On This Day

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Associated Press
Coventry Cathedral lays in ruins after a German air raid during World War II.

On This Day: Coventry Devastated By German Bombing

November 15, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Nov. 15, 1940, German bombers completed a 10-hour blitz on Coventry, which killed over 500 people and destroyed the city’s cathedral.

The Coventry Blitz

Over 500 German bombers dropped 500 tons of explosives and 30,000 incendiary bombs in a 10-hour attack on the night of Nov. 14. The attack, called Operation Midnight Sonata, was part of a larger campaign known as the “Blitz.”

The Luftwaffe’s Blitz—meaning “lightning” in German—began on Sept. 7, 1940, with heavy bombing raids on London. It quickly expanded to include industrial targets and civilian centers throughout the country, as the Germans hoped to devastate the morale of the British people.

The British Royal Air Force responded with attacks on German cities, including a Nov. 8 bombing of Munich. According to the BBC, the German High Council issued a statement claiming the devastation wrought on Coventry was a reprisal for the Royal Air Force raid on Munich.

Coventry had been hit by several small German raids during the summer of 1940, but it had not been a target of the Blitz before Nov 14. The attack began at 7:20 p.m. with the dropping of parachute flares and exploding incendiaries designed to mark the targets for the barrage of high explosives.

Among the targets of the bombs was the Cathedral of St. Michael, which began to burn at 7:40. Firefighters rushed to save the church, but its roof would be entirely destroyed and 26 firefighters would perish.

Elsewhere in the city, many citizens took shelter below ground, while others bravely remained in their homes. The bombing continued through the night and the city could mount little defense.

“The city's factories were blasted and burning, suburban streets were littered with rubble as houses lay destroyed from their foundations,” writes David McGrory in the Coventry & Warwickshire News. “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.”

As morning broke, the bombing died down; at 6:15 a.m., the all-clear siren sounded, and the citizens of Coventry emerged from their shelters to see their city nearly destroyed. In all, 554 people died, 865 were injured and 4,330 homes were destroyed.

Despite the destruction, Herbert Morrison, Minister of Home Security, said the morale of the people remained high. “They regarded it as a nasty business, but realised that it will be a thousand times worse if Hitler ever came to them,” he said, according to a Nov. 16 article in The Guardian. “Such actions as this can only lead to a determination by this country's people to put everything they possibly can into the war effort.”

Background: Battle of Britain and the Blitz

On June 22, 1940, France surrendered to Nazi Germany, leaving Britain as the only major European country left to combat the Nazis. Germany planned an aerial offensive on Britain, hoping to destroy the Royal Air Force and potentially launch an amphibious invasion. The Battle of Britain would determine whether Britain could survive the spread of Nazism.

The German Luftwaffe launched attacks on the British coast, with the most intense attacks occurring in August and September. Though they were outmanned, the pilots of the RAF successfully repelled the Luftwaffe’s offensive and saved Britain from a potential invasion. “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” said Churchill about the heroics of the RAF.

On Sept. 7, during the height of the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe began a separate wave of attacks on civilian centers. Known as the Blitz, it would bring civilians into the conflict and test their will for war. London faced nightly attacks from Sept. 7 to Nov. 2, while Britain’s other major cities were also targeted. The Blitz continued into May 1941, though sporadic attacks continued over the next several years.

Did Churchill Know About the Attack?

By November 1940, British codebreakers at Bletchley Park had developed a system, known as Ultra, to decipher Germany’s Enigma code, allowing them to intercept German intelligence. Several authors have argued that Prime Minister Winston Churchill received an Ultra message days before Nov. 14 warning of an attack on Coventry. Churchill, they say, chose not to evacuate the city because it would have signaled to Germany that its code had been broken.

F. W. Winterbotham, an RAF Group Captain who handled Ultra intelligence, was the first to present this theory in his 1974 book, “The Ultra Secret.” In a review of the book, Time writes, “Ultra picked up German bombing orders for a blitz of the cathedral city of Coventry, well before the attack was due. Winterbotham relayed word to Churchill, who then faced a ‘terrible decision’: whether or not to evacuate Coventry and almost certainly give Ultra's secret to the Germans. Churchill's choice doomed a city.”

William Stevenson, Anthony Cave Brown and Christopher Hitchens have written similar accounts. Others, most notably Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert, dispute the story.

Peter J. McIver, writing in The Churchill Centre’s quarterly journal Finest Hour, presents the case that Ultra could only decipher part of the German message. British intelligence determined that Germany was planning an attack called “Moonlight Sonata” between Nov. 15-20 on one of four cities, one of which was “Corn.”

The Air Ministry prepared for an attack on London and Churchill cancelled a trip to the countryside on Nov. 14 to remain in the city. However, British intelligence was mistaken; moments before the attack, it received word that Coventry (“Corn”) was the target, but it was too late to save the city.

The Victims of Coventry

The Coventry Blitz Resource Centre provides a memorial list of the people killed and sites destroyed during the Luftwaffe’s many raids on Coventry.

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