Coventry Blitz

Coventry Blitz
Winston Churchill visiting the ruins of Coventry Cathedral in September 1941

The Coventry blitz (blitz: from the German word Blitzkrieg meaning "lightning war"About this sound listen ) was a series of bombing raids that took place in the English city of Coventry. The city was bombed many times during the Second World War by the German Air Force (Luftwaffe). The most devastating of these attacks occurred on the evening of 14 November 1940.


How It Started

At the start of the Second World War, Coventry was an industrial city of about 320,000 people which, like much of the industrial West Midlands, contained metal-working industries. In Coventry's case, these included cars, bicycles, aeroplane engines and, since 1900, munitions factories. In the words of the historian Frederick Taylor, "Coventry ... was therefore, in terms of what little law existed on the subject, a legitimate target for aerial bombing".[1]

During World War I, thanks to the advanced state of the machine tooling industry in the city that quickly could be turned to war purposes and industries such as the Coventry Ordnance Works it had assumed the role of one of the leading munition centres in the UK, for example manufacturing 25 percent of all British aircraft produced during the war.[2]

Like many of the industrial towns of the English West Midlands that had been industrialised during the Industrial Revolution, industrial development had occurred before zoning regulations had come into existence and many of the small and medium-sized factories were woven into the same streets as the workers' houses and the shops of the city centre. However, it already had many large interwar suburbs of private and council housing, which were relatively isolated from industrial buildings as a result of being built after the zoning regulations had been made law.

Following the Rotterdam Blitz, RAF Bomber Command was authorised to attack German targets east of the Rhine on 15 May 1940; the Air Ministry authorized Air Marshal Charles Portal to attack targets in the Ruhr, including oil plants and other civilian industrial targets which aided the German war effort, such as blast furnaces (which at night were self-illuminating).[3][4] The underlying motive for the attacks was to divert German air forces away from the land front in France.[5] Churchill explained the rationale of his decision to his French counterparts in a letter dated the 16th: "I have examined today with the War Cabinet and all the experts the request which you made to me last night and this morning for further fighter squadrons. We are all agreed that it is better to draw the enemy on to this Island by striking at his vitals, and thus to aid the common cause."[6] Due to the inadequate British bomb-sights the strikes that followed "had the effect of terror raids on towns and villages,"[5]

Despite the British attacks on German cities, the Luftwaffe did not begin to attack military and economic targets in the UK mainland until 6 weeks after the campaign in France had been concluded.[5]

On 24 August, fate took a turn, and several off-course German bombers accidentally bombed residential areas of London.[7][8][9][10] The next day, the RAF bombed Berlin for the first time, targeting Tempelhof airfield and the Siemens factories in Siemensstadt.[11] These attacks were seen as indiscriminate bombings by the Germans due to their inaccuracy, and this infuriated Hitler;[12][13][14] he ordered that the 'night piracy of the British' be countered by a concentrated night offensive against the island, and especially London.[15] The Luftwaffe, which Hitler had prohibited from bombing civilian areas in the UK, was now ordered to bomb British cities. The Blitz was under way.[16]

July and August 1940

Several small raids on Coventry during the Battle of Britain in July and August 1940 killed several dozen people, far fewer than the number of fatalities in cities including London and Birmingham. The most notable damage was to the new Rex Cinema which had only been opened in February 1937, and which had already been closed by an earlier bombing raid in September.[17]

14 November 1940

The raid that began on the evening of 14 November 1940 was the most severe to hit Coventry during the war. It was carried out by 515 German bombers, from Luftflotte 3 and from the pathfinders of Kampfgruppe 100. The attack, code-named Operation Mondscheinsonate (Moonlight Sonata), was intended to destroy Coventry's factories and industrial infrastructure, although it was clear that damage to the rest of the city, including monuments and residential areas, would be considerable. The initial wave of 13 specially modified Heinkel He 111 aircraft of Kampfgruppe 100, were equipped with X-Gerät navigational devices, accurately dropped marker flares at 19:20.[18] The British and the Germans were fighting the Battle of the Beams and on this night the British failed to disrupt the X-Gerät signals.

The first wave of follow-up bombers dropped high explosive bombs, knocking out the utilities (the water supply, electricity network and gas mains) and cratering the roads, making it difficult for the fire engines to reach fires started by the follow-up waves of bombers. The follow-up waves dropped a combination of high explosive and incendiary bombs. There were two types of incendiary bomb: those made of magnesium and those made of petroleum. The high explosive bombs and the larger air-mines were not only designed to hamper the Coventry fire brigade, they were also intended to damage roofs, making it easier for the incendiary bombs to fall into buildings and ignite them.

Scene of devastation in the city centre

At around 20:00, Coventry Cathedral (dedicated to Saint Michael), was set on fire for the first time. The volunteer fire-fighters managed to put out the first fire but other direct hits followed and soon new fires in the cathedral, accelerated by firestorm, were out of control. During the same period, fires were started in nearly every street in the city centre. A direct hit on the fire brigade headquarters disrupted the fire service's command and control, making it difficult to send fire fighters to the most dangerous blazes first. As the Germans had intended, the water mains were damaged by high explosives; there was not enough water available to tackle many of the fires. The raid reached its climax around midnight with the final all clear sounding at 06:15 on the morning of 15 November.

In one night, more than 4,000 homes in Coventry were destroyed, along with around three quarters of the city's factories. There was barely an undamaged building left in the city centre. Two hospitals, two churches and a police station were also among the damaged buildings.[19] Approximately 600 people were killed (the precise death toll has never been established) and more than 1,000 were injured.[20]

In the Allied raids later in the war, 500 or more heavy four-engine bombers all delivered their 3,000–6,000 pound bomb loads in a concentrated wave lasting only a few minutes. But at Coventry, the German twin-engined bombers carried smaller bomb loads (2,000–4,000 lb), and attacked in smaller multiple waves. Each bomber flew several sorties over the target, returning to base in France to rearm. Thus the attack was spread over several hours, and there were lulls in the raid when fire fighters and rescuers could reorganise and evacuate civilians.[21] As Arthur Harris, commander of RAF Bomber Command, wrote after the war "Coventry was adequately concentrated in point of space [to start a firestorm], but all the same there was little concentration in point of time".[22]

The city centre following the 14 November air raid

The raid destroyed or damaged about 60,000 buildings over hundreds of hectares in the centre of Coventry, and is known to have killed 568 civilians. The raid reached such a new level of destruction that Joseph Goebbels later used the term Coventriert ("Coventrated") when describing similar levels of destruction of other enemy towns. During the raid, the Germans dropped about 500 tonnes of high explosives, including 50 parachute air-mines, of which 20 were incendiary petroleum mines, and 36,000 incendiary bombs.[23]

The raid of 14 November combined several innovations which influenced all future strategic bomber raids during the war.[24] These were:

  • The use of pathfinder aircraft with electronic aids to navigate, to mark the targets before the main bomber raid.
  • The use of high explosive bombs and air-mines (blockbuster bombs) coupled with thousands of incendiary bombs intended to set the city ablaze in a firestorm.

The actual death toll of the Coventry Blitz was never officially confirmed. It has been reported[by whom?] that many bodies may never have been found, or had been burnt, blasted or crushed beyond recognition. The destruction of munitions factories may have claimed victims among war workers from other parts of the country who had no close relatives to report them missing. Homeless people with a similar lack of relatives may also have died in the Coventry Blitz.[citation needed]

The British used the opportunity given them by the attack on Coventry to try a new tactic against Germany. The "first deliberate terror raid on a German town was carried out ... 16 December 1940 as part of Operation Abigail Rachel ... against Mannheim.[25] The British had been waiting for the opportunity to experiment with such a raid, and the opportunity was given after the German raid on Coventry.[25] This was the start of a British drift away from precision attacks on military targets and towards area bombing attacks on whole cities.[25]

Coventry and Ultra

In his 1974 book The Ultra Secret, Group Captain F. W. Winterbotham asserted that the British government had advance warning of the attack from Ultra: intercepted German radio messages encrypted with the Enigma cipher machine and decoded by British cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park. He further claimed that Winston Churchill ordered that no defensive measures should be taken to protect Coventry, lest the Germans suspect that their cipher had been broken.[26] Winterbotham was a key figure for Ultra; he supervised the "Special Liaison Officers" who delivered Ultra material to field commanders.

However, Winterbotham's claim has been rejected by other Ultra participants and historians who argue that while Churchill was indeed aware that a major bombing raid would take place, no one knew what the target would be.[27][28]

Peter Calvocoressi was head of the Air Section at Bletchley Park, which translated and analysed all deciphered Luftwaffe messages. He wrote "Ultra never mentioned Coventry... Churchill, so far from pondering whether to save Coventry or safeguard Ultra, was under the impression that the raid was to be on London."[29]

Scientist R. V. Jones, who led the British side in the Battle of the Beams, wrote that "Enigma signals to the X-beam stations were not broken in time," and that he was unaware that Coventry was the intended target. Furthermore, he explained that a technical mistake caused jamming countermeasures to be ineffective.[30] Furthermore Jones argues in his book 'Most Secret War' that Churchill returned to London that afternoon, and that in Jones opinion indicated that Churchill believed that London was the likely target for the raid of November 14'th.

April 1941

On the night of 8 April/9 April 1941 Coventry was subject to another large air raid when 237 bombers attacked the city dropping 315 high explosive bombs and 710 incendiary canisters. In this and another raid two nights later on 10 April/11 April about 475 people were killed and over 700 seriously injured. Damage was caused to many buildings including some factories, the central police station, the Coventry & Warwickshire Hospital, King Henry VIII School, and St. Mary's Hall.[31]

August 1942

The final air raid on Coventry came on 3 August 1942, in the Stoke Heath district approximately one mile to the east of the city centre, six people were killed. By the time of this air raid, some 1,250 people had died in Coventry as a result of air raids. Around 80 per cent of them had been killed in the raids of 14/15 November 1940 and 8–10 April 1941.[20]

In fiction and drama

  • A Gathering of Saints, Christopher Hyde. A London serial killer is tracked to Coventry on the night of the big raid. ULTRA intelligence figures in the plot.
  • One Night in November, play by Alan Pollock (premiered at Coventry's Belgrade Theatre in March 2008). A Bletchley Park codebreaker must decide whether to reveal his foreknowledge of the raid to his lover from Coventry. The play repeats the Churchill/Coventry myth, though Churchill does not appear in person in the play.[32]
  • Blitzcat, Robert Westall. The main character flees Coventry during the big raid.[33]
  • Babylon 5 television series, episode In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum. Captain Sheridan, Babylon 5's commander, in a discussion of "how much is a secret worth", repeats the Churchill/Coventry myth.
  • Spooks, BBC television series. In one episode, the Churchill/Coventry myth is repeated to justify allowing a known bomb to detonate.
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis. An Oxford time-travel laboratory sends a team to pre-blitz Coventry to look for artifacts destroyed in the bombing.
  • To Sail Beyond the Sunset, Robert Heinlein. A group of time-travellers go to Coventry on the night of the second major raid (5/6 April 1941), to provide medical assistance, shoot down German bombers with futuristic weapons, and retrieve a man who is father and grandfather of two of them.
  • The Last Colony, John Scalzi The attack on Coventry and Churchill's knowledge is referenced as a justification to allow an alien attack on a human colony. The foreknowledge is revealed as a myth later in the book

See also


  1. ^ Taylor References, p. 117. (see also Area Bombardment#Aerial area bombardment and international law)
  2. ^ Jeffrey Haydu, "Between craft and class: skilled workers and factory politics in the United Kingdom", p. 126
  3. ^ Hastings 1979, p. 6
  4. ^ Taylor 2005, Chapter "Call Me Meier", p. 111.
  5. ^ a b c Boog, Horst (2006). Germany and the Second World War. Volume VII: The Strategic Air War in Europe and the War in the West and East Asia, 1943-1944/5. Oxford University Press., p. 362.
  6. ^ National Archives 15 May 1940 CAB 65/13/9
  7. ^ Quester, George "Bargaining and Bombing During World War II in Europe," World Politics, Vol. 15, No. 3 (April 1963), p. 426. Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
  8. ^ OpEdNews » How The United States Came to Bomb Civilians
  9. ^ Wings Over Wairarapa
  10. ^ BBC – History – British Bombing Strategy in World War Two
  11. ^ Richard Overy The Battle Chapter "The Battle" pages 82–83
  12. ^ Der alliierte Luftkrieg – TEIL IV
  13. ^ "Luftkieg" (in German). 
  14. ^ "World War II Resource Pack". RAF Museum Cosford Learning Resources. Retrieved 2009-04-18. 
  15. ^ Smith&Creek, 2004. Volume II. p. 122
  16. ^ "The Role of Bombing in World War II". 
  17. ^
  18. ^ The British were on British Summer Time (GMT +1) during the winter months of the war (and double summer time during the summer months).
  19. ^ "1940: Germans bomb Coventry to destruction". BBC News. 15 November 1940. Retrieved 30 April 2010. 
  20. ^ a b
  21. ^ Taylor References, p. 120.
  22. ^ Harris, Arthur "Bomber Offensive (first edition Collins 1947); Pen & Sword military classics 2005; ISBN 1-84415-210-3, p. 83.
  23. ^ Taylor References, p. 120. But War in the West gives different numbers: "449 bombers dropped 150,000 incendiary bombs, 503 tons of high-explosives (1,400 bombs) and 130 parachute sea-mines (causing extensive blast damage) on Coventry".
  24. ^ Taylor References, p. 118.
  25. ^ a b c Edited by Horst Boog, Werner Rahn, Reinhard Stumpf, and Bernd Wegner, "Germany and the Second World War: Volume VI The Global War", Oxford University Press, (2001),ISBN 0-19-822888-0, pp 507–508
  26. ^ F. W. Winterbotham, The Ultra Secret, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1974 ISBN 0297768328; also London, Futura, 1975, ISBN 0860072681
  27. ^ "Defending Coventry". Historic Coventry. 
  28. ^ Hunt, David (28 August 1976), "The raid on Coventry", The Times: 11 
  29. ^ Calvocoressi, Peter (1981). Top Secret Ultra. New York: Ballantine Books. pp. 85–86. ISBN 0-345-30069-6. 
  30. ^ Jones, R. V. (1978). Most secret war: British Scientific Intelligence 1939–1945. London: Hamilton. pp. 149. ISBN 0-241-89746-7.  This book was also published in the US under the title The Wizard War.
  31. ^ "A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 8: The air raids of 1940". British history on line. 
  32. ^ Billington, Michael (13 March 2008). "One Night in November (review)". London: The Guardian.,,2264571,00.html. Retrieved 2008-03-13. 
  33. ^ Westall, Robert "Blitzcat" p100-120 Macmillan 2002 (ISBN 0-330-39861-X)


  • Taylor, Frederick; Dresden Tuesday 13 February 1945; Bloomsbury, First Pub 2004 (ISBN 0-7475-7078-7), used as a reference in this article: paper back 2005 (ISBN 0-7475-7084-1). Chapter 10 Blitz

Further reading

  • Peter Calvocoressi, Top Secret Ultra, includes an account of the Coventry Raid, and the actual cryptanalytic intelligence available before the raid.

External links

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