For six months beginning 2nd January of 1944, following a relatively calm period in the capital, the skies above London were once again frequented by German planes during Operation Steinbock, a coordinated bombing campaign known in the UK as “The Baby Blitz.” Although ultimately unsuccessful, the raids killed approximately 1,500 civilians and destroyed countless buildings. On 23rd February, one of those bombs fell on London Library, resulting in severe damage to five floors of its bookstacks—in total, 16,000 books were lost. One of the many people to help with the salvage operation in the days to come was noted architectural historian and novelist James Lees-Milne. In his diary on the 27th, he described the scene.
The Diary Entry
Sunday, 27th February
Read the papers in Brooks’s and walked to the London Library in my corduroy trousers and an old golfing jacket. Joined the volunteers for two exhausting hours in salvaging damaged books from the new wing which sustained a direct hit on Wednesday night. They think about 20,000 books are lost. It is a tragic sight. Theology (which one can best do without) practically wiped out, and biography (which one can’t) partially. The books lying torn and coverless, scattered under debris and in a pitiable state, enough to make one weep. The dust overwhelming. I looked like a snowman at the end. One had to select from the mess books that seemed usable again, rejecting others, chucking the good from hand to hand in a chain, in order to get them under cover. For one hour I was perched precariously on a projecting girder over an abyss, trying not to look downwards but to catch what my neighbour threw to me. If it rains thousands more will be destroyed, for they are exposed to the sky. It is interesting how the modern girder-constructed buildings withstand the bombs, for those parts not directly hit, but adjacent to hit parts, twist but resist the concussion to a surprising extent.
To lunch with Stuart at the Travellers where I washed and changed, although my hair remained glutinous with dirt. Hamish joined us. When the two went off to play bridge with Nancy, I returned to the London Library for another hour and a half. Again was a link in a human chain passing bucket-loads of shattered books from hand to hand. It was very exhilarating and exhausting.
Multiple volumes of James Lees-Milne’s diaries have been published: Ancestral Voices (1942-1943); Prophesying Peace (1944-1945); Caves of Ice (1946-1947); Midway on the Waves (1948-1949); A Mingled Measure (1953-1972); Ancient as the Hills (1973-1974); Through Wood and Dale (1975-1978); Deep Romantic Chasm (1979-1981); Holy Dread (1982-1984); Beneath a Waning Moon (1985-1987); Ceaseless Turmoil (1988-1992); and The Milk of Paradise (1993-1997). I’m yet to read them all (give me a decade or two) but the parts I’ve managed, I’ve enjoyed.
As always, Wikipedia is a good starting point should you want to learn more about Operation Steinbock. In 2020 this particular bombing was mentioned on the website of the London Library, along with a few photographs of the damage. And there are a couple of depressing pages on Wikipedia that also relate to this entry: List of destroyed libraries, and, more specifically, List of libraries damaged during World War II.
Lees-Milne, James, 1975, Ancestral Voices, Scribner. Copyright James Lees-Milne © 1975. Reprinted with permission.