The Coventry conspiracy

Winston Churchill visiting the ruins of Covent...

Winston Churchill visiting the ruins of Coventry Cathedral (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve been aware for a few years of a feeling that somehow Winston Churchill ‘sacrificed’ Coventry to the death and destruction that occured during the infamous bombing raid in November 1941 – see this article on the BBC website. Sadly, I just cannot agree. Even though I understand the sentiment of anyone from Coventry who felt that their city was thrown to the wolves. But whilst the emotions are understandable, the evidence just does not bear out some kind of conspiracy.

I think we need to be careful about castigating every General or politician who made a decision that caused lives to be lost in wartime – it would be a pretty long list. People will die during war, its a sad fact of life. And very often any decision to move resources to save lives in one respect will cost lives in another. That is the balance of decision making. And by the same token, if decisions are avoided just because someone might die, then nothing would ever happen. It was clear to all in 1939 that given the growth of strategic bombing, many civilians were going to die in the coming war. People had a grim cest la vie attitude to it then, why should we impose our hindsight morals now at a distance of 70 years?

Could Churchill, or anyone else for that matter, have done anything to stop the raid on Coventry? Even if every anti-aircraft gun in Britain had been thrown around Coventry, bombers would still have got through – AA fire was more for the morale of civilians than anything else. Even then, the prospect of moving large number of guns, men and associated infrastructure at such short notice is pretty pie-in-the-sky stuff, even before we consider that such a move would have left the rest of Britain undefended. Neither could the city have been evacuated at such short notice – hundreds of thousands of people. Where would they have gone to? Evacuation of children was routine, but complete evacuating a city on the pretext of one incoming raid would have set a dangerous precedent. There were already fears about civilian morale, such as the treckers who left cities for the countryside every night.

I’m sure there are plenty of examples of the authorities getting intelligence of incoming raids in the days and hours beforehand. But at that early stage in the war, not much could be done. Advanced warning DID allow the civil authorities and emergency services to be fully prepared. But to act too pre-emptively would have prejudiced intelligence sources, in particular the breaking of secret German codes. Whilst later in the war I believe that more risks should have been taken on the basis of Enigma decrypts, earlier in the war – particularly when Britain stood alone – intelligence sources had to be closely guarded. Saving hundreds of lives in one situation might have meant the loss of thousands further down the line. Such is the cold hard balance of losses in wartime.

People like to take comfort in conspiracies – or flog books off the back of them – but for the most part they are just that – conspiracies.

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18 responses to “The Coventry conspiracy

  1. Bear in mind a couple of points. First off, decryption in those days was not an instantaneous affair. Even with the help of the famous Polish “bomb”, that huge analog computer, it often took days to decode Enigma-coded traffic. Often the decode would occur AFTER the event recorded in the coded document. Without days or even weeks of fore-warning, neither evacuation nor reinforcement could even be seriously considered.
    Second, think about the truly ludicrous idea of city evacuation. In my beloved Chicago, we have 5 major rail lines, at least 4 major expressways, and untold numbers of surface streets, and it still takes hours to “evacuate” a few hundred thousand commuters each week day, under calm and controlled conditions. Imagine an equal number, trying to leave Coventry without multiple rail lines, expressways, or even cars, all in a panic and many trying to “save their valuables”. I always laughed at the Civil Defence concepts of the 70s and 80s – evacuate under threat of a Soviet nuclear attack. I always swore that if the sirens sounded, I was going to walk over to Sears Tower and go up to the Skydeck on the 110th floor. I wouldn’t last long, but I’d have a hell of a view in the milliseconds before I was blown to my composite atoms!

  2. James Daly

    Good points as usual John. I get quite frustrated with conspiract theories, I can understand how people are drawn in my them – particularly when its something personal and emotive – but for the large part they’re conspiracies because theres not enough evidence for them to be considered history.

    • Did you happen to hear about the “phantom missile launch” in California last week? Some helo-borne traffic reporter filmed a “strange smoke trail” in the sky. Any idiot could see it was a jet airplane’s vapour trail lit by the sunset. Various news agencies asked the military what it was, and the military (rightfully) responded that they didn’t know – the people who launch missles don’t keep a record of civilian flights! Now every conspiracist nutjob in the country is convinced that either we launched an ICBM in some super-secret test, or that it was a UFO! A UFO vapour trail? There’s always somebody out there willing to invent a conspiracy!

      • James Daly

        A while back I reviewed some of the UFO files released by our national archives; they consisted mainly of letters from vulnerable people with nothing better to do, proud parents whose kids had drawn a picture of a spaceship, and blokes who saw flashing lights while walking home from the pub.

        • “Blokes who saw flashing lights while walking home from the pub”. :D I have to laugh at that, because I actually knew someone in that situation. A college buddy had spent hours in a bar after his class was cancelled. Unknown to him, so had his 3 carpool buddies, out of a different class, in a different bar. He was nominated as driver since he was the most sober (least drunk out of his mind would be better) and later admitted to me that he was doing fine “until the little green men started dancing on the hood(bonnet) of the car”. The normally 3-hour drive home took him over 5 hours. At least I convinced him that filing a police report about the little green guys would NOT be the smartest move! :)

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