The Second World War saw the examples of full-scale aerial bombing of civilians. In late summer and autumn 1940, the city of Coventry was subject to some of the worst bombing raids in the entire war. November 14th saw the most highly concentrated attack on a British city in the entire conflict, with over 500 German aircraft taking part in 11 hours of bombing in what was code named Operation Moonlight Sonata.
Over 500 people were confirmed killed, with hundreds more injured and over half of houses in the city destroyed or damaged. Yet there is a theory that Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his war cabinet were aware of the impending attack on one of Britain’s biggest industrial cities.
One of the ground-breaking pieces of technology crafted by the British during the conflict was the Enigma code-breaking machine. Based in Bletchley, Buckinghamshire, the mathematicians behind Enigma had discovered how to intercept and crack coded German messages. By doing this, they had been able to pinpoint German plans and other communications; giving the Allies a vital upper hand. They were given an early warning that Coventry was going to be attacked thanks to decoded messages, yet Churchill did not act.
As a war-time leader, Churchill was a utilitarian. He was someone who would strive for the most positive of outcomes regardless of the cost. The Allies could have had the RAF scrambled to meet the incoming bombers before they reached Coventry, but in doing so they ran the risk of compromising all the work carried out at Bletchley Park by the code-breakers.
The Germans would have become suspicious as to how the British could have known an attack was coming. This would have led to the Germans changing Enigma, making all the progress at Bletchley futile.
The viewpoint of Churchill and the Allied High Command was that by sacrificing Coventry, they would be saving countless lives elsewhere. This attitude was common throughout the war, with President Truman justifying the deaths of nearly a quarter of a million Japanese people through the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Coventry was a symbol of resilience through the darkest days of WW2. It was a bustling, hard working city which had become a vital artery in the Allied war effort due to its munitions and armament factories. To sacrifice such an important city could have been costly, it was an attempt by the Luftwaffe to strike a blow to soften Britain in preparation for an invasion.
The Allies took a risk by letting the Germans attack, yet leaving hundreds and thousands of people exposed is something which the leadership at the time considered necessary in order to maintain the advantage over the Enigma code.
There has been argument for decades over whether Churchill knew of an attack on Coventry. Some reports state that the RAF were warned of enemy aircraft moving towards Coventry at 3pm on the afternoon of the 14th, although no fighters were sent up to meet the enemy in the sky. It was not until 6:50pm that Coventry first received word that an attack was coming. The word was held from London in order to protect the secrecy of Enigma.
One the other hand, there is speculation that Churchill and his leaders had genuinely no idea that Coventry was the intended target.
Terry Charman, who was a senior historian at the Imperial War Museum, said in a BBC interview in 2010 that Churchill was in a near impossible position:
“Even if you had put every air raid defence in the country around Coventry it would still have been devastating… even if Churchill had known at that short notice (that Coventry was to be targeted) imagine the logistics of evacuating a city the size of Coventry — it would have been enormous.”
The Coventry Blitz was a period of incredible suffering. Many people were killed and wounded and most of the city was reduced to rubble. There is evidence on both sides of the argument that the Allies knew of an attack on Coventry, but what is important to remember is the human cost of defending one of the most vital secrets in military history.