This was the German air attack on Coventry (14/15 November 1940).
On the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Coventry was home to companies such as Daimler, Dunlop, GEC, Humber and Armstrong Whitworth, which produced a great range of military products from bombers to scout cars. Much of this work was quickly transferred to ‘shadow’ factories built on the outskirts of the city to reduce the threat of aerial attack and to take the threat of bombing away from residential areas.
The first bombs to be dropped in the area fell on 25 June, when five such weapons fell on Ansty airfield, and this was soon followed by a string of bombs on the Hillfields area of the city, causing 16 deaths. On the evening of 25 August a short raid left more dead. October 1940 was characterised by several small but intense raids, which left 176 dead. Considerably worse was to come, however, for on 8 November the RAF bombed Munich, and Germany replied with ‘Mondscheinsonate’ directed at Coventry.
Like many of the towns in the Midlands which had led the industrial revolution, Coventry had only later adopted any form of zoning, so many of the small- and medium-sized factories were located in streets which also included workers’ houses and the city centre’s shops.
‘Mondscheinsonate’ was undertaken by 515 German medium bombers, two-thirds of them from the Kampfgeschwadern of Generalfeldmarschall Hugo Sperrle’s Luftflotte III and the other one-third from the pathfinders of Hauptmann Kurt Aschenbrenner’s Kampfgruppe 100. The raid was initiated by 13 of the Kampfgruppe 100’s Heinkel He 111 aircraft specially modified with the ‘X-Gerät’ navigational system. This allowed the aircraft to mark the target area accurately with flares from 19.20.
The British and the Germans were currently fighting the ‘Battle of the Beams’ between the German radio navigation aids and the British countermeasures, but on this night the British failed to achieve a full disruption the ‘X-Gerät’ signals, so accurate marking was possible. The pathfinders were followed by the first wave of follow-up bombers, which dropped HE bombs. The Germans intended to destroy the city’s utilities (the water supply, electricity network and gas mains), and to crater the road network, thereby making it difficult for fire engines to reach fires started by the follow-on waves of bombers.
The following bombers dropped a combination of HE and incendiary bombs. There were two types of incendiaries, one based on magnesium and the other on petroleum. The HE bombs and the larger air mines were intended not only to hinder the efforts of the city’s fire brigade, but also to damaged roof and so facilitate the passage of incendiaries into buildings.
At about 20.00 Coventry cathedral was set on fire for the first time. The fire-fighters managed to put out this first fire, but other direct hits followed and soon the fires in the cathedral 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 service’s command and control capability, making it difficult to tell the fire-fighters which of the blazes to tackle first. As the Germans had intended, the HE bombs damaged the water mains, and thus there was insufficient water to tackle many of the fires. The raid reached its climax at about 24.00, with the final all-clear sounded at 06.15 on the morning of 15 November.
Unlike the Allied raids later in the war, when 500 or more heavy bombers delivered their bomb loads in a concentrated wave which lasted for only a few minutes, the German medium bombers carried relatively light loads and each crossed the target area, several of them more than once, returning to its base in France to rearm between each sortie. This led to lulls in the raid when the fire-fighting and rescue services could reorganise and evacuate civilians.
‘Mondscheinsonate’ destroyed 4,330 homes and damaged some 60,000 buildings over hundreds of acres in the centre of Coventry, and killed 568 civilians.
The raid of 14/15 November combined several innovations which were to influence later strategic bomber raids: these innovations included, firstly, the use of pathfinder aircraft, employing electronic aids to navigate and mark the targets before the advent of the main bomber forces and, secondly, the use of HE bombs and air mines (blockbuster bombs) coupled with thousands of incendiary bombs to provide physical destruction and to set the target on fire.
‘Ultra’ intelligence had combined with information gleaned for prisoner of war interrogations to warn the British that the Germans were planning a major operation to attack cities including Birmingham and Wolverhampton as well as Coventry. The information was not correlated in time, however, and there were also indications that the targets might be in London and the south of England. Moreover, it was impossible to establish which of the targets would be attacked first and the Enigma signals informing the German emitter stations of the target co-ordinates were not broken in time.
By 15.00 on the day of the raid, it had been discovered that the beams intersected over Coventry, but the British countermeasures did not work as the jammers were set incorrectly. The fact that Coventry was to be the night’s objective was passed to Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding’s RAF Fighter Command, but British countermeasures proved ineffective, and only one of the attacking aircraft was in fact destroyed.
In all, 12 armament factories and much of the city’s centre, including the 14th-century cathedral, were destroyed. The failure of RAF Fighter Command to protect Coventry probably speeded the scheduled replacement of Dowding by Air Marshal Sir William Sholto Douglas at the head of RAF Fighter Command on 25 November, and also led to the myth that Coventry was deliberately left to the mercy of the Luftwaffe to shield the security of ‘Ultra’.
Some 4,330 homes had been destroyed, and three-quarters of the city’s factories had been damaged. Among the rubble lay large numbers of human remains, some of which were never identified. It was perhaps a miracle that the casualty figure was not higher considering the city had been hit by 30,000 incendiaries, 500 tons of high explosive, 50 land mines and 20 oil mines over a period of 11 hours. Moreover, this was not to be the end of Coventry’s ordeal. The raids continued, although generally much lighter, although two were heavy. The Easter week raids of 8/9 April and 10/11 April 1941 were between six and eight hours long: the first of these raids 237 bombers dropped 315 HE bombs and 710 incendiary canisters, and in both the raids about 475 people were killed, more than 700 people were seriously injured, and damage was caused to many buildings including some factories, the central police station, an the Warwickshire Hospital.
The last bombing raid on Coventry took place in August 1942. By that time the city had suffered 41 raids and 373 siren alerts. At the end of the war it was officially reckoned that 1,236 people had died in the raids on Coventry.