As late as 1920 Coventry was being described as one of the best preserved mediaeval towns in Europe. However, in years passing the ancient streets were beginning to be cleared as car city could no longer support a mediaeval street pattern. Therefore, Luftwaffe merely accelerated what had already begun and forced Coventry’s building plans and aspirations into action whilst altering the city of Coventry forever.
On the 14th November 1940 Coventry was subjected to the single most concentrated bombing raid so far on a British city in World War II. It was the first attempt in history to destroy an entire city in a single air attack, bringing Coventry to the immediate attention of the entire world. The Ministry of Information chose to make use of the press to expose the brutality of the Nazi’s. Reporting the mass destruction on Coventry buildings and homes, in particular the beautiful medieval Cathedral brought scorn on the enemy from all corners of the civilised world. But why this inhumane attack on Coventry?
Despite the government’s reluctance to declare that another war was likely to happen, preparations were already being made in case the unthinkable happened as early as 1934. The First World War had prompted the growth of many armament factories in Coventry and this was revived once more with the imminent arrival of World War II. Coventry became one of the keys areas for the mass production of war-related products. The majority of the cities factories were turned over to war production. The cities booming motor, bicycle and air craft industries combined with its large manufacturing capacity and meticulous engineering skills, the city and its people became an obvious threat. The growth of shadow factories also contributed to the threat and changed the shape of Coventry and its people.
People’s occupations were changed in order to help with the war efforts and the developments of factories engulfed the city. The changes in circumstances, that being World War II, pushed the Coventry people to work harder, adapt and come together to make the city and country stronger through the 1930’s to 1950’s. The changing landscape of the city has throughout history certainly changed the behaviour of its people, responding with strength and courage the majority of the time, which I feel proud of.
World War II meant plans for the city had to change and factories expand and prosper, which introduced the Shadow Factory Scheme which was created by Sir Kingsley Wood and headed by Herbert Austin. The plan had two parts:
- Development of nine new factories
- Extensions to existing factory complexes to allow either easier switching to aircraft industry capability, or production capacity expansion
This plan affected the current factories in Coventry and also made way for new ones. Under the scheme four new factories were built in Coventry during 1936 and 1937. On the Fletchamstead Highway, were constructed the Standard No. 1 Shadow Factory and a separate shop for the manufacture of the Hobson Carburettor, an aircraft engine widely used in car and air-plane engines during the 20th Century. Daimler, the car manufactures, No. 1 Shadow Factory was built near the parent groups at Capmartin Road. The Rootes Group, another auto-mobile manufacture, opened their Shadow Factory in Stoke Aldermoor near the works of the Humber Motor Company. Factories were built rapidly which changed significantly changed the occupational pattern of Coventry between 1932 and 1938 (see table 1 taken from Twentieth Century Coventry, by Kenneth Richardson) However, the scheme titled ‘Scheme F’ did have its drawbacks. The plan was expected to produce 8000 front line aircraft in three years and had only produced half. As a result the plan needed to change to secure a dramatic speed up of products.
Table 1 Change in Occupations between 1932 and 1938
|Vehicles and Air Craft||29, 658||41, 825|
The logical answer was an entirely new series of factories. Manufacturers, much to their surprise, were offered a second factory. Rover were asked to build another three times as big as, and next to, the one they already had at Solihull. Daimler wanted their No. 2 Factory to be in a different town altogether, but was told it had to be within five miles of the Standard No. 2 which was being sited on the edge of Coventry at Banner Lane. The Rootes No. 2, the last to be planned and built, was at Ryton-on-Dunsmore, to the south of the city. The second Shadow Scheme was for the Hercules engine.
Table 2 Workers Employed in Shadow Factories, 13th August 1943
|Factory||Location||Number of Employers|
|Daimler No. 1||Capmartin Road||2584|
|Daimler No. 2||Browns Lane||5321|
|Hobson Aero Components||Holbrook Lane||590|
|Rootes No. 1||Aldermoor Lane|
|Rootes No. 2||Ryton-on-Dunsmore||5528|
|Standard No. 1||Fletchamstead Highway||4323|
|Standard No. 2||Banner Lane||6064|
When the shadow factories were fully extended during 1943 and 1944, they were producing 800 engines a month, four times what was initially expected. The workers they employed had become a significant proportion of the city’s labour-force. (Table 2) Half the aircraft flown from this country during the war were actually produced by the two firms of Vickers Armstrong and Hawker Siddely, and the latter was significantly present in Coventry. The Group had three factories in Coventry and their wartime contribution lay in the production of bombers including Whitley, Hurricane, Spitfire and Blenheim. The Coventry people were increasing their skills, providing for the country on an enormous scale and were working incredibly hard, efforts which continued throughout the duration of the war. It’s something quite special and admirable. Coventry remained a great centre of production in its own right, but this was threatened through raid attacks during the war.
From the 21st October 1940 the real grim business began. Raids were small and frequent; many moved out of Coventry and commuted to work every day. The local authorities to the south at Warwick, Leamington and Kenilworth opened halls so that the people of Coventry could get a night’s sleep. Some even slept in their cars. Then on the night of 14th November 1940, came the greatest raid so far against an English provincial city.
400 enemy aircraft had appeared over the city. They had dropped 500 tons of bombs and landmines and 30,000 incendiaries. Gradually Coventry’s ancient city centre, the street plan of which had not significantly altered since medieval times, succumbed to the ferocity of the attack, the likes of which had never been seen in any town of its size before. The beautiful medieval church of St. Michael was destroyed, the only British Cathedral to be destroyed in World War II. All night long the seemingly never-ending attack continued. However, the night brought about many acts of heroism, but equally, many of indescribable terror.
For example, Fire Brigades from Stoke-on-Trent, Nottingham and Solihull came to help the people of Coventry, as The National Fire Service was not yet in existence. However, their brave attempts to tame the burning cities flames failed as the water mains were hit by explosives. There were sixteen year old boys who kept communications open after landmines had been destroyed, riding bicycles which soon had their tyres cut to pieces by glass on the roads. A moment of terror was responded with bravery and courage from the people of Coventry, something very admirable.
As the raiders withdrew and the weary men and women on the ground savoured the rare pleasure of being still alive, the work began assessing the damage and doing something about it. 554 people had been killed and 865 seriously injured. The historic Cathedral of St. Michael’s was a gutted ruin with only its great tower and spire intact. 75% of the city’s industry had been destroyed and so had 46,000 homes. The city lacked telephones and water, as it lacked shops and food.
On the 15th November 1940 the centre of Coventry seemed to belong to the dead. Hysteria and fear gripped the city which meant many fled Coventry never to return. The train station was immobilised and factories forced to close. Nonetheless, with the help of militaries, the streets were cleared, dangerous buildings demolished and civilians also did their part. The people of Coventry smiled with bravery for news reporters and cameras, showing clearly that the Germans could not break the British spirit! Coventry’s people came together and accepted what had happened. Coventry slowly re-built the city, allowing to change the entire landscape if so desired. This brought many new and exciting plans for Coventry, its buildings and people.