Overview by Wyken Seagrave
The concept of Coventry as a city of peace and reconciliation grew out of the events following the bombing of Coventry Cathedral which occurred during World War II.
The blitz (from the German “Blitzkrieg” meaning “lightning war”) was a series of bombing raids by the German Air Force. Coventry was targeted because it was a major industrial city producing armaments, munitions and engines for the war effort.
The most devastating attack occurred on the night of 14-15 November 1940. The raid targeted not just the city’s factories but also the city centre, and because of the use of incendiary bombs much of it was destroyed. In total over 500 people were killed, another 1000 were injured and over 4000 homes destroyed.
Coventry Cathedral was first hit and set on fire at about 20:00. Further strikes led to a firestorm which caused widespread destruction. The raid finally ended at about 06:00 the next morning. Further attacks were launched on the city in the months and years which followed.
Shortly after the raid, Cathedral’s stonemason built a temporary altar from the rubble and constructed a cross from the charred embers of two of the roof beams. The words “Father Forgive” were written on the wall behind the altar. A cross was also constructed by wiring together three of the large iron nails which had once supported those beams.
Unlike early bombing raids, whose importance tended to be minimised in order not to damage morale, this raid was widely reported, and the Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, as well as many other dignitaries, visited the city to pay their respects.
A few weeks after the bombing, the 1940 BBC radio Christmas Day service was broadcast from amongst the ruins of the cathedral. During this service, the Provost of the Cathedral, Richard Howard, vowed that, when the war was over, the cathedral would work with the people who were previously their enemies “to build a kinder, more Christ-Child-like world.”
The altar in the ruins was subsequently rebuilt, and a replica of the charred cross was erected upon it, but the Cathedral itself was not rebuild. Instead it was left as a memorial to the folly of war, and a new Cathedral was built beside it. The iron nails from the roof were collected an used to create more crosses.
Since 1940, Coventry Cathedral has appointed a ‘Canon for Reconciliation’; held by Archbishop Justin Welby and Rev Canon Andrew White among others. The Cathedral has created an international Community of the Cross of Nails, dedicated to spreading the message of peace and forgiveness.
The City of Coventry adopted the role of City of Peace and Reconciliation. The Lord Mayor formed a Committee to promote the idea, and the Council organised annual events at which the flame of peace would be kept alive.