From the Archives: The Battle of Britain 75 years on

POST BY RSomerset

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Between 10 July and 31 October 1940, the German Air Force waged an air campaign against the United Kingdom. The objective of the German forces was to achieve air superiority over the Royal Air Force, and began by targeting coastal shipping convoys and shipping centres. Soon the target of attacks was shifted to RAF airfields and infrastructure, factories involved in aircraft production, and eventually areas of political significance, towns and cities.

By preventing Germany from gaining air superiority, the planned amphibious and airborne invasion of Britain known as Operation Sea Lion was postponed and eventually abandoned.  This is considered to be a crucial turning point in the events of the Second World War; however Germany continued bombing operations on Britain, known as The Blitz.

The British victory in the Battle of Britain was achieved at a heavy cost. Total British civilian losses from July to December 1940 were 23,002 dead and 32,138 wounded. Luftwaffe losses from 10 July to 30 October 1940 total 1,652 aircraft. In the same period, RAF Fighter Command aircraft losses number 1,087.

Pilots who fought in the battle are commemorated on "Battle of Britain Day", the 15th of September. On this day in 1940, the Luftwaffe embarked on their largest bombing attack yet, forcing the engagement of the entirety of the RAF in defence of London and the South East, which resulted in a decisive British victory that proved to mark a turning point in Britain's favour. Churchill concluded his famous 18 June 'Battle of Britain' speech in the House of Commons by referring to pilots and aircrew who fought the Battle: "... if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.”

Chaplains' Weekly reports of men killed in action, particularly in the air force, and of the many Jesuit chaplains who reported for duty with the RAF. It also describes the damage caused by air-raids, particularly to Farm St Church and Manresa House at Roehampton. In the week preceding 20 October 1940, Manresa was evacuated. A bomb which had struck the roof of the Juniors’ Recreation Room the previous week killed one of the Juniors, while two more were injured.

Clergy wearing tin hats and a religious sister carrying out sacred objects from a building

 

The Chapel of the Convent of the Sacred Heart, adjacent to Manresa, was destroyed by fire caused by delayed action bombs, c. October 1940

September 29th 1940:

Last Saturday, September 21st, Farm St Church was again in danger from fire. Another “Molotoff Basket” was dropped in the vicinity and fires were started in the surrounding streets ... One bomb fell on the Organ loft but was extinguished by the prompt action of the Fire Squad of the neighbouring building before any damage was done. Another fell on the roof of the porch at the Mount St entrance to the Church. It had burnt a hole in the lead of the roof and ignited a beam before our Fathers were able to get at it. The fire was quickly under control but it took close to two hours work with the stirrup pump before we were able to satisfy ourselves that there was no danger of the fire spreading.

April 20th 1941:
During Wednesday night’s air raid, all the windows of the Farm Street house were shattered and the house badly shaken by a bomb which fell quite close. The Rose Window, the window above it in the Organ Loft and the Lourdes window were also blown out: slight damage was done to the roof ... Our Fathers at St Mary’s on the Quay have had a gruelling time during recent raids. On Good Friday several heavy bombs fell in the immediate vicinity of the Church ... Windows were shattered, doors blown open and the whole portico was inches deep in plaster fallen from the roof.

Chaplains' Weekly images  – click to enlarge:

 

Left: 21 September 1940: Reports of bomb damage at Farm Street and Manresa 

Right: 24 November 1940: Fr J B Rowland SJ describes life in London during the Blitz

Reports of damage to the church continue until May 1941. On 5 January 1941 it is reported that the nave of the church had been covered with a temporary roof of asbestos and steel where the original roof was destroyed and new slates inserted where the old ones were damaged by fire. Because of the thinness of the roof and consequently inadequate heating, services were not held in the winter months. It was re-opened for public services on Palm Sunday.

The damage to the roof was worse than initially suspected and had to be renovated twice: 1977 and 1987. Many windows also had to be replaced. Above the loft can be seen the magnificent ‘rose’ window restored by Evie Hone, depicting instruments of the Passion.

For records of the Farm St Church roof appeal, illustrations of the Evie Hone window and Chaplains' Weekly, please contact the Jesuits in Britain Archives.

Mary Allen, Assistant Archivist