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Coventry Blitz: 80th Anniversary

Volume 683: debated on Wednesday 11 November 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Maggie Throup.)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for granting me this Adjournment debate to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the November 1940 bombing of Coventry.

The Coventry blitz was, of course, a defining moment in the history of my city, bringing both great hardship and change to Coventry. It is also, I feel, an important event to recall during the current pandemic. In this year of great hardship, many have sought to look back at the blitz as a blueprint for how communities can come together and overcome the toughest of circumstances. I am sure that all would agree that Coventry, the phoenix city which rose from the rubble to post-war success, is an inspirational tale for this time.

As a key centre of wartime production, Coventry, a pioneering engineering and manufacturing city, was a prime target. Indeed, prior to the air raid on 14 November, it had already been the victim of a number of smaller air raids. But the events of 14 November 1940 were different. Over 11 hours, nearly 500 bombers dropped over 500 tonnes of high explosives, 30,000 incendiaries, and 50 landmines on the city. The sheer scale of the destruction would lead to the Germans inventing a new word, Coventration or to Coventrate, to describe the level of devastation. In that one night, just over half the city’s housing stock, approximately 43,000 houses, was damaged or destroyed. There was also widespread damage to factories, shops, workplaces and, as it was in the centre of the city, civic buildings. Most famously, an incendiary device landed on Coventry’s cathedral, destroying the medieval church of St Michael’s. On a visit to the city following the bombing, King George VI is said to have wept as he surveyed the ruins.

There was also an incredibly high human cost. The official death toll from the night was 554 people. A further 865 people were seriously injured. Among the disruption and the building rubble, many more were never accounted for.

I join my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour in paying tribute to the brave people of Coventry’s home front who, on 14 November 1940, endured a blitz that destroyed 15 factories and 43,000 homes. I honour individuals’ quiet acts of courage and selflessness that enabled them to endure devastation, and to rebuild in a spirit of peace and reconciliation. As my hon. Friend has said, during this pandemic we are reminded of what it is to come together and to endure uncertain times. I honour the fortitude and sacrifices of our veterans and civilians, and reflect on how those qualities are still with us today. Will my hon. Friend join me in that reflection?

Of course I will join my hon. Friend in that and I will come on to those qualities, which are renowned in Coventry. People know about the communities in Coventry.

As I was saying, those people would later be commemorated in a number of mass funerals. Today, a monument still stands in the London Road cemetery. Almost every Coventry family who had members present in the city at the time have a story about the Coventry blitz. Those stories live on, often through children and grandchildren, and certainly through many publications. They include stories that range from the incredible to the tragic. There are stories about children and families who had spent 11 hours crouching in shelters. One man recalled being pursued down a street by a knee-high river of boiling butter from a nearby blazing dairy. An abandoned tram was blown clean over a house and into a garden—it landed with its windows still intact. There were reports the morning after of a lone fireman watching helplessly while the buildings were still burning. For one family, all that remained of their home was the washing line pole, which was found streets away in a school playground.

The story of the Coventry Blitz was also important in my family. My parents were both in Coventry on that night. They did not discuss the war very often with us when we were children, but from speaking to my siblings—I have two sisters and a brother—I know that we all had the same recollections of things that they had said about that night. My father was 15 years old in 1940, and he watched the devastation from Stoke Heath common, which is in my constituency. It is not far from where he lived and a couple of miles from the city centre. He always spoke about the sky over the city centre having an immense red glow. He went on to join the Royal Navy when he was old enough to do so, and caught the last year of the war. My mother was just 12, and lived not far from the centre of Coventry, in Howard Street.

Mum spent that night under the stairs, as many did; that was where she spent the nights when there were bombing raids. Amazingly, when she emerged in the morning, she discovered that not one pane of glass had been broken in their house. Many other streets nearby were not so lucky, but this demonstrates just how much the bombing was concentrated in the city centre. My grandad was an ARP warden and was out on duty that night. We still have his white steel helmet with a “W” on it. It also has an “FW” on it, as he was a fire watcher. It is a stark reminder of the dangers faced that night.

The days and weeks after 14 November took a heavy toll on the people of Coventry. Visitors from Mass-Observation noted that the night

“had left people practically speechless”.

The day after the air raid, one observer, Tom Harrisson, noted that

“the size of the town meant nearly everyone knew someone who was killed or missing. The dislocation is so total that people easily feel that the town itself is killed. ‘Coventry is finished’ and Coventry is dead’ were the key phrases of Fridays talk. There were more open signs of hysteria, terror and neurosis observed in one evening than during the whole of the rest of the past two months in all areas.”

He went on to say:

“The overwhelmingly dominant feeling on Friday was the feeling of utter helplessness”—

and it

“had left people practically speechless in many cases.”

The reporting goes on to capture how many people felt powerless amid such widespread destruction. There were also practical issues with the gas, electric and water supply, which had been damaged in the bombing. Many woke up to find themselves unemployed, with their workplaces having been hit heavily in the air raid. For many, it might well have felt as though life would never be the same.

Yet, despite of all the challenges, the city was neither dead nor finished. The people of Coventry rose to the challenge of rebuilding the city, and what followed was a testament to the power of community and the courage of those who had seen such destruction. They came from all backgrounds and all walks of life. There were air raid wardens, auxiliary firemen and members of the home guard and the Women’s Voluntary Service. Help also came from churches and community organisations, and from extended families determined to help each other out. It will be surely lost on no one that these pillars of community continue to be vital, especially at times such as the present. To paraphrase one observer, acts of individual courage following the bombing could fill a book, and they have.

Following that night, 1,800 members of the armed forces were brought to Coventry to help with the repairs. Within the first few weeks, basic repairs had been carried out on 12,000 homes. Within a fortnight, many of the bombed factories had already started production. That meant that 80% of the workers who had been made unemployed after the bombing were back at work, a feat that was hailed by much of the national press at the time.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, and I commend her for securing this Adjournment debate. She was speaking about the psychological trauma that so many Coventrians felt, and I sensed that when I arrived in the city in the early ’80s. She also described the utter devastation, and the obliteration of the city. The fact that the people of Coventry rebuilt their industries and their factories and switched them to munitions, and got aircraft back into manufacture, was an extraordinary feat. That is what says so much about the people of Coventry.

Indeed, and I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.

It is for those reasons that the phoenix became a symbol of Coventry, symbolising Coventry’s rising from the ashes and renewing itself against the odds. It was this spirit that would be at the heart of Coventry’s post-war revival. Out of the rubble and the ashes of the second world war, Coventry’s industries would thrive. That in turn would drive the growth of the city. A wealth of jobs and opportunities brought many to Coventry, first from the rest of the UK and Ireland and later from the Commonwealth.

As I have already mentioned, the memory of the Coventry blitz lives on in the city. Some of the legacies are physical and tangible, and the most obvious are in the remains of the old cathedral, which stand as a solemn reminder of that night. Some of the names of those who gave so much to the city live on in city landmarks. Many of my constituents may well have been pupils at Sidney Stringer or Pearl Hyde schools, both of which were named after councillors who played a leading role during the war and in the reconstruction of the city that followed. The latter was a councillor for the then Walsgrave ward in my constituency, and she was the first female Lord Mayor of Coventry during the war. She led the Women’s Voluntary Service in the city and was awarded an MBE for her efforts during the blitz.

The blitz has been commemorated regularly in the city. A particular highlight was in 1990 on the 50th anniversary, when Coventry was visited by the Queen Mother. Of course, this year we will sadly not have the opportunity to commemorate and honour the memory of the Coventry blitz in a similar fashion. However, regardless of social distancing, we will be able to honour the spirit and the lessons of the event. It is worth recognising the powerful message of peace and reconciliation that has come from that night.

The experience of the blitz spurred Coventry to look outwards and offer support and solidarity to cities around the world facing tragedy. In 1942, the first twinning of cities happened when Coventry was twinned with Stalingrad in recognition of the plight of that city during the German invasion. Alongside aid, a tablecloth with the embroidered names of 900 Coventry women was sent to the city of Stalingrad. The link between the two cities continues to this day, showing that out of the horror of war can come hope and friendship. Perhaps an even more powerful statement can be seen in Coventry’s twinning with the German cities of Kiel and Dresden, demonstrating clearly a desire to see peace and reconciliation triumph over the hatred of the war years.

Today, Coventry cathedral still does vital work across the world to foster peace and understanding between communities. The International Cross of Nails Schools network supports schools that seek to cross sectarian divides, in Northern Ireland, South Africa, Israel, Palestine and many more. All this is inspired by the strength of feeling that came from that night that there was a brighter and more peaceful future for both the city of Coventry and the wider world. It is this desire to look to the future as a community against all odds that is most important for us to remember and recognise. In the face of all the horror and fear, ordinary citizens did extraordinary things. Out of the ashes of that night, Coventry rose like a phoenix. In the years following the war, it thrived, becoming home to many more who have surely drawn on this historic spirit.

It goes without saying that the story of the Coventry blitz—a story of courage and community, of resilience and reconciliation—is worthy of recognition. I am grateful to be given the opportunity in this place to recall and commemorate the Coventry blitz: the most horrific event in my city’s history. I am grateful for this chance to applaud the courage, spirit and resilience of the people of Coventry, both for those who were there and those like me, who grew up with memories of the night, and finally, to hope—that, for the future, resources will always be available to keep reminding people of all these things. Lest we forget.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) for a very moving contribution. I welcome this important debate, and congratulate her on securing it.

Although almost 80 years have passed, as we reflect on what happened that night many people will have in mind the ruins of Coventry cathedral, which the hon. Member mentioned as a poignant reminder of the scars that those raids left on the city. As she will know, Coventry was a major manufacturing centre for the British aircraft industry. It built its reputation, and showed it time and again during the first world war and the second world war, but that manufacturing industry also made it a target. The Luftwaffe raid on the night of 14 November 1940 was designed to stifle that proud city’s history and innovation.

For the Nazi regime, the battle of Britain was not the end of the argument on air power, and, one step ahead of the allies, they had developed a new targeting system to get their bombers on target. Using this very system, on 14 November at just past 7 o’clock in the evening, the first aircraft—KG 100s—flew over Coventry, dropping flares to illuminate the city for the following waves of bombers. As the hon. Member said, for around 11 hours Coventry was shaken by bombs as they fell throughout the night. The last bombs fell at about 5.30 the following morning of 15 November. The devastation left behind was absolutely unprecedented at the time. Firefighters from across the east midlands raced to Coventry to desperately battle the flames that roared across the city, but their bravery saw some three dozen of their own killed, proving fruitless against the rain of incendiaries. The ruins of the Cathedral Church of St Michael stand in mute testimony to the horrors of that evening.

In the aftermath of the raid, our military leaders’ thoughts turned to how the Germans had been able to operate with impunity to such tragic effect over Coventry. Although it is a persistent and widely published claim that Churchill sacrificed Coventry to keep British code-breaking a secret, this is a myth. Enigma and signals intelligence had some prior understanding that Moonlight Sonata—the general name that the Germans gave the raid—would target a midlands city, but they did not know which one. As the events that night showed, even knowing that crucial information would not have been enough to avoid the onslaught. Sadly, that night Coventry paid the price for defences that had proved to be entirely inadequate. Despite a raid lasting for 10 hours on one target, RAF night fighters did not shoot down a single bomber. This was undoubtedly a heartbreaking and frustrating experience for the Royal Air Force, whose heroics only a few months earlier had secured the daylight skies from German aggression in the battle of Britain.

In the skies at night, it was very different. This was not for lack of endeavour, for though the RAF night fighters had launched over 120 sorties, desperately searching the night skies for German bombers, this was a form of aerial defence very much in its infancy. Aircrew were sorely lacking the training and tools for the task; furthermore, they faced an almost impossible task against an enemy that held all the cards, for the onus was on the RAF to find them and intercept them in darkness across the vastness of the night skies. The ground-based radar system was optimised to track bombers approaching the coast, but not inland, and was not accurate enough to allow the RAF fighters close enough for visual contact. Even if they had been able to see them, the night fighter aircraft were little faster than their adversaries—barely able to catch the lumbering German bombers, never mind shoot them down. Only one German bomber was lost that whole evening, and that fell victim to an anti-aircraft gun battery near Loughborough.

However, the tragic events that unfolded that night over Coventry are not the end of the story, for this was to be one of a number of catalysts to drive forward significant developments. Those early systems that had failed in terms of detection and training over Coventry would be refined, tried, tested and improved, over and over again, to provide the capabilities that the Royal Air Force employs today. The modern Royal Air Force systems can trace their roots right back to those years. Through the development of its integrated air surveillance and control system, the Royal Air Force has built on the principles founded by the Chain Home radar system to deliver it on a far grander and more comprehensive scale. Through a complex array of overlapping radar and information built up through military, civilian and our NATO partners’ networks, our air personnel are able to keep a watchful eye on the whole of the UK airspace and beyond.

Through that constant vigilance, threats are now identified and appropriate actions taken, scrambling Typhoon interceptor aircraft where necessary. These are a far cry from their sluggish night fighter forebears: the Typhoons can zero in on aircraft faster than the speed of sound, and are guided to their targets’ locations with unerring precision. These interceptors, which together with our comprehensive air and space surveillance system form part of the United Kingdom’s quick reaction alert, are on duty every hour of every day. They now keep our country safe and prevent unchallenged encroachment of our airspace. Against the backdrop of an uncertain world, we need these skills and this training as much as we ever have.

If the events of Coventry have taught us anything, it is that we cannot take the defence of the United Kingdom for granted. It is telling that what befell the city that night was not due to a lack of human spirit or effort, which the people of Great Britain have shown time and again—that night and since—but was the consequence of an enemy operating its technological advances. It is therefore right that we continue to support our armed forces: to recognise their efforts, reward their bravery, and give them the tools and technologies to succeed. In doing so, we should continue to strive to ensure that we can defend them against the threats we face today, through our determination that we will never again see an attack like the blitz on Coventry 80 years ago. We learned the lessons, and as I said earlier today, if we are to truly honour and remember those who sacrificed, we have to learn and change what we do to make sure it can never happen again.

From a city that suffered a similar blitz—Plymouth—the city that I represent, I pay tribute to the hon. Lady. What is extraordinary about these cities is their ability to regenerate and to never give up, and that extraordinary spirit saw that generation through the war. I am sure that her relatives, whom she spoke of tonight, would be very proud of her for having secured this really important debate about a terrible tragedy that we must redouble our efforts to ensure never happens on this nation’s soil again.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.