ROB GRIFFITHS remembers the 70th anniversary of Churchill’s bloodthirsty plan to engage Britain and the US in an all-out war with the Soviet Union
OF ALL the 70th anniversaries relating to the end of WWII, one has been passed over by the British state in embarrassed silence.
Seventy years ago this week, one of the greatest acts of treachery in history was very nearly committed.
July 1 1945 was the date set for Operation Unthinkable: a deliberate, cold-blooded and unprovoked military attack by the armed forces of Britain and the US on the Soviet Red Army, their erstwhile ally in the newly victorious struggle against Nazi Germany and fascism.
Two months previously, wartime prime minister Winston Churchill had asked Britain’s military chiefs to examine the practicalities of such action.
Up to 47 divisions of British and US troops, backed by Polish forces, were to launch a surprise assault on Soviet troops near Dresden, with the aim of driving the Red Army back across central and eastern Europe to Russian soil.
Even as British troops were uncovering the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and after their Soviet comrades had liberated the survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Churchill wanted German prisoners of war to be rearmed and used in the anti-Soviet offensive.
Imperial Chief of Staff General Alan Brooke found the notion of Operation Unthinkable shocking, having already noted in his diary on May 13 that Churchill “gives me the feeling of already longing for another war! Even if it entailed fighting Russia!”
Churchill’s abiding hatred of the Bolshevik revolution and the Soviet Union would have surprised nobody.
As secretary of state for war in 1919, he had poured British troops into Russia because the “foul baboonery of Bolshevism” had to be “strangled in its cradle.”
No politician had railed more hysterically than Churchill against Lenin and the Soviet communists during the interwar years, describing them as apes, barbarians, vampires, typhus-bearing vermin, evil “international Jews,” a cancer and the plague.
On May 22 1945, the joint planning staff completed their “top-secret’ 18-page report called Russia: Threat to Western Civilisation. It confirms that Churchill’s proposal was for a surprise assault on the Soviet Red Army — by then already occupying Berlin, eastern Germany and large parts of central and eastern Europe — in order to “impose upon Russia the will of the United States and British empire.”
Central to this will was, supposedly, a desire to achieve a “square deal” for post-war Poland.
The military planners had been told to base their feasibility study on six major assumptions, including that the Western allies would attack on July 1, full assistance would come from the Polish armed forces in exile and the Soviet Union would join with Japan instead of entering the war against it as previously agreed at the request of the US and Britain.
Their report to Brooke’s Imperial General Staff on May 22 reasoned that while a quick military success might induce the Russians to yield, only British and US victory in a “total war” would guarantee permanent submission.
Such a victory would require the “decisive defeat” of Russian forces in Europe, followed by the occupation of sufficient Russian territory to destroy any significant capacity for resistance.
A detailed survey of the immediate balance of military strength (including in the non-European theatres) made the former “most unlikely” while, as the failure of the mighty nazi war machine had shown, the latter was “hardly conceivable.”
In assessing likely Soviet responses to military attack, Britain’s military planners warn that the Czech armed forces would be likely to side with Russia (as it was termed throughout the report), while local communists and Russian ex-prisoners would engage in “extensive sabotage activities” in France, Belgium, Holland and to a lesser extent Germany.
Winning a total war against the Soviet Union would require the deployment in Europe of vast US human and material resources, together with the re-equipment and reorganisation of German forces (beginning with 10 divisions of up to 100,000 troops) and those of all Western European allies.
Hence the report’s most important conclusion: “The result of a total war with Russia is not possible to forecast, but the one thing certain is that to win it would take a very long time.”
In his diary on May 24, Brooke had described the whole idea as “fantastic and the chances of success impossible.”
A synopsis produced for the War Cabinet by the Imperial General Staff on June 8 concurred: “Once hostilities began, it would be beyond our power to win a quick but limited success and we should be committed to a protracted war against heavy odds.”
Churchill’s own chief of staff remarked that this document contained only the bare facts because Brooke and his colleagues “felt that the less was put on paper on this subject the better.”
Although, two days later, Churchill asked for plans should Britain find itself besieged by Soviet forces after a US withdrawal from the conflict, he now referred to Operation Unthinkable as a “precautionary study” of what he hoped was still a “purely hypothetical contingency.”
The planners informed him that Britain was largely defensible except in the longer term or from attack by rockets and “other new weapons.” A few days later, US president Harry Truman told Churchill that there was no prospect of him using or threatening force against the Soviet Union over Poland.
By this time too, as Churchill was aware, the US had developed the atom bomb and was preparing to use it against Japan.
In August 1945 US military authorities drew up a list of 15 Soviet cities to be targeted in the event of a nuclear war. This scenario quickly overtook that of a surprise attack against superior conventional forces on the ground in western or central Europe.
Other developments also combined to bury Operation Unthinkable, at least in its offensive plans, not least the war against Japan, the administration of occupied Germany and the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal.
What neither the generals nor the planners had been asked to consider was the first of Operation Unthinkable’s assumptions — that the action would enjoy full public support across the British empire and in the US, thereby maintaining high morale in the armed forces.
Anyone familiar with British public opinion in May 1945 would have known that such an assumption was patently absurd.
The heroic feats of the Soviet people during the sieges of Stalingrad and Leningrad, the stunning military victories at Kursk and Minsk and then the sweeping advances of the Red Army across the eastern front — where four-fifths of all the fighting and dying in WWII occurred — had thrilled the people of Britain and the world.
Certainly, the British chiefs of staff would have known far better than Churchill that their troops would not had stabbed their Soviet allies in the front or the back within months of VE Day.
Those same soldiers voted overwhelmingly to replace Churchill as prime minister in the July 1945 general election, many disgusted by his warning that Labour rule would mean “some form of Gestapo” in Britain.
When Churchill revealed in 1954 that he had instructed General Montgomery to hold German prisoners ready at the end of the war to be rearmed against the Soviets, even The Times was dismayed.
Stalin had known about this telegram all along, but the existence of Operation Unthinkable was hidden from the people of Britain until papers were released by the National Archives in 1998.
Now, on its 70th anniversary, and as the canonisation of Churchill proceeds apace, it has again become “Operation Unmentionable.”
This also appears in the Morning star.
Rob Griffiths isa contributor to 21centurymanifesto and is general secretary of the Communist Party.