The resulting triumph of Allied arms could easily have turned into a disaster. In fact, even the most optimistic members of the Allied High Command had rated the chances of success as 50-50 at best.
These weren’t the kind of odds on which Anglo-American generals typically risked potential casualties in the hundreds of thousands. So what made them push the button this time? What dire operational necessity was guiding their finger?
The answer is, there was no operational necessity, dire or otherwise, for the invasion of Northern France. It wasn’t the bellicose god of war that drove the Allies across the Channel, but the shifty god of political chicanery.
Here we ought to remember that the three main Allied powers, Britain, the USA and the USSR, while united in their common goal of defeating Nazi Germany, also pursued aims of their own — and these were at odds.
In the run-up to the war, the Soviets had built up the biggest invasion force known in history, far outstripping the rest of the world’s armies put together in both manpower and materiel.
Stalin had a seven to one superiority in tanks over Germany, with his machines being technologically two generations ahead of the Wehrmacht’s (or anyone else’s). Soviet fighter planes had demonstrated their superiority over their German and Italian analogues during the Spanish Civil War. Stalin boasted more submarines than the rest of the world combined. And as to the human resources, the Soviets could match Germany three times over.
It would be tedious to argue the point that ought to be self-evident to any historian other than fully paid-up apologists for Stalin: that gigantic force, assembled at a cost of millions dead and hundreds of millions enslaved, was put together not to defend Russia but to conquer the world.
The plan was to provoke Hitler’s assault on the West, wait until his troops got mired either in France or, ideally, in Britain and then drive the juggernaut across the central European plains.
The entire Soviet policy from about 1932 onwards is intelligible only in the light of this objective. It’s to achieve it that in a few short years Stalin turned the Soviet Union into a giant military-labour camp, starved millions to death, courted Hitler, first secretly, then — after August 1939 — openly, provided the raw materials without which Nazi Germany couldn’t have attacked the West, invaded Poland from the east 17 days after the Nazis had invaded her from the west, provided the bombs that German planes rained on London.
Two developments prevented Stalin from launching his offensive in 1940, as had been planned (that operation went by the codename THUNDERSTORM). The first was the Winter War of 1939-1940, in which Stalin threw against Finland an army almost outnumbering the entire population of that tiny country.
The Finns heroically fought Stalin’s hordes to a standstill, inflicting 500,000 casualties, against 20,000-odd of their own. Brilliantly led by Marshal Mannerheim, who had learned his trade when serving as Lieutenant-General in the Tsar’s Guards, the Finns gave Stalin a reality check: his army was poorly trained, ineptly led and incompetently supplied.
Still, the Finns could keep up their heroic struggle only for so long: a country whose population was smaller than Leningrad’s was running out of resources. Yet just as Stalin was finally ready to overrun Finland, he was given another reality check.
The British government hinted, not so subtly, that, should Stalin refuse to accept an armistice with a token gain in Finnish territory, the Brits would use the RAF Mosul base in Iraq to take out the Baku oilfields, then the only source of Soviet oil. Stalin took the hint, sued for peace and delayed the planned invasion of Europe.
‘Delayed’ shouldn’t be understood to mean ‘cancelled’: THUNDERSTORM was to go ahead, but a year later than originally planned, around July-August, 1941. When Hitler finally realised what was going on, he took the wild gamble of delivering a pre-emptive strike, thus accepting what every German schoolchild knew would be catastrophic: a two-front war.
What those precocious schoolchildren didn’t know, and some eminent historians still don’t, was that Hitler no longer had a choice. Stalin’s monstrous juggernaut had to be destroyed before it had a chance to roll.
Germany’s pre-emptive strike on 22 June, 1941, effectively destroyed the Soviet regular army, with 4.5 million prisoners (my father, incidentally, among them) taken in the next two months. Many of those prisoners not only surrendered without a fight, with whole regiments marching into Nazi captivity to the sound of brass bands, but at least 1.5 million of them volunteered to fight against Stalin.
Comparing this shocking figure with the number of Russian soldiers bearing arms against their country in the Napoleonic war of 1812 (none), we may begin to realise the depth of hatred the Bolshevik regime had unleashed among its own people.
Few were Soviet soldiers who hadn’t had next of kin shot, tortured or starved to death, sent to concentration camps or imprisoned. The morale in the army, especially after the 1937-1938 purges in which most officers from the level of regimental commander up had been wiped out, was below low.
The terrorist methods used by Stalin and Beria to make the Red Army fight are best described in the book Stalin’s War of Extermination by the late German historian Joachim Hoffmann. But fight the army finally did, losing uncountable and largely uncounted millions on the way to Berlin.
The British and the Americans had very different goals:
Not to cut too fine a point, Churchill wanted to preserve the British Empire, while Roosevelt wanted to destroy it. His aim was for America to supplant Britain as the major Western power, and in this Roosevelt was continuing the American imperialist policy already pursued during the previous war by President Wilson.
Thus Roosevelt’s aims overlapped with Stalin’s who also saw Britain, and Churchill personally, as the main obstacle on the way to achieving his own objectives. This explains why Roosevelt consistently joined forces with Stalin to defeat Churchill’s proposals on war strategy.
A significant factor in Roosevelt’s decision-making was his entourage, densely staffed with Soviet agents, such as Harry Dexter White, who de facto ran Treasury, Alger Hiss, one of Roosevelt’s top diplomats, and especially Harry Hopkins, who effectively led the country during Roosevelt’s last term when the President was increasingly incapacitated.
These men were influential in steering Roosevelt’s policies towards Stalin’s, and away from Allied, interests, but their role must not be exaggerated. Roosevelt was a visceral American supremacist, and as such he knew anyway that his and Churchill’s bread was buttered on opposite sides.
Stalin desperately wanted the Allies to invade Europe through northern France, for this would leave Eastern Europe defenceless against Soviet conquest and subsequent domination. Churchill, on the other hand, was in favour of invading through the south, mainly Italy, cutting Stalin’s hordes off the Balkans and eastern Europe.
Understandably, if illogically, Stalin kept bleating about the need for a second front, refusing to acknowledge that it already existed. It was as if the Anglo-American troops dying in their thousands in North Africa and the Far East weren’t fighting on any front at all (incidentally, this is the impression most Russians have even today, largely thanks to the history books created by Putin’s government).
Most important, a second front had already existed even in Europe since 12 September, 1943, when 200,000 Anglo-American troops landed from Sicily at Salerno on the Italian mainland. Using their established bases in Italy as the beachhead, the logic of the war demanded that the Allies expand their operations from the Aegean and Adriatic Seas into south and central Europe.
This view was shared by Gen. Eisenhower who later said, “Italy was the correct place in which to deploy our main forces and the objective should be the Valley of the Po. In no other area could we so well threaten the whole German structure including France, the Balkans and the Reich itself.”