The Vicar Who Took On the Luftwaffe--And Won

Sunday, 5 June 1881 - Coventry, Warwickshire, UK

I believe I mentioned “the Three Spires” of Coventry in my last blog? The towers all survived the Blitz of 1940-41, but the churches attached to them did not fair so well. Only one survived--Holy Trinity. That’s where I was today.

Built in the 12th century, and restored several times, Holy Trinity retains most of its medieval flavor. 194 feet long, it would be an impressive church if it wasn’t nearly kiddy-corner to the much larger and grander St. Michael’s Church, which will become a cathedral in 1918. How did Holy Trinity survive the Blitz when St. Michael’s was gutted? Did God protect the smaller house of worship? Well, partly. Mostly it was protected by a stubborn vicar who refused to lose his church.

I know I was at Holy Trinity to record today’s service, but my mind kept drifting back to that fateful day, so long ago (well, nearly sixty years in the future from where I sat.) The fourteenth of November 1940 the German Luftwaffe bombed Coventry. This was no hit and run bombing as they had done before. Five hundred planes, for nearly eleven hours, did their best wipe Coventry off the map.

Rev. Graham Clitheroe
While saner people were huddled in bomb shelters, Holy Trinity’s vicar, Rev Graham William Clitheroe was at his church, doing his best to protect it. He had the help of his son and the curate. It’s believed there was a third man, but no one remembers who it was. I do. His name was Dr. Basil Hancock from the University of London and my friend.

You are probably wondering how I knew someone from the 20th century when I’m only allowed back in the 19th, but Basil was a temporal anthropologist from the 27th century like myself. We went through training at the Institute of Time Travel together and received our licenses at the same time. Basil convinced the Institute that his being at Holy Trinity that night would change nothing and he would be safe.

Basil recorded that whole hellish night. Rev. Clitheroe ran about putting out fires around his church, and even climbed ladders to push bombs off the roof. How he managed is a wonder, for he was not a young man. Basil admitted to me he cried as he watched the city around him going up in flames. Rev. Clitheroe would cry later, that night he had his hands full just saving this one building.

Holy Trinity still standing after the Blitz
The next day Coventry was horrified to find out they had lost their beloved cathedral. However the vision of Holy Trinity standing above the rubble inspired them to carry on. Rev. Clitheroe invited St. Michael’s to share his church, and combined services were held until St. Michael’s could rebuild. For a time, Holy Trinity was the city’s unofficial cathedral.

I understand that when Graham Clitheroe died in 1968 (four years after he retired) his final wish was to be cremated and his ashes buried in the graveyard of the church he loved. He knew the burial ground had long since been filled up, but felt they could surely find a spot for a small urn. The current Vicar at the time, Lawrence Jackson, refused. Clitheroe would not be buried outside the church he had saved--he would be buried inside at a place of honor!

Graham Clitheroe buried inside Holy Trinity Church
The only major damage Holy Trinity suffered that night was the loss of their east and west side stained glass windows. As I stared at the doomed Victorian panes, I thought of Basil. He wanted to record Britain at it’s “finest hour.” He had records of where bombs would drop and what places were safe. He must have lost track, for he would later die in the London Blitz. Not the first temporal anthropologist to lose his life in the line of duty. Although it’s been twenty years since he died, I still miss Basil, even if he won’t be born for another 694 years.

A more detailed account of that night in 1940.

Holy Trinity Church through the ages (video)

Blitz: The Bombing of Coventry (documentary)
Part 1     Part 2    Part 3    Part 4

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