As Nazi bombs rained, an aging architect risked his life to protect the greatest symbol of England's resistance: St. Paul’s Cathedral. And he documented every moment.
Arthur Butler was a melancholic, artistic man, a retired architect known for his slightly rambling way of speaking. On the night of April 16, 1941, when a bomb fell through the roof of St. Paul’s, London, he was high on the cathedral’s dome, wearing a flashlight on a belt around his waist, looking at the fires reflected in the Thames, far below. Butler liked the shadows on nights like these, cast from strange angles by falling flares. He had enjoyed the bursts of artillery in the previous war too, flashing orange over the trenches, when he was young. Now, flames crept into crimson smoke, as buildings burned white, then red, then orange. Many were skeletal, from earlier raids. It was a “weird and terrible loveliness,” Butler recalled. As planes flew closer – “silly screaming dragons,” he wrote – there was a crescendo of anti-aircraft fire. Memories overcame him. Fire engine bells rang in the distance.
Isolated amongst ruins, the German planes seemed to seek out St. Paul’s. It was, according to Butler, “the very heart of London and the symbol of it,” apparently defiant and certain. In his long out-of-print diary, which was published in 1942 as Recording Ruin, he called it a “sacred place as a race.” (I recently found a copy in a secondhand store and thought it looked interesting.) A church had stood here since the year 604, and cathedrals had been built, and destroyed by fire, ever since. The present St. Paul’s was begun in 1675, and it was still the city’s tallest building. During the war, it took on huge psychological significance. At the end of 1940, two weeks before Butler began writing his diary, the Daily Mail printed what would become the most famous photograph of the Blitz, with the dome rising from smoke, beneath the headline: “War’s Greatest Picture: St. Paul’s Stands Unharmed.” (The same photograph was reprinted in German newspapers, to suggest London’s destruction.) During the worst raids, Winston Churchill himself ordered fire fighters to protect St. Paul’s, passing needier buildings.
Inside the cathedral that April night, as Butler watched the buildings burn, a single red light hung from the underside of the dome. Water sometimes pooled beneath it, blown in through shattered windows. The high altar lay ruined, destroyed in the raid featured in the Daily Mail’s “unharmed” photograph, a tangle of scaffold supporting the arch above. The little remaining stained glass glowed from the fires outside, picking out a mechanism of pulleys and gantries, designed to lower the injured from the upper floors. Butler liked the cathedral most this way, icy blue and painterly in the moonlight, the white stone whiter somehow, the shadows rich and dark, with just a hint of red. Dim flashlights could be seen scurrying around the Whispering Gallery, and down the mile or so of cathedral corridors. A dozen men, mostly middle-aged or elderly, carried sandbags and water pumps, hurrying to the incendiaries that rattled on the lead roofs, like coals falling from a scuttle. Water ran down the staircases hidden in the hollow walls, as women carried up cups of tea.
Each night, a shift of these volunteers, known as St. Paul’s Watch, guarded the cathedral. Many, like Butler, had been architects, and had fought in World War I. Shortly before the Blitz began, the Dean of St. Paul’s advertised for help, hoping former architects might familiarize themselves most easily with the cathedral’s labyrinthine plans, and perhaps cared enough to risk their lives for it. Two hundred and eighty people put their names forward. They were issued overalls and tin hats, and given training on explosive incendiaries, delayed action bombs and parachute mines. They walked through tear gas, to prepare for what might come.
Alongside the architects, there were minor canons and elderly gentlemen of the Choir, Red Cross workers, and members of the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service. There were university professors, and students of medicine and theology and music. John Betjeman, the future Poet Laureate, volunteered, with Post Office workers, and members of foreign governments in exile. “A cross-section of English society,” the Dean wrote in his account of the war, “essential, yet unobtrusive, vital but anonymous.” Some would find their evenings empty after the war, with nothing to do, feeling old again.
Before their shift began, those on duty prayed the same prayer at the Watch headquarters in the cathedral Crypt – “lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night” – and listened to the news on the wireless. Many felt the hand of God protected them. One volunteer routinely circled the exterior of the dome, reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Each wore a gold pin on their left breast, decorated with crossed swords. A friend of Butler’s had once laughed at his badge, when he wore it to a dinner party. “I suppose it’s the same as displaying emotion and is therefore not done,” he recalled.
Like many of the Watch, Butler seemed to be absorbed by history. He was born in Winchester, where his grandfather was canon at the city’s Gothic cathedral, and lived among the ruins of older churches. When his father became a professor at the University of St. Andrew’s, Scotland, the family relocated to a house a short distance from another crumbled cathedral, perched high on the cliffs. He was soon sent to boarding school, a year behind Rupert Brooke, the war poet, and a generation behind the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. This upbringing gave Butler – who never named a woman in his diary, and only rarely named a working class man – a particular view of society, and of war. The sad patriotism of Brooke’s most famous poem, “The Soldier,” echoed in Butler’s writing: “there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England,” beneath “an English heaven,” the dead were “a dust whom England bore.” He wrote his diaries with a gold pen he had inherited, engraved with the name of his great-uncle, Sir Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics.
As a former lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery, Butler had been keen to re-enlist when war was declared. Aged 51, still bothered occasionally by his old injuries, he was rejected. After World War I, having returned early and shell-shocked, he had written a book about his experiences, called Plain Impressions. He described being buried twice by bombs, and wounded in the head. There were dismembered limbs protruding from the mud and, beneath the ice in craters, clean water with which to wash. He once tried to feed a robin on the rim of a trench, shells looping back and forth. There were screams in the distance, and a rotting smell around the ruins in no-man’s land.
Once, looking through his telescope as he readied his artillery, he thought of the German men in their trenches. Flares rose over the ridge, flickering blue, gold, and red, the enemy signaling SOS as the British mustard gas hit their lines. “None must escape the guns,” Butler thought, as he gave his orders, one hundred rounds a minute. He imagined men “diving and dodging for shelter, blundering in their masks into dug-outs, choking, sobbing, shouting, bleeding, cursing and dying.” Afterwards, he wrote, he enjoyed a meal, and the new port that had just arrived, and discussed yesterday’s papers with his friends. There was a “murder case that is making rather a stir in London at present,” he remembered. “We thought on the whole it was rather a brutal one.”
When he returned to Britain, Butler built a narrow house in Buckinghamshire, 30 miles from St. Paul’s, with sloping views down to the Thames. Labor was in short supply, so despite his injuries, he did much of the work himself; an injured grenadier helped dig the foundations, an injured sergeant from the Royal Engineers helped with the rest. Butler tiled the floors, as he had seen in the French farmhouses destroyed at the front. After completing the house, his architectural practice grew. For 20 years, between the wars, he drew clean-lined, pastel plans for churches and libraries, and converted medieval ruins and grand aristocratic houses. He kept up with architectural fashion, but mostly rejected it. In 1926, he published his second book, The Substance of Architecture. “Good architecture,” he wrote, “is as essential to the business of living as fine painting, good music and well-written books.” He described many buildings he admired; the dome of St. Paul’s was “a delightful fiction,” he said, “invented and wholly untrue,” loved for its “mountainous rigidity and grandeur, its look of a supreme and culminating summit guarding London with a fat maternal benignity.”
Butler travelled well in those days, wealthy and without many responsibilities. He saw Prague, “sulky with history,” and the basilica at Vicenza sizzling in the sun, and the apse at Beauvais in the starlight. In 1934, he visited Nuremberg during a Nazi rally. “The old Gothic churches in the town – such delicate shrines of charity – seemed wholly out of place,” he wrote. “All the Germans surging about were like people in an ecstasy.” The buildings were draped with swastikas. “I was deeply impressed,” he remembered, even during the Blitz.
Sometimes, watching the constellation of flares at St. Paul’s, Butler felt a sense of eternal order amongst the destruction. Closer to the stars than any man in the city, he saw incendiaries deflect off the dome, falling into the gardens around the cathedral, like fairies in the trees. He prided himself on his “Blitz spirit,” still often evoked after violence in Britain. Things that needed to be said were expressed through thin lips, quaveringly, or proffered with tabloid forthrightness, and he sought refuge in the arts. He discussed the weather, and holidays abroad, and his garden, meaning much more.
Before the bomb fell through the roof that April night, Butler seemed to enjoy the tinny sound of the incendiaries on the cathedral lead. It was a “shower,” he wrote, “an April one, proper to this month.” It reminded him of “the preliminary whip of a hailstorm before a cold spring tempest in the north.” Between one and two o’clock, with a retired architectural draftsman friend, he found one “fizzling nicely in a gutter,” in the dark. They dropped sandbags on it, and damped it down, and shook hands, pleased with themselves. “When we are helping each other to endure,” Butler wrote, “we avoid most carefully any appearance of high eagerness to do so and all signs of emotional excess.”
As the bombs fell heavier though, and the flames reached to the moon, his thoughts began to trouble him again. This was the worst night of the Blitz, the Dean would write after the war, and Butler was aware of his significant role, protecting the most prominent part of London’s most prominent landmark. His anger, and his xenophobia, bubbled up, as it did from time to time. He felt as if he was back at the front, smoking in his lookout, and became “twitchy” again, as he had in the trenches. People were being “killed in the very scene where our letters are still being delivered, water runs hot into our baths and we arrange flowers in vases or mow a lawn,” he thought. Churchill had called it “terrorism” in his most recent radio broadcast, which the Watch had listened to down in the Crypt. Many of the German airmen had been ordered to make wills before taking flight.
Looking westwards, Butler saw fire after fire, towards his house in Chelsea, five miles away. It was “filthy insanity,” he wrote, the “hellish magnificence” overwhelming him. High on the dome, he hoped the Germans would be “obliterated,” and “not, after the war, asked to lunch and played cricket with politely.” “Here was the great collapse of civilization going on around us, loathsomely visible,” he had written of another raid. “My streets and roads and trees, my shops and churches, my pavements, my buses and offices, my friends, being smashed up by beastly German toughs.” The image of the arm in the mud in World War I came back to him. He remembered shooting a German officer, having admired his smartly cut great coat through the telescope, adjusting the 18-pounder carefully, until one round fell right.
During the day, Butler still wore the medal ribbons he won in World War I, pinning them to the overalls he had been given by Chelsea Borough Council, his new employer. Initially, before a stranger corrected him, he wore the ribbons upside down. Since closing his architectural practice at the start of the Blitz, Arthur had become the borough’s “ruin recorder,” tasked with writing reports on bomb-damaged buildings, assessing them for compensation. Even after long nights at St. Paul’s, he clambered through rubble, wet and covered in dust, remembering the trenches. At one building, he counted 1,217 broken windowpanes.
Butler often became morbid when describing this work, his diary entries twinging with understatement: the headless doll in the rubble; a deaf old colonel in his ruined house; the books still on shelves, written by a woman he seemed to have once loved. The buildings were “sullen,” he wrote, “putrescent,” “gaunt” five-story wrecks. These were houses he knew well, in which he had danced when he was young, but the rich had mostly gone, as well as many of the poor, leaving housekeepers and caretakers, the elderly and eccentric. Two million people had left London. “A lot of us are just debris and need clearing up,” he wrote.
Butler saw victims, of course, some of the 43,000 who would die in the Blitz. Once, after discussing the merits of a modern painting that lay in the rubble, he noticed “a woman’s body, wrapped up in a blanket and tied with string, pending removal. Only her ankles showed at the end of the bundle – neat and pretty ankles with silk stockings and nice shoes.” Her feet, it seemed, were the wrong way around. Butler kicked at a door and “felt – not physically sick nor horrified – but a sharp sensation of despair.”
Elsewhere, a man cooked bacon after his wife had been killed on the way to the air raid shelter. His was “a room like a lot of others,” Butler wrote, “all over Europe, with a plain man or woman in it, enduring the maximum sorrow and wondering why.” At what had once been an apartment building, a woman asked him if there was any hope for her niece, who had lived at number 59. “I sat down beside her on the bit of stonework,” he remembered, “and, looking at the piled up rocks of concrete, steel girders, broken doors and baths all upside-down, said ‘no, my dear,’ and she said ‘thank you.’ That was all.”
Despite his love of travel, Butler rarely ventured out of London during the war. He never married, and lived alone, with his corgi. He was proud of his little corner of the city. There was a lonely tree in a square, which he liked to paint, and he would take his watercolors to St. Paul’s in the daylight, and to the most picturesque ruins. There was “an eternity of houses you can still live in,” he wrote, “but damply, in moderate darkness, nasty draughts, and permanent hate.” Even here, the war was unavoidable. He once found startled Belgian refugees in a ruined building he visited. In the attic of another, there were men he described as “dago-ish,” transmitting radio messages. Plaster fell from the ceiling of his own study, as he wrote. “I have all my best things out,” he said, “—just for show. Not sure what; but we may as well perish together.” Outside, his garden wall rocked after a bomb exploded nearby. Another landed in his own street, knocking him unconscious, turning his daffodils ashen and liverish. “My bulbs are sprouting nicely,” he wrote, after describing a friend who had just died, “and the Forsythia looks like doing something soon.”
Butler was already angry on April 16, 1941, when the 500-pound bomb smashed through the oak trusses above the cathedral’s north transept. Still falling, it exploded between the roof and the marble floor, bringing down the columns that held the famous inscription to the cathedral’s architect: si monumentum requires, circumspice: “if you seek his monument, look around.” The masonry broke through the floor in a dull roar. Mountains of rubble poured into the Crypt, into what had been the Watch headquarters. The walls were blown eight inches from the vertical, and the cathedral doors were shattered. Glass fell in torrents, for what seemed like minutes. The dome rocked, as the bombs continued to fall outside, with their muffled screams. It felt as if an earthquake had hit. The Watch worried that the dome might fall.
As he came down from his lookout, Butler saw the vast hole in the cathedral floor, with the rubble piled below. Statues looked down, some proud and impervious, one leaning on another’s shoulder. Thin wooden chairs approached the edge, still lined up neatly. Everything at headquarters had been destroyed, he realized. There had been a telephone, which the more frail volunteers used to ring orders to the roofs, and a chess set, and the wireless around which the Watch said the same prayers each night. The masonry had destroyed Butler’s clothes and his wallet, which he had left in the Crypt, and buried his house keys. Other members of the Watch began to gather with him. Butler fetched tea and a bun for the cathedral’s sub-librarian, who had just found an unexploded parachute mine outside, shrouded in green silk. It was a miracle, they all said, that no one had been killed. They felt unharmed.
When the All Clear sounded, Butler made his way home. The streets were deserted, and still lit by fires. There was a “harsh stink of frying offices,” he remembered, which lessened as he walked, unsteadily. Through Westminster, looking up only occasionally, he saw “important buildings perishing.” Richard the Lionheart’s sword was bent, on a statue in Parliament Square. When Butler came back a couple of weeks later, in need of fresh air, he saw the gaps in the walls of the Houses of Parliament, caused by another raid. It was “as if a child of your own had been withered by the enemy,” he wrote. “Cads,” he thought, “rutting in slaughter.” He hoped British bombs had killed an old German friend, from before the war, and his family.
By the time Butler turned into his street, the sun had come up over the city. He saw another damaged church over the roofs at the far end, in the morning light. Without his key, he was happy to see his front door swinging open, unlatched by a near miss. His corgi ran out, barking. Butler had lived here for a year or so, and would stay until he died, in 1965, shortly before Churchill’s funeral at St. Paul’s. In his study, he would continue to write: a biography of his grandmother, a Victorian social reformer, which lingered on his own childhood; a biography of the architect of Westminster Cathedral; a catalogue of Edwin Lutyens’ work, who had designed the most famous memorials to the dead of World War I, whose own monument was built in the Crypt.
He would paint, too: a fortified church he once saw in France; mountains on the border with Germany; a hopeless river, which he called “Waiting For The Tide;” black, twisted trees.
That morning, still wearing his dirty cathedral overalls and his numbered tin hat, he “flopped,” he remembered, his legs no longer working. He had “worms in the head,” he recorded in his diary. “Well, we copped it last night,” Butler wrote. “It was, on the whole, rather grand.”