When this film last night opened with the words, “Devastating bombs were dropped on innocent families” I thought we were in for a clichéfest. Fortunately, I was wrong, despite the fact that this opening foray used adjectives that stated the glaringly obvious; of course bombs are devastating, or else they’d be called balloons.
Of course the families were innocent, in as much as they were civilians. But to the Germans, they were part and parcel of the enemy, and during our subsequent raids over Germany – which took out thousands of civilians just as innocent – to us, they too were collectively, the enemy.
Such is the nature of war and that nature and its human and personal repercussions were eloquently imparted by the many eye witnesses to the bombing of Coventry that we heard from last night.
Many of those interviewed told their stories so well and with such emotive detail that one hardly needed the archive footage or photographs to invoke the feelings of terror and horror that besieged Coventry and its inhabitants during those raids.
To hear stories of dying women crawling from rubble, men with their lower halves torn clean away and a father who sacrificed his life to save his children were all heart wrenching.
And even though we were told that some reconstruction of events had been made in order to better portray the stories, those reconstructions were so well done, they really could’ve been from that night.
The whole thing was done with a panache and finesse befitting the ensuing tales of heroism and the ones of loss and sorrow. The historical facts were articulately presented without the sense of being taught something which, by default, oftentimes makes the relaying of such facts somewhat boring, but these were stitched seamlessly into the greater narrative.
We learned that Joseph Goebbels named the bombing raids of Coventry as ‘Coventrated’ – and that was this programme’s original working title too – because of the belief that such an intense destruction would bring Coventry and the rest of the country to its knees.
We heard too that he wasn’t the only one who thought so and psychologists advised the government that they anticipated civilians would go mad in the wake of the raids and even regress to an “infantile” state in the aftermath. Mass psychosis and a total breakdown of civilisation was expected, but clearly, the government of the time didn’t factor in the famed stoicism of the British.
That said, we did hear accounts of how the pressure and stress of facing imminent death and the annihilation of their city drove some of Coventry’s residents to the brink of madness. However, this was an age when a visit from the King did more good than years of counselling ever could’ve and sure enough, following his visit, Coventry fixed their stiff upper lips in place and got on with the job of rebuilding their city with nary a complaint, much less a whimper.
But as I said earlier, it was the first hand accounts of that night of terror that made this programme truly worthwhile. And some of those accounts were almost poetic in their eloquence; “I couldn’t see the phoenix rising from the ashes at that time. I could only see the ashes” said one man.
Another story that brought a tear to my eye was that of a daughter telling how devastated her mother had been at the ruin wrought upon the city’s cathedral.
I daresay that similar documentaries have been made and shown in Germany, with elderly men and women recalling how the British bombing raids shattered all they’d known and loved, but here, in Britain – and for me anyway – documentaries of this ilk provoke a fierce loyalty to, and pride in, our country.
And I’m always glad to see them because it means that we’re not letting the memories of that time slip away. With dwindling numbers of first-hand witnesses as we go into the future, it might be easy to forget, and we need not to, because although we’re not likely to see a repeat of those exact circumstances, we still have men and women fighting wars, and it can’t hurt to be reminded of arguably, the definitive war against violent oppression.