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Churchill Let Coventry Burn To Protect His Secret Intelligence

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Peter J. McIver

Mr. McIver, of Nuneaton, Warwickshire, penned this article eighteen years ago in Finest Hour 41. We have brought it up to date by adding or quoting additional, most recently published material.

For twenty years, most recently in a piece by Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic Monthly, it has become a matter of accepted fact that on the night of 14-15 November 1940, rather than compromise a decisive source of intelligence, Winston Churchill left the city of Coventry to the mercies of the German Air force.

This story has appeared in many books, articles and letters to the press, but its origins date back over a quarter century to three books, by F. W. Winterbotham, Anthony Cave Brown, and William Stevenson.

The originator of the "prior warning" theory was former RAF Group Captain F. W. Winterbotham in The Ultra Secret (New York: Harper & Row, 1974). This was the first book to reveal that the Allies had broken the German codes‹a fact that was until then a closely guarded official secret.

According to Winterbotham, who wrote entirely from memory, the name Coventry came through in clear type on a decrypt of German messages (codenamed "Boniface," later "Ultra") at 3PM on 14 November, the afternoon before the raid, and Winterbotham himself immediately telephoned the news to one of Churchill's private secretaries in Downing Street (The Ultra Secret 82-84).

Much the same tale was told by Cave Brown in his two-volume work, Bodyguard of Lies (New York: Harper & Row, 1974). But Cave Brown wrote that Churchill had the message a full two days ahead of time. The Coventry raid, he wrote, was one of three under the code name "Einheitopreis," against Midlands cities coded "Umbrella" for Birmingham, "All One Piece" for Wolverhampton, and "Corn" for Coventry (Bodyguard of Lies I:38-44).

Picking up on these 1974 books, William Stevenson in A Man Called Intrepid (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1976), wrote that the Germans sent the order to destroy Coventry in the second week of November. Unlike previous "Boniface" messages, which had always given the name of the target in code, this message gave the name "Coventry" in clear type. Thus, wrote Stevenson, within minutes of the order being given, it was placed in front of the Prime Minister. Faced with the prospect of leaving the people of Coventry to die or evacuating them, Churchill turned to Sir William Stephenson ("Intrepid"), who advised that "Boniface" was too valuable a source of intelligence to risk. By evacuating the city, the Prime Minister would expose the source and endanger its usefulness in the future - so "Intrepid" told Churchill to leave Coventry to burn and its people to their fate.

While at first glance all three writers seem to agree, there are considerable differences between them. For example, Winterbotham claimed that he telephoned the information to Downing Street, while Stevenson said the news was given to Churchill by "Intrepid." Cave Brown asserted that Churchill knew about the raid forty-eight hours in advance; Winterbotham said Coventry was identified as the target only a few hours before the attack.

All three authors cannot be correct, though as I will show, all are certainly wrong. Cave Brown's account has several errors independent from the differences with the other writers. The code name for the Wolverhampton raid was "All One Price," not "All One Piece." Its significance was not lost on the Air Ministry, which quickly realized that it referred to the "Everything at One Price" sales slogan of Woolworth & Co. - ergo Wolverhampton. "Umbrella," the Ministry concluded, meant Birmingham because Neville Chamberlain, a famous carrier of umbrellas, was a former mayor of Birmingham. But nothing connected "Corn" with Coventry.

By mid-November the Air Ministry had learned that the Germans were having difficulties with their Knickebein radio direction beam, used to direct bombers to their targets; it seemed likely that they would use the more accurate X-Gerat system installed in Luftwaffe unit K. GR100, which would act as a pathfinding fire raiser for less experienced pilots. The Air Ministry reached this conclusion from reports that the Germans had been attacking isolated targets in England with flares instead of bombs.

On 11 November the Air Ministry decoded a German message referring to a raid codenamed "Moonlight Sonata." This was the message in which the word "Corn" first appeared. Because of where the word appeared in the message Dr. R. V. Jones, one of the Air Ministry scientists, concluded that "Corn" referred not to a target but to the appearance of radar screens when jamming was present. According to Jones's book, Most Secret War, aka The Wizard War (1978, 201), the code name "Moonlight Sonata" was believed to mean that the raid would take place on a night of a full moon, indicating the period 15-20 November. "Sonata" suggested a three-part operation; based on their knowledge of Luftwaffe guidance systems, the Ministry concluded that the first part would be a fire-raiser, the other two parts normal bombing raids (Public Records Office AIR2/5238).

No one at the Air Ministry believed that "Sonata" referred to three separate nights. The 11 November decrypt referred to four targets, and mentioned that Marshal Goering himself had been involved in the planning, an indication of how important this particular raid was viewed in Berlin.

In an appreciation of this message, considering not only Goering's involvement but other intelligence, the Air Ministry concluded that the four targets were in the south of England, particularly London. The other intelligence included a captured German map which marked four target areas, all in the south; and an interview with a prisoner of war suggesting that the Midlands cities were targets for a future raid unconnected with "Moonlight Sonata" (P.R.O. AIR2/5238).

In the early hours of 12 November, Dr. Jones received a decrypt of a new German message which indicated that there was to be a raid against Coventry, Wolverhampton, and Birmingham. But there was nothing in this new message to connect it with "Moonlight Sonata," and no such connection was made (P.R.O. AIR20/2419). As early as the morning before the raid, the Air Ministry were still expecting a raid on London.

What of Winterbotham's alleged telephone call to Downing Street at 3PM the afternoon of November 14th? Dr. Jones, who was given copies of all "Boniface" decrypts at the same time as Winterbotham, states that there was no such message. In his book, Jones recalled traveling home that night wondering where the raid was actually going to be!

What did Churchill know and when did he know it? The most succinct summary came from one of Churchill's private secretaries, John Colville, in his book, The Churchillians (London, 1981), page 62:

All concerned with the information gleaned from the intercepted German signals were conscious that German suspicions must not be aroused for the sake of ephemeral advantages. In the case of the Coventry raid no dilemma arose, for until the German directional beam was turned on the doomed city nobody knew where the great raid would be. Certainly the Prime Minister did not. The German signals referred to a major operation with the code name "Moonlight Sonata." The usual "Boniface" secrecy in the Private Office had been lifted on this occasion and during the afternoon before the raid I wrote in my diary (kept under lock and key at 10 Downing Street), "It is obviously some major air operation, but its exact destination the Air Ministry find it difficult to determine."

That same afternoon, Thursday 14 November 1940, Churchill set off with [private secretary] John Martin for Ditchley, Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Tree's house in Oxfordshire, generously made available to the Prime Minister once a month when the moon was full and the PM's official residence, Chequers, was vulnerable. Just before Churchill left, word was received that "Moonlight Sonata" was likely to take place that night. In the car he opened his most recent yellow box and read the German signals in full. He immediately told the chauffeur to turn round, and went back to Downing Street.

On arrival he decided that due precautions must be taken, for he assumed the operation to be aimed at London and to be a more massive assault than had ever been made before. He ordered that the female staff be sent home before darkness fell. He packed John Peck and me off to dine and sleep in a sumptuous air-raid shelter prepared and equipped in Down Street underground station by the London Passenger Transport Board. They made it available to the Prime Minister as well as to their own executive. Churchill called it "the burrow," but used it himself on only a few occasions.

John Peck and I dined apolaustically in "the burrow." I commented, with a blend of gratification and disapproval, "Caviar (almost unobtainable in these days of restricted imports); Perrier Jouet 1928; 1865 brandy and excellent Havana cigars." Meanwhile Churchill, impatient for the fireworks to start, made his way to the Air Ministry roof with John Martin and saw nothing. For on their way to Coventry, the raiders dropped no bombs on London.

There is not even the thinnest shred of truth in Group Captain Winterbotham's story of Coventry. It is to be hoped that neither this incident nor a score of others with which Mr. Stevenson's book about "Intrepid" is gaudily bedizened are ever used for the purpose of historical reference. To dispel such an unacceptable hazard is my excuse for this long digression.  

Colville was not the first to reveal the truth. Former private secretary, John Martin, who had been with Churchill in London on the fateful night, awaiting the bombers that never came, recalled the facts in The Times on 28 August 1976, when the charge was first circulating. A quarter century later, Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic wrote that no Churchill defender has ever challenged the story. Historians Norman Longmate, Ronald Levin, Harry Hensley, and David Stafford are just four historians who as early as 1979 explicitly dismissed the Coventry story for the nonsense it is.

Colville's hopes were in vain. The Coventry lie hardily endures, probably forever, periodically resurrected and solemnly proclaimed by those who have convinced themselves of Churchill's perfidy.