The Coventry Blitz – Q&A with historian Frederick Taylor
On the night of 14 November 1940, the German Luftwaffe bombed the city of Coventry, destroying around two-thirds of the buildings across the city…
This article was first published in November 2015
Overnight, the 14th-century Coventry Cathedral was demolished, leaving just a ruined shell, and buildings across Coventry were flattened. Now, 75 years later, historian Frederick Taylor has written a book that analyses the impact of the Blitz on this city.
Here, Frederick Taylor discusses why he decided to write Coventry: November 14, 1940, and examines the repercussions of these bombings…
What first inspired you to write this book?
My book on the bombing of Dresden in 1945 (Dresden: Tuesday, 13 February 1945, Bloomsbury, 2005) described what might be called the “climax” of the 1939-45 bombing war. I had always wanted to complement that book with something that would explain how the strategic bombing of cities got started – an ominous turn of events which I think the bombing of Coventry in November 1940 well exemplifies.
After Dresden I visited other themes, including the Berlin Wall and the 1920s hyperinflation, and also the Denazification of Germany. I can confess that one reason for dodging around so much was because writing about bombing is so depressing. Dresden was a historic town, but was also (whatever the myths may claim) also a place of military and industrial importance. Coventry was an industrial town with a lot of history and architecture attached.
This is actually the first book I have written that focuses on British history (though Germany was involved for obvious reasons). In this latest book I could write about a British urban and suburban world not so different from that of my own childhood, and how it reacted to total war, while also using my specialised knowledge of the country that was then our enemy.
What sources did you use to research the experiences of people in Coventry during November 1940?
The National Archives in Kew were, as ever, invaluable for the basic military information from the British side, and also (via the Home Office and cabinet documents) for a broad view of the raid itself. The online archives of Mass Observation contain some wonderful material about the wartime social history of the city and its people’s reaction to being bombed.
With the 75th anniversary of the bombing, it is, however, a sad fact that few Coventrians who were more or less adult at the time are still with us. I managed to personally interview some who were children at the time, but thank goodness there were some diaries and letters (available in the Coventry History Centre) and also a mass of amazing, hitherto unpublished interviews recorded by the BBC Coventry and Warwickshire over the years earlier for their excellent, award-winning documentary (broadcast in 2010), which the producers kindly allowed me to transcribe and quote.
More like this
Lastly, the online sound archive of the Imperial War Museum also yielded some extraordinarily interesting material. The digital revolution may have made selling printed history books harder, but it has immeasurably enriched the research possibilities of the history writer!
Are there any particular stories or individuals that stand out for you?
This is a hard one. One extraordinary gift were two recordings at the IWM by the Engelhard sisters - Jewish German girls who came from Munich on the Kindertransport shortly before the war and ended up with their foster family in Coventry on the night it was bombed. There is something about the way death pursued those two young people even when they thought themselves safe that is especially poignant.
Then there is the story of Michael Logan, a child Irish immigrant, who lost both parents and his elder brother in a direct hit – not in November but in October 1940. Those who think Coventry was “untouched” before the big raid should read his story.
Overall, the terrible and moving thing about examining the raid and its casualties is the lethal intimacy of it all. When you see six people with the same name listed as dying in the same shelter or bombed house here, and three or four more likewise elsewhere, it sends a chill through even the most seasoned historian’s heart. These are not statistics. They were not just numbers in Dresden either, but in Coventry’s case it is possible to know their names, their ages, the places where they died.
The ruins of Coventry Cathedral after the Blitz. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
What wider repercussions did the bombing have, both in terms of Britain’s reaction to the war and its relationship with the US?
The city itself was one of the most important centres of armaments and military production in Britain. The government knew it would be bombed. Even the historic city centre contained important factories producing everything from military vehicles to radar equipment; to aeroplane parts and more. It was, of course, also true that the German bombing paid little heed to the existence of large numbers of civilian dwellings, and that the effects of on morale and productivity of hitting those civilian areas was part of the Luftwaffe planners’ calculations.
So the raid was undoubtedly a ruthless act of war that represented a step closer to the territory of bombing as war crime. However, I don’t think it quite overstepped that line. The bombing of Coventry was nevertheless played up on the British side as an unparalleled act of barbarism, with great emphasis on the destruction of the historic centre (especially the cathedral) and little mention in public, especially in America, of the city’s industrial importance. This propaganda barrage was highly successful in turning both the American political establishment and the public in the USA in favour of a much more active policy of support for Britain. The Germans’ own propaganda, which took on an unpleasant (and counter-productive) gloating tone, was also partly responsible.
What conspiracies or rumours would you like this book to dispel?
The most notorious conspiracy theory maintains, of course, that in order to keep the Germans in ignorance of our having broken their “Enigma” code, Churchill and his commanders deliberately “sacrificed” Coventry to the Luftwaffe’s bombers. This rumour is so grimly seductive as to be practically unkillable. I’ve dealt, I hope, with the “Enigma” myth, while also showing that, though the government probably did have a few hours’ notice, there were good reasons why the city could not be evacuated.
Most of all, though, the evidence shows that Coventry could not have been “saved”, even had the government so willed it. Pre-planned defensive action was, in fact, taken, but all this proved was that our defences against night bombing were, at that stage of the war, almost laughably ineffective. A few months later, use of on-board radar on our night fighters finally became widespread, and changed the balance. Until then, however, there wasn’t much Britain could do about German night raids like that on Coventry (or Birmingham, or Liverpool, or Southampton, or Bristol and so on). The big German fire-bombing raid on the City of London just after Christmas 1940, in which the Guildhall and many other historic buildings were destroyed, was one of which the British defences had ample warning. However, it was snow on the German airfields in France, not beefed-up air defences, that saved the City from total destruction.
How far can we see this episode as being a significant turning point in 20th-century warfare?
Until Coventry, most major air attacks, however devastating, had been connected with aspects of the ground war. This applied even to notorious acts of destruction such as the bombings of Warsaw and Rotterdam, which drew their rationale directly from the imperatives of a wider conventional conflict. They were supposed to bring immediate military results. Coventry was the clearest example yet that massive bombing could also serve long-term strategic rather than more or less tactical purposes.
Other examples would follow during the Luftwaffe’s Blitz against Britain, but Coventry appeared as the most spectacular and, so far as world opinion was concerned, the most ruthless (even though Coventry’s factories were altogether legitimate targets). It was moreover, clear from discussions among British decision-makers that, though they might publicly attack the Germans as “barbarians”, they learned a lot from the methods used to attack Coventry.
The Luftwaffe’s use of path-finder aircraft, the marking of the targets, and the way in which the following bombers moved out to wreak havoc in the suburbs, later became key features of the British bombing of Germany. The RAF perfected these techniques and added some improvements of its own, with the result that its attacks on Germany were, from 1943 onwards, far more destructive – and arguably indiscriminate - than anyone could have conceived in the relatively innocent days of 1940.
If you could somehow travel back in time to the period and ask somebody a question, what would you ask?
There are of course dozens of people I would like to talk to, and things I would have been excited (and horrified) to have witnessed on that night in November 1940. When I really think about it, though, and if I have to stick to one person, there can be only one answer. Despite believing that the evidence clearly discounts any “conspiracy” theory regarding the defence of Coventry, I would have to choose the ability to share a double brandy (or a glass of champagne) with Winston Churchill (perhaps just after he had finished his midnight telephone call to the anti-aircraft commander in Coventry) and ask him: "OK, when did you know what you knew, and after you knew it, what did you decide to do?" It would be a chance to meet the greatest Englishman of the 20th century, and also to nail the definitive truth behind one of its most enduring legends.
Coventry: November 14, 1940 by Frederick Taylor is out now. To find out more, click here.