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Did Churchill know about Coventry?

Originally published under Ask Mr. History. Published Online: September 27, 2012 
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Dear Mr. History,

I've read a lot of books regarding WWII and there are various versions of exactly what happened regarding the City of Coventry, England during the early years of the war. Some books profess that WSC knew ahead of time that it was to bombed via Ultra but did not alert anyone in the interests of conserving this superior source of intelligence. Some books say that he did not know. Please relate to me your opinion.


Jeffrey C. Apparius
Bremerton, WA

? ? ?

Dear Mr. Apparius:

There certainly have been a variety of different accounts, even supposedly by eyewitnesses, that contradict each other as to how much Winston Churchill had learned from the Boniface (later Ultra) decoders as to the main target for the German "Moonlight Sonata" air raid on the Midlands in November 1940, and when did he ascertain it. Whether he mistook it for a feint, with London the actual target, of whether he knew of Coventry and left it to its fate rather than compromise Britain's ability to crack the German Enigma codes seems to depend on one's feelings toward Churchill, one's political agenda, or simply one's obsession with conspiracy theory. Given the fact that the British had acted on information to counter German moves earlier, and given the fact that both the Enigma and Ultra codes were changing on a regular basis make me more inclined to give Churchill the benefit of the doubt. But in an endlessly debated case like this, let's face it—if you don't want to believe that, you won't.



Jon Guttman
Research Director
Weider History Group
More Questions at Ask Mr. History 



3 Responses to “Did Churchill know about Coventry?”

  1. 1
    Richard M. Langworth says:

    No, Mr. Guttman, whether Churchill “let Coventry burn” does NOT depend on your “feelings toward Churchill.” It depends on whether you know the facts.

    The facts are that Churchill, leaving for the country that night, read a despatch in his car predicting a heavy raid upon London, not Coventry. Declaring he would not spend the night in safety while London was under attack, he turned his car around and went back to Downing Street. Also, when the truth was known, RAF fighters were mustered to defend Coventry, but it was too little and too late.

    Please refer to Peter McIver, “Churchill Let Coventry Burn,” Finest Hour 114, Spring 2002,

    And Sir Martin Gilbert, “Coventry: What Really Happened,” Finest Hour 141, Winter 2008-09, (scroll to page 32).

    Richard M. Langworth, Editor
    Finest Hour
    The Churchill Centre

  2. 2
    Gary Garrison says:

    Mr. Langworth is correct! And let me add that trying to say that Churchill knew about Coventry and did nothing is the same as trying to say that Roosevelt had advance info on Pearl Harbor and did nothing.

  3. 3
    Angry History Podcast says:

    There is simply not a single shred of evidence Churchill knew about Coventry. This conspiracy theory — this lie — came from one man's recollection 34 years later when he was trying to sell books. We thoroughly debunk the claim in this episode of our podcast, with help from actual sources and scholars like Mr. Langworth.

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