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David Irving

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Letter to the Editor,
The Observer

July 16, 1998

The Observer, London






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 This version (discussed in my biography, "Churchill's War") has the advantage of being supported by the historical documents.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. )

ChurchillThe 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!

London was thus out of danger that night. Churchill instructed his driver to return him to No. 10. Sir John has described [The Times, letter, Aug. 23, 1976] how Mr Churchill told his staff, whom he had left at No. 10, that "the beams" indicated a colossal air raid on London that night, and he was "not going to spend the night peacefully in the country while the Metropolis was under heavy attack." And Jock Colville, his other secretary, equally ignorant as to the secret messages which Mr Churchill had received, described in his diary how Mr Churchill went up onto the roof that evening, fearlessly "waiting for Moonlight Sonata to begin." "You are too young to die," said Mr Churchill, packing his staff off to the deep shelter in the former Down Street tube station.

Two things suggest that my account, rather than the traditional version offered by the authorised Churchill biographer [Martin Gilbert], is accurate.

  • Sir John Martin kindly made his diary available to me, and its (most illuminating) entry for November 14 reads: "False start for Dytchley (Moonlight Sonata. -- The raid was on Coventry)."
  • And if Mr Churchill's first concern was indeed to share the tribulations of his Metropolis, why did he take to his heels again the next day, November 15, when the Air Ministry informed him that the Luftwaffe was to attack London that night? (The beam was found laid from Cherbourg across Olympia, Paddington, and Westbourne Grove.) Why did Mr Churchill elect to spend that night out in Oxfordshire, instead of in London where he -- unlike the Londoners and unlike even their Majesties -- had a concrete bunker, as tourists can now see, as well as the Down Street tube-station deep shelter (where he had spent the previous night?)

London could take it, it seems, but Mr Churchill could not.

Yours sincerely,



[P.S. I can loan you the page from the Churchill appointment book, with the bracket, as an illustration if you want it. Dytchley is the correct spelling according to its letterhead. And my book, "Churchill's War," is being reissued as a paperback by Century-Hutchinson on September 21 [1989]. ]

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