Coventry Cathedral
January 18, 2008 8:56 PM   Subscribe

On November 14, 1940, German bombers flew through the skies for nine hours above Coventry, England in a raid that Winston Churchill probably didn't know about but if he did, did nothing to prepare for. The bombers dropped thousands of pounds of explosives and incendiaries that resulted in hundreds of deaths and huge destruction. Coventry, perhaps best known before the war for naked horseback riding and the manufacture of pretty-but-malfunction-prone automobiles, was also home to a grand cathedral, St. Michael's Church, one of the greatest cathedrals in England. The cathedral was nearly destroyed; the fire left behind little but debris and the still-standing outer walls and spire.

The next day found the townspeople sifting through the rubble inside the cathedral's bones. The reaction of these people to the destruction of what was in many ways the center of their community took an unexpected turn over the course of the war, a course somewhat different than their government and military chose, and led to the formation of an international community dedicated to reconciliation projects around the world.

Sir Basil Spence won a competition to design the new cathedral in Coventry. Rather than raze and rebuild the original structure, the decision was made to build a new, modern structure next to and incorporating the walls of the old St. Michael's Church. When it was completed in 1962, Benjamin Britten's War Requiem was premiered as part of its opening ceremony.
posted by Shotgun Shakespeare (28 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The War Requiem is one of my favorite pieces of music. It's difficult to perform, though; it requires an orchestra plus a chamber group plus an organ, a full choir plus a boy's choir plus a bass soloist and a tenor soloist.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:24 PM on January 18, 2008

Coventry was the center of British automobile manufacturing, for what it's worth. Riley, Daimler, Standard, Triumph, Humber and others all had their HQ there. Jaguar moved there from Blackpool to take advantage of the proximity of their partner Standard and of the skilled tradesmen to be found there.
posted by maxwelton at 9:41 PM on January 18, 2008

Coincidentally I just finished reading Connie Willis's awesome novel To Say Nothing Of The Dog, Or, How We Found The Bishop's Bird Stump At Last - an essential text for any Coventry Cathedral-phile.
posted by rdc at 9:47 PM on January 18, 2008

I think the bombed out church is better.
posted by Webbster at 10:02 PM on January 18, 2008

this stuff about churchill knowing in advance is b.s., just like fdr/pearl harbor. prove it!
posted by bruce at 10:14 PM on January 18, 2008

bruce, since both of the Churchill links make it clear that he thought London was going to be bombed, there's no reason to get excited. The phrasing in the post is a bit unfortunate, maybe, but the myth that Churchill chose to sacrifice Coventry to save future intelligence is pretty thoroughly debunked in both links.
posted by mediareport at 10:21 PM on January 18, 2008

I was always under the impression that there were tacit agreements to not bomb certain monuments on either side.
posted by mecran01 at 10:53 PM on January 18, 2008

I was always under the impression that there were tacit agreements to not bomb certain monuments on either side.

That's true of some of the older university towns - but lots of culturally important centres did get bombed. For example after the RAF raid on Lubeck (now a UNESCO world heritage site) the Lutwaffe launched a retaliatory series of raids on culturally important towns and cities reputedly picked from the Baedeker guide book - hence they became known as the Baedeker raids. Arthur Harris, the C-in-C of Bomber Command, always claimed Lubeck was bombed because of its importance as a port but there are others who have wondered whether there were other reasons it was picked. Certainly the German response
posted by greycap at 1:20 AM on January 19, 2008

ahem - certainly the German response was motivated by the desire to affect British morale rather than the towns having any strategic importance.
posted by greycap at 1:20 AM on January 19, 2008

man, that hitler was a real jerk. a bona fide tugjob!
posted by Hat Maui at 2:07 AM on January 19, 2008

There seems to be a never ending array of television documentaries about the german raids on the UK in 40-42, yet very little seems to be mentioned on the allied (Russian included) raids on German cities.

The German bombers didn't have the range nor capacity of the allied bombers and only flew at night against an increasingly adept RAF, so much so that the mass raids petred out in early '43.

The RAF were bombing by night and the USAAF by day over the western german cities (until the longer range bombers allowed the bombers to extend eastward), and the russias bombing by night, it's amazing that the German economy, which was already a basket case lasted as long as it did.

I suppose terror bombing designed to sap the will of the people has the opposite effect, North Vietnam springs to mind, as do images of Serbian civilians donning small targets in resposne to the NATO airstrikes.

Thanks for the post.
posted by mattoxic at 2:41 AM on January 19, 2008

mattoxic - yeah, but the US and the UK won. You don't expect us to say sorry, do you? Now, where are my goddamn reparations?...

Srsly, this fascinates me. I remember, when I was somewhat smaller, asking at school why, when we celebrated Remembrance Sunday, we didn't remember the German dead as well as the British. Boy, did that teacher never speak to me again. I can't go a November 11th without thinking about Dresden every bit as much as London.
posted by aihal at 5:28 AM on January 19, 2008

Arthur Harris, the C-in-C of Bomber Command, always claimed Lubeck was bombed because of its importance as a port

"Bomber" Harris was a psychopath who just liked bombing the shit out of stuff and had a knack for convincing the people in charge to let him do it. To my mind, he's one of the most horrifying creatures of the past century who wasn't actually a national leader.
posted by languagehat at 6:05 AM on January 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

well said, Languagehat. I was about to make the same point. He's damned lucky his side won--he'd certainly have been on trial as a war criminal, otherwise.
posted by etaoin at 6:24 AM on January 19, 2008

mattoxic wrote: "There seems to be a never ending array of television documentaries about the german raids on the UK in 40-42, yet very little seems to be mentioned on the allied (Russian included) raids on German cities."

well, you should see german TV. I think there must be a dozend documentaries about the bombings... The whole Dresden thing is kinda overloaded with revisionistic ideology over here that a sensible discussion seems impossible. Slate has an interesting artilce on the annual remembrance day of the bombings.
posted by kolophon at 7:01 AM on January 19, 2008

Terror bombing? Apart from Africa it was the only front in the War the West (so yes, I know about the USSR) had until 1943 and in strategic terms until 1944. I guess we could have done nothing, given that the target-finding was so poor that accuracy could only be city wide. Would that satisfy? It's a stupid post hoc argument to claim differently of the allied bombing effort.
posted by A189Nut at 7:53 AM on January 19, 2008

Oh, WWII bombing again! Guardian review of Frederick Taylor's defence of the bombing of Dresden. Same book reviewed in the Independent:
Thousands of impressed foreign workers and slave labourers toiled in the city's armaments industries. Dresden had not been turning out harmless porcelain or consumer goods for years. More than 120 factories were devoted to the German war effort. On an average day in 1944, 28 military trains passed through its marshalling yards.
Of course, my tribe won, and I'm biased. But I'm glad my tribe won, because if it hadn't then the German tribe was much much nastier, even taking into account nasty things my tribe did to other tribes. And part of winning was killing lots and lots of people, but that's kind of how things work in an inter-tribal conflict of that scale.

But that's not what the post is about, or not what I'm going to choose to think it's about.

The post is about the fact that today, those tribes that killed hundreds of thousands of the other's people live in peace. The cities of Dresden and Coventry are twinned and celebrate reconstruction and peace and mutual ties. Whatever horrors are in the past the citizens of these two cities are now united as friends and neighbours.

And that's what Coventry and Dresden mean. That tribes that fought the bloodiest wars in history, in living memory, that engendered vast horrors, now live in peace and relative harmony, football games aside. And if Europe can do it, why can't everybody?
posted by alasdair at 7:59 AM on January 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

not what I'm going to choose to think it's about.

I'm sorry, Shotgun Shakespeare, that came off as a snark, which I didn't mean. Lovely post. It just seemed to be going into "We're just the same as NAZIs!" territory again...

posted by alasdair at 8:05 AM on January 19, 2008

"Bomber" Harris was a psychopath

Well, quite... the fact that incendiaries were dropped on the mostly wooden buildings of Lubeck belies his claim that it was a strategic attack (never mind Dresden and everything else).
posted by greycap at 12:27 PM on January 19, 2008

I was always under the impression that there were tacit agreements to not bomb certain monuments on either side.

Not tacit. It's Article 27 of the 1907 Hague Convention IV. Although both Germany and the US were signatories [pdf] to the 1907 conventions, the UK did not sign until 1970.
posted by dhartung at 2:08 PM on January 19, 2008

And if Europe can do it, why can't everybody?

Europe did it because it was militarily occupied by the Americans for 40 years, who made sure no one got out of line. The old joke about NATO was that its purpose was to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.

"Everybody" isn't, and won't ever be, militarily occupied by the Americans. We don't have the resources to do so, nor any interest in doing so.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:32 PM on January 19, 2008

No worries, Alasdair. I actually came to know the Cathedral through a connection with the Community of the Cross of Nails and reconciliation work, so you will, I hope, believe me when I say that my own focus in creating the post was not on the firebombing of Dresden, and no comparison between the Allies and the Nazis was implied. If I'd found accounts of Dresden's wartime manufacturing that included military efforts, I would have included them as a way to maintain balance. None came up in the fairly straightforward searches I performed, so none were included.
posted by Shotgun Shakespeare at 2:43 PM on January 19, 2008

SCDB: Europe did it because it was militarily occupied by the Americans for 40 years, who made sure no one got out of line.

Not so. Europe had American troops stationed in it for 40 years, but there was never the slightest threat of war between any of the Western European nations after 1945. The troops were there to face down the Russians.
posted by athenian at 3:30 PM on January 19, 2008

And if Europe can do it, why can't everybody?

Let's hope Europe carries on not doing it once the last survivor has died, and the collective memories have faded.
posted by Luddite at 4:57 PM on January 19, 2008

Thanks Shotgun Shakespeare!

I have to agree with athenian. Immediately after the war - before the formation of NATO and the Berlin air lift - the British were in an absolute panic because the Americans were hell-bent on pulling their troops out of Europe entirely and leaving us facing a hundred Soviet divisions. "All that the Red Army needed in order to reach the North Sea was boots." as Denis Healey put it in 1969. That's why the socialist but fiercely patriotic Labour government insisted on building a British atomic bomb, so we could station it on British aircraft in Middle East and Mediterranean bases and attack Soviet population and industrial centres if they moved West.

American troops gave NATO the forces it needed to face off the Soviet Union, and for that I'm eternally grateful. But European peace came from the French and Germans ruining their countries and realising there had to be a better way, not from American imposition of peace.
posted by alasdair at 4:59 PM on January 19, 2008

I'm sorry, I don't buy it.

What's the difference between the aftermath of WWI and the aftermath of WWII?

There are two:

1. The Americans didn't stay in Europe after WWI, but did after WWII.
2. Europe went up in flames again after WWI but did not after WWII.

If the French and Germans were so virtuous and upstanding and suchlike, why did WWII happen? In fact, why did WWI happen? Why did the Franco-Prussian war happen? Why did the Napoleonic Wars happen? Why did the 7 Years War happen?

300 years of intermittent war between France and the Germanic countries ended because of American military occupation. That's the only explanation that makes sense.

Suppose that the Americans hadn't stayed after WWII. Here's how war would have returned.

1. In order to defend West Germany against the Russian threat, the Germans would have to build a powerful and disciplined military. They would nominally face east, but this would make every neighboring country very nervous. Irrespective of announced intentions this would once again give the Germans the capability of starting another major war of conquest.

2. In response, other nations would have to build up their militaries, with the anounced intention of preventing Russian invasion, but with the clear capability of defending against the Germans if need be.

3. If there's too much of that, the Germans start getting nervous, and they in turn build up even more.

4. And then everyone else does.

And what you end up with is essentially the situation as it developed in Europe between 1890 and 1911 -- an arms race leading to a tinderbox that needed just a spark to set off a conflagration.

There's more than one reason why American occupation prevented that.

1. First, because the Americans were there, the Germans didn't have to build up as large or powerful a military to protect themselves against the Russians.

2. Because the Americans were there, then if the Germans had tried to engage in conquest again, they would have to fight against the American military in addition to the militaries of all the other nations in the region.

3. That meant the Germans didn't scare the other nations, who in their turn also didn't have to build up dual-capability military power. There was no nervous arms race between western European nations in the 1950's and 1960's comparable to the buildup in the 1890's and 1900's.

American military occupation of Western Europe gave them the longest unbroken period of peace in the last 700 years. It's hard to argue that this is coincidence. And it's very hard for me to believe that this was somehow the result of intellectual or moral superiority on the part of the Europeans. It's those same Europeans who started both World Wars, after all.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:24 PM on January 19, 2008

Look, I'm tired, and about to go to bed, and I don't have all the mental wherewithal right now to give your argument the consideration it deserves, Steven. But briefly, if the Americans hadn't stayed, then we'd have had a Soviet Europe, and I guess we'd be congratulating the Russians on playing peacekeeper between the French and Germans.

That argument would be just as wrong. If the only reason the Europeans haven't had a major meltdown in the past 60 years is because of the presence of American bases, then you'd expect to see the same old tribal grudges being harbored, just waiting for the day when the Americans leave. What do we see instead? A completely new and radical kind of interstate cooperation based on the recognition of shared interests and problems, of which defence is but one factor. That didn't come about only because of military bases or American pressure. The kind of unified Europe that has emerged is unimaginable on the North American continent.

I don't think that the existence of the EU constitutes evidence of the innate superiority of Europeans. The EU is evidence of something, however, and I don't think it can be explained away only as a result of military occupation.

Also, that Connie Willis book was fantastic.
posted by Ritchie at 4:35 AM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Steve, from 1066 to 1815 the English and French fought war after war after war. From 1815 they have never been at war. Political relations between nations change without foreign occupation.

You can argue whether Europe would be Soviet or not: that depends on what you believe about Russian expansion after World War Two. But you must understand, the relationship between the French and Germans changed as a result of their terrible wars.
posted by alasdair at 8:02 AM on January 20, 2008

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