Today’s lectionary readings picture moments of destruction. Jeremiah, in his Lamentations sees the devastated wastes of Jerusalem after the Babylonians had invaded and destroyed it before the exile. The picture he paints is one of despair. Over 500 years later, Our Lord is in the Temple precincts, all newly rebuilt and burnished; he foresees what indeed was to happen forty years later, that once again, the Temple would be razed to the ground. The prophet holds out hope for restoration; and Jesus calls us all to watch. Here at St Mark’s we know something of the experience of devastation and restoration. Our remembering what took place exactly 80 years ago is not a mere looking back, but an honouring of a key moment in our national history and local experience; the echoes of another age, which can ring strangely, at moments capture something of the spirit which sustained our forbears here, and which might renew our own courage and hope in the current moment of crisis.
Winston Churchill became Prime Minister on 13 May 1940. The German threat to the whole of Europe could not have been more intense. His speech on 4 June 1940 makes plain the significance of the collapse of allied strongholds in the rest of Europe. The Battle of Britain was in sight, and that Battle was as much as anything to destroy to morale of the British people. Edward Murrow, US journalist commented in 1954 that Churchill “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle to steady his fellow countrymen and hearten those Europeans upon whom the long dark night of tyranny had descended”. The powerful rhetoric and detailed straight-talking of Churchill’s speeches in the Summer of 1940 helped a bombarded people hold firm. On 4 June 1940, the Prime Minister addressed the House of Commons as he recounts of Dunkirk and its aftermath.
The great French Army was very largely, for the time being, cast back and disturbed by the onrush of a few thousands of armoured vehicles. May it not also be that the cause of civilisation itself will be defended by the skill and devotion of a few thousand airmen? There never had been, I suppose, in all the world, in all the history of war, such an opportunity for youth. The Knights of the Round Table, the Crusaders, all fall back into a prosaic past: not only distant but prosaic; but these young men, going forth every morn to guard their native land and all that we stand for, holding in their hands these instruments of colossal and shattering power, of whom it may be said that:
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight,
deserve our gratitude.
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
The Fall of France, and Dunkirk were deep traumas. Many urged a negotiated peace. Having begun a War of words, Churchill had to intensify the onslaught. On 18 June he gave this memorable speech on the Eve of the Battle of Britain.
However matters may go in France or with the French Government or with another French Government, we in this island and in the British Empire will never lose our sense of comradeship with the French people. If we are now called upon to endure what they have been suffering, we shall emulate their courage, and if final victory rewards our toils they shall share the gains, aye. And freedom shall be restored to all….
What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over… the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.
Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”
Rhetoric was one thing, military strategy was another. It was vital if Britain were to prevent a full-scale invasion that its Air Force should prove itsmastery. A massive campaign of bombing of German military and industrial targets was carried out. This was matched with comparable targeting of key installations in this country by the Luftwaffe. On 20 August 1940 the signs of Britain’s air supremacy were there. The Battle was by no means over or won, but Churchill pronounced as if it were.
Almost a year has passed since the war began, and it is natural for us, I think, to pause on our journey at this milestone and survey the dark, wide field.
As in Nelson’s day, the maxim holds, “Our first line of defence is the enemy’s ports.” Now air reconnaissance and photography have brought to an old principle a new and potent aid.
The great air battle which has been in progress over this Island for the last few weeks has recently attained a high intensity. It is too soon to attempt to assign limits either to its scale or to its duration. We must certainly expect that greater efforts will be made by the enemy than any he has so far put forth. Hostile air fields are still being developed in France and the Low Countries, and the movement of squadrons and material for attacking us is still proceeding.
It is quite plain that Herr Hitler could not admit defeat in his air attack on Great Britain without sustaining most serious injury. If, after all his boastings and blood-curdling threats and lurid accounts trumpeted round the world of the damage he has inflicted, of the vast numbers of our Air Force he has shot down, so he says, with so little loss to himself; if after tales of the panic-stricken British crushed in their holes cursing the plutocratic Parliament which has led them to such a plight; if after all this his whole air onslaught were forced after a while tamely to peter out, the Fuehrer’s reputation for veracity of statement might be seriously impugned. We may be sure, therefore, that he will continue as long as he has the strength to do so, and as long as any preoccupations he may have in respect of the Russian Air Force allow him to do so…..
The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
For my own part, looking out upon the future, I do not view the process with any misgivings. I could not stop it if I wished; no one can stop it. Like the Mississippi, it just keeps rolling along. Let it roll. Let it roll on full flood, inexorable, irresistible, benignant, to broader lands and better days.
The late Summer and early Autumn saw by the far the most intense reprisals and determination by the German command to beleaguer the civilian population.On 7 September, a massive series of raids involving nearly four hundred bombers and more than six hundred fighters targeted docks in the East End of London, day and night. The German press jubilantly announced that “one great cloud of smoke stretches tonight from the middle of London to the mouth of the Thames.” Göring maintained that the RAF was close to defeat, making invasion feasible.The Luftwaffe began to abandon their morning raids, with attacks on London starting late in the afternoon for fifty-seven consecutive nights. The assumed defeat of the RAF never came. By 13 October, Hitler himself postponed so-called Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain until the Spring of 1941. This was not before large parts of London had been devastated and St Mark’s, amongst so many places, lay in ruins. The church took two direct hits during the nights of 21 & 26 September.
The October Parish Magazine begins soberly:
Many of our readers will probably be surprised that no mention is made in this magazine of certain events last month. The editor can only say he is unable to allude to them and will of course do so at the earliest moment. He feels sure those who read will understand. Mr Wheeler, Newsagent in Princess Road, is kindly allowing us to put notices in his shop window of certain of our services and arrangements. I ask you all to keep your attention on these notices.
By the time of The November 1940 magazine’s publication, we read:
(Permission has been obtained from the Ministry of Information and Air Ministry to publish the following statement. It was not allowed to be published earlier and certain details such as the date of the disaster, although well-known to everybody here, have been omitted.)
St Mark’s Church was struck by incendiary bombs during a recent raid on London. The roof quickly caught alight and the fire rapidly spread from the west to the east end of it. By the time the hoses were brought into action most of the nave roof was ablaze, and it was soon evident that the destruction of the interior of the church would be complete. The fire was all over in a few hours.
The church was again struck by a high explosive bomb at a later date. The tracery of the east window, hitherto intact, was blown out and the wall around and above it so damaged that it had to be taken down later. This bomb apparently struck the High Altar steps, going right down into the church room and making a good deal of material damage to the chancel wall.
St Mark’s now stands in ruins. The walls and pillars remain, although the chancel walls are badly cracked. So is the steeple which, to our grief, will have to be taken down, and, indeed, the process of doing this has already begun.
This great calamity which has befallen the parish will I know, meet with the sympathy of all, wherever they may live, who knew and loved St Mark’s. It is too early yet to see far ahead…..It is unnecessary to tellyou of the great grief of our congregation and of the many kind expressions of sympathy which have reached me and touched me deeply. We can but look forward to the day when St Mark’s may be restored. Indeed, it has been remarkable how, in letter after letter which I have received, the conviction has been expressed that out of the present ruins will arise a new St Mark’s, beautiful and fruitful for the future years.
I know this great calamity will unite our congregation, and keep them loyal to the things for which St Mark’s exists and yes, still exists. We shall continue of course to “hold fast the profession of our faith”, to worship together and to have our sacraments. We shall, I hope be more faithful and regular than ever. We will not be dismayed but will remember, in the words of His Majesty the King, that “after winter comes spring” and we will do our best to show that our Christian faith is big enough to ride over our present distress.
The then churchwardens, Mr S A Davis and Mr F A Wallis wrote this in the same issue:
The loss of our church is keenly felt by every member of St Mark’s, many of whom have over the period of years, given so much time and care to its beautifications and maintenance.
To one man, however it has been grievous and personal shock – the Vicar.
As a little group of us stood with the vicar watching the flames creep relentlessly towards the High Altar, we thought of the years of devotion he had unsparingly given to make St Mark’s Church truly beautiful, as beautiful as it was.
Like the artist he is, the Vicar has given the highest and noblest in him to his church – a labour of love – and in a few minutes, it stood out against the starlit sky a grim charred ruin. Had the vicar pressed words of bitterness none could have wondered. His first words however were of concern for his people; that the spiritual life of the parish should go on.
We are addressing these few words to you, the members of St Mark’s, because we feel that you should wish to know of these things. The Vicar’s courage is a challenge to each one of us. We must accept that challenge as a sacred trust. The work of our Church must go on, our Church must be rebuilt.
In the meantime, we earnestly appeal to you to all to do your utmost to maintain the income of the Church and indeed to increase it, that hurried and maybe unwise decisions may not be forced upon us by economic distress. That St Mark’s Church shall again stand proudly as a place worthy and beautiful is, we are sure, the will and determination if its people.
In the December edition of the magazine, the Vicar announced, under the title RIP George Langford:
The death of Mr Langford came to us as a real shock: not only because of its unexpectedness – he went from us very suddenly – but because our affection for him brought with it that unwillingness to believe we should see him no more. He has been associated with St Mark’s for so long – all his life, I believe. Not only was a he a sidesman, not only had he served on the Parochial Church Council, but he was a faithful and regular member of the congregation….. It must have brought great trouble to him when his house was badly damaged in a recent air-raid; and the destruction of St Mark’s perhaps meant more to him that we can ever know. Such disasters were in all probability contributory causes of his death.
The Vicar’s spirits were despite these sadnesses were undimmed. He writes in the same edition:
I have recently come across a bound volume of the St Mark’s Parish Magazine of 1900. Such ancient volumes must be rare…. One of the most valuable functions of a parish magazine is to record parish history, and therefore it may be of interest and profit to look back to the life of St Mark’s forty years ago as it was portrayed in the magazine….Queen Victoria was still alive.. but they were not days of peace. We were in the middle of the Boer War. The vicar was then Dr Sparrow Simpson who is happily still with us. His name is known throughout the Church of England as one its greatest scholars and theologians.
He goes on to describe aspects of parish life, not least the management of the schools, the teas for the children on St Mark’s Day, the daily mass, the choir football and cricket teams. He concludes in the evocation of this bygone age:
As we read these accounts of calm happenings in the life of the parish 40 years ago, we are inclined to think that there is something to be said for the despised Victorian age after all. There is the sense of well established Church life, with its well run schools and organisations, with nothing to upset its ordered progress. In in 1980, if someone discovered the bound volume of this year’s parish magazines, and wrote the article “Forty Years Ago”, I wonder what he would think of 1940?