The Fires of Perfect Liberty: Labouring Men and Women of England, 1851-1951, Part Eight   Leave a comment

Looking for a True England: 1921-1941: Section 4/4       


As a result of the lack of interest shown by the industrial magnates in local politics in Coventry, the domination of the political life of the city between the wars was left up to a group largely composed of small businessmen and professionals. These formed themselves into a local coalition of Conservatives and Liberals known as the Progressive Party. Then, in 1923, the Labour candidate, surprisingly, won the parliamentary election, only to be defeated a year later due to the effect of tariffs on Coventry. In 1926, the Labour group on the City Council was reduced to three (it had, briefly, won power in 1919) but in 1928, as a result of boundary changes bringing many working class voters into the city, the number of councillors increased to eleven. In 1929, Philip Noel-Baker captured nearly half the votes cast at the parliamentary election in which the first majority Labour government was formed. While the fortunes of the Party in the General Election of 1931 followed the national trend, they continued to make headway in the local elections until they took control in 1937, becoming one of the first local Labour parties to gain a municipal authority. The Progressives’ loss of supremacy in the late 1930s was attributed by their supporters, including the Telegraph, to the rapid drift of population from the depressed areas, which had introduced to the city, a steady stream of potential left-wing supporters. One candidate at a bye-election in 1938 referred to them as the sweepings of the nation, a view which the eve-of-poll Labour leaflets made much of, and secured a further victory.



The factors which led to the victory of 1937 were fourfold. Firstly, there was a shift from shop-floor syndicalism towards support for municipal socialism. This was partly due to the urgent need for a local political response to the demands of a spiralling population in terms of the proper provision and planning of housing and social services, but it was also greatly influenced by the creation of a large section of individual members within the Party, allowing managerial, professional and clerical workers to play an important role alongside trades unionists. Secondly, personalities like George Hodgkinson and Sidney Stringer (who has since also become well-known for his iconic local photographs) carefully nurtured and shaped the Party into an organisation which was seen as capable of winning elections and running the City successfully. Thirdly, the Party’s policies attracted broad support from various leading figures in the city, including industrialists and church ministers. The radical Liberalism of many chapel-going Nonconformists in Victorian and Edwardian times was successfully transformed into support for the Labour Party by the thirties, largely due to the advocacy of Christian Socialism by a succession of Unitarian, Methodist, Congregationalist and Baptist preachers who spoke on Labour platforms. This influence was further fuelled by the influx of workers from areas of Britain where Nonconformity was still comparatively strong. This influx in itself was the fourth factor: the significant numerical addition of Labour voters on the electoral roll, which had taken place by 1936, as well as the contribution some of them made to the organisation and leadership of the Party. However, the Party failed to make further gains in the full civic elections in 1938, due to the fact that many more recent newcomers had not yet registered to vote. However, the 1937 results proved to be a harbinger for the 1945 General Election in which both Richard Crossman and Maurice Edelman were returned as the two MPs for the City.

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The rise of the Trade Union and Labour movement in Oxford had a very different starting point, and was no less remarkable for that. In October 1926, during the miners’ lock-out, William Morris told a dinner party of two thousand members of the Morris Motors Sports Club that, regarding people like Smith, Bevin and Cook, if he had his way he would shoot the lot. This was greeted by rapturous applause and laughter, revealing much about the attitudes to trades unionism of Morris’ more élite workforce. In August 1929, J Horrobin, speaking at a far smaller event, the Oxford Co-operative Society gathering, complained that those who were attempting to establish institutions for the working classes in Oxford were living in a city controlled by ancient traditions and customs and chloroformed by colleges, churches and city councillors. Between the academic elitism of town and gown and the modern industrialism of Morris, there was not much room for the nascent Labour movement to breathe, let alone grow in strength, as in Coventry. However, by the second half of the 1930s, the phenomenal growth of working class politics in Oxford had led to a position where the unthinkable had become possible, namely the election of a Labour MP for the City. Patrick Gordon Walker, their candidate, who beat off a powerful challenge from the Popular Front candidate Lindsay, the Master of Balliol, had no doubt that what made this possible was the way in which the political complexion of Oxford had been changed by what had happened in Cowley, and how this had changed the City’s image:

We have heard a lot about Oxford ceasing to be a sleepy university town in an agricultural county. Therein lies the fundamental reason for Labour’s growth.

However, there was no General Election in 1939/40, and the Labour Party had to wait another five and a half years for Patrick Gordon Walker’s election, as with Crossman and Edelman in Coventry. Nevertheless, by the end of the thirties, the Oxford working class was no longer sleepy, deferential and acquiescent in its industrial and political attitudes. Industrial and societal campaign victories had been translated into trade union and political muscle within the City as a whole. However, this was still within a limited sphere, and would not be translated into real power, either locally or nationally, until the Road to 1945 had been completed by a Second World War.



The Thirties was an intensely middle-class decade and, for most working class people in England (perhaps not so much in Wales, Scotland or Ireland), a reactionary one. When the international political and economic storms began to blow and young intellectuals at Oxford University (who, as George Orwell correctly surmised, had never met anyone outside their own social class) became revolutionaries almost overnight, the middle classes rediscovered romantic patriotism. Phrases like Our English Heritage, the Tradition of Empire and the Pageant of History took a firm place in their hearts. The mass of the English people, both middle class and working class, who had fought or worked together in the Great War and who still hoped for the return of Merrie England, lined the streets of London solidly for George V, who commanded a massive respect and popularity, for the Pageant of his silver jubilee in 1935 and then for his funeral the following year. On seeing the huge crowds, he was reported to have said, but I’m just an ordinary bloke. That, your majesty, he was informed, was exactly the point. His BBC Christmas broadcasts, in which he spoke with great simplicity to his people, in his classless Hanoverian English, made him a father figure, and on one occasion, he spoke directly to the children of Britain first.



By contrast, the Crisis of Succession and Abdication which occupied so much of the national politics of 1936 showed that Orwell was not altogether wrong when he wrote that England in the Thirties was a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and the silly. However, from the very beginning of the inter-war period, local politics and civic affairs in Coventry had taken an entirely different shape, though the impact of the waves of immigration which had taken place by the end of the period is just as discernible. Philip Handley, the manager of the Coventry Employment Exchange, continued to counter prejudice against the immigrants and to project an image of Coventry as a forward-looking progressive city. In an article for the Midland Daily Telegraph on 1 September 1937, he wrote:

Life in Coventry is thrilling. We are occupied in the making of the very latest inventions of man – aeroplanes, wireless equipment, synthetic silk, motor cars, electrical apparatus, machine tools, and wonderful instruments; side by side with some of the oldest trades known to man. Workers are drawn from the four corners of the Empire, if not the world. One wonders what will be the outcome of the wave of migration to this area. Twenty-five years hence we shall have a third generation. To what extent and in what manner will that new generation carry the impress of today’s migration? The Welshman’s love of music and art, the Irishman’s physical vigour and courage, the Scotsman’s canny thoroughness, the tough fibre of the Northumbrian, the enterprise of the Lancastrian – Yes, the Coventrian of twenty-five years hence should be a better man in body and possibly in brain…


In terms of leisure activities, there was probably far more of a traditional, community spirit for those living on the outskirts of Coventry on the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War. Not that living conditions in the generally older housing stock were any less cramped. In 1937, the Midland Daily Telegraph reported that official overcrowding reports showed that the problem was twice as bad in Walsgrave as in the city as a whole, and worse than wards like St Mary’s and Radford which were nearer the city centre. At the same time, there were still plenty of open spaces around the overcrowded houses which could be used for outdoor leisure, especially during the war, when hobbies became the means of maintaining basic standards of living. The village had a strong community spirit, based on the Anglican church, the Baptist chapel and the school, and this spirit continued into the war years, especially in the growing and sharing of food. The most noticeable difference, at first, was in the availability of food, and rationing. There were queues for tomatoes, but the Co-op was fair to everyone, and the vegetable cart continued to do its rounds of the village. One day, Daphne Gulliver went out with her mother to buy oranges, which were rationed to one per person per week. So, they could have five. A group of alien internees were going up the Lane to the farm at the top. Vera asked Albert, the vendor, for a knife and cut all five into pieces. She went over to the boys and gave each one a piece of orange. Daphne, being a child, protested, but her mother told her, these lads are very young and they’ve been living off potatoes up at the farm, so they need that orange much more than you do.

People were encouraged to produce their own food on their allotments. As well as growing vegetables, Seymour also kept pigs and poultry on his allotment along Woodway Lane. You could keep pigs during the war, but you had to have a permit to kill them. You could sell them to the authorities, but they did not pay very much for them. So Seymour decided to take his sow into hiding in their house when her time came. Daphne remembered these wartime pigs and piglets well:

…we had a litter of pigs, we decided we were going to have a litter, and then we had some sleeping quarters for these piglets, and when the time came, the wretched sow had all those little piglets on the hearth, and we were giving them drops of brandy, trying to revive them and keep them going. I think we saved about five.

But they got to be little suckling pigs and one of them wasn’t quite right. So they decided they were going to ‘knock this one off’. So Bill Gately worked up the abattoir and we persuaded Bill to come and knock this little pig off. They’d just gone up the garden, ’cause he was working all day so it was dark now, and the air-raid siren went. So, no-one dared shine a flash-light or anything and well, you can imagine these little pigs running and squealing all over the sty, and them trying to get hold of this particular one; and Bill was muttering and stuttering, you know. Well eventually we caught this pig and killed it quietly at the kitchen sink.

We had no permit, and then someone came around afterwards, knowing that we’d done this, and he asked, ’what did you do with the Tom Hodge?’ So Seymour says, ’what’s that?’, and they said, ’well, you know, its innards!’ Dad says, ’oh! We buried them up the garden’. ’Oh, oh dear!’ he says, ’the best part of the pig!’ Anyway, he comes back after a few minutes and says, ’well, if I know Seymour it won’t be buried deep!’ So he goes up the garden with his fork and forks all this up. Eventually, he took all these chitterlings and well, of course, to anyone who likes chitterlings…but it put me off pork for the rest of my life!  

 In many ways, then, Coventry belonged to all three of J.B. Priestley’s Englands, and Oxford to two, the old and the new. Unfortunately, on their journeys, neither Priestley nor H.V. Morton seem to spend much time in East Anglia, so we get no real insights into the market towns and villages, although Priestley does visit and stay in Norwich, and for a while we get to focus on the East Anglian countryside in his encounters with local farmers. To Priestley, Norwich itself was no mere provincial town… not simply an old cathedral city… it is something more – an antique metropolis, the capital of East Anglia. Therefore, Norwich was in a very large slice of England, to thousands of people who live and work there,… the big city, the centre… His own native town, Bradford, was more than twice the size of Norwich, but it did not seem half the size. This was not simply because of the Cathedral and the Castle, but because it has flourished as the big city in the minds of men for generations. As such, it was no mere jumped-up conglomeration of factories, warehouses and dormitories. He went on to make an interesting political point about the city’s role as a regional capital, which has a marked resonance some eighty years later:

A great many people are coming to believe that government in this country is now far too centralised. Too much work has to be done in Westminster. There is too wide a gap between the local councils and Parliament. These people suggest that England should be divided up into four, five or six provinces, and that these provinces should to some extent govern themselves. Their representatives would be able to settle among themselves the merits of a large number of local questions. Business in the House of Commons would not be so congested and unwieldy, and Parliament would be able to give its undivided attention to broadly national affairs. Moreover, regional self-government of this type would do something to revive the spirit of democracy. Under a democratic system, politics should be local so that you can keep an eye on them. Indeed, in a large modern state you need a very elaborately constructed pyramid of representational government, with parochial councils for the base and a national assembly at the apex, in order that the democratic system can work properly… Centralisation is one of the deadliest enemies of the system… And on any such division of the country into provinces Norwich would be capital of its own region, as it has been, for nearly all practical purposes, these last three hundred years.

Priestley went on to write of the East Anglian as a solid man, made of lots of beef and beer, tempered with east wind. He wanted to see Home Rule for East Anglia! As he concluded his tour in Norwich, he decided that it was a grand, higgledy-piggledy, sensible old place which definitely belonged to his category of ’old England’, alongside the other great cathedral cities of York, Durham, and Lichfield. He also hoped that, besides becoming a seat of regional government, it would also become a major publishing centre once more.

In addition, he talked with his hosts about the villages and the local farmers, and went out exploring the countryside in a small car. It didn’t take long to get out of Norwich – a few turns down the side roads, past the tram terminus and out into the true country. They stopped in a village grocer’s shop, where the proprietors said that, although they had known better times, they ’couldn’t grumble’. The small farmers which made up the overwhelming majority of the farmers in that area, had been having a bad time, and Priestley’s host, a trustee of an estate, who had to do business with a lot of them, confirmed this.But he also appeared sceptical, and critical of the conservatism of East Anglian farmers who often insisted on raising a certain crop simply because previous generations had done so, without reference to the needs and conditions of the time. He was also somewhat doubtful about their losses. They called on one farmer, a middle-aged man farming about a hundred acres, but not making them pay, according to his report to the estate. He was a mixed farmer, and all his beasts were in good condition, though his fields were distributed somewhat awkwardly. He told them that he regularly listened to the agricultural broadcasts on the wireless. Priestley commented sympathetically:

It must be difficult for a farmer, and one of generations of farmers, to understand that his slow traffic with the land and the familiar beasts is a business like manufacturing and selling pins or boots, and that the strange antics of men in offices, thousands of miles away, and the weather on the other side of the world, and the rumours of wars, the negotiations of diplomats, the suspicions and panics of fantastic foreigners, the mysterious ebb and flow of credit, can all combine quietly to take his living away from him and finally steal the very acres from under his nose.

In Suffolk, the Second World War involved the local population far more directly than its predecessor. Even before the war began the county had given a lead in military preparedness to the rest of the nation. Dithering to decide between dependence on a voluntary army or the reintroduction of conscription, the politicians decided to launch a Territorial Army recruitment drive. In two months the Suffolk Regiment raised over two thousand men, who formed the Twelfth battalion. It went on to fight in many of the main, and some of the worst, theatres of the war, in Burma, North Africa and Singapore. Suffolk fishermen were at Dunkirk to help bring off the survivors of the first disastrous round of the conflict. Among those survivors were members of the First Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment who had lost hundreds of men in the winter of 1939-40, including their commanding officer. Yet it was in the air that most closely involved Suffolk. Despite the renewed demand for increased agricultural output, thousands of productive acres were buried under concrete and tarmac to provide Britain with much-needed airfields. Fighter squadrons based at stations such as Martlesham were involved in the Battle of Britain. Though the airfields south of the Thames were the ones most heavily committed in that conflict, it was No. 11 Group Fighter Command whose headquarters were at Hornchurch in Essex, which was specifically charged with the defence of London, and many dog fights were seen in the clear skies over East Anglia during the summer of 1940.



Of course, the national hero of 1940 was, and still is, Winston Churchill. His sense of history, interestingly revealed in his many history books, was very strongly Whiggish, concentrating on the heroic narrative of how the English-speaking peoples had established a great Empire and achieved a near-perfect system of government. This limited conception blinded Churchill to many problems, like the demand for Indian self-government, but was his possession of this narrative was his great strength in the dark years of 1940-41. He caught the mood of the British people with his speeches which he re-recorded and published in 1941, including Their Finest Hour, made as the Battle of Britain, in its broadest sense, was about to begin:

Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire… Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands… Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say, ’This was their finest hour.’


 …Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. All hearts must go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day; but we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often with serious loss, with deliberate careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of Nazi power.

If Britain owes her survival in 1940 to The Few, she also owes it to the back-room boys who perfected radar. Chief among these was Robert Watson-Watt who carried out his researches at Orfordness in Suffolk in the mid-1930s. In 1936 he moved his equipment to Bawdsey Manor and it was there that the prototype of chain home radar stations was established. Many of these lined the east and south coasts by the time war broke out. They proved more successful as a means of defence than the concrete bunkers and barbed wire would ever have done had the Nazis launched an amphibious landing across the Channel.

The most devastating raid carried out over Suffolk was on 15 August when a hundred German bombers pounded Martlesham. But the county soon had its revenge: the first bombing raids on German territory set out from Wattisham and Mildenhall in December and attacked industrial installations at Kiel, Bremmer and Mannheim. Suffolk bases provided the hard-core of Bomber Command. The headquarters of No. 3 Group were at Mildenhall. From here many of the raids were organised which, for many months, proved to be the only effective offensive attacks on military and industrial targets and naval support missions aimed at enemy ports and harbours.

My mother, then Daphne Gulliver, remembered the first significant air-raids on Coventry, and the first use of the communal shelter at Walsgrave-on-Sowe school. The Anderson shelters that people had put up in their gardens by the summer of 1940 had become flooded so they had to go to the shelter at the school, which had been put there for the school children. However, as there were no day-time raids, it had not been used, and was still locked. The schoolmaster, Gaffer Mann, refused to open it, however. A pick axe had to be sent for to break the lock, and all the residents of School House Lane went in.

Though Walsgrave itself was of no military importance, Capability Brown’s huge landscaped pool at nearby Coombe Abbey was in the German map books and was used as a landmark by the German bomber crews. The Rolls Royce Engine Factory at Ansty was less than a mile from this, manufacturing aircraft engines. There was also an aerodrome there, built before the war, and the then Rootes assembly plant at Ryton was only a few miles away on the same side of the city, with its shadow factory producing aircraft and military vehicles. Built after 1938, these factories did not appear on the Luftwaffe’s maps, hence the importance of incendiary bombs dropped around the outlying areas of the City, as well as on the city itself. The Germans were searching for the shadow factories on the ground, using the Coombe Pool as a focal point. Later in the war, the order was given for it to be drained. Most of the locals on the estate thought that this was, by then, totally unnecessary, and it became something of a joke since, they argued, the measure had been taken at a point when the enemy bombers were equipped with electronic guidance systems and no longer needed landmarks to locate potential targets. Other forms of defence were brought onto the estate, with a barrage balloon and an Ack-Ack station being positioned in the field adjacent to the old Gas Cottages.

However, during one enemy raid, a stick of bombs fell on the western end of Coombe Pool. Later inspection, following the all-clear, revealed that little damage had been done. A short time later, however, a panic-stricken farmer drew the attention to of several nearby residents to a whirring sound coming from within the estate out-building where he had garaged his Humber car for safe-keeping. Fearing that it might be coming from an unexploded bomb, great caution was exercised while an investigation took place. It turned out that the noise was being made by the horn of the car, which had malfunctioned due to the vibration from nearby explosions. Huge craters were left on the landscape between Walsgrave-on-Sowe and the Coombe Estate for many decades afterwards. Seymour described his arrest, as an ARP Warden, of a German pilot who had bailed out over Coombe Park, landing in the farm lane and breaking both his legs. Seymour had to use his bicycle to get the airman the mile or so to the village police station.

School records for 1940 show that a total of six hours and ten minutes was spent in the school shelter, with one visit lasting over two hours. Of course, nearly all the raids took place during night-time. The first raid affecting Walsgrave was on 2 August, mentioned in the School Log Book as taking place at 3 a.m., affecting the morning attendance. Bombs fell regularly on the village over the next few months, one landing on the allotments on the Henley Road (see the photo at the top),  and another near the old Craven Colliery in the same area. A third landed near the village centre, close to the Working Men’s Club. There were  a great string of incendiary bombs that landed in the back fields, making huge craters. The villagers formed a fire watch, someone from each house taking a turn to do the watching. Walsgrave was not itself of any military importance, but the nearby Ansty aerodrome was raided, where there were part-time RAF lads. The first major raid on the city itself was recorded on 18 August, when fourteen bombs fell on the other side of the city from Walsgrave. The first raid in which people were killed took place ten days later when thirteen bombs were dropped in the Hillfields district, just north of the city centre. Sixteen people were killed and three hundred houses were damaged. Between 18 August and 12 November, Coventry was attacked on twenty-four occasions. Few parts of the city escaped some damage and a total of a hundred and eighty-nine people were killed, with two hundred and sixty seriously injured.


Nevertheless, the raid of the 14th/15th November was not detected until after 3 p.m., the end of the school day. On that night, Coventry was subjected to an eleven-hour sustained blanket-bombing, giving the German dictionary the word Coventration as a synonym for this type of raid, which was entirely different from the previous Blitzkrieg lightning raids, which had been the strategy in attacking London and other regional ports and cities, as well as in the previous attacks on Coventry itself. Though the sirens went off earlier than usual that evening, most people recall being at home having had tea or supper when the bombing started. The 449 bombers raided the City for almost eleven hours. Many of those rescued in the areas around the city centre were still under rubble until about 7 a.m., having been trapped for more than twelve hours in some cases. Five hundred and sixty-eight people were killed and eight hundred and sixty-three were seriously wounded. Two thirds of the medieval city centre was either completely destroyed or badly damaged. St Michael’s Cathedral, Owen Owen’s iconic department store, the Empire Theatre and the Market Hall were among the more important buildings destroyed. One hundred and eleven out of the one hundred and eighty factories sustained some damage, the worst hit being the Daimler Factory at Radford, the GEC in Whitefriars’ Street and British Thomson Houston in Alma Street.   Even more damaging , electricity, gas, telephone, transport and water services were all severely disrupted. About twelve per cent of the city’s houses were rendered uninhabitable or destroyed.

The bombing had ended in sufficient time for Walsgrave School to open on time the next morning. Nine years old at the time, Daphne Gulliver recalled vividly, through a child’s eyes, the effect of the bombing of the city centre. She said that the heat, light and sparks gave a feeling of bonfire night, only with the huge bonfire burning three miles away, and the firework explosions going off everywhere around, as they ran for the shelter:

We put up the cushions from off the furniture and put them on our heads and went running up the shelter. It was a bright moonlit night and tracer bullets were flying around everywhere and the whole city was on fire. Everything was lit up like it was daylight; it was a most awesome sight and of course, for days afterwards, the burnt paper was coming down.

 The School Log for 15 November echoes this description of destruction:

School reassembled – about only 130 were present – this is due to the results of a terrific 11 hour raid on Coventry and immediate neighbourhood. The Church Hut used for 70 to 80 infants had to be used as a home for the people who were bombed out of the city.

Seymour Gulliver was on air-raid duty that night and recalled the effect of one bomb that had fallen in what was known as The Hollow, just past The Mount Pleasant. He said that the old, cruck-beamed cottage was quite badly damaged as the patrol went towards it, and he was sure there would be at least one person dead inside. But when they went inside they found that the main beam had fallen across the fireplace and the family were all protected by it, around the fireplace. Miraculously, no-one was hurt. The village had escaped lightly compared with the mass destruction of the city centre and the older factory areas in the suburbs, though it might have been a different story had the Luftwaffe been able to locate the Ansty and Ryton factories. Many in the village realised this vulnerability, and though not forced to, sent their children away to safer rural areas, if they could. Daphne was sent away to relatives near Bridgwater in Somerset for a while.

There were eighteen more raids to come of which two were particularly serious and approached the destruction of 14/15 November 1940. They took place within forty-eight hours of each other in April 1941. On the night of 8/9 April two hundred and eighty-nine people were killed and five hundred and seventy seriously injured while on the following night a further one hundred and seventy were killed and one hundred and fifty-three were seriously hurt. The first raid lasted for over five hours, and the second for almost four and a half. These raids saw the destruction of Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital, St Mary’s Hall (a medieval guildhall) and King Henry’s School. There were also direct hits on the Council House, the Central Police Station and the London, Midland and Scottish Railway’s Goods Office, in addition to forty-two factories, of which four were seriously damaged. Thirty thousand houses were also damaged and public services again seriously curtailed.


Following the November 1940 raid, lack of electricity, gas and water supplies was largely responsible for around twelve thousand workers being made unemployed on the morning of 15 November, but within two weeks eighty per cent of them were back at work. Similarly, after the April raids 108 factories were deprived of their normal gas supplies, but half of them had had them restored within ten days and the rest in just under another week. One factor that aided industrial recovery was that damage to buildings was greater than damage to the machinery inside them. Coventry showed that even the most intense bombing would not, of itself, bring about permanent damage to a city’s economic life.


The map above shows the German dispositions for the raid of the 14/15 November on Coventry. There is still a great deal of controversy about whether the attack could have been mitigated, with some believing that the City was deliberately sacrificed by government officials, perhaps sanctioned by Churchill himself. Was Coventry sacrificed to keep the Enigma secret? During the 1970s a story developed about the November Raid, following the publication of a series of accounts of how Allied cryptographers had, early in the war, broken many of the German military codes. The essence of this new theory was that the impact of the raid could have been limited by counter measures because it was known in advance that Coventry was to be the target on 14 November. The reason that nothing was done and nobody was warned before the first sirens sounded at 3 p.m., was that the Government did not want to do anything which might suggest to the Germans that their codes had been breached. As the centre of British aircraft production, Coventry had already attracted the attention of the Luftwaffe, the previous attack coming just two nights before, and would clearly do so again, but it was the scale and length of the bombing which surprised its citizens, plus the deliberate and concentrated targeting of its medieval centre with incendiary bombs, obviously designed, not just to demoralise them, but to help the bombers find their main targets, the factories.

Coventry’s defences had been strengthened earlier in the month, and on 11 November Air Intelligence had learned, via Enigma, that the German Air Force was about to launch a large-scale night raid led by the Pathfinder Squadron (K. Gr. 100, based at Vannes) using target-finding radio beams. The operation was code-named Moonlight Sonata, suggesting a three-stage raid, since the Beethoven composition had three movements rather than four, beginning with its well-known adagio (slow movement). The name also suggested that the raid would take place at or near the time of the full moon. A captured German airman had also mentioned the raid and had named the target as either Coventry or Birmingham. His evidence was ignored because the captured map pointed to targets around London. Also filed away was some further Enigma information, collected between 12 to 14 November, which gave the radio beam bearings for three targets; Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton. It was thought that these were part of experimental German transmissions which had been going on for some months unaccompanied by actual raids. London was still thought to be the target for Moonlight Sonata, although the air ministry told Churchill that if further intelligence came in, they hoped to get instructions out in time. At 1 p.m. the Luftwaffe beam tunings clearly showed that the raid was to begin two hours later and that the beams intersected over Coventry. However, attempts to jam the beams failed and the fighters who went up to take on the Germans failed to find them. The anti-aircraft batteries also performed poorly. Although historians have concluded that there was no conspiracy, but rather a series of operational failures, it is clear that a Civil Defence warning could have been given to the City well before the raid began, as well as to the central government agencies operating there, especially the Ministry of Home Security.

Some contemporaries, and later historians, claimed that the big raid of November 1940 created mass panic, with thousands fleeing the city. However, most survivors said that while there was shock and horror at the extent of the damage, which affected the whole city, there was no panicked flight. Once the initial impact had been absorbed, most people got on with the job, they said. Leaving the city after work to sleep in towns and villages nearby was common during the air-raids of 1940-41 in many provincial towns.  It’s not clear exactly when it began in Coventry, though we know that many immigrant workers were living in makeshift accommodation anyway, and that the shadow factories in which many of them worked were on the outskirts of the city, close to its boundaries. Sleeping out was certainly taking place before the heavy raid of November, and adverts were appearing for accommodation as far as twenty miles away, in the local Coventry newspapers. Many people marked SO on their front gates to indicate that they were away from home. According to one Walsgrave resident, there were a number of city people sleeping at her home:

Different people who were living in the town, ’cause they weren’t getting any sleep, they came out to these houses out here to sleep. There were about eight I think, come out to my parents – sleeping all over the place, under the stairs in what we called the Glory Hole and there were that many of us at the November Blitz.

In early October 1941 the Friends’ (Quaker) Ambulance Unit carried out an enquiry on the nightly exodus from Coventry, producing an eight-page report. The Coventry police estimated that as many as a hundred thousand people, more than half the registered population, were sleeping out during the main raids. The Deputy ARP thought that the number was about seventy thousand earlier in the year, but that it was still of the order of fifty thousand that October. The local Medical Officer agreed with these latter estimates, although another ARP officer thought the number had fallen to about twenty-four thousand. The Midland Red bus company said that they were carrying about five thousand more passengers into the Corporation’s area than they had been doing before the Blitz. The report concluded that the numbers leaving the city at the time of the raids was between seventy and a hundred thousand and that this had fallen to fifteen to twenty thousand at the time the report was compiled. Of course, much depended on the geopolitical definition of the city, since the aea controlled by the City Council had grown to incorporate villages like Walsgrave-on-Sowe, three miles from the centre, but still, in 1940-41, almost surrounded by farmland, though far from being entirely safe from bombing itself.   However, many adult munition workers might have felt it to be a safe enough distance for them, even if the villagers themselves had evacuated their own children to family and friends outside the Midlands.

Whatever the true scale and nature of sleeping out, the figures of those leaving their homes before nightfall was certainly large and would have grown to fifty thousand if bombing had returned during the winter of 1941/42. Certainly, the earlier, more minor raids of 1940 had made people nervous, and many must have been severely traumatised by the events of 14/15 November, especially the children, but there common sense reasons for a nightly evacuation. If you were hard at work in a munitions factory all day you needed your sleep at night. It is also interesting that of 2,200 workers appearing before the local Labour Supply Committee asking for a transfer after the November raid, two thousand were persuaded to stay. There was, understandably, some nervousness about restarting the night-shifts in some factories. After the April 1941 raids, the Deputy Regional Commissioner went out of his way to praise the morale of Coventry people, declaring that there was no panic and nothing in the nature of a general trek from the city. Nor is it true, as some suggested after the war, that the workers who had settled in Coventry from the depressed areas fled the city as soon as they could catch trains on 15 November 1940. Their names and birthplaces, in the civic Roll of the Fallen, show that they suffered in equal proportion to those born in Coventry and Warwickshire.

Coventry was the first provincial town to receive such intensive treatment in a bombing raid. Unlike the rambling East End of London, and despite its recent growth, Coventry was still a relatively small, nucleated and walled medieval city, with mushrooming suburbs along its arterial roads into the surrounding Warwickshire countryside. The destruction of its centre was therefore all the more terrifyingly impressive, with the charred and ruined Cathedral becoming an important symbol almost immediately with its cross of beams and cross of nails. This gripped the imagination of the whole world and in the fight against fascism the Coventry Blitz occupied a prominent position, not just in British, but later in allied propaganda. As the Mayor told the City Council on 3 December,

For some days after the raid, most of us were cut off from the ordinary sources of news and hence we did not realise how famous Coventry had suddenly become. It was, I think on the Monday that telegrams and messages from all over the country, and indeed, the world, began to pour in, and we learned what a deep impression had been produced by the manner in which Coventry had stood up to its ordeal.

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Within a short time, and before the second major raid of April 1941, Sir John Reith, Herbert Morrison, Wendell Wilkie, Robert Menzies and above all King George VI and Queen Elizabeth all came to see for themselves the destruction and to aid the Coventrians in their recovery and, of course, to help nurture the mythology of the Blitz which became so emblematic of the spirit of British endurance around the world in the second half of the last century. Yet in the hectic days of 1940, as Henry Pelling wrote in 1970, it was quite common for people to suppose that the war was effecting a social revolution in Britain. Many of the wealthy thought this, and lamented that they had lived to go through such an experience. Pelling went on:

Undoubtedly the war brought into existence for a time a stronger sense of community throughout the country… Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz produced a ’backs-to-the-wall’ solidarity that transcended class barriers and brought together all sorts of people in the Home Guard, Civil Defence, the air raid shelters and… to some extent the factories… the increased mobility of the population… tended to break down parochialism.

Writing in the same year as Pelling, A J P Taylor concluded his English History, 1914-45 by remarking that in the Second World War the British people came of age. They had probably come of age by the Spring of 1941, having survived the Blitz. Perhaps most importantly from their point of view of their personal survival, Scientific Intelligence, through the detection and cryptography of Enigma at Bletchley, was now well established alongside Naval, Army and Air Intelligence. A relatively small band of scientists and engineers had affected the outcomes of both the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. They had shown the government that science and engineering could also be essential to national survival. However, the government could simply not afford the resources to exploit the full pioneering work of her own scientists. Also in 1941 Florey and Heatley had to go to the United States in order to find a means of producing penicillin, Sir Alexander Fleming’s neglected discovery, on a massive scale. The gains to mankind as a whole were enormous, though the particular beneficiary was the American pharmaceutical industry. In turn, advances were now possible in the development of blood transfusion, skin grafting and plastic surgery and these could aid the survival of countless individuals caught up in enemy action either as combatants or civilians.

In spite of the traumas and triumphs of 1940, which in one way or another involved a broader cross-section of both service people and civilians than had ever been the case in the Fist World War, the onset of the Second World War was not, overall, as traumatic in its impact on the British mind as 1914-15 had been. Then the country had not been prepared for modern warfare and had no experience on which to base its anticipation of the trials to follow, especially the appalling suffering of the trenches and the rate of casualties. The truly traumatic effects of the Great War were clearly visible in many of the inter-war politicians like Baldwin, Chamberlain and Eden, the last of whom had once sorted through a heap of dead bodies in order to identify them. In 1939 most people feared a repetition of that trench warfare, so there was no great sense of inevitability, or doom, about the very different kind of sacrifices that the war eventually involved. In London in 1941, when broadcasting on the radio, George Orwell opened his essay, England Your England, with the following definition of patriotism:

As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ’only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted, law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.

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One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognises the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty. In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilisation it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it. Christianity and international Socialism are as weak as straw in comparison with it. Hitler and Mussolini rose to power in their own countries very largely because they could grasp this fact and their opponents could not.

Students of the last century’s history are still trained to consider the two world wars and the two decades in between as if they were all part of the same historical process, the Era of World Wars. The Great War, they learn, turned out not to be the war to end all wars and had to be resumed twenty years later, mainly due to the lack of foresight of the Paris peacemakers. The years 1921-41 are perhaps better seen, with this century’s hindsight, as a distinct period of patriotism perverted by mass poverty, mass politics, mass production, and total war.

Printed Sources: 

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (n.d.), Life and Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: University of Warwick Cryfield Press.

A. J. Chandler (1988), The Re-Making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands, 1920-1940. University of Cardiff, unpublished PhD thesis.

Theo Barker (1978), The Long March of Everyman, 1750-1960. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain, 1776-2000: The Fate of Empire. London: BBC

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: a photographic remembrance of British working class life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Posted November 3, 2014 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

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