On the night of 14th November, 1940, the ancient heart of the English industrial city of Coventry was torn out by a massive and relentless wave of Nazi bombers. By this time 71 years ago, the city centre was becoming a sea of fire.
At around 20:00, Coventry Cathedral (dedicated to Saint Michael), was set on fire by incendiaries for the first time. The volunteer fire-fighters managed to put out the first fire but other direct hits followed and soon new fires broke out in the cathedral; accelerated by a firestorm, the flames quickly spread out of control. During the same period, more than 200 other fires were started across the city, most of which were concentrated in the city-centre area, setting the area ablaze and overwhelming the fire-fighters.
The telephone network was crippled, hampering the fire service’s command and control and making it difficult to send fire-fighters to the most dangerous blazes first; and as the Germans had intended, the water mains were damaged by high explosives, meaning 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 the one night, more than 4,300 homes in Coventry were destroyed and around two-thirds of the city’s buildings were damaged. The raid was heavily concentrated on the city centre, most of which was destroyed. Two hospitals, two churches and a police station were also damaged. The local police force lost no fewer than nine constables or messengers in the blitz.
Approximately one third of the city’s factories were completely destroyed or severely damaged, another third were badly damaged, and the rest suffered slight damage. Among the destroyed factories were the main Daimler factory, the Humber Hillman factory, the Alfred Herbert Ltd machine tool works, nine aircraft factories, and two naval ordnance stores. However, the effects on war production were only temporary, as much essential war production had already been moved to ‘shadow factories‘ on the city outskirts. Also, many of the damaged factories were quickly repaired and had recovered to full production within a few months.:155
The raid reached such a new and severe level of destruction that Joseph Goebbels later used the term coventriert (“coventried”) 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.
The raid of 14 November combined several innovations which influenced all future strategic bomber raids during the war. 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 German people were to pay a very heavy price, as the Allies used these technologies of death to obliterate most of the cities of Germany, killing many thousand times the number who died in the terror bombing of British cities.