Coventry, England · November 14, 1940

On this date in 1940 the first firestorm of the war was inflicted on Coven­try, Eng­land, a city of 200,000 people, during the Ger­man Blitz against that coun­try. Ger­man “path­finder” bombers flying along radio-direction beams tar­geted the medi­e­val cathe­dral city and indus­trial-muni­tions cen­ter in the English Mid­lands. Nearly 450 bombers rained more than 500 tons of high-explo­sive bombs and some 56 tons of incen­diary bombs (that is, 30,000 incendiary bombs!) over ten hours. The raging in­fer­no, spreading quickly due to the exis­tence of so many of Coven­try’s an­cient and closely built timber-framed buildings, destroyed or damaged 80 per­cent of the city cen­ter, including its cathe­dral, and about three-quarters of the city’s fac­tories. Apart from the cathe­dral and city fac­tories, two hos­pi­tals, two churches, hotels, clubs, movie houses, pub­lic shel­ters, pub­lic swim­ming pools, a police sta­tion, and a post office were also bomb targets. Killed were 568 civilians who were laid to rest in two mass burials spread over a two-week period (it took that long to recover all the bodies); over 1,200 people were badly wounded. Berlin was giddy over its fire­bombing suc­cess. The official Ger­man news agency crowed that the raid on Coven­try was “the most severe in the whole his­tory of the war.” Yet Coven­try quickly recovered from its or­deal, and with­in days most of its fac­tories were up and running. It became a point of pride, an in­di­ca­tion of the national mood, that morale recovered so quickly as well. Small signs sprouted in broken shop windows, announcing “Busi­ness as usual.” By Christ­mas 1940 the fire­bombing raids covered most of Britain’s major cities: Glas­gow in Scotl­and, Bel­fast in North­ern Ire­land, the port of Liver­pool, and Shef­field deep in the heart of Eng­land were badly hit. Just before New Year’s 1940, 130 bombers attacked Lon­don, nearly setting St. Paul’s Cathe­dral ablaze, but the surrounding areas of an­cient buildings and churches repre­senting hun­dreds of years of his­tory were lost. As the Euro­pean and Pacific theaters showed right up through August 1945, com­bat­ant popu­la­tions had a tre­men­dous abil­ity to suf­fer vio­lence and bleak futures without losing their will to sustain the war effort. Only the atomic bombings of Hiro­shima and Naga­saki in Japan changed their leaders’ minds.

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Coventry, England, After the Blitz on November 14–15, 1940

Coventry city center, November 16, 1940Interior damage, Coventry Cathedral

Left: Broadgate in Coventry city center on Novem­ber 16, 1940, following the Coven­try Blitz of Novem­ber 14–15. The burnt-out shell of the Owen depart­ment store, opened in 1937, overlooks a scene of devastation.

Right: The Coventry Cathedral provost and a party of helpers attempted to deal with the first set of incen­diary bombs that burst through the cathe­dral roof and walls by smothering the flames with sand. But another shower of incen­di­aries accom­panied by high explo­sives, oil bombs, and land mines forced the party to give up its efforts. By the next morning only the skeleton of the cathedral was left standing.

View of Earl St., Coventry, England, looking toward the Council houseLittle Park Street, Coventry, several weeks after the raid

Left: This was an official U.S. press photo­graph, showing the rest of the world what the Luft­waffe had done to Coven­try—in this scene, Earl Street as seen from Jordan Well. The stream of peo­ple attempting to go to work the next day, picking their way through the rubble, highlighted per­fectly the point that the world’s press wanted to make, namely, the Ger­mans could not bomb the Brit­ish into sub­mis­sion. The Council House clock tower is clearly visible through the haze of smoke, and although the building had vir­tually all its win­dows blown in by bomb blasts, it sur­vived the night of November 14 remarkably unscathed.

Right: Very little remained of Little Park Street by Novem­ber 15 after the houses and small fac­tories in that street formed one con­tin­uous raging in­ferno. This photo, taken some weeks after the raid, shows Holy Trinity Church spire (right in background), which was previously undetectable through the haze of smoke.

Interior of Coventry Cathedral todayOld Coventry Cathedral alongside new one

Above: The ruins of the old Coventry Cathe­dral, the most visi­ble modern-day reminder of the Blitz. A new cathe­dral was con­structed along­side the ruins in the 1950s, designed by the Scot­tish archi­tect Basil Spence. Later knighted for this work, Spence insisted that in­stead of rebuilding the old Angli­can cathe­dral it should be kept in ruins as a garden of remem­brance and that the new cathe­dral should be built along­side—the two buildings together effec­tively forming one church. The cathe­dral was recon­secrated on May 25, 1962.

The Bombing of Coventry, November 14–15, 1940, and the Rebirth of Its Cathedral