Broken but restored - A church and a chaplain in wartime
Tens of thousands of overseas visitors flock to Cambridge every year. Many stop to take a look round some of our churches and college chapels, and some stay to join in the worship. Usually there’s no way of knowing if their short visit has influenced their lives in any way. But just occasionally, years later, the word gets back. St Paul's Church Archivist Simon Brook and Owen Spencer-Thomas tell the story of a Canadian Forces Chaplain who visited St Paul’s Church, Cambridge, in the aftermath of severe bomb damage during World War II.
1941 was for most British civilians, perhaps, the most unsettling and hazardous year of World War II. St Paul’s Church, Cambridge, began the year in a self-assured frame of mind by issuing an encouraging motto card for its members. It simply read, “In Quietness and in Confidence shall be your strength” – a quote from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. The Vicar, Gerald Gregson, was away serving as a Senior Chaplain in the RAF, and the parish records recount the Curate in charge, Bill Lee, wishing the congregation God’s blessing throughout the new year.
But their confident optimism was soon shattered. On Thursday 16 January, following troop movements on the ground, enemy aircraft launched a sudden bombing raid which left a path of destruction and loss of life in its wake. Two hundred incendiaries fell on the Gonville Place area. Some penetrated the Perse School for Boys, setting the building ablaze. At that time the school was located opposite the Catholic Church, whose clock was also hit and put out of action until the end of the war.
Rev. Bill Lee, curate in charge about 1941
The bombing caused mayhem and destroyed buildings along the north end of Hills Road. Miraculously, only three people died during the raid with many bombs falling on open spaces. The Blantyre Home for the Blind was damaged by a bomb, which is thought to be the same one that shattered the windows in St Paul’s Church. The east window, which depicted the crucifixion scene, was irreparably damaged.
People who survived the horrors of World War II may, like Bob, have mementoes that remind them of God’s goodness in comforting and sustaining them. The pieces of broken glass from a crucifixion scene reminded a father of his adopted daughter. Bob recalled the words St Paul wrote to the Romans two thousand years ago – those who suffer with Christ are the adopted children of God who are also glorified with him. They are joint heirs adopted with Christ, whose body was broken at the crucifixion.
Taken from Ely Ensign, No. 188, July 2005. Used by kind permission
In recent years, three past pupils of St Paul’s school have provided graphic accounts of that night. One, Ken Fisher, who later worked from the First Aid post, on the ground floor of the school in Russell Street, said that he ‘heard a plane start a bombing run and the first of a stick of bombs whistling down’. He had been chatting with a group, but had dived into a passage. He later returned to find the group ‘ripped to pieces’ by the third bomb. Another old boy, Jack Overhill, wrote in his diary, that on ‘hearing that Hills Road had got a pasting, we went to have a look. The scene was people, cars, wardens, police, wreckage and glass smashed all over the place and little craters in the road. We couldn’t find out about the casualties’.