The ‘Blitz’ had never been confined to London alone, other towns and cities had been targeted even before the capital faced sustained assault from 7th September. But a new level in the intensity and destructiveness of a single raid was reached on the night of 14th November. Coventry was to become a byword for the potential of aerial bombing to destroy whole cities. German propaganda would later threaten to “Coventrate” other targets.
Over 500 German bombers hit the English midlands town in successive waves over the course of the night of the 14th/15th November. The Germans used pathfinder bombers, guided to the city by directional beams that the British were still struggling to disrupt. Once they had marked the target with flares a combination of high explosive bombs and aerial mines broke open many buildings and disrupted the water mains.
When incendiary bombs were added to this mix it was easier for the fires to take hold and soon a self sustaining firestorm erupted, which caused widespread devastation. Around 600 people were killed, an accurate figure was never firmly established.
Alan Wrigglesworth was a schoolboy at the time:
On November 14th 1940 the sirens sounded early and the family went down the Anderson Shelter at the rear of next door’s garden. The exceptions were my older sister who was acting as a messenger and my grandmother who refused and insisted on sitting under the stairs. My father (a veteran of 1918) at the time was on nightshift at the Alvis [works] on the Holyhead Road and had already set off on this bicycle to work.
The German Aircraft were easy to pick out on the moonlit night apart from the distinct sound of their desynchronised engines.
As the raid got worse, my grandmother was persuaded to come down the shelter and our neighbours’ relatives from Berry Street arrived to join us. Around midnight there was a thump on the roof of the shelter and the adults went outside to put out what turned out to be an incendiary bomb.
Meanwhile a stick of bombs fell in the immediate vicinity destroying a block of four houses further down the road and one in the other direction. The glow in the sky and the noise was incredible. The general feeling was that the Germans were aiming for the Admiralty Ordnance Works in Red Lane and Morris Motors at Courthouse Green.
When eventually the ‘All Clear’ sounded we emerged and the family from Berry Street returned home. During the night a delayed action bomb had landed in their garden and during the morning it exploded destroying a block of six houses. No trace of the family was ever found.
For a comprehensive study of the attack see Coventry: Thursday, 14 November 1940.
The Coventry raid saw a combination of factors that would be characteristic of other especially destructive bombing attacks later in the war. Almost all of the bombers got through, unhindered by night fighters or ground defences. The attack was accurate and during the early stages hit the electricity and water mains, severely limiting the fire fighting capacity of the city.
The mixture of high explosives and incendiary bombs blew apart and set alight the old wooden buildings in the medieval quarter of the city. Once fires started they quickly developed into a self sustaining fire storm, sucking in air which created winds that spread the flames.
The raid was closely studied by the British. Not for the first time would senior RAF officers console themselves by the thought that the Germans had ‘sown the wind’. They fully expected that in due course German cities would ‘reap the whirlwind’.
After the war, when the British success in breaking the German Enigma Code was finally acknowledged, the myth grew that Britain had advance knowledge of the raid on Coventry. It was claimed that Churchill deliberately sacrificed the city in order to ensure that the secret of the breaking of the code was preserved.
The truth is a good deal more complex but it was never the case that the raid on Coventry was known about well in advance or that a decision was made to leave it deliberately defenceless, see Bletchley Park. Measures to combat night bombing were just not that well developed at that stage in the war.