On the night of 14 November, 1940, a new word entered the English language. It meant to bomb to destruction, and it was the word the German High Command invented for what they intended to do to a medieval city in the heart of England. The word was Coventration.
At the start of the Second World War, Coventry was home to the manufacturing plants of companies like Daimler, Armstrong Whitworth, GEC, Courtaulds, Dunlop, Alvis, and many others both large and small. There was also the munitions factory in Red Lane. Unlike the industrial centres of the modern age, many of these factories were situated among the houses of their workers, and a tour of Coventry today will reveal modern estates occupying the sites of these old plants in the middle of rows of Victorian or Georgian housing. These factories were contributing significant amounts to the British war effort, and while efforts were made to move production to shadow factories built on the outskirts, still many enterprises remained in the residential areas of the city.
Blitz is the German word for lightning, but the British press stole the word and used it to describe the bombing raids perpetrated on English cities. It was obvious that Coventry would be a prime target for bombing raids, and on 25 June, 1940, five bombs fell on the aerodrome at Ansty followed by a string of bombs that fell onto the Hillfields area near the city centre. Sixteen people died. Two months later the city was attacked again, more people died and the Rex cinema, only completed twelve months previously, was left in ruins1. More raids followed, and a series of attacks in October left 176 people dead and caused considerable damage to one of the finest preserved medieval cities in Europe.
Germany had developed a new system to enable accuracy in navigation called the X-Gerät system. An aircraft flew along a narrow radio beam towards its target; if it strayed off the line then the signal broke up and it knew to correct its course. As it approached the target a second beam intersected the first and the bombing sequence was initiated, finally a third beam was added to indicate the precise moment to release the payload.
This supposedly secret guidance technique led the planes of Kampfgeschwader 100 Squadron to Coventry. It was a technique the British forces were aware of, but this night they failed to disrupt the beams.
The job of these pathfinders was to follow the beams and drop incendiary devices. These would start fires, which would in turn guide in the bombers of Luftflotte 3. They also had a secondary purpose which was to start a firestorm. This is a natural phenomenon in which a fire burns so intensely that it draws in the surrounding air to feed itself and burns hotter as it spreads. To this end many of the devices dropped were phosphorous incendiaries rather than the traditional magnesium and petroleum devices.
Under Hitler and Goebbels, the Nazi regime defined what was acceptable music for the German people. In particular they decreed that there were three master composers who represented good German music: Anton Bruckner, Richard Wagner, and Ludwig van Beethoven. It was a piece of music composed by Beethoven in the summer of 1801 that gave the code name for the Coventry attack. Piano Sonata No. 14, The Moonlight Sonata.
That November night in 1940 was bright and clear, and at 19:00 the sirens began to wail. Twenty minutes later the anti-aircraft guns began to fire, and parachute flares illuminated the winter city streets with eerie brightness. Then the second wave of bombers arrived and high explosive spilled onto the cobbled streets. Craters were created in roads making them impassable, buildings crashed across narrow streets blocking them completely, the water mains were shattered and even where fire tenders reached blazing buildings there was little or no water pressure. By 20:00 St Michael's Cathedral roof was ablaze, every fire engine had been despatched and the fire brigade headquarters had suffered a direct hit. And still they came.
Later in the war heavy bombers would take to the air, but at this stage the payload was between 2,000 and 4,000 pounds and so aircraft returned to their bases in France and flew several sorties over the target. This meant there were lulls in the raid, but the bombing would start up again2. By 02:00 there was little resistance left as anti-aircraft guns had either been destroyed, or had run out of ammunition, and there was no doubting the target. Flames leapt 100 feet into the sky and the bombers could see the glow in the sky from 150 miles away. It was after 05:00 before the bombardment began to decline.
The all clear sounded at 06:15.
515 bombers took part in the raid, dropping 30,000 incendiary devices, 500 tons of high explosive, 50 landmines3, and 20 oil-mines4. 4,330 homes were destroyed and 75% of the city's factories were damaged. Fortunately the only hit taken by the hospital that night was on the stores.
568 civillians are known to have been killed, but the actual death toll has never been confirmed; indeed it is probable that some bodies remain undiscovered. There was a large transient population in the town and many of these would not have had close relatives to report them missing to the authorities. Some estimates place the death toll nearer to 1,000. 108 buses and the tram system were destroyed. The raid lasted over ten hours.
King George VI visited the city on 16 November and toured the devastation. It took three days for the Royal Engineers to restore electricity. Gas and water followed two days later.
Funeral For A City
On 20 November the first of two mass burials took place. 172 bodies were placed in a mass grave in the London Road Cemetery and the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Mervyn Haigh, led the service. First was a Catholic ceremony followed by a Free Church prayer, then an address from the Bishop. Even the graveyard had bomb craters among the cypress and yew trees, but in the background a factory chimney smoked, as production was re-started. A week later a second mass burial took place. 808 souls were laid to rest in the combined mass graves.
After the war, conspiracy theories started to arise. Novels, articles and plays have been written around the suggestion that the government knew about the raid in advance. The government had captured an intact German cypher machine, Enigma. This meant they could crack the messages from German High Command, but were then placed in the invidious position of being unable to act in some cases without revealing that they had access to secret knowledge. The suggestion is that the Coventry attack was one of these situations, and that they sacrificied a city to win a war. This has always been strenuously denied; Churchill maintained that while they were aware that a bombing raid would take place, they did not know where.
Theorists claim that the sending of a single extra anti-aircraft battery was a sop to the government's conscience, and claim the availability of hundreds of troops the next day to aid the population was indicative of prior knowledge. They also point to a gap in the Royal diary that allowed the King to visit just two days later, and the failure to block the X-Gerät guidance system.
Six months later the city suffered another series of raids, and while these were not on the same scale as the November attack they still resulted in nearly 500 dead, 1,000 injured and further damage to historic buildings like St Mary's Hall.
In his brief address Bishop Haigh said these words:
This evil air raid has brought us together in a great bond. In this city we have been better friends and neighbours than we have ever been before. As we stand here, let us vow before God that we will go on being better friends and neighbours for ever, because we have suffered too much together... Let us go out to try and live unbroken and unembittered, asking the help of God's Holy Spirit to support us and to strengthen us that these dead may be prouder of us when we meet again. I cannot say more. God bless you.
However, possibly the greatest monument to the dead was the formation of The Cross of Nails Society. This society, organised from the new cathedral which was attached to the shell of the old building, promotes world peace and reconciliation. The society reaches out to form bonds of friendship with communities which have suffered through warfare. Of the many towns the city could have linked with at the end of the war, the first chosen was Dresden, a German city which, like Coventry, was a medieval cathedral city that had suffered tremendous damage from bombing. Indeed the destruction of Dresden far exceeded that of Coventry; there, the Allied bombers had succeeded in creating a firestorm in the heart of the town5. The civilian death toll in Dresden is estimated as being between 24,000 and 40,000. Just short of 4,000 tons of high explosive were dropped in 15 hours by 1,300 heavy bombers.