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Bombing forever changed Coventry

THE BALTIMORE SUN

COVENTRY, England -- For Kathleen Adams, it was a day that ended with dancing and prayer.

She was 15, wearing red, white and blue ribbons in her hair. She followed her parents and the crowds that swarmed through the rubble of the city, past the bombed-out shell of the medieval cathedral. There was music and cheering, but mostly, there was light, the long wartime blackout breached. It was May 8, 1945. The Germans had surrendered. V-E Day was declared.

"I found it difficult to accept that the war had ended," says Mrs. Adams, now 65. "I found it difficult to adjust to the idea that when I went to bed at night, I'd be here the next morning."

For Mrs. Adams and millions of other Britons, World War II was a rite of passage. By war's end, she was no longer the terrified 10-year-old who spent the long night and day of Nov. 14-15, 1940, on her mother's lap beneath the stairway of her family's home, shivering in fear while Coventry was being leveled by German bombers.

Great Britain is recalling V-E Day with a mixture of nostalgia and patriotism. Queen Elizabeth is scheduled to attend a special joint session of the Houses of Parliament, and London's Hyde Park is the site of an official three-day celebration that begins tomorrow. A thanksgiving service at St. Paul's Cathedral is to be attended by more than 50 heads of state.

But the celebrations are also a time for taking stock of how Great Britain managed to win the war but, in many ways, lose the peace.

"There has been a gradual decline here, no doubt," says Mrs. Adams' husband, Bill, an army private from 1942 to 1946. "We are no longer one of the leading political or industrial powers in the world. When they tell you the Spanish currency is more buoyant than ours -- well, it's a funny feeling."

There are people of a certain age -- 60 and up -- who defeated fascism but then saw Britain's empire collapse.

They worked in Coventry's factories, building cars and airplanes. Then they saw those factories close.

They helped rebuild their city from the rubble. But the vision of a "New Jerusalem" turned into a concrete patchwork of high-rise towers and a squat, forlorn shopping district.

"We had a small, attractive, little town before the war," Mrs. Adams says. "Now, it's a large and unattractive place."

Many Americans have forgotten the war's costs to Britain. There were 360,000 British dead, including 67,000 civilians. Financially, Britain was burdened with debt -- in today's currency, a half-trillion dollars. Physically, great swaths of south London were destroyed and midland cities like Coventry were flattened.

When the war began, Britain oversaw a colonial empire that covered 11 million square miles -- more than a hundred times the area of Britain itself. The empire encompassed a third of Africa, the Indian subcontinent and islands from Jamaica to Fiji. In shipbuilding, cars, electronics and aircraft, Britain was among the world's leaders.

After the war, the power leaked away. The empire began its slow disintegration when India and Pakistan were granted independence in 1947.

The notion that Great Britain was a world power able to act in its own right was --ed during the 1956 Suez crisis, when the United States forced Britain, France and Israel to halt their attacks on Egypt.

Britain's heavy industry buckled in the mid-1970s, strangled by inflation, short-sighted management and unions unwilling to relinquish power.

"We have experienced relative economic decline, absolute decline as a world power, and a more subtle but more damaging demoralization," the Sunday Telegraph recently editorialized. "We won, and we lost, but we did what we had to do.

"That is a rare thing in the history of nations, and therefore fit to celebrate."

"The upside is, yes, we were the Spartans who held the field," says historian Correlli Barnett, former keeper of the Winston Churchill archives. "And yes, we did bust ourselves. All of that is legitimately glorious. But we didn't look at our postwar position in clear reality. We allowed the glory to dazzle us."

In Coventry, they don't revel in glorious battles. Here, death and resurrection stand side by side, the bombed shell of the old Coventry Cathedral serving as the entry to the new Cathedral Church of St. Michael.

On Nov. 14, 1940, the first air-raid siren wailed in Coventry at a little past 7 p.m. The all-clear would not be heard until 11 hours later. Coventry, a medieval town that was also home to Britain's auto, airplane and tool-making industries, would become a symbol of modern warfare. Under a hunter's moon, German bombers incinerated 75 factories and 2,000 homes. There were 568 deaths.

"I remember looking back across the town and seeing this enormous arc of fire," Mr. Adams says. "My abiding memory of the morning was that the frost had turned black."

There were fears among officials that looting and rioting would break out. Instead, residents of the city cleared the debris, opened shops in bombed-out buildings and served one another tea. The factories, too, would be quickly rebuilt.

"People respected the property," says Cal Gilbert, 80, a Coventry policeman who went on to serve with the Royal Marines. "There was no panic. It made you proud to be British."

But the tales that the home front was a peaceful, always united place are undone by the statistics. Between 1939 and 1945, crime rose by more than 50 percent, the prison population by 42 percent. There was indeed a sense of purpose -- to beat the Germans.

After the war, there was the building of the welfare state: From cradle to grave, from full employment policies to a National Health System, Great Britain's politicians vowed to care for their people.

But somewhere the dream of a just, plentiful society went bad.

Marjorie and John Hawkes each have their war stories to tell. Marjorie, now 75, waited out the Coventry bombing in the cellar beneath a pub, a block from the old cathedral. When she emerged in the daylight, the city of her youth was gone.

John, now 77, was already in the army when he heard of the bombing. He drove all the next night to make sure his family was safe. Sure enough, he found his mother working over a stove, the family's little food shop open for business.

Marjorie worked during the war for the tax authorities. John landed in France a day after D-Day and later was wounded by a mortar round.

On V-E Day, Marjorie remembers listening to the radio as Churchill declared victory.

"But there wasn't much to celebrate," she says. "All those you'd want to be with were gone."

John was in Wales, training for a possible invasion of Japan.

"A Frenchman came running down the street and yelled, 'It's over. It's over,' " he says.

John came home from the army in 1946. He had served six years. He went back to his family business, married Marjorie in 1950, bought a house, raised a daughter and settled down for a life in Coventry.

So much has changed. The city is different now. Most of the heavy industry is gone. The largest employer is the government. The old grocery store that the Hawkeses ran has been sold off, and the building turned into apartments.

"The war," says Mrs. Hawkes, "took the best years of our lives."

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