd and 28th April 1942 and following the thousand bomber raid on Cologne, the City of Canterbury was bombed three times on 31st May, 2nd and 6th June. Deal, Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge, Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth and Ipswich were also bombed in this period but on a much smaller scale to the Cathedral cities mentioned previously. Some 1,637 civilians were killed, with a similar number injured; some 50,000 houses were destroyed as were some historic buildings, notably the Guildhall in York and the Assembly Rooms in Bath, but the Cathedrals in all of these cities remained unharmed. The Baedecker Raids were smaller in scale than the First Blitz; the Luftwaffe’s squadrons had been dissipated by their needs on the Russian and North African theatres of war, thus proving that it was not only the British who were suffering from thinly spread resources. The Baedecker Raids petered out after the final raid on Canterbury and the Luftwaffe returned to the tip and run tactics of smaller raids by individual or small groups of aircraft. They were not to return to British shores in significant numbers until the ill-fated Operation Steinbock or as it was known to the British public, Little Blitz or Baby Blitz in late 1943.

For the remainder of 1942, the tide was turning; the British, together with their American allies, set about building a team to win the war. The first American troops arrived in Britain in early 1942, the vanguard of what was to become a vast army based on what was to become the ‘Springboard for invasion’ as these islands were to become known. The first elements of what was to become known as the U.S. Eighth Air Force – “The Mighty Eighth” – which along with RAF Bomber Command would ensure that Germany would be bombed around the clock arrived in England. In the Far East, the Americans began to fight back; first the Doolittle Raid, where a small force of B-25 Bombers were launched from the carrier Hornet to bomb Tokyo, a target thought by the Japanese to be hitherto unreachable by the Americans. Then at Midway, when the Japanese carriers that had bombed Pearl Harbour were themselves destroyed. In the Atlantic, the U-Boats were relentlessly hunted down by the Royal, Royal Canadian and US Navies and although they were to remain a threat for the remainder of the war, never again threatened to cut the supply lines.

The biggest victory of 1942 was one that has remained in the British annals of victory ever since. As related earlier, the British Eighth Army had fallen back onto an unknown railway halt in the Western Desert called El Alamein. In August 1942, Winston Churchill, on a visit to the North African theatre had dismissed the Eighth Army commander, Auchinleck and had replaced him with a figure little known outside the British Army, one Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery. In three short months, ‘Monty’ as he was to become known, transformed the morale of the Eighth Army to such a point where they believed themselves invincible and won an ultimately crushing victory against an Afrika Korps, which had been weakened by lack of supplies and over extended supply lines. The battle had started on 23rd October 1942 and by 11th November, victory was certain; the Germans were in full retreat and by May 1943, the Eighth Army advancing westwards had linked up with an Anglo-American force advancing eastwards from the ‘Torch’ Landings under an equally then little known American general, a certain Dwight D Eisenhower and had swept the Axis out of North Africa for good.

At home, Churchill ordered that the church bells be rung; until then they had been reserved as an alarm call for an impending German invasion but now they were rung in celebration of a great victory. Speaking at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, Churchill was to say “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

With American help in the form of manpower and their vast industrial strength and vitally with the Russians now sweeping in from the east to squeeze the life out of the Axis, he knew that victory, although not to be gained without more pain, was ultimately assured.

Published Sources:

Alamein - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2002

Alamein: War without hate - John Bierman & Colin Smith, Viking 2002

Bomber Harris: His Life and Times - Henry Probert, Greenhill Books 2003
The Battle of The Atlantic - John Costello & Terry Hughes, Collins 1977

The Storm of War - Andrew Roberts, Allen Lane 2009

War Diaries 1939-1945: Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke - eds. Alex Danchev & Daniel Todman, Wiedenfeld & Nicolson 2001