- - Tuesday, January 12, 2016



By Frederick Taylor

Bloomsbury Press, $30, 344 pages, illustrated

The English Midlands city of Coventry has a rich architectural and governmental history and for centuries its name was indelibly linked with Lady Godiva, who in the 11th century reputedly rode naked through its streets in support of a tax rebellion. After the first British automobile was produced there in 1897, it soon became the manufacturing center not just for it but for bicycle, motorcycle, aircraft, as well as machine tools. But after the fatal date which provides this enthralling book its subtitle, its name became a byword for terrible destruction from the air. As British author Frederick Taylor — whose book on the Allied firebombing of Dresden previously demonstrated his expertise on the subject — informs us, the Germans even coined a verb “coventrieren” — to Coventrate — “a curious coinage, obviously triumphalist and relying, like a political or comedy catchphrase, on a worldwide public’s ability to make an instant connection with the terrible thing that had happened to the city. It meant, of course, a thoroughly wrought work of urban destruction, executed from the air.”

The Brits, with the taciturnity for which they are famous, had no need for a new word: What had for so long been a noun now also became a verb, with the same dreadful connotation as its German counterpart.

For on that moonlit November night 75 years ago last November, Coventry joined the unenviable list of cities whose name alone came to mean fiery death raining down on them from airplanes: Guernica, Rotterdam, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With the particular brand of mordant irony associated with the Germans, they even had the nerve to give the raid on Coventry the code name “Moonlight Sonata.” Associating such wanton destruction — specifically designed to kill, make homeless and otherwise inconvenience civilians, as well as wreak havoc on the city’s industrial infrastructure — with a sublime piano piece by Beethoven, who represents the very antithesis of Nazi ideology and practice, tells us everything about how German culture had rotted.

But the Luftwaffe didn’t rely on nature alone to facilitate its deadly work. As Mr. Taylor writes with characteristic precision and punch, that “first great attack on Coventry, involving more than 500 German bombers and using advanced radar-guided techniques to approach and find their target, represented both a quantitative and qualitative change in the concept of aerial warfare. It raised this central issue: How much damage to civilian as well as military targets could be inflicted, on what scale, and how indiscriminately, without the supposed legitimacy of such a military method coming into question? After the big raid against Coventry, the function of aerial warfare was clearly shown to be not merely tactical and immediate but strategic and long term.”

Indeed, the consequences of that raid radiated outward in time and space for the rest of the war.

For Coventry, it was just the beginning of almost two more years of incessant Blitz, including two major raids that rivaled Nov. 14, 1940. But for the Germans — and their Japanese allies — the blowback was enormous by an order of magnitude they could not have conceived when they started that kind of bombing. The increased number of bombers and size of weaponry unleashed by the Allied air forces succeeded in creating firestorms of almost unbelievable ferocity resulting in civilian casualties measured in tens, even hundreds, of thousands rather than the hundreds who died in Coventry that night. I have never forgotten the film clip of an elderly Englishman and his astonishment that anyone could even ask whether Britain should retaliate for London’s Blitz by bombing Berlin. His priceless reply, with characteristically British understatement mixed with outrage, was: “I should think so too. And give them a bit more than they gave us.” Well, they got that and then some.

Mr. Taylor is skilled at mixing examination of the great issues surrounding the Coventry raid with eyewitness testimony and other personal reactions. He goes exhaustively into whether the government had advance knowledge and also the legend that Winston Churchill sacrificed the city to preserve the knowledge that German codes had been cracked. His authoritative and deeply thought out as well as researched conclusions are convincing to say the least. And his choice of a few lines from a poem by Philip Larkin “gives a sense of how it felt that Sunday, returning ‘home’ and finding no one there, and how it must have felt for hundreds and thousands of others:

“These houses are deserted, felt over smashed windows,

No milk on the step, a note pinned to the door

Telling of departure .”

But of course, that is about the “lucky ones”: the survivors. Standing as I have done in the magnificently stark modern cathedral constructed right in the ruins of the ancient one destroyed by Nazi bombers in hours after standing tall and massively solid and proud for so many centuries, just has to make one feel acutely the dead as well as tangibly the ruination. No amount of retaliation, no matter how understandably satisfying, can restore them to life and undo the utter devastation of a priceless ancient heritage and the crossing of a terrible threshold in the methods of warfare.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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