The year was 1945. After six long years of war, the Allied Powers managed to force Nazi Germany to surrender, at the cost of millions of lives. In Europe, the biggest war in human history had finally come to an end. Now it was left to those great powers — the United States, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union — to decide on a way to bring peace to the ruined continent.
At least, that was the goal on paper. In reality, the Allies were hardly unified. Suspicions ran deep between the Western Allies and their Soviet counterparts. In particular, Winston Churchill, the old warhorse who managed to see his country through its darkest hour, saw the Soviet conquests in East Europe as a threat. In particular, he felt pained about the fate of Poland. After all, it was treaty obligations to Poland that dragged Great Britain into the war with Germany to begin with. Six years later, the country was under Soviet control, and Churchill was aware of just how tyrannical his Soviet allies truly were, even if the public’s sentiments toward the Communist power were warm due to their help in stomping out the Nazi threat.
So, mere days after Germany’s official surrender, Churchill asked his War Cabinet to draw up strictly hypothetical plans for an attack on Soviet military positions in East Europe. This plan, which would have effectively began World War III before World War II even ended, was appropriately dubbed Operation Unthinkable.
Operation Unthinkable version one: the offensive plan
The initial version of Operation Unthinkable that the War Cabinet drew up called for 103 Allied divisions — 64 American, 35 British, 4 Polish, and 10 German — to attack Soviet forces on a front stretching from Hamburg, Germany to Trieste in Italy, a distance of almost 800 miles. The German divisions would be rearmed from among captured German POWs. These forces included 23 armored divisions and would be supported by 6714 fighters and 2464 bombers. Roughly speaking, the Allies could muster 3 million men to the effort. Naturally all of these would not be devoted to the attack, but even allowing for forces to be left behind for occupational and defensive purposes, it was a considerable number of troops mustered to the attack.
It was a number dwarfed by the Soviets, though. In the German theatre alone, the Soviet Union had 6.5 million troops, including 36 armored divisions. In total, the Soviets had 11 million troops.
Numbers alone are useful in war, but more useful is the quality of troops in the army. And the Soviet troops were hardened after brutal fighting against the Nazis on the Eastern Front. Nazi Germany showed their Soviet enemies no mercy because they believed Slavic peoples, including Russians, were subhuman. Add to that the fact that the Russians were Bolsheviks, a group the Nazis definitely did not hold in high regard, and you had a recipe for brutality on a scale the world had never seen before nor since. On top of that, the Soviet leadership had no real concern for human life. The men and women who survived the meat grinder that was the Eastern Front and marched on Germany were not people to be fought lightly. The Soviets took no issue with sustaining mass casualties, and would fight with a reckless abandon that the Allied forces couldn’t match.
All these factors together led the War Cabinet to deem such an offensive a fools errand. The odds of success were long, at best. Part of the reason Churchill proposed the bold plan was due to his knowledge of the American atomic weapons test. He envisioned using the bombs to bring Moscow to heel. But assuming that America had the stomach for continued war in Europe, and that they would bring their secret weapon to bear against a former ally, was more than a bit fanciful. The war with Japan had not yet ended, and how the Soviet Union might act against the Japanese Empire was still up in the air. The American leadership would not likely go for a war with its ally while another tangible enemy was still fighting.
If the British Empire was going to fight against the Soviets, they would basically be in it by themselves. Once Churchill saw his War Cabinet’s assessment, he asked for another analysis, still dubbed Operation Unthinkable due to its purely hypothetical nature, of Britain’s prospects in a defensive war against the Soviet Union.
Operation Unthinkable version two: the defensive plan
The next version of Operation Unthinkable assumed that the Americans would withdraw their forces to the Pacific. This would give the Soviet Union free reign to advance over the remainder of Europe. Essentially, this would put Great Britain in the same position it was against Nazi Germany; a lone island, with a huge enemy separated from it by a narrow strip of sea. Great Britain’s legendary navy would keep the Red Tide from sweeping across the Channel, and her air force could have kept back the Soviet air forces much as it had the German onslaught during the Battle of Britain.
But 1945 was not 1940, and technology had changed drastically over the course of the war. The Nazis had developed the infamous V-1 and V-2 rockets during the latter years of the war, which they employed in limited numbers against English cities. The Soviets had seized that technology, and the planners had no doubt they would use it in their hypothetical attack against the British Isles. The scale would be much larger, an onslaught that the British military could not stop.
Seeds of the Cold War
Once Churchill saw the dismal odds of both scenarios, Churchill ordered the Operation Unthinkable file closed. It would not be unearthed again until 1998, when the documents were discovered in a public archive.
However, that was not the end of the story. Despite attempts at secrecy, the Stalin (he show up a lot around here) got wind of Churchill’s plans. Hypothetical though they may be, the paranoid dictator saw them as another in a long list of grievances against him by the Allies. Operation Unthinkable planted another seed that would soon sprout into the Cold War, a conflict that would define the latter half of the 20th century.
The Associated Press. “Report: Brits mulled war against Soviets after WWII.” The Hour. October 9, 1998. pg A7 Retrieved from: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1916&dat=19981009&id=zg1JAAAAIBAJ&sjid=cwUNAAAAIBAJ&pg=5748,1090904
Hastings, Max. “Operation unthinkable: How Churchill wanted to recruit defeated Nazi troops and drive Russia out of Eastern Europe.” Dailymail.co.uk. August 26, 2009. The Daily Mail. Accessed on: February 13, 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1209041/Operation-unthinkable-How-Churchill-wanted-recruit-defeated-Nazi-troops-drive-Russia-Eastern-Europe.html
Simha, Rakesh Krishnan. “Operation Unthinkable: Churchill’s Plan to Start WWIII.” indrus.in. June 13, 2013. Russia & India Report. Accessed on: February 13, 2014. Retrieved from: http://indrus.in/blogs/2013/06/13/operation_unthinkable_churchills_plan_to_start_world_war_iii_26091.html