Coventry Blitz
The Coventry blitz was a series of bombing raids
Strategic bombing during World War II
Strategic bombing during World War II is a term which refers to all aerial bombardment of a strategic nature between 1939 and 1945 involving any nations engaged in World War II...

 that took place in the English city of Coventry
Coventry is a city and metropolitan borough in the county of West Midlands in England. Coventry is the 9th largest city in England and the 11th largest in the United Kingdom. It is also the second largest city in the English Midlands, after Birmingham, with a population of 300,848, although...

. The city was bombed many times during the Second World War by the German Air Force (Luftwaffe
Luftwaffe is a generic German term for an air force. It is also the official name for two of the four historic German air forces, the Wehrmacht air arm founded in 1935 and disbanded in 1946; and the current Bundeswehr air arm founded in 1956....

). 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
West Midlands (county)
The West Midlands is a metropolitan county in western central England with a 2009 estimated population of 2,638,700. It came into existence as a metropolitan county in 1974 after the passage of the Local Government Act 1972, formed from parts of Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire. The...

, 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
Frederick Taylor (historian)
Frederick Taylor is a British historian and author of such works as Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945 about the bombing of Dresden in World War II....

, "Coventry ... was therefore, in terms of what little law existed on the subject, a legitimate target for aerial bombing".

During World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

, 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
Coventry Ordnance Works
Coventry Ordnance Works was a British manufacturer of heavy guns, particularly naval artillery. The firm was based in the English city of Coventry.-History:...

 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.

Like many of the industrial towns of the English West Midlands that had been industrialised during the Industrial Revolution
Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution was a period from the 18th to the 19th century where major changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transportation, and technology had a profound effect on the social, economic and cultural conditions of the times...

, 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
Rotterdam Blitz
The Rotterdam Blitz refers to the aerial bombardment of Rotterdam by the German Air Force on 14 May 1940, during the German invasion of the Netherlands in World War II. The objective was to support the German troops fighting in the city, break Dutch resistance and force the Dutch to surrender...

, RAF Bomber Command
RAF Bomber Command
RAF Bomber Command controlled the RAF's bomber forces from 1936 to 1968. During World War II the command destroyed a significant proportion of Nazi Germany's industries and many German cities, and in the 1960s stood at the peak of its postwar military power with the V bombers and a supplemental...

 was authorised to attack German targets east of the Rhine on 15 May 1940; the Air Ministry authorized Air Marshal
Air Marshal
Air marshal is a three-star air-officer rank which originated in and continues to be used by the Royal Air Force...

 Charles Portal to attack targets in the Ruhr
The Ruhr is a medium-size river in western Germany , a right tributary of the Rhine.-Description:The source of the Ruhr is near the town of Winterberg in the mountainous Sauerland region, at an elevation of approximately 2,200 feet...

, including oil
An oil is any substance that is liquid at ambient temperatures and does not mix with water but may mix with other oils and organic solvents. This general definition includes vegetable oils, volatile essential oils, petrochemical oils, and synthetic oils....

 plants and other civilian industrial
Industry refers to the production of an economic good or service within an economy.-Industrial sectors:There are four key industrial economic sectors: the primary sector, largely raw material extraction industries such as mining and farming; the secondary sector, involving refining, construction,...

 targets which aided the German war effort, such as blast furnace
Blast furnace
A blast furnace is a type of metallurgical furnace used for smelting to produce industrial metals, generally iron.In a blast furnace, fuel and ore and flux are continuously supplied through the top of the furnace, while air is blown into the bottom of the chamber, so that the chemical reactions...

s (which at night were self-illuminating). The underlying motive for the attacks was to divert German air forces away from the land front in France. 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." Due to the inadequate British bomb-sights the strikes that followed "had the effect of terror raids on towns and villages,"

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.

On 24 August, fate took a turn, and several off-course German bombers accidentally bombed residential areas of London. The next day, the RAF
Royal Air Force
The Royal Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Formed on 1 April 1918, it is the oldest independent air force in the world...

 bombed Berlin for the first time, targeting Tempelhof airfield and the Siemens factories in Siemensstadt. These attacks were seen as indiscriminate bombings by the Germans due to their inaccuracy, and this infuriated Hitler; he ordered that the 'night piracy of the British' be countered by a concentrated night offensive against the island, and especially London. The Luftwaffe, which Hitler had prohibited from bombing civilian areas in the UK, was now ordered to bomb British cities. The Blitz
The Blitz
The Blitz was the sustained strategic bombing of Britain by Nazi Germany between 7 September 1940 and 10 May 1941, during the Second World War. The city of London was bombed by the Luftwaffe for 76 consecutive nights and many towns and cities across the country followed...

 was under way.

July and August 1940

Several small raids on Coventry during the Battle of Britain
Battle of Britain
The Battle of Britain is the name given to the World War II air campaign waged by the German Air Force against the United Kingdom during the summer and autumn of 1940...

 in July and August 1940 killed several dozen people, far fewer than the number of fatalities in cities including London and Birmingham
Birmingham is a city and metropolitan borough in the West Midlands of England. It is the most populous British city outside the capital London, with a population of 1,036,900 , and lies at the heart of the West Midlands conurbation, the second most populous urban area in the United Kingdom with a...

. 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.

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
Luftflotte 3
Luftflotte 3 was one of the primary divisions of the German Luftwaffe in World War II. It was formed on February 1, 1939 from Luftwaffengruppenkommando 3 in Munich and redesignated Luftwaffenkommando West on September 26, 1944...

 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
Heinkel He 111
The Heinkel He 111 was a German aircraft designed by Siegfried and Walter Günter in the early 1930s in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. Often described as a "Wolf in sheep's clothing", it masqueraded as a transport aircraft, but its purpose was to provide the Luftwaffe with a fast medium...

 aircraft of Kampfgruppe 100, were equipped with X-Gerät navigational devices, accurately dropped marker flares at 19:20. The British and the Germans were fighting the Battle of the Beams
Battle of the beams
The Battle of the Beams was a period early in the Second World War when bombers of the German Air Force used a number of increasingly accurate systems of radio navigation for night bombing. British "scientific intelligence" at the Air Ministry fought back with a variety of increasingly effective...

 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
Magnesium is a chemical element with the symbol Mg, atomic number 12, and common oxidation number +2. It is an alkaline earth metal and the eighth most abundant element in the Earth's crust and ninth in the known universe as a whole...

 and those made of petroleum
Petroleum or crude oil is a naturally occurring, flammable liquid consisting of a complex mixture of hydrocarbons of various molecular weights and other liquid organic compounds, that are found in geologic formations beneath the Earth's surface. Petroleum is recovered mostly through oil drilling...

. 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.
At around 20:00, Coventry Cathedral
Coventry Cathedral
Coventry Cathedral, also known as St Michael's Cathedral, is the seat of the Bishop of Coventry and the Diocese of Coventry, in Coventry, West Midlands, England. The current bishop is the Right Revd Christopher Cocksworth....

 (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
A firestorm is a conflagration which attains such intensity that it creates and sustains its own wind system. It is most commonly a natural phenomenon, created during some of the largest bushfires, forest fires, and wildfires...

, 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.

Coventry's air defences consisted of twenty four 3.7 inch AA guns
QF 3.7 inch AA gun
The 3.7-Inch QF AA was Britain's primary heavy anti-aircraft gun during World War II. It was roughly the equivalent of the German 88 mm FlaK but with a slightly larger calibre of 94 mm and superior performance. It was used throughout World War II in all theatres except the Eastern Front...

 and twelve 40mm Bofors. Over 6,700 rounds were fired. However only one German bomber was shot down.

In one night, more than 4,000 homes in Coventry were destroyed. 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.. Around 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
Daimler Motor Company
The Daimler Motor Company Limited was an independent British motor vehicle manufacturer founded in London by H J Lawson in 1896, which set up its manufacturing base in Coventry. The right to the use of the name Daimler had been purchased simultaneously from Gottlieb Daimler and Daimler Motoren...

 factory, the Humber Hillman
Hillman is a British automobile marque created by the Hillman Motor Car Company, founded in 1907. The company was based in Ryton-on-Dunsmore, near Coventry, England. Before 1907 the company had built bicycles...

 factory, the Alfred Herbert Ltd
Alfred Herbert (company)
Alfred Herbert Ltd was one of the world's largest machine tool manufacturing businesses. It was at one time the largest British machine tool builder.-History:...

 machine tool works, nine aircraft factories, and two naval ordnance stores.

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. As Arthur Harris, commander of RAF Bomber Command
RAF Bomber Command
RAF Bomber Command controlled the RAF's bomber forces from 1936 to 1968. During World War II the command destroyed a significant proportion of Nazi Germany's industries and many German cities, and in the 1960s stood at the peak of its postwar military power with the V bombers and a supplemental...

, 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".

An estimated 568 people were killed in the raid (the exact figure was never precisely confirmed) with another 863 badly injured and 393 sustaining lesser injuries. Casualties were limited by the fact that a large number of Coventrians "trekked" out of the city at night to sleep in nearby towns or villages following the earlier air raids. Also people who took to air raid shelters suffered very little death or injury. Out of 79 public air raid shelters holding 33,000 people, very few had been destroyed.

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
Parachute mine
A parachute mine is a parachute naval mine dropped from an aircraft. They were mostly used in World War II by the Luftwaffe and initially by the Royal Air Force Bomber Command.-Blast effects:...

, of which 20 were incendiary petroleum mines
Firebombing is a bombing technique designed to damage a target, generally an urban area, through the use of fire, caused by incendiary devices, rather than from the blast effect of large bombs....

, 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 bomb
    Blockbuster bomb
    Blockbuster or "cookie" was the name given to several of the largest conventional bombs used in World War II by the Royal Air Force...

    s) coupled with thousands of incendiary bombs intended to set the city ablaze in a firestorm
    A firestorm is a conflagration which attains such intensity that it creates and sustains its own wind system. It is most commonly a natural phenomenon, created during some of the largest bushfires, forest fires, and wildfires...


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
Mannheim is a city in southwestern Germany. With about 315,000 inhabitants, Mannheim is the second-largest city in the Bundesland of Baden-Württemberg, following the capital city of Stuttgart....

. 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. This was the start of a British drift away from precision attacks on military targets and towards area bombing attacks on whole cities.

Coventry and Ultra

In his 1974 book The Ultra Secret, Group Captain F. W. Winterbotham
F. W. Winterbotham
Frederick William Winterbotham was a British Royal Air Force officer who during World War II supervised the distribution of Ultra intelligence. Later, Winterbotham published the first popular account of Ultra....

 asserted that the British government had advance warning of the attack from Ultra
Ultra was the designation adopted by British military intelligence in June 1941 for wartime signals intelligence obtained by "breaking" high-level encrypted enemy radio and teleprinter communications at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. "Ultra" eventually became the standard...

: intercepted German radio messages encrypted with the Enigma cipher machine
Enigma machine
An Enigma machine is any of a family of related electro-mechanical rotor cipher machines used for the encryption and decryption of secret messages. Enigma was invented by German engineer Arthur Scherbius at the end of World War I...

 and decoded by British cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park
Bletchley Park
Bletchley Park is an estate located in the town of Bletchley, in Buckinghamshire, England, which currently houses the National Museum of Computing...

. He further claimed that Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, was a predominantly Conservative British politician and statesman known for his leadership of the United Kingdom during the Second World War. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest wartime leaders of the century and served as Prime Minister twice...

 ordered that no defensive measures should be taken to protect Coventry, lest the Germans suspect that their cipher had been broken. 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.

Peter Calvocoressi
Peter Calvocoressi
Peter John Ambrose Calvocoressi was a British political author, historian and a former intelligence officer at Bletchley Park during World War II.-Early years:...

 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."

Scientist R. V. Jones
Reginald Victor Jones
Reginald Victor Jones, CH CB CBE FRS, was a British physicist and scientific military intelligence expert who played an important role in the defence of Britain in -Education:...

, who led the British side in the Battle of the Beams
Battle of the beams
The Battle of the Beams was a period early in the Second World War when bombers of the German Air Force used a number of increasingly accurate systems of radio navigation for night bombing. British "scientific intelligence" at the Air Ministry fought back with a variety of increasingly effective...

, 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. 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
King Henry VIII School
King Henry VIII School is a coeducational Independent school founded in 1545 by John Hales, comprising a senior school and associated preparatory school located in Coventry, England...

, and St. Mary's Hall.

August 1942

The final air raid on Coventry came on 3 August 1942, in the Stoke Heath
Stoke Heath
Stoke Heath may refer to:*Stoke Heath, Worcestershire, an area in the south of Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, England*Stoke Heath, Coventry, a suburb in the north of Coventry, England*Stoke Heath, Shropshire, Shropshire, England...

 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.

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
    Belgrade Theatre
    The Belgrade Theatre is a live performance venue seating 858 and situated in Coventry, England. It was the first civic theatre to be built after the Second World War in Britain and as such was more than a place of entertainment...

     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.
  • Blitzcat, Robert Westall
    Robert Westall
    Robert Atkinson Westall was the author of many books, mostly children's fiction, though also for adults, and non-fiction. Many of his novels, while supposedly aimed at a teenage audience, deal with many complex, dark and in many ways adult themes...

    . The main character flees Coventry during the big raid.
  • Babylon 5
    Babylon 5
    Babylon 5 is an American science fiction television series created, produced and largely written by J. Michael Straczynski. The show centers on a space station named Babylon 5: a focal point for politics, diplomacy, and conflict during the years 2257–2262...

     television series, episode In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum
    In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum
    "In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum" is an episode from the second season of the science fiction television series Babylon 5.-Synopsis:Sheridan holds Morden in custody and learns some of what happened to the expedition on which his wife was lost....

    . Captain Sheridan, Babylon 5's commander, in a discussion of "how much is a secret worth", repeats the Churchill/Coventry myth.
  • Spooks
    Spooks is a British television drama series that originally aired on BBC One from 13 May 2002 – 23 October 2011, consisting of 10 series. The title is a popular colloquialism for spies, as the series follows the work of a group of MI5 officers based at the service's Thames House headquarters, in a...

    , BBC television series. In one episode, the Churchill/Coventry myth is repeated to justify allowing a known bomb to detonate.
  • The Facts of Life
    The Facts of Life
    The Facts of Life may refer to:* The Facts of Life * The Facts of Life , by Black Box Recorder* The Facts of Life * The Facts of Life , by C. D...

    , Graham Joyce
    Graham Joyce
    Graham Joyce is an English writer of speculative fiction and the recipient of numerous awards for both his novels and short stories. He grew up in a small mining village just outside of Coventry to a working class family. After receiving a B.Ed. from Bishop Lonsdale College in 1977 and a M.A. from...

    . Set in Coventry just after World War II, the novel follows the unstable life of a young man who represents the next generation of a family that may have psychic
    A psychic is a person who professes an ability to perceive information hidden from the normal senses through extrasensory perception , or is said by others to have such abilities. It is also used to describe theatrical performers who use techniques such as prestidigitation, cold reading, and hot...

     powers. Parts of the novel follow his mother's activities on the night of the November 14 bombing; others deal with the post-war rebuilding.
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog
    To Say Nothing of the Dog
    To Say Nothing of the Dog: How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump at Last is a 1997 comic science fiction novel by Connie Willis. It takes place in the same universe of time-traveling historians she explored in her story Fire Watch and novel Doomsday Book.To Say Nothing of the Dog won both the Hugo...

    , Connie Willis
    Connie Willis
    Constance Elaine Trimmer Willis is an American science fiction writer. She has won eleven Hugo Awards and seven Nebula Awards. Willis most recently won a Hugo Award for Blackout/All Clear...

    . 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
    John Scalzi
    John Michael Scalzi II is an American author and online writer, and president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. He is best known for his Hugo Award-nominated science fiction novel Old Man's War, released by Tor Books in January 2005, and for his blog , at which he has written...

     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

Further reading

  • Peter Calvocoressi, Top Secret Ultra, includes an account of the Coventry Raid, and the actual cryptanalytic intelligence
    Ultra was the designation adopted by British military intelligence in June 1941 for wartime signals intelligence obtained by "breaking" high-level encrypted enemy radio and teleprinter communications at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. "Ultra" eventually became the standard...

    available before the raid.

External links

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