Churchill stiffens British resolve

German troops were apparently welcomed in some parts of Belgium

In London Lord Ismay had become Churchill’s military assistant and staff officer. He noted in his diary the effects of Churchill taking command:

The change in leadership may have given rise to a few misgivings in Whitehall. There is a type of senior official, both civil and military, who get more and more set in their ways as they ascend the ladder of promotion. These able, upright, worthy men do not like the even tenor of their lives disturbed, and resent dynamic ministerial control. This is precisely what they were likely to suffer at Churchill’s hands.

But whatever misgivings there were in Whitehall, the nation as a whole acclaimed his leadership with enthusiasm. Almost overnight the British public took him to their hearts. Here was a man who they understood and who understood them; a man who would not be content with merely warding off the enemy’s blows, but would ‘give it them back’ with all the power at his command.

See The Memoirs of General Lord Ismay.

Churchill’s made energetic attempts to bolster the French resistance, but was dismayed by their defeatism. Meanwhile the Germans continued to press on in Belgium.

Belgian prisoners of war
German troops examine a Belgian tank

Across Belgium the British Expeditionary Force was still trying to fall back in some order:

From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :

Friday 17th May

Coy H. Q. in stables in racecourse grounds. Did not get back from conference till 2 a.m. and stood to at 3.30 a.m. so not very much sleep. Battalion position on main road round race course. “B” Coy on left near railway and roundabout, “C”in centre, “D” on right, “A” Coy round southern end of racecourse. Started to withdraw about 8.30 a.m. in order C, B, D, A, C.O. arrested 2 suspected parachutists who marched with “B” Coy and were later released at Loth.

Worst and most tiring march so far, only about 12 miles actually, but everybody feeling the effect of the last few days. Heavy enemy bombing Loth area, had to wait outside town about half an hour. Crossed canal held by Gds and S.H’s. slept in field two or three hours and ate haversack ration. About 4 p.m marched off about one mile and embussed. Very crowded in transport had to take round about way by side roads to avoid aircraft. Were machine gunned and bombed.

Got cut off from and lost remainder of convoy in one village. After that took a wrong turning. Caught up Battalion on main road after couple of hours. Had “C” Company behind us. Bought bottle of home made beer from driver in R.A.S.C. wearing L. Scottish rosettes on shoulder. Arrived Lessines 9 p.m. Dark and drizzling. Battalion billeted for night in main street, good billets in very comfortable shop and houses. Slept very comfortably for about 5 hours.

Coy and Self – 13 miles.

[Entry No.8, for the first entry see 10th May 1940]

See TNA WO 217/15

Churchill offers "Blood, toil, tears and sweat"

German tanks in forest
German armour was making a surprise advance through the Ardenne Forest that would outflank Allied forces that had moved forward into Belgium.

Events in France were now unfolding very rapidly. The German ‘Blitzkrieg’ was making dramatic progress, unnerving the French government and many in the senior military command. Winston Churchill would make six visits to France during the following weeks, attempting to find a way to help the French keep fighting. There was a danger that those at home would be equally unnerved by the seemingly invincible Wehrmacht.

 

 

Churchill, on his third day as Prime Minister, addressed the House of Commons for the first time as war leader:

To form an Administration of this scale and complexity is a serious undertaking in itself, but it must be remembered that we are in the preliminary stage of one of the greatest battles in history, that we are in action at many points in Norway and in Holland, that we have to be prepared in the Mediterranean, that the air battle is continuous and that many preparations, … have to be made here at home.

In this crisis I hope I may be pardoned if I do not address the House at any length today. I hope at any of my friends and colleagues, or former colleagues, who are affected by the political reconstruction, all make allowance, all allowance, for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act. I would say the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.

You ask, what is our policy? I will say: it is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us: to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.

Let that be realized; no survival for the British Empire; no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”

German troops on road in belgium 1940
German troops continue to march forward into Belgium while disarmed Prisoners of War are sent to the rear

Meanwhile in Belgium some of the British Army had reached their allotted positions and were preparing their defences:

From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :

Monday 13th May.

We spent today digging and made very good progress all round. The position was a good one on the forward slopes of a ridge over the River Lasne. The ground on this side of the river was not so good, being thickly wooded and obscuring the obstacle. 12 Pl [Platoon] were on right, P.S.M. Fleming, Peter 10 Pl. , and P.S.M. Kerr 11 Pl on left. A certain amount of enemy bombing and machine-gunning. Enemy bombing of Ottenburg which we could see from our position. Great difficulty in getting some of the Belgians to evacuate: this was finally done. Spent another night in the woods without any discomfort. Coy. nil marching. Self 4 miles.

Entry No.4, for the first entry see 10th May 1940.

See TNA WO 217/15

 

Hitler attacks in the West

Aerial view of Rotterdam bombed, May 1940
Aerial view of Rotterdam bombed, May 10th 1940

Hitler had launched Fall Gelb, Operation Yellow in the early hours of the 10th. His order to the German armed forces declared:

The hour has come for the decisive battle for the future of the German nation. For three hundred years the rulers of England and France have made it their aim to prevent any real consolidation of Europe and above all to keep Germany weak and helpless. With this your hour has come. The fight which begins today will decide the destiny of the German people for a thousand years. Now do your duty.

Continue reading “Hitler attacks in the West”

End of the War in Europe – ‘VE Day’

Women and children attending a VE-Day street party in front of an air raid shelter in Kilton Street, Battersea, London SW11. Sitting at the piano, wearing the union flag apron, is the organiser, Mrs Maynard: (for identification of other individuals featured, see correspondence).
Women and children attending a VE-Day street party in front of an air raid shelter in Kilton Street, Battersea, London SW11 .
Happy crowds of soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians in front of the American Red Cross Rainbow Corner after the announcement of the surrender.
Happy crowds of soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians in front of the American Red Cross Rainbow Corner after the announcement of the surrender.

The partying had begun in London and across Britain on the evening of the 7th. More organised celebrations were to follow on the two Public Holidays of the 8th and 9th. Yet there were many families who did not feel like celebrating, Vi Bottomley was a twenty four year old war widow in Liverpool:

When I heard they’d surrendered I just started to cry and I couldn’t stop. I don’t know what was the matter with me. I should have been happy, but I was crying my eyes out. I kept thinking of Jack [her husband]. He was killed on D Day. I never knew quite what happened to him, only that he was dead. And I kept thinking, what a waste, what a waste. He was such a lovely man, always laughing and joking. He worked in the docks and needn’t have gone in the Army at all, but no, he had to go and do his bit. And for what? He’d never even seen the baby, his baby, sleeping upstairs.

This account appear in Barry Turner: Countdown to Victory: The Final European Campaigns of World War II.

The nation united for the two live radio broadcasts of the day, Winston Churchill speaking in the afternoon and the King speaking in the evening. The two men were the focus of attention for the crowds in London throughout the day.

Harold Nicholson, MP, listened to Churchill’s address over loudspeakers outside Parliament:

As Big Ben struck three, there was an extraordinary hush over the assembled multitude, and then came Winston’s voice. He was short and effective, merely announcing that unconditional surrender had been signed, and naming the signatories. (When it came to Jodl, he said “Jodel”) ‘The evil-doers’, he intoned, ‘now lie prostrate before us.’ The crowd gasped at this phrase. ‘Advance Britannia!’ he shouted at the end, and there followed the Last Post and God Save the King which we all sang very loud indeed. And then cheer upon cheer.

The Prime Minister Winston Churchill at a BBC microphone about to broadcast to the nation on the afternoon of VE Day.
The Prime Minister Winston Churchill at a BBC microphone about to broadcast to the nation on the afternoon of VE Day.

Churchill then went to Parliament where after a short address he proposed that:

this House do now attend at the Church of St Margaret’s, Westminster, to give humble and reverend thanks to Almighty God for our deliverance from the threat of German domination

Harold Nicholson was amongst those who followed him there:

The service itself was very short and simple, and beautifully sung. Then the Chaplain to the Speaker read in a loud voice the names of those who had laid down their lives: ‘Ronald Cartland; Hubert Duggan; Victor Cazalet; John Macnamara; Robert Bernays’ – only the names of my particular friends registered on my consciousness. I was moved. The tears came into my eyes. Furtively I wiped them away. ‘Men are so emotional’, sniffed Nancy Astor, who was sitting next to me. Damn her.

See The Harold Nicolson Diaries 1907-1964.

Molly Panter Downes reported for the New Yorker:

Thousands of King George’s subjects wedged themselves in front of the Palace throughout the day, chanting ceaselessly ‘We want the King’ and cheering themselves hoarse when he and the Queen and their daughters appeared, but when the crowd saw Churchill, there was a deep, full-throated, almost reverent roar. He was at the head of the procession of Members of Parliament, walking back to the House of Commons from the traditional St Margaret’s Thanksgiving Service. Instantly, he was surrounded by people — people running, standing on tiptoe, holding up babies so that they could be told later that they had seen him.

See Molly Panter Downes: London War Notes.

HM King George VI and Queen Elizabeth with Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret joined by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, London on VE Day.
HM King George VI and Queen Elizabeth with Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret joined by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, London on VE Day.

Princess Elizabeth and her sister, Princess Margaret, appeared on the balcony during the early appearances of the King, but later decided they wanted to see more:

… my sister and I realised we couldn’t see what the crowds were enjoying… so we asked my parents if we could go out and see for ourselves… After crossing Green Park we stood outside and shouted, ‘We want the King’, and were successful in seeing my parents on the balcony, having cheated slightly because we sent a message into the house to say we were waiting outside. I think it was one of the most memorable nights of my life.

H.M. Queen Elizabeth speaking in 1985, see Royal British Legion

Two British sailors and their girlfriends wading in the fountains in Trafalgar Square on VE Day.
Two British sailors and their girlfriends wading in the fountains in Trafalgar Square on VE Day.
Women and children at a VE-Day street party in Stanhope Street, London NW1.
Women and children at a VE-Day street party in Stanhope Street, London NW1.

In the suburbs outside London Walter Musto had raised the Union Jack outside his house at 7am and put out bunting, although his family’s celebrations were relatively modest :

I look around my little house standing in its pleasant garden and in a mood of chastened contemplation regard the much that has been spared to me through the war years. In a surge of gratitude for this great dawning of peace over the earth I offer my thanks to God.

For this is VE Day announcing as complete the formal surrender of the enemy on all European fronts. The day for which so many like my splendid nephew Clifford and many more died, and without whom London itself might have joined Carthage.

It is a miraculous culmination to D Day for the success of which we then put our trust in Providence and the valiant efforts of our crusading legions.

I have the impression from a newsreel picture that our Prime Minister looks very tired. It is no small wonder. At 70 years of age to be still carrying with vigour the masterly direction of the Nation’s affairs in the greatest and most terrific events of its long history is nothing short of superhuman. As the managing director of the biggest firm in the world his services are beyond price. God bless and preserve him for a few quiet years of repose when at last his task is done. In the annals of the human race, no man so richly deserved immortality.

It is late evening. The King has spoken and, after a last stand to in reverent toast of my neighbour guests, I sit quietly to reflect on the day’s happenings. And so we slip with the ease of well conditioned gearing into normal running and the daily routines, secure from enemy disturbance and at night safe in our beds. Our private lives are once more our own. Yes, tomorrow I shall be glad to get back to the chores.

See The War and Uncle Walter.

For the modern German perspective on the end of the war Spiegel Online has a comprehensive media story, with much graphic footage.

Big Ben floodlit on VE Day.
Big Ben floodlit on VE Day.

The world waits for an ‘official announcement’

Eager soldiers pulling copies of "Stars and Stripes" from the press of the London Times at 9 pm on 7 May 1945, when an extra edition was put out to announce the news of Germany's surrender. The headline reads "Germany Quits".
Eager soldiers pulling copies of “Stars and Stripes” from the press of the London Times at 9 pm on 7 May 1945, when an extra edition was put out to announce the news of Germany’s surrender. The headline reads “Germany Quits”.
3.7-inch guns of 60th (City of London) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment fire a salvo to celebrate the Allied victory in Europe, 6 May 1945.
3.7-inch guns of 60th (City of London) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment fire a salvo to celebrate the Allied victory in Europe, May 1945.

Monday the seventh of May was a day of confusion across the time zones of the world, as word crept out that the Germans had surrendered in the early hours of the morning in France. Eisenhower had at first attempted to delay the official public announcement by putting an embargo on the eight news correspondents who attended the signing ceremony. The intention was that there would be simultaneous official announcements in Moscow, London and Washington.

‘Hard nosed wire service reporter’ Edward Kennedy of the Associated Press decided to risk the wrath of the military and telephoned his report to New York via London. The Associated Press report was soon being quoted widely on the radio. At first the Americans tried to deny it, with President Truman arguing that they should wait for ‘Uncle Joe’ – Stalin. However the word was out. Merchant Seaman Les Owen was in New York:

The local radio stations were agog with the news from Europe. Hourly bulletins told of the final stages of the great drama now being played out in Germany. The atmosphere of excitement was stoked up continually by reports from ‘men on the spot over there’. I leaned on the rail that evening, watching the towering dominoes of the New York skyline lit by a million lights. So the war was drawing to a close — at least in Europe.

The Mayor of New York Fiorello H. La Guardia did his best to put a lid on it:

I want all the people of the City of New York who have thoughtlessly left their jobs, to go home . . . Maybe there’s still some fighting going on. You don’t know and I don’t know . . . Let’s be patient for just a few more hours.

Winston Churchill was on soon the hotline to Washington arguing that:

What is the use of me and the President looking to be the only two people in the world who don’t know what is going on . . . It is an idiotic position.

An attempt was made to telegram Moscow but an hour later there had been no reply – and Churchill was back on the telephone to say he could delay no longer. The British would later put out the announcement:

British Ministry of Information announced that to-morrow, Tuesday, May 8, will be V.E. Day, and a holiday throughout England. The Prime Minister will make a statement at 3 p.m. The King will broadcast at 9 p.m., and Wednesday, May 9 will also be a holiday in England.

The west was now significantly out of step with the Soviets. In Moscow military aide and interpreter with British Military Mission, Hugh Lunghi later recalled:

On Monday May 7 we received the news that Eisenhower at his Reims headquarters had in the early hours of that morning accepted General Jodl’s total capitulation of all German armed forces with a cease-fire at midnight on May 8. A General Susloparov had signed the surrender document on behalf of the Soviet Command.

Again the Soviet media ignored the historic event.

Instead of congratulations, we received a curt communication addressed to the then Head of our Military Mission, Admiral Archer, copied to the United States Head of Mission General Deane, from the Soviet Chief of Staff, General Antonov. He demanded that what he called the ‘temporary protocol’ signed in Reims should be replaced by ‘an act of general unconditional surrender’ which would be drawn up and signed in Marshal Zhukov’s headquarters in Berlin on the following day, May 8.

Stalin, it was obvious, intended that the only ‘real’ surrender should be to a Soviet commander. Years later we learned from Soviet generals’ memoirs that Stalin had been furious that a Soviet representative had added his signature to the Reims surrender: ‘Who the hell is Susloparov? He is to be punished severely for daring to sign such a document without the Soviet government’s . . , permission.

These accounts appear in Barry Turner: Countdown to Victory: The Final European Campaigns of World War II.

A further surrender ceremony was now arranged in Berlin and the Soviet ‘VE Day’ was officially set for 9th May

Civilians ride on a Daimler armoured car of the 1st Royal Dragoons as it enters the town of Hadersleben in Denmark, 7 May 1945.
Civilians ride on a Daimler armoured car of the 1st Royal Dragoons as it enters the town of Hadersleben in Denmark, 7 May 1945.
Churchill with the Chiefs of Staff at a luncheon at 10 Downing Street, 7 May 1945. Seated are Sir Charles Portal; Sir Alan Brooke; Sir Andrew Cunningham. Standing are Major General L C Hollis (Secretary to the Chiefs of Staff Committee) and General Sir Hastings Ismay (Chief of Staff to the Minister of Defence)
Churchill with the Chiefs of Staff at a luncheon at 10 Downing Street, 7 May 1945. Seated are Sir Charles Portal; Sir Alan Brooke; Sir Andrew Cunningham. Standing are Major General L C Hollis (Secretary to the Chiefs of Staff Committee) and General Sir Hastings Ismay (Chief of Staff to the Minister of Defence)

Winston Churchill pays tribute to Franklin D. Roosevelt

President Franklin D Roosevelt signing the Declaration of War against Japan. He signed a similar declaration of war against Germany and Italy on 11 December 1941.
President Franklin D Roosevelt signing the Declaration of War against Japan. He signed a similar declaration of war against Germany and Italy on 11 December 1941.
Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt relax in the grounds of the White House in Washington DC prior to a daily meeting of the joint Chiefs of Staff from the United Kingdom and United States to discuss Allied war strategy.
Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt relax in the grounds of the White House in Washington DC prior to a daily meeting of the joint Chiefs of Staff from the United Kingdom and United States to discuss Allied war strategy.

On April 12th Eisenhower and the senior US Army commanders in Europe had been shocked by the horrors of Buchenwald. Late that night there was even more momentous news, their Commander in Chief, the United States President, Franklin D. Roosevelt had died. His long struggle with the disabling consequences of polio, which he had triumphed over for so many years, had finally come to an end.

At the beginning of the war, when Churchill had been appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, the US President had personally asked to be kept appraised of British Naval developments by him. So began the long and close liaison between the two men. When war broke out in 1939 few would have anticipated that less than a year later Churchill would be Prime Minister and leading the only free country in the whole of Europe.

The two men would communicate on more than 1700 occasions and spend 120 days together in conference as the great drama of the war unfolded. With Roosevelt at the helm America had been transformed: from under half a million men in uniform in 1940, by 1945 she had more than 12 million serving all around the globe, supported by an equally transformed military-industrial powerhouse that armed the free world,

In the House of Commons on 17th April Winston Churchill paid tribute to his fellow statesman and friend:

…I conceived an admiration for him as a statesman, a man of affairs, and a war leader. I felt the utmost confidence in his upright, inspiring character and outlook, and a personal regard and affection for him beyond my power to express today.

His love of his own country, his respect for its constitution, his power of gauging the tides and currents of its mobile public opinion, were always evident, but added to these were the beatings of that generous heart which was always stirred to anger and to action by spectacles of aggression and oppression by the strong against the weak. It is, indeed, a loss – a bitter loss to humanity – that those heart-beats are stilled for ever.

President Roosevelt’s physical affliction lay heavily upon him. It was a marvel that he bore up against it through all the many years of tumult and storm. Not one man in ten millions, stricken and crippled as he was, would have attempted to plunge into a life of physical and mental exertion and of hard, ceaseless political controversy. Not one in ten millions would have tried, not one in a generation would have succeeded, not only in entering this sphere, not only in acting vehemently in it, but in becoming indisputable master of the scene.

In this extraordinary effort of the spirit over the flesh, of will-power over physical infirmity, he was inspired and sustained by that noble woman his devoted wife, whose high ideals marched with his own, and to whom the deep and respectful sympathy of the House of Commons flows out today in all fullness.

There is no doubt that the President foresaw the great dangers closing in upon the prewar world with far more prescience than most well-informed people on either side of the Atlantic, and that he urged forward with all his power such precautionary military preparations as peace-time opinion in the United States could be brought to accept. There never was a moment’s doubt, as the quarrel opened, upon which side his sympathies lay.

The fall of France, and what seemed to most people outside this Island the impending destruction of Great Britain, were to him an agony although he never lost faith in us. They were an agony to him not only on account of Europe, but because of the serious perils to which the United States herself would have been exposed had we been overwhelmed or the survivors cast down under the German yoke.

As the saying goes, he died in harness, and we may well say in battle harness, like his soldiers, sailors, and airmen, who side by side with ours are carrying on their task to the end all over the world. What an enviable death was his!

He had brought his country through the worst of its perils and the heaviest of its toils. Victory had cast its sure and steady beam upon him. In the days of peace he had broadened and stabilised the foundations of American life and union. In war he had raised the strength, might and glory of the great Republic to a height never attained by any nation in history.

With her left hand she was leading the advance of the conquering Allied Armies into the heart of Germany, and with her right, on the other side of the globe, she was irresistibly and swiftly breaking up the power of Japan. And all the time ships, munitions, supplies and food of every kind were aiding on a gigantic scale her Allies, great and small, in the course of the long struggle.

For us, it remains only to say that in Franklin Roosevelt there died the greatest American friend we have ever known, and the greatest champion of freedom who has ever brought help and comfort from the new world to the old.

Read the whole speech at The Churchill Society.

President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill confer during a lunch break at the Livadia Palace during the Yalta Conference.
President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill confer during a lunch break at the Livadia Palace during the Yalta Conference.
'The Big Three': Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin sit for photographs during the Yalta Conference in February 1945.
‘The Big Three’: Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin sit for photographs during the Yalta Conference in February 1945.

Churchill … Polish – German border to be redrawn

Polish farmers killed by German forces in German-occupied Poland, 1943.
Poland had suffered terribly during the war, apart from the Holocaust in which around three million Polish Jews were murdered, nearly the same number of non Jewish Poles are believed to have been killed during the German occupation. Polish farmers killed by German forces in German-occupied Poland, 1943.
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising - Photo from Jürgen Stroop Report to Heinrich Himmler from May 1943. The original German caption reads: "These bandits resisted by force of arms". Picture taken at Nowolipie street looking East, near intersection with Smocza street. In the back one can see ghetto wall with a gate.
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – Photo from Jürgen Stroop Report to Heinrich Himmler from May 1943. The original German caption reads: “These bandits resisted by force of arms”.

In 1939 Britain had gone to war over the independence of Poland. She had then been unable to materially assist the Poles as first the Germans and then the Russians dismembered the country. Now the Soviet army occupied Poland and it began to look like Stalin was intent upon imposing his own, communist, regime.

On 27th February Churchill reported to Parliament about the results of the recent Yalta conference, when the division of Germany had been discussed amongst the ‘Big Three’. The division of Europe was a more contentious issue. In Parliament Churchill was putting a brave face on it.

In private he was having serious doubts about Stalins’s intentions. He conceded to his Private Secretary that Roumania and Bulgaria would be under communist domination, although he thought he had secured Greece’s independence in exchange. He told John Colville ” I have not the slightest intention of being cheated over Poland, not even if we go to the verge of war with Russia.”

The Crimea Conference finds the Allies more closely united than ever before, both in the military and in the political sphere.

Let Germany recognise that it is futile to hope for division among the Allies and that nothing can avert her utter defeat. Further resistance will only be the cause of needless suffering. The Allies are resolved that Germany shall be totally disarmed, that Nazism and militarism in Germany shall be destroyed, that war criminals shall be justly and swiftly punished, that all German industry capable of military production shall be eliminated or controlled, and that Germany shall make compensation in kind to the utmost of her ability for damage done to Allied Nations.

On the other hand, it is not the purpose of the Allies to destroy the people of Germany, or leave them without the necessary means of subsistence. Our policy is not revenge; it is to take such measures as may be necessary to secure the future peace and safety of the world. There will be a place one day for Germans in the comity of nations, but only when all traces of Nazism and militarism have been effectively and finally extirpated.

One must regard these 30 years or more of strife, turmoil and suffering in Europe as part of one story. I have lived through the whole story since 1911 when I was sent to the Admiralty to prepare the Fleet for an impending German war. In its main essentials it seems to me to be one story of a 30 years’ war, or more than a 30 years’ war, in which British, Russians, Americans and French have struggled to their utmost to resist German aggression at a cost most grievous to all of them, but to none more frightful than to the Russian people, whose country has twice been ravaged over vast areas and whose blood has been poured out in tens of millions of lives in a common cause now reaching final accomplishment.

There is a second reason which appeals to me apart from this sense of continuity which I personally feel. But for the prodigious exertions and sacrifices of Russia, Poland was doomed to utter destruction at the hands of the Germans. Not only Poland as a State and as a nation, but the Poles as a race were doomed by Hitler to be destroyed or reduced to a servile station.

Three and a half million Polish Jews are said to have been actually slaughtered. It is certain that enormous numbers have perished in one of the most horrifying acts of cruelty, probably the most horrifying act of cruelty, which has ever darkened the passage of man on the earth.

When the Germans had clearly avowed their intention of making the Poles a subject and lower grade race under the Herrenvolk, suddenly, by a superb effort of military force and skill, the Russian Armies, in little more than three weeks, since in fact we spoke on these matters here, have advanced from the Vistula to the Oder, driving the Germans in ruin before them and freeing the whole of Poland from the awful cruelty and oppression under which the Poles were writhing.

[He then described how the border lines for Poland would be drawn, with Soviet Russia moving to the ‘Curzon line’ in the east and Poland acquiring German territory in the west in compensation]

But even more important than the frontiers of Poland, within the limits now disclosed, is the freedom of Poland. The home of the Poles is settled. Are they to be masters in their own house? Are they to be free, as we in Britain and the United States or France are free? Are their sovereignty and their independence to be untrammelled, or are they to become a mere projection of the Soviet State, forced against their will by an armed minority, to adopt a Communist or totalitarian system?

Well, I am putting the case in all its bluntness. It is a touchstone far more sensitive and vital than the drawing of frontier lines. Where does Poland stand? Where do we all stand on this?

Most solemn declarations have been made by Marshal Stalin and the Soviet Union that the sovereign independence of Poland is to be maintained, and this decision is now joined in both by Great Britain and the United States.

Here also, the world organisation will in due course assume a measure of responsibility. The Poles will have their future in their own hands, with the single limitation that they must honestly follow, in harmony with their Allies, a policy friendly to Russia. That is surely reasonable …

Statement by Winston Churchill to the House of Commons, 27 February 1945

See also John Colville: The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries, 1939-1955.

Exhausted soldier of the Polish Home Army emerging from a sewer after escaping from German encirclement. One of his fellow soldiers pulls out his submachine gun of the sewer hatch.
A year after the Jewish ghetto uprising the rest of Warsaw had launched their own insurrection. An exhausted soldier of the Polish Home Army emerging from a sewer after escaping from German encirclement. One of his fellow soldiers pulls out his submachine gun from the sewer hatch. Stalin had ordered the nearby Red Army not to go to the aid of the Poles.
The destroyed city of Warsaw, January 1945.
The destroyed city of Warsaw, January 1945.

Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin meet at Yalta

'The Big Three': Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin sit for photographs during the Yalta Conference in February 1945.
‘The Big Three’: Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin sit for photographs during the Yalta Conference in February 1945.
President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill confer during a lunch break at the Livadia Palace during the Yalta Conference.
President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill confer during a lunch break at the Livadia Palace during the Yalta Conference.

On the 5th February the ‘Big Three’ met once more, this time in the Crimean resort of Yalta. There were momentous decisions to be reached about how Germany was to be divided up after the war, whether they should seek reparations from Germany, how the new United Nations ‘World Organisation’ was going to operate, and much more.

The Soviet Union’s entire economy had been thrown over to war production and, with most of western Russia laid waste, there were few resources spare even for this international event. The plumbing for the partially rebuilt buildings that would accommodate the dignitaries had had to come from various Moscow hotels, where it would be returned after the conference – never to work satisfactorily ever again.

Maureen Stuart-Clark was a Women’s Royal Naval Service aide to Admiral James Somerville, who she referred to as ‘Uncle Jim’, one of the British delegates. She was very impressed with the female Soviet Army guards, armed with Tommy guns, who were ‘immense, tough and had the largest legs I had ever seen’. She was not quite so impressed with some of the other arrangements:

Eventually we arrived at the Voronthov [sic] Palace where the British Chiefs of Staff were going to be accommodated. It was quite the ugliest place I have ever seen — built in a mixture of Moorish and Gothic styles. The entrance at either end was Gothic with castle like turrets and gate, while the centre was Moorish with minarettes [sic] and domes. It had been built for Prince Yusof who killed Rasputin and had not been destroyed because it had been promised to the German General who captured the Crimea, and had left it till too late to destroy it.

We found the rest of us were housed in two sanatoriums between five and ten minutes drive down the road. They had been old Palaces, partially destroyed by the Germans and rebuilt especially for this occasion. We spent the first event desperately trying to organise luggage, office papers etc. and tempers were fairly short.

Most of the Kremlin guard had come down to act as guards and sentries, and they looked very smart in their khaki uniforms with their high boots, red and blue caps, gold braid etc. They had sent down hordes of interpreters from Moscow — mainly women — who spoke excellent English although they had never left the country. Actually the whole thing was rather superficial and unreal.

Russia is definitely a hard, ruthless country and yet they had laid on the most terrific show for the British, which includes maids in caps, aprons and high heeled shoes which they had never worn before and consequently presented a ludicrous spectacle wobbling unsteadily around; interpreters in new suits and stockings so they would not be inferior to us; vodka, champagne, smoked salmon etc. when the only ration they themselves are certain of getting is black bread; it rather disappointed me as one thought they could have afforded to say ‘We’ve done jolly well on this so you ought to try it and jolly well like it’.

The water was unsafe to drink and the only liquid there was to swallow was the vodka, champagne etc. so we spent the whole time either very definitely muzzy or else parched with thirst! They even brought a lemon tree all the way from Batoum so that there would be lemon for the drinks, but they never thought to provide a simple plug for the basins!

The sanitary arrangements were the most peculiar thing. In our place there was a bath and three showers all in a little hut together down the garden. There was a sweet peasant girl in attendance who scrubbed your back vigorously, irrespective of your sex, in fact there was considerable trouble at first as they all bath and swim in the nude together and couldn’t understand our reluctance to bath with Major Generals or Naval officers at the same time. You ploughed down the garden in your great coat and hoped you wouldn’t get pneumonia returning.

But — the lavatory situation was the grimmest. In the Palace there was a total of 3, one of which was kept for the private use of the P.M. The other two had to provide for the use of the 3 Chiefs of Staff, General Ismay, F.M.s [Field Marshals] Alexander and Wilson, U.J.[Uncle Jim], Anthony Eden, Lord Leathers, Sir Ralph Metcalf, lots of foreign office boys, typists, clerks, sentries, maids, interpreters, Marine orderlies and all the visitors. The result was that we lost all shame and openly discussed the best bushes in the garden which was the only solution.

This account appears in Richard J. Aldrich (ed): Witness To War: Diaries Of The Second World War In Europe And The Middle East

Winston Churchill shares a joke with Marshal Stalin (with the help of Pavlov, Stalin's interpreter, left) in the conference room at Livadia Palace during the Yalta Conference.
Winston Churchill shares a joke with Marshal Stalin (with the help of Pavlov, Stalin’s interpreter, left) in the conference room at Livadia Palace during the Yalta Conference.

Churchill arrives in Athens to broker peace

A paratrooper from 5th (Scots) Parachute Battalion, 2nd Parachute Brigade, takes cover on a street corner in Athens during operations against members of ELAS, 18 December 1944.
A paratrooper from 5th (Scots) Parachute Battalion, 2nd Parachute Brigade, takes cover on a street corner in Athens during operations against members of ELAS, 18 December 1944.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill leaving HMS AJAX to attend a conference ashore. Athens can be seen in the background.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill leaving HMS AJAX to attend a conference ashore. Athens can be seen in the background.

The refusal of the communist ELAS resistance fighters to lay down their arms in Greece was now turning into a civil war. The British troops brought in to assist the new Greek government maintain order were now fully engaged in street fighting in Athens.

It was this war zone that Prime Minister Winston Churchill had chosen to fly to on Christmas Day. He now tried to broker a peace with the assistance of the Greek Archbishop. He was accompanied by his private secretary, John Colville, whose diary provides many insights into the life of Churchill during the war. On the 26th December they were on board HMS Ajax in Athens’ harbour:

This morning the sun is shining brightly and I have just persuaded the P.M. to get up and go out on the quarter-deck. From the bridge one can see the smoke of battle in the street fighting west of the Piraeus, and there is a constant noise of shell-fire and machine-guns.

We had a splendid view of Beaufrghters strafing an E.L.A.S. stronghold on the side of one of the hills surrounding Athens. Four of them went round and round, diving with all their cannons blazing and then joining in behind the tail of the preceding aircraft to continue the process. As E.L.A.S. seem to be deficient of flak, however well provided they may be with other weapons, the Beaufighters seem to be having a very pleasant time.

There is no nonsense about fraternising among the troops here, who, to a man, consider E.L.A.S. and all their works utterly loathsome. I have spoken to several and I gather that there is a general sense of anger at the attitude of the British press and certain elements of the Labour Party.

Nobody here has any illusions about the real character of the rebels. On the other hand E.L.A.S., in spite of their diabolical activities, have a strangely obliging side to them. For instance, the telephone exchange is in the hands of E.L.A.S. but they have never yet made any difficulties about our telephoning messages from the aerodrome to G.H.Q., even though these, in the form sent, provide them with no useful information. Macmillan says that they possess many of the qualities and defects of the Irish.

The above was written after lunch and it is now 11.45 p.m. with the bag almost closing.

This afternoon’s events were the purest melodrama. Just before we left the ship we were straddled by shells and another fell quite close as we landed. The meeting with the Greeks was preceded by long sessions at the Embassy, in which the Archbishop figured prominently.

There were photographs in the garden and the Prime Minister made a stirring speech to the staff of the Embassy thanking them for their excellent work in arduous conditions. This gave enormous pleasure both to Leeper [the Ambassador] and to the staff. It looked as if E.L.A.S. would not turn up for the meeting and the Archbishop had made his opening speech and the P.M. was halfway through his, when there were noises off and three shabby desperadoes, who had been searched and almost stripped before being allowed to enter, came into the dimly-lit conference room.

All the British delegation, the American, the Russian and the Frenchman, rose to their feet, but the Greek Govern- ment remained firmly seated. The P.M. was only prevented from rushing to shake the E.L.A.S. people by the hand by Field Marshal Alexander’s bodily intervention.

The proceedings then began all over again and, with the sound of rocket- firing Beaufighters, and bursting mortar shells without, the light of a few Hurricane lamps within and the spectacle of what was surely the oddest galaxy of stars ever assembled in one place, one had continually to rub one’s eyes to be sure one was not dreaming.

See John Colville: The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries, 1939-55

A rifleman acts as 'tail-end Charlie', guarding the commander of a Sherman tank from snipers during operations against ELAS in Athens, 18 December 1944.
A rifleman acts as ‘tail-end Charlie’, guarding the commander of a Sherman tank from snipers during operations against ELAS in Athens, 18 December 1944.

Churchill and Stalin meet at the Kremlin

The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin share a joke in the Krelim, Moscow, in 1942.
The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin share a joke in the Kremlin, Moscow, in 1942.

The Allies now believed that the end of the war was in sight. Attention turned to the post war settlement. Churchill had just been in the United States to confer with Roosevelt. The international negotiations at Dunbarton Oaks, Washington had also been largely completed, where the future structure of the United Nations had been decided. He now travelled to Moscow to meet Stalin.

Aside from the mechanisms of the United Nations the real politik was about the relative sphere of influence amongst the Allies in Europe, particularly in those countries which were emerging from German occupation. Churchill was trying to get the Polish Government in Exile to enter talks with Stalin, but also to sort out which of the Allies were to take primary role in the other countries of eastern Europe. It proved to be relatively easy to deal with Stalin, at least it appeared so at the time.

At ten o’clock that night we held our first important meeting in the Kremlin. …

The moment was apt for business, so I said, “Let us settle about our affairs in the Balkans. Your armies are in Roumania and Bulgaria. We have interests, missions, and agents there. Don’t let us get at cross—purposes in small ways. So far as Britain and Russia are concerned, how would it do for you to have ninety per cent. predominance in Roumania, for us to have ninety per cent. of the say in Greece, and go fifty—fifty about Yugoslavia?”

Churchill's copy of secret agreement (Percentages agreement) with Stalin made in Moscow, October, 1944.
Churchill’s copy of secret agreement (Percentages agreement) with Stalin made in Moscow, October, 1944.

While this was being translated I wrote out on a half—sheet of paper:

Roumania
Russia …90%
The others …10%

Greece
Great Britain …90% (in accord with U.S.A.)
Russia …10%

Yugoslavia …50—50%

Hungary …50-50%

Bulgaria
Russia …75%
The others …25%

I pushed this across to Stalin, who had by then heard the translation. There was a slight pause. Then he took his blue pencil and made a large tick upon it, and passed it back to us. It was all settled in no more time than it takes to set down.

Of course we had long and anxiously considered our point, and were only dealing with immediate war-time arrangements. All larger questions were reserved on both sides for what we then hoped would be a peace table when the war was won.

After this there was a long silence. The pencilled paper lay in the centre of the table. At length I said, “Might it not be thought rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues, so fateful to millions of people, in such an offhand manner? Let us burn the paper.” “No, you keep it,” said Stalin.

Churchill was certainly acutely aware that such an arrangement was open to misinterpretation. A day later he cabled the British cabinet to explain his thinking:

These percentages which I have put down are no more than a method by which in our thoughts we can see how near we are together, and then decide upon the necessary steps to bring us into full agreement.

As I said, they would be considered crude, and even callous, if they were exposed to the scrutiny of the Foreign Offices and diplomats all over the world. Therefore they could not be the basis of any public document, certainly not at the present time.

They might however be a good guide for the conduct of our affairs. If we manage these affairs well we shall perhaps prevent several civil wars and much bloodshed and strife in the small countries concerned. Our broad principle should be to let every country have the form of government which its people desire.

We certainly do not wish to force on any Balkan State monarchic or republican institutions. We have however established certain relations of faithfulness with the Kings of Greece and Yugoslavia. They have sought our shelter from the Nazi foe, and we think that when normal tranquillity is re-established and the enemy has been driven out the peoples of these countries should have a free and fair chance of choosing.

It might even be that Commissioners of the three Great Powers should be stationed there at the time of the elections so as to see that the people have a genuine free choice. There are good precedents for this.

In the light of subsequent events, when the Soviet Bloc took over eastern Europe the meeting was sometimes interpreted as the carving up of Europe on the back of an envelope. Hopes in the west that “countries should have a free and fair chance of choosing” their governments were very misplaced. The de facto occupation of countries in eastern Europe by Soviet troops meant that Stalin was the one who decided.

Contemporary newsreel footage of the Eastern Front in late 1944: