A beautiful medieval city, Coventry had developed during the century before the Second World War into a major industrial city and leading manufacturer of munitions. But on the night of 14/15 November 1940 it was almost “wiped off the map”. Rupert Colley provides a brief summary of the Coventry Blitz.
The Battle of Britain
The Battle of Britain had been raging above the skies of South England throughout the summer of 1940 and, in more recent weeks, the German Luftwaffe had begun bombing areas of population. The Blitz had begun.
London, Birmingham, Plymouth, Sheffield, Glasgow and other cities had all become victim to Hitler’s attempt to destroy the fabric of British urban life and demoralise its population. Now it was Coventry’s turn. But unlike the other cities, Coventry was comparatively small – the destruction wrought was far greater in relative terms. “Women were seen to cry,” wrote the Mass Observation report, “to scream, to tremble all over, to faint in the street, to attack a fireman, and so on…”
In an operation codenamed Moonlight Sonata, wave after wave of German bombers dropped high explosive and incendiary bombs over the city centre and throughout the city. Hitler, it was said, had ordered the raid as revenge for an RAF attack on Munich.
The immediate destruction hampered the work of the fire engines and ambulances as craters and falling rubble and debris made access almost impossible. Ambulances arriving from Birmingham fared no better. The water mains had been hit, restricting the supply of water and, to add to the chaos, the fire brigade’s HQ had taken a direct hit.
The city’s anti-aircraft guns made little impact. The Germans lost only one plane, and that was from a ‘mysterious’ crash. One Luftwaffe pilot, dropping bombs from 6,000 feet, felt his nostrils ‘prickling – I could smell the city burning’. Between raids, the German planes returned to French bases to load more bombs. 500 tons of high explosive bombs, and 30,000 incendiaries were dropped.
One witness on the ground spoke of ‘people staggering about in shock, as though they were hopelessly drunk. Some, so frightened, were bordering on madness.’ Soon there were ‘large open spaces where, a little while ago, there had been blocks of buildings.’ Another described the ‘surreal scenes: hundreds of dogs and cats turned into strays overnight; a man boiling a kettle on an incendiary bomb’.
Another, witnessing the destruction of a dairy, remembered having ‘to run for my life from a knee-high river of boiling butter… I saw a whole pig roasting in a butcher’s window’.
After eleven hours of sustained bombing the German planes drifted away as dawn rose. Finally at 6.15 a.m. the all-clear was sounded. Hardly a single building in the city centre remained standing. 60,000 out of 75,000 buildings had been hit and damaged, including 111 factories. The city had been laid waste, left smouldering in the early morning rain. The ancient Coventry cathedral of St Michael’s had been hit several times and incendiaries had caused a firestorm within, although its spire remained in tact. On visiting the city and viewing the destruction, King George VI is said to have wept on seeing the ruins of the burnt-out cathedral.
The official death toll numbered 568, most too badly burnt to be identified, but such was the intensity of fire that the real figure was likely to have been considerably more. About 420 were buried in a mass grave. Thousands more were injured.
(Pictured, Winston Churchill visiting Coventry in September 1941).
Two days later, on 16 November, Britain retaliated, the RAF bombing the German city of Hamburg, killing 233 civilians. Meanwhile, the Birmingham Gazette exclaimed, ‘Coventry – Our Guernica’, in reference to the German bombing of the Basque town on 26 April 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.
Hitler’s Minister for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, invented a new verb to describe the virtual destruction of a city during war – to ‘Coventrate’.
Coventry fell victim again – in April 1941 and August 1942 but it was the devastation of this night, in November 1940, that came to symbolise the terror of the Blitz.
German cities suffered in even greater measure – for every ton of bomb that fell on British cities during the early part of the war, 300 fell on German cities (see articles on Britain’s Bomber Command and London’s Bomber Command Memorial).
Sixteen years later, in 1956, Coventry and Dresden were twinned.