'SPECTATOR' – 28 June 2003


By  M.R.D. Foot

Changing Direction: British Military Planning for Post-war Strategic Defence, 1942-47, by Julian Lewis (Frank Cass, 2nd edition, ISBN: 0714653993)

This is a revised edition of a ground-breaking book that first came out 15 years ago, nine years before its author entered parliament (he is now MP for the New Forest, and a Shadow Defence Minister). It began as an Oxford doctoral thesis, under the eye of Wilfrid Knapp; it has become a useful handbook for statesmen on how to adjust state policy. It covers the process that Noel Annan described with less tact and less incisively as ’Changing Enemies’: the switchover from fighting Germany and Japan to being ready to fight the Soviet Union.

The new edition opens with a 60-page summary of recently released documents that affect Lewis’s earlier conclusions. They cover biological warfare; ’Operation UNTHINKABLE’, the mere idea that we might have to fight ’our gallant Soviet ally’; deception; and atomic bombs.

He is able to brush aside biological warfare as a newspaper scare – our efforts were wholly defensive. More important, Churchill invited the Chiefs of Staff to consider ’Operation UNTHINKABLE’ in spring 1945, when Soviet policy in the Balkans and Poland was beginning to look awkward. A considered report did not appear until early July, and Dr Lewis has reason to believe Churchill never saw it. The Chiefs pointed out that the Russians so far outnumbered the British and the Americans, both in men and in armoured divisions, that offensive action against them was highly unlikely to lead to any quick success; nor were they able to recommend the restarting of another total war.

A year later, the Chiefs looked at the plan again, from a defensive rather than an offensive angle; they agreed with the JIC that ’Russian policy will be aggressive by all means short of war’. The best defence lay in active deterrence; and the London Controlling Section, by then reduced to three officers, was instructed to set afoot means of persuading the Russians that we had such capacity to retaliate against attack that no attack would be made. Whether in fact we had the capacity was an awkwardness: the deadly secrecy in which atomic bomb construction was wrapped made a whole series of difficulties for the rest of the armament planning staffs.

The leitmotif of the book is that the military planners had a firmer grasp of strategy than the diplomats. It was in the Foreign Office that the earliest steps were taken, back in 1942, to set up post-hostilities planning committees; but the Foreign Office remained convinced of continuing Soviet friendship some time after the course of international affairs made it clear that this was a mistake. One of the air planners, Dickson, moved on eventually to be chairman of the Chiefs of Staff, and was glad of his earlier steeping in this subject.

The whole business was necessarily plunged in secrecy. When in 1946 the Chiefs of Staff got to grips again with the UNTHINKABLE they took extra precautions not to tell anybody, even the Prime Minister, outside their innermost circle; till one of them, Montgomery of course, while in Canada thought he might as well tell the Canadian Prime Minister about it, before going on to Washington to tell the president. In the USA it turned out that the secretaries of war and of the navy knew already, American political society being so much more open than British.

Lewis shows great skill in unravelling the intricacies of committee discussions from a convoluted mass of papers, and sometimes succeeds in quoting documents supposedly withheld from circulation from copies of them put away in files where they were not noticed by the weeders. He has some alarming passages about selection of targets for attack in the Soviet Union, balanced by estimates of the targets that the Russians would be likely to attack in this island; a series of disagreeable reminders about how nasty the cold war would have been, had it turned hot. Like other good history books, this one reminds us how sensible decisions can be taken by those faced with choices between several unavoidable evils.

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