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.