In the year 1940 the Germans proudly added another word to the English language: Coventrated. Which meant to totally destroy a city, to kill women and children, terrify the old, reduce a proud heritage to ashes.
Coventry on the fateful night of November 14. 1940 was cold, cold and damp as only an English November night can be. We who were living in Coventry in the autumn of 1940 accepted the fact that the heavy industries there were a target for German bombers. We had already been the reluctant recipients of many German bombs on our ancient city.
My Uncle, with whom I was living during 1940, had dug a large hole in the lawn to the side of the house and in it had erected the government issued "Anderson" shelter. He was a conscientious man and dug the hole very deep. He then covered the side and roof of the shelter with heavy layers of sod. He planted rambler roses, hoping to cover the ugliness of this iron structure in the middle of his carefully cultivated garden. Inside he built two bunks. But, being an Englishman of that era, did not give a thought to heating the shelter. In spite of the long hours we were forced to spend there, the place never achieved a cozy, warm or inviting atmosphere.
The air raid siren sounded just as we were sitting down to supper.
I remember struggling into my coat and scarves, picking up the picnic basket by the kitchen door and running into the shelter, taking my supper with me. I lit a candle, but found it to be an unnecessary extravagance. The flashes of the anti-aircraft guns and the exploding bombs provided enough illumination. I blew out the candle and sat there, alone and apprehensive.
My uncle had to leave me because he had air raid duties to perform. However, he soon returned, bringing with him an 80 year old woman who was deaf and confused, accompanied by her middle aged daughter. Uncle told me to look after them, said it was a filthy night and disappeared into the black out again. I was 18 years old.
The old lady was very frightened. She had been deaf for many years. but she could hear the explosions of the land mines the Germans were dropping. Her daughter had hysterics. I pushed a bottle of smelling salts under her nose and held it there until she nearly choked. My prayer was that I would be killed outright rather than be buried under a pile of rubble.
How to describe an air raid? It is noisy, frightening, a waste of time, money, and that most precious of all commodities, human lives.
It was cold and it seemed the night would never end. The bombers kept coming over, wave after wave of them. The explosions of our anti-aircraft guns were deafening. I remember I counted the bombs as they came down in groups of sevens, and wondered if the eighth would be for me. But seven was my lucky number that night. All the bombs sounded as if they were aimed directly for our shelter. The row of houses next to us received a direct hit.
Even now, many years after, I can hear the frightened screams of children who were buried in the rubble of the bombed houses. But I do not have to dream to remember the look on my Uncle's face when he came back to the shelter to have his bleeding hands dressed. Bleeding because the bricks tore into them as he tried to rescue neighbors who were trapped in the burning debris of their bombed homes. Nor the sound of his voice when he told us of the dead children.
I sat on the side of the bunk with my arms around the frightened old woman, and I put my hands over her deaf ears to keep out the noises of the explosions. But she heard them nevertheless and kept asking in a piteous voice, "Why?" I had no answer.
The water mains were hit and our shelter flooded icy water up to our knees. A man stopped by and I gave him a piece of chocolate. He told us all the water in the canal had been used and the fires were running wild and could not be controlled. The earth shuddered and the dawn seemed far away.
We finally left the shelter about 7.30 a.m. the next morning to greet a cold, gray day. As I looked about me, there was an unbroken circle of fire on the horizon. A strange silence everywhere, except for the crackling noise of burning buildings and the twittering of astonished birds.
The cathedral was completely gutted. A beautiful building built in the thirteenth century. Handel had played on its organ. Hundreds of other ancient and modern homes and buildings were destroyed.
Several hundred people had been killed and injured. No gas, electricity, water or sewage, transportation or communications. Industry at a standstill. A maimed city. A successful blitz.
I was cold, tired and hungry. My uncle tersely said I should try to find my grandmother. She lived a twenty minute walk away, but it took me three hours to get to her house. Streets were blocked with rubble. The police had cordoned off many streets because of dangerously burning buildings and unexploded bombs. I passed by the canal. The man had been correct. It was empty of water and only blackened debris lay in the soft mud.
Pictures of the refugees from France and Belgium had distressed me, but to see people from my own city of Coventry in the same plight was heartbreaking. Homeless people carrying the few belongings they had retrieved from their bombed homes. Relatives seeking each other. Friend asking anxiously after friend.
A small woman was carrying a large baby in one arm and a large paper wrapped bundle in the other. I took the child who gurgled happily in my arms. The woman's face was ashen gray with grief and worry. Her husband had left at the beginning of the raid to help his bed-ridden mother to a shelter and had not returned. Their house had received a direct hit, but she and the baby were in the shelter in the garden and were not hurt. I carried the baby to her mother in law's house which, on arrival proved to be just a pile of rubble. I gave the baby to a policeman and asked him to help the woman. I never saw her again.
I was beginning to have a feeling of urgency that I must find my grandmother. a small but sturdy woman of indomitable courage. If she were alive she would give me the strength I needed to battle my tiredness and shocked numbness. After picking my way over rubble strewn streets I finally reached her house. The doors and windows had been blown out, and the roof was damaged, but I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw her working in her garden. My grandmother was removing burnt debris which had fallen on her chrysanthemums. She looked very angry when she turned toward me, "Such wickedness." she said. But she had not been afraid. She was too angry.