For Richard Howard and Jock Forbes, this night would be a lot like preceding nights, and that meant little sleep, a lot of stress, and constant vigilance. Howard was the provost of St. Michael’s Cathedral and Jock was the caretaker. It was November 14, 1940, it was Coventry, it was England, and it was the middle of the Blitz. And their job, along with a couple of other younger fellows, was to protect the church, now 600 years old.
British intelligence had received word that an air attack was coming. A German prisoner had let it be known that aircraft would be bombing either Coventry, Wolverhampton, or Birmingham. But for the inhabitants of Coventry, bombers and bombs were nothing new. Since the Blitz had begun some months before, Coventry (with its many factories and other industry) had been a regular stop for the Luftwaffe.
And as it turned out, tonight would be no different. So Howard and Jock would, once again, stand watch with their water hoses, ready to jump on any fire that threatened the church.
The early evening darkness was shattered when, shortly after 7:00pm, the air raid sirens began wailing. As women and children headed for cover, those protecting St. Michael’s looked skyward. The “pathfinder” aircraft (there were only a dozen or so) dropped their flares and a few incendiaries in order to light the path for the bomber force.
A short time later, the Heinkels of Luftflotte 3 began arriving. They dropped their bombs, returned to their bases in France to rearm and refuel, and made the trip again. The raid lasted most of the night and into the early morning hours.
The devastation from the bombs of more that 500 enemy aircraft was complete.
Henry Brooks has written a book for young adults called True Stories of the Blitz, and his description of the aftermath is worth plagairizing. “There was no all-clear signal given on the morning of November 15. The sirens had either been blasted to pieces or had no power supply for their electric motors. The gas, water and electricity services for the city were in disarray. Around 06:30, wardens began hurrying through the shell-holed streets, calling to people in their shelters that the raid was finally over. … They came up to the surface to find their beautiful city a smoking ruin. … The fires had consumed 70% of the city’s factories. People described bizarre sights and smells in the aftermath of the blaze. A cloud of cigar smoke hung around a charred tobacco stand; sides of pork and beef were stacked in a butcher’s shop, perfectly roasted.”
The known deaths in the attack numbered 568 and nearly 1,000 more were injured. More than 60,000 buildings were either damaged or destroyed, including, as Brooks mentioned, three quarters of the factories.
And St. Michael’s Cathedral? She, too, was numbered with the victims.
The first fires that started in the church were quickly extinguished, but early in the attacks, the water supplies were disrupted and the hoses ran dry. Richard Howard, Jock Forbes, and their helpers were quickly reduced to spectators as the fires returned, spread, and eventually consumed the aged church. The morning light presented little more than a burned out shell (shown above) of the once-magnificent Gothic structure…a shell you can still visit today.
Recommended Reading: True Stories of the Blitz – It’s one for the youngsters, but the stories are interesting enough for anyone to read.