Exactly seventy years ago today, in the Second World War, the city of Coventry was nearly obliterated in one of the worst air raids in England. During a night of intensive assault, wave after wave of enemy planes dropped tons of incendiary bombs, creating firestorms that killed thousands.
You have heard of Coventry, although you might not recognize it by name. The most famous - if perhaps mythical - event in its history occurred in the Middle Ages. Leofric, Earl of Chester, imposed a crushing tax on the townspeople. His wife pleaded with him to be lenient; he responded 'I will rescind the tax, when YOU go naked through Coventry marketplace!' And of course you know the rest of the story - to preserve her modesty, Lady Godiva asked the citizenry to stay indoors, with their shutters closed, so she could 'ride unclothed through the streets and the marketplace, to relieve them of the burdensome tax.' (Thomas, the town cobbler, decidedly lacked self-control. He was forever after immortalized as the nominative Peeping Tom, supposedly struck blind when he couldn't resist taking a peek at Godiva-in-the-buff.)
I have heard it said that, if it had been preserved, Coventry would be one of the biggest tourist attractions in the UK. Its large walled city, with its medieval buildings and half-timber houses, was 'pretty as a chocolate box,' as the Brits would say; it was a brilliant example of middle-age construction, complete with a large Gothic cathedral.
The following two pictures are of medieval buildings that were restored or rebuilt after the blitz:
And unlike so many of the cathedrals in England, St Michael's had not undergone the heavy-handed restoration of the Victorian age, thereby leaving most of its centuries-old stained glass, interior, and stonework intact.
My seventh-grade social studies book had a picture of the cathedral - or rather, what was left of it. I found a copy on the internet: it was taken two days after the Coventry blitz, smoke still clearly rising from the debris.
The parish decided to rebuild their church, but not in the style of the original 14th-century one. After the war a new cathedral was commissioned and built adjacent to the old one, the ruins of which were retained as a testament to the destruction and violence of war.
For me, the remnants of St Michael's strike more of an emotional chord than do many of the complete medieval cathedrals in all their glory. There's an evocative sculpture within the old nave.
On the day of its dedication, a second identical statue was dedicated in a different location. When I first heard there were two, I thought, 'Ah, the other must be in Dresden, Germany,' which was the site of equally-devastating fire bombs - dropped by the British, allegedly in retaliation for the destruction of Coventry.
I was surprised to find, though, that the other Reconciliation was presented to Hiroshima, as a memorial to the past and symbol of hope for the future.
* * *
Last night was the Festival of Remembrance, the commemoration in The Royal Albert Hall that I wrote of in the previous blog. Today there was a ceremony at The Cenotaph in London. The Queen laid a wreath, as did other members of the royal family; government ministers took their turn. The highest-ranking military officers represented each branch of the Armed Forces. Dignitaries of both Commonwealth nations and other countries also placed wreaths.
Then hundreds - thousands - of veterans and their families marched past, paying their respects.
Britain remembers and honors its Allies, too, especially the United States.
Probably the two best-known American World War II cemeteries are Normandy, for Europe, and the Punchbowl, in Hawaii, for the Pacific. But there is also a large 'national' cemetery in England, with nearly 4000 graves of American servicemen (and some women, as well).
Even more sobering are the 'Tablets of the Missing': over 5000 additional names are inscribed, people who are only recorded as 'Missing, presumed killed in action.'
The day I was there Himself and I were the only two visitors. The Sergeant who gave us a brief guided tour said that except for patriotic holidays like Memorial Day or Veterans' Day or the Fourth of July, it's usually fairly quiet. Sometimes a charter group of American tourists will stop, and occasionally there are veterans who visit, although that's becoming rarer as the last of their generation passes away.
From the outside, the chapel looked rather dismal, an uninviting block of a building - maybe it was intended to be, as representative of the grim, harsh realities of war.
Stepping inside you suddenly realize its greater purpose: in contrast to the bleak exterior, the interior is flooded with light, affirming the brightness and hope of life, after the darkness and death of war.
Within the large windows are enshrined each state's name, together with a stained-glass image of the state seal. Many of the panels are too high up to photograph properly, but I took a picture of Maryland's...
...and of Oklahoma's:
As can be seen in previous photos, a large mural covers the wall behind the altar, extending across the ceiling. Most of those who died were Air Force, and in tribute planes have been incorporated into the mosaic, symbolizing - as one of the descriptions says - 'the final flight to heaven.'
Madingley is the perfect place to contemplate what our American troops did, what they lost, what they sacrificed for us - and to believe, above everything else, that they have achieved the eternal peace that seems continually to elude the rest of the world.