Stalin to Churchill – ‘Let’s shoot top 50,000 Germans’


29th November 1943: Stalin to Churchill – ‘Let’s shoot top 50,000 Germans’

Presently Elliott Roosevelt, who had own out to join his father, appeared at the door, and somebody beckoned him to come in. He therefore took his seat at the table. He even intervened in the conversation, and has since given a highly coloured and extremely misleading account of what he heard. Stalin, as Hopkins recounts, indulged in a great deal of “teasing” of me, which I did not at all resent until the Marshal entered in a genial manner upon a serious and even deadly aspect of the punishment to be inflicted upon the Germans.

The 'Big Three' - Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill mat at Tehran at the end of November 1943.
The ‘Big Three’ – Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill met at Tehran at the end of November 1943.

In Tehran the ‘big three’, Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill were meeting for their first conference together. Stalin was to press Churchill on whether he was truly committed to the opening of a ‘Second Front’. The decision to invade France had been made by the U.S. and Britain at the Quebec Conference in August. The planning and preparation for Operation Overlord was now proceeding apace. However Stalin was not satisfied until he saw Churchill personally.

In the evening of 29th November there was a dinner hosted by Stalin. The Allies were already beginning to formally address how they were to deal with Germany after the war. During the evening Stalin and Churchill were to argue over the issue – after they had drunk ‘many toasts’.

How serious Stalin was about shooting the ‘top 50,000 German officers’ can only be guessed. Probably Churchill would not have referred to the matter again publicly. However, when the President’s son Elliot Roosevelt later published an account of the exchange, Churchill felt the need to set the record straight in his post war memoirs. It was not the first time, and it would not be the last, that Elliot Roosevelt was accused of embellishing the facts:

Stalin was our host at dinner. The company was strictly limited – Stalin and Molotov, the President, Hopkins, Harriman, Clark Kerr, myself and Eden, and our interpreters. After the labours of the Conference, there was a good deal of gaiety, and many toasts were proposed.

Presently Elliott Roosevelt, who had flown out to join his father, appeared at the door, and somebody beckoned him to come in. He therefore took his seat at the table. He even intervened in the conversation, and has since given a highly coloured and extremely misleading account of what he heard.

Stalin, as Hopkins recounts, indulged in a great deal of “teasing” of me, which I did not at all resent until the Marshal entered in a genial manner upon a serious and even deadly aspect of the punishment to be inflicted upon the Germans.

The German General Staff, he said, must be liquidated. The whole force of Hitler’s mighty armies depended upon about fifty thousand officers and technicians. If these were rounded up and shot at the end of the war, German military strength would be extirpated.

On this I thought it right to say: “The British Parliament and public will never tolerate mass executions. Even if in war passion they allowed them to begin, they would turn violently against those responsible after the first butchery had taken place. The Soviets must be under no delusion on this point.”

Stalin however, perhaps only in mischief, pursued the subject. “Fifty thousand,” he said, “must be shot.” I was deeply angered. “I would rather,” I said, “be taken out into the garden here and now and be shot myself than sully my own and my country’s honour by such infamy.”

At this point the President intervened. He had a compromise to propose. Not fifty thousand should be shot, but only forty-nine thousand. By this he hoped, no doubt, to reduce the whole matter to ridicule. Eden also made signs and gestures intended to reassure me that it was all a joke.

But now Elliott Roosevelt rose in his place at the end of the table and made a speech, saying how cordially he agreed with Marshal Stalin’s plan and how sure he was that the United States Army would support it.

At this intrusion I got up and left the table, walking off into the next room, which was in semi-darkness. I had not been there a minute before hands were clapped upon my shoulders from behind, and there was Stalin, with Molotov at his side, both grinning broadly, and eagerly declaring that they were only playing, and that nothing of a serious character had entered their heads.

Stalin has a very captivating manner when he chooses to use it, and I never saw him do so to such an extent as at this moment. Although I was not then, and am not now, fully convinced that all was chaff and there was no serious intent lurking behind, I consented to return, and the rest of the evening passed pleasantly.

See Winston Churchill: The Hinge Of Fate (The Second World War Vol 4).

In this context it must be remembered that Stalin had ordered the killing of 15,000 Polish officers in 1940, whose bodies were found by the Nazis in the forest of Katyn. It seems doubtful that Stalin would have had any qualms about dealing with the leadership of the German army in the same way. The informal context of putting the proposal to Churchill and Roosevelt suggests he did not really expect them to agree.

Brig. Gen. Elliott Roosevelt, Commander, 325th Photographic WIng (Reconnaissance) 1944-45.
Brig. Gen. Elliott Roosevelt, Commander, 325th Photographic WIng (Reconnaissance) 1944-45.
The following evening. Winston Churchill with President Roosevelt and Marshal Stalin at a dinner party at the British Legation in Tehran on the occasion of Churchill's 69th birthday, 30 November 1943.
The following evening. Winston Churchill with President Roosevelt and Marshal Stalin at a dinner party at the British Legation in Tehran on the occasion of Churchill’s 69th birthday, 30 November 1943.

Stalin objects to putting off invasion of Europe

11th June 1943: Stalin objects to putting off invasion of Europe

Your decision creates exceptional difficulties for the Soviet Union, which, straining all its resources, for the past two years, has been engaged against the main forces of Germany and her satellites, and leaves the Soviet Army, which is fighting not only for its country, but also for its Allies, to do the job alone, almost single-handed, against an enemy that is still very strong and formidable

“Before leaving for the front”. Head of the Central Sniper School's political department talks to girls leaving for the front. The Soviet was throwing everything it had into the fight against Hitler - and felt that the Western Allies were less determined.
“Before leaving for the front”. Head of the Central Sniper School’s political department talks to girls leaving for the front.
The Soviet was throwing everything it had into the fight against Hitler – and felt that the Western Allies were less determined.
“Soldiers on the march”. Red Army soldiers on the march, the second world war. In all out war many women were serving at the front, completely integrated into combat units alongside men.
“Soldiers on the march”. Red Army soldiers on the march, the second world war.
In all out war many women were serving at the front, completely integrated into combat units alongside men.

On 3rd June Roosevelt had written to Stalin to explain that the proposed ‘Second Front’, the invasion of western Europe would not take place until 1944. Stalin was naturally not very impressed by this decision. On the 11th June he replied, expressing his dismay that he he had not been consulted.

Yet despite invitations to meet Roosevelt and Churchill, Stalin had refused to leave Soviet Russia for a meeting with Churchill and Roosevelt. It is likely that he had a paranoid fear of what might happen if he left the USSR, but he was going to need to overcome that if he wanted to meet the other Aliied leaders together:

…the opening of a second front in Europe, previously postponed from 1942 till 1943, is now being put off again, this time till the spring of 1944.

Your decision creates exceptional difficulties for the Soviet Union, which, straining all its resources, for the past two years, has been engaged against the main forces of Germany and her satellites, and leaves the Soviet Army, which is fighting not only for its country, but also for its Allies, to do the job alone, almost single-handed, against an enemy that is still very strong and formidable.

Need I speak of the disheartening negative impression that this fresh postponement of the second front and the withholding from our Army, which has sacrificed so much, of the anticipated substantial support by the Anglo-American armies, will produce in the Soviet Union—both among the people and in the Army?

As for the Soviet Government, it cannot align itself with this decision, which, moreover, was adopted without its participation and without any attempt at a joint discussion of this highly important matter and which may gravely affect the subsequent course of the war.

 “Elderly Villager Amidst Ruins of His House”. An elderly resident of a village burned down by Germans sitting by the ruins of his house. Ukraine, Region Tschernigow. Even as the Germans retreated the Soviet civilian population suffered again, from the 'scorched earth' policy.
“Elderly Villager Amidst Ruins of His House”. An elderly resident of a village burned down by Germans sitting by the ruins of his house. Ukraine, Region Tschernigow. Even as the Germans retreated the Soviet civilian population suffered again, from the ‘scorched earth’ policy.

Contemporary newsreel of the fight in Russia:

Full length film “The Battle of Russia” from the US “Why we fight” series, shown to recruits in the US armed forces:

German Police report on the Katyn massacre

10th June 1943: German Police report on the Katyn massacre

Preliminary excavations undertaken in various parts of the wooded area invariably led to the discovery of mass-graves (‘fraternal graves’) in which the bodies of Russians of both sexes were found. Some of these bodies were carefully examined and it was proved that, without exception, death was caused by a shot in the back of the neck. From the documents found, it appeared that they were prisoners from the NKVD jail in Smolensk, the majority being political prisoners.

Heads of murdered Polish officers laying in layers, showing a structure of the grave.
Heads of murdered Polish officers laying in layers, showing a structure of the grave.
Tied up hands of one of the murdered Polish officers.
Tied up hands of one of the murdered Polish officers.

In April of 1943 the Nazis had announced that they had found mass graves in former Soviet territory. They claimed that they contained the bodies of Polish officers who had been taken prisoner by the Soviet Army, in the 1939 invasion of eastern Poland. All the bodies showed signs of the distinctive NKVD method of execution – a bullet in the back of the neck.

Now the the Germans produced their final report following the exhumation of the bodies, and accompanying photographs. The evidence they presented was compelling. The problem was it was produced by the Nazis, and they pointed the finger at the Soviet regime.

For the moment the western Allies were in a difficult position. They knew where the truth lay and they knew from other examples that they were in alliance with a ruthless regime, led by Stalin. Yet they could hardly endorse the statements made by the Nazis. The controversy was to continue for years:

Final Report of the German Police

June 10, 1943

The work of exhuming, examining and identifying the bodies of Polish officers came to an end on June 7, 1943. In the first place it must be stressed that the Kosogory forest was used as a place of execution of those sentenced to death by the NKVD or the Committee of ‘The Three,’ as early as 1925.

Preliminary excavations undertaken in various parts of the wooded area invariably led to the discovery of mass-graves (‘fraternal graves’) in which the bodies of Russians of both sexes were found. Some of these bodies were carefully examined and it was proved that, without exception, death was caused by a shot in the back of the neck. From the documents found, it appeared that they were prisoners from the NKVD jail in Smolensk, the majority being political prisoners.

The seven mass-graves of murdered Polish officers which have been cleared cover a relatively small area.

Of 4,143 exhumed bodies, 2,815 have been definitely identified. Identification was based on identity cards, birth certificates, and award certificates found in their pockets together with their personal correspondence.

In many cases identity cards, documents and considerable sums in zloty banknotes were sewn into the legs of their boots. Their clothes left no doubt as to their being Polish officers, for instance, the long cavalry boots of a shape normally worn by Polish officers.


A large number of hitherto unidentified bodies will undoubtedly be identified by the Polish Red Cross.
The number of officers of various ranks is given below:
Generals 2

Colonels 12

Lt.-Colonels 50

Majors 165

Captains 440

Lieutenants 542

2nd Lieutenants 930

Paymasters 2

Warrant Officers 8

Other NCOs 2

Identified as officers 101

Identified as ‘in uniform” 1,440

Medical Officers 146

Veterinaries 10

Chaplains 1
Civilians 221

Names only identified 21

Unidentified 50

Bodies identified as ‘being in uniform” must also he regarded as officers, for corresponding epaulettes were often found in their pockets.

After the identification (during which each body was given a serial number) and after the forensic medical examination, the bodies were buried in the newly-dug graves with the assistance of members of the Polish Red Cross. The new graves are numbered from 1 to 6 and the numbers can be found on the reverse side of the crosses. The two single graves of the generals were marked in a similar way.

A name roll of all identified persons was made in order to facilitate meeting further enquiries from the families.

From the translation of diaries, of memoirs and other notes found with the bodies, it was proved that the officers who had been taken prisoner by the Soviet Army in 1939, were sent to various camps: Kozielsk, Starobielsk, Ostashkov, Putiviel, Bolotov, Pavlishehev Bor, Shepyctovka, Gorodok. The majority of those killed in Katyn Forest had been in the Kozielsk camp (250 kilometres south-east of Smolensk on the railway-line Smolensk-Tambov). A few are known to have been brought from Starobielsk to Katyn through kozielsk.

From the end of March, until the first day of May, 1940. the prisoners from Kozielsk arrived by rail. The exact dates cannot be established A few short intervals apart, a batch left almost every day; the number of prisoners varied between 100 and 300 persons.

All trains were sent to Gniezdovo near Smolensk. Thence, in the early morning, the prisoners proceeded in special lorries (trucks) to the Katyn Forest, situated three kilometres west of Gniezdovo. There the officers were immediately shot, thrown into the waiting graves and buried, as may be seen from the evidence of witness Kisselev. who had seen the ditches being prepared.

Voss, Secretary of the Field Police

The full report and the official Soviet statement can be read at Allworldwars

Rows of exhumed bodies of Polish officers placed on the ground by the mass graves awaiting examination.
Rows of exhumed bodies of Polish officers placed on the ground by the mass graves awaiting examination.
German sentry overlooking one of the open mass graves with half buried bodies of murdered Polish officers. There were eight mass graves in total
German sentry overlooking one of the open mass graves with half buried bodies of murdered Polish officers. There were eight mass graves in total
Polish priest, Reverend Stanisław Jasiński, praying over open mass grave.
Polish priest, Reverend Stanisław Jasiński, praying over open mass grave.

ALSO ON THIS DAY, 10 June 1943 …

“Tally ho,” I called. “Bullet Red Section. Bandits dead ahead. A little below.” We were at 31,000 feet. They were perhaps four miles away and already losing height in a wide sweeping turn to starboard over Grand Harbour. Now they straightened out on a northerly course with their noses down, and I knew they would be exceeding 400 mph. They would be across the seventy miles to Sicily in ten minutes. Unless we could do something about it, that is.

Canadian Spitfire Ace Hap Kennedy in pursuit of Me 109s over Malta.

Stalin agitates for a Second Front in Europe

15th March 1943: Stalin agitates for a Second Front in Europe

The Soviet troops spent the whole winter in the tense fighting, which continues even now. Hitler is carrying out important measures with a view to replenish and increase his army for the spring and summer operations against the U.S.S.R. In these circumstances it is for us extremely important that the blow from the West should not be put off, that it should be struck in the spring or in the early summer.

“A rifle regiment marching”. A caravan of the artillery going to the frontline to the north-west of Vyazma
“A rifle regiment marching”. A caravan of the artillery going to the frontline to the north-west of Vyazma

On the 11th March 1943 Churchill had written to Stalin with a long report on the situation of the British and American forces in the west. They were making progress in Tunisia where they were drawing more and more German troops away from Europe. They intended to move against Sicily next. The bombing war against Germany was being intensified. But there was no prospect of a ‘Second Front’, an invasion of occupied Europe in 1943.

The British fear, expressed by Churchill, was that any “premature attack with inferior and insufficient forces” would lead to a “bloody repulse”. The US had at first been enthusiastic for an attack on Europe in 1942. But the more the situation was studied the more it was realised that there were nowhere near enough men in Britain to make such an assault. Nor were any of the other pre-requisites for such an operation – such as air superiority, command of the seas and practical matters such as enough landing craft.

Stalin, of course, was not impressed and he wrote to Churchill on 15th March 1943:

Now as before I see the main task in hastening ofthe Second Front in France. As you remember, you admitted the possibility of such a front already in 1942, and in any case not later than the spring of 1943 There were serious reasons for such an admission.

Naturally enough I underlined in my previous message the necessity of the blow from the West not later than the spring or the early summer of this year.

The Soviet troops spent the whole winter in the tense fighting, which continues even now. Hitler is carrying out important measures with a view to replenish and increase his army for the spring and summer operations against the U.S.S.R. In these circumstances it is for us extremely important that the blow from the West should not be put off, that it should be struck in the spring or in the early summer.

I studied your observations, contained in the paragraphs 8, 9, and 10, on the difficulties of the Anglo-American operations in Europe. I recognise these difficulties.

Notwithstanding all that, I deem it my duty to warn you in the strongest possible manner how dangerous would be from the view-point of our common cause further delay in the opening of the Second Front in France.

This is the reason why the uncertainty ofyour statements concerning the contemplated Anglo- American offensive across the Channel arouses grave anxiety in me, about which I feel I cannot be silent.

See Winston Churchill: The Hinge of Fate

The Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. Western Front. Soldiers of mopping up anti-tank battalion moving toward Vyazma after battles for Rzhev.
The Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. Western Front. Soldiers of mopping up anti-tank battalion moving toward Vyazma after battles for Rzhev.

Soviets offer ‘Gingerbread or the Whip’

8th January 1943: Soviets offer Stalingrad troops ‘Gingerbread or the Whip’

Your encircled troops are in a grave situation. They are suffering from hunger, sickness and cold. The harsh Russian winter is only just beginning: hard frosts, cold winds and snowstorms are still to come, but your soldiers do not have winter uniforms and are living in unsanitary conditions. You, as commander, and all the officers of the surrounded troops know very well that there is no longer any realistic possibility of breaking through the encirclement.

Soviet troops advancing on Stalingrad.
Soviet troops advancing on Stalingrad.

The Russian phrase knut i pryanik, ‘whip or gingerbread’, was used to characterise a mix of threats and promises. This was the approach adopted by the Soviet army as they attempted to avoid further losses at Stalingrad. An invitation to surrender was drawn up, to be delivered to the Germans inside the besieged city. The document set out the cold facts of the situation – the 6th Army was not going to be rescued and the supply situation was going to get worse:

To the Commander of the Sixth Army encircled at Stalingrad, General Paulus, or his deputy.

The Sixth German Army, the units ofthe 4th Tank Army and their reinforcements have been completely surrounded since November 23rd, 1942. The forces ofthe Red Army have drawn a secure ring around this German army. All hopes of rescue by means of a German offensive from the south and south-west have proved unfounded.

The forces which were rushed to your aid have been destroyed by the Red Army, and the remnants of these forces are withdrawing towards Rostov. The German transport planes which are supplying you with a bare minimum of food, ammunition and fuel are being forced to move between airfields, and to fly from great distances to reach your positions. Moreover, the Russian air force is inflicting great losses on Gennan transport planes and their crews. Air transport is unlikely to continue for much longer.

Your encircled troops are in a grave situation. They are suffering from hunger, sickness and cold. The harsh Russian winter is only just beginning: hard frosts, cold winds and snowstorms are still to come, but your soldiers do not have winter uniforms and are living in unsanitary conditions. You, as commander, and all the officers of the surrounded troops know very well that there is no longer any realistic possibility of breaking through the encirclement. Your position is hopeless and further resistance is pointless.

Given the inescapable position that your forces now find themselves in, and in order to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, we propose that you accept the following terms of surrender:
1. All surrounded German troops, with you and your staff, are to give up further resistance.
2. You are to hand over to us, in an orderly fashion and intact, all men, arms, weaponry and army property.

We guarantee the lives and the safety of all officers, non-commissioned officers and men who cease resistance. We also guarantee that at the end of the war they will be returned to Germany, or to any other country of their choice.

All surrendering forces will be allowed to keep their uniform, insignia and decorations, along with their personal belongings and valuables. High-ranking officers will be allowed to retain their service daggers.

All officers, non-commissioned officers and men who surrender will immediately be issued with normal rations. All those suffering from wounds, illness or frostbite will receive medical attention.

We expect your written reply on january 9th, 1943, at 15.00 hours, Moscow time. It should be brought by a representative whom you have personally appointed, and who should proceed in a car flying a white flag along the road from the Konny railway halt to the Kotluban station. Your representative will be met by Russian officers in Region B, 0.5 kilometres south-east of railway halt No. 564.

If you choose to reject our proposal for your capitulation, be warned that the forces of the Red Army and the Red Air Force will be compelled to take steps to destroy the surrounded German troops, and that you will bear the responsibility for their annihilation.

Signed,
Colonel-General of Artillery, Voronov;
Supreme Commander of the Don Front, Lieutenant-General Rokossovsky.

See Voices from Stalingrad.

Considerable difficulties were encountered just delivering the message. Despite broadcasting their intentions by loudspeaker the first attempt to approach the German lines was met with a hail of gunfire and the treaty party was pinned down in the snow for some time. When eventually they got through to deliver the message early on the ninth, it did not take long for the Germans to reject it out of hand.

Whether or not the Soviet regime would have kept to its promises to treat the prisoners well will never be known. The German commander General Paulus was not ready to defy Hitler and surrender. The agony would continue.

Soviet armoured cars approaching Stalingrad.
Soviet armoured cars approaching Stalingrad.

Soviet Army successes give Russians confidence

19th December 1942: Red Army successes give Russians confidence

Russia’s mind was focused on Stalingrad. When the offensive got into its stride, a deep feeling of gratitude and relief swept the country. This expressed itself in all kinds of ways: in extra hours worked in factories “for Stalingrad,” and also in that curious movement the origin of which is obscure, and which took the form of large money gifts to the Defence Fund.

Snipers in camouflage cloaks entering a destroyed house in Stalingrad.
Snipers in camouflage cloaks entering a destroyed house in Stalingrad.

Alexander Werth was a Russian born British journalist working in Soviet Russia. His ability to speak Russian got him an unusual degree of access to many different areas of life.

On December 19, following the joint [permalink id=25741 text=”statement by the Allied Governments”] on the persecution of the Jews throughout Europe, the Soviet Foreign Office published a long statement on the systematic extermination by gas, machine-guns, and in other ways, of the entire Jewish population of Europe. But it was all so monstrous that even in Russia many felt these things had first to be seen to be believed.

The ‘incredible’ nature of the news was a problem in the west. But there was an additional issue with the Soviet regime’s reports, with its existing reputation for propaganda.

Werth was not just interested in reporting the war. No foreign journalists were allowed near Stalingrad at this time anyway. He saw the sudden upsurge in confidence among the general population following the [permalink id=24781 text=”encirclement of Stalingrad.”]

Russia’s mind was focused on Stalingrad. When the offensive got into its stride, a deep feeling of gratitude and relief swept the country. This expressed itself in all kinds of ways: in extra hours worked in factories “for Stalingrad,” and also in that curious movement the origin of which is obscure, and which took the form of large money gifts to the Defence Fund.

On the 19th December the press published a letter from Ferapont Golovaty addressed to Stalin

Dear Joseph Vissarionovich.

In seeing off my two sons to the front, I gave them this fatherly command: Smash the German invader. In return I promised them to do my utmost for the country. Having read your letter to the Saratov kolkhozniks, I decided to give all my savings for the purchase of an aeroplane.

The Soviet regime helped me to become a rich kolkhoznik, and now that the country is in danger, I decided to help as best I could. I have paid all my honestly earned savings-100,000 roubles-into the Red Army Fund to buy a plane which would add to the defeat of the German invaders.

May it sow death among those who have injured and insulted our brothers and sisters …. If the kalkhazniks got together and paid for hundreds of squadrons, it would greatly help the Red Army to clear the enemy out of our sacred land.

Ferapont Golovaty was immediately famous, Werth reported:

He received a letter of thanks from Stalin-printed at the top of every paper in enormous type-and became famous overnight. The Press played him up:

Golovaty‘s sons may be proud of their father …. Soon there will rise into the skies a plane marked “Ferapont Golovaty.” … In 1812, the peasants also rose like one man to help our army

For a month or more, sometimes half or nearly half of every newspaper was filled with letters to Stalin and short notes of thanks from Stalin;

There were cynics of course but Werth believed that this was not just an upsurge in patriotic fervour but a new confidence and determination to throw the Germans out. See Alexander Werth: The Year of Stalingrad.

Images courtesy of RIAN – Russian International News Agency (RIA Novosti).

 “Destroyed Stalingrad does not give up”.
“Destroyed Stalingrad does not give up”.

Churchill entertains Truman and Stalin in Berlin

To lighten the proceedings we changed places from time to time, and the President sat opposite me. I had another very friendly talk with Stalin, who was in the best of tempers and seemed to have no inkling of the momentous information about the new bomb the President had given me. He spoke with enthusiasm about the Russian intervention against Japan, and seemed to expect a good many months of war, which Russia would wage on an ever—increasing scale, governed only by the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Winston Churchill, President Truman and Stalin at the Potsdam conference, 23 July 1945.
Winston Churchill, President Truman and Stalin at the Potsdam conference, 23 July 1945.
Josef Stalin, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Truman with their staffs around the conference table at Potsdam.
Josef Stalin, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Truman with their staffs around the conference table at Potsdam.

The final conference of the Allied leaders continued in Potsdam Berlin. Events far away from the conference table were to have a far reaching effect on the post war world, and most of those around the table were to be very surprised by the way they turned out.

The most senior U.S. delegates had now received confirmation of the success of the Trinity nuclear test in New Mexico. The whole question of how they might deal with Japan now took on an entirely different character. For the moment Truman had only told Churchill but not yet Stalin.

It was thought that the news would be a stunning revelation to Stalin, especially given the implications of such a weapon being held by western democracies. In fact Stalin was very much better informed, through his spies, of the state of nuclear research, than either Churchill or Truman could possibly imagine.

There was also a ripple of uncertainty was running through the British camp too. At home the British were conducting a General Election to choose a new government. Churchill had been assured by his Conservative Party officials that they were on course to another victory and that he would soon be formally re-instated as Prime Minister.

As a gesture to the electoral situation that they found themselves in, Churchill’s principal opponent in the election, the Leader of the Labour Party, Clement Attlee had been invited to the conference as part of the British delegation. At this time, within British party politics he was also known by the title “The Leader of the Opposition”.

Churchill recalls some of the atmosphere of the conference in his memoirs:

Frustration was the fate of this final Conference of “the Three”. I have not attempted to describe all the questions which were raised though not settled at our various meetings. I content myself with telling the tale, so far as I was then aware of it, of the atomic bomb and outlining the terrible issue of the German-Polish frontiers. These events dwell with us to-day.

It remains for me only to mention some of the social and personal contacts which relieved our sombre debates. Each of the three great delegations entertained the other two. First was the United States. When it came to my turn I proposed the toast of “The Leader of the Opposition”, adding “whoever he may be”. Mr. Attlee, and indeed the company, were much amused by this. The Soviets’ dinner was equally agreeable, and a very fine concert, at which leading Russian artistes performed, carried the proceedings so late that I slipped away.

It fell to me to give the final banquet on the night of the 23rd. I planned this on a larger scale, inviting the chief commanders as well as the delegates. I placed the President on my right and Stalin on my left. There were many speeches, and Stalin, without even ensuring that all the waiters and orderlies had left the room, proposed that our next meeting should be in Tokyo.

There was no doubt that the Russian declaration of war upon Japan would come at any moment, and already their large armies were massed upon the frontier ready to overrun the much weaker Japanese front line in Manchuria.

To lighten the proceedings we changed places from time to time, and the President sat opposite me. I had another very friendly talk with Stalin, who was in the best of tempers and seemed to have no inkling of the momentous information about the new bomb the President had given me. He spoke with enthusiasm about the Russian intervention against Japan, and seemed to expect a good many months of war, which Russia would wage on an ever—increasing scale, governed only by the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Then a very odd thing happened. My formidable guest got up from his seat with the bill-of-fare card in his hand and went round the table collecting the signatures of many of those who were present. I never thought to see him as an autograph-hunter! When he came back to me I wrote my name as he desired, and We both looked at each other and laughed. Stalin’s eyes twinkled with mirth and good—humour.

I have mentioned before how the toasts at these banquets were always drunk by the Soviet representatives out of tiny glasses, and Stalin had never varied from this practice. But now I thought I would take him on a step. So I filled a small-sized claret glass with brandy for him and another for myself. I looked at him significantly. We both drained our glasses at a stroke and gazed approvingly at one another.

See Winston S. Churchill: The Second World War.

British Victory Parade in Berlin: British troops march down the Charlottenburg Chaussee, Berlin.
British Victory Parade in Berlin: British troops march down the Charlottenburg Chaussee, Berlin.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill, accompanied by Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery and Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, inspects tanks of the "Desert Rats" from a half-track vehicle which moved slowly along the long line of troops and armour, during the British Victory parade in Berlin, 21 July 1945.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill, accompanied by Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery and Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, inspects tanks of the “Desert Rats” from a half-track vehicle which moved slowly along the long line of troops and armour, during the British Victory parade in Berlin, 21 July 1945.

Churchill meets Truman as Trinity is tested

The ‘Big Three’, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had been the face of the Allies for the greater part of the war, meeting in several high profile conferences to decide the course of the war. Now President Truman replaced the recently deceased Roosevelt in the line up for the last conference.

German women doing their washing at a water hydrant in a Berlin street, near the wreck of a German light armoured car, 3 July 1945.
German women doing their washing at a water hydrant in a Berlin street, near the wreck of a German light armoured car, 3 July 1945.
British and Russian soldiers on the balcony of the Chancellery, the spot from which Hitler made many of his speeches. Label British and Russian soldiers on the balcony of the ruined Chancellery in Berlin, 5 July 1945.
British and Russian soldiers on the balcony of the Chancellery, the spot from which Hitler made many of his speeches, 5 July 1945.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill inspecting a guard of honour of the Scots Guards at British Headquarters, Berlin, soon after his arrival for the 'Big Three' conference at Potsdam.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill inspecting a guard of honour of the Scots Guards at British Headquarters, Berlin, soon after his arrival for the ‘Big Three’ conference at Potsdam.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Harry Truman shake hands on the steps of Truman's residence, "The White House", at Kaiser Strasse, Babelsberg, Germany, on 16 July 1945.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Harry Truman shake hands on the steps of Truman’s residence, “The White House”, at Kaiser Strasse, Babelsberg, Germany, on 16 July 1945.

The ‘Big Three’, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had been the face of the Allies for the greater part of the war, meeting in several high profile conferences to decide the course of the war. Now President Truman replaced the recently deceased Roosevelt in the line up for the last conference.

The tensions between the Soviet side and the western democracies were now becoming ever more evident. On the face of it the conference would decide the fate of Germany and the where the new boundaries of eastern Europe would lie. In reality much would be determined by the de facto occupation of territory by Soviet troops.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill leaves the ruins of Adolf Hitler's Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, on 16 July 1945.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill leaves the ruins of Adolf Hitler’s Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, on 16 July 1945.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill sits in a jeep outside the Reichstag during a tour of the ruined city of Berlin, Germany on 16 July 1945.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill sits in a jeep outside the Reichstag during a tour of the ruined city of Berlin, Germany on 16 July 1945.
Scene of destruction on part of the Potsdamer Platz, Berlin.
Scene of destruction on part of the Potsdamer Platz, Berlin.

Whatever hopes those attending the conference might have that they could shape the post war world and prevent further wars, new realities were rapidly outstripping their expectations. Thousands of miles away, on the same day, scientists were conducting an experiment, codename Trinity, that would change the course of world history:

Brigadier General Thomas Farrell described the reaction of Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the atomic research programme:

Dr. Oppenheimer, on whom had rested a very heavy burden, grew tenser as the last seconds ticked off. He scarcely breathed. He held on to a post to steady himself. For the last few seconds, he stared directly ahead and then when the announcer shouted “Now!” and there came this tremendous burst of light followed shortly thereafter by the deep growling roar of the explosion, his face relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief.

Oppenheimer himself later recalled:

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

The world waits for an ‘official announcement’

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.

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)

Churchill fears a communist dominated eastern Europe

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…

Victory in the West April - May 1945: Russian and American soldiers rest on the banks of the River Elbe, following the link-up between the US 1st Army and the Russian 1st Ukrainian Army at Torgau sixty miles south of Berlin.
Victory in the West April – May 1945: Russian and American soldiers rest on the banks of the River Elbe, following the link-up between the US 1st Army and the Russian 1st Ukrainian Army at Torgau sixty miles south of Berlin.
Field Marshal Montgomery adds his signature to the document of surrender signed by the German delegation at 21st Army Group HQ at Luneburg Heath, 4 May 1945.
Field Marshal Montgomery adds his signature to the document of surrender signed by the German delegation at 21st Army Group HQ at Luneburg Heath, 4 May 1945.

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.

Men of 6th Airborne Division greet the crew of a Russian T-34/85 tank during the link-up of British and Soviet forces near Wismar on the Baltic coast, 3 May 1945.
Men of 6th Airborne Division greet the crew of a Russian T-34/85 tank during the link-up of British and Soviet forces near Wismar on the Baltic coast, 3 May 1945.

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!

See Denis Edwards: Devils Own Luck: Pegasus Bridge to the Baltic 1944-45

Infantry ride on Sherman tanks of 6th Armoured Division as they head towards the Austrian border, 4 May 1945.
Infantry ride on Sherman tanks of 6th Armoured Division as they head towards the Austrian border, 4 May 1945.
A Cromwell tank crew of 'C' Squadron, 5th Royal Tank Regiment in Hamburg, 4 May 1945. The man sitting on the tank is a former Russian POW who had been fighting alongside the crew.
A Cromwell tank crew of ‘C’ Squadron, 5th Royal Tank Regiment in Hamburg, 4 May 1945. The man sitting on the tank is a former Russian POW who had been fighting alongside the crew.