New Forest East

'COLD WAR HISTORY' – February 2005

'COLD WAR HISTORY' – February 2005

By Irina Isakova – Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute

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

The second edition of this book, written by the Shadow Defence Minister (Conservative Party), contains a wealth of new declassified British documents. In the introduction, the reader's attention will be inevitably drawn to the report on Operation “Unthinkable” of 1945, which reveals the interaction between intelligence, strategic assessments and decision-making. Churchill had called for an examination “from military point of view the possibility of driving” the USSR back within its prewar boundaries before Britain and the US demobilized their forces. The hypothetical hostilities would have included “the use of German manpower and what remains of German industrial capacity”. In response, the Chiefs of Staff concluded that if the UK initiated an attack against the USSR, it would likely commit the UK “to a protracted war against heavy odds”. Churchill then asked the military to address how a Soviet attack against Britain could be repulsed.

This analysis is essential in covering the gaps in the history of the Cold War, since it shows the influence of one's own capability assessments and importance of interpretation of the “other side's” intentions for policy planning. Proceeding from its ideological premise on the inevitability of a clash with the West, the Kremlin on its part assumed that Western military plans most likely included a possibility of war. Churchill's Fulton speech (1946) was taken in the USSR as a declaration of open hostility. Moscow had its own plans and vision of the post-war world and was also engaged in military development.

As well as paying attention to the importance of British-American relations for future defence collaboration, the author also explores the early ideas about the creation of a military association of nations in Europe, which were in fact the shoots of the future NATO. In addition, there are new documents on the biological warfare programme in 1944. These clearly put an end to the assertions that Churchill had urged the use of biological warfare against Germany in 1944. The author convincingly proves that British biological weapons were meant for retaliation only.

The Second World War was still under way, and planning for post-war strategic defence had an uneasy start. Julian Lewis shows that, though reluctant in the beginning, by 1947 the Chiefs of Staff managed to develop an approved defence strategy for the UK. The author takes us through all stages of post-hostilities planning, developing this main line of the book chapter by chapter from 1942 to 1947.

“The supreme goal of British policy” was to prevent war while resolutely defending British interests. Julian Lewis puts forward a set of arguments explaining the UK logic in defence planning. On the basis of assessment of the capabilities of potential enemies in 10-15 years' time (as part of forward strategic planning) the conclusion was drawn that “the Soviet Union was the only serious potential enemy” to the UK. Possible Soviet aggression and use of absolute weapons was to be “forestalled only by the threat of retaliation”. Among the options debated was the use of atomic and biological bombs against Soviet territory. In their report “Future Defence Policy” of May 1947 (the book's Appendix 7) the Chiefs of Staff stated that “to achieve victory or avoid defeat, it may be essential for us (UK) to use weapons of mass destruction”.

The book brings us not only to an understanding of how indispensable military-strategic planning was for the UK in the 1940s, but also to a realisation of how equally important it is in our present times. Changing Direction will be of interest to both specialists and general readers curious about this subject.

* * * *