Coventry and the power of human endurance

The 10th April this year is the 75th anniversary of the second of two heavy attacks on Coventry over Easter 1941 that left 450 people dead and over 700 wounded (this in a city with a total population not much over 200,000). The Easter blitz is often forgotten, overshadowed as it is by the raid of 14th November 1940 that destroyed St Michael’s Cathedral and devastated the city centre, killing nearly 600 people (precise figures were never possible to obtain, such was the scale of destruction).

The Coventry Blitz is a part of my family history, my grandmother and her family lived in the city suburb of Holbrooks and as a child she used to often tell me stories of her life in the Blitz, walking miles out of the city to stay with her older sister in the country, or on less lucky nights hunkering down in a giant iron cage in the family’s living room. Fortunately, although a number of bombs fell nearby, the family all survived the blitz and the family home was never too badly damaged, though windows were blown in on at least one occasion. Years later, when watching Gone with the Wind on television, my grandmother casually remarked at the end that she was glad to finally see the conclusion of the film as the sirens had gone off midway through the showing at her local cinema during the war and she’d never seen the rest of it. Such stories of the blitz and of keeping chickens and growing vegetables all seemed incredibly exotic to a child of the late 20th century, though for her they were just everyday life. We always used to stop by the old cathedral when going on a shopping trip into the city centre and even as a young boy I felt a certain sense of the tragedy and power of the ruins, and they kept drawing me back over the years, whilst I also came to appreciate the beauty of Basil Spence’s sometimes controversial creation across the way. The new cathedral, like so much of Coventry’s post-war renewal, has always had its detractors and advocates.

So naturally I was drawn to Frederick Taylor’s Coventry: November 14, 1940 when I saw it in a bookshop window, reading it was both a revelation and a like wrapping myself in a familiar old blanket. Memories of sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen peeling potatoes for Sunday lunch came flooding back, so many half-remembered and familiar facts repeated with varying degrees of similarity. Much of the book is about the powerful myths that grew up around the Coventry blitz, and my own family stories had over the years inevitably intertwined some of those myths with other more factual truths. From the moment German bombers successfully enacted a relatively new strategy of concentrated bombing by waves of incendiaries and high explosives on the city’s small historic centre Coventry became a symbol of the terrible power of modern warfare. A new verb was even born, ‘coventrate’, meaning to lay utterly to waste a city through heavy bombing. In the years since the war, Coventry has evolved into a symbol of peace and reconciliation, most potently demonstrated by the words ‘father forgive’ emblazoned above the high alter of the ruined St Michael’s in 1948 by the Provost Richard Howard, who had witnessed the destruction of his church on the night of the 14th November.

Taylor’s highly readable account of the blitz covers the build-up to the 14th November, the night itself, when the entire centre of the city seemed to become one giant fireball, and the awful aftermath, in the process dispelling some of the myths that surround Coventry’s blitz, but painting a vivid and inspiring portrait of the bravery of the city’s people. The first myth to be dispelled is that the city was sacrificed by Churchill to save London, the sad fact was the British military and intelligence capabilities in autumn 1940 were not yet advanced enough to predict the target that night until only a short time before the attack took place. Another myth dispelled is that of the Blitz spirit of cheerily getting on with life immediately, the truth is more human and more inspiring. The morning after that terrible night, utilities were out, often destroyed beyond repair, tram lines lay 30 feet in the air, the city centre was a sea of rubble and fires still burned everywhere, it was destruction on a scale nobody young enough and lucky enough to live in England today can really imagine. People coming out of their shelters, stiff and sleep-deprived, were shocked at what they saw and eyewitness accounts describe hysteria being common, with people openly crying in the streets and a general bewilderment at what had happened. Refugees flooded out from the city to surrounding towns and villages, thousands of homes had been damaged and destroyed. But life went on, a surprise visit from the King a little over 24 hours after the bombing helped lift the mood, and Coventry got back to work. Shops sprung up in temporary cabins, the last of which only disappeared decades later, and the factories that had been the main target of the raid were found to have survived in better than expected state. The dead were buried in mass graves, something almost unimaginable to modern British sensibilities, but unavoidable in the circumstances. Coventry’s war work carried on, the city finally suffered its last raid in August 1942, two years after its first.

Many of the myths of Coventry were deliberately promulgated, the Nazis initially boasted of the devastation they had wreaked on the city to motivate the German population and intimidate the British, whilst for Churchill’s government the city’s terrible plight was a not unhelpful tool in eliciting American sympathy and aid. ‘Poor Coventry’ became a general term, an image that has in some ways stuck to the city to this day, but this rather neglects the fact that Coventry was targeted because it was a boom city and vital contributor to the UK’s military-industrial war effort. The city and its people showed extraordinary resilience in those dark months, a concerted effort to terrorise a city and remove its ability to work failed, the power of human endurance is the striking feature of the Coventry Blitz.

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