©Imperial War Museum
This week saw the resurfacing of an old conspiracy theory regarding Winston Churchill’s alleged abandonment of Coventry to Nazi bombs in 1940. It’s come to the fore in the internet age through a much older medium – a play entitled One Night in November is being put on in the city that takes this hypothesis as its premise. You can read reports, employing varying levels of critical thought, at various news sites – The Times, the BBC, and the Guardian (who buy it hook, line, sinker, rod, and copy of Angling Times).
Before I reinvent the wheel – this comprehensive rebuttal by the Churchill Centre, and this response to Christopher Hitchens’ even more spurious claims of 2002, surpass anything I could turn out. Nothing brought up by the play However, I will sum up the main claims by the play’s author as they appear in the media, and the counters to these as offered by those more knowledgeable than myself:
Claim – A captured German airman named Coventry as an upcoming target.
Reality – This appears to be true. However, decisions on an appropriate response had to wait on corroboration for this anecdotal evidence. When that did arrive on the 12th of November, the time-frame was verified but the likely targets were not.
Claim – Birmingham, Wolverhampton, and/or Coventry were implicated as German targets by decrypted messages intercepted by Bletchley Park (and conveyed in secret to Churchill).
Reality – Records at the UK National Archives (file AIR2/5238) show that the Air Ministry was now aware of a large raid code-named “Moonlight Sonata”, but the primary targets were not successfully determined. When Churchill received the message himself, he interpreted it as a raid on London, and proceeded there to arrange a defence. A separate piece of intelligence naming three cities in the Midlands was not connected with the main raid of concern, though after the fact it would become clear that this was an oversight (which is why it is mentioned in the same documents).
Claim – Churchill was reluctant to order the RAF defence of Coventry lest the Germans realise that the Enigma decoding system had been cracked.
Reality – In fact the Germans never realised that the Allies had been routinely breaking their codes, despite many decisions in those four years being made in light of intercepted intelligence. As another conspiracy theorist astutely (if ironically) points out (p20), squadrons in the Battle of Britain had been directed freely in accordance with such intel just prior to the Coventry raid. To suggest that Churchill would make an exception in acting upon Enigma-derived intelligence because the target was “only” an industrial northern town, is to assume an unbelievable level of disdain for the lives of one’s own citizens. All to briefly extend the life of a cipher that would as a matter of routine be changed and require equally routine re-breaking by Bletchley Park. Shades of 9/11 Conspiracy there, I fear.
Also implied is that the RAF was even capable of successfully defending a given target in 1940, with its overstretched squadrons of obsolescent and misconceived night-fighters. Fighter Command was able only to play catch-up in 1940 – unable to effectively intercept (especially at night with no or limited radar sets), they often resorted to shooting down bombers on their way back from the target in an effort to reduce Luftwaffe materiel and manpower. Orders and doctrine along these lines were in place well before this incident.
As usual, facts are not on the side of the conspiracy theorist. To me it seems that these claims (like others) are kept alive by emotion, suspicion of authority, their relative plausibility, and a political agenda. NOT a body of evidence. The significant wartime and post-war suffering of Coventry and the Midlands seem to colour the playwright’s perception of history. He says that his “strong feeling” is that with foreknowledge of Coventry’s fate, Churchill made a “spur-of-the-minute decision” to let it happen. Unfortunately, the evidence to support this notion is thin on the ground, and the use of another unproven and refuted Churchill myth – that he deliberately allowed the Lusitania to be sunk, shows that the goal here is to turn “elite” history into social history. I commend that sentiment, but misrepresentation of the past is not the way to go about it. It can be argued that vital hints on the correct target were missed. Or even that they were ignored for fear that London would suffer instead. Arguably the establishment (including Churchill) would favour the defence of the capital over the industrial North. This is understandable, if unequal in retrospect. But to suggest conscious and deliberate action in letting Coventry be bombed, is unsupportable and seems to me to be political agenda, not an historical one. For example, did the majority of the city of Coventry really not see WW2 as “their war“? This is a bold claim to make on behalf of so many who are now voiceless, even if some did (and do) feel this way.
As ever, if anyone reading this has some evidence in favour, or any corrections, please let me know and I will update this entry accordingly.