February 19, 2015

Finest Hour 162, Spring 2014

Page 49

By David Freeman

Operation Unthinkable: The Third World War. British Plans to Attack the Soviet Empire 1945, by Jonathan Walker. History Press, 192 pages, $27.95, Kindle edition $13.99, member price $22.35.

As the Second World War in Europe wound down in the spring of 1945, Prime -Minister Churchill became deeply concerned by reports he received about the disappearance of Polish leaders and members of the Polish resistance under Soviet occupation. Grimly aware that defending Polish independence had been Britain’s stated purpose for declaring war in 1939, Churchill commissioned the Chiefs of Staff in April 1945 to draw up a most desperate scheme. The Chiefs of Staff duly commissioned a detailed plan from the Joint Planning Staff (JPS), which reported in May. Since no successful test of an atomic weapon had yet taken place, the operation outlined a large-scale conventional war that would attempt to secure a Polish nation free from Soviet control.

2024 International Churchill Conference

Join us for the 41st International Churchill Conference. London | October 2024

Although once a close-guarded secret, Britain’s plans for a possible war with the Soviet Union,  “Operation Unthinkable,” were long ago declassified. Jonathan Walker, though, is the first historian to give the subject a thorough going over, relating as he does the origins, details of and ultimate fate of the plan.

The Joint Planning Staff report began with several key assumptions, starting with the belief that the undertaking would have “the full support of public opinion in both the British Empire and the United States.” Obviously, there was no chance of this, and the plan was never even shown to the Americans.

Apart from political realities, logistics also made the plan unviable. Any preparations for an attack would have been immediately apparent to Soviet forces in eastern Germany. No surprise could be achieved, and in any case the Red Army had a vast numerical advantage over British and American military units.

“Our view,” the Chiefs of Staff informed Churchill, “is that once hostilities begin, it would be beyond our power to win a quick but limited success and we should be committed to a protracted war against heavy odds.” The Prime Minister replied: “By retaining the code name UNTHINKABLE, the Staffs will realize that this remains a precautionary study of what, I hope, is still a purely hypothetical contingency.”

Poland could not be saved by force of arms, and Churchill—as he invariably did on such matters—heeded the advice of his Chiefs of Staff. But Churchill had not forgotten the Poles and perceived every possibility to help them ought at least to be explored.

Professor Freeman teaches history at California State University Fullerton and is associate editor of Finest Hour and editor of the Chartwell Bulletin.

A tribute, join us




Get the Churchill Bulletin delivered to your inbox once a month.