On the afternoon of 11 January 1945, Generaloberst Heinz Guderian received the news he had been dreading. His intelligence chief confirmed that the great Soviet winter offensive was to begin the next morning. Only two days before, Guderian had warned Adolf Hitler: “The eastern front is like a house of cards. If the front is broken through at one point all the rest will collapse.” Guderian, the head of the Oberkommando des Heeres (army high command), was responsible for the eastern front. He had feared from the start that Hitler’s Ardennes Offensive the previous month (a major attack against the western Allies through the Ardennes region of southern Belgium) would leave his forces in the east at the mercy of the Red Army.
Josef Stalin did not trust his western Allies, especially that anti-bolshevik Winston Churchill. He had made a habit of rubbing-in the fact that British and American armies had suffered few casualties in the war against their common enemy while the sacrifices of the Red Army had been enormous. He even pretended that he had advanced the date of his winter offensive in order to save the Americans in the Ardennes. This was untrue. The German attack in Belgium had been halted on 26 December, while Stalin’s real reason for bringing forward the date was due to meteorological forecasts. A thaw was predicted for later in January and the Red Army needed the ground to remain frozen for its tank armies to charge forward to the river Oder.
The winter offensive began on 12 January with Marshal Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front advancing from the Soviet bridgeheads west of the Vistula towards Upper Silesia. Over the next two days, the 2nd and 3rd Belorussian Fronts assaulted East Prussia, and Marshal Georgi Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front began its operation towards Berlin from south of Warsaw. Once crossings had been secured over the river Pilica, there was little to stop the 1st and 2nd Guards Tank Armies. Their headlong advance by day and night meant that all orders from the führer’s headquarters were 24 hours out of date by the time they reached German divisions.
The front collapsed even more rapidly than Guderian had feared. Some 8 million German civilians were fleeing for their lives. Hitler made things worse by his meddling, and on 31 January the first Red Army soldiers crossed the frozen Oder to form a bridgehead less than 60 miles from Berlin.
Heroic and doomed
Another reason for Stalin’s haste was to secure all Polish territory before the Yalta Conference began on 4 February 1945. He intended to impose on Poland his puppet ‘Lublin government’ and treat the Armia Kraiova, or Home Army, which was loyal to the Polish government-in-exile, as ‘fascists’, despite their heroic and doomed uprising against the Germans in Warsaw the previous year. He greatly exaggerated the incidence of German stay-behind forces in order to justify the oppression of non-communist Poles.
Any found with weapons, whether or not they helped the Red Army in its operations, were arrested by NKVD (secret police) rifle regiments. Stalin claimed that he had to secure his rear areas to ensure the resupply of his fighting formations.
The Yalta Conference, between the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, had been organised in order to discuss Europe’s postwar reorganisation. During the conference, Stalin took every opportunity to divide the British and the Americans.
He knew that Churchill wanted to secure freedom for Poland while Franklin D Roosevelt’s priorities were to establish the United Nations and persuade Stalin to attack Japanese forces in Manchuria and northern China.
The American president felt that he could win Stalin’s trust and even admitted to the Soviet leader that the western Allies did not agree on the strategy for the invasion of Nazi Germany. Roosevelt suggested that General Dwight Eisenhower should establish direct contact with the Stavka supreme command of the Red Army to discuss plans. Stalin encouraged the idea so that he would know what the Americans were doing, while giving nothing away himself.
Stalin made clear his contempt for the rights of smaller nations. In central Europe and the Balkans, Soviet interests were paramount. “The Polish question is a question of life and death for the Soviet state,” he said. “Poland represents the gravest of strategic problems for the Soviet Union. Throughout history, Poland has served as a corridor for enemies coming to attack Russia.” One could well argue that the origins of the Cold War lay in 1941 and the traumatic shock of the German invasion. Stalin was determined to have a security belt of satellite countries to prevent such a thing ever happening again.
Using again the argument that Poland was in the rear of his armies attacking Germany, he compared the situation to France, where he was restraining the communists from causing trouble in the rear of the western Allies. Churchill soon realised that he was out on a limb. Roosevelt, suffering from extreme ill-health, showed little interest. To Churchill’s horror, Roosevelt even announced without warning him that American forces would be withdrawn from Europe. The Americans simply wanted to finish the war. They showed little interest in the postwar map of Europe. All Churchill could ask for was free elections in Poland, but Stalin’s insistence on a government “friendly to the Soviet Union”, suggested it would be under Moscow’s control.
Ever since the breakout from Normandy led by Patton’s 3rd Army in August 1944, British influence had been fading rapidly. Field Marshal Montgomery’s repeated attempts to be appointed ground forces commander had only made things worse. They had culminated in his boasting that he had saved the situation in the Ardennes. General George C Marshall, the American chief of staff, was furious, and Eisenhower told Churchill that none of his generals were willing to serve under Montgomery again. “His relations with Monty are quite insoluble,” Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke wrote after a meeting with Eisenhower on 6 March. “He only sees the worst side of Monty.”
Montgomery had even been beaten in the race to cross the Rhine by the Americans taking the bridge at Remagen on 7 March and Patton securing a bridgehead south of Mainz. Once 21st Army Group was across the Rhine on 24 March, Montgomery lost the American 9th Army from his command, and the British were sidelined in the north. All his hopes of leading the advance on Berlin from the west were dashed. He was ordered to head for Denmark via Hamburg. Churchill’s desire to reach Berlin and “shake hands with the Russians as far to the east as possible,” was ignored. Eisenhower, who had started to believe in an Alpine Redoubt to which the remaining German forces would withdraw, intended to send the bulk of his forces across central and southern Germany.
US defers to the Soviets
Stalin, who had criticised the western Allies for advancing so slowly, reacted very differently to news of the bridge at Remagen.
He immediately summoned Marshal Zhukov to Moscow, even though he was conducting the campaign to secure the ‘Baltic balcony’ of Pomerania before attacking Berlin.
With American bridgeheads across the Rhine, Stalin now feared they might get to Berlin first. He ordered Zhukov to work through the night preparing plans for the ‘Berlin Operation’.
Zhukov later acknowledged their concern that “the British command was still nursing the dream of capturing Berlin before the Red Army”. Stalin wanted Berlin, “the lair of the fascist beast”, both for reasons of prestige and because he hoped to capture German uranium stocks and the scientists working on an atomic bomb. He knew from his spies on the Manhattan Project that the Americans were close to perfecting their own. What he did not know was that the bulk of the uranium had already been evacuated south to the Black Forest.
Eisenhower, on the other hand, considered Berlin was “no longer a particularly important objective”. On 2 March he started to request the opinion of the Soviet Stavka on strategic planning. This exasperated their British counterparts, especially Churchill. Some British officers were appalled by US deference to Stalin’s wishes, bitterly talking of American leaders using a call employed by London prostitutes when soliciting American soldiers: “Have a go, Joe.” To British outrage, Eisenhower communicated his plans to Stalin even before he told Churchill or his own British deputy, Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder. This signal, known as SCAF-252, became a bitter issue between the Allies.
British suspicions of Stalin’s intentions grew apace as news arrived of mass arrests in Poland, rounding up all those who did not welcome Soviet rule. Western representatives were meanwhile denied access to Poland, despite the agreement at Yalta. At the same time Stalin’s paranoia increased when he heard of American negotiations with German officers in northern Italy. He became convinced that the Germans would surrender to the British and Americans or let them through while they strengthened their forces facing the Red Army. He even feared a secret deal.
After receiving SCAF-252 on the evening of 31 March, Stalin approved Eisenhower’s plan to attack well to the south of Berlin and encouraged his fears of a German last-ditch resistance in the Alps. The next morning, Stalin summoned Marshals Zhukov and Konev. “Well, then,” he said, eyeing the two men. “Who is going to take Berlin: are we or are the Allies?” His order was to surround the city first before attacking inwards to prevent any chance of the Americans coming in from the west. The offensive with 2.5 million men was to take place “no later than 16 April”.
Later that day, which happened to be 1 April, Stalin sent his reply to Eisenhower. He assured his trusting ally that “Berlin has lost its former strategic importance” and that the Soviet command would send only “second-rate forces against it”. The bulk of the Red Army would join up with Eisenhower’s armies further to the south. They would not start their advance until the second half of May. “However, this plan may undergo certain alterations, depending on circumstances.” It was the greatest April Fool in modern history.
During the first week of April, the British 2nd Army reached Celle 25 miles north-east of Hanover, while the US 9th Army, led by General WH Simpson, was beyond Hanover and heading for the river Elbe. The 1st US Army was heading for Leipzig (125 miles south-west of Berlin) and Patton’s 3rd Army was in the Harz mountains on its way to the Czech border. By 12 April, the British were approaching Bremen and the American 9th Army had bridgeheads across the Elbe.
Simpson wanted his divisions to head straight for Berlin, but on 15 April Eisenhower stopped him there to avoid casualties. In fact Simpson’s forces would have faced little resistance since the best German formations faced east awaiting the onslaught from the rivers Oder and Neisse, which began the next day. But Eisenhower had made the right decision for the wrong reasons. Stalin was so determined to have Berlin that almost certainly he would have turned his long-range artillery and attack aircraft on US forces, claiming that the Americans were responsible for the mistake. And Eisenhower was determined to avoid clashes at all costs. Churchill wanted Patton to take Prague to pre-empt a Soviet occupation, but Eisenhower refused on General Marshall’s advice.
Berlin falls to the Soviets
While eight Soviet armies fought their way into Berlin, the British in north-west Germany, far from the centre of events, pushed on to Bremen. They occupied it on 27 April after a five-day battle. Montgomery, to Eisenhower’s frustration, crossed the lower Elbe in his usual methodical way to take Hamburg. But then news arrived that the Red Army was making a dash for Denmark ahead of him. The 11th Armoured Division rushed on to Lübeck on the Baltic coast and British paratroopers seized Wismar just two hours before Marshal Rokossovsky’s forces reached the town. Denmark was saved, but Poland, to Churchill’s bitter regret, was not.
Stalin’s intention to impose a Soviet government in Poland had become clear at the end of March when 16 Polish representatives of the government-in-exile in London were arrested despite safe-conduct passes. In May Soviet foreign minister Molotov brutally informed Edward Stettinius, the American secretary of state, that they had been charged with the murder of 200 members of the Red Army, a preposterous accusation.
Further indications of communist repression in Poland convinced Churchill that something had to be done. Within a week of Germany’s surrender, he summoned his chiefs of staff to ask them to study the possibility of forcing back Soviet troops to secure “a square deal for Poland”. The offensive should take place by 1 July 1945, before Allied troops were demobilised or transferred to the Far East.
Although the discussions were conducted in great secrecy, one of the Whitehall moles reporting to Beria, the Soviet police chief, heard of them. He sent details to Moscow of the instruction to Montgomery to gather up captured German arms in case they were needed to re-arm Wehrmacht troops. The Soviets, not surprisingly, felt that their worst suspicions had been confirmed.
Operation Unthinkable, as even Churchill called it, was a mad enterprise. British soldiers, grateful for the Red Army’s sacrifice, would almost certainly have refused to obey orders. And the Americans would surely have rejected the plan. The chiefs of staff all agreed that it was “unthinkable”. “The idea is of course fantastic and the chances of success quite impossible,” wrote Field Marshal Brooke. “There is no doubt that from now onwards Russia is all powerful in Europe.”
Churchill, the greatest war leader Britain has ever produced, was forced to face the fact that his impoverished country had lost almost all its power and influence in a dramatically changed world. Britain had helped liberate the western half of Europe at the cost of abandoning the eastern half to a Soviet dictatorship that would last for another 44 years.
Antony Beevor is one of the world’s leading historians of the Second World War. His latest book, The Second World War, is now out in paperback (Phoenix, 2014).
This article was first published in the January 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine