Oral History

Music of the night


by Brian Pugh

In the late spring of 1940 Germany was winning the war and had occupied France, poising to invade Britain. And my mother was dying.

She was moved to Leamington Spa. I was approaching my ninth birthday and was sent to Corley Open Air School, on the outskirts of Coventry. Boys and girls, some with pulmonary disorders, lived in this stark environment set in beautiful wooded countryside on a hill overlooking Coventry.

The summer of 1940 was magnificent.

The Luftwaffe directed their attention to London as Coventrians worked in comparative peace, although in June Ansty Aerodrome was raided and then in August the new Rootes shadow factory was ringed by incendiaries and the empty Rex Cinema in Corporation Street destroyed.

Then on September 9 I saw, in broad daylight, my first German airplane, a Messerschmitt BF110. We were told it had bombed a paint shop in Canley, so we laughed at German stupidity.

Three decades later I read that a lone raider flew low between barrage-balloon cables and bombed the Standard Motor Company. The target was the Hobson carburettor shop, in which a modified carburettor was being developed for the Spitfire fighter. Three bombs were released and all three just missed, hitting the adjoining paint shop. The Luftwaffe was that accurate Hitler was flexing his muscles.

We didn't know at the time that the Germans, with the long length of Northern Europe in their hands, could transmit radio signals that would guide aircraft precisely to their target. We also didn't know that the Royal Air Force bombed cities by hopefully flying along rivers, and that wasn't until the summer of 1940.

November 14, 1940 was just like any other day of that time of year, misty and cold with low cloud threatening fog. As night fell there was a full moon, often called a "bomber's moon," so I can imagine the self-congratulatory smiles on German weather forecasters when their bombers and fighter escorts took off for what the Luftwaffe had been preparing for some months, Operation "Moonlight Sonata," the heaviest air raid yet. Coventry was the target.

The air-raid sirens wailed as mournfully eerie as usual and a teacher efficiently marshalled us out through the verandah door and marched us in twos along a footpath across a field to the air-raid shelter.

On the way I was impressed by the many searchlight beams pointing upwards and probing the night sky, comforted by the presence of a searchlight emplacement located in the field next to the boys' dormitory wing. This was particularly intense, floodlighting the surroundings, including us. All that should throw some light on enemy aircraft for the ack-ack guns I thought.

Deep underground I felt totally secure, and despite the dank smell and the chilly night air I felt warm in my pyjamas and blanket. We were getting used to air raids and so far we had escaped unscathed. Of course, we didn't know what the Luftwaffe had lined up that night of November 14, 1940.

As the German bombers avoided the fighter attacks from the south of England, the gunfire and the drone returned, but this time there was more of a persistent, heavier aircraft presence. "Moonlight Sonata" wasn't exactly what Beethoven had in mind. It was a cacophony that went on interminably, the aircraft providing the rhythm section, mrrm-mrrm-mrrm, their carburettors cutting to save precious fuel, then the piercing whistles, specifically designed to induce alarm, and the deafening explosions of bombs, the soloists of evil, producing a crescendic symphony of terror that made me feel more and more perturbed and paranoid as it continued.

I had drawn the Heinkel HE111 enough times from profiles in aircraft recognition books. It was very similar to Britain's Blenheim bomber, but in my childish imagination I saw it as a black, reptilian creature with crewmen smirking devilishly as they flew remorselessly inflicting their venomous loads on innocent people below. I didn't even consider that the aircrew could be frightened, too. But they frightened me.

The other kids were also distressed. I remember seeing a girl with red, lachrymose eyes and tears rolling down her white face, no doubt feeling for relatives. And then the view of the night of mayhem, after the All Clear sounded and we trooped back to the dormitory.

I looked around me and was awestruck by the warmth and redness in the smoky surroundings. I stared toward Coventry for several minutes, flames were visibly rising to the sky and explosions bursting well after the Luftwaffe had gone. Added to the red glow were the moonlight and the puffs of gunsmoke making a surreal tapestry of the night sky. The strains of this Moonlight Sonata didn't soothe Coventrians that night.

My heart was saddened, yet I felt excited. It was a wonderful experience, and the teacher came round with trays of hot cocoa and cookies to ensure a good night's sleep. I stared even longer at the sight of my beloved city burning like a huge, bubbling crimson cauldron, thinking of my family and pals - even pets - and if they had survived. Yet it was an incredible adventure, an extravaganza of more than grandiose proportions.

Smaller air raids continued. We weren't even woken up to go down the shelter. It is easy to be complacent when the Luftwaffe is bombing elsewhere. However they flew over us and it is conceivable that pilots observed the searchlight batteries and marked them as military objectives. They must have noticed the one in the next field to Corley Open Air School it would seem, because a stick of bombs was released over it. The whistles were intense and nerve racking. As one, the boys leapt under their beds. The whistling became menacingly, frighteningly, terrifyingly louder until BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! The racket was deafening. A pause. Then the teacher's voice broke the stillness again: "Under your beds!" I looked toward the corner roof. Through a gaping hole I could see the stars, and puffs of gunsmoke. But no glare from the searchlight battery. It had been destroyed.

The following day we went out to look at the damage. We were naturally not allowed to see the wrecked searchlight installation. The corner of the verandah, wall and roof nearest the field was in tatters. There was no broken glass because there was none to break. Following a brief covering of tarpaulin the damage was expeditiously repaired. And I added considerably to my collection of shrapnel, twisted remains of exploded bombs, to go with my model airplanes and regimental badges.

My mother was gravely ill. I was given some leave from Corley to visit her in Leamington.

She lay in bed and visibly brightened when I entered the room. I assured her I was going to supply her with sweetbread, something she had taught me to fry on her electric stove.

Our street in Coventry was in shambles, the only thing appearing intact was the bomb shelter. My pal took me on a walking tour of our locale and we looked with awe at Crampers Field which, he told me, had been covered with sacks containing bodies. The Rialto Cinema was in ruins, as a result of a land mine (an aerial bomb delivered to its target by parachute.) The interior of the theatre was levelled and revealed a huge crater. The movie showing was still advertised: "Dr. Cyclops."

Another land-mine recipient was the Coventry Rugby Club where a huge crater almost stretched from touchline to touchline, seemingly as deep as it was wide.

The bank on the corner of Barkers Butts Lane and Moseley Avenue was another victim of a direct hit: It wasn't there any more.

There was so much rubble of ruined homes, yet still containing furniture (some sliced like a rough cutaway model to reveal dangling toilets, to our amusement.)

My sister took me downtown to Broadgate. The city centre was the obvious target and was quite destroyed. The new department store, Owen, Owen, was gutted as a result of direct hits from high-explosive and incendiary bombs. The cathedral was ravaged like the Rialto Cinema, with its interior gutted and surrounding walls and spire remaining. The Holy Trinity church next to it was heavily damaged. Coventry was a city in deep distress and mourning.

My mother passed away on 15th March.

Weeks went by to the next agony, the second Coventry blitz. This time on April 8, 1941, the Luftwaffe using every available aircraft possible, concentrated on Birmingham, then at midnight, turned to Coventry again, to inflict damage on the war-production industry. The Daimler car company was wrecked, Courtauld's, Armstrong-Siddeley and the GEC were severely damaged, among many others.

We were dutifully marshalled by the teacher for another blitz experience, and marched to the shelter. We soon realised that it was another biggie as the night erupted into frantic gunfire, exploding bombs and a quivering air-raid shelter. Again we were treated to the oxymoron of joyful horror as we trooped back to the dormitory, eyes wide open gazing at the sky above us and over toward Coventry, the puffs of smoke hanging in another moonlit-blue sky. We had survived, but what of the family? Hot cocoa and cookies to transform mayhem into a picnic. Shortly afterward I returned to Coventry to live with my sister who became my legal guardian.

Perhaps my most meaningful recollection is of a banner hung on the facade of Holy Trinity, proclaiming "STAND FAST UNTO THE FAITH. QUIT YE LIKE MEN. BE STRONG." My erudite guardian sister reassured me that "quit" was a biblical expression meaning "acquit." Overall, to us boys the blitzes were sheer excitement.


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