The First City To Be Coventried

The Coventry raid has stuck in the collective memory for a variety of reasons

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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.

It was the capital that suffered most at the beginning of the Blitz and Londoners had passed the guts test. But it was understood that the great size of the place lessened the physical and psychological impact of the Luftwaffe’s blows. Coventry had a population of around 240,000 and the intensity of the trauma was magnified accordingly so that as Tom Harrisson, a co-founder of Mass Observation put it, every bomb felt personal.

Both these books describe intimately what the city went through that night and chart precisely the experiences and reactions of all involved. It is a moving story and an uplifting one with numerous examples of  courage and decency and few of bad behaviour.

Once the bombers departed, the population counted the dead and surveyed the wreckage with dumb horror. Their morale had survived one battering. The great official worry was whether it could endure another. Mercifully, the Luftwaffe did not return on the following nights and spirits were raised by a visit from the King. Coventrians got back to work and the place was up and running again in remarkably short order. 

For the authorities this was a huge relief. There were other revelations that were not so welcome. The most important was the realisation that the RAF was incapable of defending British cities from night attacks.

Ultra and other sources had given reasonable warning of the raid. Evacuating Coventry, as Taylor explains in the process of demolishing the hoary old conspiracy theory that the intelligence was suppressed by Churchill to protect the Ultra secret, was simply not feasible. Instead, a plan codenamed “Cold Water” was in place to intercept and punish the attackers and mount counter-strikes against German targets. It failed miserably. The onboard radar with which some of the fighters were equipped was useless and the defenders were unable to locate the attackers even in the bright moonlight. Only one of the 500 attacking aircraft was shot down, and that by anti-aircraft fire. The RAF continental bombing operations also failed to do any worthwhile damage.

The debacle demonstrated the yawning gap between the claims the air force made for itself and its real abilities. Everything was the wrong way round. The German air force was designed to support ground operations, not to mount a strategic bombing campaign. The opposite was true of the RAF. Yet the Luftwaffe was much better at hitting Home Front targets than Bomber Command was.

The Luftwaffe used a system of radio navigation beams — Knickebein and X-Gerät — which guided them to their targets. The RAF at this stage was still often relying on dead reckoning. It was little wonder that British bombers frequently hit the wrong location or that much of their ordnance was dumped in open country.

In time these deficiencies would be rectified. But until navigation and bombing aids improved the RAF had to e seen to do something. In one way the example of Coventry made it easier for it to step down a path which it had already been considering but had held back from for fear of the propaganda consequences. Two weeks before the raid, the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, had directed that Bomber Command should select targets in populous areas. If the bombs didn’t hit the intended targets as they almost certainly wouldn’t, they could at least “affect the morale of the German people”. After Coventry, the light flashed green. A month later British bombers attacked the centre of Mannheim killing 34, all but one of them civilians.

Coventry made a great impression on the RAF top brass. They deduced, rightly, that concentrated bombing with a mixture of incendiaries and high explosives could produce devastating results. But they also concluded that the resulting death and destruction would have a catastrophic effect on German morale. It was a lazy assumption, based on an irrational belief that Britons could take it but Germans could not. It took a long time for its falsity to be demonstrated. By then Coventry had been avenged a thousand times over.