30th September 2009
Some months ago I wrote about a reference I found in an official intelligence report, written by a British officer in Berlin soon after the end of the Second World War, that another war was likely and this time German soldiers and airmen would fight on the side of the British and Americans against the Russians:
“The war between the Russians and the democracies is approaching and indeed has already begun, and Germany will of course be invited to participate. An International Air Brigade is to be formed for use in the war against Japan. Volunteers are invited and will be trained in England. Several offers have been received.”
I was surprised by this, and since then I’ve looked out for other references to people believing that war between Britain, America and Russia was likely, well before relations between the four victorious Allies broke down, the start of Berlin airlift in 1948 and the division of Germany.
While researching a different subject – the way ‘communism’ or ‘Bolshevism’ was described as a ‘disease’, rather than as a set of ideas or a political doctrine, by people in Britain between the wars and after and by Winston Churchill in particular – I came across a reference to Operation Unthinkable. Apparently documents released by The National Archives in 1998 showed that in May 1945, immediately after the end of the war in Europe, Churchill instructed his staff to prepare top secret plans for a surprise Anglo-American attack on the Soviet Union, with the assistance of 10 German divisions, under the codename “Operation Unthinkable: Russia: Threat to Western Civilisation.” The aim of the plan was to get “a square deal for Poland” with free and fair elections based on secret ballots and the participation of democratic leaders from all parties, not just the communists, in the government of the country. For planning purposes, the attack was scheduled to be launched on 1st July 1945.
The military planners soon discovered that the idea was hazardous, to say the least, as the Soviet Union had four times as many soldiers and twice as many tanks in Western Europe, as the British and Americans combined, and recommended it was not taken any further. Churchill gave way and modified the terms of reference to defence rather than attack: covering the “hypothetical” case that US troops would go home, and the island of Britain needed to be defended against an attack from Russia.
But the question remains whether “Operation Unthinkable” was just an isolated example of military planning for all contingencies, and how close Britain, the US and the Soviet Union really were to war in 1945. Here are four pieces of evidence I’ve come across in my research which could have some bearing on this:
Firstly, the curious incident of the missing telegram. In 1954 Churchill said, in a speech in his constituency at Woodford in Essex that, even before the war was over, he had “telegraphed to Lord Montgomery directing him to be careful in collecting the German arms, to stack them so they could easily be issued again to the German soldiers whom we should have to work with if the Soviet advance continued.” This caused a furore in the British press, and rather spoilt the celebrations for Churchill’s 80th birthday, as a number of Labour MPs, including Barbara Castle, refused to sign a Birthday Book in his honour because he had been willing to “use Nazi soldiers against our war allies.”
Montgomery, when asked about this, at first said he had received the telegram, but then could not find it in his papers. Churchill withdrew the remark saying he must have confused one telegram with another and the matter died down.
However, as David Reynolds and other historians have found, in Montgomery’s papers at the Imperial War Museum archives there is a handwritten note, dated June 1959, entitled “The Truth about the Telegram”, in which Montgomery confirms he received a verbal, but not written, order from Churchill to ‘stack’ German weapons, in case they might be needed to fight the Russians.
“On 14th May 1945 I flew to London from Germany to see the Prime Minister to tell him that the problems of government in Germany were so terrific that he must at once appoint a C-in-C and Military Governor…. The announcement was made on 22nd May.
At our meeting in Downing Street the P.M. got very steamed up about the Russians and about the zones of occupation – which would entail a large scale withdrawal on our part. He ordered that I was not to destroy the weapons of the 2 million Germans who had surrendered on Luneburg Heath on the 4th May. All must be kept, we might have to fight the Russians with German help.”
A month later no further instructions had been received, so according to Montgomery:
“On 14 June I got fed up with guarding the weapons. We had signed the surrender in Berlin on 5th June and agreed to set up the Control Commission for 4-Power Government of Germany. So I sent the attached telegram to the War Office on 14 June 1945. Things were pretty hectic in Whitehall in those days, the Coalition government was coming to an end; a general election was announced; it was impossible to get a decision, a firm one, on anything. I got no answer.
I waited for one week. I then gave orders for all the personal weapons and equipment to be destroyed!!
Then in November 1954, Winston Churchill in a speech at Woodford referred, unwisely to the order he had given. He said he had sent me a telegram. It could not be found. There was no telegram.”
Secondly, despite official denials by British officials that there were differences between them and their Soviet allies, rumours abounded that things were not as they seemed. For example in his book ‘Berlin Twilight’ (published in 1947) Lt-Colonel Byford-Jones described the lack of cooperation between the Russians and other victorious allies immediately after the end of the war, writing that:
“If a man builds a high wall round his house, locks his gates, refuses to admit his neighbours, he should not be surprised if the building becomes the centre of morbid curiosity….This illustrates the situation in which the Russian zone of Germany found itself in the eight months after the war’s end….Officers of the Allied forces, with whom Russia had been co-operating in the world’s greatest war, were suddenly treated as would be saboteurs or spies, and were refused admittance into the Russian zone, the frontiers of which, adjoining those of the American and British, were closely guarded day and night….Journalists and broadcasters belonging to Allied and neutral countries were forbidden to enter.
It was not surprising in these circumstances that a new Crusade seemed imminent, that officers talked of little else at one time in their British and American messes over strong Schnaps and Steinhaiger [beer] than ‘the coming conflict’. There was something too ‘cloak and dagger’ about these conversations. One did not mention the words Soviets or Russia or even the Red terror; one spoke of ‘they’ and ‘it’ in appropriately lowered tones, and everyone had the key to the code.”
Thirdly, a key element of Nazi propaganda in the closing months of the war was the attempt to persuade the Western allies that they should join with them in forming a “Bulwark against Bolshevism.” For example in a speech on 2nd May 1945, after Hitler had committed suicide, but before the end of the war on May 8th, Count Schwerin von Krosigk, foreign secretary in the interim German government headed by Admiral Dönitz, said:
“But the more German territory in the east, which ought to form a basis for food supplies for the starving people in the west, falls into the hands of the Bolsheviks, the most speedily and terribly will famine sweep over Europe. Nurtured by this distress, Bolshevism flourishes. A Bolshevised Europe constitutes the first phase on the path towards a world revolution which the Soviets have been persistently pursuing for over twenty-five years.”
Incidentally, this speech, by Schwerin von Krosigk contains one of the first references I have found to the existence of an “iron curtain” separating East and West: “In the east, the iron curtain is advancing even further, behind which the work of annihilation proceeds hidden from the eyes of the world.” This was well before Churchill used the phrase at his speech at Fulton Missouri, on March 5th 1946, to say: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”
Please note I am not claiming that Churchill or other British politicians or soldiers were influenced by Nazi propaganda – if anything this made them take extra care to emphasise the unity of the Allies – but it is still interesting that plans were made to attack Russia, Britain’s wartime ally, despite the enemy they had both defeated saying this was exactly what they should do. (In war you don’t normally do what your enemy says you should!)
Fourthly, how much did Stalin and other Soviet Union leaders know about “Operation Unthinkable? It seems they were, justifiably, very suspicious of British intentions at the end of the war and for several months afterwards. At the Four Power Control Council in Berlin, the Russians claimed, on several occasions, that the British were not meeting their obligations under the Potsdam Agreement to disband the German army. At the meeting on 20th November 1945, Marshal Zhukov, the Russian representative, tabled a formal notice objecting to the “presence of organised units of the former German Army in the British Zone of Occupation.”
Montgomery was incensed by this, writing in a telegram to Arthur Street, the Permanent Secretary of the British “Control Office for Germany and Austria” in London that:
“… it is a mystery to me why it should be thought that we do not want to carry out the POTSDAM agreement in disbanding the German armed forces. We have fought them in two bloody wars and our very existence as a nation has been threatened by them. That we should retain any affection for them or should desire their continued existence is a matter beyond my comprehension.”
Perhaps Montgomery was sincere when he wrote this, or perhaps he was being disingenuous. I don’t know. In any case, by now, in the autumn of 1945, the situation seems to have become very messy. Of the roughly two million German soldiers who had surrendered into British custody at the end of the war, over half a million had been released to work on the land or in the coal mines (under operations codenamed “Barleycorn” and “Coalscuttle”). Others had been sent to the US zone, but around 700,000 were still detained. Whatever British intentions were immediately after the end of the war in May and June 1945, there were now other reasons for not fully disbanding the German army, as Montgomery explained in the “Notes on the Occupation of Germany” held with his papers at the Imperial War Museum:
“There were two main reasons for the presence of the 700,000 ex-Wehrmacht personnel in concentration areas awaiting disbandment … first, we had nowhere to put them if they were disbanded and we could not guard them if they were dispersed in prison camps over our area; second, His Majesty’s Government required 225,000 Germans as reparations labour for the United Kingdom.”
As Montgomery explained in a statement at the subsequent Control Council on 20th November, German soldiers who surrendered at the end of the war were not formally designated as prisoners of war because if they were so described “we should have to accord them certain privileges in conformity with the Geneva Convention. We should be debarred from using them for certain tasks. We should have to feed them on a relatively high scale of rations.”
In addition, the British army in Germany were using some German soldiers, still under the command of their own officers, as so-called ‘Dienstgruppen’ (or service units) to carry out general labouring tasks. As Noel Annan explained in his book ‘Changing Enemies’
“The labour for these schemes was provided by keeping the German army in being and renaming them DienstGruppen, although these had shortly to be dissolved following Russian complaints…”
Somewhat reluctantly, in response to Russian pressure, the remaining captured German soldiers were released, in a process given the intriguing name of “Operation Clobber”, which, according to an army conference held on 4th December was due to start on 10th December 1945 and finish on 20th January 1946 – so you could say this blog post traces British ideas on what to do with the two million German soldiers who surrendered and were interned at the end of the war: from Operation “Unthinkable”, via “Barleycorn” and “Coalscuttle” to “Clobber.”
Some of the original “Operation Unthinkable” documents have been digitised and can be viewed on the web:
On Churchill’s use of medical imagery to describe the “disease of Bolshevism”:
Antoine Capet, ‘“The Creeds of the Devil’ Churchill between the Two Totalitarianisms, 1917 – 1945”, Finest Hour Online, 31 August 2009
On Churchill writing his memoirs and his interpretation of the history of the War, including references to “Operation Unthinkable” see the chapter on "The Unnecessary Cold War” pp 464-486 in:
David Reynolds, In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (London: Allen Lane, 2004)
Montgomery’s handwritten note on the “Truth about the Telegram” is held at the Imperial War Museum archives:
BLM 162: “The Woodford Speech of Nov 1954 and the famous Telegram”
For a description of rumours circulating in the feverish atmosphere of post-war Berlin:
W. Byford-Jones, Berlin Twilight (London: Hutchinson, 1947)
The speech by Count Schwerin von Krosigk is reprinted in Ulrike Jordan (ed), Conditions of Surrender, Britons and Germans witness the end of the war (London & New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1997)
The references to Soviet objections to “organised units of the German army in the British Zone”, the Dienstgruppen and the disbandment of the German army are from:
Montgomery’s Notes on the Occupation of Germany, Part 3 (Imperial War Museum, BLM 87) and M.E. Pelly and H.J.Yasamee (eds) assisted by G.Bennett, Documents on British Policy Overseas, Series 1, Volume 5, Germany and Western Europe 11 August – 31 December 1945 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1990)