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Churchill and the Clash of Tyrants: Did the Soviets Really Win WW2?
“To crush Germany I am prepared to enter into an alliance with anyone, even the devil!” Commandant of the City of Moscow welcomes Prime Minister Churchill while Vyacheslav M. Molotov, Peoples’ Commissar for Foreign Affairs and other Russian officials look on, 12 August 1942. (Office of War Information, public domain, Wikimedia Commons)
“Dr. Maurer does not seem to recognize (at least publicly) the role of the Soviets in the Second World War. Four out of five Germans killed in the war were killed on the Eastern Front. Without the ‘spilling of so much Russian blood’ what would have happened on D-Day. Would it have even been attempted?” —Reader comment on “How Churchill Dodged the Flu Pandemic.”
“Churchill, who stood out among other responsible and far-sighted politicians and, despite his infamous dislike for the USSR, had been in favor of cooperating with the Soviets even before the outbreak of war. Back in April 1939, he said in the House of Commons: ‘Having begun to create a Grand Alliance against aggression, we cannot afford to fail. We shall be in mortal danger if we fail…. The worst folly…would be to chill and drive away any natural co-operation [with] Soviet Russia.’” —Vladimir Putin. slightly misquoting Churchill, perhaps from a Russian translation. WSC’s actual words are reproduced above.
“How are we to win this war?”
That was the question Winston Churchill asked himself and his advisors throughout the Second World War. In answering that question, Churchill understood something fundamental about great-power wars: Germany’s defeat would require the concentration of massive military force. It was needed from countries big and small, gathered together into a grand alliance, attacking the enemy to liberate Europe from Nazi tyranny. Churchill also understood that engineering Hitler’s downfall meant hard fighting and heavy loss of life. He harbored no illusions that victory would be easy, come quickly, or require little sacrifice. Churchill was a realist.
In 1940, as the British homeland came under a fierce air assault, Churchill looked to the future. War consists of strategic interactions among those engaged in the fighting, of move and countermove, of thrust and parry, of taking action and preparing for reaction. After Hitler failed to bring Britain to her knees, what would he do next?
In crafting Britain’s strategy…
…Churchill tried to anticipate Hitler’s military and diplomatic moves on the grand strategic chessboard. Would Germany intensify attacks on the British Empire in the air, at sea, and in the Middle East during 1941? Would Hitler work closely with Mussolini’s Italy, imperial Japan, Vichy France and Franco’s Spain?
This strategic option was actually pressed upon Hitler by the leaders of the German navy. If he chose it, he would want to remain at peace with his Soviet collaborator, Joseph Stalin. Both Hitler and Stalin had benefitted from the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939. It freed Hitler to invade and occupy Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries and France. With the stunning defeat of France, Nazi Germany stood as overlord of Western and Central Europe. Meanwhile, Stalin made territorial gains at the expense of Poland, the Baltic States, Romania, and Finland. A continued collaboration between Hitler and Stalin, joined by Italy and Japan, would put the British Empire in grave danger. Indeed, how could Britain resist the force marshaled by this grisly gang of heavily armed authoritarian regimes?
Hitler’s option with the Soviets
Hitler’s other strategic alternative was to break his pact with Stalin and strike the Russians. A quick victory would gain additional resources to wage war against Britain and an increasingly belligerent United States. The reelection of President Franklin Roosevelt, massive American rearmament effort underway, and America’s increasing assistance to Britain, indicated to Hitler that before long, Germany would face the USA in deadly combat. To win this struggle for global hegemony, Hitler needed to destroy and exploit the resources of the Soviets. And he must act before the full might of American power could be brought to bear against him.
Observing Germany’s strategic options, Churchill predicted a looming clash of tyrants. He was sure Hitler, frustrated by his failure to knock Britain out of the war in 1940, would move east. Soviet Ambassador to Britain Ivan Maisky wrote: “Churchill suffers from an obsession that a war between Germany and the USSR is inevitable.” Churchill told Maisky that the USSR would need British assistance “as soon as German guns start firing on its borders.” Maisky considered Churchill’s reasoning “very strange and nonsensical.”
Time proved Churchill’s prediction far from nonsense. His assessment reflected a sure realist grasp of strategy, international politics, and understanding of Hitler’s world view. Hitler had long made clear his ambition to destroy the Soviet Union. In his mind Germany required lebensraum, the resources and population of the Soviet Union, to become a world power truly competitive with the British Empire and the United States on the global stage. Soon after the defeat of France, Hitler ordered his generals to develop plans for an assault on the Soviets. They believed they could defeat the Red Army in lightning campaigns and conquer large regions of Soviet territory.
Churchill did his best to warn Soviet leaders of Hitler’s intention to attack. Stalin, however, was bent on appeasing Hitler. He saw Churchill’s warnings only as an attempt to provoke war between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. In addition, Stalin doubted Hitler would attack the Soviet Union before it had defeated Britain. To avoid a collision, Stalin intended to give Hitler no cause for breaking their pact. Trains carrying supplies from the Soviet Union ran on time, helping Germany to acquire resources to fight and get around the British blockade. They ran right up to time German guns starting firing.
Nonetheless, Maisky asked Churchill if, in a war with Germany, “the USSR would automatically become an ally of England.” The Soviet ambassador recorded: “Churchill reddened, his eyes became bloodshot, and he cried with fury in his voice: ‘To crush Germany I am prepared to enter into an alliance with anyone, even the devil!’” When Hitler did stab Stalin, Churchill honored his word to the Soviet ambassador and committed Britain to assist the Soviets.
Helping the Soviets
No less a figure than Russian President Vladimir Putin praises Churchill for his decisive action in making common cause with the Soviet Union: “Churchill, who stood out among other responsible and far-sighted politicians and, despite his infamous dislike for the USSR, had been in favor of cooperating with the Soviets even before the outbreak of war. Back in April 1939, he said in the House of Commons: ‘Having begun to create a Grand Alliance against aggression, we cannot afford to fail. We shall be in mortal danger if we fail…. The worst folly…would be to chill and drive away any natural co-operation [with] Soviet Russia.’”
The USSR needed all the help it could get to survive. German offensives inflicted one defeat after another and enormous casualties. German armies advanced to the outskirts of Leningrad and Moscow and conquered the Ukraine. If Hitler and his generals had developed a clear strategic plan—and been better prepared for fighting in winter—Moscow would have fallen, and Leningrad would have been starved into submission. German blunders enabled the Soviets to escape catastrophic defeat.
The world’s most militarized state, the Soviet Union kept fighting, replacing the heavy losses suffered. In December 1941, fighting on the Eastern Front settled into stalemate, both sides exhausted. Neither side was able to inflict the mortal blow on the other. Churchill in his speeches praised Russian valor. But his country and Roosevelt’s had vastly helped them stave off defeat in the initial campaigns.
Keeping Japan occupied
As German armies raced forward during the summer and autumn of 1941, Churchill and Roosevelt worked to prevent Japan from jumping on the Nazi bandwagon and striking the Soviet Union in the Far East. It was of great strategic importance that the Soviet Union did not have to face a two-front war, fighting Germany and Japan at the same time.
Within the Japanese leadership, the so-called northern advance (attacking the Soviet Union) was considered as a strategic option. Japan’s foreign minister Yosuke Matsuoka advocated this course of action. The Japanese army leadership was more hesitant. With their forces already tied down fighting Nationalist China on the Asian mainland, Japan’s generals wanted to build up their own forces and to wait until the Soviets weakened their defenses in the Far East before attacking. To deter Japanese leaders from striking the Soviet Union, Churchill and Roosevelt imposed increasingly stringent economic sanctions on Japan.
Freed from the immediate danger of Japanese aggression, Stalin could move his forces from the Far East to Europe. These reinforcements arrived just in time. They made the difference in stopping the Germans from encircling and capturing Moscow at the end of 1941. Indeed, with this added strength, the Red Army not only blunted the German drive on Moscow but transitioned from the defense to the offense, driving back the invaders from the Soviet capital. Of course, in deciding against attacking the Soviet Union, Japan’s leaders chose instead to undertake the “southern advance” by striking Britain and the United States in an effort to break the economic stranglehold placed on them.
Supplying military materiel
Britain and the U.S. also aided the Soviets by transferring weapons and supplies to the Soviet Union. Britain shipped urgently needed Hurricane fighter aircraft. These helped Soviet forces defending Leningrad, and Murmansk in the far north, during 1941. (Those Hurricanes, by the way, were urgently needed in the Far East. If they had been sent to Asia instead of the Soviet Union, they would aided in the defense of Singapore against the Japanese invasion.)
While British and American aid did not initially amount to much, it would increase dramatically as the war progressed. American supplies of food helped feed the Soviet peoples. Over 400,000 jeeps and trucks from the United States motorized the Red Army, giving it more mobility than the Wehrmacht. This assistance tilted decisively the correlation of forces (as the Soviets liked to say) against Germany on the Eastern Front. The Red Army entered Berlin and Vienna driving Willys and Ford Jeeps and Studebaker trucks. Without this assistance, the Soviets would not have been able to push back the German invaders and then advance into Central Europe.
“Second Front now”
In early 1942, however, Soviet victory was still three years away. Defeating Germany’s opening offensives had been a near-run thing. Still desperate, the Soviets feared that a German summer offensive might break the stalemate and defeat them. So Stalin demanded his allies carry out an emergency cross-Channel invasion of Europe. In Washington in spring 1942, Roosevelt had promised such an operation to Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov. Both Molotov and Stalin dismissed this as improbable. Nevertheless, to his partners, Stalin maintained that they had deceived him.
To placate Stalin, Churchill made a perilous trip to Moscow in August 1942 for a summit meeting. In their discussions, they could not agree about the timing of a cross-Channel attack. Stalin discounted the German combat strength in France. He told Churchill “there was not a single German division in France of any value.” The Soviet dictator could not understand how the Anglo-Americans would shrink from fighting such weak opposing forces. Churchill argued that a cross-Channel invasion was not feasible. Britain and the United States did not have the shipping to support or ground strength to undertake a sustained offensive. This did not satisfy Stalin. The Soviet tyrant, however, could not force his allies to undertake an offensive they did not believe could succeed.
Of course, Churchill appreciated the Soviets’ contribution to the war and the importance of keeping them in the alliance. He promised that a bomber offensive would soon begin against the German homeland. If the Soviet Union could survive the German summer offensive, a turning point would be reached. The Allies could then take the offensive. Still, holding off the Germans for another year posed grave danger and high risk if the Soviet Union suffered a major defeat.
The spectre of defeat
If Hitler did succeed on the Eastern Front, Churchill was adamant that an unrelenting struggle would continue. He believed American power would ultimately prove decisive in winning the war. Neither Britain nor the Soviet Union could have defeated Germany without Roosevelt’s leadership in directing American military and economic power to the fighting fronts across the Atlantic and the Pacific. If the Soviets were defeated, Churchill bluntly told Molotov:
We should fight on, and, with the help of the United States, hope to build up overwhelming air superiority, which in the course of the next eighteen months or two years would enable us to put down a devastating weight of air attack on the German cities and industries. We should moreover maintain the blockade and make landings on the Continent against an increasingly enfeebled opposition. Ultimately the power of Great Britain and the United States would prevail.
Churchill did not confide to Molotov that Britain and the United States had made nuclear weapons a massive priority. The loss of the USSR would not have meant a Nazi victory, only a more gruesome protracted struggle. Churchill and Roosevelt viewed the war with Nazi Germany as an existential struggle for Western Civilization. They were determined destroy Hitler’s regime even during the pivotal dark days when Germany seemed to possess the upper hand.
A separate peace?
Stalin continued to fear for the survival of the Soviet state. To avoid defeat on the battlefield, Stalin pursued the option of a separate peace with Hitler. Ceding the Baltic States and Ukraine, he hoped, might buy an armistice and a respite from Nazi pummeling. After all, to save the regime, Lenin had signed the stiff Treaty of Brest Litovsk with Germany in 1918.
That Stalin might obtain a separate peace from Hitler was a nightmare scenario for Churchill and Roosevelt. From signals intelligence sources, they knew about Stalin’s secret efforts to deal with Hitler. As late as summer 1943, they remained fearful. Daisy Suckley, a distant cousin and confident of the President, recorded in her diary: “Stalin may be building a case—the Allies not opening a Second Front, etc.—and make a separate peace with Germany.” To prevent another Nazi-Soviet pact and reassure Stalin, they called for unconditional surrender, while shipping more resources to the Soviets.
Hitler’s intransigence saved Stalin from his folly. The Nazi dictator was determined to destroy the Soviet state, to conquer large swathes of territory, to enslave its peoples. The Grand Alliance survived during the critical years 1941-42 because Hitler wanted a big win before America could fully mobilize. Hitler’s unwillingness to be appeased forced Stalin to work with Churchill and Roosevelt.
Once the tide turned against Germany during 1943, Stalin no longer had a need to approach Hitler. At Kursk, the Red Army not only stopped Germany’s summer offensive but counterpunched, driving back the Germans from the Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Allied landing in Italy knocked out one of the Axis powers. The destruction of Hamburg in July 1943 proved that Churchill’s promise of a bomber offensive was real.
Victory according to Stalin—and Putin
No longer fearful of defeat, Stalin aimed to expand communism into the heart of Europe and in Asia. In November 1943 he went to Teheran for the first meeting of the Big Three, confident of spreading communism. The fortunes of war had convinced him that the USSR had passed the cruelest tests. Surely, his system’s superiority to other forms of social, political, and military organization was clear.
Today, Vladimir Putin echoes Stalin’s conviction: “It is essential to pass on to future generations the memory of the fact that the Nazis were defeated first and foremost by the Soviet people.” The Red Army, after all, stormed the enemy capitals, Berlin and Vienna. The Russians inflicted large casualties on the Germans and, in turn, suffered a grievous loss of life. Over 26 million inhabitants of the Soviet Union lost their lives. The country bore the scars of the victorious gladiator, surviving in the arena, standing over the body of the defeated adversary.
Realpolitik in the aftermath
The war’s end, however, did not mean the end of history. Always the realist, Churchill understood that the coalition might well break down in the war’s aftermath. Soviet expansion already posed a new danger to world peace. As the war in Europe came to an end, Churchill tasked his military chiefs to prepare a strategic appraisal. Labeled “Operation Unthinkable,” Britain’s military leaders underscored the dangers of a contest with the Red Army. Churchill never formally proposed a preventive war, though he did discuss the dangers of a Third World War with certain visitors. His call for a net assessment of the military balance demonstrates his concern that wartime collaboration would not last.
Churchill was not one to shy away from thinking the unthinkable. Still, he strove to preserve a peace so dearly won. To the South African Premier Jan Smuts, Churchill looked to the future. The “fraternal association” of the British Commonwealth and United States, “together with sea and air power,” would check the Red Army during a postwar period of reconstruction after the war’s devastation. Churchill acted on a fundamental proposition of realist statecraft and sound strategy. Britain and the United States, in dealing with Stalin and Soviet leaders, needed to negotiate from a position of strength.
It takes a coalition
The answer to question, “did the Soviets really win the war?” is I think obvious. The heroic resistance of the Russian, their enormous sacrifice and suffering, their capacity to inflict grievous losses on the Germans, attest to their contribution to victory. But they didn’t do it alone, and their victory was made possible by Britain, the Commonwealth and the United States. If Russian resistance had collapsed, or Stalin brokered a separate peace, the American and British peoples would have continued the struggle without them—and secured victory after extended fighting and suffering. The fact that the Grand Alliance existed at all owed much to Churchill. His passionate commitment to freedom, undoubted courage, strategic wisdom and political skills were all critical.
Winston Churchill understood a fundamental principle of strategy: victory in war requires working with partners. His determination to keep Britain and the Commonwealth in the war during the summer of 1940 turned on his conviction that eventually a coalition would form against Hitler’s aggression. The United States, to provide for its own security, would join the fight against Nazi Germany. He fervently believed also that Hitler would strike against Soviet Russia.
For the coalition to form, however, Britain and its Commonwealth partners needed to stand fast against the furious Nazi air assault of 1940-41. Their finest hour won precious time for the Soviet Union and the United States to prepare for their coming ordeal. Churchill thus laid the cornerstone for the coalition of avenging nations. Brick by brick, he built up a partnership to roll back Germany’s conquests and topple the Nazi regime.
Vladimir Putin’s remarks are from his article, “The Real Lessons of the 75th Anniversary of World War II, The National Interest, 18 June 2020.
John H. Maurer is the Alfred Thayer Mahan Distinguished University Professor of Sea Power and Grand Strategy at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone. Dr. Maurer also spoke at Hillsdale College on “Churchill as War Leader” in 2015.