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Churchill and Stalin’s Uneasy Alliance

By Jon Diamond

In the Grand Alliance volume of Winston S. Churchill’s memoirs of World War II, the British prime minister lambasted Soviet Premier Josef Stalin and his inept government for failing to anticipate Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, which began on June 22, 1941.

Churchill wrote, “We must now lay bare the error and vanity of cold-blooded calculation of the Soviet government and enormous Communist machine, and their amazing ignorance about where they stood themselves. They had shown a total indifference to the fate of the Western powers…. War is mainly a catalogue of blunders, but it may be doubted whether any mistake in history has equaled that of Stalin and the Communist chiefs…. But so far as strategy, policy, foresight, and competence are arbiters, Stalin and his commissars showed themselves at this moment the most completely outwitted bunglers of the Second World War.” Privately, Churchill later described Stalin and his Kremlin minions as “simpletons.”

Churchill was always highly critical of the Bolsheviks. In fact, contemporaneous with the Paris Peace Conference in June 1919, Churchill, then the secretary of state for war and air in Prime Minister Lloyd George’s coalition government, was trying desperately to convince his fellow cabinet ministers to allow General Edmund Ironside’s strongly reinforced troops in northern Russia to take the offensive against the Bolsheviks.

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Outspoken against Lenin since he had first assumed the war minister post six months previously, Churchill was unshaken in his belief that the Bolshevik regime had betrayed the Allies by making a separate peace with Kaiser Wilhelm II at Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. The short-term result of this agreement was to free up numerous German troops for transfer to the Western Front to immediately commence General Erich Ludendorff’s offensive called the Kaiserschlacht, or the emperor’s battle. In fact, from November 30, 1917, to March 21, 1918, a period of less than four months, a total of 34 German divisions had been transferred from the Eastern Front and Romania for the offensive, almost breaking the Anglo-French alliance militarily in the process. Now, well after hostilities had concluded, Churchill was arguing for a complete regime change in post-revolutionary Russia. At this time, Churchill was referring to Lenin’s revolution as “the plague bacillus of Bolshevism,” which was capable of destroying civilization.

Ever the politician, Churchill suffered some consequences in regard to his hawkish stance against the Soviet government immediately after World War I. First, it created friction within the Liberal Party. Second, the Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George, whose postwar government was a coalition, was exasperated by his war minister, who was now clamoring for more combat after the four-year cataclysm that had just ended. His war-weary constituency sorely wanted peace after the carnage and bloodletting had ceased in November 1918.

Despite having one of the most extensive intelligence networks in the world at the time, he was caught completely unaware by the start of the Nazi invasion on June 22, 1941. In fact, six days after the Nazi onslaught, Stalin stated to a small group of his associates, “Lenin left us a great legacy, but we, his heirs, have f**d it up.” This was Stalin’s closest attempt to claim responsibility for his military’s unpreparedness. This inexplicable lapse in Stalin’s cunning and paranoid personality was coupled with his own self-imposed losses in Red Army officers as a result of his almost ceaseless purges during the late 1930s. Approximately 35,000 officers, disproportionately from the higher ranks, were expelled from the Army or arrested with only a small fraction being reinstated after careful “investigation.”

In sharp contrast, Churchill had an almost Cassandra-like ability to accurately predict the next move of his enemy (i.e., Hitler) throughout the decade of appeasement during the 1930s. In fact, British intelligence had warned of Hitler’s imminent invasion weeks before it occurred, and Churchill had echoed these predictions even earlier to Stalin on April 3, 1941, via Sir Stafford Cripps, the British ambassador to Moscow. Stalin remained skeptical about the veracity of Churchill’s message, which was the only message before the German attack that the British prime minister had sent Stalin directly.

Churchill was dismayed that his warning was largely ignored and felt that Stalin had lost a large portion of his air force on the ground as a result of his incredulity. Churchill noted that the chiefs of staff warned on May 31, 1941, “We have firm indications that the Germans are now concentrating large army and air forces against Russia. Under this threat, they will probably demand concessions most injurious to them. If the Russians refuse, the Germans will march.” On June 12, the Joint Intelligence Committee reported, “Fresh evidence is now at hand that Hitler has made up his mind to have done with Soviet obstruction, and to attack.”

German troops are pictured on the move during Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union that began on June 22, 1941. Operation Barbarossa brought Great Britain and the Soviet Union together as unlikely and wary Allies.

Why did Stalin doubt the intelligence about Hitler’s militaristic intentions from British channels? Prior to the Nazi juggernaut into Russia, Stalin was deeply concerned that Britain would search for a peace treaty with Hitler. This became especially more likely after General Archibald Wavell’s failed Greek expedition in the spring of 1941 and General Erwin Rommel’s incredible victories throughout Cyrenaica after the Italian defeat there. It seems that Cripps alerted Stalin and his henchmen on April 18, 1941, about a scenario for such an impending truce negotiation: “It was not outside the bounds of possibility, if the war were protracted for a long period, that there might be a temptation for Great Britain to come to some arrangement to end the war on the sort of basis which has recently been suggested in certain German quarters.”

Such defeatist talk by Cripps was occurring contemporaneously with Churchill trying to coax Stalin to form a “Balkan front” against Hitler through a Soviet alliance with Yugoslavia and Greece. Cripps’ discussion with the Soviet leadership, then, only heightened Stalin’s fears of another episode of “perfidious Albion.” When Churchill tried to warn Stalin again on April 21, 1941, of the probability of a German attack on the USSR, the Soviet leader’s paranoia only escalated, leading him to complain to his general staff, “Look at that, we are being threatened with the Germans, and the Germans with the Soviet Union, and they [the British] are playing us off against one another. It is a subtle political game.”

Stalin concluded that Churchill was only attempting to lure the Soviets into a war with Germany. Based on this level of mistrust, it is no wonder that Stalin ignored Churchill’s warnings and maintained a deep-seated paranoia toward the British prime minister after Operation Barbarossa commenced. As late as June 14, 1941, the Soviet news agency Tass denounced the British for spreading rumors of an imminent outbreak of hostilities between the Russians and Germany. Sir Alexander Cadogan, the permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office, though, passed on precise and detailed evidence of the likely invasion threat to Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador in London, and the latter relayed these reports to Moscow.

Unlike Churchill, who assumed the mantle of leadership with vigor and defiance during the dark days of the Norwegian and French evacuations, as well as during the subsequent Battle of Britain, Stalin was in a state of shock after the Nazi juggernaut got underway. During the first several days of Hitler’s offensive, Stalin left the government and military without clear central direction as he sank into a brief depression. The Soviet leader knew that he had committed an enormous diplomatic miscalculation. He now knew that he had misread Hitler, and that this mistake was his own fault.

This was a time when Churchill was making his first overtures toward alliance with the Soviet dictator, who actually feared a revolt by his own commissars during the initial days of the German invasion. When the first British diplomats began arriving in Moscow, they found in Stalin “an irritable despot under intense strain.” With the passage of a few months, however, both American and British leaders characterized him as “brilliant of mind, quick of thought and repartee, a ruthless, great leader.” General Alan Brooke, British chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), found in Stalin “a military brain of the highest caliber.” Thus, Churchill was to acquire quite an adversary for an ally.

For Churchill, the ideological differences between himself and Stalin were temporarily ignored as the practicality of an alliance became manifestly necessary for Britain to survive. From an opportunistic standpoint, Britain had everything to benefit and almost nothing to lose from an alliance with Stalin. After all, Churchill had proclaimed in his June 22, 1941, speech that the invasion of Russia “is no more than a prelude to an attempted invasion of the British Isles.”

Operation Barbarossa offered Churchill an immediate ally, which might consume the German tide and minimize pressure on Wavell’s forces in the Middle East and keep the Suez Canal and the Iraqi oil fields in Britain’s control. First, some have argued that military expediency and a need for relief from a full-fledged Nazi pincer move through North Africa and the Balkans are what hastened Churchill to offer his full support to the Russian people, and thus (indirectly), Stalin’s regime. Second, with no major victories on the Continent in sight and retreat in North Africa, it was questionable if Churchill could maintain his coalition in the House of Commons and keep the support of the British public.

Soviet Premier Josef Stalin demanded the opening of a second front in Western Europe to relieve the pressure on his armed forces on the Eastern Front. Prior to 1944, the best the British could offer were Commando and bombing raids against German targets in the West. In this photo, Royal Air Force bombers attack the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at the French port of Brest in December 1941.

With Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht would now be confronted in a “giant clash of arms … on the broad plains of western Russia,” which would supplant Britain’s mostly feeble attempt up until then. Churchill’s conundrum was whether an ardent anti-Bolshevik should leap to Stalin’s aid. As a student of history, the prime minister knew that Operation Barbarossa would be to Hitler what the Russian invasion of 1812 was to Napoleon: a huge military blunder.

Also, Churchill possessed a large degree of emotion and humanity in this decision, stating, “The Russian danger is 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.” Although capable of being Machiavellian, Churchill was making a sharp contradistinction between “the Russian people and the Soviet regime.”

Stalin, however, would not be grateful, and this perpetually irked Churchill. John Colville, Churchill’s private secretary, spoke with the prime minister on the day of the Russian invasion, and he asked “whether for him, the arch anti-Communist, this was not bowing down to the House of Rimmon. Mr. Churchill replied, ‘Not at all. I have only one purpose, the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby. If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.’”

Britain was in no position to conduct a second front in Western Europe. Thus, Churchill resorted to a diplomatic ploy in which Britain would make no separate peace with Hitler. After all, Stalin was still paranoid about the nature of Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess’s flight to Britain in May 1941. The other offer that Churchill placed on the table was a share in Britain’s own Lend-Lease aid. Stalin wanted a variety of Lend-Lease goods from Britain that the United States was only just beginning to deliver to His Majesty’s government.

Churchill, who appreciated the shortfalls in his own country from both ill-preparedness and the frequent military defeats and evacuations, was compelled to comply with Stalin’s requests via a land route through Iran and an arduous and dangerous Arctic sea voyage to Murmansk and Archangel south of the Barents Sea. Stalin’s other demand, which was echoed by the newly awakened and increasingly vocal Communist Party in Great Britain, was for a second front against Germany to blunt the strength of the attack against the Soviets.

Churchill, who was always game to conduct a military adventure, initially considered mounting such an operation; however, his more conservative and pragmatic military chiefs on the Imperial General Staff quickly dissuaded him from such an enterprise. Ultimately, Churchill had to settle for a limited bomber offensive, which in 1941 was incapable of disrupting Nazi industry, Hitler’s strategy, or the continued commitment of the German home front to the overall war effort.

Churchill committed himself to the support of Russia without thinking of the long-term consequences. The rationale for this decision was largely based on his total immersion in the short-term aim of defeating Hitler and his lack of expectations of any long-term consequences. Churchill’s willingness extended to lending aid and supporting the Russian people in defense of their homeland. Hitler, in one of his more memorable follies, had driven Stalin into Churchill’s arms. Stalin’s paranoia was nonetheless fully evident, as he believed that the British (and Americans) would not render any meaningful support to his regime until “they think we are out of breath and are ready for an armistice with Germany.”

Immediately after the invasion of the Soviet Union, Stalin’s ambassador in London, Ivan Maisky, met with the politician Lord Beaverbrook to discuss the possibility of a second front. According to Maisky’s war memoirs published after the conflict, “Beaverbrook’s attempt to interest the Cabinet in the question of a second front was unsuccessful. Churchill, as I had supposed, was unfavorable to this idea. He was supported by a majority of the members of the cabinet…. It becomes quite clear that the motive of aid to the USSR played a second- or third-rate part in organizing the invasion of France in the summer of 1944. And throughout the three years during which the struggle for the second front lasted, its main opponent invariably proved to be Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Great Britain. That was how in practice his formula that the British would give to the USSR in this war ‘whatever help we can’ was deciphered.”

This harsh criticism of Churchill by Maisky was temporally coincident not only with the ongoing struggle of the Eighth Army against Rommel in North Africa but with the building up of the Japanese juggernaut in the Far East, which in a matter of a few months would vanquish British and Commonwealth forces in Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, and Burma. Britain would be reeling to the easternmost borders of India. Ceylon and shipping in the Indian Ocean would be bombed by Japanese naval aircraft, and the hard-won victory in East Africa just months previously would appear to be in jeopardy. Churchill was candid when he informed the Russians that establishing a second front in northwest France or in the Arctic was just not feasible. The only problem was that no one in the Soviet hierarchy cared to believe him.

Stalin’s sense of reality was not entirely well grounded in his rude demands for material aid from Britain only one week after the invasion commenced. His list included 3,000 fighter aircraft, 20,000 light antiaircraft guns, radar, and night-fighting equipment. While Churchill was willing to give Stalin some cloaked Ultra decrypts about German troop movements, Churchill’s private secretary, John Colville, noted, “Molotov will tell us nothing beyond what is in the official communiqués. Now, in their hour of need, the Soviet government—or at any rate Molotov—is as suspicious and uncooperative as when we were negotiating a treaty in the summer of 1939.”

On July 3, Stalin made his first radio address to the Russian people about the war with Germany. Although Anglo-Soviet diplomatic activity was resumed at the beginning of July, Churchill, according to Maisky’s memoirs, was put out by the fact that Stalin did not in any way respond to his broadcast of June 22, but decided all the same to take the first step toward establishing more friendly relations with the head of the Soviet state. On July 7, 1941, Churchill sent Stalin a letter explaining that Britain’s help to the Soviet Union would take the form principally of air bombardment of Germany. Cripps personally handed Stalin this letter, and the Soviet leader stated that an Anglo-Soviet agreement should be reached stressing two points, namely, mutual aid during the war and the obligation not to sign a separate peace with Germany.

Stalin explicitly stated that he wanted a formal agreement with Britain to “allay his continuing suspicion that Churchill wanted to stand aside while Germany and Russia destroyed each other.” Two days later, Churchill replied to Stalin, “I should like to assure you that we are wholly in favour of the agreed declaration of purpose.” An agreement for mutual military assistance was signed on July 12, 1941, between Molotov and Cripps. Both of the just mentioned points were included.

Churchill was driven by one overwhelming motive: he needed Russia to continue fighting until the historically notorious winter months started, since a separate peace between Stalin and Hitler would only enable the Nazis to turn back on the British Isles again. In Churchill’s Anglo-Soviet agreement, the prime minister had to attend to American sentiments against any secret deals on European soil, thus, a limited pact was presented to the House of Commons. Furthermore, Stalin brazenly demanded in a July 18 message that a British attack in northern France and the Arctic be undertaken at once. Churchill responded to Maisky, saying that “unfortunately, what he asks is at present impracticable.” Stalin was furious at Churchill’s refusal to open a proposed second front where and when he requested it.

According to Maisky, Churchill began a detailed justification of his statement. In his words, the Germans had 40 divisions in France and had strongly fortified the coasts of France, Belgium, and Holland. The forces of Britain, which had for more than a year been fighting alone, were under extreme strain and scattered far from the home islands. In addition, the Battle of the Atlantic was still raging, consuming a vast amount of British naval and air resources, including substantial losses due to the U-boat menace. Churchill apologized that under present conditions, Britain was incapable of doing more than air bombardment of Germany.

On July 30, Stalin received Roosevelt’s adviser Harry Hopkins in Moscow. Hopkins’ report to Roosevelt made a deep impression on him, with important consequences. On August 15, Churchill and Roosevelt sent a combined message to Stalin from their Newfoundland meeting (the same meeting that produced the Atlantic Charter), saying, “We have taken the opportunity afforded by the report of Mr. Harry Hopkins on his return from Moscow to consult together as to how best our two countries can help your country.”

Both Churchill and Roosevelt went on to report that shiploads of supplies had been dispatched to the USSR, and they proposed a high-level meeting to take place in Moscow in the near future. Maisky admitted in his memoirs that, “in addition to everything else, British Lend-Lease greatly facilitated our receipt of American Lend-Lease.” Churchill’s granting of Lend-Lease materials to the Soviets on September 5, 1941, was a significant precedent that enabled Roosevelt to extend the Lend-Lease Act to the USSR, since there were groups in America that strongly objected to aiding the Soviets without payment. Upon being informed by Churchill about the basis of British Lend-Lease to the USSR, Stalin responded on September 13, 1941, “Please accept my thanks for the promise of monthly British aid in aluminum, aircraft, and tanks. I can but be glad that the British government contemplates this aid, not as a transaction of selling and buying aircraft, aluminum and tanks, but in the shape of comradely cooperation.”

A German soldier sits in a foxhole outside Moscow and attempts to shield himself from the cold. As Churchill expected, the German advance on Moscow was stopped just a few miles short of the Soviet capital city in the winter of 1941-42 as harsh weather and stiffening Red Army resistance took their toll.

At the end of August, Churchill cabled Stalin, “I have been searching for any way to give you help in your splendid resistance, pending the long-term arrangements which we are discussing with the United States of America…. You will, I am sure, realize that fighter aircraft are the foundation of our home defence, besides which we are trying to obtain air superiority in Libya and also to provide Turkey so as to bring her in on our side. Nevertheless, I could send 200 more Hurricanes, making 440 fighters in all.” This offer by Churchill promised no chance of fulfilling the Soviet dictator’s massive request list for aid. Thus, as the fall of 1941 approached, Churchill still had only a rather chilly alliance with Stalin, whose paranoia about Britain’s “temporizing policies” was a chief obstacle to more cordial relations.

On September 4, Ambassador Maisky delivered Stalin’s response to Churchill’s offer of additional fighter aircraft, stating, “I must say that these aircraft … cannot seriously change the situation of the eastern front.” Maisky continued: “If Russia were defeated, how could Britain win?” The suspicion between Stalin and Churchill was still paramount. Churchill’s permanent undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, Sir Alexander Cadogan, noted that Stalin suspected Britain’s dalliance was motivated by thoughts of Germany and Russia destroying each other, while Churchill was extremely wary that the Soviet Union would make another armistice with Hitler.

History must accord Churchill praise that he was at least candid with Stalin about Britain’s inaction over a second front. He cabled the dictator on September 6, “Although we should shrink from no exertion, there is in fact no possibility of any British action in the West except air action, which would draw the German forces from the East before winter sets in. There is no chance whatever of a second front being formed in the Balkans without the help of Turkey.”

At least Churchill the historian was aware of Napoleon’s fate before Moscow in 1812, when the harsh Russian winter arrived. Stalin, however, was still unmoved by Churchill’s response and stated to the Politburo, “What a revolting answer!” Churchill did not have to wait long for nature’s intervention on the Eastern Front; the first snows began to fall on September 12. Stalin was not just rude to Churchill in his official correspondence. At a meeting with an Anglo-American mission headed by Lord Beaverbrook and Averell Harriman, the latter being Roosevelt’s personal Lend-Lease envoy to Britain, Stalin chided the pair, “The paucity of your offers clearly shows that you want to see the Soviet Union defeated.”

Churchill, too, had suspicions about the motives of the United States. The prime minister was worried that Roosevelt and his main emissary, Hopkins, would preferentially shunt weapons to the Soviet Union at the expense of aid given to Great Britain. This thought was to plague Churchill throughout the war, even though he knew that during 1941, only one percent of Britain’s weapons were to come from Lend-Lease with the United States.

As the Moscow assault was underway in early October, Stalin demanded that Churchill send 25-30 British divisions to the Soviet Union. The prime minister sought the recommendations of his war cabinet on October 27, and both concluded that Stalin’s request could not be met. On November 7, Stalin rifled off a cable to Churchill in which he harangued, “There is no definite understanding between our two countries concerning war aims and plans for the postwar organization of peace. Secondly, there is no treaty between the USSR and Great Britain on mutual military aid in Europe against Hitler.”

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, and American envoy Averell Harriman (left to right) confer during the Moscow Conference of August 1942. Harriman represented President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the conference. The alliance that defeated the Nazis in World War II brought truth to the old adage, ’The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’

Stalin did not mince words: without a clarification of these issues, “there [would] be no mutual trust.” On November 10, when Churchill was shown the cable from Stalin, the prime minister flew into a rage: “Why did Stalin need to add such a tone to our correspondence?… I can’t tolerate this…. Who benefits from it? Neither you nor us, only Hitler! I was the one who, without any doubt, volunteered to help Russia on 22 June. Who needs these debates and disagreements? We are fighting, and we will keep fighting for our lives whatever happens!”

As a result of this Churchillian outburst, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden was invited to Moscow to smooth over the mutual distrust. There must have been some rapprochement or, perhaps to Stalin’s delight, the Russian winter continued to worsen on the Moscow front, because the Soviet dictator wished Churchill “hearty birthday greetings” on November 29.

In November 1941, Churchill’s hopes resided in General Claude Auchinleck’s Operation Crusader to liberate Tobruk and eject Rommel from the Egyptian frontier. The operation achieved some of its immediate military goals, but it failed to change any political fortunes for Britain. Vichy France and Spain remained neutral. Likewise, the United States, despite Roosevelt’s leanings, also remained neutral since only Congress had the constitutional power to declare war, and that body was still very much isolationist. Nature intervened on December 5, however, when temperatures fell to -32 degrees Fahrenheit outside Moscow. Stalin counterattacked the exhausted and unprepared Germans, forcing them to retreat days before the United States entered into the conflict, courtesy of the Japanese.

There were some areas in which Churchill and Stalin actively participated together. After the suppression of Rashid Ali’s pro-German revolt in Iraq in June 1941, there was a suspicion that a similar event might occur in Iran, since Rashid Ali, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, and their supporters had fled to Iran when their insurrection was beaten back. By the end of July, Churchill had decided that Britain and Russia could cooperate in securing Iran and her oil supplies for the Allied cause, as well as creating an overland route of supply to the Soviet Union. On December 6, 1941, at Stalin’s request, Britain declared war on Finland, Hungary, and Romania, since troops from these three countries were actively combating the Soviets.

Historical revisionists have pondered just how much information Stalin received from the British in regard to a German invasion, and furthermore, what Churchill’s intent at disseminating such intelligence findings actually was. Even Maisky stated, “I had more than once already let Moscow know that an attack by Hitlerite Germany was close, almost around the corner.”

On June 21, Ambassador Cripps met with Maisky in London and informed him, “We have reliable information that this attack will take place tomorrow 22 June…. You know that Hitler always attacks on Sundays…. I wanted to inform you of this.” Dutifully, Maisky sent yet another urgent cipher message about this communication to Moscow, yet Stalin chose to ignore the warnings. Such was the nature of the distrustful relationship between Churchill and Stalin, which became an uneasy alliance after the German invasion commenced on June 22, 1941.

Jon Diamond practices medicine and resides in Hershey, Pennsylvania. He is the author of a book about Field Marshal Archibald Wavell in Osprey Publications’ Command series and a frequent contributor to WWII History.

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