Wednesday 18 November 2015

Hunter's Moon - Celia Rees

On Saturday, 14th November, people gathered in front of Coventry's new cathedral. They were there to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the Luftwaffe's raid on the city but the old cathedral, destroyed in that raid, was lit by the tricolour and they found themselves standing, not just in solemn remembrance, but in shocked solidarity with the people of another city where the bloodshed was fresh on the streets, the grief still raw.

14th November, 2015

My grandparents and aunt lived in Coventry. They were there on the night of November 14th, 1940. I grew up with stories of that night. It was clear, cold with a full moon, a Hunter's Moon. Perfect for bombing. The raid started early, just past seven in the evening. Some years ago, I ran a Creative Writing Class for Warwick University Open Studies and I set a task: to write about an incident from your childhood.  One man, he must have been in his seventies then, wrote about that night. He'd been out playing with his friends, he said. They made for home when they heard the siren but didn't hurry, it seemed too early for anything to happen, they carried on kicking a football down the street. Then they heard the bombers. Not just one or two but many, a continuous low roar. By the time he was at his gate, incendiaries were falling. He turned to look back and the city seemed to be a sea of fire. All he could think was: 'My dad's down there.' Later that night, as the bombs fell closer and closer,  he was moved to a safer shelter. He emerged to find one half of his street gone and with it some of the friends with whom he had been playing. Younger members of the class listened spell bound, transfixed by his vivid, eye witness account. Ironically, he had been reluctant to do the task when I set it. 'I don't have anything to write about,' he'd said.

Luftwaffe Aerial Photograph

The raid went on for 13 hours. Air defence round Coventry was poor, the bombers had perfect sight because of the moonlit night and they came, wave after wave, with nothing to stop them. A firestorm swept the city centre, firefighters stood by helpless as the water ran out, pipes were broken, their hoses cut or melted. Fire crews came from as far away as Solihull but there was nothing they could do. On the roof of the cathedral, clergy and fire watchers fought a valiant but losing battle. Fire had taken hold in the great wooden beams of the roof and they had to leave the cathedral to its fate. The fires across the city were so intense that the glow in the sky could be seen a hundred miles away. A friend of my brother's lived Sheldon, a suburb of Birmingham, he described watching from his bedroom window as the great red glare that was Coventry filled the sky, light enough to read by.
Coventry burning

When the all clear finally sounded, the medieval city centre was destroyed; the cathedral of St Michael's a smoking ruin.  My aunt was the Head of a school in the city centre. She walked in the next day, picking her way through the devastation with the buildings still smouldering and a fine drizzle beginning to lay the brick and plaster dust. She went to see if the school was still standing, clutching the registers, which would become a record of which of the children had survived.

People going to work the next day


St Michael's

Coventry was a small, medieval city, rather like York, but it was ringed by factories. The city had become a centre for the engineering industry and most of the factories had been turned over to war production. Dunlop manufactured wheel discs, brakes, gun mechanisms, even barrage balloons. Hawker Siddeley, Vickers Armstrong, Armstrong Whitworth and Rolls Royce produced planes, engines and associated parts - including the complete Whitley twin engined heavy Bomber. Humber and Daimler made armoured troop transporters and scout cars. Cash's and Courtaulds produced materials for parachutes, G.E.C. radio equipment, British Thompson-Houston electro-magnetic components, such as magnetos and dynamos. Alfred Herbert providing essential machine tools, as did Coventry Climax, Coventry Gauge and Tool, and countless other smaller firms around the city. As did Automotive Products in nearby Leamington Spa. The small town was hit by a stick of six bombs, seven people killed. For a long time this was thought to be a mistake, a German pilot overshooting the target area,  but recent research has found a Luftwaffe map with the A.P clearly marked on it.

Luftwaffe map showing Automotive Products factory, Leamington Spa

A legitimate target, perhaps, but Coventry was a small city with a historic and beautiful centre and it was destroyed in a systematic pattern of bombing designed to raze the whole place to the ground. No city of its size had been subject to this kind of bombing before.  It gave rise to a new verb: to coventrate. Not that many people died, 568 by the official count, with 863 seriously injured and 393 more lightly so. There were probably more deaths. The concentrated use of high explosives and incendiaries meant that sometimes there remained little to identify. Later in the war, the Allies would repay in kind, over and over again. The death toll would pale in comparison with the 42,000 killed in the bombing of Hamburg, 25,000 in the bombing of Dresden, let alone Hiroshima, but Coventry's destruction marked a significant point in this hideous escalation and it came to stand for something more.

Charred cross on the altar of the old cathedral

After the war, Coventry adopted the phoenix as a symbol of recovery and renewal. The city rose again. New buildings replaced the old. A new cathedral was built next to the the shell of the old one. The city itself came to represent sacrifice and hope, peace and reconciliation expressed in the powerful symbols of the charred cross, formed by stone mason Jock Forbes, and the Cross of Nails made from three nails taken from the roof truss of the old cathedral by Provost Richard Howard. The original cross of nails was transferred to the new cathedral, where it sits in the centre of the altar cross.

Coventry Cathedral Altar Cross

 Crosses made up of three of the medieval nails that held together the fabric of the old cathedral have been sent all over the world to churches and communities who have suffered destruction through war and conflict.  With them goes the message: Father Forgive.  

Celia Rees


Judy Krueger said...

That was powerful. It made me hate war even more than I always have and at the same time filled me with awe at the indomitable will of sane men and women to rebuild and live on. I think it is time I read some of your books!

Sue Purkiss said...

I just posted a long comment which got eaten - never mind! Thank you for a moving and interesting post, Celia. It's difficult to imagine Coventry as a small mediaeval city... I went to see the new cathedral as a child, and loved the Graham Sutherland etchings of angels on glass - but I really had no idea of what had gone before.

Penny Dolan said...

A very appropriate and thoughtful post. All those poor people in Coventry back then. The list of the city's industries certainly explains the raid. The horrors of war - all forms of war!

Terri Windling said...

Thank you for this powerful post.

Is everyone here familiar with The Facts of Life, Graham Joyce's wonderful novel about Coventry during and the after the war?

I live near Exeter in Devon, another very beautiful medieval city that was flattened by bombs during War II (resulting in a rather bland city centre today). Unlike Coventry, there was little military value in destroying Exeter; it was chosen specifically because of its beauty as part of the "Baedeker Blitz": Hitler's response to the RAF's bombing of the Cathedral city of Lübeck. War is a hellish thing.

Unknown said...

Made me weep at the senselessness of it all. And also the bizarre lack of defences when there were so many industrial targets. Where were the barrage balloons and manned batteries?

Clare Mulley said...

What a moving post Celia. How did that school teacher cope, reading her register. How moving to have heard your gentleman in his writing class. Fascinating comments too - I had not heard of the Baedeker Blitz, Terri Windling. I can only hope that we can be such witnesses to the pain today in a future period of empathy, tolerance and peace.

Catherine Johnson said...

Thank you for writing this Celia. And sadly still pertinant today. Can't imagine living through something like this xc

Celia Rees said...

Thank you for all your comments. There were barrage balloons, Josa, and anti aircraft guns but they were not particularly effective, given the number of planes involved and the length of the raid.The city was not unprepared, just ill prepared. A raid of this kind had simply never happened before. The Baedeker raids, beginning with the RAF's raid on Lubeck, marked a murderous tit for tat contest between the Allies and Germany, aimed less at destroying industrial infrastructure, more at targeting civilian morale and national pride. All these raids paled when compared with the terrible destruction rained down on German cities once the RAF and the USAF had the bombers that could reach deep into Germany. A friend on Facebook has been telling me about how part of her family were wiped out in Dresden. Nothing left to identify, even. War is, indeed a terrible thing.

Janie Hampton said...

One unsolved mystery - 'By chance' Churchill was staying at Ditchley Park that night, 45 miles south of Coventry. He told his host Ronald Tree MP that it wasn't safe to be at Chequers 'when the moon was high' because Chequers was an easy target for the Luftwaffe. But had Bletchley warned him, via Ultra, about the imminent bombing of Coventry? Mrs Tree wrote that they heard the bombers go over, and he was up before breakfast to visit Coventry, returning in shock. Ditchley turned out to be so comfortable, secure and well staffed, that Churchill went there for many moonlit weekends. (Mrs Ronald Tree, Nancy, was first cousin of Joyce Grenfell, whose biography I wrote and letters obliquely mention these visits.)

Carol Drinkwater said...

I had never heard of the Baedeker Blitz either. What is so moving, particularly in the light of what we have been experiencing here in France this week, is the photograph of people walking through the destruction on their way to work. It reminds me of many recent photographs of Gaza. I think when I returned after my long solo journey for The Olive Route books the thing that had most struck me, moved me throughout my travels was the indomitability of the human spirit. I have been reminding myself of that this week.
Thank you, Celia, a very timely post.

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