The British city of Coventry was the target of a series of bombing strikes known as the Coventry Blitz.

The German Air Force repeatedly bombarded the city during World War II.

The most devastating of these attacks occurred on the evening of 14 November 1940 and continued into the morning of 15 November.

A legitimate target

Coventry, a city in the industrial West Midlands with a population of about 238,000 at the outset of World War II, had a large metal and woodworking industry. These included automobiles, bicycles, aeroplane engines, and, starting in 1900, munitions factories.

Due to the advanced state of the city's mechanical tooling industry during the First World War, pre-war production could be quickly converted to war production needs.

As a result, businesses like the Coventry Ordnance Works took on the role of one of the top UK munitions centres and produced 25% of all British aircraft during the conflict.

This helped begin the establishment of Coventry as a major industrial centre.

Many of the small- and medium-sized companies in the city were intertwined into the same streets as the workers' homes and the stores of the city centre, much like many of the industrial towns of the English West Midlands that had been industrialised during the Industrial Revolution. This created a number of sizable interwar suburbs with both private and public housing that were somewhat remote from commercial structures.

Coventry in the 1930's.

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In addition, Coventry served as the hub of the country's automobile sector, with numerous automakers having offices there. However, many of these firms had relocated in order to support the war effort.


The November 1940 raids

Between August and October 1940, the Luftwaffe conducted 17 minor raids on Coventry as part of the Battle of Britain, dropping about 198 tonnes of bombs. The raids collectively resulted in 176 fatalities and 680 injuries.

The new Rex Cinema, which had opened in February 1937 and had previously been closed by an earlier bombing raid in September, sustained the most notable damage. One notable casualty of the October raids was Ernest Hugh Snell FRSE, a retired local Medical Officer of Health.

Commuters make their way through the rubble of Coventry following the Luftwaffe raid which took place the night before, on the 1 November 1940.

The Blitz | Education Reform Blog

The most devastating raid to hit Coventry during the war was the one that started in the evening of November 14, 1940. 515 German bombers from Luftflotte 3 and Kampfgruppe 100's pathfinders participated in it. 

Operation Mondscheinsonate (Moonlight Sonata), the attack's code name, was designed to destroy Coventry's industries and industrial infrastructure, but it was obvious that significant damage would also be done to the rest of the city, including its landmarks and residential areas.

At 19:20, the first wave of 13 Kampfgruppe 100 Heinkel He 111 aircraft with special modifications and X-Gerät navigational systems successfully dropped marker flares. The British failed to interfere with the X-Gerät transmissions on this particular night in the Battle of the Beams between the British and the Germans.
When the initial wave of follow-up bombers detonated high explosive bombs, they destroyed the roadways and knocked out the utilities (the water supply, power network, telephones, and gas mains), making it difficult for fire engines to get to the fires that the succeeding waves of bombers began. These subsequent waves dropped a mix of incendiary and high explosive bombs.

There were two different kinds of incendiary bombs: ones made of petroleum and ones composed of magnesium. 

A street in Coventry, England, after the Coventry Blitz of 14–15 November 1940. In the background are the tower and spire of Holy Trinity parish church.

Imperial War Museum

The Coventry fire department was hampered by the high explosive bombs and the larger air-mines, which were also designed to damage roofs so that incendiary bombs would fall into buildings and ignite them more easily.


The defences

There were twelve 40 mm Bofors and twenty-four 3.7-inch AA guns in Coventry's air defence system. The 95th (Birmingham) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment's AA Defence Commander had planned a number of concentrations to be fired with GL Mk and sound-locators. Before the bombing cut off all lines of contact and the roar drowned out sound-location, I gun-laying radar and 128 concentrations were fired.

For the most part, the isolated anti-aircraft batteries engaged in solitary combat. Some gun positions were able to fire at the intersections of searchlight beams by seeing through the smoke and estimating the distance. 

Only one German bomber was downed despite the Coventry guns firing 10 rounds per minute for the whole of the 10-hour raid (a total of almost 6,700 rounds) proof of how hard it was to hit a relatively small, rapidly moving target at a great distance.

Broadgate in Coventry city centre following the Coventry Blitz of 14/15 November 1940. The burnt-out shell of the Owen Owen department store (which had only opened in 1937) overlooks a scene of devastation.

Imperial War Museum


The Cathedral is hit

Coventry Cathedral, which is dedicated to Saint Michael, experienced its first incendiary attack at around 20:00. The first fire was put out by the volunteer firefighters, but more direct hits immediately caused fresh fires to start throughout the cathedral; fuelled by a firestorm, the flames quickly got out of hand. This was to have a catastrophic outcome.

After the raid: The destruction to the cathedral caused by the bombs and subsequent fire can clearly be seen.

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The spreading destruction

Over 200 other fires were lit at the same time period throughout the city, the most of which were concentrated in the city centre, igniting the region and overpowering the firefighters. As the Germans had intended, the water mains were damaged by high explosives, leaving insufficient water available to fight many of the fires.

The telephone network was crippled, making it difficult for the fire service to maintain command and control and send firefighters to the most dangerous fires first.

A wrecked bus stands among a scene of devastation in Coventry after the major air raid on the night of 14-15 November 1940.

Imperial War Museum

The raid culminated about midnight, and the final all-clear signal was given at 6:15 on November 15th. In just one night, Coventry saw the destruction of almost 4,300 dwellings and the devastation of over two-thirds of the city's structures.

The city centre, which the raid primarily targeted, was largely devastated. Additionally damaged were two hospitals, two churches, and a police station.

Nine constables or messengers of the local police department were killed during the blitz.


Aftermath

The raid left an estimated 568 persons dead (the specific number was never established), 863 seriously injured, and 393 with less serious wounds.

The fact that many Coventrians "trekked" out of the city at night to sleep in surrounding towns or villages after the earlier air assaults helped to minimise casualties given the severity of the raid. 

In addition, there were not many fatalities or injuries among those who sought refuge in air raid shelters. Very few of the 33,000 individuals housed in 79 public air raid shelters had been harmed due to the vast majority of the shelters remaining intact throughout the bombing.

Lists of the dead and wounded are posted on the walls of City Hall, Coventry, 1940.

Blitz — George Rodger (georgerodgerphotographs.com)

A third of the city's factories were entirely destroyed or severely damaged, another third were significantly damaged, and the other third only sustained minor damage.

The main Daimler factory, the Humber Hillman factory, the Alfred Herbert Ltd. machine tool company, nine aircraft factories, and two navy ordnance stores were among the devastated factories.

The consequences on war production, however, were only short-lived because a lot of crucial war manufacturing facilities had already been relocated to "shadow factories" on the outskirts of the city. Additionally, many of the destroyed factories underwent prompt repairs and returned to full production within a few months.

A lady operates a semi-mobile canteen on the streets of Coventry.

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Despite the utter destruction surrounding him, the Postman still had his round to complete.

Blitz — George Rodger (georgerodgerphotographs.com)

Although the city centre was the target of the most raids, areas like Wyken, Stoke Heath, and Foleshill also took a lot of bombing. When referring to the raid's extreme level of devastation of other enemy cities, Joseph Goebbels later coined the term "coventriert" (German for "coventried").

Rescue workers amidst scenes of utter devastation in residential areas.

Blitz — George Rodger (georgerodgerphotographs.com)


Innovations

The Germans dropped around 500 tonnes of high explosives during the raid, including 36,000 incendiary bombs and 50 parachute air-mines, 20 of which were flaming petroleum mines. 

The 14 November attack included a number of innovations that had a major impact on all subsequent strategic bomber raids throughout the war, notably the deployment of pathfinder planes with electronic navigational aids to designate the targets ahead of the main bomber strike.

Map depicting the key industrial targets for the Luftwaffe in Coventry.

Coventry History Centre

In addition, the Luftwaffe began using air-mines (blockbuster bombs) and high explosive bombs, together with a large number of incendiary bombs meant to ignite the city in a firestorm. Later in the war, 500 or more large four-engine bombers dropped their 3,000–6,000 pound (1,400–2,700 kg) bomb payload in a concentrated wave over the course of a few minutes during Allied attacks.

However, at Coventry, the German twin-engine bombers attacked in more manageable (although still formidable) multiple waves and carried lighter bomb loads (2,000–4,000 pounds (910–1,810 kg)). Each bomber made multiple passes over the objective before landing at its base in France to reload.

As a result, the attack took place over a number of hours, with breaks for firefighters and rescuers to regroup and evacuate victims. Scant comfort though if you happened to be on the receiving end of one of the German payloads.


April attacks

Coventry experienced a second significant air assault on the night of April 8–9, 1941, when 230 bombers attacked the city and dropped 315 tonnes of high explosive and 25,000 incendiaries. On April 10 and 11, two nights after this operation, another raid resulted in around 451 deaths and nearly 700 critically injured victims.

Workman and rescue workers search through the rubble and shell of the Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital following the air raid of the 8th of April 1941.

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Several industries, the main police station, the Coventry & Warwickshire Hospital, the King Henry VIII School, and St. Mary's Hall were among the buildings that sustained damage. Christ Church was the principal architectural victim of the invasion; the most of it was demolished, leaving just the spire.

Following this invasion, Alfred Robert Grindlay, the then-Mayor of Coventry, oversaw the early reconstruction of much of the city centre.

Coventry's infrastructure was badly damaged during the raids.

Rescue workers seen here searching through the wreckage of the Police Station in St Mary Street Coventry following the Luftwaffe air raid of the 8th of April 1941.

www.coventrytelegraph.net

Firemen attend to houses still ablaze on Hertford Street, Coventry after the city was targeted by the German Luftwaffe in an air raid during the Second World War. 10th April 1941.

www.coventrytelegraph.net

A couple in the garden of their bomb damaged house. Their relaxed smiles epitomising the 'Blitz Spirit'.

WW2 Remembrance 1939-1945

Air Raid Damage Children searching for books among the ruins of their school in Coventry after a night raid, 10 April 1941.

Imperial War Museum

St Mark's church, Coventry soon after the air raid of 10th April 1941. The church was repaired and used as a clinic for Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital which also sustained much damage. 

www.coventrytelegraph.net


Memorial

With the city suffering such a horrific amount of death and destruction during the war, it is unsurprising that a prominent memorial exists to help ensure the victims are not forgotten. They perished on either November 14, 1940, or April 9, 1941, when the city was devastated by German bombers.

The names of a young schoolboy and a teenage hairdresser killed in the Coventry blitz are among those included on a memorial to remember those who lost their lives. The Blitz memorial in London Road cemetery commemorates those who perished in the Luftwaffe bombing raids.

Coventry Blitz Memorial, London Road Cemetery, Coventry.

Amanda Slater

As a tragic reminder of the cruel realities of war, the names of child victims also appear: Leslie Arthur Roberts, 11, and Annie Amelia Willets, 16.

  • Hairdresser Annie was at Barras Green Club when the bombers struck and she died with her mother and father, who are both also named on the memorial.
  • Leslie Roberts, a student at Cheylesmore School, and his father Ernest Roberts were in an air raid bunker in Bull Yard when it was struck by bombs.

Other victims include:

  • When the bombs exploded, Ann Marie Ager and her husband John Ager were at their home in Stoke Heath's North Street and they both sadly were killed.
  • James Thompson perished at the Plough Hotel on Spon Street.

 


Further reading