The Life and Struggles of Winston Churchill: Russia Beleaguered

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Sir Winston Churchill

In 1942, the Russians were in the front line of World War Two. Meanwhile, the USA, a more recent combatant, was still gearing up for the hostilities.

The pressure exerted on the Russian forces by the invading Germans was so immense that Josef Stalin, the ruler of Soviet Russia, was urging his allies to provide a distraction by making an Anglo-American landing in northern Europe.

Opening a Second Front

This, Stalin hoped, would create a “second front” that would oblige the Germans to divide their forces and so relieve at least some of the burden Stalin’s Red Army and air force were having to bear.

However, despite their enormous industrial capacity, the Americans were not yet ready to comply. Only a few months had passed since the United States was pitchforked into the war by Japan’s sneak attack on its Pacific fleet moored at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In 1942, the US could provide only forty percent of the men and matériel a second front would require.

Thousand Bomber Raids

There was only only feasible means capable of sapping German strength and willpower and so lessening the pressure on the Russians: the continued bombing of German cities.

Winston, however, had no faith that bombing would alone prove a decisive factor in the war. He did not change his mind on that score even after the air attacks escalated with the first thousand bomber raid struck Cologne at the end of May 1942.

The Cologne raid was enormously destructive on the ground, but proved costly in bombers and the lives of aircrew. After three more thousand bomber strikes, casualties were so great that the attacks were halted.

They were not resumed until 1944 when the Germans were fast losing the war and conditions for the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) and British Royal Air Force (RAF) were more favorable.

Winston Meets Roosevelt Again

In the third week of June, 1942, Winston flew to the United States for another meeting with the Roosevelt at the President’s mansion in Hyde Park, New York. Roosevelt personally drove Winston to his splendid home and impressed the British Prime Minister with the deft way he used the special controls on his automobile.

The controls were necessary because Roosevelt had been crippled by poliomyelitis in 1921 and was unable to used his feet and legs on the brake, clutch or accelerator.

“An ingenious arrangement enabled him to do everything with his arms, which were amazingly strong and muscular,” Winston wrote later. “This was reassuring.”

Even so, the Prime Minister admitted that it was a hair-raising journey. He continued; “But I confess that when on several occasions, the car poised and backed on the grass verges of the precipices over the Hudson (River), I hoped the mechanical devices and brakes would show no defects.”

Anglo-American Agreements

President and Prime Minister reached their destination safely and their talks at Hyde Park were productive. They included a secret agreement that Britain and the United States would share research into the creation and manufacture of an atomic bomb.

They also gave the go-ahead for an Anglo-American amphibious landing, not in northern Europe as Josef Stalin had wanted, but in one of the French colonies in North Africa ruled by the collaborationist Vichy government.

Winston remained in the USA for five days before returning to Britain. Awaiting him was what he told his friend Harry Hopkins was going to be a “beautiful row.”

Vote of Censure

On July 2, 1942, a Liberal party Member of Parliament, Leslie Hore-Belisha launched a fierce attack on the way the war was being handled .“In one hundred days” Hore-Belisha declared, referring chiefly to the surrender of British-ruled Singapore to the Japanese the previous February “we have lost our Empire in the Far east. What will happen in the next hundred days?”

Another critic, the Labor MP Aneurin Bevan, was more personal. “The Prime Minister wins debate after debate and loses battle after battle,” Bevan said. “The country is beginning to say that he fights debates like a war and the war like a debate.” These criticisms led to a Vote of Censure in the House of Commons.

It hardly helped Winston’s case that eleven days before the debate took place, Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps had succeeded in capturing Tobruk in Libya from the British garrison, putting the Germans in a position to threaten Cairo, the capital of Egypt.

In reply, Winston launched a stout defense of his government’s record, telling the House of Commons,

“If those who have assailed us are reduced to contemptible proportions and their vote of Censure on the National Government is converted to a vote of censure upon its authors, make no mistake – a cheer will go up from every friend of Britain and every faithful servant of our cause and the knell of disappointment will ring in the ears of the tyrants we are striving to overthrow.”

Disaster in the Arctic

The Censure motion was easily quashed, with a mere twenty-five voting in its favor to 475 against. But in mid-July, Winston received more bad news, a large convoy, code-named PQ17, carrying supplies to Russia had been devastated on the Arctic run to Murmansk by German U-boats and torpedo bombers.

The Germans had sunk twenty-four out of the convoy’s thirty-five ships. The attack brought the total losses of the Arctic convoys to sixty ships sunk during 1942. The death toll was immense and the convoys for August and September were cancelled.

Winston in Moscow

This disaster ruled out the chance of an Anglo-American landing to open up the “second front” in northern Europe which the Russian ruler Josef Stalin was urgently demanding. Stalin was infuriated, not least because the Germans had recently broken through the Caucasus defenses in southern Russia and were heading for the precious oil wells.

On August 12, Winston flew to Moscow from Cairo to meet Stalin face to face. He made the ten and a half hour run in the unpressurized cabin of an American Liberator bomber, wearing an oxygen mask specially adapted so that he could smoke his cigar on the way.

Sources:

  1. Russia’s Life-Saver: Lend-Lease Aid to the U.S.S.R. in World War II by Albert Loren Weeks
  2. The Thousand Plan: The Story of the First Thousand Bomber Raid on Cologne by Ralph Barker (1965)