Operation Moonlight Sonata

 

There had been several raids on the city of Coventry during the previous months. Nothing had prepared the city for Operation Moonlight Sonata.

On the night of November 14th 1940 over 500 bombers were brought together, their target ... Coventry.

As the sun sank down and the night closed in bombers of Kampfgeschwader 100 left their airfield in France. These were the ‘pathfinder’ squadron which carried crude onboard ‘computers’ and followed set radio beams, known as the X-Gerat system, to their target.

Each aircraft followed a continuous beam which broke down if they strayed from its line.

As they got nearer the target a second beam cut across the first - this initiated the crude ‘computer’s’ bombing sequence.

As these pathfinder bombers approached the centre of Coventry a third radio beam told the ‘computer’ to begin its final dropping sequence measured to fall over the city centre.

At 19:00 the air raid sirens began to wail and at 19:20 the ack-ack and Bofurs burst into life as the planes droned overhead in the bright moonlit night.

First fell parachute flares which hung over the city like great iridescent white chandeliers.

These were followed by incendiaries, not normal ones, but phosphorus, exploding incendiaries.

These were dropped to start fires to mark the target for the ordinary bombers of

General Field Marshalls Kesselring and Sperrle which followed.

At 19:30 this second wave of planes arrived and the first of 500 tons of high explosives began to shake the city centre.

Incendiaries, both exploding and non-exploding, continued to fall amid the bombs as a continuous stream of droning bombers passed over the city.

Some were aimed at industrial targets around the city but many others concentrated

on bombing the centre of the city to create a firestorm.

Early on in the evening the Cathedral of St Michael was hit. By only 7.40, despite valiant

efforts, its defenders had succumbed to the incendiary barrage and the roof began to

burn.

 

At 7.59 every available fire appliance in the city was in use as fire-fighters battled the

ever increasing flames amid ear-bursting explosions.

At the end of this night 26 of them lay dead, 34 were seriously injured and 200

suffered cuts and bruises.

The populace hid themselves in cellars, crypts and air raid shelters as the heart of the city was ripped apart above them.

Others stayed in their homes, thousands of which were destroyed or damaged.

 

The bombing continued, with the addition of oil and land mines.

The Land mines were particularly notorious.

They took form of a large metal box suspended by a parachute which would slowly and silently fall and explode above ground level with a deafening roar totally flattening anything that lay under it.

The church of St Nicholas in Radford was destroyed by one of these land mines leaving dead and injured in the crypt and only one course of stones standing.

By 02:00 there was no let up in the bombing, the bombers kept coming by this time with little resistance from the ground as practically all of the air defence stations had run out of ammunition.

 The city’s factories were blasted and burning, suburban streets were littered with rubble as

houses lay destroyed from their foundations.

The city centre was ablaze. Amid the high explosives, 200 fires had converged into one.

Red flames leapt 100 feet into the sky which by now had clouded over to form a black cloak of smoke over the city.

Bombers approaching 15O miles away could see the glow against the blackness

of the night.

The bombing went on through the early hours. It was not until well after 05:00 that the bombardment began to slow down.

Finally at 06:15 am the all-clear sounded and slowly the shocked, dazed, frightened and tired people of Coventry emerged into the streets, or what had once been streets.

The city was shrouded in a cloak of smoke and drizzle as people wandered around in a daze taking in the destruction around them.

There were 4,330 homes destroyed and three-quarters of the city’s factories damaged.

Amongst the rubble lay human remains some of whom were never identified; 554 men, women and children lay dead and 865 injured.

It was perhaps a miracle that the figures were

not higher considering the city had been hit by 30,000 incendiaries, 500 tons of high explosive, 50 land mines and 20 oil-mines, non-stop for eleven long hours.

The world had never previously witnessed this sort of airborne destruction before and the Germans coined a new word for it ‘coventrated’.’

The city’s tram system was destroyed, with tram lines ripped from the ground or arched into the air. Out of a fleet of 181 buses only 73 remained.

Practically all gas and water pipes were smashed and people were advised to boil emergency supplies of water.

 

Troops were draughted in by the hundreds to bring order and help clear up the streets and the remains that littered them.

Rescue parties, consisting of Rescue men, troops and members of the public worked day and night trying to dig those out who lay buried in rubble, often the remains of their home.

Ministry of Information vans toured the streets advising people where to obtain food and where to find shelter if they had been made homeless. Canteens were set up and within three days the Royal Engineers had restored electricity.

Water and gas supplies resumed not long after.

King George VI visited and toured the devastation on the 16 November.

On 20 November the first mass burial took place at the London Road Cemetery. Bodies continued to be uncovered amongst the destruction of the city and the following week a

second mass burial took place.

This was not to be the end. The raids continued, although generally much lighter.

Two however were heavy. The Easter week raids of 8 April and 10 April 1941 were between six and eight hours long. In the first of these raids the body of Christchurch church built in 1832 as a replacement for the medieval church was gutted by incendiaries.

The last actual bombing raid on Coventry was in August 1942.

By that time the city had suffered 41 actual raids and 373 siren alerts.

At the end of the war officially there were 1,236 people killed in the raids on Coventry; of these 808 rest in the mass grave in London Road Cemetery.

 

Of the rest many had come to the city as war workers and they were collected by their families and returned home in plain wooden boxes.

Some bodies were however never identified.

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