The Observer, London
TO LETTERS TO THE EDITOR, THE OBSERVER, Fax No. 01-627 5570
CHURCHILL AND COVENTRY
Martin Gilbert's very readable article on the codebreaking war casts Mr Churchill in a heroic mould on the night of the Luftwaffe's attack on Coventry [November 14-15, 1940]. There is however an alternative account of his movements that day which shows him in a more human, if less heroic, light. This version (discussed in my biography, "Churchill's War") has the advantage of being supported by the historical documents.
On November 12, 1940 the Air Ministry learned from codebreaking that Hermann Göring intended to destroy a British target completely in a series of attacks lasting three nights. using both Luftflotten, some 1,800 bombers. On the thirteenth further codebreaking revealed the codename, "Moonlight Sonata."
The Ultra decrypts were inconclusive as to the actual target but the Air Ministry deduced, and so informed Mr Churchill, that it was to be Central London. They added that they would know for certain on the afternoon concerned, when the Germans switched on their blind bombing beams: an RAF aircraft would trace where they intersected. (The handwritten Log Book of R.A.F. Fighter Command's War Room, preserved at the Public Record Office as item AIR.16/698, shows that from codebreaking and this "beams Intelligence" No.10 Downing Street was informed in about 80% of the cases precisely which target the Luftwaffe was planning to attack. I do accept that it was quite out of the question to warn the unfortunate people in the target area concerned. )
The Air Ministry appreciated that "Moonlight Sonata" would begin on the first full moon night, November 14. On Mr Churchill's desk diary -- [a copy of] which I have -- there appeared a pencilled bracket covering this midweek three-day danger period, with no appointments for Mr Churchill in London. Some time after 1 p.m. on the 14th the Air Ministry sent a memo to the PM [prime minister], confirming that "Moonlight Sonata" would take place that night. The Prime Minister made his usual arrangements to escape to Oxfordshire. to Dytchley [*], the estate of a wealthy prewar backer [Mr Ronald Tree]. The PM's car was driven up to the back garden gate at No. 10. As he was about to drive off at 4:30 p.m. with his private secretary, John Martin, a messenger delivered to his car an envelope from the Air Ministry. Sir John Martin has related (in conversation with me, February 7, 1984) that the PM opened it as they were passing Kensington Gardens. The message -- which Martin was not allowed to see -- stated that an RAF plane had traced the Luftwaffe's X-Gerät beams (at 3 p.m., according to Air Ministry records): they intersected, not over London at all, but over Coventry!