CHAPTER 29 – Why Stalin Did Not Trust Churchill 302
Between June 1940 and the German invasion of the Soviet Union a year later, an interesting correspondence took place between Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin. The letters which the embattled British leader addressed to the Soviet head of state have assumed an almost legendary quality, and are known to history as ‘Churchill’s Warning’. It is widely believed that in these letters Churchill warned Stalin of the impending German attack on the Soviet Union. Much energy has been expended in speculating why Stalin failed to heed this friendly and obviously well-informed advice.
Perhaps we should be asking, why should Stalin have trusted Churchill? After all, Churchill had been an implacable opponent of communism since 1918, when he had proposed an alliance with Germany against the newly-formed Soviet state. Lenin himself had described Churchill as ‘the worst hater of Soviet Russia’. (PSS, Moscow, Vol. 14, p. 350)
Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising if Stalin treated any message from
Churchill with a considerable degree of scepticism. One must also bear in mind the political background to World War II. Germany was most disadvantageously placed in the diplomatic war of the 19308. Situated in the heart of Europe, it was at the
centre of all conflicts. Whatever war might begin in Europe, Germany would almost inevitably be involved in it. Therefore the diplomatic strategy of many countries in the 19305 boiled down to this attitude – you go to war with Germany, and I shall try to stay out of it. The Munich agreement of 1938 was a striking model of this philosophy.
Stalin and Molotov won the diplomatic war of the 19305. With the Molotov—Ribbentrop Pact, Stalin gave the green light for World War II, of which he remained a ‘neutral’ observer, while training a million parachutists as a contingency against ‘any surprises’. Britain and France lost the diplomatic war and were then compelled to fight a real war, from which France made a rapid exit. Where did Britain’s political interest lie? Looking at the situation through the eyes of the Kremlin, Churchill could have only one political aspiration – to find a lightning-conductor for the German Blitzkrieg and deflect the German attack to anywhere else other than Britain.
In the second half of 1940, only the Soviet Union could be such a lightning-conductor. Put more simply, Britain (in Stalin’s opinion, which he openly expressed on 10 March 1939) wanted a clash between the Soviet Union and Germany, while it stood aside from the fight. I do not know whether that was Churchill’s intention or not, but that is exactly how Stalin would have seen every move made by the British
government and its diplomats. As Admiral of the Fleet N. G. Kuznetsov put it, ‘Stalin of course had more than enough grounds for thinking that England and America were seeking to have us collide head-on with Germany.’ (Nakanune, 1966, p. 321)
The strategic situation in Europe also influenced Stalin’s response. The concentration of power against weakness is the main principle of strategy. Germany was unable to apply this principle in World War I because it was fighting on two fronts. Attempts to concentrate great efforts on one front automatically led to the weakening of the other front and the enemy immediately exploited it. As a result, Germany had to renounce a strategy of destruction in favour of the only other alternative, a strategy of attrition. But Germany’s resources were limited, while the resources of its enemies were unlimited. A war of attrition for Germany therefore could only end in catastrophe.
Both the German General Staff and Hitler himself understood that a war on two fronts would be catastrophic for Germany. In 1939-40, Germany always had in effect only one front. The German General Staff therefore was able to apply the concentration principle, and it did so brilliantly, concentrating the enormous German military power first against one enemy, then against the other. The main problem facing German strategy was to prevent war breaking out on a second front. As long as the Germans were fighting on one front only, they won brilliant victories. Speaking at a meeting with High Command staff of the German armed forces on 23 November 1939, Hitler said that a war against the Soviet Union could begin only after the war in the West had ended.
Now supposing that someone had told you in 1940 that Hitler intended to renounce that great principle of strategy, and instead of concentration was preparing to disperse his forces. Someone keeps on whispering in your ear that Hitler quite intentionally wants to repeat the biggest mistake Germany made in World War I. Every schoolboy knows that war on two fronts is suicide for Germany. World War II was to prove this rule once again, and also that, for Hitler personally, war on two fronts would be suicide in the purest sense of the word.
If Soviet Military Intelligence had reported anything like this, I should have advised General Golikov, the head of the GRU, to give up his post, go back to his academy and make another study of the reasons for the German defeat in World War I. If some neutral person from outside had told me about this suicidal war, I should have replied that Hitler was not an idiot, but that you, dear friend, certainly are one if you think that
Hitler will begin a war on two fronts of his own free will. Churchill was more interested than anyone else in the world in Hitler having not one, but two fronts. In
such a situation, Churchill had too great a vested interest for Stalin to believe what he said. Apart from the purely strategic and political situations, account must also be taken of the environment in which Churchill wrote his messages and Stalin read them. France fell on 21 June 1940. The piracy of German U-boats increased sharply on the sea-routes. There hung over Britain, an island nation with close trade links with the rest of the world, the threat of a naval blockade and the most acute crisis in trade, industry and finance. Worse still, the German military machine, which at that point seemed invincible to many, was making intensive preparations to land on the British Isles.
It was in this environment that Churchill wrote to Stalin on 25 June. On 30 June, the German armed forces captured Guernsey in the Channel Islands. In a thousand years of British history, there have been few occasions when an enemy has landed on the British Isles. What was to follow? A landing on mainland Britain? Guernsey was taken without resistance. For how long would Britain resist? Stalin received Churchill’s message the day after Germany had seized Guernsey. Where did Churchill’s interest lie, one may ask? Did he want to save the dictatorship in the Soviet Union, or save the British Empire? I believe that it was the interests of Britain which made Churchill write his letter. If we can understand this, surely Stalin must have understood it as well? For Stalin, Churchill was not an unbiased observer who out of friendly sentiments was giving warning of danger, but a man in serious difficulties, needing help and allies in a conflict against a fearful enemy.
Stalin therefore was very cautious towards Churchill’s letters. Churchill wrote several letters to Stalin. But unluckily they all reached Stalin at times when Churchill was in great difficulties. The best-known letter in this series reached Stalin on 19 April 1941. It has attracted considerable interest from historians, all of whom agree that it was a serious warning to Stalin. But let us consider Churchill’s position rather than the text of the letter. The German Army took Belgrade on 12 April. Rommel reached the Egyptian frontier on 13 April. Yugoslavia surrendered to Germany on 14 April, and St Paul’s Cathedral in London was damaged in an air raid on 16 April. Greece was on the point of surrender and British troops there were in a catastrophic situation; it had become a question of whether or not they could be evacuated.
Stalin might have suspected not only Churchill’s motives, but also his sources of information. Churchill
wrote the letters in June 1940. Why did Churchill not send similar letters to the French government and to
his own troops on the Continent in May of that year?
Churchill had written to Stalin in April 1941, a month after the German armed forces executed a brilliant
operation to capture Crete. Why was British intelligence, Stalin might have thought, working so well in the
interests of the Soviet Union, while it was doing nothing in British interests?
Finally, there is a more serious reason why Stalin did not trust Churchill’s ‘warnings’: contrary to popular
belief, Churchill was not warning Stalin about a German invasion.
Communist propaganda has done much to build up the myth about Churchill’s ‘warnings’. Khrushchev
used to quote Churchill’s message of 18 April 1941 to Stalin in order to do this. V. Anfilov, that prominent
Soviet military historian and highly refined falsifier of history, quotes the message in all his books. Zhukov
gives the message in full, and General S. P. Ivanov does the same. The official History of the Great Motherland
War constantly hammers Churchill’s warnings into our heads and quotes his 18 April message in full. The
text of Churchill’s message can be found in hundreds of Soviet books and articles:
I have received reliable information from a trustworthy source that the Germans, after deciding that
Yugoslavia had fallen into their clutches, that is on 20 March, began to transfer three armoured divisions,
of the five stationed in Romania, into the southern part of Poland. As soon as they learnt of the Serbian
revolution, this transfer was cancelled. Your excellency will easily appreciate the significance of these facts.
All Soviet sources publish Churchill’s message in this form, insisting and assuring that it was a ‘warning’. I
personally see no warning here. Churchill is talking about three tank divisions. This is many by Churchill’s
standards. By Stalin’s, it is not a great deal. Stalin himself at the time was secretly setting up 63 tank
divisions, each one of which was stronger than a German division both in number and quality of tanks. If we
consider that a report about three tank divisions amounted to a ‘warning’ that aggression was in preparation,
we need not in that case accuse Hitler of aggressive intentions. German intelligence had already submitted
reports to Hitler about dozens of Soviet tank divisions which were grouping on the borders of Germany and
Churchill suggested that Stalin assess ‘the significance of these facts’. How could they be assessed? Poland
historically has always been the gate through which all aggressors have passed from Europe to Russia. Hitler
wanted to transfer tanks to Poland, but he changed his mind.
Compared to Poland, Romania was a very bad springboard for aggression. German troops would be harder
to supply there than in Poland. In an attack from Romania the road to the vital heartland of Russia would be
longer and harder for an aggressor, who would have to overcome a multitude of barriers, including the lower
reaches of the river Dnieper.
Had Stalin been preparing himself for defence, and had he believed Churchill’s ‘warning’, he should have
heaved a sigh of relief and relaxed his military preparations. In addition, Churchill gave the reason why the
German troops were staying in Romania instead of being transferred to Poland: the Germans had problems in
Yugoslavia, particularly in Serbia.
Britain at that time was waging very intensive diplomatic and military activity throughout the entire
Mediterranean basin, particularly in Greece and Yugoslavia. Churchill’s telegram was of enormous
importance, but it could in no way be regarded as a warning. It was to a much greater degree an invitation to
Stalin. The Germans wanted to transfer divisions to Poland, but have been forced to divert them elsewhere.
You have nothing to fear, more so since these divisions in Romania have their backs turned to you. Assess
these facts and act!
When Stalin got into a critical situation in the war, he too sent similar messages to Churchill and Roosevelt:
Germany is concentrating its main forces against me, with its back turned to you. This is the best time for
you — open the second front quickly! Then again came the turn of the western allies. When they got into
serious difficulties after opening the second front, the western leaders sent the same message to Stalin in
January 1945 : can’t you hit harder?
We are not justified in regarding Churchill’s letters as a warning. Churchill wrote his first long letter to
Stalin on 25 June 1940 before the Barbarossa plan even existed. Churchill’s letters are founded on sober
calculation rather than on knowledge of German plans. He was simply drawing Stalin’s attention to the
situation in Europe: Britain has problems with Hitler today, and the Soviet Union will surely have them
tomorrow. Churchill was calling on Stalin to come into the war on the side of Britain.
Sir Basil Liddell-Hart, the prominent British military historian, made a brilliant analysis of the strategic
situation of that time as seen from Hitler’s standpoint. According to General Jodl, to whom Liddell-Hart refers,
Hitler repeatedly told his generals that Britain’s only hope was a Soviet invasion of Europe. (B. H. Liddell-
Hart, History of the Second World War, Pan, London 1978, p. 151) Churchill himself wrote on 22 April 1941
that ‘the Soviet government knows full well . . . that we stand in need of its help’. (L. Woodward, British
Foreign Policy in the Second World War, p. 611) What help was Churchill expecting from Stalin, and how could
Stalin give it, except by striking at Germany?
Stalin had sufficient grounds for not trusting Churchill. But even Stalin must have understood that had
Britain fallen, he would have been left to face Germany alone. In his reply to Churchill’s 25 June message, he
says that ‘the policy of the Soviet Union is to avoid war with Germany. But Germany might attack the Soviet
Union in spring of 1941, if Britain has lost the war by then.’ (R. Goralski, World War II Almanac: 1931-1945,
Hamish Hamilton, London, p. 24)
It transpires from Stalin’s answer that he intended to live in peace while patiently waiting for Britain to fall,
and if he had been left alone face to face with Hitler, to wait for Germany to invade. Ah, how stupid Stalin
was, some historians say indignantly. But let us not share their indignation. That message was addressed not
to Churchill, but to Hitler! On 13 July 1940, Molotov was ordered by Stalin to hand over to Count von der
Schulenburg, the German ambassador, the written record of Stalin’s conversation with Sir Stafford Cripps,
the British Ambassador. Was it not a strange thing to do, to have negotiations with Churchill through Sir
Stafford Cripps, and then secretly pass the minutes of these negotiations to Hitler through his ambassador
von der Schulenburg?
But Stalin did not pass the original memorandum to Hitler, only a carefully edited copy in which a mass of
unnecessary detail was retained, but key sentences were completely altered. When the diplomatic veneer is
stripped away, this is what the document was telling Hitler:
‘Adolf, fight, and don’t worry about your rear. Advance and don’t look back, you have behind you your good
friend Josef Stalin who only wants peace and who will never attack you under any circumstances.
‘There have been negotiations here in Moscow with the British Ambassador. Don’t worry, these negotiations
are not directed against you. You see, I’m even sending you the secret minutes of my talks with Cripps. And
I’ve sent Churchill to hell!’ (In fact he had not).
Could the sweet siren songs from the Kremlin be believed? Many historians do believe them. But Hitler did
not, and after thinking long and hard about the ‘copy’ of Stalin’s conversation with Cripps, he issued the
order on 21 July 1940 that a start should be made on the plan for Operation Barbarossa. In other words,
Hitler decided to fight on two fronts. This decision seems inexplicable to many people. Many German generals
and field-marshals did not understand it either, and they declined to approve such a truly suicidal decision.
But Hitler had no choice.
He had gone increasingly further west, north and south, while Stalin stood back with his axe singing sweet
songs of peace.
Hitler’s one irremediable mistake was made, not on 21 July 1940, but on 19 August 1939. Once he had
agreed to the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Hitler was faced with an inevitable war against the
West, while the ‘neutral’ Stalin stood behind him. From that moment onwards, Hitler had two fronts. His
decision to set up Operation Barbarossa in the east without waiting for victory in the west was not a fatal
error, but only an attempt to put right the fatal error he had already made. But by then it was too late. The
war already had two fronts, and it was already impossible to win it. Even the capture of Moscow would not
have solved Hitler’s problem; beyond Moscow there still lay another 10,000 kilometres of boundless teritory,
vast centres of industrial power, inexhaustible natural and human resources. It is always easy to begin a war
with Russia, but not so easy to finish it. It was certainly easy for Hitler to fight in the European part of the
Soviet Union; the territory is limited, there are many good roads, and the winters are mild. Was Hitler ready to
fight in Siberia in the unrestricted limitless expanse, where there were no roads and where the brutality of the
frost is close to the brutality of Stalin’s regime?
Stalin knew that war on two fronts would be suicide for Hitler. Stalin calculated that Hitler would not
commit suicide, and that he would not begin a war in the east without having first ended the war in the west.
Stalin was patiently waiting for the German tank corps to land in Britain. He was not alone in looking upon
the brilliant airborne assault on Crete as a final rehearsal for landing in Britain. At the same time Stalin did
everything possible to convince Hitler of his peaceableness. That was why Soviet anti-aircraft guns were not
firing on German aircraft, while Soviet newspapers and TASS proclaimed that there would be no war between
the Soviet Union and Germany.
Had Stalin succeeded in convincing Hitler that the Soviet Union was a neutral country, then the German
tank corps without any doubt would have landed on the British Isles. And then a truly unprecedented
situation would have arisen. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg,
Yugoslavia, France, Greece and Albania no longer had armies, governments, parliaments or political parties.
Millions of people had been driven into Nazi concentration camps and the whole of Europe was awaiting its
liberation. All that remained on the European continent was the regiment of Hitler’s personal guards, the
guards of the Nazi concentration camps, German rear units, military schools and . . . five Soviet airborne
assault corps, tens of thousands of fast tanks built specially for moving along motorways; tens of thousands
of aircraft; pilots who had not been trained for fighting in the air, but who had been taught how to make air
strikes on ground targets; divisions and whole armies of the NKVD; armies made up of prisoners from the
Soviet labour camps; extra-high-power formations of the Glider Air Force to make rapid landings on enemy
territory; mountain divisions trained to make swift thrusts into the mountain passes over which flowed oil,
the life- blood of war.
Has anyone in history ever been in such a favourable position to ‘liberate’ Europe? And this situation did
not come about by itself. Stalin, working long, persistently and in sustained fashion, had made a subtle
mosaic from the smallest of fragments. It was Stalin who helped to bring Hitler to power, and made Hitler, in
Stalin’s phrase, a real icebreaker for the revolution. It was Stalin who encouraged the icebreaker to move into
Europe. It was Stalin who demanded of the French and other communists that they should not prevent the
icebreaker from breaking up Europe. It was Stalin who supplied the icebreaker with everything it needed for
its victorious advance. It was Stalin who closed his eyes to all the crimes being committed by the Nazis and
rejoiced in the pages of Pravda ‘when the world was shaken to its foundations, when powers perished and
But Hitler guessed Stalin’s design. That was why World War II ended catastrophically for Stalin. He only got
half of Europe, and some places here and there in Asia.
One final question. If Churchill did not warn Stalin that an invasion was being prepared, why do the
communists hold on so tenaciously to the legend that he did? To show to the Soviet people that Churchill was
a good man? Or to prove that the Western leaders were to be trusted? It was not, of course, for either purpose.
The communists need the legend of Churchill’s warnings to justify their own preparations for war. The
‘warnings’ bolster the orthodox view that the ‘big plan’ for which such elaborate preparations had been made
was simply intended to forestall German aggression. ‘We knew that Hitler was going to attack,’ they say. ‘It
was Churchill who warned us . . .’
CHAPTER 30 – Why Stalin Did Not Trust Richard Sorge 313