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The Coventry Blitz
BY DAVID McGRORY

Coventry city centre after the blitz - CLICK TO ENLARGEOn the moonlit night of 14 November 1940 the old city of Coventry was destroyed and a new word was invented 'Coventration'. 

Over 500 German bombers massed for the biggest raid of the war to date - their target Coventry - a city at the industrial heart of Britain's war production engine.

PRELUDE

The story began decades before. During the Victorian period the Coventry weaving and watchmaking trades collapsed and James Starley and associates introduced first sewing machine, then bicycle production in the city. This naturally progressed into the production of motorcars and aeroplanes making Coventry a major manufacturing centre - especially in times of war.

On the outbreak of World War Two Coventry companies such as the Dairnler, Dunlop, GEC, Humber and Armstrong Whitworth produced a whole range of manufactured products from bombers to Scout cars. Much of this work was quickley transferred to 'shadow' factories built on the outskirts of the city to reduce the threat of aerial attack and to take the threat of bombing away from residential areas.

The first recorded bombs to be dropped in the area were on 25 June 1940 when five bombs fell on the Ansty Aerodrome. This was soon followed by a string of bombs on the Hillfields area of the city which resulted in sixteen deaths. On the evening of the 25 August 1940 a short sharp raid left more dead and the city's new prestigious cinema, the Rex, in ruins. Ironically on the next day the cinema was to be playing 'Gone with the Wind.'

The month of October 1940 had many small but intense raids leaving 176 dead. Amongst these were the warden, nurse and six elderly inmates of the 16th century Ford's Hospital in Greyfriars Lane.

OPERATION MOONLIGHT SONATA

Worse however was to come for on 8 November the RAF bombed Munich. That city was the birthplace of the Nazi Party - Hitler sought revenge. Operation Moonlight Sonata was instigated and over 500 bombers were brought together, their target ... Coventry.

As the sun sank down and the night closed in bombers of Kampfgeschwader 100 left their airfield in France. These were the 'pathfinder' squadron which carried crude on-board 'computers' and followed set radio beams, known as the X-Gerat system, to their target. Each aircraft followed a continuous beam which broke down if they strayed from its line. As they got nearer the target a second beam cut across the first - this initiated the crude 'computer's' bombing sequence. As these pathfinder bombers approached the centre of Coventry a third radio beam told the 'computer' to begin its final dropping sequence measured to fall over the city centre.

At 7.00pm the air raid sirens began to wail and at 7.20pm the ack-ack and Bofur's burst into life as the planes droned overhead in the bright moonlit night. First fell parachute flares which hung over the city like great iridescent white chandeliers. These were followed by incendiaries, not normal ones, but phosphorus, exploding incendiaries. These were dropped to start fires to mark the target for the ordinary bombers of General Field Marshalls Kesselring and Sperrle which followed.

At 7.30pm this second wave of planes arrived and the first of 500 tons of high explosives began to shake the city centre. Incendiaries, both exploding and non-exploding, continued to fall amid the bombs as a continuous stream of droning bombers passed over the city. Some were aimed at industrial targets around the city but many others concentrated on bombing the centre of the city ... to create a firestorm.

Cathedral of St Michael after the BlitzEarly on in the evening the Cathedral of St Michael was hit. By only 7.40, despite valiant efforts, its defenders had sucumbed to the incendiary barrage and the roof began to burn. At 7.59 every available fire appliance in the city was in use as fire-fighters battled the ever increasing flames amid ear-bursting explosions. At the end of this night 26 of them lay dead, 34 were seriously injured and 200 suffered cuts and bruises.

The populace hid themselves in cellars, crypts and air raid shelters as the heart of the city was ripped apart above them. Others stayed in their homes, thousands of which were destroyed or damaged. The bombing continued, with the addition of oil and landmines.

The landmines were particularly notorious. They took form of a large metal box suspended by a parachute which would slowly and silently fall and explode above ground level with a deafening roar totally flattening anything that lay under it. The church of St Nicholas in Radford was destroyed by one of these landmines leaving dead and injured in the crypt and only one course of stones standing.

THE NIGHT WAS LONG

By 2am there was no let up in the bombing, the bombers kept coming by this time with little resistance from the ground as practically all of the air defence stations had run out of ammunition. The city's factories were blasted and burning, suburban streets were littered with rubble as houses lay destroyed from their foundations.

The city centre was ablaze. Amid the high explosives 200 fires has converged into one. Red flames lept 100 feet into the sky which by now had clouded over to form black cloak of smoke over the city. Bombers approaching 150 miles away could see the glow against the blackness of the night.

The bombing went on through the early hours. It was not until well after 5am that the bombardment began to slow down. Finally at 6.15 am the all-clear sounded and slowly the shocked, dazed, frightened and tired people of Coventry emerged into the streets, or what had once been streets.

AFTERMATH

Little Park Street after the BlitzThe city was shrouded in a cloak of smoke and drizzle as people wandered around in a daze taking in the destruction around them. There were 4,330 homes destroyed and three-quarters of the city's factories damaged.

Amongst the rubble lay human remains some of whom were never identified; 554 men, women and children lay dead and 865 injured. It was perhaps a miracle that the figures were not higher considering the city had been hit by 30,000 incendiaries, 500 tons of high explosive, 50 landmines and 20 oil-mines, non-stop for eleven long hours. The world had never previously witnessed this sort of airborne destruction before and the Germans coined a new word for it 'coventrated'.'

The city's tram system was destroyed, with tram lines ripped from the ground or arched into the air. Out of a fleet of 181 buses only 73 remained. Practically all gas and water pipes were smashed and people were advised to boil emergency supplies of water.

Troops were draughted in by the hundreds to bring order and help clear up the streets and the remains that littered them. Rescue parties, consisting of Rescue men, troops and members of the public worked day and night trying to dig those out who lay buried in rubble, often the remains of their home.

Coventry High Street after the BlitzMinistry of Information vans toured the streets advising people where to obtain food and where to find shelter if they had been made homeless. Canteens were set up and within three days the Royal Engineers had restored electricity. Water and gas supplies resumed not long after.

King George VI visited and toured the devastation on the 16 November. On 20 November the first mass burial took place at the London Road Cemetery. Bodies continued to be uncovered amongst the destruction of the city and the following week a second mass burial took place.

MORE TO COME

This was not to be the end. The raids continued, although generally much lighter. Two however were heavy. The Easter week raids of 8 April and 10 April 1941 were between six and eight hours long. In the first of these raids the body of Christchurch church built in 1832 as a replacement for the medieval church was gutted by incendiaries.

The last actual bombing raid on Coventry was in August 1942. By that time the city had suffered 41 actual raids and 373 siren alerts. At the end of the war officially there were 1,236 people killed in the raids on Coventry; of these 808 rest in the mass grave in London Road Cemetery. Of the rest many had come to the city as war workers - they were collected by their families and returned home in plain wooden boxes. Some bodies were however never identified.

The raids on Coventry had a major impact on the city once described as one of the 'finest preserved medieval cities in Europe'. The destruction of the city centre especially hastened the rebuilding plans that introduced Europe's first pedestrian precinct. Around the city much of the current architecture is a result of the forced rebuilding after the war time bombing. This provides some small lasting reminder of the terrible devastation for the current generation.
  

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