Coventry Air Raids - Operation Moonlight Sonata

Operation Moonlight Sonata, 14 November 1940 (7.15pm - 6.15am)

This raid was named Operation Moonlight Sonata because a bright moonlit night was necessary for success. The aim was to totally wipe out Coventry’s war production. It was also from this raid that the Nazi’s created a new word 'Coventrieren' meaning to totally destroy. Almost 500 bombers were gathered together from the German occupied parts of Europe especially for this raid.

At 7.10pm, when night had fallen, the sirens sounded. Flares attached to parachutes were dropped, quickly followed by incendiaries. Unlike the regular incendiaries which people had become used to putting out with sand, these contained phosphorus. When the new incendiaries exploded they instantly started so many small fires that putting them out became an impossible task. As many as 30,000 incendiaries were dropped on Coventry during the course of Moonlight Sonata. The aim of these was to create large fires to enable the following bombers to easily locate their target.

A short time later the bombers began to arrive. They dropped around 500 tons of high explosives many of which were directed at the city centre and at civilian houses, rather than military targets. The local population fled to private or public shelters, or even hiding in cellars or under the stairs; wherever they could find any protection. Some air raid shelters were hit and completely demolished. In cases where there were thought to be no survivors the shelters were later sealed and the bodies never recovered. Many citizens stayed with elderly relations who were either unwilling or unable to leave their homes and were subsequently killed in the raid.

Coventry Cathedral (St Michaels)

The famous cathedral was hit by so many incendiaries that the four fire watchers could not put them out fast enough. Many began to puncture the lead roof and fall onto the wooden ceiling below. Once there they were very difficult to reach and smother. Eventually, due to the large number of incendiaries and the lack of sand, it became obvious that only the fire brigade could now fight the flames. The local fire fighters were already bravely fighting hundreds of fires and could not attend. When fire fighters finally arrived all the way from Solihull, the water supply failed and nothing more could be done.

Whole rows of houses were demolished by landmines; these fiendish creations consisted of a metal case attached to a parachute. Unlike other bombs, the force of the explosion was not directed into the ground making a crater; instead they were designed to explode before they hit the ground causing maximum damage and killing many civilians. Coventry’s tram system never worked again because so much of the track was destroyed and the cost of replacement was prohibitive.

When the raid was finally over there was hardly a water or gas main in Coventry that wasn’t destroyed. At least 568 civilians were known to have been killed, but it is possible that as many as 1000 innocent people actually died. Many bodies were never recovered or were unrecognisable. One mortuary was itself bombed, so identification for private burial became impossible. Another problem was that so many workers came from all over the UK to Coventry to work in the factories. If they died in the chaos of the raid, unless they had relations in Coventry to report them missing then they would not have been included in the official death toll figures.

I have been contacted by several people who say they are 100% sure that a relative of theirs was killed in the Coventry blitz, or had relatives who were staying in Coventry at the time but were never heard from again. I have checked local records, and for some people I have been unable to find an official entry for their deaths. This leads me to believe that the death toll has been underestimated. I am compiling a list of possible Blitz victims who have not been officially recognised as such. If you have reason to believe that one of your relatives was killed in the blitz I would be happy to add their name to the list.

(Information about the aftermath of Operation Moonlight Sonata, Coventry's most famous blitz air raid, can be found here.)

Return to the Coventry Blitz home page.

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