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The Red Army

LAURENCE REES: So, it seems that the Red Army was fighting the war for us.

SIR MAX HASTINGS: In many ways a lot of the history that’s written today by British and American historians is much less nationalistic than it used to be in the first years after the war, but in some degree even now, we’ve still got those nationalistic overhangs that we don’t recognize. For instance, at the great wartime summits Churchill, Roosevelt, Allenbrooke and George Marshall persuaded themselves that they were figuring out how to win the war, and this was not true. What they were figuring out was how to help the Russians to win the war. Now some British officers, although not to my knowledge American ones, explicitly said at the time that it’s the job of the Russians to do all the dying to enable us to beat the Germans, and implicitly the Americans had signed up for this as well. An awful lot of senior British officers and senior British politicians in World War Two were very happy with the notion that not only should Germany lose the war but that Russia should be bled to death in the process of defeating Germany and this coloured British attitudes at the top, though not so much lower down. In fact lower down the British public felt very ashamed of how little we were doing to win the war. In 1942 and 1943 there were all these huge rallies in Trafalgar Square demanding a Second Front now, saying why aren’t we helping our Russian comrades? That was going on at the bottom but at the top an awful lot of senior people in Britain hated the Russians almost as much as they hated the Germans and this very much coloured their attitude to strategy.

In his less guarded moments Churchill was by no means unhappy to see the Russians doing the bleeding and the dying that otherwise the British would have had to do. And I think we have to recognise today that while the leaders of Britain and America served their countries very well by husbanding the lives of their young people so that at the end of the war there was this huge disparity between the 400,000 odd British, 300,000 odd Americans and 27 million Russians who died, we could hardly expect the Russians to be immensely grateful. Of course we say today, well, what about all that aid we shipped to you, well, up to a point. But the best figures suggest that the aid that we sent to the Russians amounted to about 5% of their war effort in 1942 and 10% from 1943 onwards to 1945. But compared to what the Russians were putting into the war…

We made a big deal that in 6 months we’d shipped them 2000 tanks when they were producing 2000 tanks a month and they were losing 1000 tanks a week. So the British and the Americans can say we handled our end of the war very well, and so they did from the point of view of their nations and from the point of view of saving their lives. What we can’t claim is that the British and the Americans thereby defeated the Nazis. We have to keep saying to each other again and again that it was the Russians who did most of the business of defeating the Nazis and that D Day was a huge triumph of organisation logistics, human endeavour, and it played a decisive part in winning the war in the West. D Day was Hitler’s last chance of averting defeat in the West, but it would be naive not to admit that even if D Day had failed the Russians were winning the war. All that would have likely happened is that if D Day had failed you could well have had the Red Army in Paris before the British and the Americans got ashore.