Unless correspondents ask us not to, this Website will post selected letters that it receives and invite open debate.
Diana Mehta of Indonesia asks, Friday, March 19, 2004, what is the truth about Churchill and the 1940 raid on Coventry?
What is the truth about Churchill and the 1940 raid on Coventry?
I AM a student at the British International School in Jakarta, Indonesia. Im just starting a piece of history coursework on the Coventry bombings of 1940, but I'm still looking for a variety of sources to support my arguments.
My history teacher advised contacting a few modern day historians such as yourself for opinions, help and just about any help that you may be able to offer.
If you are far too busy, preoccupied or unable to help, I understand, however, if you would be intersted in helping me get on the right track.
My coursework question is:
"Coventry was Churchill's sacrificial lamb for British Intelligence" -- How far is this statement true?'
I found a couple of interesting articles by Peter J McIver on the topic. They compare various accounts by those present at the time, but the final verdict is that Churchill was in fact unaware that it as Coventry that was going to be bombed. He was instead expecting a raid over London that night.
As a historian and an author, im sure that you are already familiar with these views. However, any views, opnions or advice that you have to provide would be truly appreciated.
Please consider replying, even if its just a couple of lines.
David Irving replies:
IT IS a subject I am most interested in, and I will correspond with you to your heart's content on it. I am not aware of McIver's writing, please email a copy to me if you can (or mail it to me at P O Box 1707 Key West FL 33041 USA where I shall be for a few weeks from tomorrow). I am attaching a summary of further items on the controversy, which I concluded twenty years ago.
The facts are as I laid out in my first volume on Churchill, "Churchill's War", vol. i: "Struggle for Power" (which you can download free at http://www.fpp.co.uk/books/Churchill/1/
I had the advantage of discussing it with the late R V Jones, chief of Scientific Intelligence at the Air Ministry, and using the diary of Churchill's private secretary Sir John Martin.
For some days Churchill had been expecting a major three-day Luftwaffe attack, codenamed MOONLIGHT SONATA.
The codebreakers had established that the secondary target was suburban London, and the tertiary target the Home Counties (the counties ringing London); the primary target was not properly decoded, but was assumed to be Central London. The date was assumed from the codename to be the first full-moon night, November 14, 1940. I have Churchill's desk calendar (right): he bracketed the three days November 14-16, and cancelled all appointments from 4:30 p.m. on the first evening, when dusk would fall.
He did not intend to remain in central London himself. His eye on the clock, he rushed through the final appointment that day, with Hugh Dalton I think, then beat a discreet retreat with Martin through the back gate of No. 10 Downing Street to where his escape car, a Daimler, was waiting.
They headed for Oxfordshire, the private estate of millionaire Conservative Member of Parliament Ronald Tree -- this is where Churchill usually went when the Intelligence pointers were that London was to be attacked. He did not stay in London during air raids -- that is a popular myth generated by the Churchill fan club.
The Air Ministry had advised him that
At about 4:15 p.m. the Luftwaffe beams were found to be intersecting, not over London, but over Coventry. A TOP SECRET message (on paper) was sent round to Churchill.
Still believing that the target would turn out to be London, Churchill prepared to leave westwards through London, heading for Oxfordshire that early evening.
In his handwritten diary at the time, John Martin entered only this cryptic nopte:
"No.10. False start for Ditchley. 'The moonlight sonata': The raid was on Coventry."
Transcribing this entry on some occasion before 1976, Martin expanded on this from memory: "In the late afternoon of the 14th we set out from No.10 for Ditchley. Just before starting from the garden gate I handed the Prime Minister a box with a top secret message. A few minutes later he opened this and read the contents, a report that the German 'beam' seemed to indicate a raid on London. The cars had now reached Kensington Gardens. But he immediately called to the driver to return to Downing-street."
Martin was mistaken, of course; at no time this day did the Air Ministry send a message to Churchill indicating a raid on London. In fact Churchill had read the top secret (Ultra) message, did not tell Martin what was in it, but instructed the driver to turn back to No. 10 Downing-street. He had meanwhile left his personal staff there, of course.
Some time in or after 1976 Martin expanded on his earlier in a handwritten Postscript:
"I have [been] informed in 1976 by Miss Stenhouse and Miss Davies [Churchill's secretaries] that they were sent to spend the night at the Dollis Hill headquarters [an underground London command post prepared for Churchill] and the rest of the female staff sent home by Brendan Bracken [a Cabinet minister] and Anthony Bevir [another private secretary], on the ground that the 'beam' pointed at Whitehall."
So Bracken and Bevir at least had been left in the belief that London was to be the night's target. Churchill's Dowing-street staff marveled that he had turned back. Waving the top secret message just received, he informed them that the Air Ministry had informed him that London was to be the subject of a savage air raid that night, and that it would be wrong for him to leave the citizens of that fine metropolis to their fate. (So Sir Jock Colville [yet another secretary] wrote in a letter published by The Sunday Telegraph on April 1, 1984.) Colville also describes in his diary how that night Churchill went up on to the roof, bravely to await the onslaught of the Luftwaffe bombers. Later, Churchill packed Colville and Peck off to The Barn[*] to "dine most splendidly" and sleep there, saying, "You are too young to die." How they admired him.
On November 15, 1940 Churchill again feared an attack on London -- the logical complement to the previous night's raid on Coventry -- and was driven out to Dytchley. Also there were Leonora Cobbett, Brendan Bracken and the Vice-Chief of Naval Staff Tom Phillips (who would go down with HMS Prince of Wales just two months later). On November 16, he was still at Dytchley, Alan Brooke came for the night. November 17 Churchill was still at Dytchley. As the full moon finally waned, he returned to London on November 18.
There could have been no question of sending a special alert to the people of Coventry. Preserving the Ultra Secret was vital to British operations. Various factors combined to make the raid on the town one of the most damaging of the war on Britain. The Luftwaffe's target maps (which used to be on display in the Imperial War Museum) show that the planes had the aero-engine works on the outskirts of the town as their assigned targets. But the city itself was badly damaged by fire, which factor caused far heavier industrial production losses than the damage to the factories, about three months production loss, I think. Around three hundred people were killed.
Legends have subsequently grown up around the raid, but what I set out in simple terms above is the truth as revealed by the records of the day. You can of course look in vain for any of this in the official biography of Churchill written by that otherwise admirable historian Sir Martin Gilbert.
There may be a reason for this. The fees paid to Gilbert for his magisterial task came in part from the Churchill Family Trust, the Chartwell Trust, but few reviewers find it seemly to dwell on that; I rather suspect that if I had been paid in part by a Hitler Memorial Foundation for my biographical work on the Führer, (I was not), or by the Carinhall Trust for my biography of Göring, (ditto), more than one reviewer would have given the fact a passing mention.
When I first made this comment in public, Gilbert threatened to sue me for defamation; but I checked on the records of the Chartwell Trust, and there is no doubt that Gilbert received substantial funding from them.
* The Barn was the former "Down Street" deep underground station on the Piccadilly Line line, closed to the public to enable Churchill to use it as a command post, and never reopened. He used it only once (the noise of passing Tube trains was too close for his liking). From my study window as I write these words, I can see the station's familiar dark-red glazed tile facade a hundred yards away down Down-Street, on the west side, at the Piccadilly end. -- I prefer incidentally the spelling Dytchley, as this was the spelling on Tree's headed stationery.