Operation Unthinkable: The Third World War: British Plans to Attack the Soviet Empire 1945

Operation Unthinkable: The Third World War: British Plans to Attack the Soviet Empire 1945

by Jonathan Walker

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750951609
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 09/02/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 758,747
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Jonathan Walker is a member of the British Commission for Military History and the author of Aden Insurgency: The Savage War in Yemen, The Blood Tub: General Gough and the Battle of Bullecourt, and Poland Alone: Britain, SOE and the Collapse of the Polish Resistance, 1944.

Read an Excerpt

Operation Unthinkable: The Third World War

British Plans to Attack the Soviet Empire, 1945

By Jonathan Walker

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Walker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-5160-9




Churchill took up the mantle of chief sceptic about Stalin only later in the war. Before that it had been up to the Poles to warn the West in vain of Stalin's ambitions, which they had learned about from bitter experience. The annexation of eastern Poland by Stalin in 1939 was a blatant act of double-dealing as well as naked aggression. Subsequently, the need for an alliance against Hitler had compelled the Poles to accept the Soviets as allies, but this abrasive relationship was finally shattered in April 1943, when the Soviet Union broke off relations with the London-based Polish government-in-exile. This crisis erupted after the Poles had demanded a Red Cross inquiry into the Katyn massacres, when more than 21,000 members of Poland's elite, including officers, professors and writers, were found to have been murdered on Stalin's orders. Despite pressure from the Western Allies, Stalin had refused to re-establish relations with the London Poles in 1944, claiming that they had rejected his demands for the ceding of eastern Polish territory. He even alleged that Polish intransigence had forced him to establish a Lublin-based 'National Committee of Liberation' in July 1944, which comprised communist and left-wing Poles. This committee, also known as the PKWN (Polski Komitet Wyzwolenia Narodowego), would shortly emerge as Stalin's sponsored Polish government, and it would dash Western hopes of a democratic government.

As 1944 drew to a close, Stalin's strategy for the domination of Poland was all coming together. The Polish resistance, in the shape of the Home Army, had been effectively destroyed by the Warsaw Rising and although their spirit was undiminished, their command structure and operations were seriously depleted by the end of the year. By then, Soviet forces had overrun Romania, Bulgaria, the Baltic States and large parts of Hungary. They had advanced into East Prussia and occupied a large swathe of Poland up to the River Vistula. Stalin envisaged that he would soon have almost total possession of Eastern Europe, and with it the power to dictate his terms to the Allies. Meanwhile Churchill and particularly Roosevelt were becoming desperate to avoid a total fall-out with Stalin over Poland. Churchill pressured the Polish government-in-exile to accept the loss of their eastern territory, especially as it was softened by the offer, once the war was over, of a similar-sized chunk of German territory to the west.

But Britain, or more precisely her military commanders, did not entirely roll over before Stalin. Barely a month after the June D-Day landings, post-war planning was being discussed in the British War Office, and on 27 July, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, met with the Secretary of State for War, Sir James Grigg, to discuss the future dismemberment of Germany. Should it be carved up between the Great Powers or, as Brooke favoured, 'gradually converted to an ally to meet the Russian threat of 20 years hence'? That night, he noted in his diary, 'Germany is no longer the dominating power in Europe. Russia is ... she has vast resources and cannot fail to become the main threat 15 years from now.' This was certainly at odds with the entrenched view within the British Foreign Office (FO) that any future Soviet threat could easily be contained by the West.

This split between the soldiers and the diplomats was widening, and Brooke baulked at the attitude of the Foreign Office. His diary entry for 2 October 1944 showed his frustration at the diplomats' attitude towards the Soviets:

A longish COS [Chiefs of Staff Committee] where we discussed the Foreign Office attitude to our paper on dismemberment of Germany. We had considered the possible future and more distant threat to our security in the shape of an aggressive Russia. Apparently the FO could not admit that Russia might one day become unfriendly.

Indeed, senior Foreign Office figures such as Christopher Warner, who was head of the FO's Northern Department 'wobbled' constantly over the idea that plans should be prepared for a conflict with the Soviet Union. He feared that France might succumb to a communist take-over after the war, and if such war plans existed, the military would be tempted to try them out in France. To this end he sanctioned that 'special security treatment' should be applied to any FO papers that mentioned the Soviets as a possible enemy. So, as 1944 drew to a close, the predominant view in Whitehall was that Stalin would seek to accommodate the West for another 10 years, if only to repair the war damage to the Soviet economy. They perceived that Stalin wished to see that those countries that bordered the Soviet Union followed the same foreign policy, but he would not necessarily insist on them having communist governments. Consequently, such a benign Soviet attitude was not expected to challenge Britain's imperial interests. However, this FO view only looked at the situation through the eyes of a responsible Western democracy, which would realise that huge post-war restoration costs would mean a corresponding reduction in arms spending and a curtailing of foreign policy. No such constraints, of course, bound Stalin, whose spending on military hardware knew no limits.

The British Foreign Office was optimistic, if not naive, about finding a solution with Stalin as to the future of Poland. British analysts did not dismiss the problems of negotiating with the Soviets, but seemed pathetically grateful for any crumbs Stalin discarded:

We consider that Poland must have the closest and genuinely friendly relations with Russia but that she should herself be genuinely independent and in no sense a puppet of the Soviet Union. A settlement on the above lines would in our view constitute a complete fulfilment of our obligations to Poland. So far as public statements and private assurances go there is no difference between us and the Soviet Government on the above policy. Indeed, Marshal Stalin in his last Moscow conversation with M. Mikolajczyk went further than we should have expected in positively encouraging the Poles to maintain their present relationship with Great Britain and America in addition to entering upon a new relationship of alliance with Russia.

There were even those within the FO who feared the day when the British public might realise that 'Uncle Joe' Stalin was not all that he seemed. Should public pressure then start upsetting the status quo, it would ruin the carefully nurtured relationship between London and Moscow.

In October 1944 the Polish prime minister, Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, previously rebuffed by Stalin, joined Churchill in Moscow to attempt a last-ditch reconciliation over the issue of the Polish border. But it was all in vain. Mikolajczyk realised that the Soviet Union ultimately wanted to engulf Poland and stood his ground against Churchill. There was a furious row between the pair and Churchill erupted at the Polish leader's intransigence. 'We will tell the world,' Churchill bellowed, 'how unreasonable you are. You will start another war in which 25 million lives will be lost. But you don't care.' So Mikolajczyk was bullied into agreeing to the Curzon Line proposal (the old suggested Polish/Soviet border, mooted by the British in the 1920s), but he metaphorically drew the line at handing over Lwów and the Carpathian oil fields. Even this stance was too much for his rigid government-in-exile colleagues back in London and they refused to allow him to cede any territory. Left with no alternative, Mikolajczyk resigned as prime minister on 24 November 1944, and was replaced by the elderly socialist Tomasz Arciszewski, an implacable opponent of Stalin. Weeks later the Lublin Poles declared themselves the provisional government of the Republic of Poland. As 1945 dawned, the Soviet Union formally recognised the new Polish government, leaving Churchill and Roosevelt with few political options. Even on the military front, events were not going smoothly for the Western Allies, with their forces meeting stiff German resistance in the Ardennes. A further conference with Stalin was a necessity.

However, before the Marshal of the Soviet Union would agree to a conference, he made sure that the Red Army was as far forward as possible and that the three great capitals of Berlin, Budapest and Prague all lay within his grasp. On 17 January 1945 the Red Army also occupied what was left of Warsaw and weeks later they captured Kraków, farther south. So, having placed himself in a commanding position, Stalin now acceded to the Western Allies' request for another meeting of the 'Big Three'.

A suitable meeting-place for the Big Three was determined by Stalin's refusal to move very far from home. President Roosevelt was happy to suggest Yalta, a resort on the 'Crimean Riviera'. To begin with there was some confusion as to whether he meant Malta rather than Yalta, but once that was clarified the only problem for Stalin was the physical state of the place. The Germans had left the Crimea as a wasteland, with its countryside ravaged and its roads pitted with landmines. Nothing if not resourceful, the Red Army was ordered to completely overhaul Yalta and the surrounding area. Thirty thousand Soviet troops were brought in to guard the approaching roads and the resort, while 1,500 train coaches arrived from Moscow bearing vast quantities of linen, food, drink and furniture, as well as glass to repair the shattered windows of the villas.

While Soviet troops were patching up Yalta for the conference, the US and British delegations broke their journeys, stopping off at Malta. But if Churchill and his foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, were hoping for preconference discussions with Roosevelt, they would be disappointed. According to Eden, although the president arrived with a great flourish, he was soon tired by his illness and distracted by his daughter, so that there were no talks with the British. Eden recalled that although Roosevelt was sick, there was an abiding feeling that the president and his aides did not want to be 'ganging up' with their British allies, or be seen to be doing so, before meeting the Soviet delegation. This meant that there was no preparation before going into the ring with Stalin at Yalta. As far as the Polish issue was concerned, it was a fatal mistake.



Going into the Yalta Conference, the Western Allies were far from unified. Roosevelt, rather than standing shoulder to shoulder with Churchill, increasingly saw himself as 'an honest broker' between Britain and the Soviet Union. Not surprisingly, Roosevelt's son Elliott also saw him in this role. 'The Russians had a Polish government in Moscow,' he observed, 'and the British backed the old Polish government operating outside of Poland. Father's role was mediator and arbitrator – as it was so important for unity that it continue to be.' Yet unity was not Roosevelt's sole objective. He shared the belief, with many of his advisors, that the American mission in the war should not just end with the defeat of Hitler, but should also help to free colonial people from their masters. American foreign policy was at this time avowedly anti-imperial and Roosevelt made his opinions about the British Empire very clear to Churchill. 'I've tried to make it clear to Winston,' he complained, 'that while we're their allies and in it to victory by their side, they must never get the idea that we're in it just to help them hang on to the archaic, medieval Empire ideas.' It seemed that Roosevelt and his advisors were becoming as suspicious of Britain's post-war ambitions as those of the Soviet Union.

Perhaps Churchill had misjudged the Americans more than the Soviets. As John Lukacs has observed, 'the idea of an Anglo-American union evoked no response in American minds and hearts; it all seemed somehow limiting and backward compared to such things as world government or the United Nations.' For his part, Roosevelt believed Churchill to be cleverer and more calculating – a conviction reinforced by Roosevelt's discovery, some months earlier, of Churchill's deal concerning the partition of the Balkans. The 'naughty document', as Churchill himself christened it, had been conceived when he met Stalin in Moscow in October 1944. During their talks, Churchill suddenly proposed that the countries of the Balkans should be split by percentage into areas of Western and Soviet control. Churchill passed a piece of paper to Stalin on which he had scribbled that 'Russia' could dominate 90 per cent of Romania, while Britain and the US would have a 90 per cent stake in Greece. Yugoslavia and Hungary would be split 50/50 and Bulgaria 75/25, but there was no attempt to arbitrarily split influence in the real problem areas of Poland, Austria or Italy.

What seems a cynical document was, in fact, Churchill's reaction to sudden news. He had heard, via ULTRA, that the Germans were about to evacuate Athens and there was an immediate risk that the vacuum would be filled by communist partisans. He was prepared to sacrifice an already Soviet-dominated Romania for a free hand in Greece, so that the British could advance into Athens within days, and stop a communist takeover. This idea of a 'deal' over post-war Europe also cemented Churchill's belief that Stalin would always respond to a spot of bargaining. The prime minister reasoned that as a man devoid of all moral constraints, Stalin might well come to heel if presented with a straightforward percentage split of control over Europe. However, this assumption relied on the unlikely premise that Stalin would keep his word and that the West could rely on some element of anti-Soviet sentiment in the caretaker governments of Eastern Europe. Both these hopes were soon to be dashed and it was this sense of betrayal that increasingly haunted Churchill and persuaded him that force against the Soviet Union might be justified. Unsurprisingly, when Roosevelt heard about this impromptu deal, he was furious. He had not been consulted beforehand and it merely reinforced his belief that Churchill was pushing Britain's imperial ambitions, or at the very least trying to exclude the US from the European negotiations.

When the British and American delegates arrived at the Black Sea resort of Yalta, they found a surreal world that contained superficially grand palaces. But behind the gloss, the place was a wreck. The British were initially impressed by the 'green cypresses, terra-cotta earth and magnificent country villas', including their own base, which resembled a castle from 'a Grimm's fairy-tale'. The building had to accommodate Churchill, the foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, two field marshals, three chiefs of staff and a host of their attendants. Domestic arrangements were bizarre, as Churchill's secretary recalled:

The Vorontsov Villa boasted several banqueting halls, various reception rooms, a conservatory containing lemon trees and so on; but washing facilities seemed to be neglected. It appeared that Prince and Princess Vorontsov had concentrated more on eating than on bathing. One bath and three small washbasins served this enormous Palace, and in the morning one queued with impatient Generals and embarrassed Admirals, all carrying their shaving kit and wishing that their dressing-gowns had been long enough to cover their bare ankles.

As many as twenty generals could be sharing a bathroom, and the sight of Field Marshal Sir Henry 'Jumbo' Maitland Wilson emerging from the bathtub was not for the faint-hearted. Nonetheless, there was much embarrassment and spluttering when local Crimean girls arrived with bath brushes to administer the Russian ritual of back-scrubbing. So, with spotlessly clean delegates, Yalta (also known as the Crimea Conference) convened on 4 February 1945. Stalin ensured that all the accommodation used by the Allies was fitted with bugging devices, and although the delegates swept their rooms for such devices, they missed many of them, including the exterior microphones fitted to pick up outdoor conversations. So throughout the conference, the daily conversations of Churchill, Roosevelt, their chiefs of staff, and numerous advisors and diplomats were analysed by Stalin and the general staff of the Red Army. Stalin, through the offices of his Soviet Security and Intelligence Service (NKGB), had also acquired a mass of British documents concerning the proposed strategy of the British delegation, so he was well aware of the divergent policies of the Western Allies, especially regarding Poland.

For many attendees it was their first sight of the legendary Soviet dictator. George Kennan, a deputy head of the US Mission in Moscow, summed up what it was like to be in Stalin's presence:

Stalin, when he looked at you, he didn't look at you because he always looked to the side; he held his head on one side, and never looked you straight in the eyes, which to me – I mean I'd read about him obviously – rather betrayed his sort of suspicious, locked-in nature. He had a withered left arm, and he held this in his right hand, with his palms upright, cupped. This was a typical stand of his. But then he'd shake you by the hand very formally; very soft hand, he had ... when I first met him, I got rather a shock because of his very marked Georgian accent. He spoke in short sentences.


Excerpted from Operation Unthinkable: The Third World War by Jonathan Walker. Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Walker. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
List of Maps,
1. 'An Unspoken Fear',
2. Yalta,
3. Three Fishermen,
4. The Plan – 'Quick Success',
5. The Plan – 'Total War',
6. War Clouds,
7. The Plan Delivered,
8. Fortress Britain,
9. US Hawks,

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