Magazine article The Spectator

'Coventry: Thursday 14 November 1940', by Frederick Taylor - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Coventry: Thursday 14 November 1940', by Frederick Taylor - Review

Article excerpt

Coventry: Thursday 14 November 1940 Frederick Taylor

Bloomsbury, pp.356, £20, ISBN: 9781408860267

On 14 November 1940, at seven in the evening, the Luftwaffe began to bomb Coventry. The skyline turned red like an eclipse of the sun as clouds of cinders, lit red by the blaze, floated down over the great West Midlands city. Coventry seemed to have been hit by a meteorite. The mile-high roar of magnesium incendiary flames created a firestorm in which over 554 people died and twice as many were wounded. Life as Coventrians had known it, lived it and loved it, came to an end that Thursday night. Hitler's first Blitz on an English city had taken the inhabitants by complete surprise.

In the space of 11 hours, buildings and people were torn apart, crushed and suffocated. Three quarters of Coventry's plane and automobile plants were obliterated; the medieval cathedral was left a hacked-out ruin billowing smoke. Few could endure more blackout, bombs and sirens. (The stench of burned buildings, compact of blackened masonry, dust and pitch, was bad enough.) So everyone who coul left -- on lorries, on foot -- to stay with friends and family further afield.

In the destruction's aftermath, writes Taylor in his riveting chronicle, Philip Larkin looked frantically for his parents and saw the burning cathedral where they had christened him 18 years earlier. As the young poet picked his way through his birthplace amid a stench of burning, he tried to find some meaning in the deaths and the 'full horror of what technology could visit', as Taylor puts it. An eerie solemnity pervaded the streets. Corpses lay disfigured amid the ruins and bluish phosphorous flames flickered where the bodies lay. His parents had survived after all, but Larkin would never return to his native Coventry for any length of time.

In today's parlance, Hitler's attack had been designed to 'shock and awe'. German newspapers gloatingly reported that Coventry had been coventrieren ('Coventrated'), meaning 'destroyed utterly'. The coinage would find an equivalent in the somewhat awkward British 'Berlinated', used to describe Britain's retaliatory bombing of Dresden, Hamburg and Lübeck. Coventry was deemed a legitimate target for its munitions factories, but much of the ordnance had hit civilian homes, with comparatively few military installations damaged. …

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