Thursday, 14 November 1940

Frederick Taylor

Bloomsbury Press, London, 2015, 368 pages

Book Review published on: March 30, 2017

Estimates of World War II’s death toll range from fifty to eighty million. Even against such a ghastly tableau, certain events in the conflict resonate as significant milestones due to their shocking nature and hold on the historical imagination. In the realm of aerial bombardment of cities and their residents, London, Dresden, and Hiroshima serve as vivid examples of the horrors visited on noncombatants by emerging technology. But, to the British, the attack on Coventry and the destruction of its priceless medieval cathedral was especially symbolic and helped set the tone for the brutal war of retribution that followed. It is this attack that is superbly detailed in Coventry: Thursday, 14 November 1940.

Frederick Taylor’s ambitious work aims to examine the Coventry bombing from several angles: strategic, military, societal, and personal. Coventry impresses on each of these levels. Relying heavily on primary research materials, including government records, contemporary news accounts, and interviews with survivors, Taylor succeeds in limning the myriad aspects of the attack and its aftermath. He begins with a short but interesting history of Coventry, revealing that by 1940, it was not only a medium size midlands town rich in history but also a critical location for the production of war materials.

For the student of military technology, he presents a fascinating tale of the “battle of the beams” with German bombers exploiting their new radio beam precision navigation capability and the Royal Air Force’s countermeasure efforts. This culminates in his gripping account of the night of 14 November 1940 and the German operation, “Moonlight Sonata,” with five hundred Luftwaffe bombers each dropping a ton of high explosives or incendiaries on Coventry. It is in this section of the book that Taylor expertly weaves many subjects into one compelling whole. Each aspect, from the difficulties of the Royal Air Force Fighter Command in exploiting intelligence, including Enigma intercepts, to the spotty civil defense and evacuation efforts, and finally to the heroic, futile efforts to save Coventry Cathedral, is explored in remarkable detail.

To his credit, Taylor also weighs in on two of the most controversial theories regarding the attack and its aftermath. First, as to the contention that Winston Churchill knew precisely of the pending attack and “sacrificed” Coventry to protect the secret of the Enigma codebreakers, he answers strongly in the negative. To the contrary, he convincingly cites shortages of aircraft, vagaries of intelligence, and the impracticability of short notice mass evacuation as more compelling explanations. Second, he provides a nuanced argument as to whether the 1945 Royal Air Force firebombing of Dresden that killed twenty-five thousand civilians was a “revenge” attack. By this time in the war, he argues, Air Marshall Harris had embarked on a campaign of total destruction of Germany from the air; Dresden’s destruction was but one piece of a much larger plan of strategic bombing.

Coventry is superbly researched and vividly told; it would be an excellent read for both experienced students of World War II as well as the newcomer.

Book Review written by: Robert M. Brown, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas