Before the Coventry bombing:
As World War II began, it became apparent that the use of planes was incredibly important to the creating and using of successful armies. With this high importance placed on airplanes and airfields, the Germans embarked on bombing specific airfields to cripple the Royal Air Force and eventually lead to their ultimate end goal of dominating Europe and the world. In the middle of 1940 their strategy was working and the airfields were so heavily bombed it became incredibly difficult to get RAF planes in the air.
An order came down from British High Command with a new strategy. Instead of fighting the German planes in the air as the British had been doing previously, the RAF focused on bombing German cities, in particular: the city of Munich. In bombing Munich, British High Command thought that the Germans would try for revenge and slow down their attacks on RAF airfields to give the airfields some time to recover and get planes back in the sky. The strategy was successful. Days later, on November 14, 1940, the Germans bombed the British city of Coventry. What is important is that the British High Command knew hours earlier that Coventry was the target and although there was time to announce partial evacuation of the city, the High Command did nothing.
How did they know?
To understand why the British High Command did not order an evacuation, it is important to know how the British knew Coventry was the target. During WWII the Germans encrypted their messages using a machine known as the Enigma. A group of scientists were gathered together to decipher the seemingly un-crackable German code. The Enigma was difficult and seemed impossible to crack. Even the simplest Enigma machines had 15 quintillion (15,000,000,000,000,000,000) different combinations, and the setting changed daily.
Once the British knew what the Enigma combination was for the day, the Germans would change the combination the next day. Therefore, it was impossible to break the code. In that group of scientists who were trying to break the code, there was one person who made the discovery of a lifetime, Alan Turing. Alan Turing invented the world’s first computer which was able to crack the code consistently and instantly in spite of the variables of the daily changes. It wasn’t until the invention of Alan Turing’s computer-machine in September 1939, that the Enigma could be cracked.
Only recently has the story of Alan Turing become well known. Notably 2014 “The Imitation Game” movie was released to the public. This movie was one of the more recent attempts to bring the truth of what Alan Turing did to the public audience. It is difficult to emphasize the greatness of Turing’s achievement. Alan Turing did not seem like someone who would change the history of the world, he was just a smart mathematician and yet, Alan himself is quoted in saying, “Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine.”
Why did the British not do anything?
Since this discovery was top secret, it was vitally important to keep it that way. Being able to decode and read the German messages without the Germans knowing gave the British all the intelligence they wanted. But the British faced a problem with this secret information. The British could not let the Germans know that the British knew the codes. In order to do this, they could not act on all the information they received. This kept the Germans from suspecting that the British had cracked the code. The following quote from the “Imitation Game” illustrates this dilemma: “The minimum actions required it would take for us to win the war, but the maximum number we can take before the Germans get suspicious” (Imitation Game).
One of the messages the British decoded was about a German bombing mission code named ‘Moonlight Sonata.’ The target of this mission was to lay waste the British city of Coventry. The controversy begins here. The British High Command and Churchill himself, knew that the bombing was going to take place and could have warned the public. They did nothing to prevent this atrocity in order protect the secret of Enigma.
The benefits of keeping Enigma secret
Although at the time the decision to allow Coventry to be bombed by the Germans was a difficult one, it did have its benefits. Protecting the secret of Enigma is believed to have cut the war short by at least three years and saved approximately 21 million lives. These numbers illustrated how the war was cut short. It saved countless British and Allied lives by directing certain ships away from minefields and moving troops to avoid the German and the Axis power; this was the result of breaking the Enigma code. It is important to note that the British High Command were very reticent to use the information learned from breaking the Enigma code as indicated earlier. Otherwise the Germans would have suspected that the British had broken the code. If the Germans had learned this, they would have changed the code and all that had been achieved by Alan Turing would have been for nothing.
The terrible consequences
All of these benefits of keeping Enigma secret came to the British people at great cost. The German Luftwaffe dropped over 30,000 bombs which devastated the city of Coventry as seen the in top photo above. Over 500 lives were lost during the bombing, which forced the British to dig mass graves since there wasn’t time to dig individual graves as seen in the bottom right photo above ; 41,500 homes were severely damaged; over 70 factories were critically damaged including big names such as Triumph, Rolls Royce, General Electric, Rover, Daimler and Morris. (McGrory)
After the bombing, not only were the citizens physically harmed but also mentally distraught. Morale declined dramatically since this was a first-hand account of seeing the damage to the city and experiencing the deaths of many of their loved-ones. People were beginning to lose hope and this was what the Nazi’s intended. Their plan was working and the people were beginning to think that the war was hopeless. People were homeless and terrified of their future. “Homes and factories were flattened and many building were consumed by flames so intense that the city’s sandstone brickwork glowed red. I saw a dog running down the street with a [severed] child’s arm in it’s mouth. There were lines of bodies stretched out underneath blankets. A poor fireman was watching helplessly while the buildings were still burning” (Harby: Jean Tyler, 14 year old survivor). Mass graves were dug for the 568 who had died.
One of the greatest landmarks of Coventry was their beloved Cathedral of St. Michael’s built in the 12th century. It had been directly bombed and was destroyed completely. The devastation of the Cathedral contributed to the lack of hope of the citizens. This was the centre of the city which had been the focus of the bombs and the greatest institution was no more.
The silver lining
Even though these terrible consequences damaged morale greatly, several events occurred that helped to offset the tragedies; this helped to lead the British people back to their motto, “keep calm and carry on.”
In the photo above, King George VI and Queen Mary are talking to the survivors of the bombing. The unusual appearance of the Royal Couple sent waves of encouragement to the people of Coventry and helped greatly in improving their morale. “Hastening to the scene in Coventry is the King who came to comfort those afflicted and offer his support. The King was an inspiration to the stricken inhabitants.” (Pathe Films) On the bottom right is a view of Winston Churchill speaking to the Mayor of Coventry and the Dean of the Cathedral amidst the ruins of the St. Michael’s Cathedral. Opposite that photo is a meeting between Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt. Shortly after Coventry was destroyed Churchill wrote FDR saying “the awesome burden of Coventry’s bombing destruction” and soon after American assistance was underway; it was agreed that the United States would send ships and arms to England before the US entered the war. This agreement was due to the reaction by the President of the comments by Churchill concerning the devastation of the city of Coventry. (Ward)
The effects on the present and how it is remembered today
Today, St. Michael’s Cathedral is still standing and in order to preserve and remember the atrocities that happened, the bombed-out frame of St. Michael’s is still standing as a memorial to the bombing of 1940.
The controversy of whether the bombing of Coventry should have been kept secret or not is unclear. Not until the information from the British National Secret’s Act in 1970 was the breaking of the Enigma code published in 1974 in three books to the British public: The Ultra Secret by RAF Group Captain F.W. Winterbotham; A Man Called Intrepid by William Stevenson & The Bodyguard of Lies by Cave Brown. Up until that point no one knew that the bombing of Coventry could have been prevented and instead the city was sacrificed to keep Enigma secret. (Winterbotham). The reaction by the British public was well publicized in the press. The New York Times published on December 29, 1974, that “these books reveal the greatest secret of World War II after the atom bomb and is a must for World War II and Intelligence buffs” (NY Times). The Times article also explained why the secret was under wraps for so long. It seems that at the end of the war the British gathered up over 10,000 Enigma machines and sold them to emerging Commonwealth nations so that the British could read the Enigma messages until the late 1960s. Only recently have those same nations replaced the Enigmas with new cryptosystems.
Bibliography (sources and further reading):
Brown, Cave, Bodyguard of Lies. Harper & Row: NY. 1974.
Harby, Jennifer, “The Coventry Blitz: Hysteria, terror and neurosis,” BBC News. 2015.
McGrory, David, A History of Coventry. Routledge: London. 2003.
Kahn, David, “The Ultra Secret,” New York Times Newspaper. December 29, 1974
Pathe Films, BBC News. 1940.
Stevenson, William, A Man Called Intrepid: The Secret War. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: New York. 1974.
Ward, Geoffrey C., The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. Knopf: New York. 2014.
Winterbotham, FW, The Ultra Secret. Harper & Row: New York. 1974.
RAF vs German:
Controversy of coventry by Logan Showley, Loyola Marymount University, Wednesday, December 13, 2017.