In the Grand Alliance volume of Winston S. Churchill’s memoirs of World War II, the British prime minister lambasted Soviet Premier Josef Stalin and his inept government for failing to anticipate Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, which began on June 22, 1941.
Churchill wrote, “We must now lay bare the error and vanity of cold-blooded calculation of the Soviet government and enormous Communist machine, and their amazing ignorance about where they stood themselves. They had shown a total indifference to the fate of the Western powers…. War is mainly a catalogue of blunders, but it may be doubted whether any mistake in history has equaled that of Stalin and the Communist chiefs…. But so far as strategy, policy, foresight, and competence are arbiters, Stalin and his commissars showed themselves at this moment the most completely outwitted bunglers of the Second World War.” Privately, Churchill later described Stalin and his Kremlin minions as “simpletons.”
Churchill was always highly critical of the Bolsheviks. In fact, contemporaneous with the Paris Peace Conference in June 1919, Churchill, then the secretary of state for war and air in Prime Minister Lloyd George’s coalition government, was trying desperately to convince his fellow cabinet ministers to allow General Edmund Ironside’s strongly reinforced troops in northern Russia to take the offensive against the Bolsheviks.
Outspoken against Lenin since he had first assumed the war minister post six months previously, Churchill was unshaken in his belief that the Bolshevik regime had betrayed the Allies by making a separate peace with Kaiser Wilhelm II at Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. The short-term result of this agreement was to free up numerous German troops for transfer to the Western Front to immediately commence General Erich Ludendorff’s offensive called the Kaiserschlacht, or the emperor’s battle. In fact, from November 30, 1917, to March 21, 1918, a period of less than four months, a total of 34 German divisions had been transferred from the Eastern Front and Romania for the offensive, almost breaking the Anglo-French alliance militarily in the process. Now, well after hostilities had concluded, Churchill was arguing for a complete regime change in post-revolutionary Russia. At this time, Churchill was referring to Lenin’s revolution as “the plague bacillus of Bolshevism,” which was capable of destroying civilization.
Ever the politician, Churchill suffered some consequences in regard to his hawkish stance against the Soviet government immediately after World War I. First, it created friction within the Liberal Party. Second, the Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George, whose postwar government was a coalition, was exasperated by his war minister, who was now clamoring for more combat after the four-year cataclysm that had just ended. His war-weary constituency sorely wanted peace after the carnage and bloodletting had ceased in November 1918.
Despite having one of the most extensive intelligence networks in the world at the time, he was caught completely unaware by the start of the Nazi invasion on June 22, 1941. In fact, six days after the Nazi onslaught, Stalin stated to a small group of his associates, “Lenin left us a great legacy, but we, his heirs, have f**d it up.” This was Stalin’s closest attempt to claim responsibility for his military’s unpreparedness. This inexplicable lapse in Stalin’s cunning and paranoid personality was coupled with his own self-imposed losses in Red Army officers as a result of his almost ceaseless purges during the late 1930s. Approximately 35,000 officers, disproportionately from the higher ranks, were expelled from the Army or arrested with only a small fraction being reinstated after careful “investigation.”
In sharp contrast, Churchill had an almost Cassandra-like ability to accurately predict the next move of his enemy (i.e., Hitler) throughout the decade of appeasement during the 1930s. In fact, British intelligence had warned of Hitler’s imminent invasion weeks before it occurred, and Churchill had echoed these predictions even earlier to Stalin on April 3, 1941, via Sir Stafford Cripps, the British ambassador to Moscow. Stalin remained skeptical about the veracity of Churchill’s message, which was the only message before the German attack that the British prime minister had sent Stalin directly.
Churchill was dismayed that his warning was largely ignored and felt that Stalin had lost a large portion of his air force on the ground as a result of his incredulity. Churchill noted that the chiefs of staff warned on May 31, 1941, “We have firm indications that the Germans are now concentrating large army and air forces against Russia. Under this threat, they will probably demand concessions most injurious to them. If the Russians refuse, the Germans will march.” On June 12, the Joint Intelligence Committee reported, “Fresh evidence is now at hand that Hitler has made up his mind to have done with Soviet obstruction, and to attack.”
Why did Stalin doubt the intelligence about Hitler’s militaristic intentions from British channels? Prior to the Nazi juggernaut into Russia, Stalin was deeply concerned that Britain would search for a peace treaty with Hitler. This became especially more likely after General Archibald Wavell’s failed Greek expedition in the spring of 1941 and General Erwin Rommel’s incredible victories throughout Cyrenaica after the Italian defeat there. It seems that Cripps alerted Stalin and his henchmen on April 18, 1941, about a scenario for such an impending truce negotiation: “It was not outside the bounds of possibility, if the war were protracted for a long period, that there might be a temptation for Great Britain to come to some arrangement to end the war on the sort of basis which has recently been suggested in certain German quarters.”
Such defeatist talk by Cripps was occurring contemporaneously with Churchill trying to coax Stalin to form a “Balkan front” against Hitler through a Soviet alliance with Yugoslavia and Greece. Cripps’ discussion with the Soviet leadership, then, only heightened Stalin’s fears of another episode of “perfidious Albion.” When Churchill tried to warn Stalin again on April 21, 1941, of the probability of a German attack on the USSR, the Soviet leader’s paranoia only escalated, leading him to complain to his general staff, “Look at that, we are being threatened with the Germans, and the Germans with the Soviet Union, and they [the British] are playing us off against one another. It is a subtle political game.”
Stalin concluded that Churchill was only attempting to lure the Soviets into a war with Germany. Based on this level of mistrust, it is no wonder that Stalin ignored Churchill’s warnings and maintained a deep-seated paranoia toward the British prime minister after Operation Barbarossa commenced. As late as June 14, 1941, the Soviet news agency Tass denounced the British for spreading rumors of an imminent outbreak of hostilities between the Russians and Germany. Sir Alexander Cadogan, the permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office, though, passed on precise and detailed evidence of the likely invasion threat to Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador in London, and the latter relayed these reports to Moscow.
Unlike Churchill, who assumed the mantle of leadership with vigor and defiance during the dark days of the Norwegian and French evacuations, as well as during the subsequent Battle of Britain, Stalin was in a state of shock after the Nazi juggernaut got underway. During the first several days of Hitler’s offensive, Stalin left the government and military without clear central direction as he sank into a brief depression. The Soviet leader knew that he had committed an enormous diplomatic miscalculation. He now knew that he had misread Hitler, and that this mistake was his own fault.
This was a time when Churchill was making his first overtures toward alliance with the Soviet dictator, who actually feared a revolt by his own commissars during the initial days of the German invasion. When the first British diplomats began arriving in Moscow, they found in Stalin “an irritable despot under intense strain.” With the passage of a few months, however, both American and British leaders characterized him as “brilliant of mind, quick of thought and repartee, a ruthless, great leader.” General Alan Brooke, British chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), found in Stalin “a military brain of the highest caliber.” Thus, Churchill was to acquire quite an adversary for an ally.
For Churchill, the ideological differences between himself and Stalin were temporarily ignored as the practicality of an alliance became manifestly necessary for Britain to survive. From an opportunistic standpoint, Britain had everything to benefit and almost nothing to lose from an alliance with Stalin. After all, Churchill had proclaimed in his June 22, 1941, speech that the invasion of Russia “is no more than a prelude to an attempted invasion of the British Isles.”
Operation Barbarossa offered Churchill an immediate ally, which might consume the German tide and minimize pressure on Wavell’s forces in the Middle East and keep the Suez Canal and the Iraqi oil fields in Britain’s control. First, some have argued that military expediency and a need for relief from a full-fledged Nazi pincer move through North Africa and the Balkans are what hastened Churchill to offer his full support to the Russian people, and thus (indirectly), Stalin’s regime. Second, with no major victories on the Continent in sight and retreat in North Africa, it was questionable if Churchill could maintain his coalition in the House of Commons and keep the support of the British public.