The Coventry Blitz
- 14th/15th November 1940 -
The bombings of British cities in 1940 was a way used the Nazis to undermine morale in Britain. The country already stood alone, there were many who questioned whether the war could be won and that coming to some sort of peace with Herr Hitler would be preferable.
The Blitz, short for Blitzkrieg, or lightening war, started on September 7th 1940 when the Germans changed their strategy of bombing the RAF and began to concentrate on bombing London instead. Nearly 2,000 were killed or wounded on that first night. From September until May 1941 German bombers attacked British cities, ports and especially industrial sites. London itself was bombed every day and night, except for one, for eleven weeks. Nearly 1/3 of London was destroyed.
Operation ‘Moonlight Sonata’ was another one of these bombing raids. There have always been rumours that the Government knew about its possible existence but did not want to do anything about it in case the German authorities knew that their telecommunications had been breached and intercepted, thus forcing them to change their codes meaning future intercepts could not be translated. This theory has never been proved. Alan Pollock, a Coventry historian, suggests that an indication that Coventry was to be hit reached Churchill at 15:00. The logistics, he says, of evacuating a city at that stage would have been too difficult. The Government, it has been suggested, thought the raid would once again be on London. Churchill, on his way to the country, hearing this turned the car around and said he would not allow Londoners to face the strike on their own and returned to the city. There was a small raid on London but the far more serious attack was to hit Coventry and hit it very, very hard. 400 bombers were to be used on the raid on the evening of 14th November and into the early hours of the following day.
Coventry was an important engineering and manufacturing city. Its factories were important to the war effort supplying the military with, amongst other items, aeroplane engines, metal workings and munitions. Alvis, for example, provided armoured cars for the services. With a population of around 238,000, many of whom lived very close to the factories where they worked, any bombing raids were likely to incur heavy civilian casualties. The Germans wanted to smash morale and shock the government into suing for peace.
The Luftwaffe had carried out a very extensive reconnaissance of the area. Their bombing raids were to go first east to west and then back the other way. Coventry was spectacularly under prepared for such an attack. It had just 40 anti-aircraft guns and 50 barrage balloons. It was felt that being in a geological dip it had natural defences. On colder days the belief was that the fog that built up above it also would provide cover and dissuade an enemy from attacking it. Sadly, this was to prove catastrophically wrong.
The Germans chose as their attack the date of the next full moon – 14th November. It was a cold but clear night. At 19:10 the sirens sounded for the first time. Pathfinder aircraft dropped flares to mark the main targets for the bombers following behind them to strike. The first to hit were the incendiary bombs. These not only caused vast fires to start but were also booby-trapped with rod-hot iron shards. 200 fires now raged in the city.
At 21:30 the first high explosive bombs were dropped and by 22:30 Coventry was, in effect, cut off from the rest of the country. Its roads were both blocked and dangerous to travel and most of the phone lines were down. Gas, electricity and water supplies were also very badly affected.
At 23:50 St Michael’s Cathedral, which had been on fire for some time, was now destroyed and by 01:30 the flames were visible from a distance of over 100 miles. There was serious chance that morale would collapse and that civil disorder would take hold. It was then that the second wave of bombing started. Such was the ferocity of the attack that a disused tram was blown clean over a house and the fire at the Daimler factory was said to have been one of the largest blazes during the war.
When complete the bombings had gone on for 13 hours with over 500 tons of explosive being dropped on the city, along with 30,000 incendiaries and 50 landmines. The smell of burning reached the German pilots 6,000 feet up. 43,000 homes had been destroyed and 75% of buildings in total. Over 560 people were dead with another 860+ seriously injured. Rumours abounded that a second night of bombing was to come and it was estimated that, as a result, 100,000 people fled the city.
The BBC reported in their recordings called “Mass Observations” that police were being attacked as well as firemen for not stopping the fires quickly enough. It described the city as suffering a ‘Collective nervous breakdown’. It was unusual to share such strong, emotive language as it was felt this would be dangerous to national morale – just as the Germans hoped. The Government was so angry about what was said and so worried that this could lead to a national meltdown that it seriously considered taking over the BBC.
On 16th November King George VI and Winston Churchill visited the city and morale was said to have increased greatly as a result. The monarch and the Prime Minister shared their grief and showed great empathy with their plight.
After the war the city was gradually re-built. Spon Street was one of the very few to avoid the blitz and some medieval buildings were re-located here in the re-build. Sir Basil Spence, knighted for this work, designed a new cathedral for the city. He didn’t want to build over the destroyed cathedral so designed the new one to sit alongside the old one, in effect forming one building from two cathedrals. The old building now stands as a monument for international peace and reconciliation. The foundation stone was laid by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on 23rd March 1956 and it was consecrated on 25 May 1962. 5 days later Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was premiered.
There are some excellent recordings by the BBC of the accounts of some of the civilians, recorded just days after the event. The morale of the British people did not crack. ‘The Blitz Spirit’ is an expressive comparison often used to explain the triumph of hope over disaster. The resilience of the people of Coventry inspired a nation and helped Britain keep going in a period where hope seemed so low. Churchill must have recognised this. He returned to the city in June 1945 and was met by a crowd of 20,000.