How the city of Coventry bounced back after being bombed in the Blitz of the Second World War

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Germans invented a new word after the devastating bombing of Coventry in World War 2.
Germans invented a new word after the devastating bombing of Coventry in the Second World War.

The German bombing of Coventry during the night of 14 November and morning of 15 November 1940 was so devastating, the Nazis coined a word for it.

That term of propaganda was “coventrieren”, meaning to raze a city to the ground.

That night, the single most concentrated attack on a British city during the Second World War left hundreds dead and thousands of homes destroyed.

And yet Coventry bounced back.

Read more: The World War II Blitz in colour

Unbowed by the Blitz, the city’s people rose up, and within weeks the city’s factories were back producing the aircraft parts which had made it a German target.

And when the war was over, Coventry reached out to its enemies.

18th November 1940: Soldiers brought in to Coventry to help with the clear up following the heavy German air raid of the 14th November 1940. During the raid 4,330 homes were destroyed also three-quarters of the city's factories were damaged along with the city's tram system. Out of a fleet of 181 buses only 73 remained. Most of the city's gas and water pipes were smashed and people were advised to boil emergency supplies of water. Amongst the devastation lay the bodies of 554 men, women and children many of whom were never identified also 865 people were injured. During the raid the Luftwaffe had dropped 30,000 incendiary bombs, 500 tons of high explosive, 50 landmines and 20 oil-mines. The raid had gone on non-stop for almost eleven hours. The world had never previously witnessed this sort of airborne destruction before and the Germans coined a new word for it 'coventrated' (Photo by Birmingham Post and Mail/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
Soldiers clear up debris in Coventry on 18 November 1940, four days after a German bombing raid devastated the city. (Getty Images)
The smouldering wreckage of centre of Coventry a couple of days following the heavy raid by the Luftwaffe on the 14th November 1940. (Photo by Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
The centre of Coventry a few days after the Luftwaffe raid on 14 November 1940. (Getty Images)
(Eingeschränkte Rechte für bestimmte redaktionelle Kunden in Deutschland. Limited rights for specific editorial clients in Germany.) 2.WW, Britain during... / Air War: Battle of Britain (07.40-05.41) Bomb raid against Coventry, 14.11.1940:aerial view picture shows damaged plants (rectangular marks) and bomb craters (circles) November 1940 (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
An aerial view of the bombing raid carried out on Coventry on 14 and 15 November 1940. Damaged factories are represented by rectangles and bomb craters by circles. (Getty)
circa 1940:  The morning after a bombing raid on Coventry.  (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
People walking through Coventry the morning after the bombing raid. (Getty Images)

In 1947, it adopted its first German twin city Kiel, followed in 1956 by Dresden, two cities on the opposing side in the war that had also suffered huge destruction and loss of life.

In Coventry, almost 600 people were killed on 14/15 November, while 4,300 homes were destroyed.

Bombings were nothing new to the city’s people during the Second World War – there had been 17 raids by Germany’s Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain between August and October 1940 – but not on this scale.

A total of 515 German bombers carried out the raid, codenamed 'Moonlight Sonata', which was designed to strike at Coventry’s aeroplane and munitions factories.

The Germans dropped both high explosive and incendiary bombs, the former to obstruct Coventry’s fire brigade and damage the roofs, the latter to fall into those buildings and ignite them.

Britain At War 1939-45, A Union Flag hangs defiantly from a building, 16 November 1940, in the aftermath of the air raid which devastated the centre of Coventry on the night of 14/15 November 1940. (Photo by Mr Taylor/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images)
A Union Flag hangs a building in Coventry on 16 November 1940. (Getty Images)
(Eingeschränkte Rechte für bestimmte redaktionelle Kunden in Deutschland. Limited rights for specific editorial clients in Germany.) 2.WW, Air War: Battle of Britain (07.40-05.41)German air raid on Coventry (14.11.1940):The walls of the cathedral inmidst debris .December 1940 No further information.- undatedVintage property of ullstein bild (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Coventry Cathedral was left in ruins by the raid on 14 November 1940. (Getty Images)
Birmingham Blitz 1940 People buying rationed goods from the back of van parked in the Midland Red bus station at Pool Meadow, Coventry. 18th November 1940 (Photo by Coventry Telegraph Archive/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
People buy rationed goods from the back of van in Pool Meadow, Coventry, on 18 November 1940. (Getty Images)

At about 8pm on 14 November, Coventry Cathedral was set on fire by incendiary bombs for the first time.

While volunteer firefighters put out the first blaze, more bombs followed and fires broke out in the cathedral and the flames spread out of control.

At the same time, more than 200 other fires started across the city. The Germans took out the city’s water mains, meaning there was not enough water to fight the fires.

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While the raid ended sometime around midnight, the all clear wasn’t sounded until 6.15am on 15 November.

When daylight arrived, the citizens of Coventry surveyed a scene of total devastation. Most of the city centre was destroyed, while two-thirds of the buildings were damaged. A third of the city’s factories were either destroyed or severely damaged, while another third were badly damaged.

An estimated 568 people were believed to have been killed, with another 863 badly injured and 393 left with minor injuries.

The death toll wasn’t higher because large numbers had gone to nearby towns and villages following earlier air raids. And of the 79 public air raid shelters in the city, which held about 33,000 people, very few were destroyed.

The Germans dropped about 500 tonnes of high explosives in the raid and 36,000 incendiary bombs. Their attack was spread over several hours as the Luftwaffe returned to France to rearm after dropping their bombs.

It wasn’t the last large air raid on Coventry.

The Germans returned the following April, killing about 451 people and injuring more than 700 in two raids just two days apart.

WEST MIDLANDS, ENGLAND. JULY 18. Aerial photograph of the ruined Coventry Cathedral, on July 18, 2010. This Grade I listed building dates back to the 14th century, it was almost destroyed on the 14 November 1940 by the German Luftwaffe, it is located between Cuckoo Street and Priory Lane in the heart of Coventry City centre. (Photograph by David Goddard/Getty Images)
The ruined section of Coventry Cathedral that was almost destroyed by German bombers in November 1940. (Getty Images)
Coventry Cathedral, West Midlands, 2014. Both the remains of the old and Basil Spence's new cathedral seen from University Square. General view from the east. (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
The old, left, and the new, right, sections of Coventry Cathedral. (Getty Images)
A man walks through the ruins of the 14th century Gothic Coventry Cathedral in Coventry, central England, on February 12, 2020 which was bombed by the German Luftwaffe during World War II. - One place that understands only too well the devastation wreaked on Dresden during World War II is Coventry, where memories of a similar raid are etched into the city's consciousness. Hundreds of Luftwaffe bombers rained fire on the central English city on the night of November 14, 1940, targeting its aircraft and munitions that were vital to Britain's war effort. The new cathedral, also called St Michael's, was consecrated on May 25, 1962 next its 14th century predecessor that was bombed on November 14, 1940 during the Second World War. (Photo by Paul ELLIS / AFP) / TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY Paul ELLIS (Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
The ruin of the part of Coventry Cathedral bombed in the Blitz as it looks today. (AFP via Getty Images)

The final air raid on the city, on 3 August 1942, resulted in six people being killed in the Stoke Heath area.

More than 1,200 people were killed in Coventry as a result of German air raids during the war, and 808 people were laid to rest in the city’s London Road Cemetery.

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King George VI visited the city in the days after the November 1940 raid, and the plan to rebuild got underway.

A new cathedral was built alongside the ruin of the old one, which was kept as a garden of remembrance.

The Queen laid the foundation stone of the new cathedral on 23 March 1956 and it was consecrated on 25 May 1962, with Her Majesty again in attendance.

Immediately after the bombing, Provost Richard Howard wrote the words “Father Forgive” in chalk on the wall behind the altar of the ruined cathedral, a gesture that would eventually inspire the city to twin with the cities of Kiel and Dresden.

Watch: Remembering the bombing of Parliament during the Blitz

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