Plan for WWIII

By the autumn of 1945 it was the turn of the Americans to become the hawks in the stand-off with Stalin. The US finally began to outline plans for their post-war strategy, yet there was no presidential or ‘top-down’ directive as there had been with Churchill and Unthinkable. Instead, individual officers as well as the US Joint Planning Staff (USJPS) took the initiative in preparing reports on a post-war strategic plan. The plans did not, at this stage, detail operations but looked at overall US military capability and its requirements for worldwide bases and military reserves. ‘New weapons and countermeasures’ were discussed, with special consideration given to the potential of atomic bombs and guided missiles. Experts concluded that these new weapons had limitations, which would not change US military strategy, for at the time the range of V–2-type rockets could not be extended beyond 1,000 miles, while atomic bombs could not be made small enough to suit artillery rounds or naval torpedoes. Consequently, the planners and their experts believed that these new weapons would supplement conventional weapons and the idea that atomic bombs could be used as a deterrent did not seem to enter the equation. However, the planners did determine that crippling a nation’s industrial capacity would not affect the outcome of any atomic war, since the war would be over well before that could take effect. By late 1945 the strategic plan, which cloaked its objective with talk of ‘maintaining world peace’, was presented to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and then the president for approval.

The impetus for more detailed US operational plans for a major conflict with the Soviet Union would take months to build. The US planners had not consulted with their British counterparts at this stage, for as an ailing Harry Hopkins observed, ‘to hear some people talk about the British, you would think the British were our potential enemies.’ But to some Americans, the British Empire was just that; when Major-General Francis Davidson of the British General Staff was on a tour of the US in the autumn of 1945, he was accosted by a journalist who demanded to know about ‘British imperialistic designs on Indonesia’. Such language might well have come out of the Kremlin, but at least Anglo-US military relations were on a more cordial level. During the autumn and winter of 1945 there was increasing co-operation between the two armies as well as a sharing of intelligence on Soviet deployments. Gradually, as a result of these constant and verifiable dossiers, corroborated by their own agents in the field, US intelligence began to take the Soviet threat seriously.

During October and November 1945 the US Joint Chiefs examined reports that assessed current Soviet military capability at more than sixty offensive infantry divisions, 25,000 tanks and 60,000 large-calibre artillery pieces. They concluded that Soviet forces could easily overrun Western Europe and the Middle East any time before 1948; such an alarming prospect made the US Joint Intelligence Committee calculate the effect of ‘blocking’ that advance by unleashing nuclear weapons. In what was the first US outline plan to attack the Soviet Union, twenty Soviet cities were selected as targets for atomic bombs, to be delivered by heavy bombers, yet the American JIC were excluded from most of the US atomic secrets and would not have had accurate data on the number of available bombs.

In November 1945 the US State Department was alarmed by news that Soviet troops in civilian clothes were assisting a tribal revolt in Iranian Azerbaijan with a view to annexing this adjacent province. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered ‘a reassessment of US military capabilities in view of Soviet aggressive policies’, which indicated the US themselves were now preparing contingency plans for a conventional war with the Soviet Union. On 2 March 1946 the US Joint War Plans Committee (JWPC) produced a draft for Operation ‘Pincher’, the US broad equivalent to the British Operation Unthinkable. However, the casus belli was no longer Poland. It was assumed that the Soviet Union had already set up its ring of satellite states to protect its borders, and the conflict would arise from the Soviets attempting to infiltrate more countries beyond that ring. In particular, Pincher singled out the Middle East as a flashpoint, where US or British interests could be undermined. There might also be incidents in Turkey or Iran, which would compel the Western Allies to retaliate by military force, and thereby spark a Third World War. The original plan envisaged a war sometime between 1946 and 1949, but as tensions rose dramatically during 1946, the time span was drastically reduced. It looked to US planners as if they were staring into the abyss. Of course, they were unaware of the extent of the leaks by Donald Maclean, and how much the Soviets knew about US plans for retaliation in the event of a hostile move against Turkey. It is possible that because of the knowledge that the US would retaliate, Stalin may have backed off from an invasion of Turkey in 1946, which diffused the crisis.

Belatedly, President Truman talked of Stalin’s tactics in Poland as an ‘outrage’. This tough talking may have resulted from the new US atomic muscle, but their foreign policy hardened by the month. In February 1946 George Kennan sent his famous ‘Long Telegram’ from the US Mission in Moscow to Washington. It was a seminal moment, for in Kennan’s own words, ‘these years had been a strain for me nearly all the way through, because I watched our government making concession after concession to the Soviets.’ It seemed that both the US government and public opinion had needed a gestation period before they could readily address the Soviet threat.

It was not just the US administration that was changing its policy towards Stalin. Churchill’s fears about Soviet domination in the spring of 1945 had, by early 1946, become orthodox thinking in the British Foreign Office. The Mediterranean, Turkey and Iran were all vulnerable, and northern Italy had proved contentious. There were also concerns that the pro-Soviet French communist party might take power in France. If a conflict with the West erupted, Stalin would have no qualms about ordering a communist insurrection in France, to be followed by an attempted communist coup in Belgium and, after a civil war, a communist regime could follow in Spain. The worst fear for Britain remained triumphant communism ‘fuelled by German economic might’, as the British JIC confirmed:

Russia will no doubt give full weight to the fact that Great Britain and the United States are both war weary, faced with immense internal problems and rapidly demobilising their forces. By comparison, Russia’s own forces and industry are still on a war basis. No further demobilisation has been announced, and Russian divisions are being rapidly re-equipped with the latest material.

Churchill, now free of the political constraints on a prime minister, though still recognised as a world statesman, sensed a rising tide of realism in the West. On 5 March 1946 he used such recognition to full effect by giving a legendary speech during a tour of the US. At Fulton, Missouri, he uttered a solemn warning to Russia, and talked of ‘an iron curtain’ descending on Europe. He reminded the American people that the West could not afford to appease the Soviet Union, for such a policy had been disastrous before the war and now, in a post-war world, would be seen simply as weakness by Stalin. Yet despite the dramatic tone of his speech, the British press and public were lukewarm in their support for the ex-premier. This was hardly surprising, since in Britain there remained an overwhelming feeling of gratitude to the Soviet Union for their undeniable sacrifice in the war. Such public goodwill was certainly fostered by the unrelenting diet of wartime pro-Soviet propaganda that emitted from the British government. It was unrealistic to suppose that barely a year later the public could absorb the ‘justness’ of an attack on the Soviet Union.

Regardless of any protests in the West, Stalin’s suppression of Eastern Europe continued apace. In March 1946 alone the Soviet Ministry of the Interior recorded that ‘8,360 bandits were liquidated’ in the Ukraine, while in the Baltic Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia nearly 100,000 people were deported to gulags ‘forever’. Even as the packed cattle trucks of ‘bandits, nationalists and others’ trundled eastwards, Stalin launched his own verbal repost to Churchill’s Missouri speech, denouncing him as ‘a firebrand of war’. But Churchill’s views were no longer seen by the US as either extreme or as an impediment to better relations with Stalin. Just days before Churchill had delivered his Fulton speech, the US JWPC had finalised their Operation Pincher war plans. US policy was turning full circle in its attitude to the Soviet Union:

It is wise to emphasise the importance of being so prepared militarily and of showing such firmness and resolution that the Soviet Union will not, through miscalculation of American intentions, push to the point that results in war.

The US draft plan for their own Unthinkable war estimated that in the spring of 1946 the Soviets had fifty-one divisions in Germany and Austria, fifty divisions in the near or Middle East and twenty divisions in Hungary and Yugoslavia. This force of 121 divisions was supported by a central reserve of 152 divisions in the homeland, and a total of 87 divisions of pro-Soviet forces within the satellite states of Eastern Europe. A Soviet attack would most likely sweep across Western Europe and seize the channel ports and the Low Countries in little more than a month. Simultaneous attacks would be launched into Italy as well as the Middle East. In the midst of such overwhelming force (again, an estimate of three to one in favour of Soviet infantry), it was recommended that US troops would retreat into Spain or Italy to avoid being decimated by the Red Army on the continent. It was conceivable that the Red Army would even carry the invasion into Spain in an attempt to block the western Mediterranean, in which case US forces would swiftly withdraw and retreat to Britain. While Britain was considered a valuable base, Germany, Austria, France and the Low Countries would be sacrificed. Retreating Allied forces would also move across to the Middle East to bolster defences around the vital Suez Canal Zone. It was no surprise that the US chiefs of staff now accepted that an essential object of Stalinist policy was to ‘dominate the world’.

There would be a fight-back by the West, of course, but not until the Red Army had swept through Western Europe, the Balkans, Turkey and Iran; in the Far East, South Korea and Manchuria would also fall. Although Pincher did not go into further detail, the US and her Allies would launch devastating air attacks from remaining bases in Britain, Egypt and India, no doubt deploying their growing stock of atomic bombs, though the use of such weapons was still not seen as a ‘war winner’. Meanwhile the US Navy would seek to blockade the Soviet Union and destroy her naval fleets, as attempts were eventually made to recover Western Europe by a southerly thrust via the Mediterranean.

One old festering wound in Europe that looked like it could precipitate Operation Pincher was the dispute between Tito and the West over the Venezia Giulia region. It was also this scare that brought together the US and British Joint Chiefs of Staff for their first planning sessions for a Third World War. The first British Unthinkable plan, involving the attack on Soviet forces on 1 July 1945, had not been discussed beyond the tight circle of the prime minister, his Joint Chiefs and their Joint Planners. Similarly, the highly sensitive US Pincher plan was initially confined to the US Joint Chiefs, their Joint Planners and the commander-in-chief. But on 30 August 1946 Field Marshal Henry ‘Jumbo’ Maitland Wilson, representing the British Joint Chiefs, attended a lunch with his American counterparts. Reporting back to his JCS committee, Wilson was able to reassure them that at least both sets of chiefs were alert to the risk of an armed clash in Venezia Giulia, which could pull in both power blocs, whether they wanted war or not. There was agreement that in the event of a conflict in the Venezia region it was pointless having a plan for large reinforcements to be sent into the territory, since the fight would swiftly spread into central Europe. Poland, no longer seen as the tripwire by late 1946, would nevertheless find herself at the very centre of military activity.

Ironically, the US chiefs were now discussing all the scenarios that Churchill had foreseen 18 months before, when formulating his plan for Unthinkable. President Truman had even appointed a Special Counsel, Clark Clifford, to report on the growing Soviet menace, concluding that Stalin believed ‘a prolonged peace’ between the Marxist and capitalist societies was impossible and the only outcome was war. At a top-level meeting between the US and Britain, even the new US chief of staff, General Eisenhower, was talking the Unthinkable talk of establishing Allied ‘bridgeheads’ in Europe. In the face of any Soviet onslaught he advocated withdrawing forces to bridgeheads in the Low Countries. As Churchill had earlier recommended, this would deny the enemy the use of bases from which to launch rocket attacks at Britain, as well as offering the Allies a short line of communication back to Britain. The UK would be of huge strategic value for the Allied air forces, though the Americans noted that longer airstrips would be required in British bases to enable more B–29 squadrons to be accommodated. The Naval representative also argued for a reoccupation of Iceland to broaden the reach of naval forces.

So, with a consensus reached, the meeting broke up, but not before it was agreed that the utmost secrecy should be imposed on the Combined Joint Chiefs of Staff outline plan, and that no one beyond the level of the chiefs and their immediate planners should be allowed access. The US chiefs were most keen to drive on and agree a command organisation for the US and Britain in the event of Soviet aggression, which they saw as ‘imminent’. However, it was not long before other senior British commanders became involved in the plans. On 16 September Field Marshal Montgomery, supposedly on a private visit to the United States, met with General Eisenhower and President Truman to discuss the war plan options for the West. Cabling Prime Minister Attlee to advise him of developments, Montgomery referred to the highly sensitive plan and stressed it was ‘Personal and Eyes only for PM’. ‘So far as I am aware, no (repeat) no one here knows anything about matter.’ Montgomery was keen to add, ‘all agree that secrecy is vital.’ To cover their trips to meet US Joint Planning Staff, the British planners used the excuse of researching for a ‘report on the strategical lessons of the recent war’. There was even concern within the British camp that the amply proportioned ‘Jumbo’ Wilson might have presented a large silhouette on board the yacht where he met with US chiefs. Furthermore, it was questioned whether British planners should wear ‘uniform or mufti’ when meeting with their American counterparts. Fortunately, the idea of ‘cocktail parties’ for visiting teams was hastily dispensed with.

Yet it seemed that the tight security in the US was now unravelling. The British were horrified to learn that the secretaries to the US War Department and Navy Department were also aware of the plan and it was only a matter of time before operatives in the US State Department heard of the details. British security operatives may well have been aware of the leaks to the Soviets from within the State Department and feared the worst. Attlee certainly did. Confiding to Field Marshal Wilson, he stated ‘the issues now raised are of the utmost importance and potential value, but any leakage would have the gravest consequences.’

During October 1946 the Canadian war planners were also introduced to the operation and a representative met with British and US planners for further meetings in London. Discussions included the intended bridgeheads and the capacity of Naval forces to evacuate US and British troops from mainland Europe, should the Red Army advance to the West. There was also the pressing problem of renewed Soviet threats to Greece and Turkey, as well as the issue of ‘standardisation’ of weapons and equipment between the US, Britain and Canada.

Operation Pincher went through a number of modifications during the summer of 1946, and the US Joint Planners ensured that it remained relevant, but it still excluded specific reference to the use of atomic bombs by the strategic bomber force. As with Unthinkable the planners made little attempt to project beyond the initial stages of a conflict, since there were just too many variables. One of the constant worries remained the issue of demobilisation. For with peace came a great desire for ‘bringing the boys home’ as soon as possible and for reducing the huge cost of a vast army. Consequently, by June 1946 the US armed forces, which had numbered more than 12 million at the end of the war, were reduced to fewer than 3 million. Secretary of State James Byrnes was frustrated with the whole process, ‘The people who yelled loudest for me to adopt a firm attitude towards Russia,’ he moaned, ‘then yelled even louder for the rapid demobilisation of the Army.’ So formidable was the strength of Soviet armour and infantry that once US troop reductions were underway, the planners concluded that Allied land forces would not be strong enough to drive into the Soviet interior for at least three years. Allied air power offered the only hope of victory, by employing massive strikes against ‘the industrial heart of Russia’.

It was unrealistic to believe that the Soviet Union could be threatened with oblivion in 1946. Even by the autumn of that year the US only possessed nine atomic bombs. There were two Mark III Fat Boys earmarked for testing off the US mainland, and seven Mark IIIs were held in secure housings on the mainland. They could only be delivered to the Soviet Union by the Silver Plate B–29, suitably modified to hold the weapon in place, but there was a lack of properly trained aircrews, as well as bomb assembly teams. Furthermore, scientists were returning to civilian life and the production of both uranium and plutonium was falling. However, production would be dramatically increased in the next few years, so that by the time of the first Soviet atomic test in 1949, the US would have a stockpile of some 400 atomic bombs. Despite the comfort of atomic superiority, senior commanders in the West were in no doubt about the consequences of an imminent world war. ‘My part in the next war,’ wrote Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, ‘will be to be destroyed by it.’

While Britain and the US faced up to the Soviet Union, Poland, as a cause, had slipped off the list of priorities. During Christmas Eve 1946 the ‘Polish Sixteen’, who had been the hope of a future liberated Poland, were languishing in various Soviet prisons. One of the most prominent leaders, General Okulicki, passed his last hours in Moscow’s Butyrka Prison. His disappearance, together with other leading members of the Polish underground, in April 1945, had done much to increase the climate of fear surrounding Soviet intentions. He was either murdered by the NKVD or died as a result of his hunger strike; it has been estimated that between 1944 and 1947 some 50,000 Poles, including many members of the AK, were deported to the Soviet gulags. In the spring of 1946 the US Joint Chiefs declared that the Soviet Union was giving the highest priority to ‘building up their war potential and that of their satellites so as to be able to defeat the Western democracies’. To combat Soviet plans for ‘eventual world domination’, the West would also have to provide military and economic aid to frontline states, such as Greece, Turkey and Iran.

So the post-war Western governments continued their stand-off with the Soviet Union, a situation that became known as the Cold War. The 1947 elections in Poland were duly rigged and a communist government was returned. But the Polish government-in-exile in London continued its existence, despite the worldwide recognition of the communist puppet government in Poland. In fact, showing all the old stoicism, the London Poles continued their existence until 1991, when the old presidential seals were finally handed over to the first post-communist government in Warsaw. Throughout the late 1940s the Cold War festered with intermittent crises erupting, such as the Berlin Blockade, when the Soviets attempted to cut off Western access to Berlin. The West arranged an airlift of supplies to lift the ‘siege’ and, in 1949, the Soviets backed down. It was, however, a momentous year for other reasons – the Soviet Union developed its own atomic capability and the balance of power shifted again.

Operation Unthinkable might have been just another quiet footnote in the story of the Cold War, but in 1954 there was a bizarre incident involving Churchill and Montgomery that threatened to expose the whole plan.

In a low-key speech at his Woodford constituency, Churchill suddenly announced that in 1945 he had ordered Field Marshal Montgomery to preserve captured German weapons and to be ready to reissue those arms to ‘German soldiers whom we should have to work with if the Soviet advance continued’. An intrigued press tackled Montgomery for his comments and there ensued a wrangle over whether or not Churchill had ever formally issued the order. The Soviet press immediately seized on his comments, attacking ‘Churchill’s crusade’, and there were critical articles in the British and the US press. The Chicago Tribune attacked Churchill and his wartime policy with headlines that screamed ‘Folly on Olympian Scale’. The whole episode blew up out of nowhere but more rational observers wondered why, at the height of the Cold War, the prime minister would casually disclose such controversial plans to attack the Soviet Union. Major-General Sir Edward Spears was wheeled out in defence of Churchill. ‘The whole thing is absurd,’ he countered. ‘The Times is behaving as if Sir Winston had called in Hitler for help against Russia. Hitler was out of business.’ But the prime minister still had to calm the storm by admitting that he could find no telegram in his records and that he must have issued a verbal order to Montgomery. Privately he confessed, ‘I made a goose of myself at Woodford.’

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