Friday, October 18, 2013

Guards Chapel

Commander K. at Guards Chapel, London
The only part of the Chapel NOT destroyed on June 18, 1944

The Guards Chapel in London is easily visited today.  It is just across from St. James Park near the St James Park Tube station.  The Guards Museum which tells the full story of the five Guards regiments that guard the Royal family ( is just across the way.

I will allow Rick Atkinson to tell what happened to the Guards Chapel in World War II.  The Germans referred to London as "Target 42" at the time...

Guards Chapel, Floor Memorial
"Even on the sabbath morn, antiaircraft crews across Target 42 manned their guns and scanned the southeastern sky for the apparition soon called Doodlebug, Hell Hound, Buzz Bomb, Rocket Gun, Headless Horseman, or, simply, It.  Earlier in the week some gunners had crowed in jubilation at shooting down what they believed were German bombers but were now known to be pilotless bombs designed to fall from the sky.  This Sunday, June 18, was Waterloo day, and worshippers packed London churches to commemorate the British Army's victory over Napoleon in 1815, and to petition the divine for help again.

British Army Campaign Colours, Guards Chapel
In the Guards Chapel at Wellington Barracks on Birdcage Walk, across front the former pig meadow and leper colony currently known as St. James's Park, a full-throated congregation belted out the "Te Deum" and prepared to take communion from the Bishop of Maidstone.  'To Thee all angels cry aloud,' they sang, 'the heavens and all the powers therein.'  At 11:10 a.m. an annoying growl from those same heavens grew louder.  Ernest Hemingway heard it in his Dorchester Hotel suite, where he was making pancakes with buckwheat flour and bourbon;  from the window he looked for the telltale 'white-hot bunghole' of a jet engine.  Pedestrians in Parliament square heard it whistle and fell flat, covering their head.  Clementine Churchill, the prime minister's wife, heard it in Hyde Park, where she was visiting the gun battery in which her daughter Mary volunteered.  The Guards Chapel congregation heard it and kept singing.

Then they heard nothing--that most terrifying of all sounds--as the engine quit, the bunghole winked out, and the black cruciform fell.  Through the Chapel's reinforced concrete roof it plummeted before detonating in a white blast that blew out walls, blew down support pillars, and stripped leaves from St James's plane trees.  A funnel o smoke curled fifteen hundred feet above the wrecked nave; rubble ten feet deep buried the pews even as six candles still guttered on the altar and the bishop stood unharmed.  One hundred and twenty-one others were dead and many more injured.  Two thousand memorial plaques accumulated by Guards regiments during eons of war lay pulverised, although a mosaic donated by Queen Victoria remained intact: 'Be thou faithful unto death and I will give you a crown of life.'

Guards Band, Wellington Barracks, London
Clementine Churchill hastened home to alert the prime minister, who was still reviewing papers in bed at 10 Downing street.  'The Guards Chapel,' she told him, 'is destroyed.'  Among other, several musicians from the Coldstream Guards were found in a side gallery, still holding their instruments as if in a wax tableau, surely faithful unto death.  Churchill wept.

That afternoon he motored to Bushy Park and asked Eisenhower to redouble efforts against the flying bomb."  (Source: The Guns at Last Light, Rick Atkinson, 2013

Instant Classic
The V-1 Rocket that destroyed the Guards Chapel that day was a reliable and cheap weapon that cost about 150 pounds in 1944 values.

V-1 Rockets, Flying Heritage Collection (Everett, WA)
The late John Keegan pointed out that the V-1 might actually have been a war-winning weapon under certain circumstances.  He writes, "Had it been given priority, and been mass-produced in large numbers during 1943, there is little doubt that the flying bomb would have caused terrible damage to London and other southern British cities; it might even have so disrupted shipping in British southern ports as to have set back or even prevented the launching of the cross-Channle invasion in June 1944." (Source: Intelligence and War, John Keegan, 2002,

A visitor to the Guards Chapel today can see why the Bishop of Maidstone survived as the apse of the Chapel (see photo at top) where he was standing, is the only part of the original structure of the Royal Military Chapel that remains from its dedication in 1838.

Travel notes: The Guards Chapel is a five minute walk from the St James Park Tube station on the District and Circle line.  The Chapel is open to the public for services every Sunday at 11:00am.  Here is their web site...

Buckingham Arms, London
There are many attractive pubs in the neighbourhood.  The Buckingham Arms ( is a short walk from the Guards Chapel.

You can now purchase Commander Kelly's first book, America Invades or on


Sue Clark Johnson said...

I enjoyed this. I went to Easter Sunday services in the Chapel about 15 years ago and was thoroughly enveloped by the history.

Rick Atkinson said...

Thanks for your note, Mr. Kelly. That's very fine.
Best regards,