Luftflotte 4, 5 July 1943

By 0500 hours on the morning of 5 July, despite the Soviet attempt to disrupt the opening of Zitadelle, the Ninth Army was attacking in the north, and the Fourth Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf in the south. The offensive began with the Germans’ own preliminary bombardment, with the artillery and massed nebelwerfer batteries targeting the trenches and bunkers of the Soviet forward defences. The aim was not so much to destroy Soviet positions and kill the defenders – the 50 minute bombardment was far too short for that – but to dislocate and unbalance the enemy. Model and Manstein wanted to ensure that Soviet guns were neutralized, their command and control was disrupted and the infantry’s heads were tucked firmly below the parapet as their tanks and infantry began to attack. Nevertheless, by the time the bombardment lifted, the artillery had fired more shells than they had during the campaigns in France and Poland combined. ‘At last,’ says heavy gunner Johan Müller, ‘we were taking the initiative. After weeks and months of map work and firing tables, it was good to be in action again. We had plenty of shells to fire and got through them quickly. We were told that our work had been tremendously successful and its accuracy had been remarked upon by headquarters.’ The attacking formations eased themselves forward, covered at first by the ground-based artillery and then by the Luftwaffe in the form of He-111 and Ju-88 medium bombers. Despite the best efforts of the Soviet Air Force to destroy the German aircraft on the ground that morning, ground-support missions were being flown in support of the offensive with near impunity.

The Luftwaffe had been alerted to the Soviet threat by the enemy’s early preliminary bombardment, and then by seeing aircraft approaching their airfields on the radar. The 800 aircraft of Luftflotte 4 were spread over several airfields and in the process of being fuelled and loaded with bombs for their first sorties of the day when the sirens began to wail their warnings at 0330 hours. Many of the aircrews were in briefings or at breakfast but they immediately rushed to their machines and took off into the breaking dawn. Oberstleutnant Walter Lehwess-Litzmann, the commander of a German bomber group, recalls:

I had just gathered my commanders to assign them with their last instructions when I received an excited phone call which gave me revised orders. We were to take off immediately, although it was still dark, and attack the Soviet artillery positions.

The sky quickly filled with German aircraft. Over the radio, crews were told about the approach of a massive raid – it actually comprised 132 Il-2 Shturmovik ground-attack aircraft with a close escort of 285 La-5 and P-39 fighters. The German fighters were to intercept the Soviets, and the aircraft detailed to support the offensive were to start their missions immediately. So began the crucial battle for air superiority on 5 July. Within minutes, Miklós Keyneres, a Hungarian pilot of a Messerschmitt Bf-109, was locked in combat with Il-2s as German flak burst among the Soviet aircraft. He recalled:

In their great excitement, the flak gunners don’t pay any attention to the close proximity of our own aircraft. But we ignore their fire. We have our eyes only for the four red-starred aircraft . . . The machine [a twin-seat Il-2 with a rear gunner] on the left side peels off from the rest, with me in hot pursuit. The hunt begins. The Russian pushes close to the ground and escapes, hopping over trees. But we remain clung to his tail. On my right hand side, three Germans are pursuing too. One of the Germans dives on it, but fails to bring it down. Now my turn has come. I pull up slightly and, from the far side, I aim ahead of the engine but hold my fire for another moment. The distance is still too great. Then I squeeze both firing buttons. I pull up in an instant to avoid colliding. I skid out to the right. I get on its left side again and from above and behind I shoot at the cockpit. By now the Russian gunner does not return fire. From a close distance I open up with the cannon. The machine shudders and hits the ground with its right wing tip. It slides along a creek, violently burning.

German anti-aircraft defences caused the incoming Soviets considerable problems, as Nikolay Gapeyonok, the pilot of a Pe-2 dive bomber, remembers, when they attacked an airfield west of Belgorod: ‘We ran into a heavy AAA [anti-aircraft artillery] barrage, which disrupted our bombing. Two Pe-2s exploded in mid-air as a result of direct hits, and a third bomber was damaged.’ It was a similar situation in the north where Senior Lieutenant T. Simutenkov, flying an Il-2, ran into a curtain of fire:

As we approached our target I could see the anti-aircraft fire ripping through the sky. I held my course and could just make out some enemy aircraft taking off. This was a shock as we were convinced that we would achieve surprise and record a major success, but before I had a chance to make my attack my aircraft was hit in the fuselage and then the right wing. Smoke began to seep into the cockpit and I struggled to remain in control . . . I feared that the engine would burst into flames but it did not, but it stuttered and lost power. I instinctively swung the aircraft south and within seconds was making a forced landing somewhere within our lines . . . It was still dark and I hit the ground with a fearsome crash which ripped the undercarriage off. But the aircraft skidded to a halt in a field and I was able to push back the cockpit and walk away shaken, but unharmed.

The Soviets had hoped to catch the Luftwaffe cold but instead took considerable losses in an air battle that developed into one of the greatest of the war. The Germans gained air superiority that morning and destroyed 176 enemy aircraft for, perhaps, as few as just 26 machines of their own fleet. Rather than removing a crucial element of the Wehrmacht’s offensive ability, Stalin’s airforce had provided the Germans with the opportunity to weaken the Red Army’s defences. This meant that the Luftwaffe was able to fly nearly 4,500 sorties in support of the ground forces on 5 July, and despite flying 3,385 sorties of their own, the Soviets could not breach the German fighter screen in any numbers. A Moscow-sponsored report into the situation commented later in the year: ‘Our aviation fought air battles primarily against enemy fighters along the approaches to the battlefield, while enemy bombers were operating almost continually against our defending forces immediately over the battlefield along the main axis.’

As the fight for the sky unfolded, Hitler’s army began what was to become its own titanic attempt to crack the Red Army’s defences.


Cold War Weaponry – AFVs

It is difficult today to remember that at the height of the Cold War the possibility of Communist hordes pouring across Central Europe was a very real threat. For four decades Europe stood on the brink of the Third World War, thanks to the heavily-armed standoff between the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact. Thankfully it was the war that never was. The Cold War became a historical footnote, sandwiched between the Second World War and the conflicts of the early twenty-first century. It is one of those intriguing ‘what ifs?’ of history.

Washington never allowed its NATO allies to forget the extent of the Soviet threat. Annually throughout the 1980s the US Department of Defense published its Soviet Military Power, which catalogued Moscow’s strategic aspirations and its latest military developments. Anyone reading it was left feeling that war was imminent and woe betide NATO if it was not ready.

By the mid-1980s the Cold War was at its height, with a conventional and nuclear standoff across Europe divided by the Iron Curtain. As part of its forward defence Moscow deployed armies in Eastern Europe with the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany, the Northern Group in Poland, the Southern Group in Hungary and the Central Group in Czechoslovakia. This not only guarded against NATO but also ensured none of the other Warsaw Pact members could defect. These forces were used to stop a repeat of the anti-Soviet uprising in East Germany of 1953, the Hungarian Revolt of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968. The following year the Soviet armed forces were involved in a Sino-Soviet border conflict and in 1979 became embroiled in a ten-year struggle in Afghanistan.

After the Second World War with tensions mounting between the Western allies and the Soviets, Berlin remained divided between the American, British and French sectors that made up West Berlin and the Soviet sector that occupied the east. This resulted in the Soviet blockade of West Berlin from June 1948 to May 1949. In response the Allies organised the Berlin airlift and war in Europe was only narrowly avoided. However, the Cold War went hot around the world, most notably in 1950 with the conflict in Korea.

The Warsaw Pact of 1955 brought together eight communist states in Central and Eastern Europe. Moscow argued the pact was a defensive move in light of West Germany being allowed into NATO. The reality was that it bound Eastern Europe’s militaries to the Soviet armed forces. The Soviet Union was divided into military districts, with the key ones being the Baltic, Leningrad, Moscow and Kiev. By this stage the Soviet ground forces consisted of over 200 divisions, down from 500 at the end of the Second World War.

Not only did the Soviets have the numbers, they also had a vast array of weaponry. If there was one thing the Soviet Union was particularly good at it was building tanks. Since the mid-1950s Soviet-designed tanks dominated every single conflict right up until the 1991 Gulf War. Two designs in particular proved to be Moscow’s most reliable workhorses – these are the T-54 and T-62 main battle tanks (MBTs). They are direct descendants of the Soviet Union’s war-winning T-34 and Joseph Stalin tanks. They drew on the key characteristics of being easy to mass-produce, extremely robust and easy to use. As a result they were ideal for the less-well educated armies of the developing world. Having been inside a Czech-built T-54 I can testify that they are certainly no-frills tanks. The finish is not good and there are no creature comforts – clearly a legacy from the Spartan conditions inside the T-34. Nonetheless, they did the job that was required of them.

The scale of Soviet armour manufacturing at its height was immense. The tank plant at Nizhniy Tagil was supported by at least three other key tank factories at Kharkov, Omsk and Chelyabinsk, while other armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) were manufactured at seven different sites. In the 1980s the Soviets were producing approximately 9,000 tanks, self-propelled guns and armoured personnel carriers/infantry fighting vehicles (APCs/IFVs) a year. The Soviet Union’s East European Warsaw Pact allies managed another 2,500.

Moscow sent almost 8,000 tanks and self-propelled guns and over 14,000 APCs/IFVs to the developing world during that decade alone. In effect they exported two and a half years’ worth of production. The Soviets’ ability to manufacture such vast numbers of tanks meant that on at least two occasions they were able to save Arab armies from complete disaster at the hands of the Israelis.

By the 1980s Moscow had a staggering 52,600 tanks and 59,000 APCs in its active inventory, with another 10,000 tanks and APCs in storage. After the Warsaw Pact force-reduction talks in Eastern Europe, in 1990 Moscow agreed to withdraw 10,000 tanks and destroy half of these without batting an eyelid. Warsaw Pact members also agreed to cut tank numbers by almost 3,000. At the same time the Soviets began to field newer tanks such as the T-64B, T-72M1 and the T-80, while retiring older-model T-54/55s and T-62s. They also improved their IFV forces by fielding large numbers of the tracked BMP-2 as well as improving the earlier BMP-1. The net result was a huge surplus of wheeled AFVs available to the developing world.

The British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) was once part of the bulwark that helped protect Western Europe from the threat posed by the Soviet groups of forces stationed across Eastern Europe and their Warsaw Pact allies. At the height of the Cold War BAOR, serving with NATO’s northern army group, represented the largest concentration of ground forces in the British Army. It consisted of the isolated Berlin Independent Brigade and the 1st British Corps in West Germany. HQ BAOR was based at Rheindahlen while HQ 1 (BR) Corps was at Bielefeld, commanding three divisions.

The fate of the American, British and French garrisons in West Berlin had the Cold War gone hot would have been certain. It is likely that the Warsaw Pact would have first cut them off and then overwhelmed them. But this never came to pass, however; West Germany and East Germany along with the two halves of Berlin were reunited on 3 October 1990. The following year the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War came to an end.

While the Cold War resulted in an armed standoff either side of the Iron Curtain, Moscow actively supported the spread of Communism, elsewhere most notably in Korea and Vietnam. Tanks with one previous owner, no strings attached (except when that previous owner happened to be the Soviet Union, there were always strings attached). The fact that the tank was ancient, would not meet your operational requirements and leave you heavily indebted to Moscow did little to deter many developing countries desperate for huge quantities of weapons. From the Horn of Africa to Central America, the Soviet T-55 and T-62 MBTs became as ubiquitous as the Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle.

Although the two Superpowers were cautious about coming into direct confrontation, this did not prevent indirect meddling elsewhere in the world. On the periphery, the Cold War became very hot and on a number of occasions almost sparked war in Europe. Time after time Moscow was able to make good its allies’ massive losses. The Soviets conducted a substantial re-supply of Syria in 1982–3 following their military losses in Lebanon. Major re-supply also took place in 1977–9 in support of Ethiopia in its clash with Somalia and during the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1967 and 1973. Prior to that they conducted airlift operations in 1967–8 in support of a republican faction in North Yemen.

At the height of the Cold War the Soviet Union exported billions of dollars’ worth of arms to numerous developing countries. Intelligence analysts watched with a mixture of alarm and awe as cargo ship after cargo ship sailed from Nikolayev in Ukraine stacked to the gunnels to ports such as Assab in Ethiopia, Luanda in Angola, Tartus in Syria and Tripoli in Libya. Much of this equipment came from strategic reserves and was very old or had been superseded by newer models, as in the case of the T-55 and T-62 MBTs, which were all but obsolete by then. Soviet armoured vehicle exports also included the 4×4 wheeled BTR-60 APC and the tracked BMP-1 IFV.

In many cases Soviet weapon shipments were funded through generous loans, barter-deals or simply gifted, and Moscow’s arms industries rarely saw a penny in return. The net result was that during the Cold War Moscow fuelled a series of long-running regional conflicts that lasted for decades. Ultimately the West was to spend the Soviet Union into oblivion, but the legacy of the Cold War was one of global misery.

Yakovlev Yak 15

Russia’s first Jet fighter
The closing stages of the Second I World War saw as radical a change in fighter development as that brought about a decade earlier by the appearance of the first fighter monoplanes with retractable undercarriages; the turbojet began to supplant the piston engine for fighter propulsion. Both the Luftwaffe and the RAF had introduced the jet fighter operationally, and the USAAF was preparing to do so, but the Soviet Union had failed to evolve an acceptable turbojet and, with the Third Reich rapidly crumbling in front of the victorious Russian forces, it had become a matter of the utmost importance that the Soviet Union compete, at least ostensibly, in all fields of technical development. The Soviet air forces had to have a jet fighter for prestige purposes!

Copied from Germans
Fortunately for the Russians, their forces had acquired a number of German BMW 003A and Junkers Jumo 004A turbojets by the beginning of 1945, and these were hurriedly shipped back to Russian experimental establishments for examination. A crash programme was immediately initiated to expedite the development of jet fighters, and prepara- tions were made to mass produce copies of the German engines, a task in which the Russians were much assisted by Czech technicians who succeeded in passing valuable data on production techniques to Russian agents. Work on adapting the turbojets to Soviet manufacturing standards had reached an advanced stage some time before Germany’s final collapse, and the subsequent capture of factories building the BMW and Jumo engines expedited the Russian programme. Captured German technicians were hastily transported to the Russian plants where production of the turbojets had started, the BMW 003 under the designation RD-20 and the Jumo 004 under the designation RD-I0 ” (the prefix “RD ” signifying Reaktivnyi Dvigatel or Reaction Motor), and Russian designers were already at work evolving suitable airframes.

One of the design teams allocated one or two of the precious captured Jumo 004 turbojets was that of Alexander S. Yakovlev, whose piston-engined fighters had been responsible, perhaps more than those of any other individual designer, for turning the tide of the air war over the Soviet Union. No fewer than 30,000 of Yakovlev’s piston-engined fighters had been manufactured by the Russian aircraft industry during the war years, and in order to expedite the development of an interim jet fighter, he decided to use major components from his last wartime fighter design to see widespread service, the Yak-3. Although designed in parallel with the better-known Yak-9, the Yak-3 had not been introduced until 1944. Intended specifically for low-altitude combat and army co-operation, it had a smaller wing span than that of the Yak-9, and pilots who flew both the earlier versions of the Spitfire and the Yak-3 claimed the Russian fighter to be lighter on the ailerons, smoother to fly, and superior in speed and initial climb rate.

The new jet fighter, which received the designation Yak-15, employed the wings, undercarriage and tail assembly of the Yak-3, these components being married to anew, all-metal fuselage. The Jumo 0048 turbojet, rated at 1,980 lb.s.t., was mounted below the wing main spar, being fed via a small, circular intake in the nose and exhausting beneath the rear fuselage, which was protected from the jet stream ‘by a convex steel ” bath.” Although rather crude and displaying ample evidence of its hasty design, the Yak-15’s small size and light construction compensated to some extent for the low output of the turbojet, resulting in a performance that compared reasonably well with those of contemporary West- ern jet fighters. The first prototype Yak-15 was flown for the first time on April 24, 1946, and was presumably powered by one of the captured German engines, but production machines which were being delivered to units of the IA-PVO early in 1947, employed the Russian adaptation of the Jumo engine, the RD-10, and on August 3, 1947, during the annual air display at Tushino, the fighter was revealed to the public for the first time, a trio of Yak-15s giving an aerobatic display.

The Yak-15 was evidently considered as little more than an interim type by the Russians, suited only to providing the Air Forces with some jet experience and useful in building up a nucleus of trained jet pilots while more advanced designs were being investigated. The Yak-15 was reputedly extremely manoeuvrable, but the tail wheel resulted in a rather lengthy take-off run and the pilot’s view from the aft-positioned cockpit was extremely limited, particularly during take-off and landing. Armament comprised two 23-mm. Nudelman-Suranov NS-23 cannon installed in the upper decking of the forward fuselage, and performance included an approximate maximum speed of 495 m.p.h. at 9,840 ft., a cruising speed of 404 m.p.h., and a range of the order of 460 miles. Overall dimensions included a span and length of 31 ft. 6 in. and 28 ft. respectively.

The impracticability of the tailwheel undercarriage resulted in the design of a nosewheel undercarriage for the fighter at an early stage in its development, the variant embodying this modification receiving the designation Yak-17. A comparatively small number of Yak-15 fighters had been delivered to the Soviet Air Forces when, early in 1948, it was supplanted on the production line by the Yak-17. The main undercarriage member attachment points were moved from the front to the rear spar, which was suitably reinforced, and a semi-retractable nosewheel was introduced. When retracted, this nosewheel was only partly enclosed, the air intake duct leaving insufficient space for a housing large enough to accommodate the whole wheel, but it served as a convenient bumper in the event of a” wheels-up ” landing, and drag was reduced by a small fairing attached to the nosewheel leg. Simultaneously with the introduction of the nosewheel undercarriage, Alexander Yakovlev took the opportunity to install the improved RD-10A turbojet, rated at 2,200 Ib.s.t., and to redesign and enlarge the vertical tail surfaces, the curved fin-and-rudder assembly which, until that time, had characterised all Yakovlev fighters.

The performance of the Yak-17 was slightly higher than that of its predecessor, maximum speed being 510 m.p.h. at 9,840 ft., and a tandem two-seat version, the Yak-17UTI, was evolved as Russia’s first two-seat jet conversion trainer. A second cockpit for the pupil was mounted ahead of the standard cockpit in place of the forward fuel tank, and the Yak-17UTI remained a standard conversion trainer with the Soviet Air Forces until the appearance of the two-seat MiG-15UTI. One Yak-17UTI was supplied to the Polish Aero Club and, bearing the civil registration SP-GLM, was used for several years to provide Polish reserve pilots with jet experience.


A volunteer division of Rumanian prisoners of war recruited into the Red Army. It saw extensive fighting in 1944–1945.

The 1st Romanian Volunteer Division Tudor Vladimirescu was created on 2 October 1943 after much pleading made by the Romanian Communists exiled in the USSR, led by Ana Pauker. The men were recruited from the POWs in the Soviet camps. The prospect of a better life than that enjoyed in the camps and of the promised return home meant that there were enough soldiers willing to join it. Obviously books published in Romania during the 1948-1989 period underlined the soldiers’ “desire to fight fascism and free the country of Antonescu’s dictatorship”, the main motivation was more related to survival and longing for home than to “Communist ideals”. The main problem of the recruiters was the lack of officers willing to join the division. Thus sergeants and NCOs had to receive a quick officer course by 1 February 1944 in order ensure the necessary staff. As political officers were used 500 Communists of Romanian citizenship, exiled in the USSR previous to the war.

The first Commanding Officer was Colonel Nicolae Cambrea, the former chief of staff of the 5th Infantry Division, captured at Serafimovich on 22 November 1942. He was released from the Suzdal camp and took over the Tudor Vladimirescu division on 15 November 1943 and began organizing it.

The Order of Battle was that of a Soviet rifle division:

– 1st, 2nd and 3rd Panduri Regiments (the panduri were a volunteer corps commanded by Tudor Vladimirescu, which served in the Russian Army during the 1806-1812 Russo-Turkish War); each regiment had 3 rifle battalions (3 rifle companies, one machine-gun company and one 82 mm mortar company each), one AT rifle company (36 pieces), one 120 mm mortar battery (6 pieces), one 76.2 mm gun battery (6 pieces), one 45 mm AT gun battery (6 pieces)

– 1st Artillery Regiment: two battalions of 76.2 mm guns (24 pieces) and one 122 mm howitzers battalion (12 pieces)

-AT Battalion

-Pioneer Battalion

-Recon Company

-Communications Company

The weapons and equipment were Soviet, but the rank insignias were Romanian.

Because the Red Army was approaching Romanian territory, the preparations were hurried up. It took the oath on 30 March 1944 and the following day it was sent to the front and subordinated to Marshal Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front. The division arrived at Vapniarka on 23 April, but since the Soviet offensive had run out of steam and the front stabilized, it didn’t get to see any action and was put in reserve and the political officers started a propaganda campaign on the Romanian territory (the northeastern corner of the country) under Red Army control.

After the Jassy-Kishinev Operation began, the Tudor Vladimirescu division was ordered to occupy Iasi on 21 August and Romania’s capitulation two days later avoided the undesirable situation of a Romanian-Romanian conflict. On 28 August, 150 vehicles were assigned to it in order to get to Bucharest as fast as possible. Malinovsky probably counted on the propaganda potential it had. Thus, the advanced echelon saw its first combat action against a small German force at Bulbocea, near Vaslui. The rest of the division engaged another German unit on 31 August, on the Ciunta Hill, near Deleni. The motorized detachment entered Bucharest on 31 August 1944. But because the order was secured by the Romanian Government and the division could not be used in this role, it was sent to the front in Transylvania.

Combat losses were heavy; by March 1945 the strength of the division had sunk to 4,436 men.

In March 1945 the division was pulled out of the front lines, but remained under the operational control of the 2nd Ukrainian Front until August 15, 1945.

Relentlessly politicized by their communist leaders, the Tudor Vladimirescu Division became a politically reliable military formation of the Romanian communists. Along with another Romanian communist unit, the Horia, Cloşca şi Crişan Division, and backed by tens of thousands of Red Army troops, the Tudor Vladimirescu Division played a key role in imposing communist rule in Romania after the war. The two communist divisions were integrated into the Romanian Army on August 22, 1945. The Tudor Vladimirescu Division was converted into an armored division by 1947 while the regular Romanian army was reduced to four divisions[4] with no tanks, thus providing the Romanian communists the trump cards of mobility and firepower had a conflict with anti-communist elements in the Romanian Army taken place.


Operation Unthinkable: Churchill’s World War III (2017)

Operation Unthinkable: Churchill’s World War III

As the American president Truman cruised towards northern Europe, an exhausted Churchill took the opportunity of a few days rest after the election and a chance to refresh himself before Potsdam. He and his wife, Clementine, stayed at the Château de Bordaberry, overlooking the Bay of Biscay in south-west France, painting and swimming, or, more accurately, floating. Churchill’s private secretary, Jock Colville, recorded in his diary that ‘the Prime Minister floated, like a benevolent hippo, in the middle of a large circle of protective French policemen who had duly donned bathing-suits for the purpose.’ When he was not bathing, Churchill painted coastal scenes at St Jean-de-Luz and Hendaye, using rich colours from his paint box to depict the dramatic Atlantic seashore.

Meanwhile, on 11 July, as the prime minister enjoyed a brief moment of relaxation in France, his chiefs of staff in London received their first glimpse of the second report on Operation Unthinkable. It had taken a month for the same JPS team of Grantham, Thompson and Dawson to report back on ‘what measures would be required to ensure the security of the British Isles in the event of war with Russia in the near future’. It was, of course, highly sensitive, even by the standards of national security and the normal staffs in the services ministries were not consulted. The premise was quite conceivable, for one of Stalin’s cherished ambitions was to control a unified greater Germany, and his Red Army might not stop at the Rhine. The report, however, assumed that the Red Army had overrun the whole of Western Europe and were poised to attack Britain, but there was no discussion as to how quickly and by what method the Soviets would conquer Europe.

There would have been some warning of a Soviet invasion, hopefully via British Intelligence, but the job of gathering intelligence on Red Army dispositions was never straightforward. Extracting information from German intelligence officers about Soviet movements caused a crisis of conscience for senior British intelligence officers, such as Dick White. ‘I would have objected to the use of a Nazi as an agent,’ he curtly noted, but ‘the prospect never arose.’ The Americans, however, had no such qualms and were not only using German Abwehr officers, but were even ‘pinching’ British agents. Britain’s pre-eminent place in the world of espionage was slipping, as was the relationship between the British and US intelligence services. The British Embassy in Moscow was obviously a conduit for local intelligence and debate about Soviet intentions. Staff spent endless hours poring over the Soviet press, such as Pravda, Izvestia or the English-language Moscow Evening News, as well as any number of technical journals for information about the strength of Soviet armaments. Then there were diplomatic trips to Kiev or Leningrad during April and May 1945, when the presence of the NKVD was not quite as claustrophobic as it would shortly become. There were gaps and opportunities, through which diplomats could talk to local people or glimpse ‘off limits’ areas.

Even if the West had some prior notice of a Soviet attack, it would only take the Red Army weeks to arrive on the French border. But what were the constraints on the Soviet operations? One major problem for the Red Army would be their long lines of communication, and once they had pushed their vast ‘Front’ units out of Eastern Europe they would no longer find themselves a majority force in their occupied territories, such as Poland, Ukraine and Germany. Resistance fighters in those countries could rise up in significant numbers and cause serious problems behind the Soviet lines.

Nonetheless, the planners opened their report with the blunt scenario:

The following are the main methods by which the Russians might attempt to attack the British Isles after they had reached the shores of the North Sea and Atlantic:

– By cutting our sea communications

– By invasion

– By air attack

– By rocket or other new methods

It was believed that the Soviets were unable to mount a submarine or air attack on Allied shipping, at least nowhere near the capability of the German threat in the Second World War. Reassuringly, it would take some years for Soviet technology to catch up, especially in submarine design. So, if the Soviets could not cut British sea communications, could they launch a successful invasion of Britain? They were unlikely to rely just on airborne operations and if they came ashore by landing craft, they would need to land in very large numbers to establish a beachhead. But the Soviets would be severely handicapped by their inexperience in such amphibious operations, and, having little or no merchant navy of their own, they could hardly support them. Most Allied merchant shipping would have been already withdrawn from Atlantic ports or otherwise scuttled in advance of the approaching Red Army; the threat of an invasion was always present but because of Soviet limitations the planners decided that the threat of invasion was not imminent.

Being overwhelmed by the Red Air Force was another possibility. Although their strategic bomber force was not rated by British advisors, the flying distance from coastal air bases in France or the Low Countries to Britain was short enough to bring industrial and military targets within easy range. Although Soviet tactical bombers were normally trained to support land operations, they could easily adapt for such an important mission and their sheer numbers could pose a threat. The RAF could expect to inflict very heavy losses on the Red Air Force, but its victory was by no means assured. However, it was the prospect of an attack by rockets or pilotless aircraft that posed the most concern:

The Russians are likely to begin large scale production of these weapons at an early date. We must expect a far heavier scale of attack than the Germans were able to develop, and we do not at present see any method of effectively reducing this. This would be the main threat over the considerable period which must elapse before the Russians can contemplate any attempt at invasion.

The planners were right to acknowledge this menace from the new weapons, for the Soviets were racing to develop copies of the German V–2, as well as ‘pilotless aircraft’. But fortunately for the Allies, they were some way from manufacturing large rockets capable of crossing the Channel. It was true that they had acquired detailed plans and operational knowledge of the V–2 rocket when their forces overran the Blizna testing ground in south-east Poland in August 1944. They were also due to receive the captured V–2 plant at Nordhausen from the Americans on 1 July 1945 (ironically the same date as Unthinkable had been due to start). But even then, the Soviets still did not possess any stocks of captured, complete V–2 rockets and neither did they have the services of enough German scientists. They did manage to secure some, but they were not even communist sympathisers. Helmut Gröttrup, a former assistant to the director of the Guidance, Control and Telemetry Laboratory at Peenemünde, had other motives, as his wife later confided:

They [the Americans] grabbed Wernher von Braun, Hüter, Schilling, Steinhoff, Gröttrup and other leading rocket experts. We were housed at Witzenhausen and interrogated. After weeks had passed, Helmut was handed a contract offering him a transfer to the USA without his family, a contract terminable by one signatory only: the US Army. Since we wanted to remain in Germany, we moved back to the Russian Zone.

It would be another year before scientists such as Gröttrup could begin to turn out Soviet V–2 rockets in sufficient quantity to endanger the West. The planners did not detail the type of rockets that posed a threat, but it would not come from the smaller Katyusha type. After all, the closest distance between France and England was 26 miles and the most powerful existing rocket, the M–13 DD, only had a range of 7 miles. However, if the rocket threat materialised any earlier, the main British defence would depend on anti-aircraft batteries, rather than the RAF – at least as far as Churchill was concerned. He had already attacked Sir Archibald Sinclair over claims that it was the RAF which had defeated the V-weapons:

You have no grounds to claim that the RAF frustrated the attacks by the V weapons. The RAF took their part, but in my opinion, their effort ranks definitely below that of the AA Artillery and still further below the achievements of the Army in clearing out all the establishments in the Pas de Calais. As to the V2, nothing has been done or can be done by the RAF.

To reduce the threat from rockets, the possibility of retaining bridgeheads on the continent was considered. By holding on to coastal areas, the idea was to deprive the Red Army of launch sites. If they had to fire rockets from further inland, aimed at London, it would be beyond the range of a V–2 type. But it was out of the question to expect an Allied army to hold on to a continual stretch of continental coastline in the face of such massive enemy forces. However, peninsulas such as Cherbourg or Brittany could be considered, along with Denmark or Western Holland, though concentrating Allied troops in these compact areas would provide the enemy with an easy target. In the end, the planners came down against establishing bridgeheads for the following reasons:

The range of the present rocket would necessitate the holding of a continuous front well into France and the Low Countries, if the scale of attack by this method is to be seriously affected.

If used as bases for a return to the continent, we should be sacrificing surprise and would enable the enemy to build up against us at leisure.

Except in the case of Denmark, use of which is limited by way of lack of harbours on the north and west coasts, the air forces we could station in the bridgehead would be little greater than those required to support the troops defending it.

Rockets were obviously an insoluble problem for the planners, who were more comfortable with the idea of conventional warfare and planning for the possibility of the Red Army sitting in captured French fortifications across the Channel. How would British commanders deploy their forces to defend the homeland? There would be the risk of a Soviet airborne invasion or amphibious landings, or both, and there would have to be mobile British units to deal with these threats – garrisons would need to be sent to defend urban and industrial centres, as well as ports. As for the defence of the rest of the country, that would be in the hands of some twenty British and US infantry and armoured divisions, deployed south of a line between the Severn and the Wash, with a concentration in the south-east of the country. The bulk of these forces were already in Britain, but they would have to be supplemented by troops withdrawing from Europe in the face of a Soviet advance. The speed of the retreat on the continent would mean a lot of their heavy equipment would be left behind. Indeed, the loss of equipment and the ability of British industry to replace it and keep its forces continually supplied would require industrial capacity to be substantially raised.

There was no reference in the plan to the possibility of an actual Soviet occupation of the British mainland, or indeed the provisions to set up a British government-in-exile in somewhere such as Canada, Newfoundland or South Africa. There was some reassurance, however, that the Royal Navy and RAF would provide a safe cordon around the country, with the local naval forces guarding the southern and eastern approaches and the Home Fleet protecting the northern waters. Depending on how the Soviet threat developed, convoy escorts would be required at a later date.

If the planners had unbounded faith in the Royal Navy, they had even more confidence in the ability of the Royal Air Force to deal with the Red Air Force, but only if both RAF and USAAF squadrons could be recalled from Europe in time to operate from British bases. To this end, RAF aircraft and personnel would be held back from deployment in the Far East, though the effect this would have on the continuing war against Japan was not calculated. Even if these conditions were met, the combined Anglo-American air force would need to muster 230 fighter squadrons, 100 tactical bomber and 200 heavy bomber squadrons.

The planners concluded:

It is only by the use of rockets and other new weapons that the Russians could develop any serious threat to the security of this country in the initial stages. Invasion or a serious attack upon our sea communications could only be undertaken after a period of preparation which must last some years.

While the chiefs of staff contemplated the JPS report, Churchill continued his long-overdue break in France, pending the start of the Potsdam Conference. ‘I’m going to relax completely,’ he informed his doctor. ‘I’m not going to look at any papers.’ It was clear he was not going to digest any government documents, and that included any new papers on Operation Unthinkable. They would have to wait. On 15 July, without returning to London, he flew from Bordeaux to Berlin for the beginning of the Potsdam conference.

Churchill invited Attlee to join him at Potsdam, pending the results of the British general election and Attlee flew out to the conference on 15 July, much to the surprise of the Soviet delegation, who could not understand why the leader of the opposition party should be included. By the time of the conference Allied troops had been withdrawn to the agreed zones, and Eden, as foreign secretary, was preparing to ‘tie up the loose ends’ of the Polish machination. Although Churchill remained depressed at not achieving his goal over Poland, he entered the conference room at Potsdam knowing that the Allies still had a major card to play – a card that could change the whole strategic balance.

Even before the first atomic test in July, the British had given their consent in principle to its use against the Japanese. Churchill confirmed that support for the bomb was emphatic:

The historic fact remains, and must be judged in the after-time, that the decision whether or not to use the atomic bomb to compel the surrender of Japan was never an issue. There was unanimous, automatic, unquestioned agreement around our table.

Truman entered the rooms at the Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam fully briefed about the impending Trinity atomic test. The conference was due to start on 16 July, but Stalin had suffered a minor heart attack and the start of business was rescheduled for the following day. It was no wonder then that Major-General Leslie Hollis remarked ‘in the eighteen months since I first saw him [Stalin] at Teheran, his hair had gone as white as the tunic he wore.’ Churchill used the spare day to visit Berlin and the ruins of the Reich Chancellery. Lord Moran, who accompanied the PM, noted that Churchill was strangely unmoved by the surroundings. He was not even excited by the prospect of seeing the entrance to the bunker and the scene of the last sordid days of his bitter enemy. He took a few steps down into the bunker and promptly came back up into the ruined gardens. ‘Hitler must have come out here to get some air,’ he ventured, ‘and heard the guns getting nearer and nearer.’

A battered chair, hastily rescued from the bunker, was brought forward for a photo opportunity, and the prime minister dutifully sat down. ‘Churchill tries out Hitler’s chair for size’, trumpeted the subsequent headlines, but there was little triumph in Churchill’s demeanour. He was, no doubt, thinking of the forthcoming meetings and his first real discussions with Truman. He had met the president fleetingly before and had spoken to him on the telephone, but this was the first time they had met as world leaders. The PM was impressed with Truman but the feelings were not entirely mutual. ‘I’m sure we can get along,’ Truman cautiously noted in his diary, ‘if he doesn’t try to give me too much soft soap.’ When Truman finally met Stalin the following day, he had no such reservations about the Soviet leader. ‘I can deal with Stalin. He is honest – but smart as hell.’ Some of Stalin’s pronouncements certainly chimed with Truman, especially when he mentioned he would like to divide up some of the old colonies and mandates.

Business got underway quickly, despite the constant interruptions caused by delegates leaving the meeting rooms – diarrhoea was rampant, due to pollution of the local water supply – while the main concern of three British chiefs of staff was the plague of mosquitos ever present around their lakeside villa. Brooke, Portal and Cunningham made time for the odd spot of recreation, though the British chiefs were disappointed to be told that the nearby Lake Griebnitzsee was polluted by dead bodies and the fish had been blown up by hand grenades. Nevertheless, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff could still be seen in a canoe, with fishing rod in hand, being paddled around the lake by the Marshal of the RAF.

As the delegates prepared for their meetings, 6,000 miles away in a small military installation in the Jornada de Muerto desert in southern New Mexico, US scientists were about to experiment with a world-changing weapon. Just before dawn on 16 July, a truck arrived at the site bearing an innocuous-looking metal sphere. The ball looked simple enough, and, with a radius of 4ft 6in, it very much resembled a sea mine. The 4-ton load was hoisted off the truck and placed on the ground. Then, with due reverence, a canopy was placed over it, allowing technicians to adjust the device in complete and sterile privacy. The ball was then raised high up into a gantry, some 100ft above the ground. At precisely 5.29 a.m., ‘Fat Man’ was detonated. The plutonium bomb vaporised the gantry and eliminated all desert life within half a mile. Equivalent to the result of using 20 kilotons of TNT, the blast created an ‘oven heat’ that was felt 10 miles away, and its searing light was sufficient to cause temporary blindness at that distance. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project tasked with developing the atomic bomb, solemnly witnessed the Trinity test explosion:

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed. A few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’. I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

On 18 July Truman informed Churchill about the results of the atomic test. Before he had left for Potsdam, Churchill had asked Truman to cable him as soon as the news came through as to ‘whether it is a flop or a plop’. The telegram read ‘It’s a plop. Truman.’ At Churchill’s request the president held off from telling Stalin until 24 July. Even then Stalin did not seem to be particularly impressed or surprised at the news. There is no doubt that he knew of the progress of the US Manhattan Project through such spies as Klaus Fuchs, whose information was ‘of great value’ to the Soviets and was later exposed in the Venona transcripts. Stalin would also have been familiar with the earlier Anglo-American atomic co-operation, known as the Tube Alloys project, from Soviet agents inside Whitehall, London. However, he may not have understood the full implications until the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima several weeks later. Only then did Stalin and Beria break into a gallop with the development of a Soviet nuclear programme.

The explosion of an atomic bomb was also another massive jolt to Stalin’s view of his future relations with the West. Together with Roosevelt’s death, in April 1945, these two seismic changes in the international landscape reawakened Stalin’s ‘old demons of insecurity’. He would now have to deal with a material shift in the balance of military power, as well as a new host of diplomatic figures, including, shortly, a change in the British leadership. Such insecurity was also felt by Stalin’s colleagues. Yuli Khariton, one of the early Soviet atomic designers, gloomily concluded that ‘the Soviet Government interpreted Hiroshima as atomic blackmail against the USSR, as a threat to unleash a new, even more terrible and devastating war.’ The Soviets were now well aware that the USAAF was capable of delivering atomic bombs, from their bases in Europe and the Middle East, to the very heart of Stalin’s empire. The bomb also hammered home to Stalin that if Japan quickly capitulated, he could swiftly lose his chance to enact the Yalta agreement and capture strategic territory around Manchuria and Japan and thereby improve his security in the east.

News on 16 July that the plutonium-based bomb was successful meant that the Americans might not need to worry about pushing the Soviets to enter the war against Japan – could they now finish off Japan on their own? At this stage the US military did not think that atomic bombs could ensure victory on their own, but would instead be a powerful addition to the mix of bombardment necessary to support the land invasion of Japan in the autumn of 1945. A much simpler uranium bomb, known as ‘Little Boy’, was also being developed, though this would not require a test explosion. Even so, little was known about the effect of radiation, and army commanders even discussed using the bombs tactically to soften up beach defences around the Japanese mainland.

The success of the Trinity test theoretically released the West from the obligation of courting Stalin and should have freed them to take a hard line with him over Poland and the other occupied Eastern European states. According to Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Churchill was jubilant about the new bomb:

He had absorbed all the minor American exaggerations and as a result was completely carried away. It was now no longer necessary for the Russians to come into the Japanese War, the new explosive alone was sufficient to settle the matter! … Furthermore, we now had something in our hands which would redress the balance with the Russians.

The Potsdam leaders issued a final ultimatum for a Japanese surrender, but this was swiftly rejected by the Japanese prime minister, who announced that his forces would fight on. He was secretly trying to obtain a peace agreement with the Chinese, so that large numbers of Japanese troops could be released for the defence of the Home Islands. The Japanese military were hell-bent on continuing the war, but US decrypts of telegrams revealed that some Japanese politicians were looking for someone to broker a peace deal with the Allies. They were in a minority, so the US bombing onslaught against the Japanese mainland and islands continued. Raids by up to 500 Superfortresses and 1,000 carrier aircraft blitzed Tokyo, Nagoya, Yokohama, Osaka and Kobe, together with numerous oil refineries and ports.


Despite his euphoria over the bomb, Churchill was by now physically, if not mentally, exhausted. And as the PM’s health deteriorated, Eden increasingly took on the responsibility for the British delegation at Potsdam. ‘The PM is not mastering his brief,’ Lord Moran noted, ‘he is too tired to prepare anything.’ Yet Churchill was invigorated by the new military and political advantage that the bomb had given the West. ‘He was completely carried away,’ noted Field Marshal Brooke, ‘and was delighted to think that the bomb could redress the power balance with Stalin. “Now we could say,” Churchill enthused, “if you insist on doing this or that, well we can just blot out Moscow, then Stalingrad, then Kiev, then Kuibyshev, Karkhov, Sebastapol [sic]. And now where are the Russians!!!!”’ Brooke later conceded that Churchill was right to appreciate that the atomic bomb had shifted the balance of military power:

Winston’s appreciation of its value in the future international balance of power was certainly far more accurate than mine. But what was worrying me was that with his usual enthusiasm for anything new, he was letting himself be carried away by the very first and rather scanty reports of the first atomic explosion. He was already seeing himself capable of eliminating all the Russian centres of industry and population, without taking into account any of the connected problems, such as delivery of the bomb, production of bombs, possibility of Russia also possessing such bombs etc. He had at once painted a wonderful picture of himself as the sole possessor of these bombs and capable of dumping them where he wished, thus all powerful and capable of dictating to Stalin!

The atomic bomb had clearly reignited Churchill’s hopes of Unthinkable, though as Brooke reflected, it was the US who had the bomb and controlled its use, and not Britain. Even then, in 1945 there were great logistical problems in dropping an atom bomb. It was one thing for a B–29 bomber to pass through heavily depleted Japanese air defences, but quite another to attempt to penetrate a web of densely packed anti-aircraft defences across the Soviet Union. The aircraft bearing the bomb would have to fly at night, negotiate heavy ground fire and fighter inceptors, and then drop its bomb from a high altitude using radar, for which scope returns had to be prepared. Because at this stage US policy was still defiantly set on a course of accommodation with Stalin, there was little chance of a ‘first-strike’ against the Soviet Union. Anyway, the stock of atomic bombs was still extremely limited and until the development of rocket delivery, there remained the hindrance of enemy defences shooting down any bomb-laden aircraft.

Although Churchill had thrown in a number of Soviet city targets, such target data, especially east of Moscow, was very basic and few accurate maps existed. Even if these sites could be identified, factories manufacturing aircraft, ordnance and ball-bearings were heavily defended. The atomic bomb delivery aircraft, the B–29, had a radius of some 2,000 miles, so when it was operating out of US airbases only a limited number of Soviet targets could be attacked. The alternative was to operate from forward air bases in Europe, such as East Anglia, or Foggia, in Italy, but none of these had the necessary weapons pits for loading or facilities to store the atomic bombs. At this stage no one knew the effect of an atomic blast on a city, but since most Japanese population centres comprised wooden buildings, it was assumed that the devastation would be complete. Conversely, a Soviet concrete-built city could expect to survive total demolition.

While Japan remained oblivious to its fate, Churchill would shortly know his political future. He had already discussed the outcome of the British general election with Stalin, and, as far as the Soviet dictator was concerned, Churchill would be returned with a majority of eighty seats. Stalin was adamant that an army always voted for a strong premier. On 25 July the conference was suspended while Churchill, Eden and Attlee flew to London to discover the election results. They were due to return to Potsdam two days later, but there was a dramatic outcome. Remembering the pre-war shortcomings of the Conservative Party, rather than its leader’s wartime record, the country gave the Labour Party a landslide victory. Churchill, exercising that extraordinary will and strength, refused to flinch at the electoral upset. Those around him were stunned, though his family, and particularly his daughter Mary, offered huge support. She recalled a weekend at the prime minister’s retreat, Chequers, when, for the last time, the family entered their names in the visitors’ book. It was a volume full of the names who had dictated the fortunes of war, but now the PM signed off with one word – ‘Finis’.

In Potsdam Stalin was staggered at the result and couldn’t comprehend that Churchill couldn’t ‘fix’ it. The result caused Stalin some concern, because now he had lost both his equals. First, in April, Roosevelt had died and now, in July, Churchill had disappeared. The loss meant that the old triumvirate had melted away and Stalin became even more paranoid now that he had to deal with untested replacements. On the same day that the British contingent were away, Poland came up on the agenda. To Truman it seemed settled business. ‘Russia helped herself to a slice of Poland,’ he complained, ‘and gave Poland a nice slice of Germany, taking also a good slice of East Prussia for herself. Poland has moved in up to the Oder and the west Neisse, taking Stettin and Silesia as a fact accomplished.’ The Soviet-sponsored Polish provisional government had moved quickly to acquire this territory, and started to expel the millions of ethnic Germans, but it was a new boundary that neither Roosevelt nor Churchill had officially approved.

Two new faces appeared at Potsdam – Clement Attlee, the Labour Prime Minister of Britain, together with his foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin. This caused the Soviets some consternation; Molotov was suspicious of the new British leaders, and repeatedly asked Attlee why he didn’t know the result of the general election beforehand. The new leaders’ styles were totally different to Churchill and Eden. Attlee had little charisma but was technically master of his brief, whereas Bevin was the complete opposite of his suave, patrician predecessor and was only too happy to point it out. When returning from his first trip to America, waiting reporters were eager to record his experience. ‘What are your first impressions of America?’ they shouted. Bevin did not pause for a second. ‘The newspapers are too big,’ he replied, ‘and the lavatory paper is too small.’

Even though Bevin lacked the finesse of Eden, he continued much the same foreign policies, particularly the continued alliance with the US. He was anti-communist and had spent much of his political life fighting communist influence within the trade union movement. Indeed, Bevin arrived in Potsdam ‘fully aware of the tensions that existed and with a shrewd assessment of the scope of Soviet ambitions, a much shrewder one at this stage, than most of the Americans’. However, despite Bevin’s undoubted talents, he was at odds with many in his own party who wished to see a ‘Third Force’ of socialists within Europe, unaligned with either the US or the Soviet Union. Bevin was essentially an imperialist and believed that the best way to defend the British Empire was by a military and atomic deterrent, whereas Attlee’s hopes for security were largely vested in the emerging United Nations. Consequently, while Bevin and his immediate advisors might have agreed with the provisions of Operation Unthinkable, he would have faced an uphill struggle against Attlee and a large part of the Labour party.

On 6 August 1945 a specially adapted Boeing B–29 Superfortress, Enola Gay, set off for Hiroshima to deliver the innocently named ‘Little Boy’ uranium bomb. The target city was an important embarkation port, industrial centre and was also the site of a large military depot. The bomb took 43 seconds to fall, burst at 2000ft above the city and destroyed 70 per cent of the buildings. Estimates of those immediately killed range from 70,000 to 90,000. It was devastating but Truman had no remorse over the use of the atomic bomb, and had little patience with those who did. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had been a key figure in the Manhattan Project, afterwards expressed doubt about the morality of using the bomb, but was dismissed by Truman as a ‘cry-baby’. After the Hiroshima bomb the Japanese attempted to petition the Soviet Union for a treaty, but in response Stalin declared war on Japan and the Red Army invaded Manchuria. It was true that this Soviet action had been agreed at Yalta, but its timing was an example of Stalin’s talent for opportunism.

On 9 August the US dropped a second, more powerful plutonium bomb on the industrial port of Nagasaki, killing in excess of 50,000 inhabitants. Still, the Japanese military refused to surrender, but it was the intervention, his only intervention during the war, of Emperor Hirohito that pressed them to surrender. Under his direction there was no loss of face. He declared the war over but never mentioned the word defeat, and Japan formally surrendered on 2 September. Unsurprisingly, this was a huge relief to the US military, for there would be only one more atomic bomb in stock until several more were produced the following month. Consequently, Churchill’s idea that the West could threaten to obliterate the Soviet Union in 1945 was very wide of the mark.

Stalin had made some important strategic gains from his war with Japan, and he was not about to concede his territorial designs in the West. Barely a week after the Japanese surrender, his foreign minister, Molotov, was involved in bitter wrangling with his counterparts in the West over recognition of the Soviet puppet governments in Europe. It seems that at the same time as this deterioration in relations, Stalin had discovered some startling information about British intentions. Oleg Tsarev, an ex-KGB journalist, has alleged that in September 1945 Stalin received his first high-level intelligence on a British strategic post-war plan. ‘The Security of the British Empire’, dated 29 June 1945, was a memorandum prepared by the British Post-Hostilities Planning Staff and had found its way onto Stalin’s desk. It was not as detailed as the Unthinkable plan, nor did it involve the US, but it was still a highly restricted document exposing British strategic thinking. There was a deluge of such documents coming into Stalin’s possession, for by the end of the war Soviet agents, including such high-fliers as Kim Philby, were operating in the very heart of Whitehall. He was head of anti-Soviet operations (Section IX) within the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and probably procured the ‘British Empire’ document for the NKVD. One of his SIS colleagues later confided that Philby had ‘ensured that the whole post-war effort to counter Communist espionage became known in the Kremlin. The history of espionage records few, if any, comparable masterstrokes.’

As well as Philby, there were other well connected Soviet spies supplying intelligence papers to Stalin. John Cairncross, who had previously worked for the ULTRA operation at Bletchley Park, was another SIS officer who turned traitor – at the time of VE Day, Cairncross worked for Section I, devoted to Political Intelligence. Anthony Blunt, who had worked for MI5 during the war, also proved to be of great help to Soviet intelligence and, in the words of a senior figure in their Foreign Intelligence Directorate, ‘had carried out such huge, titanic work for us’. He had also successfully run a sub-agent, Leo Long, who served in military intelligence during the war and then continued to work as a mole within the British Control Commission in Germany, rising to the post of Deputy Director of Intelligence.

The NKVD had two further moles within the British Foreign Office: Donald Maclean was First Secretary of the British Embassy in Washington, a sensitive post which was often diplomatic cover for senior intelligence officers. Another was Guy Burgess, who had left the BBC in June 1944 to take up a post in the press department of the Foreign Office. According to the former KGB agent Vasili Mitrokhin, during the period January to June 1945, Burgess supplied copies of 389 FO documents classified as ‘top secret’ to his Soviet handlers. He would regularly take a holdall full of these sensitive papers out of his office and meet his Soviet contact in a park. On one occasion he and his handler were even stopped by the police, who thought his bulging case looked like the proceeds of a robbery, but Burgess promptly convinced the officers that he had no housebreaking equipment on him. They then apologised for troubling him and his silent friend.

With the subsequent election of the Attlee government in July 1945, Burgess obtained even greater access to secret government papers, via his appointment as an aide to Hector McNeil, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office. It is not known whether the details of the tightly restricted Operation Unthinkable ever reached Stalin, though he had certainly received details of earlier reports prepared by the British Post-Hostilities planners. Such information was passed on by Donald Maclean, known in secret Soviet transcripts as ‘Homer’. He also regularly supplied his Soviet handlers with complete copies of telegrams between Churchill and Truman that often contained details of British tactics used in the argument over the composition of a Polish government. Consequently, Stalin knew all about the differences between Britain and the US over Poland, as well as their anxious exchanges about the fate of the sixteen Polish underground leaders.


T-34/85 Model 1943, early production vehicle from a Red Guards battalion, Leningrad sector, February 1944.

Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg trenchantly describes the twelve months from the end of Kursk to the Red Army’ s summer offensive of 1944 as “the forgotten year.” That period featured continuous fighting from Leningrad to the Black Sea, on scales surpassing those of 1941-42 and with losses far larger, especially on the Soviet side. The story of the panzers becomes correspondingly difficult to reconstruct as the divisions bloodied at Kursk were scattered to bolster resistance in a dozen sectors.

The German retreat from Leningrad and the successful, albeit temporary, stabilization of the northern front in the Baltic states owed little yet much to the army’s panzers. They were stretched too thin elsewhere to provide major assistance to the hard-pressed Landser. But the Red Army in the north was still learning its craft. Three Tigers by themselves played a vital role in holding a reestablished defense line around Narva, Estonia. A panzer division that arrived with only three dozen tanks was the spearhead of a counterattack that plugged a critical gap between two German armies. And the buccaneering assault gunners kept appearing where they were most needed, shifting from sector to sector and division to division to shore up infantrymen as outgunned as they were outnumbered. By October one battalion recorded a thousand official kills.

Part of the panzer gap was filled by the Waffen SS. By the end of 1942 the army had essentially decided the small units of foreigners it had managed to raise were more trouble than they were worth. Heinrich Himmler, always on the lookout to enhance the scope of his ramshackle empire within an empire, took them in. In early 1943 he activated III (Germanic) Panzer Corps, to include the Vikings and a new division eventually designated the 11th SS Volunteer Panzer Grenadier Division (Northland).

Had Hitler not intervened its honorific might have been “Varan gian,” a reference to the Scandinavian guard troops of the medieval Byzantine empire and a reflection of Himmler’s desire to base the division on Aryan volunteers. In fact Northland absorbed most of the remaining foreign legions—including, for a while, a 50-man British detachment—and made up its strength with “ethnic Germans” from outside the expanded state and “Reich Germans” from territories annexed during the war. Northland saw its first action and made its first bones in the no-quarter partisan fighting in Yugoslavia. In November the division and III SS Panzer Corps were sent to the Leningrad sector. When it proved impossible to withdraw Viking from the fighting in the south, the corps was fleshed out by the ostensibly Dutch SS Volunteer PanzerGrenadier Brigade Nederland. Despite having only a single tank battalion plus some assault guns, it played an important role in the successful defense of Narva over the winter of 1943-44.

The III SS Panzer Corps is best understood in the context of the far more numerous unmechanized Waffen SS formations also thrown into what Reich propagandists described as “the battle of the European SS.” Some were Belgian, with Flemings and Walloons carefully separated. Others were local: Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians. Interpreted by postwar apologists as participants in a crusade against Bolshevism, they wore SS runes but saw themselves fighting against Russia and for their homelands.

In the war’s final months the Waffen SS would incorporate Bos nian Muslims, Croats, Italians, Frenchmen, and plain criminals into grandiosely styled “brigades” and “divisions” whose only German elements, in the words of one contemptuous Landser, were a few German shepherd watchdogs. Another thing these ragtag formations had in common was that they only saw German tanks by accident. The Waffen SS, in short, was subdividing into an elite fighting core, according to many accounts disproportionately favored in personnel and equipment; and a fringe of increasingly desperate men who, as they felt the ropes tighten around their necks, took little account of their behavior to prisoners and civilians.

Army Group Center’s post-Kursk circumstances were arguably even more perilous than those of Army Group North. When the general Russian offensives began in that sector, 3rd Panzer Army on the far left had not a single armored vehicle under command. Its neighbor, 4th Army, began the battle with 66 assault guns against almost 1,500 Soviet AFVs. The Germans nevertheless executed a fighting retreat into White Russia despite the Red Army’s desperate efforts. Companies were commanded by sergeants; local reserves were nonexistent, and replacements were a forlorn hope. As early as September 8, one army commander reported the total combat strength of his infantry was fewer than 7,000 men. A month later Kluge contacted Hitler directly and pulled no punches informing him that no general could command without men, weapons, and reserves. The Russians had all three.

Things might have become far worse had the Red Army in this sector not regressed to tactics making the Somme and Passchendaele appear sophisticated by comparison. Massed infantry, massed armor, and massed artillery hammered at the same points time after time, until nothing and no one remained to send forward or the Germans gave way.

The German plight was compounded by a well- coordinated partisan uprising in their rear. The army group had been preoccupied with holding its front since 1942. Now it faced an exponentially increasing number of strikes against communications systems and railroads. Security forces responded with large-scale, near-random executions and, as the front receded, scorched earth—when anything remained to scorch. This was no mere torching of villages and looting of houses. It involved the systematic destruction of militarily useful installations. In total war that meant anything. What was not burned was blown up. Thousands of civilians were “evacuated,” a euphemism for being driven west with what they could carry, with the alternative of risking execution as partisans or being shot at random. Files named “Protests” and “Refusals” are conspicuously absent from otherwise well- kept German records. What was important to senior officers was that the devastation be carried out in order and under command. German soldiers were not mere brigands.

The fight of Army Group Center was largely a foot soldier’s affair—with the by-now usual and welcome support of the near-ubiquitous assault guns. At the beginning of October the army group’s order of battle included a single panzer division itself reduced to battle group strength, and two panzer grenadier divisions in no better shape. Those figures remained typical. Yet ironically the panzers’ major contribution to the retreat played a large role in setting the scene for future debacle in the sector.

It began in March 1944 when the Red Army enveloped the city of Gomel and its patchwork garrison of 4,000 men. Gomel was a regional road and rail hub, as much as such existed in White Russia. Hitler declared it a fortress; the High Command supplied it from the air and ordered its immediate relief.

Initial efforts were thwarted by soft ground and the spring thaw. But after 10 days a battle group of SS Viking fought its way into the city. It required 18 hours and cost over 50 percent casualties. The lieutenant commanding received the Knight’s Cross. The hundred-odd surviving panzer grenadiers were welcome. The half-dozen Panthers were vital in holding off Soviet armor while LXVI Panzer Corps put together a relief force from an already worn-down 4th Panzer Division and a battle group built around what remained of Viking’s Panthers. The combination broke the siege on April 5, though it was two weeks before the link to the main front was fully reestablished.

The defense of Gomel solidified Hitler’s conviction that he had found a force multiplier. Gomel was on a small scale. But if larger “fortresses” could be established and garrisoned, under orders to hold to the last, the Soviets would be drawn into siege operations that would dissipate their offensive strength while the panzers and the Luftwaffe assembled enough strength to relieve the position. Army Group Center considered the idea good enough to be the best available alternative. The operational consequences of shifting to this fixed-defense approach would be demonstrated within months.