Who Really Saved the Cathedral?

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Oast houses, schoolboys, Chaucer, kippers, gargoyles, World War II, Canterbury, makeshift ropes, incendiary bombs, borstals & the Mother Church of the Anglican Communion.

On the night of May 31, 1942, a thousand British bombers laid a wide carpet of high explosive and incendiary bombs over the German cathedral city of Cologne. Lord Haw-Haw, the plummy voiced renegade Englishman William Joyce who broadcast Nazi propaganda to Britain over the radio, had specifically warned that Canterbury would bear the brunt of German retribution if Cologne were bombed. The warning was ignored.

Between Canterbury and Whitstable, the small town where I lived on the widening estuary of the Thames River, lies a stretch of rural countryside. There are several hop-gardens consisting of acres of vines climbing up string networks supported by tall wooden posts; a lot of orchards; a few tidy agricultural buildings clustered round the iconic hop-drying kilns that Kentish farmers call oast houses; and an occasional handsome farmhouse, each one sheltered by a grove of tall trees planted at the same time the house was built. It is a prosperous and peaceful landscape that takes about twenty minutes to travel by bus.

In the summer of 1942, Britain had been at war for nearly three years, but there were few signs of it in this unruffled corner of southeast England. The bus still ran every half hour from the stop by Whitstable’s small public library, a five-minute walk from where I lived. Half a dozen schoolboys got on the double-decker bus every morning. The workers who operated it were an important part of our lives.

Well, that’s not strictly true. The driver in his closed-off compartment at the front never really entered our consciousness; he remained simply “the driver,” who steered the big bus and responded to the loud ding of the bell fixed within inches of his left ear.

Up to that moment we had no idea that German bombers had attacked the city. I had gotten used to the new and rather exciting situation of being at war.

The conductor was a different kettle of fish, as I heard the father of one of the younger boys say. For a week after this phrase entered our consciousness, everyone that we older men (I was twelve) mentioned was related to fish: adult passengers were kippers, schoolmasters and mistresses codfish, policemen skates and any boy from one of the other schools in Canterbury who rode the bus was an eel. It became a semi-secret language and it gave us an enormous amount of simple pleasure. Always, however often we heard it, we were reduced to helpless giggles.

The conductor of our bus was Mr. Grover, a figure of kindly authority who, to my personal knowledge, was there in command almost every day for six years. He wore the uniform, shiny at the cuffs, of the East Kent Road Car Company. His job was to collect the fare (one penny per schoolboy for the journey Whitstable-to-Canterbury or vice versa), to ring it up on the ticket machine that hung on a strap from his shoulder and to maintain some sort of order among his often unruly passengers.

The rural route that we rode every day was characterized by two considerable hills, one at each end. A comparatively short, steep rise named Borstal Hill climbed out of Whitstable. I never knew why it carried that name; “borstal” was the generic term in England for a detention center for criminally minded youths, but the only building at the summit of the hill was a derelict windmill. The steepness of this hill compelled the bus driver to change right down to the bus’s lowest gear and grind its way slowly to the top.

Then, as we rolled toward Canterbury, there were a number of ups and downs in the course of the next six miles before the bus came to the less steep, but much longer, final hill that led down into the city. The summit of this nameless hill was thickly wooded. For an observer, the result was that Canterbury was hidden until the moment when the bus lumbered through the last of the trees to emerge at the top of the hill with a clear sight of the city spread out below.

On this morning of June 1, 1942, we were not prepared in any way for what we saw. It was not the familiar and tranquil scene of the ancient city surrounding the cathedral, the magnet that drew Chaucer’s pilgrims from all over England to the place where Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170 was hacked to death by three knights on the orders of King Henry II. Instead, as the bus came through the trees at the top of the long hill, we were faced with a blanket of black and grey smoke shot with the pulsating glow of flames.

I heard Mr. Grover say, “Oh my Gawd.”

The playground was filled with wreckage—chairs and desks, window frames, parts of staircases, cooking equipment, broken bricks everywhere and thousands of sheets of paper, mostly white but pink and blue too, as if the mortally wounded school had been caught in the middle of a celebration.

Up to that moment we had no idea that German bombers had attacked the city. I had gotten used to the new and rather exciting situation of being at war, with enemy aircraft flying high over our houses almost every night on the way to bomb London, dogfights between Spitfires and Messerschmitts in the sky by day, enemy warships slinking through the English Channel in the mist and the ever-present threat of invasion. There were no news broadcasts on the radio about damage from German bombing raids—they might have given useful information to the Nazi intelligence apparatus—and the local newspaper came out just once a week. So what we saw from our familiar bus at that moment was a scene of devastation for which we had no preparation. It got worse as the bus picked its way through the dense traffic until it was brought to a stop. This happened a few hundred yards from its normal terminus at the near end of the High Street, beside the medieval West Gate, a massive stone portal under which I had often marched, playing a trombone and rejoicing in the overwhelming resonance of the 1st Whitstable Scouts Brass Band as we led some parade into the city.

On this day we jumped off the trapped bus and walked through the West Gate. Almost immediately we found ourselves in the thick of the raid’s aftermath. This was where the first of the bombs, a mix of high explosive and incendiaries, had struck in the middle of the night. The flight of German bombers had swept in low, their principal target the cathedral. It was a prominent enough target, a hundred or more feet taller than any other structure within 100 miles, surrounded by the wide, manicured green lawns of the cathedral close. It was said that one aircraft had been specifically designated to drop a large high-explosive bomb to blow the cathedral to smithereens, but it missed and destroyed a nearby part of the city instead.

Once off the bus, six of us from Whitstable, aged between ten and thirteen, had instinctively gathered into a group. There was no leader; we had a collective purpose much like a swarm of bees. We were going to school as we did every other weekday. Simon Langton’s School lay at the other end of the High Street, half a mile away. Now we could easily see the damage from the German bombs that had rained down on the city, reducing many of the ancient structures to smoking or flaming rubble. The wreckage started about 100 yards from where we were standing at the bus station and continued (as we discovered when we followed our usual route to the school at the other end) through Canterbury’s heart. The fire brigades, one of them from Whitstable, were out in full force, the ambulance services and the police too. Nobody tried to stop us. We were stimulated by excitement and curiosity. We should probably have turned round and walked back to the bus station, but we weren’t old enough to have acquired that kind of common sense. We were conditioned to do what we had done every day for years: go to school.

Our school occupied a site just off the far end of the High Street. The way to get there was to follow the straight main street through the middle of the city almost to the end, and then turn right through the school gates into the large expanse of the playground and its encircling brick buildings. We did that after dodging the paraphernalia of hoses and cables and barriers and policemen and firemen and air raid wardens and soldiers and ambulances and huge fire engines. And as soon as we were through the gates we found the shocking truth: most of Simon Langton’s School, our school, wasn’t there anymore. One or more of the Germans’ high-explosive bombs had scored a direct hit on the main building. All that was left of the heart of the school were a couple of long brick walls that seemed to have been untidily snapped off at about ten feet and a playground filled with wreckage—chairs and desks, window frames, parts of staircases, cooking equipment, broken bricks everywhere and thousands of sheets of paper, mostly white but pink and blue too, as if the mortally wounded school had been caught in the middle of a celebration.

That first step confirmed, even through our socks, that the surface of the roof was hot enough to fry an egg (incidentally rationed, at this stage of the war, to one a week).

A burly figure in overalls and rubber boots, a brass helmet on his head, waddled towards us making “no, no” gestures. When he got closer we could see the dirt and sweat on his dark face, and the oil and scorch marks on his overalls. As he got nearer, he said, “No, lads, this is no place for you today. Go back and find your way home; there’ll be no school for a few days, and when it does open again it’ll be somewhere else, I shouldn’t wonder.” He chivvied us back through the gates, and as soon as all six of us were through he shut them with a dull clang and secured them with a broom handle through the bent bars. “Off you go, lads, good luck,” he called as he waved and disappeared back into the wreckage. I hope he was all right. I think some firemen were badly hurt when walls collapsed on them.

We were now wandering on the edge of the bomb damage, without any purpose or direction. We had been drawn to the magnet of our school, but now there was nothing to guide us or to provide a focus. We walked and stumbled back the way we had come, into the High Street where the main damage had occurred. It was a dry morning, but everything was wet and filthy because the water mains had been ruptured and thousands of gallons had roared out of the pipes before the city authorities turned them off. And of course the firemen’s hoses were adding to the wet chaos every second. Our shoes were soon scratched and torn and soaked.

Setting off in the general direction of the bus station where we had arrived earlier that morning, we soon lost our way—or found it blocked. Nothing looked as I remembered; nearly all the familiar landmarks that we used to navigate by had disappeared. Kindly workers tried to guide us through the chaos. A few of them shouted at us for getting in the way of their work.

Suddenly an extraordinary figure appeared in front of us as we turned a bomb-blasted corner. It was a tall presence, wrapped in a scarlet garment that swept down almost to touch the rubble under its feet, with white hair to its shoulders and one arm raised and beckoning as it called, “Come along, you boys, I have a job for you.” I decided that it was either a theatrical image doing an act against the backdrop of smoke and flame or, possibly at least, supernatural.

So far, God had played an insignificant part—one might say almost none—in my life. It was true that His name appeared on a fairly regular basis in the Boy Scout troop of which I was a member; we all prayed to God at the beginning of each troop meeting. But the prayers carried no image with them. The members of my family—my mother; my older brother, John (a scientist up at Cambridge); and our divorced sister, Priscilla—all continued to live their lives with a total absence of any reference to religion.

There among the ruins of Canterbury, I decided that I was indeed looking at God.

For a moment, my instinct was to turn and run, but the other boys in my little group were clearly inclined to follow the figure, and somewhere in my subconscious was the concept of safety in numbers. So I joined them, scrambling over and through the sometimes smoking piles of smashed brick and stone in the wake of God as personified by The Very Reverend Dr. Hewlett Johnson, Dean of the Cathedral Church of Christ, Canterbury Cathedral.

As I learned much later, the dean of a cathedral has, as his principal charge, the preservation of the ancient building that is the focus of the city where it had been built. In addition, Canterbury Cathedral held—holds to this day—the very special designation of Mother Church of the Anglican Communion worldwide, and it has been welcoming pilgrims, including Geoffrey Chaucer’s most famous characters, who exchanged stories on the way to Canterbury, for hundreds of years before the bombs fell that night in the summer of 1942.

We followed the rapidly disappearing dean, who was making a beeline for his cathedral and uttering occasional cries of distress at the destruction all around, or calls of encouragement directed toward us. When we arrived at the remains of the grand stone entrance to the close, we saw for the first time that day the familiar cathedral, reaching to the sky and apparently untouched by the bombs.

I found myself five minutes later holding one of Desmond’s hands as he and I were lowered down the slope of the roof by means of a rope made from four trouser belts buckled together and then knotted to part of the dean’s regalia.

At the age of twelve, the concepts of beauty and grandeur had never entered my head, and I doubt whether any of the other boys in our little posse were better prepared for the sight in front of us. Surrounded by multiple craters in the green lawns and a hundred yards of smoking ruins where a stick of bombs had destroyed the fine stone dwellings (homes to some of the senior clergy attached to the archdiocese) that formed one edge of the close, Canterbury Cathedral soared in all its thousand-year glory into the blue sky. For a moment there was a mist in front of my eyes and a constriction in my throat that I did not understand. And then the sight of the dean’s scarlet figure, cassock flying behind him as he strode toward the main door making “come on” gestures, brought me back to Earth and I hurried to catch up.

I had been to the Cathedral on many occasions, and I thought I knew my way through its soaring emptiness. But once inside, the dean said, “Follow me very closely, boys. Don’t get lost, because we will never find you.” He made a noise that might have been a cough or a laugh and hurried along one side of the nave, down some steps to the dark crypt below and through a series of dim arches until he stopped at a narrow, heavy wooden door with a massive iron lock. The dean put a steel key the size of a soup spoon into the lock and turned it with an effort and a loud click.

Pulling the door open—it proved to be solid oak, about four inches thick—he quickly disappeared into the unmistakable narrow left-handed turns of an upward-climbing stone spiral staircase. Each step was twice as high as a normal staircase, and the effort of climbing them made my knees ache horribly. Added to this, I was sandwiched in the middle of the group so that I couldn’t stop to rest without blocking the two boys behind me. Finally, the dean’s voice was floating down the stone spiral from above, urging greater efforts to climb faster.

Eventually, after a climb that left me dizzy, sore and exhausted, we were all assembled by the dean at a similar door. I could only guess how high we had climbed by the number of slit windows we passed in the stonework of what was clearly one of the twin towers above the main door. That wrenching climb took us through a constantly repeated pattern of pitch-black darkness followed by a brief shaft of light from the next slit window. After a dozen iterations, I gave up counting. Now the dean seized another great key hidden in a niche; he inserted it into the big lock and paused before he turned it. “Boys,” he said, “I am about to lead you onto the roofs of the cathedral. This is a dangerous place; there are bouncing wooden planks that connect some of the slopes together, and the pitch of many of the roofs is very steep. We will be more surefooted, like goats in the mountain, if we all take our shoes off. So come along, Robert,” pointing at the largest of us, “take your shoes off, make sure your socks don’t have any holes on the bottom, leave your shoes there.” I doubted the wisdom of no shoes because mine were so soggy that they would cling to anything, but we all followed suit after watching the dean as he removed his own (leather sandals with sagging grey socks) and belted his scarlet cassock firmly round his waist. “Right-ho,” he finally said, “now follow me onto the roof, hold on to something and WAIT on the other side of this door until all of us have come through.” He turned the key in the lock and opened the door.

Immediately a blinding burst of daylight leapt into the space where we were huddled. During the long climb our eyes had become accustomed to the darkness of the spiral staircase, and the searing light of a very bright summer day struck our dilated pupils like a punch from Joe Louis’s fist. Cries of distress and pain, including a reedy one from the dean himself and an unexpectedly rude word from Robert, took half a minute to subside, and then we stepped out onto the cathedral roof. That first step confirmed, even through our socks, that the surface of the roof was hot enough to fry an egg (incidentally rationed, at this stage of the war, to one a week). The dean quickly orchestrated a crocodile of boys and we shuffled, yelping, round the stone surround of the doorway, holding on to various projections, until we reached a shaded area on the other side. The dean had us sit while our muscles recovered from the long climb. He told us to put our socks back on.

“Put your head through the opening there, make sure again there’s no one on the ground below and on my word push the bomb through and let it fall. Well done, boys.”

The geography of the roofscape of Canterbury Cathedral was complicated in the extreme, largely because of the additions, repairs and embellishments that had occurred in the course of some eight centuries. Where we were crouched, a slate-covered roof rose toward the sky at a steep angle. At the lower end of this roof was a broad, flat gutter lined with sheet lead and bounded on the outside by a dwarf parapet wall through which gaps had been created to allow rainwater from the roof to escape to the decorative gargoyles that would throw the deluge well away from the main structure.

“There!” said the dean. “D’you see it?”

“What?” said Desmond, who wore glasses but still didn’t see very well.

“There, boy, THERE!”

He was gesturing down toward the gutter, at the point where it passed through the dividing wall between two roof slopes. Stuck at an angle between the wall and one of the roofs was a greyish cylinder, about twice the size of a milk bottle as far as I could guess. It had fins at one end and a green nose. It didn’t look very interesting, and I assumed the dean’s concern was to clear the cathedral roof of rubbish that had been flying around as a result of the fires everywhere.

“Shall I get it, sir?” I said.

“Yes…no…wait…” His voice trailed away as I waited for a definite answer.

Then, “Gather round, you other boys,” he went on. We shuffled together in the shade of the doorway. He said, “Can you all see that object?”

We made a halfhearted noise of assent.

“Do you know what it is?”

We didn’t, so we said nothing.

The dean drew in a breath and pointed at the thing with an accusatory finger. “That, boys, is a German incendiary bomb, one of many dropped by the aeroplanes that attacked us last night. It is a dastardly weapon of war. It is designed to burst into flames wherever it lands, and set fire to whatever it is lying on. In this case, the bomb is lying on the roof of our precious cathedral, and it is our task to remove it before goes off.”

Desmond raised his hand. “When will it go off, sir?”

“I don’t know, boy. Probably soon,” said the dean.

“How are we going to remove it, sir?” asked Robert.

“Now listen to me,” said the dean solemnly. “That is a wicked and dangerous object. If it goes off, it will burn fiercely; we must take every precaution to prevent that from happening, because if it does explode and burn, it will cause terrible damage to the roof of the nave. Robert, you asked how we are going to remove it; this is what we are going to do.” He paused, frowning, then: “We will make a human chain. Who is the smallest boy here?”

The answer was obvious, and a reluctant Desmond was pushed forward.

“Splendid!” said the dean. “Desmond, do you think you can lift that thing?”

“No, sir.”

“Come, come, it’s not very big, is it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Humph,” said the dean. He was silent for a few moments. “If another boy was there lifting one end, do you think you could lift yours?”

“I’ll try, sir.”

“First class, Desmond!” said the dean, beaming.

The bomb sailed out very satisfactorily from the roof of the cathedral, finally reached the ground and burst into an intense and violent conflagration.

I happened to be the next smallest of our group of six, and consequently I found myself five minutes later holding one of Desmond’s hands as he and I were lowered down the slope of the roof by means of a rope made from four trouser belts buckled together and then knotted to part of the dean’s regalia. Desmond and I, warned by the dean not to look over the edge of the parapet wall to the ground far below, were standing in the lead gutter, from where I could reach up to the bomb. I could see that Desmond was probably going to be useless—he was hugging with white knuckles the dividing wall—but it also was clear that one boy was not going to be enough to move the bomb and lift it to the next level. I raised my head and called to the dean, who was lying on his stomach, watching our efforts.

“Sir, we’re not going to be able to get the bomb up to you. Sorry, sir.”

There was a pause as we clung to the precarious foot- and handholds. I could see that Desmond was about to start whimpering. Then the dean called, “I want you to look very carefully over the edge of the parapet there and tell me if there are any people on the lawn below you. Get Desmond to hold your feet while you do. Be very careful.”

Ignoring the dean’s advice, I abandoned Desmond and the bomb and inched down the roof until I could put one foot into the gutter and lean far enough over the edge of the parapet wall to see past a gargoyle all the way down to the ground. For a moment, everything went round and round, and I clung so hard to my handholds that two of my fingers started to bleed. When my vision cleared I could see that the ground below was entirely empty; all the firemen and wardens had left the cathedral close, probably to deal with the fires that were still burning outside. I leaned back and waved one hand in the air, clinging yet with the other.

“What?” shouted the dean. “Does that mean ‘no people down there?’”

I waved my free arm again. Nothing trivial was going to loosen the other’s death grip.

“Does that mean yes or no, what’s your name, Peter? Blast the boy, now listen to me: wave once for yes, twice for no—no, not yet. Now then, are there people near the wall of the nave down there?”

I waved twice.

“Good, there are not, you tell me. Now this is what you and, er, Desmond are going to do. I am sending another of your colleagues down the rope to join you. When he arrives, I want the three of you to wriggle yourselves into a position where you can very carefully manhandle the bomb, without dropping it or bumping it, down to the gutter. Can you do that?”

I waved one arm.

“Right,” said the dean, “here comes—what’s your name, boy? Yes, Robert is going to join you.”

After much sliding and scraping, the somewhat larger Robert navigated the makeshift rope and clung to any prominence he could find while he caught his breath.

“Please, Jesus,” I heard him say in a whisper. “I wish I was home.”

The voice of the dean came down again. “One of you steady the nose, the green part, so that it doesn’t hit the roof while you are lowering it—that had better be Desmond—and the other two VERY GENTLY lever the bomb out of the place where it’s stuck and then slide it down tail first until it’s resting, still on its tail, in the gutter. Do you understand, Robert, Peter?”

I waved my arm once.

We set about the task. Robert had to use a good deal of strength, with my help, to maneuver the bomb to the point where it was free of the grip that the roof structure had on it, and when it moved suddenly we were ready. Desmond held its nose while we allowed it to slide vertically into the gutter and then laid it flat by one of the openings leading to a gargoyle.

Robert called up, “What shall we do with it now, sir?”

“Put your head through the opening there, make sure again there’s no one on the ground below and on my word push the bomb through and let it fall. Well done, boys.”

Robert gripped the stonework near the parapet, told me to sit on his legs, stuck his head through and took his first look at the height that separated us from safety down below. I heard him breathe “Jesus” again and decided he was saying a prayer.

“Are you ready there?”

When we reached the ground and emerged from the cathedral, I saw him suddenly realize that he was carrying his sandals in one hand and holding up his trousers with the other.

I waved my arm once in the dean’s direction.

“Right, now all three of you, roll the bomb slowly on its side,” he shouted, “until it’s opposite that gap, then lift it—the three of you ought to be able to do that, surely—and push it into the gap, the green nose first, until it’s resting there. Right? So do that now.”

We adjusted our positions and grips and did as he had instructed.

“Have you done that? It looks right from here,” he called.

I waved.

“Very well. Now then, on my command, I want you, Robert, to push the bomb as hard as you can from behind so that it falls out beyond the structure of the cathedral and goes safely down to the ground where other people can deal with it. Are you ready?”

I waved a now-weary arm for the last time.

“So PUSH,” shouted the dean, standing to his full height and raising both arms in the air.

The bomb sailed out very satisfactorily from the roof of the cathedral, finally reached the ground and burst into an intense and violent conflagration. A few minutes later we heard the clanging bells of fire engines approaching, but by then we had somehow managed to scramble up the rope to where the others of the group were cowering and redistribute the belts and whatever portion of the dean’s garment we had used to climb with, and were being ushered back to the top of the spiral staircase by the dean, by now a disheveled figure very unlike the Godlike presence of my first sighting. When we reached the ground and emerged from the cathedral, I saw him suddenly realize that he was carrying his sandals in one hand and holding up his trousers with the other.

That is how I, with the help of the dean and five colleagues, saved Canterbury Cathedral from that German incendiary bomb. The newspapers all said it was the air raid wardens and the cathedral’s own firefighters who did it all.

But I know better.

Christopher Scott, British by birth, has lived in the United States since 1986, and in Savannah, Georgia, where he writes and runs an active writing group, for the last sixteen years. This story, awarded an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s January/February 2016 Short Story Contest for New Writers, is a true account of the events in which he participated on the morning of June 1, 1942.

Lead photo: Ales Krivec

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