Coventry, England November 14, 1940

On this date in 1940 the first firestorm of the war was inflicted on Coventry, England, a city of almost 240,000 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. For 10 hours starting at 7:20 on a moon-bright night, close to 450 bombers rained more than 500 tons of high-explo­sive bombs and some 56 tons of incen­diary bombs (that is, 30,000 incen­diary bombs!) in retali­a­tion (per the German Armed Forces High Com­mand) for a Royal Air Force raid six days earlier on Munich, sacred birthplace of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party.

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 overnight fire­bombing success, which came at the tail end of 17 pin­prick raids on Coventry over the previous two months, and which had killed a compa­rably modest number of citizens (176) for the risks involved. The official German news agency crowed that the Novem­ber raid, code­named Opera­tion Mid­night Sonata, was “the most severe in the whole history of the war.” Germans created a new word for the type of destruc­tion they inflicted on the city, koven­trieren (Coven­trate). Yet the English Midlands city quickly recovered from its lethal ordeal, and within days most of Coventry’s 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 all 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 con­spired with the threat of a no-holds-barred inva­sion of the Home Islands by the Soviet Army from the Chinese mainland changed their leaders’ minds.

Operation Midnight Sonata: Coventry, England, After the Blitz of November 14/15, 1940

Operation Midnight Sonata: Coventry city center, November 16, 1940 Operation Midnight Sonata: Interior damage, Coventry Cathedral

Left: Broadgate in Coventry city center on Novem­ber 16, 1940, following the 10‑hour Coventry Blitz during the night of Novem­ber 14/15. The burnt-out shell of the Owen depart­ment store (middle), opened in 1937, overlooks a scene of devastation.

Right: The provost of Coventry Cathedral, also known as St. Michael’s Cathe­dral, 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.

Operation Midnight Sonata: View of Earl St., Coventry, England, looking toward the Council house Little Park Street, Coventry, several weeks after Operation Midnight Sonata

Left: This was an official U.S. press photo­graph, showing the rest of the world what the Luft­waffe had done to Coven­try in Operation Midnight Sonata—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 14/15 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 today Old 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 Overnight Bombing of Coventry, November 14/15, 1940, and the Rebirth of Its Cathedral