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Posts Tagged ‘The Blitz’

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.

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The fall of France in June of 1940 gave the British a new next-door neighbor.  And without a doubt, the Germans that moved in to the French countryside were most unpleasant.  Within weeks, the Germans were knocking on British doors, but they weren’t asking for tea and crumpets or Yorkshire pudding or even those delicious doughnuts that I love.  Instead, they were trying to shoot RAF fighters from the skies while bombing Britain’s industrial centers and ports, areas like Liverpool and the Port of London.  I imagine even the kindly Mr. Rogers would have been at least slightly perturbed by these “un-neighborly” actions.

Many of the Luftwaffe’s missions were carried out at night, and in 1940, sophisticated systems like GPS and inertial navigation were still years even from the drawing board.  So it was probably inevitable that, at some point, aircraft were going to lose their way and bomb an unintended target.  On August 24th, a handful of German bombers dropped their bombs, not on the port of Thames Haven as was their target, but on London itself.

Would you like to take a flying leap as to who appeared over Berlin the next night?  Residents of Berlin (well, all the residents of Berlin minus the 10 or so killed) were stunned to hear the crump of the anti-aircraft fire and the explosion of RAF bombs.  It was truly a new experience for them.  Residents of the German Chancellery, particularly the Chancellor himself, were incensed.  He ordered the Luftwaffe to attack British air defenses and the population itself in “day and night” attacks.

Those attacks began in earnest on September 7, 1940.  More than 360 bombers and 500 fighter planes flying escort participated in the late-afternoon attack on the Port of London.  While not strictly a civilian target, the residential areas surrounding it were, and they suffered heavily that afternoon, with 400+ killed and more than 1,000 wounded.

The attacks, which came to be known as The Blitz of London, would continue for months, reducing much of London (and many other cities) to rubble.  But they also freed the RAF and its airfields from incessant attack, giving them a chance to regroup.  Hitler’s orders to bomb cities, while incredibly painful for the citizens, was the first of his strategic errors of the war.

Recommended Reading:  The Second World War

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