15th November 1940 - the bombing of Coventry

20111218152735!Coventry_devastation_H_5601.jpgOn the 14th November 1940, the city of Coventry was bombed ‘to destruction’.

My Granny told me many years ago that she heard German bombers flying over Salisbury all night long on the night that Coventry was bombed.

Since then I’ve occasionally wondered why German bombers would have overflown Salisbury on the way to Coventry. I even wondered whether my Gran might have been mistaken.

Well, I’m now sure that she wasn’t[1].

So why, would a German bomber fly to Coventry via Salisbury?

The first thing to note is that, by November 1940, the Germans had occupied France so there was no need to the bombers to be flying all the way from Germany.

Why the Germans flew over Salisbury specifically is perhaps a bit less obvious.

Night-bombing

By 1940, both the Axis and the Allies had come to understand the effectiveness of night-bombing. Wikipedia says:

[bombers] were beginning to have the capability to strike across Europe with useful bomb loads. These aircraft were slow and lumbering, easy prey for interceptors, but this threat could be essentially eliminated by flying at night. A bomber, painted black, could be spotted only at very short ranges. And as the bomber's altitude and speed increased, the threat from ground based defences was greatly reduced. Simply put, planners believed that "the bomber will always get through"[2].

The problem - navigation in the dark

The bombing of Coventry - German bombersThe problem for the bombers was that while darkness made it difficult for air-defences to see the aircraft, it also made it difficult for the bombers find and accurately bomb their targets. The British invested in on-board navigation by the stars. An 'astrodome' was built into the British bombers, which gave the navigator a view of the night sky and a space to work[3]. This proved ineffective[4] - it was just too diffcult. The Butt Report on the accuracy of night bombing was discouraging. The 2worldwar2.com website says 'Only a third of the bombers bombed within a radius of five miles from the target. Low clouds, fog, and industrial smoke even reduced this ratio to just one of ten bombers, and only about 1% of the bombs actually hit the large designated target.'[5].

The German solution - riding the radio beams

The Germans developed something else - a system based on radio waves. Radio beams to guide aircraft into land had been developed before the war by Telefunken and Lorenz. In principle, two radio transmitters were positioned at the end of the landing strip. if a plane was too far to the right they heard long 'dashes' on their radio, if they were two far to the left they heard short 'dots'. If they were in line with the strip they heard a mixture of the two. This was adapted in the early days of the war to send radio beams out towards a prospective bomb target. German bombers flew along the radio beam until they got to their targets. Often, a second radio beam (or set of beams) was set up from tranmitters 100s of miles away. When the the beams crossed the bomber dropped it bombs.

Cherbourg, Salisbury and Coventry

The Luftwaffe set up its radio transmitters at points along the occupied coast. The one used for bombing the Midlands was established on the Cherbourg peninsula.

The radio beams were given codenames on the theme of German rivers. The Cherbourg beam was named after the River Weser.

On the night of 14th November the Weser beam was pointed at Coventry.

When you know this the reason my Gran heard the German bombers above Salisbury becomes clear. As you can hopefully see from the map, the Weser would have ‘flowed’ over Salisbury.

The Bombing of Coventry

515 German aeroplanes took part in the bombing of Coventry.

The first bomb fell at 19.20 on the 14th and the bombs continued to fall until dawn on the 15th.

According to the BBC website, 4330 homes were destroyed and 1000 people lost their lives.

The German News Agency said that the bombing was ‘the most severe in the whole history of the war’[6].

Beacon Hill and Domino

Attempts were made both before and after Coventry to jam or disrupt the German radio waves. One of the ‘jamming stations’ was set up on Beacon Hill, presumably to jam the Weser beam.

This jamming system was code named "Domino" and first became active in February 1941. A second Domino system soon followed, covering the Cherbourg beam stations. This was located on Beacon hill near Salisbury. [7]

Further reading

There’s lots more detail, if you’re interested on the following pages:

Picture Credits

The photo of Coventry after the bombs fell is from the Imperial War Museum. The Wikimedia note says that ‘This artistic work created by the United Kingdom Government is in the public domain. This is because it is … a photograph created by the United Kingdom Government and taken prior to 1 June 1957’. The page is File:Coventry devastation H 5601.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

The photo of the bombers is also from Wikimedia Commons. The note for the photo says that: ‘This file is in the public domain, because ‘Note: This Image is historical document, was published in all school books in Socialist State of Yugoslavia, and as such the image is public domain.’ The page is File:Tyskerne bomber Beograd.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Related pages

Footnotes

[1] I owe a debt here to a page on the Winton forum website: Secret War in the sky above Winton. …this led me to realise why Salisbury was on the bombers’ flightpath. It’s an interesting footnote, albeit in a horrible period of history. More than that though I was pleased to get a better understanding of what my Granny told me thirty or so years ago

[2] Battle of the Beams - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[3] The WW2 Diary of Lancaster Pilot Bruce Johnston

[4] Strategic bombing during World War II - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[5] De Havilland Mosquito

[6] BBC ON THIS DAY | 15 | 1940: Germans bomb Coventry to destruction

[7] Battle of Beams

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