Taking Wing At St Clement Danes – The RAF Church

As I passed by on the way to the Duchess Theatre last night, I thought it might be interesting to take a look around inside the RAF’s spiritual home, the church of St Clement Danes on the Strand in Central London. On a topical note, it’s also the spot where Baroness Thatcher’s coffin will be transferred to a gun carriage for its journey up to St Paul’s next Wednesday…

You’ll know when you’ve arrived at the right building because there are several obvious give-aways – imposing statues of Air Chief Marshall Sir Keith Dowding and Marshal Of The Royal Air Force, Sir Arthur Harris (known as ‘bomber’ Harris by his detractors for his strategy of the area-bombing of German cities in the latter part of the Second World War) stand on plinths right outside. Resting up against the entrance there’s also a wrought-iron RAF standard, donated to the church by RAF Gatow in 1970.

Once you step inside the first thing that is likely to strike you are the eagles – they’re absolutely everywhere, depicted on the floors, walls and also figuring in some of the statuary, denoting the fact that this is very definitely a church dedicated to the Royal Air Force. In fact, you can literally feel the weight of the organisation’s history in this place – I was half expecting to be startled by the smell of diesel oil and the deep drone of engines – it’s palpable…

Picking out some of the main features that you’ll discover on a visit, take the time to look at your feet as you walk around because there’s actually a lot to be seen on the church’s floor. As you cross the entrance hall into the church itself there’s a large colourful plaque which contains the RAF’s eagle and motto, ‘Per Ardua Ad Astra’ (Through Adversity To The Stars), surrounded by those of the Commonwealth countries – the Royal Canadian Airforce’s plaque can be seen at 11 o’clock for example. Slate Squadron Badges are also spaced out across the nave – there’s a useful map on the wall at the back of the church if you’re looking for one in particular.

Over on the left of the church there’s a particularly poignant plaque on the floor – this rather handsome brass and ceramic square has the Polish eagle at its centre, and around the edges it shows the badges of the fighter squadrons of the Polish Air Force that battled alongside the British from 1939 to 1945. Amongst them, cities such as Warszawa, Gdansk and Poznan are mentioned. Just to the side there’s also a fresh wreath in Polish colours – if anyone reading this post can speak Polish it would be interesting to know what’s written on it. My guess is that it is a tribute to a recently deceased Polish airman…

Beneath each of the church’s ten ground floor windows is a cabinet topped by an eagle, each one containing a book of remembrance. These volumes record all of the deaths of Royal Air Force personnel whilst on active duty since the formation of the organisation in 1918, which brought together the resources of its two predecessors, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. The rolls are current up to and including February of this year according to the Chaplain. At the back of the church there’s an eleventh, which is dedicated to the pilots of the United States and which carries the date MCMXLVII in Roman numerals (1947, the year in which the United States Air Force was formed). It is flanked by two portions of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address picked out in gold leaf.

It’s also worth noting the ends of the pews – towards the front of the church each one carries a name, a date and coat of arms. These denote the Air Marshall’s of the Royal Air Force over time – the one in the photograph below is dedicated to Sir Thomas Pike, who was Marshal of the Royal Air Force between 1960 and 1963. When you get down to the altar do make a point of looking to the left – on the wall here you’ll see the names of the many recipients of our country’s highest military honour, the Victoria Cross.

I’ve only just touched on everything that there is to see inside St Clement Danes in this post – if you have an interest in military history you should definitely put it on your itinerary for a visit.

Fun Fact
St Clement Danes has a ‘carillon’ of bells, which ring out the famous nursery rhyme associated with the church on the hour. A visit to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry last year furnished me with the surprising fact that ‘Oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clements‘ is not the original first line. In the first version of the song to be committed to print in the middle of the 18th century, the line that comes first is actually ‘Two sticks and apple, ring ye bells of Whitechapple‘.
About Pete Stean

Pete Stean is a London-based writer and photographer. He can also be found on Twitter and on Google Plus.

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