Friday 6 June 2014

Second Front

The Allied landings in Normandy 70 years ago were the product of many months of training, practicing, and strategizing, but what a lot of people don't know is that they were the product of years of political pressure from the USSR to open a second front. Such requests started as far back as 1941. Here are fragments of a letter from Stalin to Churchill dated July 18th, less than a month into the war:

"...I think that the position of both the Soviet Union and Great Britain will improve with a second front against Hitler in the West (north France) and the North (Arctic). A front in France will not only pull away forces from the East, but will prevent an invasion of England. Such a front will be met with agreement from both the British Army and the population of England. I can imagine the difficulty of such a front, but despite them, it should be created for the benefit of our joint affairs and England herself. It is easiest to form such a front now, when Hitler's forces are distracted in the East and he has not yet had time to fortify newly occupied positions.

A front in the North is even easier. Only air and sea forces will be needed, without a landing of infantry or artillery. You will be supported by Soviet land, sea, and air forces. We would welcome a light British division or Norwegian volunteers in northern Norway in order to incite a rebellion against Hitler."
RGASPI 558-11-255

Churchill does not agree.

 RGASPI 558-11-255

Churchill is quite light on the promises. A ship and maybe a fighter squadron. No second front is coming in 1941.

Nevertheless, Stalin tries again in September.

"...The Germans consider threats from the West a bluff, and continue to transfer their forces Eastward unpunished, convinced that there is no front in the West, and never will be. 
I think there is only one way out of this situation: the opening of a second front in the Balkans or in France, capable of pulling 30-40 German divisions from the East, simultaneously providing the USSR with 30,000 tons of aluminium, by the start of October and a minimum monthly aid of 400 planes and 500 tanks (small or medium). 

Without these two types of aid, the USSR will either face defeat or will be weakened to the point of inability to provide aid to its allies in the fight with Hitlerism."
 RGASPI 558-11-255

Churchill replies by telegram (sadly, no original):

"There is no possibility of British action in the West (aside from by air) that would pull the German forces from the East before winter. Equally, there is no possibility of a second front in the Balkans without help from Turkey...Action can lead only to an expensive fiasco, which will aid only Hitler.
We are prepared to send you half of what you request monthly, with the hope that the United States will cover the other half.
...We will gladly pressure Finland within our power, including immediate notification that we will declare war if they pass their old borders. We will ask the USA to take all possible steps to influence Finland.
September 5th, 1941."
RGASPI 558-11-255

Skip ahead a year, to August of 1942, and a scathing memorandum.

"As a result of an exchange of opinions in Moscow on August 12th of this year, I have established that the Prime Minister of Great Britain considers the second front in Europe impossible for 1942. As you are aware, the arrangement for a second front was made in 1942 when Molotov visited London, and reflected in an Anglo-Soviet communique, published on June 12th of this year.

It is also known that this front in Europe would divert the Germans from the Eastern Front to the West. A serious resistance to the fascists would ease the load on the Soviet-German front in 1942.
It is understood that Soviet command planned its summer and fall movements with the assumption that a second front would open in the summer of 1942. It is easy to see that the refusal of the Great British government delivers a hit to the morale of Soviet society, who hoped to see a second front, makes the position of the Red Army more difficult, and risks plans of the Soviet High Command.

I do not have to tell you that the difficult for the Red Army created by this refusal will not doubt negatively impact the position of England and all other Allies.

My colleagues and I are of the opinion that conditions in 1942 are favourable for the creation of a second front in Europe, as nearly all German forces, including their best forces, are distracted in the East, leaving an insignificant amount of poor soldiers in Europe. It is unknown if 1943 will be similarly favourable, which is why we consider 1942 to be the perfect opportunity for a second front. Sadly, I was unable to convince the Prime Minister of this, and Mister Harriman, the representative of the President of the United States, agreed with mister Prime Minister.

I. Stalin. 
August 13th, 1942."
RGASPI 558-11-257

1943 does not promise much more for a second front either. If anything, it's the opposite.

"From the above, I can tell that missions scheduled for February in Tunis are now delayed until April. I do not need to say how undesirable this is. At this time, when the Soviet armies are still capable of a wide offensive, Anglo-American activity in North Africa is most necessary. Pushing Hitler from our front and from Tunis will benefit us both, and accelerate your planned operations in Sicily and the Eastern Mediterranean. 

As for a European front, specifically in France, that is scheduled by you for August-September. I think that the current situation demands bringing these deadlines closer in order to open the Western front as early as possible. It is important to not delay an offensive until the second half of the year and let the enemy recuperate, but strike in spring, or in early summer. 

According to reliable sources, since December (when Anglo-American forces stopped for some reason) transferred 27 divisions to the Soviet-German front, including 5 tank divisions. As a result, instead of helping the Soviet Union by drawing forces away from its front, you helped Hitler, who could reinforce his armies due to the weakening of the Anglo-American operations in Tunis.
V. Molotov
February 16th, 1943"
RGASPI 558-11-365

RGASPI 558-11-262

A little more accomplishments on the Allied side this time, but the result is still the same: no second front, and no "results before the end of the year that will give you substantial relief and satisfaction".

Relief and satisfaction finally come in 1944.

 RGASPI 558-11-267

No posturing, no empty promises, no flowery language. Just one brief paragraph, but a paragraph that meant more to the Red Army than endless stacks of paper.

In response, Molotov sends a telegram to the embassy.

"I received a personal letter from Kerr containing a message from Churchill to comrade Stalin, dated June 5th. This letter described the Allied captured of Rome and battles in Italy. The same letter revealed that the Allies will begin Operation Overlord on June 6th.

Send Churchill the following message from comrade Stalin through Iden.

Secret and personal from the Premier I.V. Stalin to the Prime Minister Churchill

I received your message regarding Operation Overlord. It cheers us up and makes us confident of further success. 

The Soviet summer offensive, agreed upon at the Tehran conference, begins in mid-June on one of the important sections of the front. An overall offensive will be performed by sequentially moving armies to attack. I promise to keep you informed of offensives.  June 6th, 1944."
RGASPI 558-11-267

Stalin is, of course, talking about Operation Bagration, occurring simultaneously with Operation Overlord. This operation involved about the same number of soldiers, and ended in a crushing defeat of Army Group Center, pushing the Germans out of the Baltic, Belarus, and parts of Poland.

Kerr responds.

RGASPI 558-11-267

This map also shows up, unlikely to reveal anything new and shocking, but included for completeness.

On June 10th, there are updates on the situation.

 RGASPI 558-11-267

Molotov was quite happy that the situation developed well.

"I received your letter from June 10th. I thank you for your message. I see your assault was completely successful. My colleagues and myself must admit that there is nothing in the history of wars that comes close in scale, wide scope, and masterful execution. It is well known that Napoleon failed to cross La Manche. The hysterical Hitler, who boasted for two years that he would cross it, never even gathered the courage to make an attempt. Only our allies managed to complete their grandiose plan of a landing across La Manche. History will remember this as an accomplishment of the highest order.
June 11th, 1944"
 RGASPI 558-11-267

Mentions of the situation in Normandy pop up in further correspondence.

 RGASPI 558-11-267


  1. The only reason the western allies bothered invading Italy is to prevent the Italian communists from seizing power after the fall of Mussolini.

    Overlord was motivated by the fear they would find the Red Army at the English channel.

    They had hoped that the Nazi's and the Russians would fight until they where both expended but like Hitler Churchill and Roosevelt they badly underestimated the Russians.

    "The outstanding fact [that] has to be noted is the recent phenomenal development of the heretofore latent Russian military and economic strength – a development which seems certain to prove epochal in its bearing on future politico-military international relationships, and which is yet to reach the full scope attainable with Russian resources." (FRUS, The Conferences at Malta and Yalta, 1945, pp. 107-8.)

    From the US state department.

  2. "Such requests started as far back as 1941. Here are fragments of a letter from Stalin to Churchill dated July 18th, less than a month into the war"

    July 1941 was 19 months into the war, which began in September 1939, when the USSR was in a co-operative pact with Nazi Germany.

    1. Obviously, the Great Patriotic War is being counted here.

      To be fair to the Soviets, they did send out some feelers to the UK and France, not only Germany. UK and France were less than warm.