House of Commons

10-11 May 1941

By Nichola O'Brien

As a prominent and iconic target in Westminster, the Houses of Parliament suffered repeated bomb damage during the Second World War.

In all, twelve high explosive (HE) bombs and dozens of small incendiaries hit the grounds of Parliament directly. Nine HE bombs exploded, three hit but failed to explode; two anti-aircraft shells detonated nearby; one all-consuming fire was caused by incendiaries. 

On 11 September 1940, indirect blast from a high explosive bomb damaged the House of Commons Terrace and a falling anti-aircraft shell hit the Commons Library. In the early hours of 27 September, a high explosive bomb fell in Old Palace Yard, blowing out the House of Lords' main windows and damaging St Stephen's Porch and the statue of Richard the Lionheart. In response, both Houses of Parliament left their respective Chambers and moved to the Church House Annexe in nearby Dean's Yard, Westminster (in November 1940). 

On 8 December 1940, the 16th century Cloister Court was hit and extensive damage caused to the Members' Cloakroom, MPs' offices, staircases and the crypt. On 17 April, 1941, the Speaker's Residence was damaged, first by a single high explosive bomb and two days later by another which failed to explode. 

The most serious damage to Parliament took place during the heavy night raid of 10-11 May 1941.

An incendiary fell onto the 350-foot high Victoria Tower (in 1941 covered by outside scaffolding for repairs). A police sergeant bravely climbed the scaffolding and extinguished the burning magnesium with a sandbag. Next, several high explosive bombs hit near the western courtyard, killing two auxiliary policemen and blowing down heavy debris. Another smashed down into an ARP control room but failed to explode.

The Commons Chamber was hit by a high explosive bomb and the wooden hammer-beam roof of the 600-year old Westminster Hall (built in 1097 by William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror and rebuilt by Richard II in 1399-1401) was set on fire by falling incendiaries.

Firemen broke down the doors to the Hall with axes and played water upwards onto the burning rafters. Soon, these crews were standing waist-deep in water whilst burning debris fell on them from above. The flames rapidly burnt through the medieval timber of Westminster Hall’s roof, creating a huge hole. In response, fire crews hosed the roof throughout the night, pumping water directly from the Thames after their own reserves ran dry.

Elsewhere, fires raged through the smashed Commons Chamber. 50 fire pumps struggled to contain the flames. The Fire Service concluded that: ‘it would be impossible to save both the Chamber and the Hall so it was decided to concentrate on saving the Hall.’   

The Members’ Lobby of the House of Commons was also destroyed. Connecting doors were ripped off their hinges and all its windows were blown out, creating large piles of glass and debris.

The geographical layout of Parliament proved problematic for the responding ARP wardens and rescue squads. Five miles or more of corridors and 1,000 separate rooms, many littered with smoking debris, seriously hindered acess. Fatalities discovered on 11 May included Captain E.L.H Elliott, the resident Superintendent, the two auxiliary policemen and the manager of the Precinct.

The Clock Tower (housing the world famous Big Ben bell) also suffered damage. The glass of the southern clock face was shattered by a falling small calibre high explosive bomb. The upper Clock Tower was blackened by smoke. The 1859 London landmark lost a half second and its chimes were temporarily put out of action. But both Big Ben and and the main clock mechanism survived. The clock's hour and minute hands remained functional throughout the raid. To the relief of Londoners, the Clock Tower was seen still standing the next day, mirroring, many felt, their morale during the Blitz. Winston Churchill's Assistant Private Secretary, John 'Jock' Colville, walked through Parliament Square early on 11 May and noted in his diary that: "I talked to a fireman. He showed me Big Ben, the face of which was pocked and scarred, and told me a bomb had gone right through the Tower" (Sir John Colville,'The Fringes of Power. Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955', 1985).

On the morning of 11 May, the House of Commons Chamber was revealed as a smouldering ruin open to the sky. The 19th century interior features of the 'Mother of Parliaments' had been burnt to ashes. The bar no longer stood to check intruders, the Speaker’s chair was lost and the world-famous padded green leather seats were charred and drenched by water.

After the raid of 10-11 May, both Houses sat in Church House Annexe from 13 May 1941 to July 1941, again from June to August 1944 (during the V-Weapons campaign) and then in the undamaged House of Lords Chamber until October 1950. Throughout the Blitz, MPs undertook regular firewatching duties, stationed overnight within Parliament's precincts.

The House of Commons Chamber was restored and reopened in 1951.

 

Photo:The House of Commons Chamber after the raid of 10-11 May, 1941

The House of Commons Chamber after the raid of 10-11 May, 1941

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:ARP Message Form, House of Commons, September 1940

ARP Message Form, House of Commons, September 1940

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:The bomb-damaged Houses of Parliament

The bomb-damaged Houses of Parliament

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:ARP Message Form, House of Commons, September 1940

ARP Message Form, House of Commons, September 1940

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:ARP Message Form , House of Commons, 1940

ARP Message Form , House of Commons, 1940

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:ARP Message Form , House of Commons, 1940

ARP Message Form , House of Commons, 1940

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:ARP Message Form, House of Commons, 1940

ARP Message Form, House of Commons, 1940

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:Bomb Damage Report, House of Commons, 11 May 1941

Bomb Damage Report, House of Commons, 11 May 1941

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:Bomb Map: House of Commons

Bomb Map: House of Commons

Copyright Westminster City Archives

The House of Commons, Palace of Westminster

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