Britain and France had gone to war with Germany over the independence of Poland in 1939. They had not been able to offer much material support at the time. Now that Poland had been ‘liberated’ by Soviet forces the situation was barely any better in many peoples eyes. The realisation was growing that it was not just Poland that was now under Stalin’s control but all of eastern Europe.
On the 4th May 1945 Winston Churchill wrote to his Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, as he began to grasp the the full implications of the realpolitic on the ground:
I fear terrible things have happened during the Russian advance through Germany to the Elbe. The proposed withdrawal of the United States Army to the occupational lines which were arranged … would mean a tide of Russian domination sweeping forward 120 miles on a front of 200 or 400 miles.
This would be an event which, if it occurred, would be one of the most melancholy in history. After it was over and the territory occupied by the Russians, Poland would be completely engulfed and buried deep in Russian-occupied lands…
The Russian frontier would run from the North Cape in Norway … across the Baltic to a point just east of Lubeck … half-way across [Austria] to the Izonzo river behind which Tito and Russia will claim everything to the east. Thus the territories under Russian control would include the Baltic Provinces, all of Germany to the occupa- tional line, all Czechoslovakia, a large part of Austria, the whole of Yugoslavia, Hungary, Roumania, Bulgaria, until Greece in her present tottering condition is reached…
This constitutes an event in the history of Europe to which there has been no parallel….All these matters can only be settled before the United States Armies in Europe are weakened … It is to this early and speedy showdown and settle- ment with Russia that we must now turn our hopes. Meanwhile I am against weakening our claim against Russia on behalf of Poland in any way.
The British Army very rapidly got a taste of what the future held. Despite all the propaganda pictures of Allied soldiers embracing their opposite number in the Red Army, from the very beginning there was an uneasy relationship between the two sides. Denis Edwards recalls one episode from the 3rd-4th May that spoke volumes about the nature of their Soviet ‘ally’:
There, on 3 May, 1945, at Bad Kleinen, midway between Wismar and Schwerin, on the banks of a river that linked the Baltic Sea with the great inland lake of Schwerin, and not many days’ march from the Polish border, the victorious British and Russian armies met.
For us it was the end of a 280-mile advance across northern Germany that had begun on 24 March with the Airborne landing at Hamminkeln. We had been marching almost flat out day and night for what seemed like an eternity. Now we were camped on the western bank of the river, looking across at our Russian comrades-in-arms camped on the opposite side. They crossed over a wide bridge in considerable numbers from their side of the river and invited us to drink vodka with them; whatever else may have been in short supply they appeared to have an almost unlimited amount of their favourite tipple.
They obviously used their visit to have a good look round our tented camp, for when darkness fell a large band of them paid us another visit, this time uninvited.
They entered our main supply tent and, at gunpoint, tied up the Quartermaster and his staff and made off to their side of the river with most of our rations! When the theft was discovered we immediately placed an armed guard at our end of the bridge and refused to allow any more Russians to cross to our side.
They did likewise. This may well have been one of the first acts of what was to be called the ‘cold war’ and which was to endure for half a century thereafter.
The morning after their raid on our supplies one of the lads from the Quarter- master’s staff thought that he recognized one of the Russians who had been in their raiding party. A group of us crossed the bridge and were met at the other side by a Russian officer. We assumed that he was an officer as he wore some kind of uniform, while most of the others, Mongol types from their appearance, were dressed like peasants in scruffy smocks.
As best we could, by sign language, we pointed out the man who we believed had been a member of the gang who had stolen our food. The Russian seemed to understand what we meant; he nodded, then turned and strode across to the suspect that we had indicated. We assumed that he was going to question him, or bring him over to us for positive identification. Instead, he drew a revolver from its holster, put the barrel against the man’s mouth and fired, blowing off half of his head. We were horrified as he returned to us, grinning from ear to ear, and indicating that, while the man may have stolen our food, he would certainly not be eating any more of it!