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Soviets and the Second Front

LAURENCE REES: What about the Soviet attitude to what was going on in the west militarily – that the lack of a second front, D Day, before June 1944 was a kind of betrayal?  I’ve talked to many Red Army veterans who have suggested this.

ROBERT CITINO: I would respect anything that an actual veteran of the Red Army struggling against the Wehrmacht said about the war, and I would respect that in the way that I listen to what veterans in the US Army and the British Army have to say about their experience. I would also say this, as an historian I shed very few tears for Joseph Stalin at any level. This war had been unleashed with Stalin’s connivance. He was Hitler’s ally, he didn’t just sit off to the side and offer neutrality, it was a non-aggression pact but also a divvying up, if you will, of spheres of influence in Western Europe. He had entered Poland when it had been stricken by the German invasion and picked up a lot of territory for his credit. Since then he had swallowed up the Baltic States, the Eastern districts of Romania and so on and so forth. So he had unleashed the war. There had been an anti-Hitler coalition in the West and he had sat by and helped Hitler destroy it, and then in 1941 things had changed.

So that’s the first point I would make. Now, with regards to what was being promised, it is entirely possible that the political leadership of the Western powers thought that there would be a cross Channel invasion [earlier than 1944] and it’s even possible that some of the military planners thought so. What was found when the Staff studies were done was that this was a far more complicated project than previously thought. If it failed, you didn’t retreat, you were destroyed, and then you’d have to assemble another amphibious armada and that might take years. In other words it was essentially going to be a one shot deal and had to be done correctly.

Having studied the documents on both the British and American sides’ there certainly was no plot to string the Soviet Union along, to blood the two dictatorships and allow the capitalist Western powers to overrun Europe at their ease and at their leisure. The Soviets from time to time had tried amphibious operations against the Germans. I’m thinking, for example, of landings on the Kerch Peninsula in December of 1941, in which they more or less dropped their soldiers off in neck deep water and had them walk ashore in freezing cold temperatures and a force four gale. It went about as well as you might expect given what I have just said. By its very nature amphibious warfare is the most complex form of military operation and the Western powers came about as early as they could.

Now, with regards to who beat the Wehrmacht, certainly at any given point the Germans had 75 to 80 percent of their total strength arrayed on the Eastern Front. But there’s also the matter of air power which was smashing German industry slowly but on a day by day basis, until that finally bore fruit in early 1945; and certainly with the destruction of an entire army group with numerous SS Panzer formations, so-called elite formations in the German Army as well, in the Western campaign. From Normandy the Cobra breakout, the failed German counteroffensive at Mortain - it certainly cannot be denied as well that a great deal of pressure was being put on the Germans in the West and what would eventually lay the Germans low was a coalition.

LAURENCE REES: Could the Western Allies have, at the beginning of 1943, decided to focus on the Autumn of 1943 for D Day and concentrate resources on that instead of on Italy?

ROBERT CITINO: I don’t think that would have been possible. I certainly don’t think that the Normandy invasion was postponed to any significant degree by what was happening in Italy. Amphibious assets that were needed for the invasion of first Sicily and then the landing up the Western coast of Italy were almost immediately shipped to the West and they were a drop in the bucket compared to what the armada would need for the great invasion of Normandy in 1944. Its new weaponry, its techniques, its production and its thoughts about, well, we won’t have a port yet, we’ll have to build an artificial one  - the famous Mulberries off the Normandy Coast - these were all planning problems of an order and of a nature that no armies on earth had ever really had to contend with before.