'JOURNAL OF THE ROYAL UNITED SERVICES INSTITUTE' – April 2004
By Dr Beatrice Heuser – Military History Research Institute of the Bundeswehr, Potsdam
Changing Direction: British Military Planning for Post-war Strategic Defence, 1942-47, by Julian Lewis (Frank Cass, 2nd edition, ISBN: 0714653993)
When this book was originally written as an Oxford D.Phil., in the early 1980s, its heavy typescript was regarded as worth its weight in five-pound bills to eager historians of the origins of the Cold War: the lucky ones were tipped off by their supervisors about its existence, and the word about it was spread most confidentially.
At the time with privileged access to government documents that otherwise were earmarked as closed for fifty years, Julian Lewis had reconstructed the shift of attention from Germany to the USSR by the British planners, who even in 1942 began to plan for post-World War II inter-state relations. His sources were then not accessible to other researchers, even though the publication of his findings was to be approved by H. M. Government seven years later, when the first edition of this book was published. It is thus an illustration of the ever more enlightened policy of the British government with regard to public records and their release into the public domain.
The second edition was occasioned by the release of more documentary material in the Public Records Office in Kew, now oddly renamed National Archives, just to confuse Scottish and Welsh patriots. Dr Julian Lewis has drawn upon these to fill in blanks in his earlier careful reconstruction of the discussions and arguments which led British defence planners to develop contingency plans for the event that the United Kingdom’s Ally, the Soviet Union, should begin to pose a threat to Britain.
Together with Victor Rothwell (Britain and the Cold War, 1941-1947, London: Jonathan Cape, 1982) Lewis in his first edition demonstrated the crucial role played by Britain in the recognition of a possible threat from Russia to the free world, once Germany would have been defeated. Together, the books once and for all explode the 1960s myth that the Cold War was all about American-Soviet confrontation, and that the Europeans were paralysed pawns in the superpowers’ game of chess. Instead, it was clearly British military planners who, slightly earlier than and independent of their US counterparts, began to worry about Soviet intentions and capabilities post-VE day, and ways in which they could be deterred from using them against British interests.
Should deterrence fail, defensive action was planned, and this involved the striking suggestion, even in 1944, that it was in the West’s interest not to create a situation in which all of defeated Germany might one day fall under Soviet domination. Amazingly, the Post-Hostilities Planners even in the summer of 1944 argued:
‘we should require all the help we can get from any source open to us, including Germany. We must above all prevent Germany combining with the Soviet Union against us.’
The blanks in Lewis’ first edition, which he has now filled in, include the intelligence estimates of the Soviet Union on which this view of future risks and options was based. The Joint Intelligence Committee noted in 1944 that the Russian military performance had come as a surprise to the West, and that the control of the Soviet Communist Party over Communists in Western countries, particularly Britain and France, had been demonstrably effective in the previous years. This political weapon had been used by Stalin to further Russian interest, and was likely to be used in the same way after the war.
Whatever his political intentions, the vast manpower resources of the USSR also gave him a potential for action in a way hostile to British interests within a very short time, particularly if conscription were maintained. The Soviet Union’s economic performance, particularly in the field of arms production, had been and was stupendous: as German forces conquered Ukraine – once the USSR’s chief industrial base – and were moving further and further into Russia, besieging and isolating Leningrad – another crucial industrial centre – and were stopped only a few miles short of Moscow, the Soviet government had managed to organize the physical removal of large parts of Soviet industry and labour forces to the East, moving some enterprises twice, and restoring them to productivity in an incredibly short time. The JIC concluded in 1944 that the USSR
‘would have the capacity to build up land and air forces on a gigantic scale, and would have the economic, and particularly industrial, resources to maintain them in action.’
Once the Red Army had liberated countries of Eastern Europe from German occupation, Soviet behaviour showed a clear pattern of furthering Communist and particularly Russian interests. In February 1945 the Soviets tried to set up a Communist minority government in Romania, and in late March 1945, they arrested non-communist Polish leaders, in clear breach of their Yalta commitments (the joint Declaration on Liberated Europe). It was against this background that the Joint Planning Staff in May 1945 prepared a paper on war between Britain and the US on one side and the USSR on the other, on the European Continent. The purpose of such military action, initiated by the West, was ‘to impose upon Russia the will of the United States and the British Empire’.
The document was unsurprisingly called ‘UNTHINKABLE’ and given the est possible circulation. The idea was to get the Soviet leadership to accept post-war arrangements favoured by London and Washington, but the British Joint Planning Staff commented that such an effect was unlikely to be brought about by short, sharp military action against the Red Army. Stalin, they rightly argued, always had the option of holding out and letting such a confrontation escalate to total war, with no prospect of the West winning quickly. Only a comprehensive mobilization of US economic resources and manpower over a long period of time might lead to success, together with the arming of the Germans and all other peoples not under Soviet control. Even then, the JPS was quite unsure of the chances of long-term success.
Churchill, after reading about UNTHINKABLE, immediately ordered a change of the basic scenario from an offensive one to a defensive one, in which the USSR would seize the opportunity presented by US withdrawal from Europe by moving West to occupy the entire continent. Churchill wanted the UK to study ways of retaining a bridgehead on the coast opposite Britain. From this point in June 1945, British planning vis-à-vis the USSR was entirely defensive. Through a British initiative designed not least to continue British-US defence talks as ultimate guarantee against a repetition of the British experience of 1940/41, it led step by step to the joint contingency planning against Soviet aggression well under way by 1947. This in turn eventually served as the basis of NATO strategy from 1949 onwards.
The book is thus essential reading for the understanding of the origins of the military dimension of the Cold War, of the European security architecture after 1945, of the subsequent division of Germany and Europe, and of the key role played by Britain in all of this. Its emphasis on rich quotations, its coherent and simple presentation, make it a model of ground-breaking history of strategy.
Dr Julian Lewis is now an MP, a member of the House of Commons Defence Committee, and a shadow defence minister. Would that more defence ministers had his background of understanding of strategic considerations to which this work testifies!
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