The night Coventry all but died
Saturday 14th November 2015
PETER FROST tells the story of his mother and father-in-law’s part in wartime history
MY wife Ann’s mum and dad lived in Paddington nearly all their lives. But for a few years in the war they lived in Derbyshire.
How they got there is a story worth telling, particularly this week, exactly 75 years after what turned out to be a fateful journey.
Ann’s dad Fred volunteered for the RAF, but it turned out he was in a reserved occupation. He worked for precision engineers Collaro, cycling every day the seven miles to its Peckham factory.
Pre-war Collaro’s main product range was top-quality wind-up gramophones. When war came, production moved over to gyroscopic gun and bomb sights.
As the blitz on London got heavier and the Luftwaffe got more accurate, the decision was made to move the factory to Langley Mill in Derbyshire.
This East Midlands factory of Vic Hallam Ltd had once made chicken coops and sheds. The firm had even built the Derbyshire Miners’ Camp at Skegness. But now it would share its huge canalside site and premises with Collaro.
So in the second week of November 1940, Fred and his fellow workers loaded lathes, drills and all the other precision machinery into a convoy of guarded army trucks to make the 150-mile journey north.
Fred and Gladys, with most of their worldly possessions packed in a couple of cardboard suitcases and a tea chest, rode in the back of the truck alongside the precious machinery.
Dressed in dark boiler suits and knitted balaclava helmets, the couple had been pledged to secrecy. The convoy was to travel under the cover of darkness.
Today you would allow perhaps three hours for such a journey. In those pre-motorway days they imagined it might take all night.
Their route, with many wartime diversions, took them through many towns and cities — St Albans, Aylesbury, Rugby and then on to Coventry.
As they approached the cathedral city of Lady Godiva, so did the first wave of 515 German Luftwaffe bombers.
First came 13 specially modified Heinkel He 111 aircraft equipped with top-secret navigational devices. They dropped their bright flaming marker flares at precisely 7.20pm.
Then for the rest of the night came waves of bombers dropping high-explosive devices, blocking roads, smashing water and gas mains and cutting electricity supplies.
The next wave of German bombers rained down a deadly mix of high-explosive and incendiary bombs.
The high-explosive bombs ripped open the roofs of Coventry while petrol and magnesium incendiaries set light to the building interiors. Firestorms raged on every side.
In the middle of this confusion, death and destruction, Gladys and Fred sat in the back of their lorry, painfully and terrifyingly slowly weaving its way through the wreckage and devastation.
Coventry was ablaze. Fire tenders, hoses and emergency medical teams blocked most routes.
As the night’s journey seemed to go on forever, Gladys and Fred speculated on just how safe their new home would be compared with London.
It would take many, many more hours to finally reach their destination in Derbyshire.
The Coventry Blitz has become part of history, and not just in Ann’s family. Eleven hours of relentless bombing began in early evening of November 14 1940.
Three-quarters of the city centre was destroyed and 550 people killed. The medieval city’s cathedral was destroyed.
One important question has never really been answered. Did Winston Churchill have prior warning of the German attack on Coventry?
A number of historians have claimed that Churchill knew that the city was to be targeted by the German Luftwaffe, but chose to do nothing because it would have alerted Adolf Hitler to the fact the Bletchley Park boffins had recently cracked the nazis’ top-secret Enigma codes.
So were the people of Coventry, not to mention Ann’s parents, sacrificed or put at risk “for the greater good,” as Churchill put it?
What is the evidence that Churchill knew all about the German mission they called Operation Moonlight Sonata?
Secret intelligence service chief Group-Captain Frederick Winterbotham, in his book The Ultra Secret, tells how he passed intelligence on to Churchill that Coventry would be the target of the bombing raid a few hours before it took place.
We know that Churchill’s private secretary John Martin subsequently recorded that Churchill received a red box containing details of the raid shortly after three in the afternoon.
Gladys and Fred spent the rest of their war in the Langley Mill factory. Gladys joined hundreds of women checking gun sights. As well as being a factory foreman, Fred served in the local Defence Volunteers — the Home Guard.
When peace finally came they returned to Paddington to start a family.
Ann remembers, as a teenager, her parents taking her on a coach trip to visit Coventry when its new cathedral was dedicated in the early 1960s.
The terrible destruction, still all too apparent as they toured the city, confirmed Gladys and Fred’s lifelong hatred of war and started a lasting commitment to the peace movement in their daughter Ann.
Today Coventry and its cathedral have become a beacon and a centre of hope for the world peace movement.
It proves that even a horrific act of war like the blitz on this proud Midlands city can act as a catalyst in the ongoing struggle for world peace.