On June 6, 1944, the Allied forces of the United States, Great Britain, Canada and several other nations landed in Normandy, finally opening the Second Front in Western Europe against Nazi Germany. However, although it is widely known that this major operation contributed greatly to the final victory over Nazism, not so many, besides a narrow circle of experts, know what it took to actually make it happen.
On June 22, 1941, without declaration of war or even an ultimatum Germany attacked and invaded the Soviet Union. Ivan Maisky, who at the time served as the Soviet ambassador to Great Britain, heard the news from London radio reports, and by 1:00 p.m. was already talking to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden who assured him that the British government's policy towards the USSR would be "friendly and accommodating." Later the same day, Prime Minister Churchill gave a speech on radio in which he vowed to never negotiate with Hitler and to "give whatever help we can to Russia and to the Russian people." But what kind of help would that be exactly? This was the question Ambassador Maisky was asking himself, especially since on June 24, 1941, Labor MP Aneurin Bevan already declared "an urgent necessity to try to effect a second land front" in Europe during the debates in the House of Commons.
The Soviet ambassador decided to work towards this goal and started by requesting an audience with one of the country's major political figures, Lord Beaverbrook. Beaverbrook was a member of the English War Cabinet, but was less restricted by his position than Churchill or Eden and could speak his mind freely on this most serious matter. The meeting took place on June 27. The next day the ambassador reported to Moscow:
"Beaverbrook declared that the British Government was prepared to take all possible measures to stifle the German onslaught on the USSR. In particular, Beaverbrook's 'personal suggestion' was for Britain to both step up the ongoing bombing operation in West Germany and Northern France and deploy part of its fleet to Murmansk and Petsamo for naval operations against the Germans. Beaverbrook also spoke of the possibility of landings on the northern French coast and taking temporary control of Cherbourg, Le Havre, and other ports. If the Soviet government were to raise the question of closer military cooperation, the British government would gladly discuss what could be done."
This was when the idea of opening a second front was formulated and presented in diplomatic documentation. It took almost three years for it to become a reality, and it is important to keep in mind that right until it did, it was the focus of all the diplomatic efforts on the part of the USSR.
After Maysky's meeting with Beaverbrook, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov summoned Stafford Cripps, the UK Ambassador to Moscow, on June 29 and said that "the Soviet government considers all proposals by Beaverbrook right and relevant." The transcript of the conversation goes as follows:
"In regard to these suggestions, Molotov stated that in view of the powerful offensive by the German and Finnish forces near Murmansk as part of a major offensive on all other fronts, the Soviet Government particularly approves of the participation of British warships and aircraft in the area as most timely and relevant. Britain's naval support in the area of Petsamo and Murmansk would be most welcome. At the same time, more air raids against Germany and in the West, as well as landings on the French coast, would be most desirable. Molotov also referred to the British government's assurance that it would be ready to discuss any questions of assistance. At the moment the Soviet government is in need of discussing such a question and, in view of its urgency, would like to hope for a positive outcome."
However, no positive outcome followed. More than that, after Cripps's wire arrived to London, Eden summoned Maisky and, showing him the wire, inquired who exactly the ambassador talked to about the second front. There seemed to be some confusion to him in regard to the contents of the wire. Maisky said that he had talked to Lord Beaverbrook. Eden made it clear that he was unhappy with the ambassador’s "stepping outside his competence," and although he did promise to have the matter discussed by the Cabinet, it was clear he would not push for it. Indeed, Beaverbrook's ideas found no support.
On November 6, 1941, Stalin gave a speech in the underground hall of the metro station Mayakovskaya of the besieged Moscow, saying, "One reason why the Red Army is failing is the absence of a second front in Europe against the Nazi troops. The fact is that at present there are no British or United States troops on the European continent fighting the Nazi invaders... The current situation dictates that our country is fighting this war alone, without anyone’s military support."
In December 1941, on his way to Washington, Winston Churchill wrote the following in a secret memorandum under the title The Atlantic Front:
"Hitler’s failure and losses in Russia are the prime fact in the war at this time. We cannot tell how great the disaster to the German Army and Nazi regime will be. This regime has hitherto lived upon easily and cheaply won successes. Instead of what was imagined to be a swift and easy victory, it has now to face the shock of a winter of slaughter and expenditure of fuel and equipment on the largest scale. Neither Great Britain nor the United States have any part to play in this event except to make sure that we send, without fail and punctually, the supplies we have promised."
In autumn 1941, President Roosevelt and the US high military command were working hard on a comprehensive war plan dealing with the specific threat to the security of the United States which German, Italian, and Japanese aggression constituted. In September 1941, Chiefs of Staff General Marshall and Admiral Stark submitted to Roosevelt the document titled Joint Board Estimate of United States Over-All Production Requirements. The document underwent several revisions and was further incorporated into what became known as the Unites States War Plan Rainbow Five. The Requirements presented the Chiefs' opinion and mentioned, among other things, "The maintenance of an active front in Russia offers by far the best opportunity for a successful land offensive against Germany, because only Russia possesses adequate manpower, situated in favorable proximity to the center of German military power… The effective arming of Russian forces, both by the supply of munitions from the outside and by providing industrial capacity in the Volga Basin, or to the east of the Ural Mountains, would be one of the most important moves that could be made by the Associated Powers." But this was only a plan at the time.
Let's look at some diplomatic documents dating back to the late 1941 and the early 1942. On December 7, 1941, Japan began war against the United States by attacking Pearl Harbor. The US Congress responded by declaring war on the aggressor, and on December 11, Germany declared war on the United States. Although the direct armed conflict was taking place in the Asia-Pacific and involved only Japan, the United States also needed to define its stance against Hitler-led Nazi Germany. During the same time, President Roosevelt received Soviet Ambassador Maxim Litvinov and assured him that the new developments would not affect the scope of assistance promised to the Soviet Union. Roosevelt was understanding of the Soviet government’s decision to maintain neutrality towards Japan, because otherwise the strength of the Soviet resistance to the Nazi offensive would be weakened. Litvinov, in turn, told the president, "Our key common enemy is Hitler's Germany, therefore USSR's weakened resistance to the German aggression would lead to strengthening of the Axis powers, which would be detrimental both to the USSR and all our allies." Roosevelt replied to the ambassador that he would do the same in Russia's place.
Upon careful consideration, on January 20, 1942, Litvinov sent an inquiry to Moscow, asking, "Should I perhaps raise the question of direct military support and opening a second front in Europe?" In response, on February 4, 1942, Soviet Commissar of Foreign Affairs Molotov telegraphed, "We would welcome the opening of the second front in Europe by our Allies. But as you know, our second front proposal has already been turned down three times, and we do not wish to risk being turned down the fourth time. Therefore you are not bring up the matter of a second front in communication with Roosevelt. Let's wait for the moment when, perhaps, the Allies themselves will suggest it."
On April 11, 1942, Ambassador Litvinov reported, "This morning, in my absence (I have just returned from Philadelphia) President Roosevelt summoned Charge d'Affaires A. Gromyko and handed him a personal message for Stalin. He said that he thought it more appropriate to have the message transmitted in our code, which he felt was more reliable. I am transmitting the message separately following this report. Roosevelt read out the text of the message and said that just like Stalin, he was a realist and wanted to undertake very specific steps to draw some of Hitler's forces away from the Soviet front. He believes this can be done this summer without delay. According to Gromyko, Roosevelt clearly meant the opening of a second front."
The matter of a second front was high on Molotov's agenda during his visit to the United States in May 1942. The minutes of the meetings contain the following, "Roosevelt states that, contrary to the opinion of many Americans, he considers it necessary first of all to finish off Hitler, and then to deal with Japan. He is therefore willing to do anything in 1942 to ease the burden of the USSR's struggle against Hitler. Roosevelt has consulted his military. Being narrow experts in their field, they always see the difficulties everywhere. But we must push them harder. Roosevelt requested them to do more for the USSR than what's just possible. By the end of the year, the USA will have an army of 4 million men and a fleet of 600,000 men. The US military believe they could run a landing operation in Europe from the British shores."
The negotiations led to the adoption of the Mutual Aid Agreement Between the United States and USSR on June 11, 1942 and the Soviet-British communique published on June 12, 1942 upon Molotov's visit to London. Both documents explicitly captured the intent to open a second front in 1942. The promises were made. However, when Churchill visited Moscow in August 1942, he presented quite a different account. The Prime Minister began by explaining that the Allies couldn't raise the funding for a landing operation before September, and that from September on it would be prevented by bad weather. He went on to assure the Soviet leaders that the United States and Britain were "preparing for big operations in 1943." It appeared obvious that not acting on the promises immediately was the plan all along.
Moreover, the Allies began sabotaging the military supplies to the USSR. For example, 150 Bell P-39 Airacobra fighter aircraft, which were ready to be shipped to Murmansk, were removed from the batch the last moment. This caused a lot of anger in Moscow because the Battle of Stalingrad was full underway at the time. It's not hard to see why Stalin telegraphed Ambassador Maisky on October 19, 1942 to say, "All of us in Moscow have an impression that Churchill's end game is the defeat of the USSR so he to collude with Hitler or Brüning-led Germany at the expense of our country. Unless this assumption is true, it is difficult to explain Churchill's actions in regard to the second front in Europe." The truth was that although for different reasons, the USA and Britain were both interested in delaying the opening of the second front. On February 13, 1943, Maisky reported from London to Moscow:
"The reaction of the British ruling class to Russia's military successes is even more complicated. Two souls live in their bosoms at once. On the one hand, they are happy with the Russians beating the Germans so well. It is to Britain’s advantage, saving it a lot of pain and destruction. Once again Britain can do what is always does, i.e. win a war by proxy. But on the other hand, Britain is quite scared that perhaps the Bolsheviks could grow too strong as a result, and that the chance of "Communism" taking over Europe could become too real. These are the two opposing opinions supported by the two main factions in the British ruling class; I shall call them for the sake of brevity "pro-Churchill" and "pro-Chamberlain." The first group, for the time being, is rather fearful of Russia’s successes. Incidentally, the War Department leadership quite clearly shares the sentiment, although at the moment, the Red Army is approaching Rostov and Kharkov. It is difficult to predict what feelings the "pro-Churchill" group will have about the Red Army approaching Berlin. We cannot rule out any kind of unpleasant surprises... Therefore, the timing for opening a second front is now the British government's key concern, and it is rather a political matter than purely military. From the point of view of the British and American governments, the second front must be launched not too early and not too late, but "just in time." But when is that exactly? Judging by the decisions made in Casablanca, both Brits and Americans seem to think that they still have enough time before the right time to start acting arrives."
Indeed, in January 1943, the Casablanca Conference produced some decisions concerning the war theater on the European continent. But what were they? Britain insisted on the infamous Balkan plan, and the United States were ready to support it. The plan stipulated for deployment of the main Allied force in the Mediterranean and included no deadline for an offensive operation in Europe. The official communiqué, however, did say that the USA and Britain "were aware of the enormous burden of the war that Russia has been carrying with great success."
And yet, the deadline the opening of the second front in August or September 1943 was not set until Stalin had to repeatedly push for it many times over. Even then it didn’t take long for the US and England to announce postponing the invasion again causing a lot of distress to all those who wished for a quick joint victory over the common enemy. Joseph Stalin went on to write an angry message to the leaders of the Western powers:
"So now, in May 1943, Mr. Churchill and you have decided to postpone the Anglo-American invasion of Western Europe until the spring of 1944. In other words, the opening of the second front in Western Europe that had already been postponed from 1942 to 1943, is being postponed again, this time until spring 1944. This decision creates extraordinary difficulties for the Soviet Union that has been fighting an extremely strenuous war against Germany and its satellites for two years now, and leaves the Soviet Army that has been fighting not only for its own country but also for its Allies all alone, practically one on one in a combat against the enemy that is still very strong and dangerous."
On August 10, 1943, before the conference in Quebec, US Secretary of War Henry Stimson sent a memo to President Roosevelt drawing his attention to the dangerous consequences of the delaying tactic:
"To me, in the light of the post-war problems which we shall face, that attitude towards Russia seems terribly dangerous. We are pledged quite as clearly as Great Britain to the opening of a real second front. None of these methods of pinprick warfare can be counted on by us to fool Stalin into the belief that we have kept that pledge."
Roosevelt agreed, saying that Stimson had articulated the conclusions that he himself had arrived at. Thanks to that, when the British delegation pushed for the Balkan plan as a way to prevent the threat of a "Russian invasion of Europe," Roosevelt and US top military officials took a different stance. The Quebec Conference ended with the Allies agreeing that Operation Overlord would be the main scenario for the 1944 invasion of Europe. The goal was finally set to achieve in cooperation with Russia and other allies the unconditional surrender of the European Axis powers as soon as possible.
The Tehran Conference saw the leaders of the USSR, the United States and Great Britain define the details of opening a second front. The expectations and pressure were high: after all, Operation Overlord had already been approved for implementation in Quebec. The Soviets could have just been assured that since the decision had been made, the second front would be opened. And yet, this is not how it went down in Tehran. The conference opened on November 28, 1943, i.e. three months after the Quebec Conference, and saw the US delegation enter with a very uncertain, let's-wait-and-see attitude. Although Roosevelt did confirm the course of action approved in Quebec, he added that the United States and Britain might have to postpone the landing by two or three months. The Balkan plan focusing on the landings in the North Adriatic Sea was brought up again. This, naturally, raised some eyebrows among the Soviet delegation, especially when Churchill when on to propose as many as three operations that clearly put the landing in Northern France in question. The first day didn't bring any clarity.
On November 29, the question was discussed by the military delegations of the three powers. Soviet Marshal Kliment Voroshilov had ask his British counterpart twice whether Marshal Brooke considered Operation Overlord to be the master plan. Brooke was evading a direct answer. No decisions were made.
The next day, an even more puzzling circumstance came to light, namely that no commander had been appointed as of yet for the joint Anglo-American force that was supposed to be landing in Europe in just a few months' time. Stalin said bluntly, "Then nothing will come out of Operation Overlord." The Soviet leader was insisting on answers to three questions: what was the exact commencement date, who would be the commander in charge, and would the landings in Northern France be supported by a similar operation in Southern France?
Having received no answer, Stalin even had to remind the other parties that the Soviet delegation was leaving on December 2. Only after that, during the breakfast on November 30, Roosevelt said that he had some good news to tell Marshal Stalin. Those were the answers to his questions. The landing operation in Northern France was scheduled for May 1944 and was to be supported by an operation in Southern France. The commander was to be appointed as soon as possible – and indeed, a week after the Tehran Conference, on December 7, Stalin was informed it was Dwight Eisenhower.
In turn, the Soviet delegation pledged to begin a wide-scale offensive the Soviet-German front at the time of the Allied landings to prevent the Wehrmacht from redeploying troops from east to west. In the Tehran Declaration, President Roosevelt said, "We express our determination that our nations shall work together in war and in the peace that will follow… We came here with hope and determination. We leave here, friends in fact, in spirit, and in purpose." At the time, June 1944 was still more than six months away.
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