Churchill knew, as he prepared to meet Stalin face to face for the first time in the summer of 1942, that this would be a difficult encounter. Stalin was furious with the Western Allies. He believed that they were doing little to help the Soviets, as they faced the German army advance across the southern steppes of Russia in Operation Blue.
Molotov had visited both London and Washington in May 1942, and when he returned to Moscow he had told Stalin that President Roosevelt had promised him that the Allies would open a ‘second front’ that year (by which the Soviets meant a D-Day type landing in northern France) in order to take pressure off the Red Army.
But the American President had deliberately misled the Soviets. And the trouble was that Stalin was already distrustful of the Western Allies - this new broken 'promise' only added to that existing feeling. It wasn’t as if there were even any long term benefits to Roosevelt as a result of his decision to deceive Stalin about the possible date of D-Day, because it only took a few weeks for Stalin and Molotov to realise that the Western Allies were going to renege on the deal – at least as far as launching the second front in the autumn of 1942 was concerned.
This whole question of the ‘delay’ over the launching of the second front is something that the Western Allies can take little pride in, according to Sir Max Hastings. ‘The British and the Americans used to talk a lot in the war and have done since about all the lies that the Russians told us and God knows the Russians did tell a great many lies,’ he says, ‘but the British and the Americans tell the Russians many lies also. They broke almost all their promises about aid deliveries to Russia in between 1941 and 1943 and most importantly they explicitly led Stalin to believe that D-Day on the continent was seriously on the agenda in 1942 when it was not. They continued that deceit through 1943… they were stringing the Russians along because they were apprehensive that Stalin might be tempted to make a separate peace with Hitler if they didn’t.’
The increasingly bad atmosphere between the Soviets and the West was not helped by the fact that in July 1942 the British suspended aid convoys to the Soviet Union as the result of the devastating losses of PQ 17 – of the 39 ships in the convoy, 24 were destroyed. All this meant that Churchill, as he later wrote, felt that his mission to Moscow in August was like ‘carrying a large lump of ice to the North Pole.'i
Within a few hours of arriving in Moscow on 12 August 1942, Churchill was meeting Stalin in the Kremlin. Churchill was quick to confirm the depressing news that there would be no D-Day in 1942. But he did say that the British and the Americans were preparing for a ‘very great operation’ in 1943. However, this information did not cheer Stalin up. The British minutes of the meeting record that Stalin looked ‘very glum’.ii
Churchill then went on to emphasize the destruction that was currently being wrought by the British bombing campaign, and next he attempted to re-define the meaning of ‘second front’. Couldn’t the term ‘second front’, he argued, actually be stretched to also encompass an amphibious attack on French Africa? In which case the Western Allies were about to launch just such a second front – Operation Torch, which would land American troops in French Morocco in November 1942.
Churchill memorably described this landing in Africa as an attempt to attack ‘the belly of the crocodile’. Churchill even drew a picture of a crocodile to demonstrate the strategy to Stalin. The Soviet leader seemed, if not wildly enthusiastic, at least not completely dismissive of the British and American plan. But the next day Stalin made his true feelings clear. He wrote an ‘aide memoir’ to the British delegation that – almost explicitly – accused them of breaking a promise to help the Soviets by launching a second front in France.
'Stalin was very concerned about the opening of the Second Front,' says Russian historian Dr Kirill Anderson, 'and it became a very sensitive issue for him. And the delay with the opening of the Second Front was one of the main reasons for Stalin’s mistrust towards the allies. It was a very serious question for him. Plus you have to take into consideration the fact that the Soviet Union suffered huge losses and so of course Stalin wanted the pressure to be at least somewhat lifted from the Soviet Union. So for him the whole issue of opening or not opening of the Second Front was an issue that meant big losses of men, it meant the liberation of the Soviet territories, it was the most important issue for him.'
By 14 August, after another difficult meeting with Stalin the previous day, Churchill appeared to have had enough of Stalin’s accusations of bad faith. So much so that he even had to be persuaded to attend the Gala banquet to be held that night in his honour at the Kremlin.
Colonel Ian Jacob, a member of the British delegation, described his impression of Stalin that night – in terms which reveal a great deal about the attitudes of a number of the British to their Soviet hosts: ‘It was extraordinary to see this little peasant [Stalin], who would not have looked at all out of place in a country lane with a pickaxe over his shoulder, calmly sitting down to a banquet in these magnificent halls.'iii
After the banquet, Churchill returned to the dacha that had been allocated to him by the Soviets, and said furiously: ‘Did he [Stalin] not realise who he was speaking to? The representative of the most powerful empire the world has ever seen?’iv The following morning the British ambassador to Moscow, the charming if eccentric Sir Archibald Clark Kerr, said to Churchill that he must meet Stalin again and not cut short the visit. After all, said Clark Kerr, he should not be ‘offended by a peasant who does not know any better.’ And if Churchill didn’t support the Soviets then ‘How many young British and American lives would have to be sacrificed to make this good?'v
Reluctantly convinced by Clark Kerr, Churchill agreed to attend a final meeting with Stalin that night. The formal part of the encounter went as badly as before, with Stalin once again insisting that the British had ‘promised’ to launch a second front during 1942, and Churchill once again insisting they hadn’t. But, after this dispiriting encounter, Stalin asked Churchill to dine with him in his private apartments. Churchill seized on the invitation and the two of them ate and drank long into the night, later joined by Molotov. At last, Churchill felt he had made a personal breakthrough. The Soviet leader laughed and joked (even if in the process he revealed the ruthlessness of his regime, by openly admitting that the Communists had killed the Soviet Kulaks, the rich peasants). But still, thought Churchill, Stalin had at last allowed a glimpse into the more intimate side of his character.
When Churchill returned to his dacha, at three o’clock in the morning, he was, according to Clark Kerr, in ‘triumphant mood’. He lay on a sofa and announced that he had ‘cemented a friendship’ with Stalin, and that it was a ‘pleasure’ to work with ‘that great man’.vi
It was one of the most incredible turn arounds in the history of diplomacy. Churchill had left his dacha earlier in the evening full of resentment at the Soviet leader and had returned a few hours later convinced that Stalin was a ‘great man’ with whom he could do business. But, of course, none of the substantive issues between the two leaders had been resolved. Stalin still claimed he had been betrayed by the lack of the ‘promised’ second front, and Churchill still refused to make a deal with Stalin that would allow him, after the war, to keep the territory that he had gained as a result of the Nazi/Soviet pact.
And so, despite Churchill’s joy at his new found ‘friendship’ with Stalin, a hard and troubled road still lay ahead.
i Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, Volume IV: The Hinge of Fate, Penguin Classics, 2005, p. 428
ii War Cabinet Minutes of Prime Minister’s Visit to Moscow, CAB 66/28/3, p. 19, National Archives, Kew
iii Charles Richardson, From Churchill’s Secret Circle to the BBC: Biography of Lieutenant General Sir Ian Jacob, GBE, CB, DL, Brassey’s, 1991, p. 136
iv Entry for 15th August 1942 in Lord Moran, Winston Churchill: The Struggle for Survival, 1940-1965, Heron Books, 1966, p. 62
v Diary of Archibald Clark Kerr, FO 800/300, National Archives, Kew
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