When the forces of Nazi Germany invaded Russia on June 22, 1941, Winston was abruptly forced to change his mind over his longstanding hatred of Communism.
The attack against Soviet Russia was a piece of cynical treachery on Hitler’s part for the Russians were tied to Germany by the Non-Aggression Pact concluded in August 1939. Subsequently, the Russians participated in the carve up of Polish territory after the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.
This, though, was designed to keep the Russians “sweet” while Hitler’s forces did as they pleased in Poland. It also served as a “cover” for the Nazi Führer’s secret, long-term intention – the conquest of Russia as a means of providing “lebensraum” – living room – for Germans.
The Anglo-French response to the invasion of Poland – their declaration of war on September 3, 1939 – had thrown Hitler’s plans out of kilter. With good reason, the Führer had supposed that the British and French governments, which had never failed to appease him during the 1930s, were weak and ineffective.
After all, they had done nothing to stop him in 1936 when he militarized the Rhineland, an act forbidden under the Treaty of Versailles which had ended World War One seventeen years earlier.
They had also failed to act when Hitler took possession of Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939. It therefore seemed logical that the British and French would allow Nazi Germany to conquer Poland as well and respond with equal timidity to the invasion of Russia.
In 1941, though, the British had abandoned appeasement. Not only that, their government was now headed by the pugnacious Winston Churchill who reacted by doing what even he had once thought impossible: he immediately set aside his longstanding hatred of Russian communism and instead promised to support this latest victim of Nazi belligerence.
Winston’s Support for Russia
Winston lost no time making his new stance public. In a radio broadcast on the same day as the invasion of Russia, he acknowledged that no one had been a more consistent opponent of Communism than himself, but added that “all this fades away before the spectacle which is now unfolding.’ “We shall give whatever help we can to Russia and the Russian people” he declared, “The Russian danger is …our danger.”
Ten days before the invasion took place, Winston was already passing on German radio messages to Josef Stalin, the Russian leader.
Even so, the Prime Minister was careful to keep from Stalin the top secret origin of this information: cryptologists at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire had broken the Enigma key the Germans were using in Russia. Instead, Winston told the Soviet leader that this had been obtained from “a trusted source.”
Bombing the Germans
The Prime Minister did not stop there. He at once ordered diversionary attacks to distract the invaders from their Russian campaign. He also sanctioned the bombing of German military and naval installations in northern France, and initiated a series of night raids against the Rhineland and Germany’s main industrial area, the Ruhr.
On July 6, 1941, Germany was attacked by 250 Royal Air Force bombers. By July 12, the joint war aims of Britain and Soviet Russia were formalized by an agreement of mutual assistance, signed in Moscow.
“We shall do everything to help you that time, geography and our growing resources allow,” Winston told Stalin by telegram, “We have only to go on fighting to beat the life out of these villains.”
Would Russia be Defeated?
The British Prime Minister showed a confident façade to Stalin and the world, but behind it, he feared the Communists would be defeated. For the Russian leader had not expected the German assault and the Red Army was unprepared.
Even worse, between 1936 and 1938, the paranoid Stalin had accused the Communist political and military leadership of treachery. This led to a series of show trials designed to get rid of Stalin’s rivals. The trials culminated in mass executions or imprisonment in labor camps. The “guilty” included thousands of officers, whose loss severely weakened the Red Army.
Faced with the German blitzkrieg that followed the invasion, more than six hundred thousand Soviet troops were taken prisoner and the remainder retreated rapidly. The Germans made fast progress and were already closing in on Moscow only four weeks into their campaign.
Winston was not alone in doubting the Russians’ prospects. His Foreign Secretary and Minister for War Anthony Eden, as well as the British ambassador to Moscow, Sir Stafford Cripps, and Sir John Dill, Chief of the General Staff, were also convinced their resistance could not last. The American ambassador in Britain, John Gilbert Winant, was more specific, he gave the Russians a mere six weeks before they surrendered.
Aid from America
But the six weeks passed and the Russians were still holding out. Unfortunately,though, the supplies Winston had sent to Russia were starting to deplete Britain’s own stocks and, crucially reduced the number of fighter aircraft at the disposal of the RAF. The Americans, Winston decided, would have to provide the matériel Britain was unable to furnish.
In August 1941, Winston crossed the Atlantic bound for Newfoundland in eastern Canada, where he met the US President Franklin Roosevelt at Placentia Bay. During their discussions, Roosevelt promised to commit the still neutral United States to even greater involvement in the war
This included supplying aid to Soviet Russia “on a gigantic scale” as well as more merchant ships to transport tanks and bombers to Britain and five destroyers for each convoy sailing the dangerous South Atlantic run.
US Entry into the War
Even so, it soon became clear that the United States was no closer to joining World War Two. When Roosevelt returned to Washington, he assured the American public that Placentia Bay had produced no commitment to enter the conflict.
What was needed, Roosevelt confided to Winston, was a big, dramatic incident that would instantly clear away all doubts and propel the USA to war on a wave of national outrage. Neither the President nor the Prime Minister realized, as yet, how very close that big incident was.
- Berthon, Simon and Potts, Joanna: Warlords: An Extraordinary Re-creation of World War II through the Eyes and Minds of Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 2007) ISBN-10: 0306815389/ISBN-13: 978-0306815386
- Glantz, David M.: Operation Barbarossa: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia 1941 (Stroud, Goucestershire, UK: The History Press, 2011)mISBN-10: 0752460706/ISBN-13: 978-0752460703