Saturday, November 07, 2009

An Ethical Dilemma

Yesterday I caught up with a documentary on the bombing of Coventry in 1940, shown because the anniversary is coming up on 14 Nov. The BBC iplayer link may only work for a bit, and may not work outside UK.

Having lived in the city, I was interested to see the coverage. Having done some burials in London Road cemetery, I remember the large memorial to the 1200 or so people killed in the big raid and subsequent ones. I also recall someone pointing out some semis in the pre-war part of the parish which had different mortar, but were otherwise identical to their neighbours. "Bombed" an old man said, "found the bodies in the woods". The only trace that they had been rebuilt were the whiter lines between the bricks.

The big raid focussed on the city centre, where many key manufacturing plants were then located, making armaments, vehicles, aircraft and much more. Over 500 aircraft maintained a sustained bombardment for several hours, and the city burned. What had been a city with many old building and streets that looked more like York or Lincoln, was reduced to rubble.

The most famous image is, of course, of the ruined Cathedral. The Cathedral has become a centre for international reconciliation; the city is twinned with Dresden, and a very moving piece of sculpture is located in the ruins as a memorial to Hiroshima. This connection, a sense of commonality in being places where civilians died was very moving to encounter.

But here's the ethical dilemma. It may or may not be true that British intelligence was aware that Coventry was to be bombed. It was known that a very large raid was being prepared and the obvious target was London. However, a myth persists that shortly before the raid it became known and was passed to Churchill that Coventry was the target. It is alleged that the decision was made to take no action that would indicate this knowledge (such as evacuate the city) as that would betray the extent that spies and codebreakers were aware of all German plans. Put crudely, the destruction of Coventry's city centre was a price worth paying for concealing the fact the British had a machine that could decode German ciphers. There is little or no 'hard' evidence to support this, although it does get repeated from time to time (including on the one episode of Babylon 5 I can recall watching!)

Whether it's factual or not, here's the question for the eve of Remembrance Sunday:

If the raid and its target were known on the morning of 14 November 1940, what would you have done in Churchill's shoes? What is a price worth paying?

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