Category Archives: cold war

Churchill Defiant by Barbara Leaming

The perceived wisdom regarding Winston Churchill seems to be that after leading Britain to victory, in 1945 his Conservative party was rejected by an electorate who put their trust in Attlee‘s Labour party to build a home fit for heroes. What is very rarely mentioned is that Churchill in fact served on as leader of the opposition, and somehow became Prime Minister again between 1951 and 1955.

Churchill was by no means a party politician, having already defected from the Conservatives to the Liberals and then back again during his career. During the war he concentrated almost completely on fighting the war, leaving domestic affairs to a number of Labour politicians. Whilst this was no doubt wise for the war effort, it marginalised Churchill’s appeal when it came to post-war politics.

The consensus amonst Conservative figures after 1945 was that Churchill would shuffle off into retirment, and hand over the his long-awaiting successor, Anthony Eden. But with his usual childlike stubborness, Churchill somehow managed to cling onto leadership of the party, even during a time when his now well-known depression was raging, and whilst he was engaged with writing his eponymous history of the Second Word War. Churchill routinely handed over more mundane party leadership duties to Eden, Salisbury and Butler.

It seems that Churchill really did miss the cut-and-thrust of international diplomacy more than anything else. Apart from pride, his greatest desire in clinging to power seems to have been to finish off where he left off in 1945: with a grand three-power summit with the US and the Soviet Union, in order to end the Cold War. This was a rather simplistic way of viewing things. Britain no longer had a place at the top table of world affairs, even if US leadership of the western world – in particular that of Eisenhower – left much to be desired. But is it right to keep a political career running merely in the name of placing a full stop?

Its amazing to read of just obstinate Churchill was in continually brushing off demands for his retirement. His colleagues were of course in an impossible position. Churchill was undoubtedly faltering and a shadow of his former self, but how to retire a war hero and national treasure? His cabinet colleagues, his family, doctor, staff, US president and politicians and even the royal establishment tried countless times to convince him to retire, without success. Even a number of serious strokes could not keep Churchill down. Evidence, if any was needed, that although his faculties were failing, the famous Bulldog spirit still remained. All the same, we have to be glad that whatever we think of them, modern Prime Ministers tend to be somewhat fitter and are not so difficult to ‘retire’.

I wanted to like this book. But, sadly, the manner in which it is based on what are loosely described as ‘conversations’ with conservative party figures makes it hard for me to think of it as a work of History. The paucity of references is disappointing. Barbara Leaming is a political biographer, whose most notable work was a life of President Kennedy. An American, she also has a background in writing articles for The Times, Vanity Fair and the New York Times Magazine. It does feel very much like a work of journalism, and would no doubt make a great serialisation in American media, who are probably more fascinated by Churchill than even we are. It is, none the less, an interesting glimpse at British politics, and Churchill the man.

Churchill Defiant is published by Harper Collins

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The Third World War – North German plain or Fulda Gap?

In reading about the possible land battles that might have ensued in a Third World War in Europe, I’ve found an interesting parallel with the Schlieffen Plan of 1914 and the Manstein Plan of 1940.

General Sir John Hackett, in his book The Third World War, predicted that the main Warsaw Pact thrust would come through the North German Plain. A strong Soviet thrust from northern East Germany would have fell upon NATO’s Northern Army Group, cut off Denmark and effectively sealed the Baltic. There were also fewer natural obstacles in the area, and an advance in the north would have allowed the Warsaw Pact to avoid more difficult terrain in the south and also outflank US forces in central and southern Germany. NATO forces would have been hamstrung by a need to defend as much German territory as possible, but would almost inevitably have had to fall back to soak up the Soviet advance. A strong advance along the North Sea Coast might have cut occupied Holland and possibly threatened channel ports such as Rotterdam and Antwerp. This would in turn have threatened NATO lines of communications, especially for Britain.

An attack along the North German Plain to outflank NATO forces in Europe would have been very similar to both the Schlieffen Plan in terms of a northern advance through easier territory, but also the Manstein Plan in terms of outflanking a Maginot line like obstacle. It also shows a more British-like thinking, with a policy of attacking the point of least resistance. Remember also that in September 1944 Montgomery wanted to attack the North German Plain, only in the opposite direction.

US strategists, on the other hand, seem to have focussed on the Fulda Gap, a low-lying and open plain between the East German border and Frankfurt. A thrust through the Fulda Gap would have been in the centre of the front-line of Cold War Europe. An attack near Fulda would have met the bulk of the US Army in Germany head on, and given that the US provided most of the forces in the theatre a defeat there would have been catastrophic to the rest of NATO. A Fulda Gap operation would have been more in line with US military thinking, namely a strong frontal attack against the bulk of the enemy’s forces.

Both options, however, would have been hampered by pressing concerns on the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. Given the numerical weakness of the NATO armies, it was assumed that the US would use nuclear weapons on targets in Poland and East Germany to disrupt reinforcements reaching the front-line. Therefore the Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces would need to reach as far as possible as quickly as possible before this might happen. Some Soviet exercises, such as Seven Days to the Rhine, assumed that the Rhine would be the limit of the advance before the communist forces were forced to halt.

Its an interesting dilemma indeed. Thinking as a Soviet General in the 1980’s, I must admit the North German Plain looks inviting. Less natural obstacles, weaker opposition, the possibility of cutting off Denmark and the Baltic and reaching the North Sea and Channel Coast quicker, isolating the British Army of the Rhine and outflanking the bulk of US in Europe would have been pretty appealing. But then maybe thats too predictable? On the other hand, it does seem that NATO thinking – always led by an American, remember – saw the Fulda Gap as the most likely route, followed by the North German plain.

I’m sure its a scenario that war game enthusiasts have played out many a time…

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‘The Third World War': History and its effect on Defence Policy

I’ve just finished reading a quite remarkable book by General Sir John Hackett (he of Arnhem fame, who commanded by Grandad’s Parachute Brigade there). Known as the finest Soldier-Scholar of his age, and with a wealth of degrees to his name, Hackett put part of his retirement to imagining the circumstances, strategy and tactics of a Third Word war in the mid-1980’s world. Not only did this far-sighted book look at military, but also social and geopolitical factors. Also, Hackett showed a rare intelligence and fair-mindedness when commenting on Air Force and Naval issues.

Whilst it is ever so slightly in the realms of ‘what-if’ – something of a bane for historians – it is a very educated ‘what-if’. But something that was fairly concrete, was British Defence Policy from around 1947-ish until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Everyone knew that the main threat emanated from Soviet Russia and the Warsaw pact, and the only discourse among the armed forces and politicians was about how exactly to face up to this threat. Certainly, there were disagreements – such as the RAF altering maps to support its claim that it could provide air cover for the Navy anywhere in the world – but on the whole, the arguments were about the how, not the what.

It also harks back to a time when British Defence policy had a firm anchor – ie, the Cold War. The Government was under no illusions as to the major commitments facing the British armed forces – the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact as the likely opponents, with a large army based in Northern Germany, an anti-submarine based Navy, and a constant nuclear deterrent. Lesser commitments included Northern Ireland and defence of an ever-decreasing number of possessions abroad. But, largely, these commitments were known, and planned for accordingly.

Since the collapse of communism, defence policy has, to an extent, been in a vacuum. And given that the British Army’s role in Northern Ireland has effectively wound down since the Good Friday agreement, defence policy has been at even more of a loose end. British Forces have been involved in conflicts – principally in intervention, peacekeeping and nation-building – in the Gulf, in the former Yugoslavia, in Sierra Leonne, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The British Army in particular has built up quite an experience base of wars-among-the-people, originating in Northern Ireland. Indeed, others – such as the US – have often wondered if the UK has ‘gone soft’ when it comes to traditional warfighting.

Its an often quoted phrase that armed forces plan to fight the last war. This might be over-exaggerating things – in some cases, such as in the Second World War, officers like Monty were at pains to fight their wars to avoid the errors of their predecessors in the Great War. But in the same sense, the last conflict does inevitably have a huge bearing, in one way or another, on the planning for the next one. It could also be said, that in a strategic vacuum where no threat is perceived, then senior officers are liable to plan for the kind of war that they would like to fight – witness the British Army after 1918 going back to its Imperial policing roots, or the modern RAF with its Cold War-like stance over fighter jets.

So, where do we find ourselves now? In the short to medium future, it would be hard to argue that the UK faces the threat of a state-on-state war. The large countries that might pose a threat in the long-term – China and Russia, for example – might produce bluff and bluster with the west occasionally, but this is a long way from all-out war. The over-riding threats do seem to be asymetric – in terms of extremist terrorists, or perhaps in terms of failed states that might implode and require intervention – Yemen, or possibly even Pakistan for example.

And, in the present economic climate, where funding is likely to be tight for the forseable future, it will be impossible to be completely prepared for any eventuality – the funds simply do not allow it. It is a case of priorities, and – in a world where it is hard to assess threats and priorities – the most prudent course of action would seem to be to retain a capability to adapt at short to medium notice as threats emerge. But, also, it is fair to ask ourselves, are we holding onto capabilities and assets simply because we’re not sure what to do with them, or because they would have been useful in the last war?

The example of the pre-war mechanisation of the Cavalry is a case in point. The First World War should have made it clear to all and sundry that the tank was going to be a force in wars of the future. Yet after 1918 the Cavalry clung onto their horses well into the 1930’s – largely for sentimental reasons, or through a fear of change itself. Therefore the British Army of 1939 found itself far behind Nazi Germany when it came to armoured warfare. There were undoubtedly officers in the Army who would gladly have kept their horses, and would have seen British soldiers galloping off to war against the Panzers. Britain only formed its Airborne Forces in 1940 – long after Russia, Germany, or indeed Poland – because the Army as a whole looked on special forces as ‘not cricket’.

Are – and I am asking myself the question here, as much as anyone else – main battle tanks and fast fighter jets relics of the Cold War, much as the horse was a relic of Nineteenth Century British Army? Its perhaps not a perfect comparison – after all, I would not advocate completely scrapping all Challengers or Eurofighters – but maybe retaining a core element, expandable in times of crisis, would be more sensible? These are the kind of tough but searching questions that should be asked.

I guess the lesson from history is, you never have the luxury of picking what war you get to fight, nor of picking exactly how you want to fight it – unless you start it, of course. But when threats are not apparent, you should leave yourself able to respond as quickly as possible. And you do this by not over-commiting yourself in any one direction.

But to do that, we would need politicians who firstly won’t let the Treasury hold them hostage, and secondly, senior officers who can think holistically about UK Defence rather than their own service and their own places in the history books…

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Talking to Rudolf Hess by Desmond Zwar

This really is quite some book. In fact, its a book about two other books!

Desmond Zwar, an Australian journalist living in London, was sent by a downmarket Aussie Newspaper on the trail of an English artist who, aparenly, painted ‘nudes on horseback’. Although the equestrian nudes turned out to be an urban myth, it did however transpire that the artist in question was employed by the British Government to paint proceedings at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial. Zwar’s fascination with Nuremberg led the artist to put him in touch with an old friend, Colonel Burton Andrus of the US Army, who had been the Governor of Nuremberg Prison at the time of the trials. Andrus had kept numerous documents of his time at Nuremberg, and Zwar and Andrus collaborated to write The Infamous of Nuremberg.

From there, the natural path by Zwar was to write about Spandau Prison, where the leading Nazi figures who had not been executed at Nuremberg were taken. By the mid-1960’s the only occupant of Spandau was Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy who had flown to England in a bizarre attempt to negotiate for peace. Spandau was managed by the US, Soviet Union, UK and France in a bizarre arrangement throughout the Cold War, whereby each country would control the prison for three months each year. Spandau was almost certainly the only place in the world where quadripartite co-operation continued on such a basis for so long.

Zwar made contact with Eugene K. Bird, the US Governor of Spandau for three months each year. After some persuasion Bird was convinced to secretly interview Hess, with a view to a book. For several years Bird carried out the painstaking task of visiting Hess and recording his thoughts about his life, the Nazi regime, the War and all manner of subjects. Hess himself even gave his consent for the project. After several years Bird’s superiors in the US authorities in Berlin learnt of his actions and shipped him back to he US, in effect ending his career.

Bird was interrogated at length by the CIA, and both he and Zwar were lent on severely to try and forestall the publishing of the book. After much intimidation and legal wrangling the ‘establishment’ consented to the book, after making a token protest for the benefit of the Soviets. Bird’s actions had been a breach of the quadripartite agreement over the running of Spandau, and were a severe embarassment to the US Government. Finally, however, The Loneliest Man in the World was published.

On first impressions, a book written about the process of writing two other books might not be the most interesting. But when we consider that the books in question are about the Nuremberg Trials and Rudolf Hess in Spandau prison, this book takes on a whole new meaning. Sneaking in and out of Spandau to interview Hess reads like something out a spy novel, and Bird and Zwar’s encounters with the CIA afterwards could have come straight out of a Robert Harris thriller.

I enjoyed this book immensely. Not only does it chart some pivotal events in history, it is also a very entertaining read. I virtually read it from cover to cover.

Talking to Rudolf Hess is published by The History Press

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UK-US Spy agreement revealed

The National Archives have today released into the public domain the text of a landmark agreement between the British and American intelligence communities. Agreed shortly after the end of the Second World War, the pact led to the sharing of information during the Cold War, an arrangement that is still in place today.

During the Second World War ad-hoc arrangements were in place regarding the sharing of intelligence, such as ULTRA intercepts. In March 1946 the UKUSA Agreement was signed. In later years the Agreement was extended to include Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The agreement has long been known about, but this is the first time that its existence has been acknowleged by either Government, and the first time that its exact has been released. The release follows separate Freedom of Information requests on both sides of the Atlantic.

Alongside documents relating to the agreement itself, the National Archives have also released examples of the kind of information that was shared. The newly-available documents are likely to be a gold-mine for Historians of Stalinist Russia. Intercepts shed light on private conversations and correspondence between Soviet citizens, military personnel, Party officials and religious leaders between 1946 and 1949.

The bulk of the intercepts focus on military issues, and give an important sense of the Soviet build up during the early years of the Cold War. There are reports of a “stormy meeting” taking place and one person says, ominously: “of the Moscow representatives nothing remains but a wet spot”. A Soviet Major says he can be “patient no longer”, as his son, who had been “foully killed”, was yet to receive justice. The war-readiness of the population is illustrated by an intercept which picks up a mother saying: “I am afraid of leaving the kids here. What about a war, all of a sudden?”

Intercepts also gleaned information about Political repression behind the Iron Curtain. Folksongs were banned on the grounds that they were “inartistic and trivial”. Songs such as “Why do you destroy me, you foolish woman”, were popular with the peasantry but not the authorities and were forbidden. The Kazakh Communist Party reported its local crime statistics to Moscow, crimes which included ‘anti-party activities’, ‘concealment of social origin’ and ‘desertion from the Soviet army’.

Reports also gave information about ordinary everyday life in Soviet Russia. Measures were taken to prevent infected grain reaching the food chain, and there were also reports of food shortages, diseases and plagues. One file reports a “widespread sickness” among all kinds of animals and reports that “vets are unable to cope”.

Stalin himself also featured in reports. In 1948 Patriarch Alexis, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, said that special prayers and singing will take place in all of Moscow’s churches for the “preservation and long-life of our state and its leader”. The files also contain personal messages addressed to Stalin.

During the immediate post-war period Russia was facing the dual challenges of reconstruction after the war and cementing her status as a world superpower. Reports described various problems in Agriculture, Industry and the Economy, for example. Agricultural workers in Kamchatka complain to Comrade Molotov that they have failed to receive living accommodation, cattle, seeds and fodder, four years after their resettlement in the region. The unsatisfactory progress being made at a gas construction site is blamed on “hooliganism” and low morale.

Given that these documents refer only to a three year period, hopefully in the future we can look forward to the release of a mass of material on Soviet Russia during the Cold War. This should shed a whole new light on our understanding of the Cold War.

To find out more about the Agreement and the Documents, click here

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Solent Overlord Show 2010

Scimitar light tank

I spent a couple of hours earlier at the Solent Overlord Military Show 2010 at the Horndean Showground.

Organised by the Solent Overlord Executive, a group of military vehicle enthusiasts, this annual show brings together hundreds of military vehicles from the Second World War to the modern era – plenty of WW2 jeeps, half-tracks (includking a German one), several guns, a host of Land Rovers, Bren Gun Carrier, a Scimitar light tank, and an FV432 Armoured Personnel Carrier. There was even a Rapier Unit to provide anti-aircraft cover!

Rapier 2000 anti-air missiles

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It obviously takes real dedication to own and run a classic military vehicle. Obviously something like a WW2 military jeep is going to be harder to maintain than a Ford Focus. But there is usually something pretty redoubtable about a Jeep or a Land Rover. Military vehicle enthusiasts are a dedicated bunch. The only comment I would make, is that too few vehicles had any kind of information. I suppose I come from a museum background, but when I eventually get my Land Rover I will set up display boards about it, its history, the equipment, markings, and such like.

They might seem a bit nerdy but these kinds of shows are certainly popular, especially with the kids. And you can always see people huddled around vehicles, inspecting each others work and swapping notes. Throw in a host of military surplus stalls to rummage over, a beer tent and arena events and you’ve got a pretty good day out. And whats more, any surplus income from the show goes towards a suitable military charity, this year the Gurkha Welfare Fund.

Have a look at my flickr album of pics here – let me know if you can help identify any of the vehicles, or if I have made any mistakes!

56th (London) Division Jeep

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Katyn 1940 by Eugenia Maresch

Far too many horrific and tragic events took place between 1939 and 1945. One of the saddest ironiest of the recent death of the Polish President, First Lady and many prominent Poles in an air crash was that they were on their way to take part in a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre of thousands of Polish Officers by the Soviets in 1940. Its a timely reminder that massacres long ago have very strong resonance in the present day.

This book by Eugenia Marsch is a forensic and exacting attempt to describe the way in which the west – and the British Government in particular – did not, for whatever reason, hold the Soviets to account for what they perpetrated at Katyn. During the war and for many years afterwards the Soviets insisted that the killings must have been carried out by the Germans – after all, the Nazis did have a track record for mass killings. It was only during the 1980’s, and with Glasnost and Perestroika, that the Russians finally admitted to the atrocity.

The first section describes in crystal clear detail how the mass graves at Katyn were discovered. In particular its interesting to read about how the Germans were keen to involve a team of Polish doctors an official from the Polish Red Cross – why would they be so open to invite the Poles to the scene if they were guilty of the killings? And in terms of the forensic and criminological evidence, it is almost beyond doubt that Katyn was perpetrated by the NKVD in the spring of 1940.

The western Governments were faced with something of a dilemma. From evidence, it seems that they were in little doubt that the Russians were responsible – but as they were in a wartime alliance with Soviet Russia, Britain and the US were stuck between a rock and a hard place. They were under no illusions that Stalin was a deeply unpleasant character, but the priority was to defeat Germany, and the bulk of the fighting was being undertaken by the Russians on the Eastern Front. When Winston Churchill was chided by one MP for making a complimentary speech about Stalin, he replied, ‘If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least one complimentary reference to the devil in Parliament’, and I think that sums up the dilemma perfectly.

Of course, as a matter of principle the Western Governments should have pursued the perpetrators in the strongest possible manner. But Governments have to act in the reality of the situation, and the Soviets were of course going to deny their part in Katyn for years. And until several years after 1945, it was in no-ones interests to inflame tensions with the Russians. The war had to be won, and after that, thousands – probably many of them Poles – may have died if the west had confronted them. I guess the Katyn issue is not unlike that of Auschwitz – the Allies knew what was going on there, and of course its easy to think that they should have done something. But the Allies really couldn’t achieve that level of accuracy with their bombing – as seen in the Butt report.

It was only with the onset of the Cold War that the west was able to confront the Katyn issue – in particular a US Congressional committee did much to highlight the affair to the US and the world at large. Even though the Soviets continued to deny it, Historians all but confirmed that the Katyn massacre was carried out by the NKVD.

This is a fine book, and I found it incredibly gripping reading – I have always found Polish history interesting. It is very heavy reading at times – the author includes in full a lot of contemporary documents, and I suspect that the text has been translated from Polish to English. I would like to have seen more engagement with other historians work, as many other writers have looked at Katyn over the years, and it is better to engage within a disourse than to ignore it.

What of the authors argument, that the British Government was hypocritical? Whilst it is impossible not to grasp the strength of feeling, it is hard to see what exactly the diplomats, civil servants and politicians could have done. Sadly though, Britain did not have a great track record of standing up for Poles during the war as seen by the Sosabowski affair after Arnhem. We might wonder how objective it is, in that it was written by a Pole. I think it is about as balanced as we could expect. But Katyn is an important part of the Polish psyche, and that is exactly why what happened there in 1940 should never be forgotten.

Katyn 1940 is published by The History Press

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