Winston Churchill and the Soviet Union during the Second World War

The Historical Journal, 30, 2 (1987), pp. 415-436
Printed in Great Britain
Simon Fraser University
When thinking of Churchill's attitude towards the Soviet Union one automatically thinks of him as the most outspoken of the advocates of armed
intervention during the civil war, or as the author of the speech in Fulton,
Missouri, which many people regard as the opening salvo in the Cold War.
During the war, however, when the Soviet Union became a great ally without
whose help the war in Europe could never have been won, his attitude was
bound to be quite different. Even before the Germans launched 'Operation
Barbarossa' thus forcing the Soviets into the Allied camp, Churchill had been
thinking of the Russians as possible partners in the struggle against Nazi
Germany, for however much he detested the Soviet regime, his passionate
determination to destroy Nazism was a far more powerful emotion, and, as
he put it, if Hitler were to invade Hell he would promptly sign a pact with
the Devil.
The British cabinet was not particularly alarmed when the Soviet Union
invaded Poland five days after their German allies, and were relieved when
they were told by the foreign office that the Anglo-Polish Agreement of
August 1939 did not oblige the government to take any action against the
Russians. Churchill went much further than this. In a memorandum for his
cabinet colleagues he welcomed the Soviet invasion of Poland, making the
over-optimistic suggestion that the Germans would have to leave some 25
divisions in Poland to keep an eye on such an untrustworthy ally and he also
felt that the Russians might attempt to build up a Balkan bloc to protect the
Black Sea against a potential threat from Germany. 1 On 1 October 1939
Churchill gave a talk on the B.B.C. in which he described Russia in a famous
phrase as 'a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma' and although he
spoke of Russia's 'cold policy of self-interest' he also stressed the 'community
of interests' between Britain, France and the Soviet Union which could clearly
be seen through the 'fog of confusion and uncertainty'. 2 In a conversation with
the Soviet ambassador, Maisky, Churchill confidendy predicted that their two
countries would soon be fighting together against Hider. 3 No other prominent
politician was prepared to make such a wild forecast, and it would seem to
Martin Gilbert, Finest hour. Winston S. Churchill 1939-1941 (London, 1983), p. 44.
* Ibid. p. 50.
Ivan Maisky, Memoirs of a Soviet ambassador (London, 1967), p. 32.
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have been made more on the basis of wishful thinking than on a careful analysis
of Nazi policy.
Churchill's hopes for a conflict between the Soviet Union and Germany were
further encouraged when the Russians began to threaten Finland. On 16
October his cabinet colleagues were amazed when he said: 'No doubt it
appeared reasonable to the Soviet Union to take advantage of the present
situation to regain some of the territory which Russia had lost as a result of
the last war, at the beginning of which she had been the ally of France and
Great Britain. This applied not only to the Baltic territories but also to Finland.
It was to our interests that the U.S.S.R. should increase their strength in the
Baltic, thereby limiting the risk of German domination in that area. For this
reason it would be a mistake for us to stiffen the Finns against making
concessions to the U.S.S.R.' The foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, was so
appalled by this outburst that he felt obliged to remind the first lord of the
admiralty that Finland had a perfect right to national independence.4
The Soviet Union attacked Finland on 30 November. In Britain popular
enthusiasm for the Finns was immediate and widespread. Their heroic defence
of their country against an unprovoked attack had such an effect on public
opinion that the government was forced against its better judgement to
consider sending aid to Finland, even though their military advisers agreed
that the country would be defeated by May when the Finns would no longer
be able to benefit from the winter conditions. Churchill was carried along by
these popular emotions and agreed to release some Fleet Air Arm aircraft for
use by the Finns and he also strongly supported the suggestion that the United
States should be asked to send credits and planes to Finland.5 But his concern
was not so much to help Finland as to provide cover for his pet scheme for
an attack on Norway in order to cut off the flow of Swedish iron ore to
Germany. 6 The majority of the cabinet came round to the view that since the
Finns were likely soon to be defeated there was no point in sending them any
further aid and feared that Churchill's schemes might very well turn out to
be a repeat performance of the Dardanelles disaster.7
Once the fighting was over in Finland, the British government became
increasingly concerned about the problem of Soviet supplies to Germany and
took up the suggestion, first made by the ministry of supply in October 1939
that the R.A.F. should launch a raid against the oilfields of the Caucasus.
Churchill, who was in favour of this action even though it was diametrically
opposite to his theory of the inevitability of conflict between the Soviet Union
and Germany, suggested that submarines should be sent to the Black Sea and
that a diplomatic initiative should be undertaken to win Turkish support for
this strike against the Soviet Union. 8 Both Halifax and Chamberlain urged
caution and further consideration of the implications of such a foolhardy move.
* CAB 65-2, 85-10, 16 Oct. 1939.
CAB 65-5, 22-5, 24 Jan. 1940.
• CAB 65-12, 68-4, '4 Mar. '94°' British Library, Harvey diaries, 14 Mar. 1940.
CAB 84-9, Ministry of supply to foreign office 31 Oct. 1939; CAB 65-6, 76-6, 27 Mar. 1940.
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Calmer heads prevailed and the proposal to bomb the Caucasus oilfields was
dropped. With the German attack on the West even the most avid proponents
of the scheme were silenced and Churchill returned to his original belief that
Germany and the Soviet Union were bound sooner or later to clash. In his
first letter as prime minister to Stalin he stressed that with the defeat of France
both Britain and the Soviet Union faced a common danger from the German
hegemony over Europe and he expressed the hope that it would be possible
for their two countries to work together to overcome this threat. 9 Even though
British military intelligence insisted that Germany's attitude towards the Soviet
Union was purely defensive, Churchill still stuck to his belief that the Nazis
would attack in the East. At the end of October 1940 he told his military
advisers that Germany would invade the Soviet Union in 1941 in order to grab
the oilfields, but the chiefs of staff discounted this piece of inspired guesswork.10
At the same time he felt that it would be foolish to appear to be running after
the Russians and he vehemently opposed Sir Strafford Cripps' proposal that
Eden, who had recently been appointed foreign secretary, should go to
Moscow, even making the preposterous suggestion that Eden might get
arrested if he went.11 He felt that it would only be possible to start serious talks
with the Russians from a position of strength and this was obviously not the
case in early 1941. He therefore counselled 'sombre restraint on our part, and
let them do the worrying'.1* As evidence mounted that the Germans were
preparing for an attack on the Soviet Union it seemed reasonable to suppose
that they might indeed soon begin to worry.
Although Churchill believed that the signs of an impending German attack
on the Soviet Union amounted to much more than an attempt by the Nazis
to put pressure on their Soviet allies, he still felt that' Bear will be kept waiting
a bit'. But on 3 April he drafted a message for Stalin passing on information
that had been obtained from' Enigma' decrypts:' I have sure information from
a trusted agent that when the Germans thought they had got Yugoslavia in
the net, this is to say after March 20, they began to move three out of five
Panzer Divisions from Romania to Southern Poland. The moment they heard
of the Serbian revolution this movement was countermanded. Your Excellency
will readily appreciate the significance of these facts.'13 Stafford Cripps, the
ambassador in Moscow, refused to pass on this message to Stalin, saying that
he had already told Vyshinski much the same thing but in much stronger
language. Churchill was furious and blamed Cripps' 'obstinate, obstructive
handling of the matter' for many of the difficulties he had with Stalin later
in the war.14 In fact at the time Churchill did not press the matter very strongly
and Cripps was supported in his stand by Eden, the foreign office and the joint
intelligence committee. In part this was because Churchill could not reveal the
• F.O. 371, 24840, 12 June 1940.
F. H. Hinsley, British intelligence in the second world war, (London, 1979), 1, 432.
PREM 3, 395-16, 22 Feb. 1941.
Sir Llewellyn W o o d w a r d , British foreign policy in the second world war, 1, 6 1 1 .
F.O. 371, 49479.
" Gilbert, Finest hour, p. 1051.
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source of his information even to some of his closest advisers who tended to
think that he was over-reacting to rumours, but also because the message itself
was not very urgent, for it emphasized that German plans had been disrupted
by the Yugoslav revolt. Churchill's subsequent harping on the incident and
his sour references to it in his memoirs were largely due to the bitter political
rivalry between him and Cripps which climaxed in a serious challenge to his
premiership in 1942.
By mid-June almost everyone in Whitehall was convinced that the Germans
would soon attack the Soviet Union, but it was unclear what Britain could
do to help. Churchill told cabinet that Germany should be represented as ' an
insatiable tyrant' who had attacked Russia in order to grab the materials
needed to continue the war. His colleagues expressed grave reservations about
having the Soviet Union as an ally and there was general agreement that
Germany would be victorious in four to six weeks.15 The British government
expected the Germans to win yet another resounding victory and yet they did
not draw up any contingency plans to meet this eventuality. Even Churchill,
who was always ready to give advice and council, remained curiously silent.
News that Germany had invaded the Soviet Union reached Chequers
shortly after four in the morning of Sunday, 22 June. Since Churchill had given
strict instructions never to be woken before eight o'clock unless England had
been invaded, his anxious staff waited impatiently for four hours before giving
him the news. He was delighted when his private secretary awoke him with
these good tidings, announced that he would broadcast to the nation after the
9 o'clock news and sent a huge cigar to Eden who was also staying at Chequers
for the weekend. Eden shared the prime minister's sense of relief, but not his
taste for cigars before breakfast.
Churchill went over the outline of his speech with Cripps, Beaverbrook and
Cranborne, but he did not consult the cabinet, nor the foreign office, nor even
Eden. The speech itself was a remarkable performance, the text was only
finished just before the broadcast began. He started by stressing his undiminished opposition to communism and all it stood for and said that the Nazi
regime was 'indistinguishable from the worst features of communism', but he
insisted that in this new situation ' the past with all its follies and its tragedies,
flashes away'. In a most unfortunate phrase which was to cause a great deal
of embarassment later he spoke of'Russian soldiers standing on the threshold
of their native land, guarding the fields which their fathers have tilled from
time immemorial.' The prime minister was obviously so swept away by his
own rhetoric that he forgot that Russian soldiers were standing in the Baltic
states and in Poland - a fact that was not forgotten by the Soviets when they
argued that the speech gave at least tacit recognition to their conquests since
September 1939. Churchill was also very concerned that many of his
countrymen would feel most uneasy fighting on the same side as the Soviet
Union and therefore hastened to a d d : ' This is no class war, but a war in which
the whole British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations is engaged, without
CAB 65-8, 61-7, 19 June 1941.
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distinction of race, creed or party.' He argued that Hitler's invasion of the
Soviet Union was a prelude to an invasion of Britain and t h a t ' 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 peoples in every quarter of the globe. Let us learn the lessons
already taught by such cruel experience. Let us redouble our exertions, and
strike with united strength while life and power remain.' 16
A post mortem on the speech was held at Chequers later that evening. Eden
and Cranborne agreed that the Soviet Union was not a jot better than Nazi
Germany and that half the country would object vigorously to being the ally
of such a power. Churchill dismissed these criticisms, saying that communism
was irrelevant, it was now simply a matter of innocent people being slaughtered
by a brutal invader.17 At a cabinet meeting the following day Churchill asked
his colleagues whether there were any objections to his speech. No adverse
comments were recorded.18 Churchill immediately called for a large-scale raid
across the Channel while the Germans were busy in Russia and endorsed a
fanciful scheme of H. G. Wells to burn down the Black Forest with incendiary
bombs. The chiefs of staff successfully stopped these schemes and tried their
best to curb the prime minister's enthusiasm for sending aid to Russia.
Believing that the Soviet Union would soon be defeated, they felt that this
would be merely pouring valuable material down the drain, and many agreed
with General Ismay that 'the prospect of being allies with the Bolsheviks was
repugnant'.1* The foreign office was equally unenthusiastic, and the fellowtravelling Q.C., D. N. Pritt, complained to Eden that they treated the Russians
like a mistress who suddenly arrives in the middle of a wife's garden party. 20
Churchill was affected by this caution and suspicion and after several weeks
of fighting offered even-money on Hitler being in Moscow by Christmas. Dill
offered 5-4 on, Ismay 10-1 against. With the British defeats in Greece and
Crete, and the desert war going badly, there seemed to be little to offer the
Russians, and with the Germans driving on to Moscow Churchill's odds must
have seemed to many to be wildly optimistic. The general feeling in Whitehall
was that the most that could be hoped for was a brief breathing space.
Prompted by Stafford Cripps, Churchill sent a telegram to Stalin on 7 July
promising every possible help, giving a brief account of the bombing raids on
Germany, promising a 'serious operation' in the Arctic and ending with the
reassurance that: 'We have only to go on fighting to beat the life out of these
villains.'*1 When Cripps handed this message to Stalin he was told that the
" Winston S. Churchill, Tht grand alliance (New York, 1962), pp. 314-15.
Gilbert, Finest hour, p. 1122.
" CAB 65-18, 62-4, 23 June 1941. For further discussion of policy towards the Soviet Union
at this time see: Sheila Lawlor' Britain and the Russian entry into the war', in Richard Langhorne
(ed.), Diplomacy and intelligence during the second world war (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 168-83.
" H. Ismay, The memoirs of General Lord Ismay (London, i960), pp. 223, 225.
London School of Economics, D. N. Pritt Memoirs, p. 525.
Gilbert Finest hour, p. 1133.
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Soviet Union wanted a mutual assistance pact and a declaration that neither
country would ever make a separate peace with Germany.22
Churchill took up Stalin's suggestion but there was strong opposition within
the cabinet to a treaty which, it was feared, might meet with an unfavourable
reception from public opinion. There was also a principled objection to
Churchill's idea that the treaty should say something of post-war frontiers and
the United States ambassador, Winant, was vehement in his opposition to this
proposal. The prime minister came round to the view that it was best to avoid
all political questions and to concentrate on fighting the war, and no mention
of a pact was made in the reply which he sent to Stalin.23 The result of these
exchanges was a declaration signed by Cripps and Molotov which in rather
bizarre Russian-English stated that both powers would ' render to each other
assistance of all kinds in present war against Hitlerite Germany'.
In a note for the first sea lord, Churchill wrote: 'As long as they [the
Russians] go on, it does not matter so much where the front lies.'24 But to Stalin
it mattered a great deal, and in his first note to Churchill since the war began
in Russia he called for a second front in France and a major operation in the
Arctic.25 Although Stafford Cripps urged that: 'What is required now above
all things is some action by us to demonstrate our desire to help even at some
risk to ourselves if necessary,' Churchill ruled out the possibility of any such
operation. He felt that a landing in France would result in a fiasco, since there
were forty German divisions in France and substantial coastal defences, and
after the disasters at Namsos and Crete he would not even consider an
operation in the Arctic. The most he would offer were naval operations in the
Arctic, an R.A.F. base at Murmansk and a joint raid on Spitzbergen.26
The cabinet expected a strong reaction from Stalin to this reply, especially
as Maisky promptly expressed his bitter disappointment and demanded
substantial quantities of military supplies.27 Great was the relief when Stalin
told Cripps that he had 'no questions and no reproaches' and that he fully
accepted Churchill's reasoning.28 Churchill replied to this generous response
by firing off a memorandum to the service departments demanding top priority
for supplies to the Soviet Union and promised Stalin aircraft, raw materials
and between two and three million pairs of boots. He also urged Stalin to talk
to Harry Hopkins who was planning to go to Russia, for Churchill hoped that
the Americans would provide the bulk of the supplies for Russia, since his own
service chiefs were singularly unresponsive to his requests to release material
which was badly needed for the forthcoming offensive in North Africa.2*
Harry Hopkins travelled back to the United States on the Prince of Wales
with Churchill, who was to meet Roosevelt at Placentia Bay in Newfoundland.
He was convinced that the Russians would be able to stop the Germans, but
that they needed supplies to enable them to do the job. He therefore gave strong
- 37'. 29467PREM 3, 395-16, Churchill 10 July 1941.
** Woodward, Bnttsh foreign policy, 11, 16-18.
" Woodward, Bnttsh foreign policy, n, 18.
» CAB 65-19, 67-1, 9 > l y «94'M
«' F.O. 371-29471.
•• Gilbert, Finest hour, p. 1143.
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support to Churchill, who told the president that if Russia were to fall through
lack of these supplies the situation would be desperate. In spite of the resistance
of both the American and the British military authorities, Roosevelt and
Churchill sent a joint message to Stalin promising to send the maximum
possible amount of supplies and suggesting that a supply conference should be
held in Moscow.30 The Americans began to drag their feet over the Moscow
conference and the Russians were characteristically unforthcoming with
information on their war production, weapons or troop deployments. Churchill
urged the Americans to go to Moscow no later than the end of September,
but at the same time he was anxious not to commit too much of Britain's war
production to the Russians and as the Americans were to provide the bulk of
the assistance he was in no position to push very strongly.
A further note from Stalin demanding a second front either in France or
in the Balkans which would draw 30-40 divisions away from the Russian front,
and remarks from Maisky that the British were doing very little for the common
war effort infuriated Churchill. He roared at the Soviet ambassador:
' Remember that only four months ago we in this island did not know whether
you were not coming in against us on the German side. Indeed, we thought
it quite likely that you would, even when we felt we should win the end. We
never thought our survival was dependent on your action either way.
Whatever happens, and whatever you do, you of all people have no right to
make reproaches to us.' 81 To Cripps' call for a 'superhuman effort to help
Russia' he replied that this implied 'an effort rising superior to space, time
and geography' and added caustically that 'unfortunately these attributes are
denied us'. 32
Stalin's reply to Churchill's offer of aid, which rashly ignored the limitations
of both British and American supplies, was yet another demand for a second
front and included the prepostrous statement that: 'Great Britain could
without any risk land 25-30 Divisions or transport them across Iran to the
southern regions of the U.S.S.R.' 33 This amounted to approximately the total
number of troops in the United Kingdom and was greatly in excess of the
number that the Iranian railway could handle. Churchill concluded therefore
that the Soviet leader was living in a world of fantasy. He accepted that the
Russians desperately needed war material but he deeply resented their
ingratitude for what he felt were the great sacrifices being made on their behalf.
The Russians for their part were suspicious that the British would not live up
to their promises and felt that they were in any case being singularly
unforthcoming with support. The Latin tag 'Bis dat qui cito dat' (He gives twice
who gives quickly) which Churchill sent to Stalin did nothing to improve the
CAB 65-19, 84, 19 Aug. 1941; F.O. 371, 29569. Warren F. Kimball, Churchill and Roosevelt:
the complete correspondence, vol. I, The alliance emerging, October ig^^-November
1942, (Princeton, 1984)
p. 227, argues persuasively that aid to Russia was the' most concrete achievement of the RIVIERA
Churchill, The grand alliance, p. 386.
** Gilbert, Finest hour, pp. 1:82-4.
T.O. 371, 29489, 13 Sept. 1941.
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situation. By now he attributed the Russians' surliness to 'the guilt and
self-reproach in their own hearts' for the two years they had been allied to Nazi
Germany, but Cripps insisted that a full and open discussion of peace objectives
and co-operation between the two countries over a new settlement for Europe
was the only way to improve relations between the two countries. Churchill
refused to consider such a course of action, whereupon Cripps threatened to
resign his post as ambassador saying that he was being forced to prepare the
ground 'in a hard frost without any implements'. 84
Cabinet discussed Stalin's message to Churchill of 8 November and agreed
that Stalin should be told that Britain and the United States were bound by
the Atlantic Charter and therefore there could be no question of a bilateral
agreement with the Soviet Union about post-war frontiers. Maisky was told
that His Majesty's government was 'surprised and pained' by the tone of
Stalin's note, but Eden added that he proposed to go to Moscow to settle the
outstanding political differences between the two countries.35 Churchill was
in full agreement with this approach and rejected out of hand the foreign
office's arguments that the Soviets had some reason to be suspicious of the
British. Churchill did not reply to Stalin until 21 November when he suggested
that Eden should go to Moscow with some military experts to discuss all
outstanding political and military issues. Stalin welcomed this initiative and
graciously replied that ' the differences of the state organisation between the
U.S.S.R. on the one hand and Great Britain and the United States on the other
hand should not and could not hinder us achieving a successful solution of all
the fundamental questions concerning our mutual security and our legitimate
As preparations were made for Eden's visit to Moscow, Cripps continued
to insist that a settlement of post-war issues was essential and that the Baltic
States should be sacrificed in the interests of strengthening the Anglo-Soviet
alliance. But the foreign office was uncertain, and the prime minister was
adamant that there should be no discussion of the post-war settlement until
the fighting was over. Stalin was deeply suspicious that the Hess landing in
Scotland on 10 May was all part of a scheme to forge an anti-Soviet
Anglo-German alliance. It was suggested in cabinet that the British government should therefore make a supreme effort to convince Stalin that they
would never contemplate a separate peace with the Germans. Churchill
strongly opposed this suggestion, saying that it might very well be a good idea
to negotiate with the German generals if they succeeded in overthrowing
Hitler.37 Stalin's suspicions were therefore not entirely unfounded, and as
Cripps never tired of pointing out, the British government gave much for his
suspicious nature to brood on.
Eden's visit to Moscow in December was a disaster. He came empty-handed
•* F.O. 29471, Cripps 13 Nov. 1941.
»5 CAB 65-24, fo. 33, Eden to Cripps 17 Nov. 1941.
F.O. 371, 29472.
CAB 65-24, 120-5, 2 7 Nov. 1941.
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and was treated to repeated demands from Stalin for recognition of Soviet
claims to the Baltic states and to Finnish territory won in 1940. Eden tried to
fend off these requests by stating that the Americans would not agree to any
discussion of post-war boundaries.38 Churchill, who was ' reclining in the
mellow sunlight of Palm Beach', telegraphed to Eden that the Soviet frontiers
of 1941 'were acquired by acts of aggression in shameful collusion with Hitler'
and that to recognize them would be ' contrary to all the principles for which
we are fighting this war and would dishonour our cause'. The Soviet Union,
he argued, had 'entered the war only when attacked by Germany, having
previously shown themselves utterly indifferent to our fate, and, indeed, they
added to our burdens in our worst danger'. He was convinced that after the
war they would need Britain's support to get back on their feet again and
therefore it was not necessary to make any concessions. The British government
would abide by the spirit of the Atlantic charter and the Baltic states would
be able to decide their own fate by 'freely and fairly conducted plebiscites'.••
The question of Soviet frontiers was discussed by the cabinet when Churchill
returned to London at a meeting on 6 February 1942.40 Beaverbrook was an
outspoken advocate of recognition of the Soviet claims, Eden sat on the fence,
and Attlee strongly opposed the suggestion. Churchill refused to listen to any
of these arguments and was adamant that all questions of frontiers should be
left until a peace conference, a point of view which many of his cabinet
colleagues felt was an attempt to avoid the issues. Beaverbrook resigned from
the cabinet three days later, saying that he could no longer stay in a
government which refused to accept the Soviet claims.41 Churchill was unable
to make up his mind on this issue which was central to any improvement of
relations with the Soviet Union. He could not decide whether the Russians
were perfidious aggressors in the Baltic states or whether they were simply
defending their legitimate national interests. On 7 March Churchill wrote to
the president that since the Russians had agreed to the Atlantic charter when
they were in possession of the Baltic states, this issue should not stand in the
way of an understanding with them.42 This extraordinary argument overlooked the obvious fact that at this stage of the war Soviet possession of the
Baltic states was purely theoretical. Churchill wanted to avoid having to
choose between the Soviet and the American position on the Baltic states and
ended by leaving it to the Americans to sort out the difficulties. This was no
solution, and the Russians regarded it merely as an excuse.
When Molotov visited London in May 1942 he emphasized the second front
and the post-war settlement, but was content with a treaty which promised
mutual assistance and a guarantee not to seek a separate peace. Churchill was
pleased with the treaty and felt that Anglo-Soviet relations were now on a
completely different footing.43 He ordered the service chiefs to prepare raids
» CAB 64-24, 133-8.
»• CAB 65-29, 17-5.
A.J. P. Taylor, Beaverbrook (New York, 1972), p. 511.
" F.O. 371, 32877.
" CAB 65-30, 68-2, 26 May 1942.
" CAB 65-30, 73, 11 June 1942.
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on the continent later that year and envisaged a full-scale invasion with the
Americans in 1943.44 It soon became all too apparent that the time restraints
were so great that such raids in September were out of the question, but
planning went ahead for a 'hit-and-run' operation at Dieppe which was to
be launched on 18 August. The Soviets continued to insist that Molotov had
been given a solemn promise that there would be a second front that year and
accused the British government of bad faith. The disaster that befell convoy
PQ. 17 led to the cancelling of further convoys, a move which the Soviets
interpreted as a refusal to continue supplies. Churchill reacted to the harsh
criticism from the Soviet government by calling for landings in France and also
in North Africa in 1942 and when he made this plea to Roosevelt the president
replied that the Russians should be made a promise of a second front in 1942.4S
All this was wishful thinking, for the T O R C H landings in North Africa would
make it impossible to mount an invasion of France in the same year. The new
British ambassador in Moscow, the colourful Archibald Clark Kerr, felt that
the only way out of the impasse was for the prime minister to visit Stalin.
Churchill agreed, and in spite of his cabinet colleagues' concern over his health
he arrived in Moscow on 12 August. Churchill reacted very badly to Stalin's
taunts about the lack of a second front and the cancelling of the convoys and
was, as the ambassador put it, 'at his bloody worst and his worst is really
bloody'. He came to the conclusion that what the prime minister really needed
was 'a good root up the arse'. 46 Having insulted his guests by arriving at a
banquet in his honour in his siren-suit, Churchill left the dinner in a towering
rage and was totally impervious to Stalin's determined efforts to charm him.
Back in his dacha, he announced that he was leaving in the morning and would
never speak to Stalin again. Next morning Clark Kerr managed to placate his
tiresome visitor and persuaded him to meet Stalin again. This meeting was
bizarre but on a personal level was successful. Churchill's visit to Moscow was
therefore hardly a turning-point in Anglo-Soviet relations, but a disastrous rift
between Churchill and Stalin had been averted. Churchill genuinely admired
Stalin and felt that his avowal of friendship was sincere. Subsequently he was
to explain some of his more wayward behaviour by suggested that he was a
mere tool of the Politburo - a misleading notion which seems to have
originated with Desmond Morton, Churchill's principal link with the world
of intelligence.
Back in London, Churchill told the cabinet that he was most impressed by
Stalin and ' had formed the highest opinion of his sagacity'.47 He told the chiefs
of staff committee that keeping Russia supplied was ' one of the three or four
most important vital objects before us'. He felt that this could be done by
clearing the Germans out of northern Norway in his pet scheme 'Operation
Jupiter' and then resuming the PQ, convoys.48 This was a further example of
Churchill's impetuosity, for Operation Torch would mean that no landing
PREM 3, 392-2, Churchill to Roosevelt 27 July 1942. Roosevelt to Churchill, 29july 1942.
" F.O. 800, 300.
" CAB 65-31, 118-2, 25 Aug. 1942.
CAB 65-31, fo. 123.
CAB 65-32, 135-1, 7 Oct. 1942, draft telegram to Stalin.
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craft would be available for Operation Jupiter. He was convinced that he had
to make some gesture of help towards the Soviet Union and on 7 October he
wrote to Stalin proposing to send 5 bomber and 9 fighter squadrons from the
R.A.F. and one transport and one heavy bomber squadron from the
U.S.A.A.F. to arrive in early 1943. Stalin did not bother to answer this note
for almost one month, and by then the Soviet position had improved so much
that the Caucasus was no longer in danger. On 13 December Molotov turned
down the proposal flat, arguing that it would disrupt the flow of supplies via
the Persian Gulf.48 Faced with this response from the Soviets, Churchill told
the war cabinet that it was vitally important to open the second front in 1943
as Stalin had ' prompted him' on this point during his visit to Moscow.60
After the Casablanca conference in January 1943, Churchill wrote disingenuously to Stalin suggesting that there might be a cross-channel invasion in
August 1943 if there were enough landing craft. Stalin, who had heard this
proviso before, correctly took this as meaning that there would be no second
front in France before 1944.51 Churchill was perplexed by Stalin's bitter
complaints and told Eden that he felt there were two Stalins:' a. Stalin himself,
personally cordial to me. b. Stalin in council, a grim thing behind him, which
we and he have both to reckon with.'52 Although attempts were made to find
out who made up this putative opposition group within the Soviet government,
the 'grim thing' was never discovered and much time and effort was wasted
in pursuit of this chimera.
After the victories at Stalingrad and El Alamein and the successful
conclusion of the North African campaign, the British government slowly
began to turn its attention to the likely shape of the post-war world. Churchill
was informed of a foreign office proposal for tripartite talks with the Americans
and the Russians on the post-war world when he was in bed with pneumonia.
The head of the northern department wrote to Clark Kerr that Churchill 'on
seeing the telegram emitted a series of most vicious screams from his sickbed
and ordained the whole subject of post-war matters should be dropped at once
like the hottest of hot bricks'.*3 Yet although he did not want to discuss the
post-war settlement, he was convinced that Russia would be the overwhelmingly preponderant power in Europe after the war and proposed that France
should be built up as the main European defence against a potentially
dangerous Soviet Union. The Soviet Union would be the only continental
country able to use force 'and that to a measureless and unlimited extent'. 54
It was clear from the outset that the major problem would be the question
of the Russo-Polish frontier. By 1943 both the British and American governments were prepared to accept the Curzon Line as the frontier, but the Polish
government-in-exile in London demanded the restoration of the frontiers of
1 September 1939. Churchill had tremendous admiration for the Poles, on
" PREM 3, 392-3.
" Woodward, British foreign policy, n, 547.
F.O. 800, 301, Warner to Clark Kerr 16 Mar. 1943.
PREM 4, 30-2.
CAB 65-28, 162.
" F.O. 954, 26 part 1.
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whose behalf Britain had entered the war and who had fought so hard and so
valiantly for the Allied cause. On the other hand, he felt that the London Poles
were a tiresome set of intriguers who, with the exception of the prime minister
General Sikorski, lived in a world of dangerous fantasy. He complained
to the foreign office that he found their 'usual fissiparous and subversive
agitation' singularly irksome.55 When in April 1943 the Germans announced
the discovery of a mass grave at Katyn in which were found the bodies of some
10,000 Polish officers purported to have been shot by the Russians, Churchill's
initial reaction was to tell Sikorski that it was an obvious propaganda move
by the Germans, and he urged the cabinet to ignore the whole incident and
not to allow the Nazis to sow discord between the allies.58
The Poles immediately believed that what the Germans said was true, and
Clark Kerr strongly supported this point of view, but added that he strongly
opposed the idea of an investigation by the Red Cross as this might well prove
Soviet guilt and therefore seriously endanger the alliance.57 Churchill agreed,
disingenuously telling Stalin that he opposed the German suggestion of a Red
Cross investigation as it 'would be a fraud and its conclusions reached by
terrorism'. In short, the British government felt that the Katyn massacre was
acutely embarassing and should be ignored as far as possible. As Churchill
phrased it: 'There is no use prowling round the three year old graves of
At the first sign of criticism from the Polish government, Stalin told Churchill
that he no longer recognized it, then he called on the prime minister to get
Sikorski to change the personnel of his government. Churchill sympathized
and told Eden: ' we must not be too tender with these unwise people. I trust
you will be successful in inducing Sikorski to reconstruct his Government.'88
A few weeks later Sikorski was killed in a plane crash. This was a terrible blow
to the British government, for there was no other statesman of similar stature
among the London Poles, and none who was prepared seriously to negotiate
with the Russians.
In the summer of 1943, the issue of the second front was still the most
important question affecting Anglo-Soviet relations. Churchill told Clark Kerr
that he was tired of Stalin's constant harping on this theme and said: 'Nothing
will induce me in any circumstances to allow what at this stage I am advised
and convinced would be a useless massacre of British troops on the channel
beaches in order to remove Soviet suspicions. I am getting rather tired of these
repeated scoldings, considering that they have never been actuated by
anything but cold-blooded self-interest and total disdain of our lives and
fortunes.'60 Stalin was not impressed by such arguments, saying that a country
that had suffered as many casualties as the Soviet Union was unmoved by the
prospect of a possible 100,000 casualties. Such talk only served to make
» PREM 3, 354-8.
" PREM 3, 354-8.
CAB 65-34, 56-5> '9 APr- '943" Ibid.
*• PREM 3, 354-9, Churchill to Eden 10 May 1943.
•° PREM 3, 237-11, Churchill to Clark Kerr 16 June 1943.
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Churchill even more determined to push on to Sicily and Italy before invading
France, and at the Quebec conference in August 1943 he managed to persuade
the reluctant Americans to continue with his Mediterranean strategy.
The Soviets were angry at the Quebec conference decision to invade Italy
rather than France, and were even more infuriated when they were excluded
from the Allied Military Governments (AMGOTs), the organs by which
occupied Italy was governed. There were noises from Moscow about 'AngloAmerican Gauleiter' and 'Quislings', and there were many people in the
foreign office who felt that signing an armistice with General Badoglio without
first consulting the Soviets was a serious violation of the spirit of the
Anglo-Soviet Treaty. 61
Churchill was by now in a belligerently anti-Soviet mood. At a cabinet
meeting on 5 October Churchill announced that Germany would have to be
strengthened after the war as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, a suggestion
that was warmly supported by General Smuts who attended the meeting. Eden
was horrified at this suggestion and thought that it was part of a larger scheme
to wriggle out of a second front in 1944 and to build up an anti-Soviet bloc.
He decided that he would resign if this was indeed the case.*2 Churchill told
Eden that a ' treaty with SU on her western frontiers would split H of C. I
think we should do everything in our power to persuade the Poles to agree with
the Russians about their eastern frontier, in return for gains in East Prussia
and Silesia. We could certainly promise to use our influence in this respect.'*3
This was mere wishful thinking, for after Sikorski's death there was no hope
whatever of the Poles reaching an agreement with the Soviets on a common
As Churchill prepared to meet Roosevelt and Stalin at Teheran, his
principal concern was with the painfully slow progress of the Italian campaign.
As he wrote to the chiefs of staff: ' The Germans have been able to withdraw
several divisions from Italy, including one from the south of Rome in order
to meet the needs on the Russian front. We have therefore failed to take the
weight of the attack off the Soviets.'*4 He knew that he would have to face
Stalin with a very poor hand, and he arrived in Teheran tired, frustrated, badly
prepared and heading for a serious illness. The treatment of the Polish question
was so off-hand that Stalin must have felt that it was a matter of little concern
to the British government and he was delighted that the western Allies had
granted the Soviet Union the right to establish what were euphemistically
described as 'friendly governments' in eastern Europe. The problem for
Churchill was now to convince the Poles to negotiate with the Russians before
the Red Army overran the country and they would be in no position to resist
Soviet demands. The Polish prime minister, Mikolajczyk, told the prime
minister that he could never accept the Curzon Line, as four million Poles lived
on the other side of it.65
F.O. 371, 37033.
• 3 PREM 3, 355-4, Churchill to Eden 6 Oct. 1943.
PREM 3, 76-12, Churchill to C.O.S. 21 Nov. 1943.
•« Harvey diaries, 27 Oct. 1943.
«s PREM 3, 355-7.
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Churchill was getting increasingly annoyed with the Poles' stubbornness and
wrote to Eden: ' I rather contemplate telling the world that we declared war
for Poland and that the Polish nation shall have a proper land to live in, but
we have never undertaken to defend existing Polish frontiers, and that Russia,
after two wars which have cost her between twenty and thirty millions of
Russian lives has a right to the inexpugnable security of her western border
They [the Poles] must be very silly if they imagine we are going to begin a
new war with Russia for the sake of the Polish eastern border.'68 He then wrote
to Stalin telling him that he hoped to make the Poles see reason and told Eden
that the more frustrated he got with the Poles the more he sympathized with
the Russians. He wrote: 'The tremendous victories of the Russian armies, the
deep-seated changes which have taken place in the character of the Russian
state and government, the new confidence which has grown in our hearts
towards Stalin - these have all had their effect."'
This feeling of good will towards the Soviets was short-lived. The Russians
made it plain that they had no intention of negotiating with the London Poles
and there were already indications that they were thinking of setting up a rival
Polish government under their auspices. Churchill complained that: 'trying
to maintain good relations with a Communist is like wooing a crocodile. You
do not know whether to tickle it under the chin or to beat it over the head.
When it opens its mouth you cannot tell whether it is trying to smile or prepare
to eat you up.' 68 And yet he still found it necessary to remind the cabinet that
'only Russian sacrifices and victories hold out any prospect of the restoration
of a free Poland'. It was hoped that direct talks between Churchill and Stalin
were the best hope for a satisfactory solution to the Polish frontier question.69
This was all the more pressing as it seemed quite possible that fighting would
soon break out between the Polish underground army and the Red Army once
the Soviets approached Polish territory. Churchill's efforts to get the Polish
government to accept the Curzon line were all in vain and a frustrated prime
minister said that Soviet demands on Poland were 'in my opinion no more
than what is right and just for Russia, without whose prodigious exertions no
vestige of Poland would remain free from German annihilation or subjugation'.
But he added the proviso:' If of course the view is adopted that Russia is going
to present herself as a new Nazi Germany ideologically inverted, we shall have
to make what head we can against another tyranny, and this would have to
be borne in mind when considering the position which a chastened Germany
would occupy.'70 Churchill was thus frustrated at every turn. He was uncertain
what to make of the Soviets or to decide whether they would be friend or foe.
The Poles refused to negotiate and the Russians saw no reason why they should
not dictate their own terms. Then he began to speculate that Stalin was the
prisoner of his victorious generals who were determined to keep the British out
Ibid. Churchill to Eden 7 Jan. 1944.
PREM 3, 399-6, Churchill to Eden 16 Jan. 1944.
Arthur Bryant, Triumph in the west (London, 1959), p. 140.
CAB 65-45, I I - I , 25 Jan. 1944.
'• PREM 3, 355-8, ChurchiU 15 Feb. 1944.
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of eastern Europe. He told Eden: 'Although I have tried in every way to put
myself in sympathy with these Communist leaders I cannot feel the slightest
trust or confidence in them. Force and facts are their only realities.' He even
began to worry that the Soviets might ' tip the wink to the Germans and let
them move troops west when we get on the Continent'. 71
As the Red Army marched steadily west, the British government began to
think about the post-war world and the policies the Soviet Union was likely
to pursue. Churchill was slow to turn his attention to this problem, at first being
mainly concerned with the Balkans and with Italy. Fitzroy Maclean told the
foreign office that Tito had no intention of becoming a Soviet official and would
try to play the British and the Americans off against the Russians 'in the
approved Balkan fashion' and he felt that the Soviets wanted a friendly but
independent Yugoslavia and did not seek to excercise direct control. Churchill,
who did not worry what kind of government came to power in Yugoslavia,
provided it did not simply become a Soviet satellite, agreed with Maclean's
assessment and henceforth referred to Yugoslavia as 'Titoland'. 72
President Roosevelt was furious when he learned that Eden and the Soviet
ambassador Gusev had made a deal over Romania and Greece which
established British and Soviet spheres of influence. Churchill replied angrily
that swift action was needed in Greece to stop the country going communist
and that the Russians would be able to do whatever they liked in Romania.
Roosevelt would not accept these arguments and Churchill replied with the
warning that ' I t would be quite easy for me, on the general principle of
slithering to the left which is so popular in foreign policy, to let thingsripwhen
the King of Greece would probably be forced to abdicate and EAM would
work in reign of terror in Greece, forcing the villagers and many other classes
to form Security Battalions under German auspices to prevent anarchy.'
Carried away by the vision of a British policy free from American interference,
Churchill even managed to convince himself that he might be able to persuade
Tito to support the King of Yugoslavia.73
In the summer of 1944 Churchill showed little concern for Soviet post-war
policy. In a widely publicized speech, General Smuts suggested that Britain
would have to sponsor a western bloc to offset Britain's weakness vis-d-vis the
Soviets and the Americans. Eden pointed out in the house of commons that
the Dumbarton Oaks agreement had accepted the idea of 'regional
associations'. There was some talk that this western bloc would also include
Germany. Churchill was horrified at these suggestions. He still saw Germany
as Britain's great enemy. He said that the idea of even considering the Germans
as potential allies was utterly repugnant to him, even though this was being
actively considered by the chiefs of staff and he had made a similar proposal
some months before.74 The foreign office felt that a western bloc which included
PREM 3, 396-14.
" F.O. 371, 48928.
F.O. 371, 43636, Roosevelt to Churchill 11 June 1944; Churchill to Roosevelt 11 June 1944;
Roosevelt to Churchill 22 June 1944; Churchill to Roosevelt 23 June 1944.
" CAB21-1614.
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Germany would make a clash with the Soviet Union inevitable. The chiefs of
staff felt that it was essential to counteract the enormous power of an
expansionist Russia. Churchill did nothing to intervene in this fundamental
difference of opinion, thus leaving the British government without a coherent
policy. Gladwyn Jebb, the post-hostilities planner, complained bitterly that
the prime minister was an 'old autocrat surrounded by his advisors' who was
bored with post-war affairs and refused to give the leadership which was
Churchill's lack of concern at this time with the details of post-war planning
was in part due to his continued hope that cooperation with the Russians was
still possible. Even the formation of a Soviet dominated Polish committee of
national liberation in Lublin did not alter this view and he assured the cabinet
that the Lublin committee were neither communists nor Quislings but genuine
Polish patriots. He told Roosevelt that he hoped that some kind of fusion
between the London and Lublin Poles might be possible, and Stalin's soothing
words on the topic were, he said, 'the best ever received from U J . [Uncle
The attitude of the Soviets to the Warsaw uprising, which Stalin condemned
as a criminal adventure, put an end to this brief period of optimism. Churchill
was strongly affected by the heroic struggle of the people of Warsaw, was
moved by the passionate public support for the insurgents, and true to his belief
that anyone who 'killed Huns', whatever their political affiliations, should be
given every possible support, he placed top priority on assistance to the
beleaguered city. He suggested to the president that if the Russians refused to
let the western allies use their airfields to fly supplies in to Warsaw, further
convoys to the Soviet Union should be cancelled." At the same time Churchill
did not share the popular view that the Russians had deliberately stopped
outside Warsaw to allow the Germans to deal with their political rivals in the
home army. Irritated as he was by the callous attitude of the Soviets, he was
equally angered by the constant complaints and attacks of the London Poles.
Thus in spite of the success of the Normandy landings, Anglo-Soviet relations
continued to deteriorate. Churchill therefore resolved to make a second trip
to Moscow to demonstrate that the British government was determined to
reach a satisfactory settlement of these issues and to demonstrate their
determination to live up to the spirit of the Anglo-Soviet treaty.
The prime minister arrived with the foreign secretary in the Soviet capital
on 9 October 1944 and had his first meeting with Stalin that evening.78
Churchill told Stalin that he stood by the agreement made in Teheran on the
Polish frontiers. Stalin promised that he would try to bring the London Poles
and the Lublin Poles together. After a brief further discussion, Churchill
slipped a small piece of paper across the table to Stalin on which the following
Dal ton diaries, 9 June 1944.
" PREM 3, 355-12, Stalin to Churchill 23 July 1944; Churchill to Roosevelt 26 July 1944;
Churchill to Stalin 27 July 1944; Stalin to Churchill 28 July 1944; Churchill to Roosevelt 29 July
" Ibid.
F.O. 800, 414 for a record of Churchill's visit to Moscow.
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figures were written: Romania 90% to Russia, Greece 90% to Britain,
Yugoslavia 50-50, Hungary 50-50, Bulgaria 75 % to Russia. Stalin looked at
the list, changed Bulgaria to 90 % and ticked it with a fat blue pencil.79
After some further haggling over percentages between Molotov and Eden,
during which the Soviet share in Romania was reduced to 80%, Churchill
began to have some second thoughts. He drafted a letter for Stalin in which
he expressed his fear that these figures ' might be considered crude, and even
callous, if they were exposed to the scrutiny of the Foreign Offices and
diplomats all over the world'. He told Stalin that he believed that the
dissolution of the Communist International showed that the Soviets no longer
wished to precipitate bloody revolutions and that Hitler would no longer be
able to exploit the fear of 'an aggressive, proselytising Communism'. In a
second note he wrote:' We have a feeling that, viewed from afar and on a grand
scale, the differences between our systems will tend to get smaller and the great
common ground which we share of making life richer and happier for the mass
of the people is growing every year.'80 On reflexion, Churchill decided not to
send either note, possibly because-however anxious he was to establish friendly
relations with Stalin-he disliked the pleading tone of these messages.
A further meeting was arranged between the two statesmen to which
Mikolajczyk and Romer were invited. Churchill supported Stalin's stand on
the Curzon line, telling the Poles that it was unreasonable to expect the Soviets
to tolerate an unfriendly Poland after all the blood that had been shed and
adding that the British government supported the Soviets not because they
were strong and powerful, but because they were right in this matter.
Mikolajczyk shouted at Churchill and Stalin that he had not come to Moscow
to participate in yet another partition of his country.
After meeting members of the Lublin committee Churchill told Mikolajczyk
that he had missed a golden opportunity to negotiate with the Russians and
that his intransigence had strengthened the hand of the Lublin Poles. The
Polish premier replied that the Great powers had decided the frontier question
at Teheran and that he was simply being presented with a fait accompli.
Churchill lost his temper completely and yelled that Mikolajczyk should be
locked up in a lunatic asylum and that he should go ahead and conquer Russia
on his own if he wanted to. After that he stormed out of the room.
Churchill did manage to get Mikolajczyk to accept the Curzon line as a line
of demarcation, but this compromise was unacceptable to Stalin. In spite of
this difficulty he was delighted with his meetings with Stalin. He wrote to Attlee
from Moscow: ' We have talked with an ease, freedom and a beau geste never
before attained between our two countries. Stalin has made several expressions
of personal regard which I feel were all sincere. But I repeat my conviction
'• PREM 3, 66-7 for the original of this famous document. See also: Albert Resis, 'The
Churchill-Stalin secret" percentage" agreement on the Balkans, Moscow October 1944'. American
Historical Review, LXXXIU, (April 1978).
PREM 3, 66-7.
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that he is by no means alone. 'Behind the horseman sits dull care'. 81 Both
Churchill and Eden were pleased with the percentage agreement and were
convinced that Stalin was a man who kept his word. On his return to London,
Churchill told the cabinet that the Soviet Union was ' ready and anxious' to
cooperate with the British government, and he cautioned that 'No immediate
threat of war lay ahead of us once the present war was over and we should
be careful of assuming commitments consequent on the formation of a Western
bloc that might impose a very heavy military burden upon us.'82
Churchill's opposition to the idea of a western bloc was due in large measure
to the fact that he was dubious whether it would ever be effective. In a note
for Eden he pointed out that it would take France from five to ten years to
build up her army and added: 'The Belgians are extremely weak and their
behaviour before the war was shocking. The Dutch are entirely selfish and
fought only when they were attacked, and then for a few hours. Denmark is
helpless and defenceless and Norway practically so.' For a western bloc to be
effective, Britain would have to contribute fifty to sixty Divisions which was
clearly absurd and he asked how anyone could entertain such preposterous
By the time Stalin gave official recognition to the Lublin committee,
Churchill had already lost interest in the problem of Poland's eastern frontier.
He told the cabinet that if the Poles stopped nagging he might consider trying
to persuade Stalin to drop his claim to Lvov, but he added that it did not matter
where the eastern frontier of Poland lay as they could easily be compensated
in the west. To Bevin's objections that this would involve moving millions of
people away from their homes he replied that he saw no problem with this,
as the Russians and the Turks had done a very good job of this sort of thing
in the past.84 On the other hand he felt that the western Neisse frontier, which
would result in Silesia going to Poland would be excessive and suggested that
recognition of the Lublin committee could be accorded in return for a Soviet
acceptance of the eastern Neisse.85
Churchill tried to stop Poland getting the western Neisse at the Yalta
conference, telling Stalin that 'it would be a great pity to stuff the Polish goose
so full of German food that it died of indigestion'. Stalin countered that there
would be no problem because the Germans had all run away. He
magnanimously agreed to free elections in Poland, saying that in spite of the
efforts of the London Poles, the Russians were seen in Poland as liberators, and
added that the western frontier of Poland could be settled at the peace
conference. Cadogan, who was very distressed at Churchill's performance at
Yalta and who described him as a 'silly old man', still felt that they had 'got
an agreement on Poland which may heal differences for some time at least,
PREM 3, 397-3, Churchill to Attlee 18 Oct. 1944 quoting Horace, Odes, in, 40.
CAB 65-48, 157, 27 Nov. 1944.
CAB 21-1614, Churchill to Eden 25 Nov. 1944.
CAB 65-51, 7-4, 22 Jan. 1945.
CAB 65-51, 10-1, 26 Jan. 1945.
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and assure some degree of independence to the Poles'. Churchill was also
delighted with the Yalta conference and told the cabinet that' As far as Premier
Stalin was concerned he was quite sure that he meant well to the world and
to Poland.' He told his colleagues that the Soviets were behaving very well in
Greece and that when the Russians gave their word, they kept it.87 Shortly
after this cabinet meeting he said: 'Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he
could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don't think I'm wrong about Stalin.'88
Gradually Churchill began to realize that he had been outwitted by the
Russians at Yalta, and that expressions such as 'democratic' and 'anti-fascist'
meant quite different things to Stalin from what they did to him. He therefore
decided to make a direct appeal to Stalin in the hope that there was some
substance to the friendship which he believed existed between them. At the
end of March he addressed the Soviet leader: 'No-one has pleaded the cause
of Russia with more fervour and conviction than I have tried to do. I was the
first to raise my voice on June 22, 1941. It is more than a year since I proclaimed
to a startled world the justice of the Curzon Line for Russia's Western Frontier,
and this frontier has now been accepted by both the British Parliament and
the President of the United States. It is as a sincere friend of Russia that I make
my personal appeal to you and your colleagues to come to a good
understanding about Poland with the Western Democracies and not to smite
down the hands of comradeship in the future guidance of the world which we
now extend.'89 Stalin was in no mood to be soothed by these words. He had
just learned that the British and Americans were negotiating for the surrender
of the German troops in Italy without even consulting their Soviet allies, which
was a clear violation of the treaty.90
The Soviet sponsored coup d'etat in Romania in February 1945 did not
trouble Churchill unduly. He felt that as the Soviets had been extremely
scrupulous over Greece it would be impossible to complain about Romania.
To Roosevelt he wrote: 'Since the October Anglo-Russian conversations in
Moscow Stalin has subscribed on paper to the principles of Yalta which are
being trampled down in Romania. Nevertheless I am most anxious not to press
this view to such an extent that Stalin will say (quote) I did not interfere with
your action in Greece, why do you not give me the same latitude in Romania
(unquote).' 91 There was general agreement in Whitehall that the Soviet
domination of Romania was a fair price to pay for a free hand against the left
in Greece and Churchill showed a similar lack of concern with the course of
events in Bulgaria and even Hungary, where the Soviet forces were far more
cooperative and flexible. But by May of 1945 Churchill was getting increasingly
** Churchill College, Cambridge, Cadogan papers, diary 11 Feb. 1945.
CAB 65-21, 22-1, 19 Feb. 1945.
Dalton diary, 23 Feb. 1945.
* F.O. 371, 47585, Churchill to Stalin 31 Mar. 1945.
CAB 65-52, 40, 5 Apr. 1945. Bradley F. Smith and Elena Agarossi, Operation Sunrise (New
York, 1979).
•> PREM 3, 350-9, Churchill to Roosevelt 8 Mar. 1945.
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concerned, as the Soviet Union tightened its grip on eastern Europe. On 18
May he gave a luncheon for Gusev and said to his somewhat startled guest
in response to his own question as to how the Russians were responding to the
new situation in Europe: 'By dropping an iron screen across Europe from
Lubeck to Trieste behind which we had no knowledge of what was happening.
All we know was that puppet governments were being set up about which we
were not consulted, and at which we were not allowed to peep... All this
incomprehensible and intolerable. The Prime Minister and H.M. Government
objected in the strongest terms to being treated as if they were of no account
in the after-war world. They felt that they still counted for something and they
refused to be pushed about. Their determination not to see this happen had
moved them to postpone the demobilisation of the Royal Air Force.'92 When
Clark Kerr heard of this encounter he was horrified and thought that the prime
minister had gone too far. He felt that the Soviet Union was solely concerned
with its own security against the possible renewal of German aggression and
was indifferent though not hostile to the west.93
As the war drew to a close Churchill became obsessed with the view held
by the post-hostilities planners that the Soviet Union was a potentially deadly
enemy which posed a real threat to the British empire. With the explosion of
the first atomic bomb over Japan, Churchill began to imagine that he had
found a solution to all his problems. The chief of the imperial general staff wrote
in his diary that Churchill ' at once painted a wonderful picture of himself as
the sole possessor of these bombs and capable of dumping them where he
wished, thus all-powerful and capable of dictating to Stalin'. 94 Brooke, who
was keenly aware that Russia was now all-powerful in Europe, was appalled
at such talk, for there were all kinds of problems of production and delivery
of atomic bombs and it was obvious that sooner or later the Soviets would build
their own. When he heard that the planners were considering the possibility
of war with the Soviet Union, he wrote: 'The idea is of course, fantastic and
the chances of success quite impossible.'95
At the end of the war the foreign office tended to think of the Soviet Union
as a country obsessed with its own security and although its policies in eastern
Europe were brutal and the disregard shown to its allies was reprehensible,
its policy was understandable and did not pose a threat to vital British interests.
The post-hostilities planners felt that this was hopelessly misguided and
optimistic and began to think of the Soviet Union as being as great a threat
as Nazi Germany had been. Churchill wavered between these two positions.
He was unable to make up his mind whether Stalin was his friend and partner
with whom he could help to construct a peaceful and secure Europe, or whether
he was determined to dominate Europe and to destroy the British empire. At
Potsdam, Churchill no longer felt Stalin to be a friend he could trust, as he
had done at Yalta, but he had yet to revert to his full anti-communist militancy,
as he did at Fulton, Missouri. Behind all this uncertainty was the slow and
PREM 3, 396-12.
Bryant, Triumph in the west, p. 478.
»3 F.O. 371 47076.
*5 Ibid, p. 469.
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painful realization that Britain's power and prestige had declined drastically
and this superb nineteenth-century prime minister was in command of a state
which had long since ceased to be a truly great power. It was a mark of
Churchill's genius that this fact was often disguised and his influence on the
course of the war and on the political settlement which followed was out of
all proportion to the resources at his command. His greatest weakness was his
inability to face the fact of Britain's decline and to tailor his policies
Britain and the Soviet Union had been brought together by Hitler's lust for
conquest and for no other reason. The old suspicions and misunderstandings
were bound to resurface as soon as the German menace was crushed.
Churchill's policy towards the Soviet Union vividly reflects this central fact.
However much he loathed communism and the Soviet system, he knew that
Britain needed the support of the Soviet Union against Germany, and was even
prepared to accept Soviet expansion in the Baltic, Poland and in Finland in
order to secure that support. But Churchill was seldom consistent and was
easily carried away by such madcap schemes as the proposal to attack the
Soviet oilfields in the spring of 1940. His fertile and restless brain never
concentrated for long on any one topic, and it is astonishing how little attention
he paid to Soviet affairs, even though he was one of the first to realize how
important the Soviet Union would be for the defeat of Germany. He was never
able to make up his mind about the Soviet Union and his reactions to Soviet
moves were often impulsive and ill-considered. No contingency plans were
made for a Soviet defeat in 1941, even though this was expected and the
consequences for Britain would have been catastrophic. Although he came
round to the belief that concessions would have to be made over the Baltic
states, Poland and the undertaking not to negotiate a separate peace, unlike
Stafford Cripps he failed to realize that these were vitally important questions
for the Soviet Union and had to be settled quickly if any political benefit was
to be gained. Similarly, Churchill never appreciated how serious the issue of
the second front was to the Soviet government and that by delaying the second
front he was weakening the hand he had to play. The Italian campaign was
painfully slow, failed to draw German forces from the eastern front, and further
delayed the invasion of France. Supplies sent to the Soviet Union were
relatively modest and the cancellation of the convoys further damaged
relations between the two countries. All this meant that Churchill had very
little to offer the Russians and nothing to offset their power in eastern Europe.
It was typical of Churchill to overestimate the value of personal contacts
with other statesmen and to imagine a friendship where none existed. He
seriously misjudged Stalin the man, and failed to realize the dominant role he
played in the Soviet state. His feelings towards the Soviet leader changed
rapidly, just as his feelings of genuine sympathy for the Soviet people could
easily turn to distrust and frustration. In his single-minded determination to
defeat the Germans, he neglected the Soviet Union and undervalued their
contributions to the common cause. Then, in the final stages of the war, he
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realized that they were all-powerful in eastern Europe and that there was
nothing that could be done to dislodge them. It therefore seemed that the Yalta
agreement was extremely satisfactory to the western allies and that the Soviets
had made real concessions. But when the full extent of British powerlessness
in the very moment of victory became apparent, and when the Soviets began
to implement their version of democracy and anti-fascism in their sphere of
influence, Churchill reacted in bitter frustration, but even the atom-bomb
could not redress the balance.
Even at his most pessimistic moments Churchill never considered the
possibility of continuing the war against the Soviet Union. He shared the
common feeling that the communists were preferable to the Nazis, and since
they were no longer revolutionaries or fanatical ideologues, he imagined that
the peoples of eastern Europe could reasonably expect a decent and dignified
future, for the Soviet satellite-system had yet to be fully implemented.
Was it the case that Churchill was blind to the true nature of Stalin's Russia
and was seduced by his assurances of friendship, or was an opportunity,
however difficult and remote, to build on the foundations of a great wartime
partnership lost in the moment of victory? Posing a question in this manner
overlooks the fact that there were two partners in the alliance, that neither side
was blameless, suspicions and betrayals were mutual, and any policy, however
shrewd and enlightened, depends for its success on the responses it meets. For
all his mistakes, Churchill did well in an exceedingly difficult situation. He was
neither a wanton antagonist of the Soviet Union, nor did he mindlessly appease
them. He was operating with dwindling funds and diminishing returns, and
like all men, however great, was powerless to alter the great decisions of history.
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