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Blitzed: US soldiers attend a service in the ruins of Coventry cathedral in 1945 (US National Archives)

The great raid on Coventry of November 14/15, 1940 was not the worst event of the Blitz but it is one that  everyone remembers. On a brilliantly moonlit night a large fleet of German bombers, guided by radio beams, reduced the centre of the city to rubble, killing more than 500 people. The roofless walls of St Michael’s Cathedral, all that remained after the Luftwaffe left, would stand as a memorial to Nazi barbarity. The new church built alongside the ruin was an instant icon of resurrection and, in time, of reconciliation.

The Coventry raid has stuck in the collective memory for a number of reasons. It was, as Frederick Taylor says, a “sinister novelty”, the first time in Britain’s war that a smallish city had been subjected to concentrated aerial attack. The results were spectacular. However its importance lies not so much in what happened as for what the raid revealed and what it initiated, as these two books in their different ways admirably demonstrate.

Coventry in 1940 was a complex place. Its medieval core was surrounded by motor industry factories modified to churn out war materiel. The buoyant job market had drawn in many outsiders and the place had a brash boomtown air with a 1,500-seat cinema and a host of pubs where relatively well-paid munitions workers could spend their spare cash.

It was a natural target for the Luftwaffe which, having failed to wipe Fighter Command from the skies in the summer, was now seeking to bomb Britain into submission. The high death rate would allow British propaganda to present the raid as aimed primarily at civilians and therefore an example of innate German beastliness, and that is certainly how it played in the American press.

The fact was that by either side’s rules of engagement the city’s war industries made it a legitimate target. But it was also true that the Luftwaffe hoped to kill large numbers of workers as well — easy enough to do given that many of the factories lay near the city centre, surrounded by residential streets. The Germans believed they were delivering a double blow that would hurt military production and crush civilian morale.

Both sides clung to the belief that air raids could fatally undermine the will of non-combatants to support the war effort. Publicly, the authorities declared that Britons could take anything Hitler could throw at them. Privately, they were not so sure. Considerable resources were devoted to discovering how ordinary people were reacting to events. The quasi-official Mass Observation organisation spent much of the Blitz rushing from city to city quizzing the inhabitants on their feelings. The results were treated with surprising reverence, given that the methodology amounted to little more than a journalistic vox pop.

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