THE GERMAN INVASION of Russia on June 22, 1941, transformed the Second World War. The British, through Ultra intercepts, had long been aware of Hitler’s impending onslaught. They persuaded themselves that their intervention in Greece had imposed a delay upon Operation Barbarossa. In reality, a late thaw and German equipment shortages were the decisive factors in causing the assault to take place later than Hitler had wished. The British and American peoples to this day perceive their contribution to the eastern war in terms of convoys heroically fought across the Arctic to Murmansk, bearing massive Western aid. Reality was less simple. In 1941–42, both Britain and the United States were desperately short of war matériel for their own armed forces, and had little to spare for Stalin’s people. For eighteen months after Russia was invaded, the period during which its survival hung in the balance, Western aid was much more marginal than the rhetoric of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt suggested and ordinary citizens in the West were encouraged to suppose.
In June 1941, the immediate impact of Barbarossa in Britain was surprisingly muted. The shocks of the previous year had imposed an anaesthetizing effect. Largely due to people’s gratitude at finding themselves still unscathed at their breakfast tables each morning, their island spared from Nazi pillage, many received tidings of this epochal event with surprising insouciance. Edward Stebbing, a twenty-one-year-old soldier whose impatience with the struggle was cited earlier, felt bewildered: “There is nothing straightforward about this war282. In the maze of lies and treachery it is almost impossible to find the truth.” The Financial Times columnist Lex wrote on June 23: “Markets spent the morning trying to make up their minds whether the German aggression against Russia was a bull or a bear … The majority concluded that whatever happened we could hardly be worse off as a result of Hitler’s latest somersault.” Here was another manifestation of Churchill’s “three-inch pipe” theory about human emotions. Amid a surfeit of drama and peril, many people took refuge in the sufficient cares of their own daily lives, and allowed a torrent of world news, good and ill, to flow past them to the sea.
Most of Britain’s ruling class, from the prime minister downwards, regarded the Soviet Union with abhorrence. The Russians had rebuffed all British diplomatic advances since the outbreak of war, and likewise London’s warnings of Nazi intentions. Until the day of the German assault, under the terms of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact Stalin provided Hitler with huge and material assistance. Only a few months earlier Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister, bargained with the Nazis, albeit unsuccessfully, for a share of the spoils of British defeat. The extravagance of Soviet demands provided Hitler with a final pretext for launching Barbarossa.
In addressing the history of the Second World War, it is necessary to recognise the huge moral compromises forced upon the nations fighting under the banner of democracy and freedom. Britain, and subsequently America, strove for the triumph of these admirable principles wherever they could be secured—with the sometimes embarrassing exceptions of the European overseas empires. But again and again, hard things had to be done which breached faith with any definition of absolute good. If this is true of politics at all times, it was especially so between 1939 and 1945. Whether in dealing with France, Greece, Iraq, Persia, Yugoslavia or other nations, attitudes were struck and courses adopted by the Allies which no moral philosopher could think impeccable. British wartime treatment of its colonies, of Egypt and, above all, India, was unenlightened. But, if Churchill’s fundamental nobility of purpose is acknowledged, most of his decisions deserve sympathy.
He governed on the basis that all other interests and considerations must be subordinated to the overarching objective of defeating the Axis. Those who, to this day, argue that Churchill “might have saved the British Empire” by making a bargain with Hitler, leaving Russia and Germany to destroy each other, ignore the practical difficulty of reaching a sustainable deal with the Nazi regime, and also adopt a supremely cynical insouciance towards its turpitude. The moral and material price of destroying Hitler was high, but most of mankind has since acknowledged that it had to be paid. In the course of the war, the prime minister was repeatedly called upon to decide not which party, nation or policy represented virtue but which must be tolerated or supported as the least base option. This imperative was never more conspicuous than in Britain’s dealings with the Soviet Union.
Between 1917 and 1938, Churchill sustained a reputation as an implacable foe of Bolshevism. Yet in the last years before attaining the premiership, he changed key, displaying a surprising willingness to reach out to the Russians. In October 1938, against Chamberlain’s strong views, he urged an alliance with Moscow, and counselled the Poles to seek an accommodation with Stalin. This line did as much to raise his standing with British Labour MPs as it did to lower it among Tories. In September 1939, he urged Chamberlain to perceive the Soviet advance into Poland as a favourable development: “None of this conflicts with our main interest283, which is to arrest the German movement towards the East and South-East of Europe.” In a broadcast a fortnight later, he said: “That the Russian armies should stand284 on this line [in Poland] was clearly necessary for the safety of Russia against the Nazi menace.” In January 1940, it is true, he became an enthusiastic supporter of Finland, then beset by the Russians. He once enquired about the possibility of bombing Soviet oil fields at Baku, in the Caucasus, to stem fuel deliveries to Germany. Excepting this interruption, however, Churchill showed himself willing to make common cause with the Russians, if they would share the burden of defeating Hitler. This was probably because, even in 1939–40 before France fell, he could not see how else victory was to be accomplished.
He was at Chequers on that June Sunday morning when news came of Barbarossa. He immediately told Eden, a house guest, of his determination to welcome the Soviet Union as a partner in the struggle, then spent the rest of the day roaming restlessly under hot sunshine, refining themes and phrases for a broadcast. He communed with Beaverbrook and Sir Stafford Cripps, the Moscow ambassador who chanced to be in Britain, but did not trouble to summon the Cabinet. When at last he sat before the BBC microphone that evening, he began by acknowledging his own past hostility towards the Soviets: “The Nazi regime is indistinguishable from the worst features of Communism. It is devoid of all theme and principle except appetite and racial domination. No one has been a more consistent opponent of Communism than I have for the last twenty-five years. I will unsay no word that I have spoken about it.” But then he asserted, in bold and brilliant terms, Britain’s commitment to fight alongside Stalin’s Russia:
The past, with its crimes, its follies, and its tragedies flashes away. I see the Russian soldiers standing on the threshold of their native land, guarding the fields which their fathers tilled from time immemorial. I see them guarding their homes where mothers and wives pray—ah, yes, for there are times when all pray—for the safety of their loved ones, the return of the bread-winner, of their champion, of their protector. I see the ten thousand villages of Russia where the means of existence is wrung so hardly from the soil, but where there are still primordial human joys, where maidens laugh and children play.
I see advancing upon all this in hideous onslaught the Nazi war machine, with its clanking, heel-clicking Prussian officers, its crafty agents expert from the cowing and tying down of a dozen countries. I see also the dull, drilled, docile, brutish masses of the Hun soldiery plodding on like a swarm of crawling locusts. I see the German bombers and fighters in the sky, still smarting from many a British whipping, delighted to find what they believe is an easier and a safer prey.
I have to declare the decision of His Majesty’s Government … Any man or state who fights on against Nazi-dom will have our aid … We shall give whatever aid we can to Russia and the Russian people … The Russian danger is therefore our danger, and the danger of the United States, just as the cause of any Russian fighting for his hearth and home is the cause of free men and free people in every quarter of the globe.
Not for the first time in the war, Churchill’s words received the acclaim of most British people, while inspiring doubts among some Tory MPs and senior officers. Repugnance towards the bloodstained Soviets ran deep through the upper echelons of British society. Leo Amery, the India secretary, recoiled from making common cause with Communists. Col. John Moore-Brabazon, minister of aircraft production, was rash enough to publicly assert a desire to see the Germans and Russians exterminate each other. Jock Colville described this as “a sentiment widely felt.”285 Lieutenant General Pownall complained about the limp-wristed attitude which he perceived in approaches towards the Russians by Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and the diplomats of his department. “They think they are dealing with normal people286. They are not. Russians are orientals and need treating quite differently and far more roughly. They are not Old Etonians …” Tory MP Cuthbert Headlam observed with curious detachment: “I don’t suppose that the ‘conquest’287 of Russia will take very long. And what then—presumably either Hitler will make some kind of peace offer based upon our acceptance of the ‘New Order,’” or he will try his hand at an invasion here or push on in the [Middle] Eastern theatre.” Headlam thought Churchill’s posture tactically sensible, but like many other people found himself unable to anticipate a happy ending without the Americans. He fell back upon hopes of loftier assistance: “One feels that God is on our side288—that’s the great thing.”
Among the British left, however, and the public at large, enthusiasm for Churchill’s declaration of support for Russia was overwhelming. Independent Labour MP Aneurin Bevan, an almost unflagging critic of Churchill’s leadership, nonetheless congratulated him on his welcome to the Russians as comrades in arms: “It was an exceedingly clever statement, a very difficult one to make, but made with great wisdom and strength.” Surrey court reporter George King wrote: “I glory in all this289. I have always had a soft spot for the Russians, and never blamed them for their dislike of us. We gave them good cause in the years after the last war … Thank God for Russia. They have saved us from invasion this year.” Londoner Vere Hodgson wrote on June 22: “The Russians have not been too nice290 to us in the past, but now we have to be friends and help one another … So we have got one fighting ally left in Europe. I felt my morale rising.” She added in the following month, with notable sagacity: “Somehow I think Stalin291 is more a match for Hitler than any of us … he looks such an unpleasant kind of individual.” It was never plausible that, in order to defeat Hitler, British people would have been willing to eat one another, but the Russians did so during the siege of Leningrad. Indeed, they endured incomparable horrors between 1941 and 1945, which spared the Western Allies from sacrifices such as Britain’s prime minister might not flinch from, but his people certainly would have.
British Communists, many of whom had hitherto been indifferent to the war, now changed tune dramatically. Some, like Mrs. Elizabeth Belsey, henceforward matched impassioned admiration for Mother Russia’s struggle with unremitting scorn for Britain’s leaders. She wrote to her soldier husband:
I was agreeably surprised … that Churchill received Russia292 so promptly into the circle of our gallant allies. I had thought he might either continue his own war, ignoring Russia’s, or clear out & let Russia hold the baby. On mature reflection, I realise that the course he took was for him the only realistic one. His speech disgusted me … The damnably sloppy picture he drew of the Russians “defending their soil,” and the even-atheists-pray-sometimes attitude towards Soviet women! And the way in which every single speaker on the subject makes it quite frankly clear that whereas we supported Greece for the Greeks, Norway for the Norwegians, Abyssinia for the Abyssinians and so on, we are now supporting Russia solely for ourselves … And as for Churchill’s personal record! Who’s going to remind him of his statement that if he had to choose between communism & fascism he wasn’t sure he’d choose communism?
Churchill derived Micawberish satisfaction from the fact that Hitler’s lunge eastward signified that “something had turned up.” But he shared with his generals a deep scepticism about Russia’s ability to withstand the Wehrmacht. A year earlier, tiny Finland had humiliated the Red Army. British national pride argued that it was wildly implausible for Russia to repulse Hitler’s legions, where the combined might of the French and British armies had failed to do so in 1940. Pownall wrote on June 29: “It’s impossible to say how long Russian resistance293 will last—three weeks or three months?” The best that Britain’s service chiefs sought from the new Eastern Front, following the launching of Barbarossa, was that the Russians might hold out until winter. British troops continued making preparations against a German descent on the home shore, partly because there was no other credible occupation for them. Pownall expressed scepticism: “I don’t believe Winston is at heart294 a believer in invasion of this country. Of course he can’t say that, because everyone would then immediately slacken off.”
Much of the British Army—a substantially larger part than that deployed in the Middle East—stayed in Britain, where it would remain for three more years, to the chagrin of the Russians and later also of the Americans. Of some twenty-five infantry and four armoured divisions at home, only perhaps ten were battleworthy. There was no purpose in shipping formations to the Middle East, or for that matter to Britain’s eastern empire, any faster than they could be equipped with tanks, antitank guns, automatic weapons and artillery. All these things remained in short supply. It was considered necessary to sustain production of weapons and aircraft known to be obsolete, because introduction of new designs imposed delays that seemed unacceptable. A host of ill-equipped, half-trained, profoundly bored British soldiers lingered in their own country month after month, and eventually year after year, while much smaller numbers of their comrades fought abroad. Alan Brooke, C-in-C Home Forces, complained how difficult it was to hone units to fighting pitch when they lacked the stimulus of action.
Moreover, the overwhelming bulk of the RAF’s fighter strength continued to be deployed in southern England, conducting “sweeps” over northern France which were deemed morally important, but cost the RAF far greater losses than the Luftwaffe—411 pilots between June and September, for 103 Luftwaffe aircraft shot down (though the RAF claimed 731). Generals and admirals fumed at this use of air resources. Fighters were of priceless value in the Middle East and over the Mediterranean. When Admiral Cunningham was told that he was to become a Knight Grand Cross of the Bath, he responded tartly that he would rather be given three squadrons of Hurricanes. “Why the authorities at home295 apparently could not see the danger of our situation in the Mediterranean without adequate air support passed my comprehension,” he wrote. There was a further difficulty, which would handicap the RAF for the rest of the war: the Spitfire and Hurricane were superb interceptors, ideal for home defence, but had very limited fuel endurance. The farther afield the war extended, the more severely Britain suffered from lack of long-range fighters. The Royal Navy lacked good carrier aircraft until American types became available in 1944–45. The large home deployment of fighters was justified by the Chiefs of Staff on the grounds that if Hitler launched an invasion, the RAF would play the critical role in national defence. It nonetheless seems an important strategic mistake that Britain retained extravagantly large air forces on domestic airfields—seventy-five squadrons of day fighters against thirty-four in the whole of the Middle and Far East in late 1941—even after most of the Luftwaffe had departed for the Eastern Front. Britain remained heavily overinsured against invasion well into 1942, at important cost to its overseas battlefield forces.
If Hitler, rather than turn east, had instead chosen to increase pressure on Britain, and even if he still flinched from invasion, he might have intensified the night blitz, seized Gibraltar and Malta, reinforced Rommel, and expelled the Royal Navy from the Mediterranean. Had these things come to pass, it is by no means assured that Churchill could have retained the premiership. As it was, providence lifted the spectre of immediate catastrophe in the west—if only the Atlantic convoy routes could be kept open. Here, in mid-1941, Ultra’s role became critical. More and more German naval signals, above all orders to U-boats at sea, were being broken at Bletchley Park in “real time.” From July, some convoys were successfully diverted away from known submarine concentrations, substantially reducing losses.
The critical choice for Britain, after June 22, 1941, was how far to deplete its own inadequate armoury to aid the Russians. The Cretan experience intensified British paranoia about paratroops. It was feared that German night airborne landings in southern England might negate all calculations about the Royal Navy’s and the RAF’s ability to frustrate an amphibious armada. On June 29, Churchill offered the War Office one of his more fanciful projections: “We have to contemplate the descent from the air of perhaps a quarter of a million parachutists, glider-borne or crash-landed aeroplane troops. Everyone in uniform, and anyone else who likes, must fall upon these wherever they find them and attack them with the utmost alacrity—‘Let every one / Kill a Hun.’”
Against this background, the service ministers and Chiefs of Staff strongly opposed sending planes and tanks to Russia. Here was a mirror image of the debate in Washington about Britain. Churchill’s soldiers, sailors and airmen displayed as much reluctance as their American brethren had done a year earlier to dispatch precious weapons to a nation that might be defeated before they could be put to use.
The Russians scarcely assisted their own cause. On the one hand, they made fantastic demands upon Churchill’s government: for twenty-five British divisions to be shipped to Russia; for an army to stage an immediate landing on the Continent, to force the Germans to fight on a “second front”—a phrase of which much more would be heard. On the other hand, they confronted British diplomats and soldiers in Russia with a wall of silence about their own struggle. An American guest at a London lunch party dominated by political grandees wrote afterwards: “It was quite evident that all of the Britishers296 were deeply distrustful of the Russians. Nobody really knew much about what was happening.”
Until the end of the war, the British learned more about the Eastern Front from Ultra intercepts of enemy signals than from their supposed allies in Moscow. Many German operational reports were swiftly available in London. Rigorous security sought to conceal from the enemy the fact that Bletchley Park was breaking their codes. Churchill was much alarmed by a report which appeared in the Daily Mirror headed SPIES TRAP NAZI CODE. The story began: “Britain’s radio spies are at work297 every night … taking down the Morse code messages which fill the air … In the hands of experts they might produce a message of vital importance to our Intelligence Service.” The Mirror piece was published in absolute ignorance of Ultra, and merely described the activities of British amateur radio “hams.” But Churchill wrote to Duff Cooper, then still information minister, deploring such reporting. He was morbidly sensitive to the peril of drawing the slightest German attention to their radio security.
Yet there were dangerous indiscretions, including one by the prime minister himself in a BBC broadcast on August 24. He drew upon Ultra intercepts to highlight the numbers of civilians being murdered by the SS in Russia. The Germans noticed. Hitler’s top police general, SS-Obergruppenführer Kurt Daluege, signalled all his units on September 13: “The danger of enemy298 decryption of wireless messages is great. For this reason only non-sensitive information should be transmitted.” It was fortunate that the German high command failed to draw more far-reaching conclusions from Churchill’s words.
In the first weeks after the panzers swept across the Soviet frontier, intelligence revealed that the Russians were suffering colossal losses of men, tanks, planes and territory. Everything the War Office could learn confirmed the generals’ predisposition to assume that Stalin would be beaten. Only two important powers in Britain pressed the case for aid to Russia. The first was public opinion. Beyond the orbit of senior officers, aristocrats and businessmen who disliked the Soviets, Barbarossa unleashed a surge of British sentiment, indeed sentimentality, in favour of the Russian people, which persisted until 1945. Factories and shipyards, where Communist trade unionists had hitherto shown lukewarm support for a “bosses’ war,” were suddenly swept by enthusiasm for Russia. Communist Party membership in Britain rose—not least because frank discussion of the Soviet regime’s barbarity was suspended for the duration. The British people nursed a shame about their own defeats, a guilt that their nation was accomplishing so little towards the defeat of Hitler, which would be ever more stridently articulated in the years ahead.
Then there was the prime minister. In the matter of Russia, as in his defiance of Hitler a year earlier, he embraced a policy which entirely accorded with the public mood: all aid to Britain’s new comrades-in-arms. American military attaché Raymond Lee found it droll to see the Soviet ambassador, Ivan Maisky, “almost a pariah in London299 for so many years,” now communing constantly with Churchill, Eden and U.S. ambassador John “Gil” Winant. Churchill’s bigness on this issue emphasised the smallness of most of his colleagues. He perceived that whatever the difficulties, however slight the prospect of success, it must not be said that Russia suffered defeat because Britain failed to do what it could to assist her. At first, following Barbarossa, he pressed the Chiefs of Staff for a landing in northern Norway, to open a direct link to the Red Army. When this notion was quashed, in large part because Norway lay beyond range of land-based air cover, he ordered that every possible tank and aircraft, including some bought by Britain from the Americans, should be shipped to Stalin. There persisted, however, a very long day’s march—much longer than most historians have allowed—between intent and effective implementation. Through the summer of 1941, while Russia’s survival hung in the balance, pitifully little war matériel was dispatched.
As for the United States, the country was at first uncertain what to make of the new situation. Roosevelt sounded almost flippant in a letter to U.S. ambassador Adm. William Leahy in Vichy on June 26: “Now comes this Russian diversion. If it is more than just that it will mean the liberation of Europe from Nazi domination—and at the same time I do not think we need worry about any possibility of Russian domination.” But the isolationist Chicago Tribune asked why the United States should ally itself with “an Asiatic butcher and his godless crew.” The New York Times remained hesitant even in August: “Stalin is on our side today. Where will he be tomorrow?” Senator Bennett Champ Clark of Missouri shrugged, saying, “It’s a case of dog eat dog.” Archisolationist Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana declared his matching contempt for Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt.
The U.S. Chiefs of Staff were even more reluctant to see weapons shipped to Russia than to Britain. Though the president forcefully expressed his determination to aid Stalin’s people, months elapsed before substantial U.S. matériel moved. At the beginning of August, Roosevelt berated the State and War departments for their failure to implement his wishes on aid: “The Russians feel that they have been given the run-around in the United States.” By the end of September, only $29 million worth of supplies had been dispatched. There was a sharp contrast between U.S. financial treatment of Britain and Russia. Where Britain in 1940–41 was obliged to sell its entire negotiable assets to pay American bills before receiving Lend-Lease aid, when Washington put a similar proposal to Moscow it was angrily rejected. Roosevelt acquiesced with a docility the British would have welcomed for themselves. American supplies to Russia were provided gratis, under Lend-Lease. But progress towards implementation remained slow. As in Britain, there was a lack of will as well as of immediate means.
The absence of Western aid made it all the more urgent that Britain should be seen to fight in the west, that the desert army should once more take the offensive. Auchinleck, “an obstinate, high-minded man”300 as Churchill described him in an unpublished draft of his war memoirs, insisted that he could not attack before autumn. Operation Crusader, as the new desert push was code-named, was repeatedly postponed. Churchill chafed and fulminated, even muttering implausibly about replacing Auchinleck with Lord Gort. But he continued to receive the same message from Cairo. The only bright spot in North Africa was the continuing defence of Tobruk by the 7th Australian Division. Churchill was exasperated beyond measure later in the year when the Australian government, in Canberra, by then led by Labor’s John Curtin after Robert Menzies’s eviction from power, insisted that this formation should be evacuated from the beleaguered port and replaced by British troops. On August 25, British forces entered Persia after the pro-Nazi shah’s rejection of an ultimatum from London, demanding the expulsion of several hundred Germans from the country. Churchill and Eden shared an embarrassment about the Persian incursion, intensified when Russian forces moved into the north of the country. Persia became an important supply route for aid to Stalin, but the British were conscious that their seizure of power there echoed Hitler’s method of doing business.
At home, Churchill urged the RAF’s Bomber Command to intensify its night attacks on German industry. Yet these were not merely ineffectual, they were also shockingly costly. Between August 1 and 18 alone, 107 British bombers were lost over Germany and France. The night blitz on Britain incurred Luftwaffe losses of less than 1 percent for each raid, a substantial proportion of these to accidents. Yet the RAF’s wartime bomber losses averaged 4 percent. This was a sobering statistic for young aircrew obliged to carry out thirty sorties to complete a tour of operations. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy’s heroic and bloody Mediterranean convoy battles to sustain the defence of Malta commanded much media attention, but did nothing to divert German attention from the east.
As the Russians fell back, whole armies disintegrating before the Nazi juggernaut, Stalin was infuriated when Eden and Lord Moyne, government leader in the House of Lords, made speeches ruling out any prospect of an early Second Front. The ministers’ intention was, of course, to quash speculation at home. But in Moscow, their remarks were perceived as crass. They obliged Hitler, by explicitly forswearing any threat to his rear. Stalin cabled Maisky at the end of August: “The British government, by its passive301, waiting policy, is helping the Nazis. The Nazis want to knock off their enemies one at a time—today the Russians, tomorrow the British … Do the British understand this? I think they do. What do they want out of this? They want us to be weakened. If this suspicion is correct, we must be very severe in our dealings with the British.”
British efforts to guard secrets from their new cobelligerent were fatally compromised by the plethora of Communist sympathisers, headed by Donald Maclean and John Cairncross, who had access to privileged information. More British documents, cables, committee minutes and Ultra intercepts were passed to the Soviet Union than Russia’s intelligence service had resources to translate. For instance Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s intelligence chief, reported to his leader on August 28, 1941:
We would like to inform you on the contents302 of a telegram from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of England dated 18 August this year addressed to the English ambassador to the USA. Contents of this telegram have been obtained by the Intelligence Department of NKVD of the USSR in London using our agents. “In response to Paragraph 3 of your telegram No. 3708 of 8 August. Our attitude towards Russians will be determined entirely on the principle of reciprocity. We must make them open their military installations and other objects of interest to our people in Russia. So far we have shown Russians almost nothing. In the near future they will be shown factories producing standard weapons. They will not, however, be admitted to experimental plants. Chiefs of staff have established the general principle for all institutions, whereby Russians can only be given such information or reports as would be useless to the Germans even if they gained possession of them … We hope that American authorities will not exceed the limits to which we adhere.
Such privileged insights into British thinking did nothing to persuade the Russians to lift the obsessive secrecy cloaking their own military and industrial activities.
For all Churchill’s professions of enthusiasm about dispatching war matériel from Britain, precious little was happening. Within his own government, the policy commanded wholehearted support only from Eden and Beaverbrook. Lord Hankey was among those who openly opposed aiding Stalin, urging instead a higher priority for the Atlantic battle. Churchill declared in a BBC broadcast on September 9 that “large supplies are on the way” to the Soviet Union. Three weeks later he told the House of Commons: “In order to enable Russia to remain303 indefinitely in the field as a first-class war-making power, sacrifices of the most serious kind and the most extreme efforts will have to be made by the British people, and enormous new installations or conversions from existing plants will have to be set up in the United States, with all the labour, expense and disturbance of normal life which these entail.”
Yet the Chiefs of Staff’s objections delayed even a shipment of two hundred U.S.-built Tomahawk fighters and a matching number of Hurricanes promised to Stalin by the prime minister. These planes reached Russia at the end of August. Otherwise, Britain’s main contribution by autumn was a consignment of rubber. Churchill’s people were as bemused as Moscow was angered by Britain’s failure to employ its own forces in some conspicuous emergency action to distract the Germans. Surrey court reporter George King wrote on September 16: “Hitler is throwing all he has got into the Eastern battles304. I think we all wish here we could strike him somewhere in the West, but I suppose we are not ready yet.” And again a few weeks later: “The marvellous Russians are still holding the enemy.”
Late in September, the British government undertook an important initiative. Lord Beaverbrook, now minister of supply, sailed for Russia with a twenty-two-member British delegation including Ismay, Churchill’s chief of staff, and accompanied—remarkably, given that the United States was still a nonbelligerent—by eleven Americans led by Averell Harriman, Roosevelt’s emissary. “Make sure we are not bled white,” Churchill told Beaverbrook on parting. But Beaverbrook was determined to stretch out a hand to Stalin, to demonstrate a goodwill and generosity beyond anything the British government and Chiefs of Staff had mandated. In three meetings with Stalin, at which the Russian leader displayed insatiable curiosity about Churchill, Beaverbrook deployed all his charm and enthusiasm. He swallowed Stalin’s insults—“What is the use of an army if it does not fight? … The paucity of your offers shows you want to see the Soviet Union defeated.” The press lord sought to amuse as well as encourage the warlord. A civil servant observed cynically that Beaverbrook and Stalin achieved a rapport because they were both racketeers. The British promised tanks, planes and equipment—explicitly 200 aircraft and 250 tanks a month—while Harriman, on behalf of the Americans, offered matching largesse. The British proposal represented between a quarter and a third of 1941–42 domestic production of fighters, and more than a third of tank output. It was as much as any minister could have offered, but the Russians considered it nugatory in the context of the titanic struggle to which they were committed.
Beaverbrook returned to London on October 10 in messianic mood. In public, he praised to the skies Stalin and his nation. To the Defence Committee of the War Cabinet, he wrote: “There is today only one military problem—how to help Russia. Yet on that issue the chiefs of staff content themselves with saying that nothing can be done.” So violently did he press the Russian case that Ian Jacob of the War Cabinet Secretariat became persuaded that he aspired to supplant Churchill as prime minister. Beaverbrook urged an immediate landing in Norway, while from Moscow Cripps cabled, proposing that British troops should be sent to reinforce the Red Army. Thenceforward, Beaverbrook became the foremost advocate of an early Second Front, exploiting his own newspapers to press the case. It is sometimes suggested that he made his only important contribution to Britain’s war effort during the summer of 1940, as minister of aircraft production. But his intervention in the autumn of 1941, to demand supplies for Russia, was of even greater significance. At a time when many others in London, commanders and ministers alike, were dragging their feet, the press baron’s intemperate zeal made a difference to both public and political attitudes.
Beaverbrook’s subsequent Second Front campaign, of which more will be said below, was irresponsible and disloyal. He displayed naïveté or worse in his extravagant eulogies of the Soviet Union, ignoring and even denying the bloodstained nature of Stalin’s tyranny in a fashion Churchill never stooped to. Alan Brooke was among those who harboured lasting bitterness about the commitments which Beaverbrook made in Moscow, which he considered irresponsibly generous. Yet as minister of supply, Beaverbrook grasped a fundamental point that more fastidious British politicians, generals and officials refused to acknowledge. Whatever the shortcomings of Russia as an ally, the outcome of the struggle in the east must be decisive in determining Britain’s fate. The North African campaign might loom large in British perceptions and propaganda, but was of negligible importance alongside Stalin’s war. If Hitler overwhelmed Russia, he might become invincible in Europe even if America later entered the war.
Until March 1942, when the Germans awoke to the importance of interdicting Allied supplies and strongly reinforced their air and naval forces in northern Norway, convoys to Russia were almost unmolested, and only two British ships were lost. Churchill appointed Beaverbrook chairman of a new Allied Supplies Executive, to plan and supervise deliveries. Yet even with his support, shipments remained modest. The British dispatched obsolescent Hurricanes, many of which arrived damaged; U.S.-built Tomahawk fighters, which the Russians found unreliable, and for a time grounded; together with tanks and Boyes antitank rifles, which the British Army recognised as inadequate. The second so-called PQ convoy to Russia sailed only on October 18, 1941, the third on November 9. In their desperation, the Russians came as near as ever in the war to displaying gratitude. A Soviet admiral said later: “I can still remember with what close attention305 we followed the progress of the first convoys in the late autumn of 1941, with what speed and energy they were unloaded in Archangel and Murmansk.”
Lord Hankey, however, wrote with malicious satisfaction about the perceived hypocrisy of Beaverbrook’s enthusiasm for arming Russia, when as minister of supply he was responsible for the shortcomings of British tank production: “Now I have to bring to light the fact306 that he is building nothing but dud tanks when he is vociferously appealing to the workers to work all day and all night to produce for Russia innumerable Tanks—all dud Tanks.” The Russians valued the Valentine, which coped with the conditions of the Eastern Front much better than the Matilda, which was also shipped in quantity. But they quickly grasped that most of the weapons dispatched from Britain were those its own forces least wanted. They scarcely helped themselves by contemptuously dismissing British offers of technical instruction. The new users’ unfamiliarity caused much equipment to be damaged or destroyed. Several Russian pilots killed themselves by attempting to take off without releasing their Tomahawks’ brakes.
When large-scale American supplies reached Russia in 1943–44, these exercised a dramatic influence on the feeding and transport of the Red Army. The Russians soon lost interest in tanks and planes, which they preferred to build for themselves, seeking instead American trucks, boots, technical equipment, aluminium and canned meat. It is arguable that food deliveries narrowly averted starvation in Russia in the winter of 1942–43. U.S. shipments eventually totalled £2.5 billion, against Britain’s £45.6 million. Allied aid is thought to have contributed 10 percent to the Soviet war effort in 1943–44—but only 5 percent in 1942, and a negligible proportion in 1941. Chris Bellamy, among the best-informed Western historians307 of the Soviet Union’s war, suggests that while such a contribution seems marginal, when the Soviet Union hung close to defeat it may have been decisive.
In 1941–42 the British and Americans cannot realistically be blamed for dispatching so little to Russia, because both weapons production and shipping were inadequate to meet their own needs. The relevant point is merely that there was a chasm between Anglo-American rhetoric and the real Western contribution. In the first year after Barbarossa was launched, of 2,443 tanks promised by the Western powers only 1,442 arrived on time, together with 1,323 of 1,800 aircraft. During this period, the Russians were themselves producing two thousand tanks a month—most of notably higher quality than those shipped to Murmansk and Archangel. The Red Army sometimes lost a thousand tanks a week on the battlefield.
By the autumn of 1941, the tension between popular enthusiasm in Britain for Stalin’s people and contempt for the Russians in some parts of the war machine was imposing intense pressure on the prime minister. An Observer columnist suggested that Russia’s entry into the war fed Britain’s instinctive complacency: “The effect upon us psychologically308 is unhealthy. We have found a short cut to victory … We settle back to read with satisfaction how our air offensive against Germany is helping our great Soviet ally. With Russia and U.S.A. on our side, now surely all will be well.” Edward Stebbing, discharged from the army and working as a laboratory technician, wrote in October: “My main feeling is one of bitter309, flaming anger at the inertia of our government … our help to Russia has been almost negligible.”
Even as Stebbing was penning his angry reflections, the prime minister warned Middle East Command of “the rising temper of the British people310 against what they consider our inactivity.” To his son, Randolph, in the Middle East, he described on October 31 the sniping of his critics in Parliament and Beaverbrook’s frequent threats of resignation: “Things are pretty hard here311 … The Communists are posing as the only patriots in the country. The Admirals, Generals and Air Marshals chant their stately hymn of ‘Safety First.’ … In the midst of this I have to restrain my natural pugnacity by sitting on my own head. How bloody!” Gen. John Kennedy wrote in his diary in September: “The fundamental difficulty is that altho312 we want the Germans to be knocked out above all, most of us feel … that it would not be a bad thing if the Russians were to be finished as a military power too … The CIGS constantly expresses his dislike of the Russians … The Russians on their side doubtless feel the same about us.”
Pownall, Dill’s vice chief, wrote in October: “Would that the two loathsome monsters313, Germany and Russia, drown together in a death grip in the winter mud.” Oliver Harvey, at the Foreign Office, was astonished by the strength of ill will towards Moscow within the government: “The Labour ministers314 … are as prejudiced as the P.M. against the Soviets because of their hatred and fear of the Communists at home.” Churchill himself, according to the diplomat, was prone to spasms of doubt about how far aid to Russia was cost-effective: “After his first enthusiasm, he is now getting bitter as the Russians become a liability and he says we cannot afford the luxury of helping them with men, only with material.”
Yet Churchill recognised how fortunate his nation had been thus far to wage war at relatively small cost in lives compared to those lost by Poland and France, not to mention Russia. He marvelled: “In two years struggle with the greatest military Power315, armed with the most deadly weapons, barely 100,000 of our people have been killed, of which nearly half are civilians.” Such a cool assessment of what would, in other times, have been deemed a shocking “butcher’s bill,” helps to explain his fitness for the nation’s leadership. Robert Menzies, when still Australian prime minister, noted this: “Winston’s attitude to war is much more realistic316 than mine. I constantly find myself looking at ‘minor losses’ and saying ‘there are some darkened homes.’ But he is wise. War is terrible and it cannot be won except by lost lives. That being so, don’t think of them.”
Churchill, once more desperate for military theatre, urged the War Office to accelerate plans for raids on the Continent. “The Army must do something317—the people want it,” he told John Kennedy and the director of military intelligence during a lunch at Downing Street. “Surely this [is] within our powers—The effects might be enormous—The Germans engaged in Russia—now [is] the time.” Kennedy wrote: “Winston is in a difficult position318. He is hard pressed politically to take action while Russia is struggling so desperately. He keeps saying ‘I cannot hold the position.’ The difficulty is that with a disaster the position may be harder to hold.” News from the Eastern Front was unremittingly grim. The Red Army’s losses were appalling. A great swath of Stalin’s empire had already fallen to Hitler. Churchill, after a meeting with his generals on October 11, bade them farewell with a mournful headshake: “Yes, I am afraid Moscow is a gone coon,”319 he said, padding off along the Downing Street passage towards his afternoon nap.
The Soviet Union had not the smallest moral claim upon Britain. Even if Churchill had stripped his own nation’s armed forces and dispatched heavier shipments to Murmansk after Barbarossa was launched, the impact on the early Eastern Front campaigns would have been small. As it was, the Chiefs of Staff were dismayed by the impact of aid to Russia upon British tank and aircraft strengths in the Middle and Far East, which were anyway grievously inadequate. Worse, American deliveries to Britain were significantly cut so that Roosevelt could meet his own commitments to Stalin. Given the weakness of British arms in 1941, it was unrealistic to suppose that Churchill could have done much more. In 1942, however, a yawning gap opened between British and American undertakings, and quantities of matériel delivered. It was ironic, of course, that the boundlessly duplicitous Soviets should thereupon have proclaimed, and even sincerely harboured, moral indignation towards Britain and the United States. But the principal reality of subsequent military operations would be that Russians did most of the dying necessary to undo Nazism, while the Western powers advanced at their own measured pace towards a long-delayed confrontation with the Wehrmacht.
For many years after 1945, the democracies found it gratifying to perceive the Second World War in Europe as a struggle for survival between themselves and Nazi tyranny. Yet the military outcome of the contest was overwhelmingly decided by the forces of Soviet tyranny, rather than by Anglo-American armies. Perversely, this reality was better understood by contemporary Americans and British than it has been by many of their descendants.