‘To coventrate’: destroy a city from the air
A documentary about the Luftwaffe bombing of Coventry in 1940 challenged prejudices about both Germans and Brits.
There is a myth that between 1939 and 1945 Britain was at war with the Nazis.
It is a falsehood perpetuated in the countless and endless television documentaries about the Second World War, often accompanied by the Allied illusions that Britain fought to save the world from tyranny or the Jews from extinction. The truth is that Britain fought because she had no choice. Purview any interviews with British Second World War veterans who asked why they volunteered to fight, and their response is invariably: ‘It was either us or them.’ It was a conflict of self-preservation, and the enemies were not the Nazis. They were the Germans.
It is important to stress this point for two reasons. The National Socialists who came to power in Germany in 1933 didn’t arrive from outer space. They were the product of German society and history, the toxic combination of Prussian militarism, Germanic post-Enlightenment adoration for volk and culture as propagated by Herder and Wagner, and the fantasy concocted by the failed First World War general Erich Ludendorff that his country had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by politicians (1). Germany produced Nazism, and Germans voted in the Nazis. But just as most Nazis were German, not all Germans were Nazis.
So when this Tuesday’s BBC2 documentary Blitz: The Bombing of Coventry from the outset referred to ‘Nazi planes’ laying waste to the Midlands city on the night of 14 November 1940, I couldn’t help wondering what was going through the minds of those Luftwaffe pilots that dreadful evening (2). Were they all unleashing death and destruction on this English city as a consequence of their unswerving belief in National Socialist doctrine? I doubt it. The Luftwaffe was the least Nazified of all the three German forces during the war, and I suspect most signed up to the airforce because they thought it was the patriotic thing to do, or it was their duty, or because it was a paid job, or because being a pilot was glamorous. To conflate ‘Nazis’ with ‘Germans’ is not only historically inaccurate; it is linguistically devious, in that it perpetuates the kind of residual anti-German prejudice which likes to believe all our Deutsche friends are closet, goose-stepping fascists.
Blitz: The Bombing of Coventry didn’t tell us anything about those who carried out the attack, but featured interviews from many of those who survived it. And despite this and many other Second World War stories being a perpetual presence on British TV (I pity any German tourist who happened to turn on BBC2 on Tuesday evening, and who can only have sighed in disbelief that we are still going on about it), this was a fascinating and often touching programme.
On the night of 14 November 1940, 515 German planes set out to destroy the major manufacturing city of Coventry, and the results were devastating. Four thousand homes, three quarters of city-centre buildings and two-thirds of industrial buildings were destroyed; 568 civilians were killed. The psychological reaction was just as stark: hysteria, panicking, acute aphasia, looting. ‘The city [was] suffering from a collective nervous breakdown’, we were told. The Germans had not only intended the raid as a strategic one but as a deliberately psychological one, too, designed to break the will of the British people. The bombing was considered such a triumph that the Germans coined the word koventrieren – ‘to coventrate’, to devastate by aerial force.
However, ‘the first reaction was shock, and the second reaction was that “we’re not going to let the buggers get away with it”‘, recalled one survivor. There was a bit of the customary ‘Blitz spirit’ narrative to the BBC2 programme, recalling the ‘extraordinary resilience of the British people’. We were told that after the initial trauma, most of the people of Coventry eventually pulled themselves together and, spurred by a visit from King George VI, went back to work with greater vigour, refusing to take up the offer to evacuate the city permanently. By the end of the war RAF pilots, asked why they were going over to rain down hell on the cities of Hamburg and Dresden, simply replied ‘Coventry’. This alluded to a truth that many people today find unpalatable: that for all the agonising over the ethics or efficacy of the Dresden bombing since the war (3), at the time most people, from Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris down to your average Joe in Coventry, wanted retribution and revenge.
There were stories of great pathos, such as the father who risked his life to block the doorway of his shelter to protect his children; of a family helped to safety by Irish neighbours (an IRA bomb the year before killed five people in Coventry; the film didn’t mention this, but it should have); of a man pulling another to safety and in the process wrenching his torso away from his legs. People were furiously and futilely arguing in bomb shelters about the number of bombs they had heard, complaining of others smoking, or urinating in buckets. It seemed to encapsulate what a great deal of survivors of bombings describe as their abiding feelings in the aftermath of an attack: a sense of bewildering chaos supplemented by elements of the absurd. There were also stories of anti-personnel incendiary bombs booby-trapped to release lethal shards of metal, which suggests that Germany was not just trying to destroy buildings, but bodies, too.
The ‘Blitz spirit’ narrative did, however, constrict the programme. We were told that Coventry’s anti-aircraft defence was under-strength and ill-prepared, and that no German bombers were shot down. In general, however, anti-aircraft guns were ineffective everywhere, and served principally to improve morale and to stop civilians complaining that the government wasn’t ‘doing anything’ to protect them. Coventry may have recovered from this attack, and two further bombings in April 1941 and August 1942, but the overall and perhaps unintended result of the programme was that the city’s story was viewed a microcosm of Britain in general, of how it overcame adversity. But its experience was nothing compared to London’s, where looting and defeatism were more widespread and persistent owing to a bombing campaign that continued until as late as March 1945.
Blitz: The Bombing of Coventry was at times intriguing and arresting, and was mostly humane and balanced in its content, but its overall narrative fitted too neatly into a conventional and convenient format. The 568 people killed in Coventry on 14 November 1940, the programme only cursorily reminded us, contrasted to the 35,000 killed at Dresden and the 50,000 killed in Hamburg. Naked revenge? Probably. And so it goes.
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