St Michael’s, Coventry’s medieval cathedral, was largely built in the late 14th and early 15th centuries and was the largest parish church in England until 1918, when it achieved cathedral status. It also had the third highest cathedral spire in the country after Salisbury and Norwich.
That would all change on the night of 14 November 1940. The Blitz on London, the sustained bombing of the capital city by the Luftwaffe, was in its third month and was becoming routine, however Enigma-encrypted messages had been intercepted indicating that a massive raid was coming, and the expectation was that it would be on London. Coventry though had been chosen for their largest and most concentrated air raid on Britain to make the impact the nightly bombing of London had failed to, for as a compact medium-sized provincial city the effects of concentrated bombing would be far more obvious and devastating.
The city was only lightly defended as it was in an area considered to be naturally protected by night fogs. It was however a clear and cold moonlit evening when the first incendiaries began to fall just after 7pm. The cathedral’s roofs were hit early and within an hour there were 240 fires around the city. Firefighters were overwhelmed at the cathedral, running out of water by 11pm, just about an hour before the raid reached its height. By dawn the following morning the raid was over, leaving 568 dead. The cathedral was in ruins, three quarters of the city’s buildings had been destroyed or damaged, power and telephone lines were down, and railway lines and roads blocked. The city was effectively cut off from the rest of the country.
Above ground, only the tower and spire and sections of the outer wall survived the bombing blitz. Below the floor however, in the medieval crypts, many local families had sought and found refuge during the raid. One of these, the Wyley Crypt Chapel, would be used for smaller services for the remainder of the war, though not on the first Sunday after the raid as there was an unexploded bomb in St. Michael’s Avenue outside the entrance.
In the years following the war, the two crypts, the Wyley Crypt Chapel and the Chapel of the Cross, have suffered from water ingress and so have only been used very occasionally. Work however began in summer 2015 to excavate the ruined cathedral floor above them and to waterproof it. In the process the original floor surface has been uncovered and a void has been discovered filled with bombing debris, but not the third crypt that had been anticipated.
It is hoped that these crypts will be opened to the public in 2016.