Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry falsely attributed a new verb, Coventriert (to ‘Coventrate’), to the British public.
The Blitz – the German ‘blitzkrieg’ of Britain’s industrial and port cities – was one of the most intensive bombing campaigns of World War II. Cities from London to Glasgow, Belfast to Hull, and Liverpool to Cardiff were targeted in an attempt to destroy Britain’s military-industrial facilities and force it out of the war.
However, the entire country was horrified on the fateful night of Nov. 14, 1940 when the city of Coventry faced a devastating bombing raid that flattened the city.
As told by Julian Hale in his book The Blitz 1940–41 The Luftwaffe’s biggest strategic bombing campaign, Coventry was known as ‘Britain’s motor city’. The medieval streets and array of some 30-engineering works clustered in the centre made the city the best prospect for an annihilating blow. Coventry had already been attacked by KGr 100 and III/KG 26 several times in the ten days prior to the raid and both units made ‘dry-runs’ on Nov. 12/13. For the main attack, Luftflotten 2 and 3 would together dispatch 552 aircraft. The three beam systems were used but the fires which took hold early in the attack served as a beacon for the following aircraft.
In the days before Nov. 14, prisoner interrogations and intercepted wireless traffic which mentioned the word Korn (Grain) revealed that the Luftwaffe was planning a major attack. Korn was not recognized as the codename for Coventry. London was considered a possibility but the more probable target was a city in the Midlands. The detection of the beams over Coventry in the afternoon of Nov. 14 made it apparent that the city was the target. In a decision much-debated since, no early warning was given to the city.
Operation Moonlight Sonata (as the bombing mission was designated by the Luftwaffe) was carried out meticulously.
KGr 100 duly opened the attack at 1920hrs, when the first bombs were dropped just to the east of the cathedral. The attacking force gave the defences no respite. The bombing cut telephone lines at an early stage and communications inside and outside the city were affected. Water mains burst and the overwhelmed fire service resorted to using any sources of water they could find, including ponds and ornamental lakes. Smaller fires coalesced to form giant conflagrations. Although the bombing was concentrated on the city centre, many bombs were scattered around the industries – and housing – on the outskirts of Coventry. The attackers dropped a total of 535 tons of bombs in a mix of 94 per cent high explosive and 6 per cent incendiaries. The only success registered by the defences was a Dornier Do 17 of 6./KG 3, which crashed near Loughborough. The night’s most famous casualty was the 14th-century Cathedral Church of St Michael. The bombing killed 554 people and seriously injured another 865.
The aerial reconnaissance images of Coventry, on which the Luftwaffe’s post-raid assessment was based, were obscured by cloud and smoke. The analysis suggested that 12 factories were severely damaged and another eight were presumed to have suffered equal damage. Nazi propaganda portrayed Mondscheinsonate as revenge for Bomber Command’s raid on Munich a few days earlier. Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry falsely attributed a new verb, Coventriert (to ‘Coventrate’), to the British public.
A report prepared for the War Cabinet told another story. Production was ‘entirely suspended’ at only three major factories. Damage at four more was described as ‘serious’. Several smaller works were badly damaged and one, the Triumph factory, was ‘completely gutted’. Industrial production was most affected, not by bomb or fire damage but by the disruption to gas, water and electricity supplies. By Nov. 18, the city had made a surprising recovery: electricity production was restored to 50 per cent, the water supply was mostly reinstated, telephone lines were under repair, the majority of UXBs defused and all but one railway line was back in operation.
Morale was shaken but seemed to recover quickly. A Home Intelligence document reported, ‘During Friday [15 November] there was great depression, a widespread feeling of impotence and many open signs of hysteria.’ By Nov. 16, in anticipation of a follow-up raid, the police organized transport out of the city for up to 10,000 people. Only 300 citizens are estimated to have left Coventry that evening – although more did so unofficially. A visit by the King, the War Cabinet report stated, had ‘a remarkably steadying and cheering effect … of incalculable value.’
The Blitz 1940–41 The Luftwaffe’s biggest strategic bombing campaign is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Horton (Capt) – War Office official photographer, Ministry of Information Second World War Press Agency Print Collection, Andrew Walker (walker44), GoShow Own Work and Taylor (Lt) – War Office official photographer