Finest Hour 139, Summer 2008
By Michael Richards
Amazing what a life these legends have. Last March, Alan Pollock trotted out the old canard that Churchill, warned of the German attack on Coventry on the night of 14-15 November 1940 by the code-breakers at Bletchley Park, deliberately did not warn Coventry and let the city be razed rather than reveal his sources of secret intelligence.
The BBC discussion tried to duck criticism by saying Pollock’s tale was “controversial,” referring to our own definitive article by Peter McIver (“Leading Churchill Myths,” Finest Hour 41, http://xrl.us/dfx99). It’s not controversial at all. It is verifiable bunk, and only cranks or the ignorant still believe it. The BBC did admit that “most historians disagree” with Pollock, but they could not resist adding that, as far as The Churchill Centre is concerned, “they would say that.”
No, we would not say that—not if the Coventry myth had a shred of evidence to back it up. Churchill made lots of mistakes, but sacrificing Coventry in some weird attempt to convince the Germans he didn’t know what they were planning is not only out of character, but denied by the facts, which are as follows:
Churchill, motoring to the country on the afternoon of 14 November 1940, opened a secret intelligence despatch predicting that the raid would be on London. As was his wont, he immediately returned to London to await the air raid that never came. When, belatedly, he was told that the raid was aimed at Coventry, he scrambled fighters to intercept the German bombers, but it was a case of too little and too late.
Michael Billington, reviewing the play in The Guardian, could not be more right: “Pollock’s larger purpose is to suggest that Churchill, forewarned of the German attack, deliberately sacrificed the citizens of Coventry….But, given the gravity of Pollock’s accusation against Churchill, his play is strangely short of proof….What one craves is some discussion of Churchill’s ultimate purpose and the practicality of evacuating a whole city, thereby alerting the Germans of our access to their intelligence.” It would have made no sense to do what WSC is accused of doing.
The play, Billington said, “resembles a trial in which the accused is conspicuous by his absence.” I guffawed over his comparison of this production to what Noël Coward said about Lionel Bart’s Blitz: “Half as long as the original and twice as loud.”
CHURCHILL CENTRE UK
I wonder if it is worth making the point, entirely missed by everyone who makes this allegation against Churchill, that the RAF had very little with which to counter bombing raids at this stage of the war anyway?
The RAF simply did not then have a proper night-fighting system. Unlike the very well coordinated day fighter defence scheme, in 1940 night-fighting was largely a matter of making do with what they had, since little planning had been put into night-fighting in the prewar years.
Only around the time of the major Coventry raid did the excellent Bristol Beaufighter begin to enter service, but alas in pitifully small numbers. The Mosquito was still in the future. The RAF was making do with Hurricanes (no radar, hardly effective) and the very slow Blenheim (a converted bomber).
Later in the war, when British pilots were flying against Germany and the Germans had a very effective night-fighter system (and some excellent aircraft, like the Ju88), it was not possible to stop a concentrated bomber force. You could seriously damage it and make the losses not worth bearing, but you could not stop it. You certainly could not stop it in 1940.
Even if the Coventry fiction were fact—and even if Churchill knew of the raid’s destination—how would he have “sacrificed” the city? He could only have done so convincingly if he did something to prevent the raid. He did not. Nor could Coventry be evacuated on a practical level.
In any event, it’s pleasing to see that Google brings up The Churchill Centre’s pages when one searches for material on the Coventry raid—right at the top.