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Conspiracies and myths

All tragic events are surrounded by mythical tales (or "stories that lose nothing in the telling"!) and conspiracy theories - and the blitz on Coventry did not disappoint. Some of the stories that grew out of the terrible events injected humour into the situation.... others were rather more sinister....

 

A Royal visitor

Mrs. Ellen Moseley, the mayor's wife, was busy at home, cleaning up the mess from the day before, and trying to get on with the housework. The front door was only propped up after being blown off its hinges during the raid, so as she heard a sudden knock at the door, she cried out "Go round the back!". She was allegedly a little shaken when she realised that the person who'd knocked was His Majesty, King George!
This lovely tale became local legend, and was certainly helped on its way into folklore by Jack Moseley himself, who must've delighted in repeating this slightly exaggerated version of the story. Apparently, the truth was not actually too far from reality. As the king, the mayor and their entourage walked around, the king enquired as to how the mayor and his family were managing. He consequently asked to be driven to the Moseley's home, and as they approached, the mayor pointed out that the front door could not be opened, so the king simply suggested that they should "go the other way in then". According to his daughter, Mr. Moseley had always wished that he'd had a photograph of his wife's face at the moment he announced "His Majesty, the King"!

Mayor John Moseley's great nephew, Andrew Ross, has kindly sent me his family's own recollections of this wonderful day, and you can read them here.

The view from Owen Owen across West Orchard, Market Square and Smithford Street.
By early 1942, most of the rubble had been cleared, and this was the view from Owen Owen across a once thriving and packed West Orchard, Market Square and Smithford Street.
This open space provided the perfect 'blank canvas' on which the precinct would soon be built.

Buried and forgotten

On a more sinister note, many rumours circulated after the bombing about shelters being sealed off like tombs beneath bombed buildings. Courtaulds was the venue for one such tale - the deep shelter below supposedly receiving a direct hit, and hundreds of people left buried there - whether dead or alive!

In another vastly exaggerated case, over 400 factory workers were said to have been killed on the site, and rather than being recovered, three vicars allegedly conducted a service for them over the 60 yard long pile of rubble.

A much needed pint was unfortunately not always available during the difficult war years.
A much needed pint was unfortunately not always available during the difficult war years.

Many other bizarre stories were quoted by the rumour-mongers, including civilians being fed via tubes while entombed in shelters that were simply sealed off.

While laughable in many cases, many gullible people actually believed these tales. I would imagine that the hundreds of rescue workers, who risked their own lives as they toiled in extremely hazardous conditions for hour after hour, day after day, would have felt more than a little insulted, knowing that despite their best endeavours, some people actually thought that they could knowingly leave any fellow human buried.

Of course, in such circumstances it was not possible to find or account for everyone, but not a single body was ever intentionally left beneath the ruins of Coventry. Indeed, by contrast, all the shelters were thoroughly inspected days after the raid, and the highest number of casualties in any single place was found to be 35 - and all the dead accounted for.

On a slightly lighter note, less serious mistakes were made among the chaotic scenes, and one 14 year old girl, who had been evacuated from Coventry & Warwickshire hospital and taken to Stratford, later saw her own name on the list of deceased outside the Council House!

The Rex: Here today "gone" tomorrow!

The first heavy raid on Coventry was also cause for a moment of wonderful irony. The citizens of Coventry were able to raise a smile after the relatively new Rex Cinema was blown up by high explosive.... the next day it had been due to show Gone with the Wind ! Apparently, the front doors of the cinema were found over 300 metres away in Gas Street! We are soon reminded of the serious side of such events, though, as the cinema's night-watchman, named Gus, was killed by the blast.

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The raid was no serenade!

The raid planned by the Germans was known as Operation Moonlight Sonata. However, an isolated document some time later referred incorrectly to the raid as Moonlight Serenade, and this was published by other sources. As with all such rogue material, it still gets remembered by many as "fact", but all reliable sources, including the people at Bletchley Park, where the original German codes were deciphered, and Professor R. V. Jones, the head of British Scientific Intelligence during WWII, maintain that without any doubt whatsoever, the raid was indeed called Operation "Moonlight Sonata".

Coventrated

Of the half-truths which circulated after the blitz, this one was quick off the mark. The Germans infamously coined a new word following the raid, and "Coventriert" became synonymous with "total destruction". As was such in war, even the origin of this was rendered obscure by propaganda. Although the word was smugly invented by the Germans, Nazi propaganda material released soon after the raid attempted to accuse the British of using the phrase "to Coventrate" to acknowledge the success of the German attack.

Looking across Broadgate in 1946.
This scene was not to remain for much longer. For six years the people of Coventry had got used to this patched up view of Broadgate, but it was to change again before long. It's now 1946 and work would soon begin on the new Broadgate Garden Square, and just to the right, the Upper Precinct.

Did Churchill leave us to be bombed?

In the 1970's, after information about some of our wartime secrets had been released, some writers used this new found knowledge to sell books based upon a conspiracy theory. They alleged that certain authorities knew in advance that Coventry was to be targeted for a heavy raid, but in order to protect ULTRA (our deciphering of German codes using the captured 'Enigma' machine or other methods) our city was left to burn. Put simply, the conspiracy theorists tried to have us believe that if the citizens of Coventry had been given advance warning, then the Germans would have suspected that we'd broken their secret radio codes.

The tower & spire - standing strong

I've attempted on page 4 to summarise the situation regarding how much we knew about the enemy's radio direction technology. However, as can be surmised from this, the X-Gerat radio beams were detected by our planes carrying radio measuring equipment, and the Germans would have been fully aware that we could simply fly across the signal path to detect such beams. Therefore, ULTRA was in no way compromised by letting the Germans find out that we were attempting to jam their signals.

But still the conspiracy continued - based mainly on the fact that our use of ULTRA information had forewarned British Intelligence and Prime Minister Winston Churchill about the raid, but allegedely purposely not informed Coventry. As page 4 hopefully also shows, decrypted codes were indeed used, but were still inconclusive about the intended target.

Surprisingly, one of the people directly involved in message decryption, Group Captain F. W. Winterbotham, was also one of those who helped to spread the conspiracy that Coventry was 'left to burn'. In the 1970s he wrote an account purely from memory, stating that the name 'Coventry' actually came through in clear type from a German message at 3 o'clock on the afternoon of the 14th. Not only is it unlikely in the extreme that the Germans would be so lax with their coding, but R. V. Jones, the head of Scientific Intelligence, and through whom all messages had to pass, states categorically that no message whatsoever was received that hinted at Coventry as the target.

Wolverhampton and Birmingham had been deduced from the intelligence received, but rather than Coventry as the third target, some sources actually believed that London was the other possible raid target for that night of the full moon in mid-November. ULTRA, in fact, had been of extremely limited value in this particular case.

The Prime Minister certainly believed London to be that night's target, and to back this up, his movements on the afternoon of the 14th were recorded in the diary of a friend and close colleague at Number 10, Sir John Colville. That afternoon, Churchill set off for his country house in Ditchley, Oxfordshire, where he regularly stayed instead of Chequers on moonlit nights. During the journey he opened his yellow 'Ultra' box and quickly learned that the heaviest bombing raid yet was about to be launched, but on a target as yet unspecified. The additional information about the detecting of the X-Gerat radio signal being aligned on Coventry was not yet available to him. Convinced that the raid was to be on London, he ordered his driver to return him to Downing Street, whereby he ordered his two colleagues into the deep air-raid shelter. Their young lives, he told them, were too valuable to our country's future. He then went up onto the Air Ministry roof with one older colleague to await the raiders arrival.
Those, to me, are not the actions of a Prime Minister who suspected that there was going to be a raid on Coventry.

A particularly detailed and authoritative account explaining the contradictory tales of 'Churchill and Coventry's bombing' can be found on The Churchill Centre website.


 
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This page last updated on 15th September 2012