Plan Unthinkable and German Armed Forces

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Operation Unthinkable – Churchill’s Plans to Invade the Soviet Union

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In the spring of 1945 the Red Army continued its advance towards Western Europe, reaching the Adriatic in the south and approaching to within 100 miles of the River Rhine in the west. Meanwhile Germany was shattered and the great powers of Britain and France were financially exhausted. The United States was already turning its attention to the Pacific region and looked set to evacuate Europe. With such bleak prospects Churchill saw one last chance to save Poland from total Soviet domination. Even Britain herself looked vulnerable, and there seemed only one solution – to push back the Soviet Empire by force. Without delay he ordered Operation ‘Unthinkable’ to be prepared, to examine the possibility of an Allied force attacking the Red Army and regaining the lost ground in Europe.

One of the most contentious issues in the Unthinkable plan was the use of German forces within the Allied camp. It was anticipated that ten German divisions could be utilised for offensive operations, but because it would take time for them to be re-equipped from Allied sources, the units would not be ready for 1 July and would only become available in the autumn; that they should be used at all was likely to be highly controversial.

Who would form the officers and NCOs of a post-war German army to fight the Soviets? It was true that in the last months of the Second World War, new, much younger officers and NCOs had emerged from the ranks of the Hitler Youth to form the backbone of resistance as the Allies closed in. These highly indoctrinated young tigers had surfaced above the older, exhausted and more cynical NCOs. Often it was fear that drove these youngsters on. Fear of being strung up by the military police for not continuing the fight, or fear of capture and a horrible death at the hands of Soviet soldiers. Would they still fight without that fear and without the all-enveloping world of National Socialism in which they had been raised? Allied intelligence certainly thought so.

In a report on German forces prepared for Field Marshal Montgomery, it was noted that senior Wehrmacht officers were disappointed that they would not be required in a ‘Third War’ and younger officers were talking ‘openly of the next war’. And it was not just officers who anticipated another conflict. The German ranks were reported to ‘think only in terms of world war’. Even before the Second World War was over, there were Germans who volunteered to fight the Japanese, and Lord Halifax reported that General Marshall had confirmed that a good number of German POWs were willing to enlist in the fight against Japan. ‘It might be good,’ he argued, ‘to give a force of them a selected task, eg., clearing Marshall Islands and letting them and the Japanese kill each other over there.’

Another, deeper incentive for Germans to engage in a fight with the Soviets was the fact that, with Allied agreement, they were set to lose half their country to Soviet domination. There was also the motivation of revenge. In Soviet-occupied areas of Germany Red Army soldiers had carried out a comprehensive policy of rape against German women as well as atrocities against German POWs, and Soviet destruction of German property was widespread. If that was not enough incentive for German soldiers to relish another fight, there remained the unpalatable question of race: the Germans were more likely to fight alongside US and British forces against the Slav Russians. Hitler’s war in the East had always been pursued with more vigour because of its primary purpose: to defeat and crush the Slav race. There remained an element within the Wehrmacht who felt there was a job still to be completed.

However, despite the keenness of some German individuals, the Germany army itself remained very fragmented. Approximately 2 million German soldiers surrendered to the British in 1945, and from this haul the British government anticipated using 225,000 to work in Britain in part-payment for reparations. For this reason most German soldiers were not designated as ‘prisoners of war’ because if they were so labelled, they could not be used for labouring or reconstruction work. Furthermore, most fighting formations were split up as soon as the fighting finished; the remains of the 2nd Waffen SS Panzer Division Das Reich surrendered on 9 May 1945 and some members were swiftly transferred to the former concentration camp at Flossenburg, in Germany, while others were sent to Regensburg Civilian Internee Camp.

The size of the German army was another concern, for their numbers had been seriously depleted by the war. In particular, the Endkämpfe, or the last few ferocious weeks of fighting, had claimed the lives of over 1.25 million German soldiers. Even the armed force, or Waffen SS, were no longer the tight, cohesive unit they had once been. As Robert Koehl has concluded, by the spring of 1945 the near half-a-million-strong SS force now comprised … rag-tag units of grounded Luftwaffe and sailors; the sallow starchy complexioned boys of sixteen and seventeen; the confused and frightened eastern Europeans with only a dozen words of halting German; the grimy, tired Kampfgrupen of thirty or forty veterans of too many winter campaigns.

Some of these SS men could be singled out as they hid in columns of POWs because (at least in earlier years) SS soldiers had their blood group tattooed under their right arm. Even if the Allies were short of manpower, it is hard to imagine that the Waffen SS, or indeed any Wehrmacht units that had been involved in atrocities on the Eastern Front, would be tolerated by British, US or Polish troops. However, the Wehrmacht soldiers who had fought in the West were more likely to be accepted, though begrudgingly, as brothers in arms and it was not long after VE Day that US troops began fraternising with both German civilians and soldiers alike. If and when the decision was taken to mobilise German forces, it would advertise the Allies’ intentions, since Soviet agents would report any large or unusual troop movements. Any German mobilisation could only take place at the last moment and large numbers would have to be released from POW camps. They would need to be retrained and possibly re-armed with British or US small arms to ensure continuity of ammunition supply, and for this reason they would not enter the conflict until a later stage.

The deployment of German troops would create some interesting dilemmas for the Allies. Would the Nazi leaders still be executed? Would the brutish ex-governor of Poland, Hans Frank, declare at his war crimes trial that he was merely defending Poland against the Soviets – just as the Allies were now doing? Those senior German figures condemned for ‘waging war’ might be freed as the Allies were now ‘waging war’. There was also the thorny question of who would command German forces. By 1 July 1945 Hitler’s successor, Admiral Dönitz, would already have been dismissed by the Allies, but a ‘good German’ such as a survivor of the 20 July bomb plot conspiracy might have proved acceptable.

During the summer of 1945, as details of the Holocaust began to emerge, there might well be horror and outrage from British and US public opinion that the Allies were now siding with Nazi ‘mass murderers’ against their former ally, the Soviet Union. Whether such public opinion would be galvanised by 1 July 1945 is a moot point. When the plan was first devised at the end of April, the planners made the bold assumption that German troops could be used, if retrained, alongside the Western Allies. Although reports of atrocities in the concentration camps were published in British and American newspapers during 1944 and 1945, it was not until 15 April 1945 and the liberation of the Belsen camp that the wider public began to hear the graphic details. The BBC commentator Richard Dimbleby gave a harrowing, first-hand account of what he witnessed at Belsen and by the end of April British cinemas were showing images of the thousands of unburied dead and skeletal survivors. It would take months, if not years, for the full scale of the Holocaust to become apparent, but certainly by the autumn of 1945, when Unthinkable had predicted German troops would be in action, British public opinion had hardened towards the German military. Contemplating a new alliance, Hastings Ismay was horrified about the effect on the democracies should Unthinkable take place:

Should they [Britain and US] have forgotten all that they had said about their determination to destroy Nazism, taken the Germans into their fold, and proceeded, with their help, to crush their recent allies? One is forced to the conclusion that such a reversal of policy, which dictators could have taken in their stride, was absolutely impossible for the leaders of democratic countries even to contemplate.

If the use of German troops would be anathema to the British public, what would the Poles think about having German troops back on their soil? It seems inconceivable that they would tolerate German soldiers in their country, especially with the approval of the Allies, and such an action would undoubtedly risk derailing the whole operation. The planners of Unthinkable were either deliberately underplaying the effect of German inclusion or were unaware of the depth of Polish suffering under the Nazis. It is true that they only anticipated the German contribution taking place in the autumn of 1945, by which time one of the scenarios envisaged a Red Army defeat. In such circumstances the Wehrmacht might not be required in Poland and it is conceivable that there would be a sufficient role for them in any newly Allied-overrun territory in East Germany.

The nightmare for the Allies would be an inconclusive outcome from the massive armoured battle inside Poland. The planners feared that even if such a contest brought Stalin back to the bargaining table, ‘the military power of Russia will not be broken and it will be open to her to recommence the conflict at any time she sees fit.’ Undeterred by the terrible odds, the planners pressed on with the actual logistics of invading, first East German territory and then Poland. On 1 July 1945 the first Allied waves would make initial contact with large concentrations of Red Army troops in the Soviet-occupied zone (SBZ) of Germany. In the two months since May 1945, when this area came under Soviet occupation, the NKVD had set about organising the beginnings of a local police force, made up of imported German communists. But since this area was the last to be occupied by the Soviets, little headway could be made in the time available and internal security was almost totally in the hands of NKVD officers. They also supervised a number of new ‘special internment camps’ set up to imprison not only captured Nazis but anyone who might oppose the new regime and was guilty of ‘crimes’ against the Soviet occupying power. These camps would, no doubt, be swiftly overrun by the Allies and their liberated inmates would be a useful source of intelligence. But beyond that, the Allies would find a desecrated country, for Stalin had wasted no time in stripping out German assets, as he had done in Poland and Austria.

Berlin would be an early target for the Allies. In the Soviet-occupied sector of Berlin, the communist-backed administration had tightened its grip on the population. Since April German communist organisers had been returning in droves to Germany after their wartime exile, and since the fall of Berlin were helping to identify opponents. Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the Supreme Commander of Soviet forces in Germany, turned a blind eye to the hardline, pro-Soviet KPD party, which was already hard at work removing these opponents to communist rule. By the time Unthinkable was launched, Stalin would have had only two months’ occupation of eastern Germany, but the two most prominent members of the German Communist Party (KPD), 69-year-old Wilhelm Pieck and 52-year-old Walter Ulbricht, made sure that their takeover of East Germany was going to be stealthily executed. ‘It’s got to look democratic,’ warned Ulbricht, ‘but we must have everything under our control.’ Such a steady takeover would mean that by 1 July there would be no local State Security Police established or any organised local communist resistance to take on the Allies. The East German Sector would be totally under the control of the Red Army.

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