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When Churchill wanted the "Russian Bear" to attack

The war in Ukraine leaves deep shock.

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When Churchill wanted the "Russian Bear" to attack

The war in Ukraine leaves deep shock. The impossibility of taking military action against Moscow also plays its part. Our hands are tied - waging war against Russia can only gain a place in the mind as a thought of despondency.

But in history we encounter a similar situation in 1945. In May 1945, none other than Winston Churchill instructed his generals to work out the possibility of an attack "against the Russian bear that had spread across Europe." He envisioned finding a way “to impose the will of the US and British Empire on the Russians to secure an honest deal for Poland.”

The British staff, aware of Churchill's expansive imagination, dutifully went to work. However, their clear formulation of the conclusion left no room for any illusions. "Operation impossible": That's what they called Churchill's idea.

This episode in the immediate post-war period is largely unknown. It only came to the public in 1998 after the release of the relevant papers by the British National Archives in the London Borough of Kew. How to explain Churchill's intention to attack Russia, the wartime ally? And that immediately after the end of the war in Europe?

The point of reference is Poland, the country over which England went to war in 1939. Since the Big Three conference in Yalta in Crimea in early 1945, it became increasingly clear that Stalin would not keep his promises for a democratic Poland, for free elections. The promise he made in Yalta that the transitional government in Warsaw, which he had installed on his own authority, would put the country on a broad democratic basis, sounded hollow. By May 1945, Churchill and all who followed the development had completely lost faith in this.

One reads with shock today what the prime minister still said in the lower house debate on February 27/28, 1945, in which he had to defend the results of Yalta: “I have the feeling that Marshal Stalin and the Soviet leadership have their word sacred to them. I don't know of any government that, despite itself, is more committed to its commitments than the Russian-Soviet one.” Protests arose among parliamentarians: wasn't Yalta Churchill's “Munich”?

"The consciences of English gentlemen and the Conservative Party," said Sir Henry "Chips" Channon, "are devastated at our failure to honor the word given to Poland." what you get in February 1945 is an uncomfortable mirror image of the 1938 debate. The critics had identified Churchill's sore point: the arguments he used to defend his position on Poland sounded oppressively like Chamberlain's words to justify the Munich Agreement.

But Churchill fought back: “I categorically refuse to start a debate about the good faith of Russians now. Such questions, it is evident, affect the future of the entire world. In fact, the fate of mankind would have to be bleak if a terrible kind of schism developed between the western democracies and the Soviet Union.”

But this schism soon loomed like a warning sign before everyone's eyes. In a “World Broadcast” on May 13, 1945, Churchill no longer sounded like good faith in Russian promises: “We must be careful that words like 'freedom', 'democracy' and 'liberation' are not distorted from their true meaning , as we understand them. There would be little point in punishing the Hitlerites for their crimes if law and justice were not established, or if totalitarian governments and police states took the place of the German invaders."

No doubt his mind had shifted. The Red Army was in Berlin; Eastern Europe was vulnerable to Russia's intention to dominate it with "totalitarian governments". Poland threatened to lose its freedom. A disaster for everything Churchill had hoped for. This is how his plan for a "roll back" of the Soviet troops came about in order to provide western demands on Stalin with military pressure at a late hour.

According to Churchill, this should happen before US troops are demobilized in Europe. But what was the actual distribution of power? The Western Allies and their allies would have had 47 divisions to attack, 14 of them tanks, which was a little less than half of all the troops not yet demobilized. 40 divisions were to remain in reserve, for defensive or garrison purposes.

The strength of the Red Army, on the other hand, was 170 divisions at the time. So the superiority was considerable, even if a Soviet division had fewer personnel than a British one. In the case of tanks, the discrepancy to the disadvantage of the West was also striking. "These handicaps," the General Staff report to Churchill put it, "would make an offensive a dangerous undertaking."

The prime minister's instruction included integrating “the German military and what was left of German industrial capacity” into the plan. The recruitment of up to 100,000 German soldiers was considered, "even if active cooperation is initially likely to be limited due to the war-weariness of the German army and the population," as the report laconically stated. As instructed, the staffs calculated the direction of the roll-back, proposing two advances - the line Stettin, Schneidemühl, Graudenz, along the Baltic Sea to Poland; to the second Leipzig, Posen, Breslau, i.e. to the south-east.

The General Staff followed the study, which Sir Hastings Ismay presented to Churchill on June 8, with every sign of professional disbelief that such a plan could have any chance at all. It literally reads: "We feel that once hostilities have begun it would be beyond our strength to achieve quick, limited success, and we must therefore brace ourselves for a protracted war with little chance of success. The prospects would become even more unrealistic if Americans grew tired and indifferent and began to withdraw, drawn by the magnet of the Pacific War.”

The paper concluded: "The idea of ​​an attack is of course fantastic and the chances of success are quite impossible. There is absolutely no doubt that from now on Russia will be the preeminent power in Europe.”

The paper is unique as an example of imagined soaring in Churchill's warlord era, rich in plans and discarded plans. Psychologically, too, his recognition of the new Soviet danger was miles removed from the attitude of the Anglo-American public at the time to the heroic achievements of the Russian ally in the war.

In comparison, the threat to Poland was not too great. As once before, after the end of the First World War, when Churchill hoped to take military action against Bolshevism, his compatriots would by no means have supported an armed conflict against Russia in 1945 either. Not to mention his cabinet and neither the US. Churchill's idea was simply an expression of his deep shock at the perversion of the hopes and intentions of 1939.

In the end he had to bow to the "unthinkable", but he recommended that the General Staff keep "Operation Unthinkable" as a code name, but now for a study in the reverse geographical direction: how England could be defended if the Red Army were to attack the Atlantic coast and the Channel ports in Holland and Belgium should advance. His mind played with all eventualities.

In a House of Commons debate on January 26, 1949, he summed up the view of the “Russian bear” that was deeply rooted in him: “I believe that the day will come when everyone will know beyond a doubt (. . . ) that it would have been an immeasurable boon to mankind to have strangled Bolshevism at its very birth.”

The longstanding WELT correspondent in London Thomas Kielinger wrote the definitive Churchill biography in German.

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