How Wolverhampton escaped the Blitz after Coventry burned

Eighty years ago today, a West Midlands city burned in a Blitz that destroyed its beloved cathedral and killed 568.

People picking through the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed 80 years ago today in devastating bombing raids
People picking through the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed 80 years ago today in devastating bombing raids

The pain was not supposed to be restricted to Coventry. The German Luftwaffe had also planned to flatten Wolverhampton, but for some reason the attack never materialised.

Coventry was today marking the anniversary of the devastating air raids, which caused widespread destruction.

It was ‘target 53’ according to our Enigma codebreakers – with Wolverhampton ‘target 51’ and Birmingham ‘target 52’. The raid on Wolverhampton even had its own codename, ‘Einheitspreis’.

But while Birmingham was hit by bombing raids, Wolverhampton escaped a Coventry-style attack.

One theory is that the Germans called off the attack on the Black Country after air defences were beefed up to protect major urban areas.

The night a city lost its cathedral but kept up its spirit and defiance

Picking through the rubble in the aftermath of the Coventry Blitz, a raid designed to devastate a city and break its people

The distant glow in the sky 80 years ago told West Midlanders this was a bad one.

By morning Coventry was a destroyed city. Its dazed inhabitants picked their way through the smoking rubble and shattered glass.

That raid of November 14, 1940, codenamed ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ was to change the face of air warfare.

Involving around 500 German bombers, it was highly successful. Almost 30 vital factories were hit, halting production for the war effort for many months afterwards.

As the raid had intensified, a call for help was sent out, and firefighters were dispatched from Wolverhampton, Coseley, Bilston, Wednesfield, Tipton, Penkridge, and even from as far as Wellington in Shropshire.

Ambulances were also sent from Wolverhampton, although by the time they arrived all they could do was collect bodies. During the massive bombardment a firestorm was started that decimated much of the city centre, and destroyed or damaged more than 43,000 homes – just over half the city’s total housing. Tramlines were so badly damaged that the system never operated again.

The Prime Minister Winston Churchill at Coventry Cathedral to assess the damage and meet people in the city. He beefed up air defences across the Uk after the attack.

Steered by a guidance beam to ensure accuracy, the Luftwaffe aircraft dropped 500 tons of high explosive, 30,000 incendiaries and 50 landmines in a rolling attack that lasted 10 hours.

Cities can be rebuilt. What could not be overcome was the human suffering. The raid had killed 568 men, women, and children. Overnight a new verb entered the German language – Koventrieren, to ‘Coventrate’, which meant to raze to the ground or annihilate.

That raid was intended to be the first of a hat-trick of devastating raids in the Midlands that month, the other two targets being Birmingham and Wolverhampton. For some reason, Wolverhampton was spared.

The Moonlight Sonata operation had a fundamental impact on a senior officer at the Air Ministry in London. Air Marshal Arthur Harris noted that it revealed the principle of starting so many fires at the same time that no emergency services could successfully get them under control.

He was later to become head of Bomber Command and deliver to Nazi Germany, many times over, the punishment that was meted out to Coventry that November 1940 night.

Aftermath of the Blitz on Coventry 80 years ago today, which killed 568

In the aftermath of the bombing, more than half of the population fled. One observer wrote: “The overwhelmingly dominant feeling was utter helplessness. The tremendous impact of the previous night had left people practically speechless in many cases.

“There were more open signs of hysteria, terror, neurosis, observed in one evening than during the whole of the past two months in all areas.”

One of the first fire bombs scored a direct hit on the medieval cathedral’s roof, burning away oak timbers and melting lead sheets with the intensity of the blaze.

Water supplies for the firefighters dried up, leaving them helpless as it burned down.

As dawn broke there was nothing left but a shell. It was the only English cathedral to be destroyed during the war, although not the only one hit. The decision was immediately taken to rebuild it.

Services were still held in the bombed-out building and it quickly became a metaphor for the nation’s struggle against tyranny.

By 1947, Coventry had adopted its first German twin city, Kiel. Dresden followed in 1956. The ruined cathedral now stands for international peace and reconciliation.

In the post-war era various conspiracy theories have grown up suggesting that Winston Churchill was tipped off about the Coventry raid, but chose to do nothing for fear of betraying the Enigma codebreaking secret to the Germans.

Firefighters from across the West Midlands were sent to Coventry to help

However, defences against the nightly raids were very weak at the time in any event. Coventry’s anti-aircraft guns are said to have blasted off 6,700 shells at the aerial enemy, but only one of the raiders was shot down that night by anti-aircraft guns – and that was hit miles away, by a gun battery at Derby. Roaming RAF nightfighters drew a complete blank.

Although the Coventry raid became symbolic of the whole Blitz, it was not Britain’s most deadly attack. For instance, a raid on London in May 1941 left more than 1,400 civilians dead.

Nor was that of November 1940 the last on the Midlands city. There were further big attacks in April 1941 and in total Coventry suffered 41 air raids.

And Wolverhampton? It was earmarked for a big attack at around the same time as the November raid on Coventry. British codebreakers deduced that Wolverhampton was target Number 51, Birmingham was 52, and Coventry was 53.

First Coventry was hit, then Birmingham. So Wolverhampton was clearly next. Anti-aircraft gun defences were urgently beefed up. But the Wolverhampton raid never took place, one theory being that the Germans cancelled it on learning the defences had been improved.

Eavesdropping on a conversation between two German prisoners, one said after the Coventry and Birmingham raids there was to be one on Wolverhampton, under the codename “Einheitspreis.”

This translated as “unit price,” as at Woolworth’s where most things cost 6d – the store’s name an echo of the target town of Wolverhampton. Perhaps that German codename was fitting, as although Wolverhampton did not escape bombing, compared with Coventry and Birmingham it did not pay such a high cost.

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