It is seven o’clock on the night of 14 November, 1940. Four men are standing on the roof of Coventry’s Gothic 14th-century St Michael’s Cathedral, their eyes searching the black night sky, their ears straining, straining to hear the sound they dread. One is an elderly skilled stonemason, two are young men in their early twenties and the fourth is the man in charge of the Cathedral: Provost Richard Howard. He describes what happened that night in his book “Ruined and Rebuilt”.
The full moon was shining brightly in the clear sky and reflecting in the frost on the slippery lead beneath their feet.
Soon the air raid sirens start. A few minutes later they hear the sound of aeroplanes. Soon bombs start falling, and the dark horizon is ringed with a huge semicircle of light, showing that scores of incendiary bombs have fallen.
The Germans have come not only to destroy this industrial city of Coventry, its factories making aeroplane engines and munitions and parts for military vehicles, but also to set fire to the whole city. The incendiary bombs fire not just to the factories but also to the houses of the people who work in them and to the ancient wooden buildings in the city centre. More and more showered down, nearer and nearer the Cathedral.
When they land they ignite and then, in less than a minute, they explode with a loud bang.
Several showers of incendiaries fell on the cathedral’s roof, eventually penetrating the lead and setting fire to the wooden beams underneath. The four men fought valiantly to put out the fires but finally they ran out of water. The pipes had been damaged by earlier bombs and all roads into the city were blocked by bomb craters. Fire engines carrying water could not reach the cathedral.
Finally the whole cathedral caught fire and the ancient walls collapsed.
Coventry’s was the only cathedral church in Britain to be lost in this way. Today, its ruins still stand, not only as a powerful symbol of the impact of war, but also as a place of pilgrimage, visited by many thousands each year who see the ruins as a vision of hope in the world.
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