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The Missionary and the London Air Raid

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 22, 2011

James Gunn McKay (1881-1941), brother of President David O. McKay, was president of the London Conference of the British Mission during World War I, serving then with his wife, Anna, for a period of more than five years; he had earlier served a mission in South Africa. Among the innovations he instituted was the opening of a training school for missionaries in London. This early Missionary Training Center trained new missionaries in lecturing, tracting, and the performance of ordinances; Elder McKay said “the missionaries are put into the field better prepared in two months than with six months of ordinary experience.” He also cultivated relationships with journalists, resulting in the publication of several favorable magazine and newspaper articles at a time when Mormonism was poorly understood and badly maligned in England. He also reported having done some tracting from an “aeroplane” — I’m still looking for enough detail about that to tell the story.

The London headquarters, including the McKays’ home and the meeting hall of the Saints, called “Deseret,” was a sturdy stone building with a large basement. When German air raids began attacking London during World War I Elder McKay offered Deseret to the British government as a refuge for people living in the neighborhood.

In his words:

The police were notified and they hung up their common sign, ‘Air Raid Shelter.’ The first raid that came after that brought 1,064 people to this building. Oh, what a night it was!

The maroons [airborne shells fired as a warning signal] were fired and the sirens blew their shrill sounds of warning. The people everywhere, some of them half dressed, ran for shelter. What a busy time we had. Children were crying, women were screaming, and everyone was not only hurrying, but was frightened almost out of his wits.

When these people were all in the building and some semblance of order was secured, we went out to bring those who had fainted. The lady that I carried was stricken with hysteria, and screamed in my ear all the way.

Soon we had the people singing hymns, and after a time they were invited to take part in the meeting in the Assembly hall. it was a strange experience to have my sermon punctuated by bursting bombs, but the Spirit of the Lord was manifest to many present. Among the things that were promised the people was that the building would not be hit by bomb or shell, and that it would be a place of safety for both friends and strangers that would seek shelter in it.

Afterwards, I came across the minutes which gave an account of the dedicatory services that were held at Deseret in 1908. President Charles W. Penrose offered the dedicatory prayer. He promised that it would be a place of safety, a refuge in time of danger, and haven of rest for those who would come to it.

Deseret went through all the air raids that were sent against London. Not a single shell or bomb hit the building … Within a stone’s throw of the building, people were killed and many windows shattered. Only one window was broken in the building, and that was done by the explosion at Silvertown, eight miles away.

One evening when his duties took Elder McKay to the Stratford Branch on the east side of London, an air raid siren sounded.

The janitor burst into the room shouting “They’re coming! Air raid! Leave at once – lights out!” Whether we liked it or not, we had to go. I advised the saints to go to their branch president’s home, and if they would sing hymns they would be all right, but as for myself, I must make my way back to Deseret. I knew that hundreds of people would be there without a shepherd. Many appealed to me to stay, but I felt I must go where duty called.

I boarded the first street car that came my way, but before I realized what had happened, the car stopped and the driver and conductor jumped off and ran to an air raid shelter. I could stay in the car if I wanted to, apparently, that was not any concern of theirs.

I would not be defeated, so I began to walk. The streets were dark, the searchlights were scanning the skies, the drone of the aeroplanes could be heard, and not a vehicle to be seen. Now and then a person would scurry along and be lost in the darkness. The great city of London seemed dead, and yet in spite of the silence the very air was saturated with expectancy. As I walked I could not help pondering on the strange scene that surrounded me, but my review was suddenly ended. An anti-aircraft gun burst forth with terrific noise on my right, the building seemed to rock. For a moment I was unable to tell whether they were aiming at me or the enemy birdman.

When approaching Hackney Station the barrage was most intense. The bombs were dropping and there was a literal hail of shrapnel. I hesitated, not knowing what to do, for just then a shell penetrated a street car and buried itself fifteen feet in the ground. A policeman called me into the station. While there a lady conductress pleaded for someone to go with her to her home and babies. A stocky Englishman and myself volunteered. The man mounted the driver’s seat and we started.

It was not long before we ran into a hail of shrapnel which was striking lightning on the buildings and the pavement. The bombs were bursting, building were shattered, people were screaming, and our danger was increased by the driver losing his nerve. He stopped and backed the bus at a terrific rate until the conductress gave the signal to go forward. The two bells seemed to bring him to his senses, and we renewed the journey.

What a night and what a ride! The air was alive with bursting shells. The boom of the bombs, first on one side and then on the other, meant death to a number of people. The concussion of the explosion sent glass flying like snowflakes everywhere. The cries of men and women made a perfect bedlam.

When we reached Stamford Hill the barrage had passed further down the city, but the glare of two burning aeroplanes lit up the skies. I bade the conductress goodbye. I assured her that she would find her babies unharmed. In reply she said, “Oh, sir, I wish you were going with me to the end of the journey. I have never felt such a wonderful spirit of protection as accompanies you. God bless you. Goodnight.”

Hurrying on toward Deseret I was stopped by four women running toward me shouting, “Save us! Save us!” I said I could not save them, and then added; “if you knew that I am a Mormon missionary, perhaps you would think that you were running into a worse danger than an air raid.” One of them quickly replied, “We don’t care who you are so long as you save us.” I have always been glad that my mission president did not see me at that moment, for I never was held as tightly in my life, nor did they relinquish their hold until I had brought them inside of Deseret.

Deseret was crowded with people. As soon as they recognized me they gave me an applause which amounted to an ovation.

After a meeting had been held for an hour, and the people had dispersed, I reverently bowed my head, while tears ran down my cheeks, and I thanked the Lord for His protection.



11 Comments »

  1. Quite an interesting account. I knew that the Germans had carried out bombings of London with their Zeppelins during World War I, but I didn’t realize how intense those early air raids actually were. (A foreshadow of the Blitz.)

    Comment by Steve C. — September 22, 2011 @ 7:40 am

  2. presumably this would be amongst the first experiences civilians would have had of air raids- up to that point the only opportunities presented to the enemy to attack civilians would have been the shelling of seaside towns by the enemy fleet. It must have been absolutely terrifying to watch your neighbourhood being bombed, when up to that point warfare was something which involved trained soldiers on far-away battlefields, or sailors at sea.

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — September 22, 2011 @ 11:14 am

  3. Anne: I think your insights on this are correct. In my 20th Century Europe class I lectured over the World War I era and mentioned this account–i.e. an eye-witness account of this horrendous event. It fit in well. Thanks Ardis.

    Comment by Steve C. — September 22, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

  4. Oh, boy! A real world use for a Keepa post! I’m glad it was so timely.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 22, 2011 @ 3:43 pm

  5. His graphic way of words put me right in the middle of his experiences. It is really amazing who we will associate with when our lives are in danger.I thought it was great that he told the four women he was a Mormon missionary but they hung onto him anyway because they associated him with safety.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — September 22, 2011 @ 9:38 pm

  6. For a minute I was confused between World War I and II — and since I had noticed that he died in 1941, I was worried where this was going. I had no idea there were air raids like this during WWI.

    It may be interesting for readers to know that this was the father of K. Gunn McKay, who represented Utah in the House of Representatives and was a Mission President in Scotland.

    Comment by Kent Larsen — September 23, 2011 @ 7:26 am

  7. This was a fascinating read. I also had no idea of the WWI bombing raids in London.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — September 23, 2011 @ 8:58 am

  8. Wasn’t there another McKay brother who also served as a Church leader in England? Named Thomas, or something?

    Great account. I was trying to imagine how primitive biplanes managed a bombing raid of this magnitude. I’d forgotten about the zeppelins. Thanks Steve C for filling in the missing details for my mental picture.
    (Which, thanks to Google, I can say looks something like this.)

    Comment by The Other Clark — September 23, 2011 @ 10:49 am

  9. … let me try that again.

    This isn’t the first time I’ve mixed up the McKay men — I don’t know why I can’t get it right, or at least can’t remember to check ALWAYS because I ALWAYS get it wrong.

    James Gunn McKay is not, so far as I can tell, related to David O. McKay. Other than that, what is written here is right — right name, right dates, right wife, and he is definitely the author of the quoted account about the air raid.

    The OTHER man, the one I keep mixing him up with, is Thomas Evans McKay, who was nominal president of the European Mission during World War II (nominal because he had to leave Europe, and was only able to “preside” from afar through what little word could be sent through in either direction. He — Thomas Evans McKay — was the brother of David O. McKay.

    *smacks forehead because this is at least the third time on Keepa I have made this identical mistake*

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 23, 2011 @ 11:43 am

  10. Thomas E. McKay was David O’s brother and had served verious missions in the German-speaking areas of Europe. He was called as president of the newly created Swiss-Austria mission in 1938. He was also, if I recall correctly, an Assistant to the Twelve. When World War II broke out he was called as European mission president. He spent the first little while in Europe after the war began but by 1939 was back in the United States where he did keep up with the various European missions via correspondence. After the United States entered the war in 1941, communication with the German missions was cut entirely.

    Maybe someone knows this for sure, but I think Thomas E. was also the father of Fawn Brodie. Is that correct?

    Comment by Steve C. — September 23, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

  11. Yes, Thomas E. (brother to David O.) was the father of Fawn McKay Brodie — she was named for her mother Fawn Brimhall McKay. (Not trusting myself, I’ve just checked all that on New Family Search.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 23, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

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