How the West Refused to Fight Against Hitler

Why did the opening of a second front, which was extremely necessary for the fight against fascism, happen only in 1944? What prevented US and British troops from landing in Europe and what ways did the USSR try to bring this moment closer? Declassified diplomatic documents of those years talk about all this.

Throughout 1942, the main task of Soviet diplomacy was to “force” its allies – Great Britain and the United States – to open a second front. By the summer of 1942, the situation at the front was critical: after the defeat at Kharkov and in Crimea, the southern flank of the Soviet defence was rapidly rolling back to the east and southeast. The Germans were closing in on Stalingrad and were well into the Caucasus, which posed a threat to the country’s oil reserves.

This particularly unnerved London, which perceived the German advance into the Caucasus as a potential threat to India. In Moscow, the atmosphere was very emotional, as emergency military measures were required, and the allies sabotaged the opening of the second front. In addition, by the summer of 1942, planning for a counteroffensive on the southern flank had begun. At first, it was conducted in an abstract form, but only by the autumn, i.e., after the Moscow conference, did it acquire the real features of the future Operation Uranus – a strategic counteroffensive at Stalingrad.

Relations between the allies were further strained by the death of the Arctic convoy PQ 17, after which London froze supplies to the USSR via the northern route. The only route for the supply of equipment and materials was Iran, which by this time was occupied by Great Britain (southern and central part) and the USSR (north of the country). The corresponding treaty on allied relations between the USSR, Great Britain and Iran was concluded in Tehran on January 29th 1942.

On the Soviet side, it was signed by the Ambassador to Iran Andrey Smirnov. A career diplomat, he was later Ambassador to Germany, Austria, and Turkey, deputy Foreign Minister of the USSR, and representative to UNESCO. He died in 1982 in Moscow.

For Moscow, the opening of the second front was the goal of a series of negotiations that Stalin and Molotov held with Churchill and Eden in London and Moscow in 1942. Molotov also visited the US, where the internal political and ideological environment was significantly different from that of London. It required other arguments and methods of diplomatic negotiations to further push Washington to open a second front. This series of meetings and difficult conversations ended with the so-called second Moscow conference on August 12th-17th 1942.

Goals and objectives

Even before the start of the second Moscow conference, both sides had diametrically opposed ideas about its goals and objectives. Under different circumstances and with other people, this would guarantee its failure.

The Soviet government insisted on the immediate opening of the second front by the allies, i.e., as early as 1942, in order to divert about 40 German divisions from the eastern front to it. Only such a development of events could significantly ease the situation of the USSR during the most critical period of military operations. All other measures, including increased financial assistance, were perceived solely as auxiliary or palliative.

The Soviet government considered the landing operation in western Europe the only possible option, and the Atlantic coast of France was perceived as a natural target. Only in the case of a landing in France, Germany would have to attract significant forces from the eastern front to repel it. Berlin could repel local “pin pricks” on the secondary flank fronts with local forces, at least using internal reserves, without removing anything from the front in the USSR. For Moscow, therefore, this did not matter.

In London, they categorically did not want a fully-fledged opening of a second front. The position of Churchill and his military entourage was reduced to the following theses.

First: the UK does not have enough forces and resources to conduct a major amphibious operation on the Atlantic coast of France. The British ground forces are already extremely small, and scattered across several theatres of war.

At the same time, by the summer of 1942, the British troops were in a deep crisis and suffered one defeat after another. Malaya and Singapore were lost with a crash. The Japanese sank the super-battleship Prince of Wales on their first attempt. General Auchinleck lost Libya outright to Rommel, Tobruk fell, and the British 8th army rolled back to Alexandria. The Germans occupied Greece, landed on Crete, and Cairo and Malta hung in the balance. There was talk in parliament of a vote of no confidence in Churchill.

Second: the local landing in France can not be provided financially and sufficiently covered from the air. The English channel was an insurmountable obstacle. But at the same time, the “Sledgehammer” plan was being developed for the landing of eight British divisions in Cherbourg and on the Cotentin Peninsula. Preparations were made for a small sabotage landing in Normandy at Dieppe and for Operation Jupiter, a landing in the far north of Norway and the Lofoten Islands.

Churchill and the British military command considered these operations as a “sedative” for Stalin, i.e., a demonstration of activity in the western direction, which was designed to at least partially satisfy Moscow’s categorical demands to open a second front. Each of these operations was worked out in earnest, despite their almost fantasy contents. For example, Churchill figuratively called the landing over the Arctic circle in Norway “rolling up Germany from the north”.

Looking ahead, let’s say that the landing at Dieppe (operation “Jubilee”) on August 19th 1942 ended with a rapid and crushing defeat by the Germans of the landing force, which consisted mainly of Canadians and Poles (not their own – not a pity). From the 6,000 paratroopers, more than 3,000 were killed or captured. A raid on the Lofoten Islands in December 1941 resulted in the destruction of a fish oil warehouse that the Germans were supposedly using to produce explosives, which can be considered a relative success. At the same time, Churchill in his memoirs retroactively claimed that the losses were not in vain, since Dieppe’s experience seriously influenced the development of other amphibious operations, including Operation Overlord.

In addition, an atmosphere of irrational hostility to the USSR prevailed in London because of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Here is what Churchill wrote to the British Ambassador in Moscow Stafford Cripps (at the time of sending the letter, Cripps was in Kuybyshev in evacuation) on October 28th 1941 (quoted from Churchill’s memoirs):

“I fully sympathise with your difficult situation. They [the Russians – ed], of course, have no right to reproach us [in delaying the opening of a second front – ed]. They signed their own sentence when, by making a pact with Ribbentrop, they gave Hitler the opportunity to attack Poland and thus started a war. They deprived themselves of an effective second front when they allowed the destruction of the French army. If they had consulted with us in advance before June 22nd, a number of measures could have been taken in order to provide earlier the huge assistance with weapons that we are now providing them.”

As if the British themselves had not previously gone to Munich and Czechoslovakia was not dismembered. As if it wasn’t London that disrupted the negotiations in Moscow in 1940 to create a fully-fledged anti-Hitler coalition. And, by the way, it is these statements of Churchill from the end of 1941 that still remain the mainstay of all anti-Soviet and anti-Russian arguments about “the complicity of the USSR in unleashing wars“. Nothing new has been brought here in so many years.

Sometimes Churchill’s sense of proportion failed. For example, in one of the conversations with the Soviet Ambassador Maysky in the fall of 1941, he even lost his gentlemanly manners. Maysky asked: if Soviet Russia is defeated, how are you (the British) going to win the war? Here Churchill suddenly exploded: “We never believed that our salvation in any way depends on your [Russian – ed] actions. Whatever happens, and whatever you do, you have no right to reproach us”. Churchill became so heated that Maysky was forced to exclaim: “Please be calm, my dear Mr. Churchill!” (quoted also from Churchill’s memoirs).

At the same time, in the autumn of 1941, Moscow offered London other options for direct military assistance that were not related to landing on the continent.

From Stalin’s letter to Churchill on September 13th 1941 (quoted also from Churchill’s memoirs): “It seems to me that Britain could have safely landed 25-30 divisions in Arkhangelsk or transferred them through Iran to the southern regions of the USSR, following the example of what happened in the last war in France [Stalin, apparently, meant sending the Russian expeditionary corps to France during the First world war – ed].” But by the summer of 1942, the situation had changed dramatically, although Churchill continued to be interested in the possibility of transferring part of the Anglo-American aviation to the south of the USSR to protect the oil fields, but only after the situation in North Africa had stabilised.

In this situation, it was decided to start trilateral consultations, which were initially interpreted only as negotiations on “deepening the allied coalition”.

Talks about the future

On May 19th 1942, a converted PE-8 bomber took off from Bykovo airfield near Moscow at dusk. On board was a Soviet delegation led by Molotov. The plane crossed the front line, the territory occupied by the Germans, and two seas – the Baltic and the North, where German aviation completely dominated, was attacked by a German night fighter, which demolished the radio compass antenna with a machine-gun burst, but still landed safely on the English Islands, in Dundee, in Scotland.

Molotov immediately after landing in the UK

A few days later, the first consultations of the Soviet head of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union with Eden and Churchill began.

From Molotov’s diary. Recording of a conversation with Eden from May 23rd 1942:

“Eden states that he is proposing a new draft treaty combining the treaty of Union and the treaty of post-war cooperation. This new project includes almost all the issues that were previously discussed, and provides for the conclusion of a mutual assistance pact between the USSR and Great Britain for a period of 20 years. <…>

Molotov asks what is the difference between this new project and those that have been considered so far?

Eden replies that the main difference is that the new draft includes an article providing for an obligation to provide mutual assistance for 20 years. This article may be suspended if the post-war structure of Europe is secured and both sides are satisfied with it. He, Eden, is sure that the American government can not have the slightest reason to object to such a treaty, i.e., against our countries becoming allies in the war against Hitler and maintaining friendly relations with each other directly in the post-war period and continuing their activities to take precautionary measures against Germany. He, Eden, believes that such a treaty would be warmly welcomed in America and in England, as well as wherever there is a determination to fight and prevent a future repetition of aggression on the part of Germany. Although the treaty does not address the disputed issues of the borders of the Soviet Union, it is nevertheless clear that if the British government undertakes to guarantee assistance to the Soviet Union for 20 years, this means that the British government wants to see Russia strong and secure in terms of security.

Molotov asks whether this is the only difference between the new project and the old ones.

This question is answered by Cadogan [sir Alexander George Montagu Cadogan, at that time permanent Deputy Foreign Secretary of Great Britain, after the war-permanent representative of great Britain to the UN, died in 1968 – ed], which says that the only difference between the new treaty and the old one is that, on the one hand, it leaves open the issues that led to difficulties in the negotiations between Great Britain and the USSR, but, on the other hand, they, the British, offer to conclude a 20-year mutual assistance pact, with which they would expect to achieve what they agreed in Moscow, namely: joint work of both countries both during the war and after the war. This does not exclude the possibility of reaching an agreement on other issues in the future, in which Great Britain and the USSR will be interested.”

The essence of these negotiations was to clarify the first contours of the post-war world and almost did not touch on the main issue – the opening of a second front. Great Britain had not yet declared war on Finland, Romania, and Hungary, which was surprising in Moscow. Churchill justified himself by saying that the Finns have a large diaspora and lobby in the US, and this may interfere with contacts with Roosevelt. London, in turn, insisted on its participation in the post-war development of eastern Europe.

This resulted in an an additional protocol to the treaty between the USSR and Great Britain on resolving post-war issues and on their joint actions to ensure security in Europe after the end of the war with Germany and its allies in Europe, which stipulated post-war guarantees of independence for Finland, Romania, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Finally: the Anglo-Soviet alliance treaty was signed on May 26th in London after Molotov’s trip to Washington and was valid until May 7th 1955, after which it was unilaterally denounced by the Soviet Union in connection with the conclusion of the British alliance with Germany within the framework of NATO.

Refusal to open a second front

In Molotov’s long and very difficult conversations with Eden and Churchill in May and June 1942 in London, the British leaders, especially Churchill, tried in great detail and persistently to explain exactly for what technical reasons they were not ready to open a second front in 1942. At the same time, Churchill continued to be held captive by semi-fantasy ideas of landing in northern Norway. However, it seemed that all this was just a verbal camouflage, “a lot of words” that were supposed to conceal the reluctance to actively join the war on the continent.

Churchill himself eventually became an active advocate of the “Torch” plan, which consisted of landing a combined Anglo-American group in Algeria. Although this was painful for Germany and Italy, it also could not affect the situation on the eastern front in the near future.

In the end, London’s position was finally formulated in Moscow, during Churchill’s visit to the Soviet capital. The very arrival of the British leader in Moscow was caused precisely by the fact that Moscow’s position towards the UK began to tighten sharply due to the lack of progress on the second front. The tone of Stalin’s letters grew steadily stronger.

London’s position in full form following the talks in Moscow looked like this in Cadogan’s presentation:

“In response to the aide-mémoire [a form of diplomatic correspondence that records in writing the conclusions and main theses of oral negotiations that are exchanged between the parties after the end of consultations – ed] of G. Stalin on August 13th, the British Prime Minister states:

1. The best view of a second front in 1942, the only possible large-scale operation from the Atlantic ocean is ‘Torch’. If this operation can be carried out in October, it will provide more assistance to Russia than any other plan. This operation also prepares the way for 1943 and has four advantages, which were mentioned by Prime Minister Stalin in a conversation on August 12th. The British government and the US government have decided to do this, and all preparations are proceeding at the fastest pace.

2. Compared to ‘Torch’, an attack by six or eight Anglo-American divisions on the Cherbourg Peninsula or the Channel Islands would be a risky and fruitless operation. The Germans have enough troops in the west to block us on this narrow Peninsula with fortified lines, and they would concentrate their entire air force on this point. In the opinion of all the British naval, military and air authorities, the operation could only end in disaster. Even if it were possible to create fortifications, it would not distract a single division from Russia. It would also be a much more bleeding wound for us than for the enemy, and it would waste the key men and naval assets needed for actual operations in 1943. This is our current view. The chief of the Imperial General Staff will discuss the details with the Russian commanders to any extent that may be desirable.

3. Neither Britain nor the US has broken any promises. I draw attention to paragraph 5 of my aide-mémoire, handed to Molotov on May 10th 1942, which clearly states: ‘Therefore, we cannot make any promise’. This aide-mémoire was the result of lengthy negotiations, which fully explained the very small chances of such a plan being adopted. Some of these conversations are recorded.

4. However, all the talk about the Anglo-American invasion of France this year has misled the enemy and shackled a significant air force and a significant military force on the French Channel coast. It would be a detriment to common interests, especially to Russian interests, if there were any disputes in which the British government would be forced to disclose to the people the destructive argument that, in its opinion, it has against Operation Sledgehammer [landing at Cherbourg – ed]. The Russian armies would have been greatly discouraged, and the enemy would have been free to draw further forces from the west. The most sensible method would be to use ‘Sledgehammer‘ as a screen for ‘Torch’ and proclaim ‘Torch’, when it starts, as a second front. This is what we ourselves propose to do.

5. We cannot allow that the negotiations of G. Molotov on a second front, protected by both oral and written reservations, constitute any basis for changing the strategic plans of the Russian high command.

6. We reaffirm our commitment to assist our Russian allies by all possible means.

Churchill 14. VIII. 1942″

Despite the categorical refusal of the western allies to open a second front precisely at the time when it was most needed by the circumstances on the eastern front, the London-Moscow talks are generally regarded as an important step towards finding mutual understanding. It was not possible to move the reinforced concrete position of London, especially since it was really shielded by many reservations. Subsequently, Churchill constantly referred to the notorious fifth paragraph of the London agreement with Molotov, which does contain a general promise to open a second front, but does not specify a specific date.

It is believed that the wait-and-see attitude of Great Britain was largely due to the still lingering concerns about the very course of events in the USSR. This is despite the fact that Stalin privately informed Churchill in Moscow about the upcoming counteroffensive on the southern flank. But he didn’t say where or when. Western historiography takes all Churchill’s technical arguments about the impossibility of opening a second front in 1942 on faith, and Moscow’s insistence is almost considered “importunity”. But Molotov in London and Washington did everything he could, just the Anglo-Saxon world was not in the mood for active assistance (although US President Roosevelt was much more loyal to the USSR than Churchill).

Here is an excerpt from a letter from the Ambassador in Washington Litvinov to Molotov in Moscow on October 13th 1942:

“…The President’s position on a second front has recently become more firm. If earlier, in conversations on this topic, he invariably made it clear that he personally recognised the need for landing on the European continent, but that the British and his own military advisers opposed this, then during my last conversations with him he tried to give himself the appearance of a person who was absolutely convinced of the impracticability of the landing at the present time. This is explained by the fact that he is already involved in the implementation of plans for operations in Africa, which at this time absolutely exclude any operations on the western European coast. There is no doubt that in this matter (as in most others) he was taken in tow by Churchill and his own naval entourage. If General Marshall [George Catlett Marshall, Jr., during the war, Chief of the General Staff of the US army and de facto commander of all military operations. After the war – Secretary of State and initiator of the ‘Marshall Plan’, massive aid to European countries, died in 1959 – ed], judging by his previous statements, is a supporter of active offensive actions in the European West, then General Arnold [Henry Harley Arnold, commander of the air force, initiator of the creation of mass military aviation in the US and its transformation into a separate branch of the armed forces, organiser of the atomic bombing of Japan. In 1946, after a severe heart attack, he retired, and died in 1950 – ed], the chief of the air force, is fond of the theory of defeating Hitler with the help of the intensive bombing of Germany, and the closest assistant to the President, Admiral Leahy [William Daniel Leahy, a close friend of Roosevelt, in 1937-1939 – commander of naval operations, in 1940 – appointed Ambassador to Vichy, and in 1942 again summoned to the US and appointed Chief of the Personal Staff of President Roosevelt, whom he had great influence on. Retired since 1949, died in 1959 – ed], according to information just received by me, is an ardent opponent of a second front. Under these circumstances, it is clear that the President, like Churchill, cannot hide his irritation at the public and press campaign for a second front. <…>

The movement for a second front in the press and at meetings took on such proportions that the hidden anti-Soviet and isolationist elements could not stand it and crawled out of all the cracks and opened up. A number of articles and letters to the editor appeared, in which they again began to enumerate the alleged sins of the Soviet government in the past, portraying the matter as if it were not a general matter of the United Nations, but of helping a Soviet country in trouble, which did not deserve this help because of the conclusion of the Soviet-German pact, etc. The participation of the American Communist Party in the movement for a second front and its organisation of rallies only added fuel to the fire, and the slogan of a second front took on the character of an internal political issue. I must say that the actions of the communists threw many bourgeois supporters of a second front into the opposite camp.

The upcoming Anglo-American military operation is postponing the creation of a second front in Europe for a long time. The failure of these operations will be used by the opponents of the second front as new proof of the impossibility of landing operations. The success of this plan will absorb for some time a significant part of the Anglo-American military, naval and air forces and calm public opinion. I believe that we should not, however, let the movement for a second front die down, but on the contrary, return to this question from time to time. I would like to know your thoughts on this.

With regard to supplies, I got the impression that the President would like to meet our demands as much as possible and thus compensate us for the lack of a second front. But here, too, it is entirely in the hands of his generals and admirals, who are making more and more demands to meet their supposedly own American needs. Putting forward the idea of creating a ten-million-strong army to ensure an independent American continuation of the war under any circumstances should increasingly narrow the possibility of supplying the USSR, England and China. I have learned that the British have been grumbling a lot lately about the non-fulfilment of their requests, especially in terms of steel.”

In addition, Roosevelt’s position was determined, among other things, by purely American electoral arrangements, which greatly hindered the progressive process of diplomacy. However, this is always the case with Americans.

The absence of a second front ultimately did not become a disaster for the USSR, but it entailed significant losses and delayed the war for at least a year and a half. This is still one of the most controversial episodes of politics and diplomacy of that period.

There are different positions and assessments of these events, all are strong in hindsight. But the Anglo-Saxon allies of the USSR were technically and morally unprepared for a direct clash with Germany, which caused justifiable anger on the part of Stalin. By and large, for the British, their failures in 1941-1942 are a direct consequence of the policy of appeasement that they carried out during the Munich agreement. It was necessary to strangle the snake in the fetus, and if they did not do this, then it was necessary to build up the armed forces. For the Americans, this was a direct consequence of the policy of isolationism and the presence among the isolationists of influential pro-German circles among bankers, industrialists and public figures, among whom Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh are only the tip of the iceberg.

In the end, a second front was opened only in 1944, and not even in 1943, as Churchill repeatedly promised. At the same time, endless diplomatic trade about the post-war reconstruction of the world and especially Europe, which Churchill began to impose on Moscow in May 1942 during negotiations with Molotov, continued during all these two years. But that’s a different story.

The Council of Young Diplomats of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the framework of the project “Diplomacy of Victory” and the preparation of the Forum of Young Diplomats “Diplomacy of Victory”, initiated on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War, offers the readers of the “Vzglyad” newspaper unique documents of the Foreign Policy Archive of the Russian Federation, focused on the activity of Soviet diplomacy in the pre-war period and during the Great Patriotic War. We are convinced that turning to primary sources, authentic evidence of that era, will neutralise attempts to falsify and manipulate historical facts, will contribute to the assertion of historical truth, and will help to recreate an objective picture of the past.

The Foreign Policy Archive of the Russian Federation is a structural division of the Historical and Documentary Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry. A huge array of documents (more than 1 million items) covers the period from 1917 and continues to be updated with materials reflecting the evolution of Russian foreign policy since 1991. The archive serves as an official repository of multilateral and bilateral legal acts concluded on behalf of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation.

Evgeny Krutikov

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