Seventy Five years ago on 14 November 1940 the Luftwaffe launched its most devastating bombing raid of the Second World War so far. The target was Coventry, a manufacturing city in the heart of England with a beautiful medieval centre. The result was a shocking collapse of social order that caused thousands to flee and challenged notions of Britain’s “Blitz spirit”. As dawn broke over a ruined city, a horrific scene of destruction greeted the survivors. Homes and factories were flattened and many buildings were consumed by flames so intense, the city’s sandstone brickwork glowed red.
The air stank of burning flesh, and bodies, some mutilated beyond recognition, lay in the streets. Across the city, people were crawling out from under-stairs cupboards and hastily-made bomb shelters. What they found sent the city into a state of shock and, in some cases, a hysteria that has not been recorded in any other British wartime city.
But early on the evening of 14 November 1940, the horrors that were soon to befall the people of Coventry were still unimaginable. If you had visited Coventry that day, you would have experienced a city that was fairly typical of 1940s Britain. Boys were kicking footballs around on playing fields. In the medieval city centre – its winding, half-timbered streets among the best-preserved in England – young couples were heading to dance halls. Crowds were flocking to the cinemas. The city had expanded dramatically in the 1930s, with big factories such as Armstrong Siddeley, Daimler and Humber – which nestled cheek by jowl with the city’s shops and houses – producing first motor cars and then, with the onset of war, aircraft parts. Workers were on their way home to the newly-built 1930s semis that spanned out to the suburbs. And then the sirens sounded.
Tom Harrisson, an anthropologist who arrived in the city soon after the raid, said: “Women were seen to cry, to scream, to tremble all over, to faint, to attack a fireman and so on.” Harrisson had set up a project in 1937 called the Mass Observation Unit, a social research organisation aimed at recording everyday life in Britain. The unit’s investigators – who worked with the Ministry of Information – were “storm-chasers”, arriving at scenes of devastation to record the mood on the ground. He documented scenes of “unprecedented dislocation and depression”. Indeed the Government was so concerned with the collapse of morale that they threatened to take over the BBC when they accurately reported Harrison’s observations.
My father was 10 at the time and their family house and guest house business in Raglan Street in the centre of Coventry was destroyed. He had barely survived the night being moved out of a bomb shelter in the Stevengraph Works at two in the morning to a deeper shelter. They sheltered in a temporary shelter in the basement of the Stevengraph Works (Thomas Stevens had set up a silk manufacturing business) in Cox Street but were removed to a more secure shelter. The next morning they walked past the ruins of the Stevengraph Works, it had been destroyed in a direct hit. Anybody sheltering there would have been killed. He recalls an Air Raid Warden trying to pull a person out of the rubble and the whole arm coming away. Their home and business was destroyed in the firestorm along with most of their belongings. They had no help or assistance and their only option was to get travel warrants to travel to distant relatives in Tipperary, Ireland and use their old cottage from which the animals had to be moved out for them to be moved in. When I ask my father what he did during the war he says mainly they starved leading a hand to mouth existence as his father got seasonal work cutting turf on the bogs, Ireland had to improvise as it had no coal imports from Britain in war time.
Operation Mondscheinsonate (Moonlight Sonata) was launched as the full moon shone relentlessly. That night 500 German bombers reduced the city to rubble in one of World War II’s most devastating attacks. The meticulously planned and executed attack also destroyed what was till then a medieval city said to rival the beauties and historical richness of York and Bath. The old city of Coventry was destroyed and a new word was invented ‘Coventration’. Over 500 German bombers massed for the biggest raid of the war to date on Coventry a city at the industrial heart of Britain’s war production engine.
The British Pathé newsreel issued just one week later (see the end of this post) was particularly shocking for a population becoming accustomed to the restricted news of a country where the Government sought desperately to manage morale. The commentary pulls no punches from the start:
“The symbol of her one-time beautiful 14th century cathedral looks down on a scene of indescribable destruction.”
The City of Coventry has suffered two great tragedies in its history, the Dissolution of the Monasteries and “Operation Moonlight Sonata”, the second deliberate mass aerial bombing of a city after the Blitz on Rotterdam during the invasion of the Netherlands. The 16th century dissolution of the monasteries at the hands of King Henry VIII had every bit as devastating an effect on Coventry as Adolf Hitler’s reign of terror in the mid 20th century. Thinly disguised as a method of reducing the enormous power that the church, and in particular the monasteries, held across the land, Henry slowly began to dissolve the age old institutions. The real reason that appears to prevail, however, was greed. From 1536 the huge monastic institutions in Coventry were seized, firstly the Whitefriars and Greyfriars then in 1538 the large Benedictine Priory. The city went into decline with the population reducing from 7,000 to 3,000 as with the loss of the monasteries Coventry also lost the many craft based industries and went into a deep slumber until the Georgian era when it prospered as a centre of weaving and clock making. However the centre of Coventry which was bombed in the first deliberate mass bombing of a city by the Luftwaffe in “Operation Moonlight Sonata” was still a medieval city in its street plan and many of its buildings. The half timbered centre was to burn well. During the Victorian period the Coventry weaving and watchmaking trades collapsed and James Starley and associates introduced first sewing machine, then bicycle production in the city. This naturally progressed into the production of motorcars and aeroplanes making Coventry a major manufacturing centre – especially in times of war.
On the outbreak of World War Two Coventry companies such as the Daimler, Dunlop, GEC, Humber and Armstrong Whitworth produced a whole range of manufactured products from bombers to Scout cars. Much of this work was quickly transferred to ‘shadow’ factories built on the outskirts of the city to reduce the threat of aerial attack and to take the threat of bombing away from residential areas.
The first recorded bombs to be dropped in the area were on 25 June 1940 when five bombs fell on the Ansty Aerodrome. This was soon followed by a string of bombs on the Hillfields area of the city which resulted in sixteen deaths. On the evening of the 25 August 1940 a short sharp raid left more dead and the city’s new prestigious cinema, the Rex, in ruins. Ironically on the next day the cinema was to be playing ‘Gone with the Wind.’ The month of October 1940 had many small but intense raids leaving 176 dead. Amongst these were the warden, nurse and six elderly inmates of the 16th century Ford’s Hospital in Greyfriars Lane.
Worse however was to come for on 8 November the RAF bombed Munich. That city was the birthplace of the Nazi Party – Hitler sought revenge. Operation Moonlight Sonata was instigated and over 500 bombers were brought together, their target Coventry. As the sun sank down and the night closed in bombers of Kampfgeschwader 100 left their airfield in France. These were the ‘pathfinder’ squadron which carried crude on-board ‘computers’ and followed set radio beams, known as the X-Gerat system, to their target. Each aircraft followed a continuous beam which broke down if they strayed from its line. As they got nearer the target a second beam cut across the first – this initiated the crude ‘computer’s’ bombing sequence. As these pathfinder bombers approached the centre of Coventry a third radio beam told the ‘computer’ to begin its final dropping sequence measured to fall over the city centre.
At 7.00pm the air raid sirens began to wail and at 7.20pm the ack-ack and Bofor’s burst into life as the planes droned overhead in the bright moonlit night. First fell parachute flares which hung over the city like great iridescent white chandeliers. These were followed by incendiaries, not normal ones, but phosphorus, exploding incendiaries. These were dropped to start fires to mark the target for the ordinary bombers of General Field Marshalls Kesselring and Sperrle which followed.
At 7.30pm this second wave of planes arrived and the first of 500 tons of high explosives began to shake the city centre. Incendiaries, exploding and non-exploding, continued to fall amid the bombs as a continuous stream of droning bombers passed over the city. Some were aimed at industrial targets around the city but many others concentrated on bombing the centre of the city to create a firestorm.
By 2 am there was no let up in the bombing, the bombers kept coming by this time with little resistance from the ground as practically all of the air defence stations had run out of ammunition. The city’s factories were blasted and burning, suburban streets were littered with rubble as houses lay destroyed from their foundations. The city centre was ablaze. Amid the high explosives 200 fires has converged into one. Red flames leapt 100 feet into the sky which by now had clouded over to form black cloak of smoke over the city.
Water supplies were disrupted as bombs hit the pipes, thwarting firefighters. The firestorm that swept the city centre was so ferocious it could be seen clearly on the ground more than 20 miles away in Leicester. There were even reports that German bombers could see the glow as they crossed the Channel more than 100 miles away.
The bombing went on through the early hours. It was not until well after 5am that the bombardment began to slow down. Finally at 6.15 am the all-clear sounded and slowly the shocked, dazed, frightened and tired people of Coventry emerged into the streets, or what had once been streets. The city was shrouded in a cloak of smoke and drizzle as people wandered around in a daze taking in the destruction around them. There were 4,330 homes destroyed and three-quarters of the city’s factories damaged.
Amongst the rubble lay human remains some of whom were never identified; 554 men, women and children lay dead and 865 injured. It was perhaps a miracle that the figures were not higher considering the city had been hit by 30,000 incendiaries, 500 tons of high explosive, 50 landmines and 20 oil-mines, non-stop for eleven long hours. The world had never previously witnessed this sort of airborne destruction before and the Germans coined a new word for it ‘Coventrated’.
The raid of 14 November combined several innovations which were to influence all future strategic bomber raids during the war. These were:
• The use of pathfinder aircraft with electronic aids to navigate, to mark the targets before the main bomber raid.
• The use of high explosive bombs and air-mines (blockbuster bombs) coupled with thousands of incendiary bombs intended to set the city ablaze in a firestorm.
The actual death toll of the Coventry Blitz was never officially confirmed. It has been reported that many bodies may never have been found, or had been burnt, blasted or crushed beyond recognition. The destruction of munitions factories may have claimed victims among war workers from other parts of the country who had no relatives to report them missing. At least 568 people died in the Coventry Blitz; some sources have estimated that the death toll was as high as 1,000. In one night, more than 4,000 homes in Coventry were destroyed, along with around three quarters of the city’s factories. There was barely an undamaged building left in the city centre. Two hospitals, two churches and a police station were also among the damaged buildings.
The city’s tram system was destroyed, with tram lines ripped from the ground or arched into the air. Out of a fleet of 181 buses only 73 remained. Practically all gas and water pipes were smashed and people were advised to boil emergency supplies of water. Troops were drafted in by the hundreds to bring order and help clear up the streets and the remains that littered them. Rescue parties, consisting of Rescue men, troops and members of the public worked day and night trying to dig those out who lay buried in rubble, often the remains of their home.
In the aftermath of the bombing, more than half of the city’s population fled the city, streaming out into the countryside to stay with friends or relatives or – in some cases – to sleep in fields.
So what was it about the Coventry raid that made its effects so much more mentally dislocating than attacks on other British cities? Historian Frederick Taylor says there was a feeling of betrayal among Coventry’s residents at “perceived council negligence”. He said that a failure by the authorities to prepare for the war meant there was a lack of emergency water supplies. This thwarted firefighting efforts and led to considerable extra destruction, most notoriously in the case of the cathedral.
Ministry of Information vans toured the streets advising people where to obtain food and where to find shelter if they had been made homeless. Canteens were set up and within three days the Royal Engineers had restored electricity. Water and gas supplies resumed not long after. King George VI visited and toured the devastation on the 16 November. On 20 November the first mass burial took place at the London Road Cemetery. Bodies continued to be uncovered amongst the destruction of the city and the following week a second mass burial took place. The raids on Coventry had a major impact on the city once described as one of the ‘finest preserved medieval cities in Europe’. The destruction of the city centre especially hastened the rebuilding plans that introduced Europe’s first pedestrian precinct. Around the city much of the current architecture is a result of the forced rebuilding after the war time bombing. This provides some small lasting reminder of the terrible devastation for the current generation.
The New Cathedral was the result of an architectural competition which attracted 219 entries. Sir Basil Spence was the clear winner of that 1950 competition, and his design has been the subject of much controversy over the years due to its unorthodox style. His cathedral was a radical new approach and a complete break away from traditional style cathedrals. In choosing Mr. Spence, the panel had found a man of great vision who was now able to fulfill his dream. As early as 1944 when serving as a Captain on the Normandy beaches, his answer to a friend who inquired as to his ambitions, was that he wished “To build a cathedral”. The famous choral work, War Requiem, was composed by Benjamin Britten for the consecration of the re-built Coventry Cathedral in 1962.
The bombing of Coventry opened the floodgates for so called “Terror raids” aimed at destroying civilian morale with the RAF launching its (largely ineffective) raid on Mannheim in Germany on December 16th 1940. The medieval Hanseatic City of Lübeck was bombed by the Royal Air Force on the night of 28/29 March 1942. It was the first major success for RAF Bomber Command against a German city and destroyed this cultural icon of Northern Germany. In retaliation Hitler launched the so called Baedeker Raids on British heritage cities starting with Exeter. So continued the inexorable escalation of the mass murder of civilians which culminated in the terrible fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo and the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
With a defiance that summed up the resolute character of England during the darkest days of World War Two, the decision to build the New Cathedral was made only the day after the old one was destroyed in the blitz. However, Dick Howard the Provost of St. Michael’s did not have retribution in mind. His vision was that the new church would be a sign of faith in humanity and for peace in our future, with the gaunt skeleton of the old cathedral left standing as a memorial to the victims of the Blitz. As you approach the New Coventry Cathedral, you are overlooked by the rather imposing bronze statues of St. Michael and the Devil on the southern end of the east wall. It was sculpted by Sir Jacob Epstein, who, sadly, died in 1959, and therefore didn’t live to see his masterpiece mounted on the cathedral wall a year later.
Ireland was neutral during the Second World War but many served in the British forces and many also worked in England both to survive and help the war effort. These included my Grandfather and two uncles who travelled on British Legion travel warrants and worked for the electronics firm Lucas in Birmingham during the war whilst living in a company dormitory during the Blitz. My father at the age of ten and his family on the other hand came in the other direction as refugees from the devastating blitz on Coventry which destroyed their home and business. Coventry had a large Irish population attracted by the steady employment in its engineering industries. The other suggestion was that they were attracted by the local heroine Lady Godiva as she was a women who had put everything she had on a horse!
After the war my father’s family went back to a Coventry which revived itself once again becoming the English “Motown” as the centre of a car industry which provided plentiful work and good wages in the 50’s and 60’s. Other than the cathedral and its immediate area no attempt was made to rebuild the Medieval centre . Rather a modernist approach was taken with Britain’s first planned shopping centre. There were large open areas, light and space, and the buildings were modern and forward looking. Unfortunately, Modernism had a bad press in the ‘eighties – one of its worst critics being HRH Prince Charles. The result was a swing back to decoration and a revival of historical styles. The result for existing town centres built in a modern style was neglect, vandalism and unsympathetic “updating” and the fine centre I recall on childhood visits is now cluttered and neglected. The medieval city centre is gone and consists of remnants of the city’s past glory bordering the modern centre which is itself marooned from the rest of Coventry by an elevated ring road.
The bravery that the people of Coventry showed in the face of the Blitz has been continued since with the City dedicating itself to promoting peace and reconciliation, even twinning itself with Dresden in Germany. Coventry Cathedral is one of the world’s oldest religious-based centres for reconciliation. Following the destruction of the Cathedral in 1940, Provost Dick Howard made a commitment not to revenge, but to forgiveness and reconciliation with those responsible.Using a national radio broadcast from the cathedral ruins on Christmas Day 1940 he declared that when the war was over he would work with those who had been enemies ‘to build a kinder, more Christ-like world.’
Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels was inspired by the raid to coin the word “Koventrieren”- to “Coventrate”, or to annihilate or reduce to rubble. A Boy’s Own-type novel published in Germany – “Bomben Auf Coventry” (Bombs on Coventry) – describes a heroic pilot named Werner Handorf setting off to avenge a “cowardly attack on Munich” carried out days earlier by the Allies. “Here begins the path which will lead England – who unscrupulously broke the world’s peace – into the abyss,” the author writes. But shortly after the raid, the Berlin hierarchy became alarmed at the triumphant tone of German reporting.
Part of the reason for their unease may have been the way the attack was perceived in the US, where the New York Times bore the headline: “Cathedral is destroyed”. The Christmas service among the ruins of Coventry Cathedral was broadcast around the world and pictures of the ruined place of worship became symbolic of Nazi aggression. The New York Herald Tribune wrote: “No means of defense which the United States can place in British hands should be withheld.” By December 1940, 60% of Americans said they would help Britain – even at the risk of being drawn into the war.
Modern Coventry has not fared well with the motor industry having declined and then collapsed completely in the early 80’s. Today the main employers are low wage call centres and back office functions. The skilled craft industries and skilled workforce are largely gone. For all the bravery and reconciliation it is impossible not to contemplate the human and material toll of what has been lost and can never be regained.
Over 75 years on from the 14th November 1940 Moonlight Sonata has still taken the heart out of Coventry.
COVENTRY THE MARTYRED CITY
Today, powered by its readers and contributors, from its cyber eyries in Ireland and the centres of the Irish Diaspora The Eagle casts its Cold Eye on Life and Death and much in between.