A Chacun Son Boche:
The Allied Push On Berlin, 1917
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first fourteen chapters of this series we followed the events leading from the capture of vital German military papers in 1914 to the folding of the Second Reich in 1917; the Versailles- Geneva peace treaty that ended the First World War; the Spanish flu epidemic that wiped out much of the human race in the first months after the war was over; the establishment of the League of Nations and Woodrow Wilson’s failed attempts to get the United States into the League; the American shift towards isolationism during the 1920s; the start of the Great Depression; the rise to power of fascist regimes in Germany and Italy; the resurgence of Communism in 1930s Russia; the start of World War II; the Soviet campaign in Poland in the spring and summer of 1939; the Allied landings in mainland Italy; the fall of Mussolini; Field Marshal Montgomery’s campaign to liberate Austria; the start of the final breakdown of US-Japanese relations following Japan’s invasion of mainland China; the Allied breakout on the Rhine in the spring of 1940; the birth of the Polish Home Army of Liberation; the Allied push on Berlin and final collapse of the Third Reich; the escalation of the Home Army’s guerrilla war against Soviet occupation forces in Poland; the last urgent diplomatic efforts to avert open war between the United States and Japan; the Munich war crimes trials; the outbreak of war between the United States and Japan in the summer of 1941; the destruction of Japan’s main carrier fleet at Midway; the final collapse of Anglo-Soviet diplomatic relations; and the outbreak of war between Britain and the Soviet Union in August of 1942. In this segment we’ll review the circumstances surrounding the entry of the United States into the war in Europe.
November 7th, 1942 marked the 25th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, and as such it ought to have been a festive occasion for the Communist regime in Russia. But instead, the prevailing mood in Moscow’s Red Square was a somber one; the anti-Soviet guerrilla war in Poland was continuing to drag on despite the Red Army occupation force’s best efforts to crush it, and on top of that the campaign in Germany had stalled in its tracks as Anglo-French resistance to the Soviet invasion of that country stiffened. Stalin’s menacing visage looked even grimmer than usual as he watched the endless parades of men and vehicles stream past the Kremlin-- not only were the Polish partisans and the Anglo-French coalition sharply disrupting Moscow’s timetable for completing the conquest of continental Europe, but the Soviet embassy in Washington was sending him ominous warnings that the United States might not stay out of the fighting in Europe much longer.
So for that matter was the United States itself. Secretary of State Cordell Hull had visited London three weeks before the Battle of Leipzig for a conference with top British military and diplomatic officials, and in his final communiqué Hull made it clear the White House would remain aloof from the Allied-Soviet conflict forever. In a similar vein Roosevelt’s chief of naval operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, directed the U.S. Atlantic fleet’s carrier division to hold a series of readiness exercises off the Iceland coast as a not-so- subtle hint to Stalin’s admirals about what they could expect should they engage U.S. naval power in the North Atlantic. Army Air Corps chief of staff General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold made several visits to London and Paris to meet with senior British and French air force officials to make arrangements for Army Air Corps bomber groups to use bases in Great Britain and France from which to mount attacks on Soviet military facilities in occupied Europe.
One American commander who was particularly eager to take on the Red Army was armored warfare specialist General George S. Patton. An old-fashioned “blood and guts” type of field commander, the Virginia Military Institute and West Point alumnus itched to put the cream of the U.S. Army’s tank corps against the elite of the Red Army’s armor divisions on the battlefield at the first possible opportunity; his superiors back in Washington, mindful of the flaws that still had to be worked out in the U.S. Army’s heavy and medium tanks, were a bit more cautious on that score. The last thing they wanted was for U.S. armor in Europe to get prematurely committed to a set-piece battle against the world’s most formidable tank force without some sort of assurance of a genuine chance to survive that confrontation.
Patton’s first taste of the hostilities in Europe came in mid- September of 1942 when he was dispatched by the War Department as part of an observer delegation of American senior military officers to get a first-hand look at how the Allied campaign to drive the Red Army out of Germany was going. While he was speaking with a French infantry colonel, a Soviet Lavochkin fighter plane swooped down for a strafing run against the Allied lines; in a case of characteristic Patton bravado, the general whipped out two pearl-handled revolvers and opened fire on the Soviet aircraft. Word of the incident spread quickly on both sides of the German border, and the legend of Patton kept growing from there.
By the time America finally made its official declaration of war against the Soviet Union, some segments of the Allied press were talking about Patton as if he could crush the Red Army singlehanded. And there were some within the halls of the Kremlin who feared these tall tales might all too easily prove to be true; accordingly, NKVD boss Lavrenti Beria ordered a “black ops” squad assembled and sent into Allied territory to eliminate the general before he could truly threaten Soviet strategic plans for Germany. The assassins’ mission was doomed to failure before it started-- not just due to Patton’s skill with firearms, but also because an OSS mole within Beria’s own headquarters tipped Washington off to the impending hit. When the would-be killers arrived at Patton’s headquarters, they were greeted by a platoon of regular Army MPs and a half-dozen OSS agents toting submachine guns. When Stalin learned of the assassination attempt’s failure he exploded in white-hot rage; he would have had Beria shot for this failure had it not been for Beria’s political adeptness and Stalin’s own need for Beria to keep the NKVD running.
As it was, relations between Stalin and Beria became almost as chilly and barren as the Siberian wasteland to which they often exiled their political opponents. They seldom spoke directly to one another after the Patton assassination conspiracy fiasco, and when they did speak it was usually in clipped, hostile tones that one of Stalin’s surviving aides would later say reminded him of “two dogs getting ready to fight for a scrap of meat”. To this day there are persistent rumors Beria intended to engineer a coup against Stalin once the war ended. Beria himself, in a posthumous biography which was published in the early 1960s, hinted he had bribed several key Red Army generals to back him up in the event that a power struggle broke out inside the Kremlin walls.
If Beria did have plans to oust Stalin, they were effectively squelched by events in Europe and the United States between December of 1942 and March of 1943. One such event was the mysterious death of Red Army general Ivan Chernyakovsky, a key field commander in the Soviet campaign against Germany. On January 12th, 1943 Chernyakovsky was killed when his plane exploded somewhere over northern Poland as he was flying to Moscow for a meeting with Stalin; the official line from the Kremlin was that the aircraft had been sabotaged by Polish terrorists, but no proof of any such sabotage was ever produced, and the Polish resistance for its own part asserted the explosion had in fact been the work of the NKVD. During the late 1950s, still another theory about the explosion would be proposed when a joint U.S.-U.K.- Russian inquiry into Chernyakhovsky’s death turned up evidence the plane might simply have fallen apart due to poor maintenance. There have even been suggestions by a certain UFO buff-- largely dismissed as improbable fantasy by respectable historians --that the plane was blown up by an energy weapon from an extraterrestrial spacecraft.
In any case, Chernyakhovsky’s demise effectively removed one of the few credible leaders of any possible uprising against Stalin. The charismatic Chernyakhovsky, one of the youngest field commanders in the Red Army’s history and the son of a Ukrainian railway worker, had been tabbed years ago by Western intelligence analysts as one of the most likely men to head a post-Communist Russian government; his passing left opposition to Stalin within the Red Army essentially in a state of limbo during the next twelve months of the war.
Another major event that derailed potential plans for a revolt against Stalin was, ironically, a statement issued at the end of the February 1943 Allied summit in Miami which had in fact been meant to encourage such a rebellion. At the summit’s final press conference, President Franklin Roosevelt was asked what the Allied policy would be regarding the conditions for peace; Roosevelt, thinking it would inspire Russian anti-Stalinists to begin a guerrilla war against the tyrant, said that the Allies would not quit fighting until the USSR had unconditionally surrendered. Instead, his words reinforced long- standing fears among certain elements of the Soviet population that what the Allies sought wasn’t an end to Stalin’s tyranny but rather the outright destruction of Russia itself. Stalin himself, not one to let a propaganda opportunity go to waste if he could help it, was quick to pounce on Roosevelt’s comments as proof of what he falsely asserted was a U.S.-organized Western genocide campaign against the Soviet people.
The ironic truth behind the impending showdown between Stalin and Roosevelt was that the United States was entering the European war not to commit genocide but to stop it. Before the Third Reich collapsed in June of 1940 the White House had been gathering data from U.S. intelligence agents in Europe suggesting the Nazis’ anti- Jewish policies were beginning to shift from merely discriminating against them and imprisoning them in ghettos to slaughtering them outright in mass numbers; now those same agents were sending word back to Washington that Stalin and his inner circle had taken keen interest in salvaging those mothballed blueprints for mass execution of Jews and adapting them to serve the new purpose of liquidating the Kremlin’s perceived enemies. Considering the horrendous acts of brutality Stalin had already perpetrated against his own people, FDR had no doubt Stalin was capable of doing far, far worse things when he put his mind to it.
But the idea of mechanized wholesale murder of entire ethnic groups or social classes was unprecedented in human history. The old British propaganda myths from World War I of German troops allegedly boiling and eating Belgian infants paled in comparison to the horrid reality of the death camps Stalin and Beria intended to build within the borders of the Soviet Union itself and in Soviet-occupied parts of eastern Europe. Beria, never hesitant about murdering individuals when it suited his purposes, certainly had no reservations regarding the consignment of thousands of people deemed “enemies of the state” to gas chambers or crematoria.
The American soldiers beginning to arrive in Britain in April of 1943 weren’t as yet aware of the extent of Stalin’s planned class genocide. However, they were all too familiar with his reputation as a brutal tyrant and were itching to get into action against him at the earliest possible moment; the general sentiment among these new arrivals was crystallized by a comment made by a Brooklyn-born G.I. who told a newsreel correspondent, “If we don’t fight that mug over in Europe we’ll be fighting ‘im on Broadway.” This kind of attitude was particularly evident among Americans of Polish descent, who felt very keenly the agony of the oppression Soviet occupation forces had inflicted and were still inflicting on Poland.
By the time the first American combat troops arrived in Great Britain, the Red Army’s battle plans for conquering Germany had been knocked hopelessly off schedule. When the first Soviet divisions had cross the Polish-German border in the summer of 1942 Stalin had been confident that by Christmas the Red Army would be in control of all of Germany-- or at the very minimum a sufficiently large portion of it to compel Britain and France to come to the negotiating table to bargain with the Kremlin for an end to hostilities. Instead, much to the displeasure of both Stalin and his generals, the Red Army ground forces in Germany seemed to be stuck in quicksand and the French and British armies continued to fight on. As if that weren’t enough of a headache for the Kremlin to face, the Polish resistance was keeping up its guerrilla war against Soviet occupation forces in Poland and in some parts of the country even escalating it-- scarcely 36 hours after the first American troop transports reached the British coast, a party of anti-Communist insurgents sacrificed themselves to wreck the Red Air Force’s principle fighter base near Warsaw in a suicide bomb attack that killed 50 Soviet servicemen and wrecked more than a hundred planes.
Any glimmer of hope the Kremlin might have still cherished of keeping the United States from making a significant difference to the Allied cause would be dashed on May 17th, 1943 when a flight of U.S. Army Air Corps bombers took off from airfields in Germany and France to raid Soviet military installations in western Poland in the first major American air attack in Europe of the Second World War. The leading standard-bearer for the capitalist world and the dominant power of the Communist world were about to crash into one another head-on, and both sides would assuredly feel the impact of the collision...
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To Be Continued