Your guide to the 1940 Coventry Blitz

During the night of 14/15 November 1940, several hundred German bombers inflicted devastation on the industrial city of Coventry. The 11-hour raid represented a radical departure in the air war that would mark (and mar) the way bomber fleets were used during the rest of the conflict. Here, historian Frederick Taylor explains what happened and why Coventry was targeted – and whether Churchill was forewarned of the attack…

The ruins of Coventry Cathedral after bombing

Why was Coventry targeted?

From early September 1940, Adolf Hitler had given priority to nightly attacks on London, hoping to force the British to make peace. By November, however, despite this relentless Blitz against eight million Londoners, Britain still held firm. Hitler decided to broaden Germany’s bombing effort with large-scale attacks on Britain’s industrial towns, especially those involved in aircraft production.

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Coventry counted as a jewel in the United Kingdom’s military-industrial crown. German intelligence was well-informed about the city’s industries and key infrastructure – exactly where in the city aero engines were manufactured; radar sets; military vehicles and navigation aids, and so on.

Industry aside, however, there were further reasons for Berlin’s interest in the ‘Heart of England’. The Luftwaffe’s so-called ‘England Committee’, composed of Foreign Office officials and specialist academics, had advised the planners that the Midlands was a bastion of “conservative, stubborn-dour Englishness”. If such people’s morale might be broken, perhaps the country could, after all, be bombed into surrender.

Calculated risk: Adolf Hitler makes plans at his headquarters in Bruly-de-Peche, Ardennes, Belgium. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Adolf Hitler makes plans at his headquarters in Bruly-de-Peche, Ardennes, Belgium. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

What happened?

In fact, a succession of comparatively short – but in some cases lethally sharp – German raids against Coventry from late August onward had already killed 176 civilians. But the scale of the operation planned for mid-November – codenamed ‘Moonlight Sonata’ because of the expected full moon – foresaw a brutal step-change. The city’s population of about a quarter of a million people would suffer an aerial attack of unprecedented duration and concentration, its accuracy enhanced by a revolutionary new guidance system known as the X-Gerät (X-Apparatus). A pattern of radio ‘beams’, transmitted from stations along the French channel coast, met just before and over the target. Tracking devices aboard an elite group of pathfinder aircraft enabled them to follow the beams and recognise where they intersected, in the final instance precisely over the pre-planned aiming point. There they would drop bombs, creating fires and so guiding the mass of following bombers to the target.

The aftermath of the bombing of Coventry, WW2
Every aspect of the campaign against Coventry was calculated to maximise destruction and inspire terror. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Every aspect was calculated to maximise destruction and inspire terror. The carnage began at around 7pm on 14 November in the city centre. Coventry’s gas and electricity supplies, telephone exchange, and its water and sewage networks were laid waste. Historic buildings came under attack, including the cathedral, plus large centrally located factories such as the Triumph Works, which was next to the cathedral.

Later waves of bombers sowed further destruction on the centre, killing and injuring repair and rescue teams now working there. Other aircraft fanned out towards the suburbs, targeting more factories and adjacent residential developments. A Luftwaffe briefing recommended incendiary bombs for such areas, stating: “The effects on industry [in Coventry] would be especially amplified due to the fact that the work force, which lives in immediate proximity to the factories, would suffer along with them.”

And so it proved. When dawn broke over the shattered, still-burning city, 568 of its inhabitants were dead. Local historians have recorded the names of almost all the casualties and where they perished. Entire families died together, often in rudimentary neighbourhood shelters. Hundreds more civilians were gravely injured.

When dawn broke over the shattered, still-burning city of Coventry, 568 of its inhabitants were dead. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
When dawn broke over the shattered, still-burning city of Coventry, 568 of its inhabitants were dead. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

What were the consequences?

The Luftwaffe could celebrate and did so unashamedly. The word “Coventrated” (“conventriert” in German) was coined by Nazi propagandists to celebrate this new level of annihilation.

However, while morale in Coventry and elsewhere in Britain wavered, it did not break. Abroad, the raid soon came to exemplify German barbarism. Wire reports, including shocking pictures of the ravaged cathedral (though less often of the wrecked factories) and of civilian corpses being lowered into mass graves, spread around the world, especially to the still-neutral USA. Certainly, American public opinion, hitherto still predominantly isolationist, had by the end of 1940 shifted sufficiently for President Roosevelt to gain congressional support for the supply of desperately needed aircraft and ships to Britain.

From a purely operational viewpoint, therefore, Coventry could be counted a German success, but the ensuing propaganda battle resulted in a crucial victory for Winston Churchill’s beleaguered government.

Meanwhile, senior figures within the British Air Ministry such as Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Harris, a hard-nosed technocrat who had long chafed against restraints on the RAF’s bombing of civilian targets, could argue that Coventry freed Britain to strike back with equal ruthlessness.

In February 1942, Harris took charge of RAF Bomber Command. It began systematically bombing German cities, with the Luftwaffe’s attack on Coventry as something of a blueprint – over time aided by improved navigation and bomb-aiming technology, and pursued with ever more apocalyptic efficiency. The three-year campaign saw the near-obliteration of Hamburg, Kassel, Berlin, and other German population centres – including, most notoriously, the historic city of Dresden in 1945.

Did Churchill allow Coventry to be bombed?

Post-war, many have been tempted into speculations remote from the reality of Coventry’s martyrdom. Was Churchill forewarned of the attack’s target by the Enigma codebreakers but did nothing for fear of betraying his source? Unlikely. Although he was probably informed late that afternoon, after the Luftwaffe’s guidance beam, with its intersection point over Coventry, was identified.

Winston Churchill in Coventry
Some have speculated at Winston Churchill had advance warning of the aerial attack on Coventry. (Image by Getty Images)

Could he nonetheless have somehow ‘saved’ the city? Countermeasures were, in fact, undertaken, including air attacks on the X-Gerät transmitters, whose locations were known to the British. Pre-planned retaliatory raids by Bomber Command against Berlin and other German cities were also under way even as the Luftwaffe sowed destruction on Coventry. Fighter Command was ordered into action. But the British night-fighters, most still lacking onboard radar, could not find the enemy bombers, and the local anti-aircraft artillery likewise proved ineffectual.

So, given these weaknesses, should the government have attempted to evacuate Coventry at short notice? Hardly. Panic and chaos would likely have resulted. Better to order the city’s people to their shelters and hope.

One thing seems clear, though, and of genuine historical significance: ‘Moonlight Sonata’ rebounded on Germany and the German people with a vengeance.

Frederick Taylor is the author of a number of books on the Second World War, including the bombing of Coventry and Dresden. His latest work, 1939: A People’s History, was recently published in paperback by Picador  

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