I love applied ethics and am (generally) less appreciative of the theoretical and ‘academic’ stuff. But I find practical real life examples of tough moral choices really interesting. Especially when they are made by people that I like…. enter stage right Winston Churchill…
On the 14 November 1940, 515 German bombers left mainland Europe on a bombing run. Their target was the West Midlands town of Coventry. The first wave of bombers targeted infrastructure, cratering roads and destroying the telephone lines as well as the gas and water mains. This would make it difficult for the fire department to reach affected areas and difficult to co-ordinate damage control, especially with no water. The bombers that followed dropped high explosive and incendiary bombs, as well as air mines which exploded overhead and damaged roofs which would allow the fire bombs easier access to the internal and presumably more flammable parts of the buildings.
Interestingly, in terms of defense, Coventry had 24, 3.7mm inch AA guns and twelve 40mm guns. Each guns could fire about 10 rounds a minute and the raid lasted 10hrs in which the Royal Artillery fire 6,700 rounds with only one out of the 515 bombers (some of whom were flying multiple sorties) was shot down.
During the course of the night and early morning 4,300 homes were destroyed and about two thirds of the buildings in the city center were damaged. Casualties were estimated at 568 killed, with 863 badly injured and 393 sustaining lesser injuries. These causality rates are actually surprisingly low considering the ferocity of the bombing raid, likely attributable to the great air-raid shelters and that most of the townspeople actually evacuated the city at night and slept in the countryside.
In any event, in 1974 it was revealed, and confirmed by other sources within the intelligence community at the time, that Winston Churchill had advanced warning of the attack on Coventry. The mathematicians and cryptographers at Bletchley Park had already deciphered the Enigma code that was being used by the Germans (although a senior member at Bletchley park refutes the claim that Winston Churchill knew that Coventry was the intended target)
Winston Churchill apparently decided to let the Blitz on Coventry go a head, so as not to tip off the Germans that they had cracked the enigma code. If he reinforced the air defenses on the city, the Germans might have become suspicious. The death of hundreds of innocent civilians was weighed up against the massive strategic advantage of being able to read the ‘secure’ communications of the enemy.
There is an apocryphal quote attributed to Winston Churchill that the decision to let Coventry burn ‘took twenty years off my life’.