One of the more curious stories that regularly crops up about the University of London’s Senate House is that it was saved from being bombed by Hitler who wanted to use it as a new headquarters for his Nazi government in the UK.
How true is it?
The striking Art Deco building was constructed between 1932 and 1937 as the first phase of a large uncompleted scheme designed for the university by Charles Holden. It consists of 19 floors and is 210 feet (64 m) high, and even today it is still a landmark for the area.
If it looks vaguely familiar, Charles Holden had recently completed the London Underground headquarters building at 55 Broadway, and there are clear similarities between the two.
As with the London Underground headquarters, Senate House was not warmly received when it was completed, with many commentators at the time complaining about how the expanding UCL was swallowing up the older brick buildings and replacing them with garish white portland stone.
Not everyone complained though, as Lord Macmillan said, in a vote of thanks to Holden at RIBA in 1938, “this is almost the only building in London which has ever been erected without an acrimonious correspondence in The Times!”
During the Second World War, the building’s use by the Ministry of Information inspired two works of fiction. The earliest, Graham Greene’s novel The Ministry of Fear, inspired a 1944 film adaptation directed by Fritz Lang set in Bloomsbury. The description of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is said to matches the Senate House – “an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace three hundred metres into the air.”
Fittingly, it was used in a film version of 1984 for the Ministry of Truth.
It was also here though that the now-famously overused “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster was designed by the Ministry of Information, for use if the Germans had invaded. Although nearly 2.5 million copies were printed just in case, almost the entire stock was pulped after the war as obviously not needed any more, and it was only when a copy was discovered in a bookshop in Northumberland in 2000 that it became ubiquitous.
Significantly for this story, the building was also described as Stalinist or totalitarian due to the dominant bulk on the skyline, a popular style of stripped neoclassicism which has since, unfortunately, been mostly associated with dictators and megalomania.
So, did Hitler really issue orders to spare the building so it could be his London Nazi headquarters?
One initial problem occurs – bombing during WW2 lacked the laser accuracy that modern armaments can offer – being more a case of getting close to the target and drop a cluster of bombs hoping some will hit the target. Over London, it was even more slapdash in places.
So an order to spare Senate House would have required a large exclusion zone around the entire area and looking at a map of recorded bomb impacts, it’s quite clear that the building was not protected, and was nearly hit on several occasions.
On the night of 7th November 1940 Senate House survived 5 bombs dropped around it.
In his diaries, published after the war, Harold Nicolson, Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Information wrote ‘So I sat drafting away as if I were back in the Foreign Office twenty years ago. Then I got to bed and cured up on my rubber mattresses and went fast asleep. Splaaassh! Craash! Tinkle! Tinkle! Oh I was no longer in my bed but on the floor. Charles Peake burst in, “Are you alright, Harold?” “Yes”, I said. “We’ve had another direct hit: a bad one this time” Well, up I got,…The passage outside was filled with a red fog which was just dust. There were air-raid wardens rushing about in steel helmets. And would you believe it? We really had been struck on the boko by the Luftwaffe…A bomb had hit us on the shoulder. It had broken through one floor and exploded on the floor below. It had done in the University library. Our windows on the courtyard side had been twisted out into shreds. The courtyard is full of masonry. But not a single soul even scratched.’
So not only was it not spared being a target – quite the opposite in fact – with an important government department based in the building and air raid wardens on the roof, Senate House would have made both a practical military target and considering its presence on the skyline, an important propaganda target for the German high command.
It’s fairly clear that Hitler had not issued any orders to spare Senate House so he could use it for his headquarters.
Although no one can ever be sure of his intentions, from a propaganda perspective, there were far more likely buildings to be used, Buckingham Palace or one of the Whitehall buildings would have probably suited an occupying government far more than a relatively small library building.
In practice, it would make for a very inefficient headquarters building — being more showy than practical for a large office facility. Although the lower floors have a number of grand meeting rooms, the bulk of the building is filled with the Senate House Library, occupying the 4th-7th floors, with the rest of the floors above in the tower used as book storage – which probably makes it the tallest “warehouse” in London.
Which is a far cry from being a Nazi headquarters.