Operation Unthinkable

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Podcast Transcript

In the days immediately following the surrender of Germany in May 1945, new concerns gripped the victorious Allied forces. 

The alliance had always been one of convenience. Diametrically opposing political and economic systems joined forces to defeat a common foe. 

But now that the foe had been vanquished, what was next? Would the former allies now become enemies? 

Learn more about Operation Unthinkable and the plans for how the Allies would fight each other in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

There is an old adage that says, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

There is probably no better example of this than the Allied powers in World War II. 

Prior to 1941, the Soviet Union was not at all friendly with the capitalist countries of the West. They had a belief in a worldwide communist revolution, and at the top of their list were countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. 

That isn’t to say that the Soviets were fond of Nazi Germany either—Stalin and the Soviet press and plenty of bad things to say about Hitler and the Nazis too. 

However, Stalin did end up signing a treaty with Hitler in 1939, which resulted in the invasions of Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Besarabia, aka Moldova. 

When the Axis powers signed the Tripartite Treaty, the Soviets wanted to join the alliance. 

In April 1941, the Soviets signed a non-aggression pact with the Japanese, largely as a gesture of goodwill towards the Germans.

It wasn’t until June 22, 1941, with the start of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, when Hitler reneged on his deal with Stalin, that the Soviets suddenly found themselves in need of new allies. 

Just a few weeks later, on July 12, 1941, the British and the Soviets signed the Anglo-Soviet Agreement. The agreement was pretty simple. All it said was that they would work with each other to defeat Hilter and that neither side would seek a separate peace. 

The United States had been providing limited support to the Soviets through the Lend-Lease program in 1941, which increased dramatically once the United States entered the war. 

Throughout the duration of the war, and so long as the Nazis were a threat, the Alliance held up, but it was always an alliance of convenience. At the end of the day, the members of the Alliance weren’t friends so much as frenemies.

Once the war in Europe ended in May 1945, the glue holding the alliance together was gone.  

The mistrust between the countries that had been put aside for the defeat of a common enemy was now, once again, front and center. 

The threat now, in the eyes of the West, had gone from Nazi domination of Europe to Soviet domination of Europe. In pursuit of the German army, the Soviets literally passed through and occupied almost all of Eastern Europe and much of Germany. 

Much of Europe found themselves in the same place they were before, occupied by a foreign power, just a different foreign power. 

Some within the hierarchy of American and British governments felt that they were going to eventually end up going to war with the Soviets for the same reason they went to war with Germany. 

One of the top Americans who wanted to go to war with the Soviets was none other than General George Patton, the commander of the 3rd Army group. 

“??We promised the Europeans freedom. It would be worse than dishonorable not to see they have it. This might mean war with the Russians, but what of it? They have no Air Force anymore. Their gasoline and ammunition supplies are low. I’ve seen their miserable supply trains, mostly wagons drawn by beaten-up old hoses or oxen. I’ll say this; the Third Army, alone with very little help and with damned few casualties, could lick what is left of the Russians in six weeks. You mark my words. Don’t ever forget them. Someday, we will have to fight them, and it will take six years and cost us six million lives.”

One other high-ranking official who was at least sympathetic to Patton’s viewpoint was none other than Winston Churchill. 

Churchill worked with Stalin, but he never trusted Satlin. He trusted Stalin far less than Franklin Roosevelt did. 

He felt that now Hitler had been defeated, Stalin was going to threaten Europe, having already occupied half the continent in the pursuit of the Germans.

Moreover, the Americans were now turning their attention to Japan to conclude the war in the Pacific. They would entail removing forces from Europe and sending them to Asia. 

The Soviets, however, who had honored their non-ggression treaty with Japan throughout the entire war, had done nothing to assist in the war in Asia by May of 1945, even though they had promised they would.

In response to what he saw as a looming threat, immediately after the surrender of Germany, he asked the British Chiefs of Staff Committee to come up with a contingency plan in the case of war with the Soviet Union. 

A plan was quickly developed and by early June it was presented to Churchill.  There were two different contingencies that were presented. The first was in the event of an attack by the Soviets, and the second was a preemptory attack on the Soviets by a combined American and British force. 

The plan was given the codename Operation Unthinkable.

There were several assumptions that the document had, which may or may not have been true. The assumptions laid out in the document were as follows:

  1. The undertaking has the full support of public opinion in the British Empire and the United States and consequently, the morale of British and American troops continues high.
  2. Great Britain and the United States have full assistance from the Polish armed forces and can count upon the use of German manpower and what remains of German industrial capacity.
  3. No credit is taken for assistance from the forces of the other Western Powers, although any bases in their territory, or other facilities which may be required, are made available
  4. Russia allies herself with Japan.
  5. The date for the opening of hostilities is 1st July, 1945.

One of the odd things that happened is right after this document was released and given to Churchill internally, Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the head of the Soviet army, ordered all Soviet forces in Poland to regroup and prepare for defensive operations. 

Many people think that this was early evidence of Soviet spies in the British intelligence service, a group that later became known as the Cambridge Five. 

Needless to say (spoiler), this never happened.  Britain had an election on July 5, and on July 26, when the ballots were finally counted, Churchill was soundly defeated and removed as Prime minister. The new government, formed by Labor Party leader Clement Attlee, ignored the plan and never considered it. 

The Americans, beyond a few people like Patton, had absolutely no desire for another war on top of the one they had just fought. In fact, Patton’s views were so far removed from what the American leadership thought that he was ultimately removed as the head of the 3rd Army and transferred to command the 15th Army, which was nothing more than a group of historians who were compiling a history of the war. 

From a strictly historical standpoint, this is where the story ends. There were forces who considered or wanted to go to war with the Soviets immediately after the conclusion of the Second World War, and they never did. 

Instead, the world fell into a Cold War that lasted for decades. 

…But, ever since the end of the war and the plans for Operation Unthinkable were made public, military historians have wondered what exactly would have happened. 

So, for the rest of this episode, I’m going to do something I don’t usually do and engage in speculation. Speculation based on data from the summer of 1945, but speculation nonetheless. 

Whenever you speculate about historical events that never happened, there is no way to be proven wrong or right. 

In fact, if you search for Operation Unthinkable, most of what you find is speculation. There have been entire games made around the premise of Operation Unthinkable. 

So, with that massive caveat, here is what I think would have happened if the events surrounding Operation Unthinkable had actually happened. Under this scenario, it almost doesn’t matter who attacked who first, outside of public support. 

If the Soviets had attacked American or British forces, it would have bolstered support on the homefront in the same way that Pearl Harbor did. It would have been getting stabbed in the back by an ally.

If the British and Americans had struck first, there would probably have been much less support for the conflict. 

Also, we have no idea if history would have considered this to be World War III or just a continuation of World War II. Let’s call it World War 2.5.

At the beginning of the conflict, the Soviets would have had a massive advantage. At the time, the Americans and British had a combined 80 infantry divisions in Western Europe, and the Soviets had 228. 

The situation with armor wasn’t much better. The Americans and British had 23 armored divisions, and the Soviets had 36. Moreover, Soviet tanks at the time were considered superior to American and British tanks.

The Soviets even had an advantage in fighter aircraft with 11,802 planes to the American and British 6,048.

The only area where the Americans and British had an advantage was in strategic bombers. They had 2,750 compared to only 960 by the Soviets. 

So, in the first days and weeks of such a conflict, it would be entirely likely that the Soviets would have overwhelmed the Americans and the British.

However, there are a couple of wildcards to consider. The first is what France would have done? 

If the Soviets had attacked first and driven American and British forces back, they probably would have been forced to join with the Allies. 

France, along with Belgium and the Netherlands, had been overrun by the Germans quickly at the start of the war, and they had few men who took part in the conflict as front-line soldiers.  They would have been fresh sources of manpower who could be equipped relatively quickly to defend their homelands. 

Also, the Western Allies had 400,000 German prisoners of war who could be mobilized to fight the Soviets. Likewise, it is possible that Italian troops could have been mobilized as well. 

Even the military planners who put together Operation Unthinkable assumed that the early days of such a conflict wouldn’t go well for the Allies. 

However, after the initial success of the Soviets on the ground, everything would have been working against them. 

For starters, their supply lines had gotten extremely thin. The distance from their industrial facilities to the front line had gotten long, and as Patton noted, they had been reduced to using horses for transportation. 

Logistically, their supply lines and fuel dumps would have been easy targets for American and British bombers. 

They also had very little in reserve. For the Soviets, the war was a fight for survival. They threw everything they had at the Germans, and their forces were largely spent. 

By Stalin’s own admission, their economy was hanging on by a thread, and they were largely dependent on Lend Lease shipment, which would have abruptly stopped. 

The Soviets had no navy to speak of, and the American and British navies were the largest in the world. They would have been able to control the Black and Baltic Seas and control all shipping in and out of the Soviet Union. 

If the Americans could have opened up a second front in Asia, it also would have caused huge problems for the Soviets. They put all of their effort into the Germans and mostly abandoned the East.

If the Allies had established bases in Finland, which the Fins would have been more than happy to do, they would have had the range to bomb Moscow and other industrial facilities in the heart of Russia. 

Then there is also the issue of the atomic bomb, which, in 1945, only the Americans had. We have no idea how it might have been used and how the war with Japan would have been resolved, but it certainly would have been a factor.

The biggest thing would have been industrial might. The American industrial heartland still would have been unreachable, and they would have been able to produce tanks, ships, and planes at a pace the Soviets couldn’t match. 

Thankfully, all this speculation doesn’t really matter because the war never happened. 

After the worst war in human history, the last thing anyone wanted to start was another world war.