Camels and the Bear

CHURCHILL TRAVELLED TO the Middle East in austere and dangerous discomfort. “What energy and gallantry of the old gentleman,”630 marvelled Oliver Harvey, “setting off … across Africa in the heat of mid-summer.” This was true enough, but masked the reality that for the rest of the conflict, Churchill was much happier in overseas theatres than amid the drabness of Britain, where he found scant romance and increasing pettiness and complaint. Though he cherished a vision of fortress Albion, its reality became increasingly uncongenial. Before his departure, the prime minister discussed with Eden whether another minister should join his party: “He felt the need for company, especially in Moscow.”631 Here was a glimpse of Churchill’s loneliness when he faced great challenges. He yearned for the comradeship of some peer figure, such as Beaverbrook or Smuts, in whom he could confide, with whom he could exchange impressions and jokes. This time, however, it was decided that he should take in his entourage only civil servants and soldiers, Alan Brooke foremost among them. They would be joined for the Moscow leg by Averell Harriman, whose presence was designed to ensure Russian understanding that what the British asserted, the Americans endorsed; and by Sir Archibald Wavell, who had served in Russia in 1919 and spoke the language.

They travelled aboard a Liberator bomber which possessed virtues of performance—range, speed and altitude—but none of the luxuries of the Boeing Clipper. Somewhat to the embarrassment of Britain’s airmen, the safety of the prime minister was entrusted to a young Atlantic ferry pilot named Bill Vanderkloot, who hailed from Illinois. Vanderkloot was deemed to possess temperament, navigational skills and long-range experience which no available home-grown British pilot could match. The American admirably fulfilled expectations. His plane, however, was a cramped and unsuitable conveyance for an elderly man upon whose welfare, in considerable degree, the hopes of Western civilisation rested. It was so noisy that Churchill could communicate with his fellow passengers only by exchanging notes. The flight was long and cold. They made an African landfall over Spanish Morocco, then struck a course which took them well inland before turning east over the desert, flying high and using oxygen. In his mask, wrote one of the plane’s crew, Churchill “looked exactly as though he was in a Christmas party disguise.”632 He sat in the copilot’s seat, reviving a host of youthful memories as they approached Cairo: “Often had I seen the day break on the Nile,”633 during Kitchener’s campaign against the Dervishes in 1898. Once on the ground, he began a long, painstaking grilling of soldiers and officials about the desert campaign, the army and its commanders.

All that he saw and heard confirmed his instincts back in London. Ever since 1939, visitors to Egypt had been dismayed by the lassitude pervading the nexus of headquarters, camps, villas, hotels and clubs that lay along the Nile. An air of self-indulgent imperialism, of a kind that confirmed the worst prejudices of Aneurin Bevan, persisted even in the midst of a war of national survival. “Old Miles [Lampson, British ambassador to Egypt]634 leads a completely peacetime existence, a satrap,” wrote Oliver Harvey scornfully. “He does no work at all.” The habits and complacency of peacetime also prevailed in many military messes. In 1941 Averell Harriman, no ascetic, was shocked by the indolence and luxury he saw around him on his first visit to Cairo. A year later, too many gentlemen still held sway over too few players. The former Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, passing through Egypt, perceived a “lackadaisical” attitude to the war, which was “painful.” Auchinleck had repeatedly disappointed Churchill’s hopes. The good soldiers in the Middle East were tired. A staff officer wrote from Egypt in July 1942: “There seem to me to be too many people635 at home who have had no war—through no fault of their own—and too many people out here who have had too much war.”

The desert army continued to suffer grave technical and tactical deficiencies. The cavalry ethos still dominated armoured operations, despite the frequent failures of British tanks’ attempts to destroy German ones. “The Auk’s” formations seemed unable to master the Afrika Korps’ art of using antitank guns to stop British armour before committing its own panzers. The shoddiness of British industrial production was exposed when home-built tanks were off-loaded in Egypt. Their bolts proved to have been only hand-tightened at the factories, and most had been inadequately packed and loaded for ocean passage. Weeks of labour were necessary in the workshops of the Nile Delta before armoured vehicles were fit for action. American Grant tanks, which now equipped some British armoured units, mounted a 75mm sponson gun capable of destroying German panzers, but were otherwise outmatched by them. New Shermans were still in transit from the United States.

Auchinleck’s troops had been outfought again and again. British defeats in 1940–41 had been attributable to circumstances beyond commanders’ control: prewar neglect, lack of air support and German superiority. The failures of late 1941 and 1942, however, reflected culpable weaknesses. The two ablest airmen in Cairo, Arthur Tedder and Arthur “Maori” Coningham, talked frankly to Churchill and Brooke about their perceptions of the army’s shortcomings. Colonel Ian Jacob noted in his diary during the Cairo visit that there had been “far too many cases of units surrendering636 in circumstances in which in the last war they would have fought it out … The discipline of the Army is no longer what it used to be … There is lacking in this war the strong incentive of a national cause. Nothing concentrate has replaced the old motto ‘For King and Country.’ The aims set before the people … are negative, and it still does not seem to have been brought home … that it is a war for their own existence.” War correspondent Alan Moorehead agreed:

In the Middle East there was, in August637, a general and growing feeling [among the troops] that something was being held back from them, that they were being asked to fight for a cause which the leaders did not find vital enough to state clearly. It’s simply no good telling the average soldier that he is fighting for victory, for his country, for the sake of duty. He knows all that. And now he’s asking, “For what sort of victory? For what sort of a post-war country? For my duty to what goal in life?”

If this was indeed true—and Moorehead knew the desert army intimately—then the prime minister himself deserved some of the blame. It was he who, despite the urgings of ministers, refused to address himself to “war aims,” a postwar vision. Instead, he held out to British soldiers the promise of martial glory, writing to Clementine from Cairo: “I intend to see every important unit638 in this army, both back and front, and make them feel the vast consequences which depend upon them and the superb honours which may be theirs.” In supposing such things to represent plausible or adequate incitements for citizen soldiers, Churchill was almost certainly mistaken. But it was not in his nature to understand that most men cared more about their prospects in a future beyond war than about ribbons and laurels to be acquired during the fighting of it.

In Churchill’s eyes the first priority in Egypt was, as usual, to identify new commanders. By August 6, after discussion with Smuts, whom he had asked to meet him in Cairo, he had made up his mind to sack Auchinleck. The general received his dismissal ungraciously639, and harboured bitterness for the rest of his life. Dill blamed Churchill for the Middle East C-in-C’s failure, claiming that the prime minister “had ruined Auchinleck … he had dwarfed him just as he dwarfs and reduces others around him.” This charge says more about Dill’s limitations as a shop steward for unsuccessful British generals than about the prime minister’s. Of course Churchill had harried Auchinleck. It has been suggested above that the general’s failure in part reflected institutional weaknesses in the British Army. But “the Auk” had been the man in charge through a succession of operations abysmally conducted by subordinates of his choice. British failure to defeat the Afrika Korps at Gazala in May–June 1942 reflected gross command incompetence. It was surely right to dismiss Auchinleck.

Churchill’s first impulsive thought for his replacement was Alan Brooke. The CIGS was much moved by the proposal, but wisely and selflessly rejected the chance of battlefield glory. He perceived himself as indispensable at the War Office—and he was right. The prime minister’s next choice was Lt. Gen. William “Strafer” Gott, who had gained a reputation for dashing leadership from the front, but in whom Brooke lacked confidence. Since 1939, the prime minister had been convinced that Britain’s armed forces lacked leaders with fire in their bellies. He sought to appoint to high command proven warriors, heroes. In this, he was often mistaken. Steely professionalism was lacking, rather than conspicuous personal courage. Many of Churchill’s favourite warriors lacked intellect. Gott commended himself to the prime minister because he had made a name as a thruster, yet it is unlikely that he was competent to command Eighth Army. But fate intervened: en route to Cairo to receive his appointment, Gott’s plane was shot down and he was killed. Instead, Brooke’s nominee, Sir Bernard Montgomery, was summoned from a corps command in England to head Eighth Army. Churchill had met Montgomery on visits to his units, and was impressed by his forceful personality, if not by his boorish conceit. But, in accepting his appointment to the desert, the prime minister was overwhelmingly dependent on the CIGS’s judgement. Gen. Sir Harold Alexander, a brave, charming but unassertive Guardsman who had recently presided over the British retreat from Burma, was appointed C-in-C Middle East. The prime minister, who found “Alex” congenial and reassuring, expected him to play a far more important role in shaping future operations than Montgomery. Several senior subordinate officers were also earmarked for sacking and replacement.

Having set in motion wholesale change at the top, Churchill departed from Cairo on the most taxing stage of this epic excursion. He was to meet the Soviet Union’s warlord, and deliver the unwelcome news that the Western Allies had determined against launching a Second Front in 1942. After a brief stopover in Tehran, on August 12 he made a ten-and-a-half-hour flight to Moscow, accompanied by his personal staff and Averell Harriman. A few hours after landing, Churchill was summoned to the Kremlin. He asked Harriman to accompany him: “I feel things would be easier if we all seemed to be together. I have a somewhat raw job.”

In truth, and as surprisingly few historians show recognition of, Stalin was already aware of all that Churchill feared to tell him. Whitehall and Washington were alike deeply penetrated by Communist sympathisers. Among the most prominent, John Cairncross served as Lord Hankey’s private secretary with access to War Cabinet papers until Hankey’s sacking in 1942, when he was transferred to Bletchley Park. Anthony Blunt served in MI5, while Guy Burgess and Kim Philby worked for SIS. Donald Maclean had access to key Foreign Office material, especially concerning research on the atomic bomb. In the U.S. government—which was anyway lax about securing its secrets from the Russians—Harry Dexter White worked for Henry Morgenthau, Nathan Silvermaster for the Board of Economic Warfare, and Alger Hiss for the State Department. Harry Hopkins talked with surprising freedom, though surely not ill intent, to a key NKVD agent in the United States. Throughout the war, a mass of British and U.S. government reports, minutes and decrypted Axis messages was passed to Moscow by such people, through their controllers in London and Washington. As a result, before every Allied summit the Russians were vastly better informed about Anglo-American military intentions than vice versa. So much material reached Stalin from London that he rejected some of it as disinformation, plants by cunning agents of Churchill. When Kim Philby told his NKVD handler that Britain was conducting no secret intelligence operations in the Soviet Union, Stalin dismissed this assertion with the contempt he deemed it to deserve. Molotov and Lavrenty Beria, the Soviet intelligence and secret police chief, frequently concealed from their leader accurate intelligence which they believed would anger him.

Yet in August 1942, Stalin was thoroughly briefed about Western Allied strategy, thanks to the highly placed Soviet agents. He had been told of the fierce Anglo-American arguments about the Second Front. On August 4, Beria reported:

Our NKVD resident in London640 sent the following information received from a source close to the English General Staff: A meeting about the second front took place on 21 July 1942. It was attended by Churchill, Lord Mountbatten, General Marshall and others. General Marshall sharply criticized the attitude of the English … He insisted that the second front should be opened in 1942 and warned that if the English failed to do this the USA would have to reconsider sending reinforcements to Great Britain and focus their attention on the Pacific. Churchill gave the following response to General Marshall: “There is not a single top general who would recommend starting major operations on the continent.” A further meeting on the second front took place on 22 or 23 July 1942. This was attended on the English side by Churchill, Mountbatten and the chiefs of staff; on the American side by Marshall, Eisenhower and others. The participants discussed a plan for the invasion of the continent which has been developed by English and American military experts … English chiefs of staff unanimously voted against and were supported by Churchill who declared that he could not vote against his own chiefs of staff. NKVD resident in London also reported the following, based on information from agents which had been also confirmed earlier by a source close to American embassy: on 25 July the British war cabinet agreed that there should be no second front this year.

A further August 12 NKVD intelligence brief to Stalin included a note on the prime minister’s political position: “Churchill departed for the USSR641 in an atmosphere of growing domestic political crisis. The intensification of fighting on the Soviet-German front has had a marked effect on British public opinion … Source believes Churchill will offer a number of concessions to the Soviet Union BERIA.” Russian access to such insights should not be taken to mean that Stalin was always correctly informed. For instance, several times during the war, NKVD agents reported to Moscow supposed parleys between the Western Allies and the Nazi leadership. On May 12, 1942, Beria passed to Stalin a report from the London resident on German attempts to start separate negotiations with the English: “We know from a reliable source642 that an official from the German embassy in Sweden has flown to England from Stockholm on board a civilian aircraft.” Like other such claims, this one was fallacious, but it fuelled Soviet paranoia. NKVD information was entirely accurate, however, about Britain’s position on the Second Front. Moscow was told that the prime minister’s objections did not derive, as Stalin had supposed, from political hostility to the USSR, but instead from pragmatic military considerations.

Stalin had always displayed intense curiosity about Churchill, for a quarter of a century the archfoe of Bolshevism. In June 1941, the Russian leader was surprised by the warmth with which Britain’s prime minister embraced him as a cobelligerent. In the intervening fourteen months, however, little had happened to gain Stalin’s confidence. Extravagant Western promises of aid had resulted in relatively meagre deliveries. The Times editorialist waxed lyrical on January 6, 1942, about the flow of British supplies to support the alliance with the Soviets: “The first result of this collaboration has been the splendid performance of British and American tanks and aeroplanes on Russian battlefields.” This was a wild exaggeration of reality, based upon sunshine briefings of the media and Parliament by the British government. Not only were targets for shipments of aircraft and tanks to Russia unfulfilled, but much of the material dispatched was being sunk in transit.

Convoy PQ16 was the target of 145 Luftwaffe sorties, and lost 11 of its 35 ships. In July, when 26 out of 37 ships carrying American and British supplies were lost with PQ17, 3,850 trucks, 430 tanks and 250 fighters vanished to the bottom. Following this disaster the Royal Navy insisted on cancelling all further convoys for the duration of the Arctic summer and its interminable daylight. Churchill, pressed by Roosevelt, reinstated the September convoys and began moving supplies through Iran, where the British and Russians now shared military control. But the only important reality, in Moscow’s eyes, was that aid consignments lagged far behind both Allied promises and Russian needs. Even more serious, the British had vetoed American plans for an early Second Front.

It is implausible that Stalin would have displayed a sentimental enthusiasm for his British allies, any more so than for any other human beings in his universe. He would never have acknowledged that his nation’s predicament was overwhelmingly the consequence of his own awesomely cynical indulgence of Hitler back in 1939. But Russia’s sense of outraged victimhood was none the less real for being spurious. The Soviets sought to bludgeon or shame the British and Americans into maintaining supply shipments and landing an army in Europe at the earliest possible date. Russia was counting her dead in the millions while the British cavorted in North Africa, paying a tiny fraction of the eastern blood sacrifice. In August 1942, Rostov-on-Don had fallen, Germany’s armies were deep in the Caucasus and almost at the gates of Stalingrad. Posterity knows that Hitler had made a fatal mistake by splitting his principal summer thrusts in pursuit of the strategically meaningless capture of Stalin’s name-city. The tide of the eastern war would turn decisively by the year’s end. But Russians at the time could not see beyond cataclysm. They knew only that their predicament was desperate. They could no more regard Churchill’s people as comrades-in-arms than might a man thrashing in a sea of sharks look in fellowship upon spectators cheering him on from a boat.

The prime minister wasted no time, at his first meeting with Stalin, before reporting the decision against a landing in Europe in 1942. He said that any such venture must be on a small scale, and thus assuredly doomed. It could do no service to Russia’s cause. The British and American governments were, however, preparing “a very great operation” in 1943. He told Stalin of Torch, the North African invasion plan, observing that he hoped the secret would not find its way into the British press—a jibe at Ambassador Maisky’s notorious indiscretions to journalists in London about operations to which he had been made privy. He spoke much about the RAF’s bombing of Germany, describing the beginnings of a long campaign to systematically destroy Hitler’s cities, with a ruthlessness he assumed the Soviet leader would applaud. “We sought no mercy,” said the prime minister, “and we would show no mercy.”

The substance of this first encounter, which lasted three hours and forty minutes, was made even less palatable by poor interpreting. All foreign visitors to the Kremlin were at first disconcerted that Stalin never looked into their eyes. Instead, this infinitely devious warlord, clad in a lilac tunic and cotton trousers tucked into long boots, gazed blankly at the wall or the floor as he listened and as he spoke. There were no immediate Soviet tantrums, though Stalin made plain his displeasure at the Second Front decision. “A man who is not prepared to take risks,” he mocked, “cannot win a war.” Given his prior knowledge of Churchill’s “revelation,” at this meeting he was making sport of the prime minister. But he did so with his usual supreme diplomatic skill, maintaining his visitors’ suspense about what their host really knew or thought. When they parted and Churchill returned to his villa, he signalled Attlee in London: “He knows the worst, and we parted in an atmosphere of goodwill.” Harriman cabled Roosevelt: “The prime minister was at his best and could not have handled the discussion with greater brilliance.” The next day, August 13, Churchill conferred with Molotov about detailed aspects of Allied plans and aid to Russia.

That afternoon Brooke, Wavell and Tedder arrived, in a Liberator delayed by technical trouble. They were in time to attend the prime minister’s second meeting with Stalin, and were shocked by their glacial reception. The Soviet leader began by handing Churchill a formal protest about the delay in launching the Second Front: “It is easy to understand that the refusal of the Government of Great Britain to create a second front in 1942 inflicts a moral blow to the whole of Soviet public opinion … complicates the situation of the Red Army at the front and compromises the plans of the Soviet command.” What Churchill called “a most unpleasant discussion” ensued. He was resolute in making plain that the Allied decision was irrevocable, and thus that “reproaches were vain.” Stalin taunted him with the destruction of PQ17: “This is the first time in history the British Navy has ever turned tail and fled from the battle. You British are afraid of fighting. You should not think the Germans are supermen. You will have to fight sooner or later. You cannot win a war without fighting.”

Harriman slipped a note to Churchill: “Don’t take this too seriously—this is the way he behaved last year.” The prime minister then addressed Stalin with unfeigned passion about Britain’s past defiance and future resolution, his stream of rhetoric flowing far ahead of the interpreters. Stalin laughed: “Your words are not important, what is vital is the spirit.” Churchill accused Stalin of displaying a lack of comradeship. Britain, he reminded the Georgian, had been obliged to fight alone for a year. In the early hours of August 14, the two delegations parted as frigidly as they had met. “I am downhearted and dispirited,”643 Churchill told his British colleagues. “I have come a long way and made a great effort. Stalin lay back puffing at his pipe, with his eyes half closed, emitting streams of insults. He said the Russians were losing 10,000 men a day. He said that if the British Army had been fighting the Germans as much as the Red Army had, it would not be so frightened of them.”

After a few hours’ sleep, the British communed among themselves. Churchill was smarting from the drubbing he had received. All his latent animosity towards the Soviets bubbled forth, revived by abuse from a leader who eighteen months earlier had been content to collude in Hitler’s rape of Europe. He was also dismayed by an incoming signal from London, detailing heavy losses to the epic Pedestal convoy to Malta. Cabling Attlee to report the Russians’ intransigence, he said that he made “great allowances for the stresses through which they are passing.”

That night, the British attended a banquet, accompanied by the usual orgy of toasts. Hosts and guests feasted in a fashion grotesque in a society on the brink of mass starvation. But what was one more grotesquerie, amid the perpetual black pageant of the Kremlin? Stalin shuffled among the tables, as was his habit, clinking glasses and making jokes, leaving Churchill often lonely and perforce silent in his own place. When the Soviet warlord sat down once more, the prime minister said: “You know, I was not friendly to you644 after the last war. Have you forgiven me?” His host responded: “All that is in the past. It is not for me to forgive. It is for God to forgive.” This literal translation obscures the proverbial meaning of the Russian phrase, probably missed by Churchill: “I will never forgive.” The British delegation found it droll that Stalin, of all people, so often invoked the Deity, a habit he acquired as a young seminarian. He said of Torch: “May God prosper this undertaking.”645 The most notable success of the evening was a speech by Wavell in Russian.

Even the Soviets were impressed by the quantities of alcohol consumed by both their own leader and Churchill. One guest, unfamiliar with the prime minister’s usual diction, wrote afterwards: “His speech was slurred as though his mouth was full of porridge.” The Russians decided that Churchill must be perpetrating some shocking indiscretion when they saw Brooke tugging insistently at his sleeve, in a fashion no man would have dared do to Stalin. After the prime minister left the dining room, Stalin noticed that Alexander Golovanov, who commanded the Soviet air force’s long-range bombers, was staring at him in some alarm. “Don’t be afraid,”646 said the Soviet leader, with unaccustomed docility. “I am not going to drink Russia away.” He lapsed into silence for a few moments, then said, “When great affairs of state are at stake, alcohol tastes like water and one’s head is always clear.” Golovanov noted with respect that Stalin walked from the room steadily and unhurriedly.

Churchill left the banquet in sullen mood, deploring alike the food, his hosts’ manners and the uncongenial setting. The next morning, a meeting between Brooke, Wavell and Stalin’s senior officers proved abortive when the Russians flatly refused to disclose any details of their operations in the Caucasus, saying that they were authorised to discuss only the Second Front. The sole Soviet weapons system that inspired British enthusiasm was the Katyusha multiple rocket launcher, of which the visitors requested technical details. These were never forthcoming.

On Saturday, Churchill and his colleagues entered the big Kremlin conference room overlooking the Moskva River with considerable apprehension. The prime minister told Stalin that he had considered it his duty to inform him personally of the Second Front decision. Exchanges between the two sides were more fluent, because Churchill had now enlisted the services of Major Birse, a bilingual member of Britain’s military aid mission. Stalin suddenly seemed more emollient. “Obviously there are differences between us,” he said, “but … the fact that the meeting has taken place, that personal contact has been established … is very valuable.” After more than an hour of talks, as they rose from the table Stalin suddenly, and apparently spontaneously, invited Churchill for drinks in his private apartment. There they adjourned for a further six hours of informal conversation, during which the prime minister believed that a better rapport was established. Stalin suggested a British landing in northern Norway, a proposal which Churchill could endorse with unfeigned enthusiasm. The Russian said that it would be helpful for Britain to dispatch trucks rather than tanks to the Red Army, though this request reflected ignorance of British military vehicle weaknesses. A suckling pig was brought in, which Stalin addressed avidly, and his guests sampled politely. A draft communiqué was agreed upon. At 2:30 a.m., Churchill parted from his host, with protestations of goodwill on both sides.

Back at his villa forty-five minutes later, the prime minister found that the Polish general Wladyslaw Anders had been awaiting him for many hours. “Ah! My poor Anders,” said Churchill. “I have been detained by M. Stalin and now I must fly off. But you come along to Cairo and we shall have a talk there.” Then he lay wearily down on a sofa, closed his eyes, and described to his party what had been said in Stalin’s apartment. At 5:30 a.m., the British party took off for Cairo in four Liberators.

Churchill left Russia satisfied that his visit had achieved as much as was possible in bleak circumstances. He had displayed the highest gifts of statesmanship, placing a brave face upon bad tidings, never flinching when his host flourished the knout. Ian Jacob wrote: “No one but the Prime Minister647 could have got so far with Stalin, in the sense that we understand friendship. The thing that impressed me most about Stalin was his complete self-possession and detachment. He was absolutely master of the situation at all times … He had a gentle voice, which he never raised, and his eyes were shrewd and crafty.”

Harriman was full of admiration for Churchill’s patience in the face of Russian insults, for his restraint in withholding the obvious rejoinder to Stalin’s mockery—that the Soviet Union had forged a devil’s bargain with Nazi Germany in 1939. Yet the prime minister had scarcely enjoyed the Moscow experience. Jacob wrote: “Churchill was decidedly upset648 by the lack of comradeship that he had encountered. There was none of the normal human side to the visit—no informal lunches, no means of doing what he most liked, which was to survey at length the war situation in conversation, and to explore the mind of his interlocutor.” Churchill nonetheless deluded himself that he had established a personal connection with Russia’s leader. No man could achieve that, least of all a British aristocrat famously hostile to all that the Soviet Union stood for. Brooke wrote, “He appealed to sentiments in Stalin649 which I do not think exist there.”

Churchill’s faith in the power of his personality to alter outcomes was occasionally justified in his dealings with Roosevelt, but never with Stalin. The Russians dispensed a modicum of amiability and fellowship in the last stage of the prime minister’s Moscow visit, because unremitting hostility might threaten the Anglo-American supply line. In August 1942, as at every subsequent summit, Stalin had two notable advantages. First, the Western Allies would never press their own wishes beyond a certain point, because they feared that failure to indulge the Soviet warlord might provoke him to seek a separate peace with Hitler. While Stalin needed Anglo-American supplies, the Western Allies needed the Red Army more. Second, while visitors were obliged to improvise scripts as they went along, struggling to keep pace with apparent shifts of Soviet mood, Stalin’s performance was precisely orchestrated from start to finish. He possessed almost complete knowledge of Allied military intentions, or lack of them, before Churchill landed in Moscow and delivered his budget of news at the Kremlin—and likewise at later 1943–45 meetings. Russia’s leader was able to adjust every nicety of courtesy and insult accordingly. It is unlikely that Stalin made many, if any, genuinely spontaneous remarks or gestures while Churchill was in Moscow. He merely lifted or lowered British spirits as seemed expedient, with the assurance of an orchestral conductor.

The Russians missed no opportunity to work wedges between the British and Americans. One night when Churchill went to bed, Stalin urged Harriman to stay and talk. The diplomat pleaded exhaustion. When Harriman did find himself alone with the Russian leader, he was caressed with comparisons between U.S. and British prowess: “Stalin told me the British Navy650 had lost its initiative. There was no good reason to stop the convoys. The British armies didn’t fight either—Singapore etc. The US Navy fought with more courage and so did the Army at Bataan. The British air force was good, he admitted. He showed little respect for the British military effort but much hope in that of the US.” Stalin’s words were not wasted. When Harriman reported back to Roosevelt651 in Washington, he thought the president was gratified by Churchill’s discomfiture.

It is an outstanding curiosity of the Second World War that two such brilliant men as Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt allowed themselves to suppose that the mere fact of discovering a common enemy in Hitler could suffice to make possible a real relationship, as distinct from an arrangement of convenience on specifics, between Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. Stalin and his acolytes never for a moment forgot that their social and political objectives were inimical to those of their capitalist Western Allies. British politicians, generals and diplomats were, however, foolish enough to hope that they might achieve some comradeship with the Soviets, without forswearing their visceral loathing for them. Few senior Americans were as hostile to the Russians as were the British, partly because they were so confident of U.S. power, and correspondingly less fearful of Soviet ambitions. But the Americans, too—with such notable exceptions as Harriman—harboured delusions about their ability to make friends with the Russians, or at least to exploit U.S. might to bend the Soviet government to their will, which rational assessment of rival national purposes should have dispelled.

It is striking that Churchill’s visit to Moscow failed to inspire any quickening of aid to Russia. Following the disaster to PQ17 in July, the British dispatched no further supplies to Archangel for two months, declining to risk another convoy in the relentless daylight of Arctic high summer. On and after September 20, twenty-seven of PQ18’s forty ships arrived safely. Thereafter, for four months the Royal Navy was too preoccupied with supporting the Torch landings to dispatch any Arctic convoys at all. At horrific risk, thirteen merchant ships sailed independently and unescorted to the Kola Inlet. Just five arrived. By January 1943, only two further convoys, thirty merchantmen in all, had reached Russia safely. Thereafter, as Allied resources grew and German strength in northern Norway was weakened by diversions of Luftwaffe aircraft to other theatres, the picture changed dramatically. Massive consignments of vehicles, stores and equipment, most of American manufacture, were successfully shipped, half of them through Vladivostok. Such assistance made a critical contribution to the Red Army’s advance to victory in 1944–45. But Stalin and his people were entitled to consider that they saved themselves until 1943 with only marginal foreign aid.

Soviet historians in comparatively modern times have continued to heap scorn upon the shortfalls of Western assistance. In 1978 Victor Trukhanovsky wrote: “The deliveries were curtailed652 not so much by the difficulties of escorting convoys … as Churchill and British historians like to claim, as by the fact that in Britain there were influential circles which did not like the alliance with the USSR and hindered the normal development of relations between the two alliances. Their influences affected the stance adopted by Churchill.” Although in reality shortages of weapons and shipping, together with Soviet intransigence, were the principal inhibiting factors, it was true that few senior figures in Britain wanted the Soviets to emerge strengthened from the war. Extravagant early assurances given to Moscow by both Washington and London were broken. Churchill’s promise to dispatch twenty, even forty British air squadrons to support the Red Army went unfulfilled. There were readily identifiable reasons for this. But Stalin saw only one reality: that while his own nation was engulfed in battle, blood and destruction, Britain remained relatively unscathed and America absolutely so.

Churchill was too wise to waste much consideration upon the moral superiority of Britain’s position over that of the Soviet Union. All that now mattered to the British and Americans was that the three nations shared a common commitment to the defeat of Nazism. Nonetheless, it was hard to achieve even basic working relationships. Whatever courtesies Stalin accorded to such grandees as Churchill, Eden, Hopkins, Harriman and Beaverbrook, and whatever Soviet secrets he himself occasionally revealed to them, humbler Allied officers and diplomats were denied the most commonplace information. They were exposed to unremitting discourtesy on good days, to contemptuous abuse on bad ones. British and American sailors landing at Murmansk and Archangel suffered insults and humiliations. A later head of the British military mission to Moscow, Lt. Gen. Brocas Burrows, had to be replaced at the Soviets’ insistence after their hidden microphones caught him describing them as “savages.”653

The prime minister and his colleagues, like Roosevelt and Marshall, knew that Russia must be given assistance because, to put the matter bluntly, each Russian who died fighting the Germans was one less Englishman or American who must do so. But it would have been asking too much to expect the Westerners to like the Russians. Policy made it essential to pretend to do so, just as Stalin sometimes offered a charade of comradeship. But the Soviets behaved as brutes both to their own people and to the Western Allies. Only the idealists of the left, of whom there were many in wartime Britain though rather fewer in America, sustained romantic illusions about Mother Russia. They were fortunate enough never to glimpse its reality.

Back in Cairo on August 17, Churchill briefly lapsed into exhaustion. After a rest, however, he quizzed Alexander about the prospective desert offensive, which there were hopes of launching in September. On the nineteenth, he drove 120 miles through sandy wastes landmarked with supply dumps and wired encampments to visit Montgomery at his headquarters and inspect troops. This was an outing which he thoroughly enjoyed. He claimed to detect a new mood among officers and men. His imagination surely ran ahead of reality, for the new regime had been in place only a week. But a perception of change buoyed his spirits. He slept in the plane back to Cairo, then attended a conference, dined and sat chatting to Brooke in the warm night air on the embassy lawn until two a.m. He commissioned the ambassador’s wife654, Lady Lampson, to undertake a shopping expedition on behalf of Clementine, buying Worth perfume, Innoxa and Chanel face cream, fifteen lipsticks—and silk to make the delicate underwear in which he loved to clothe himself.

A signal arrived from Mountbatten, describing the raid on Dieppe that had taken place that day. Of six thousand men engaged, mostly Canadian, a thousand had been killed and two thousand taken prisoner. More than a hundred aircraft had been lost in fierce air battles with the Luftwaffe. Yet the chief of Combined Operations reported, absurdly: “Morale of returning troops reported to be excellent. All I have seen are in great form.” It was some time before Churchill fully grasped the disastrous character of the raid. Lessons were learned about the difficulties of attacking a hostile shore. Inflated RAF claims masked the reality that the Germans had that day shot down two British aircraft for every one which they themselves lost. Once more, a sense of institutional incompetence overlay the debacle. The invaders bungled the amphibious assault in every possible way, while the Germans responded with their accustomed speed and efficiency. After almost three years of war, Britain was incapable of conducting a limited surprise attack against an objective and at a moment of its own choice. Mountbatten was successful in evading responsibility, much of which properly belonged to him—back in May, he had boasted to Molotov about “his” impending operation. But leaders and planners had failed at every level. Incredibly, Gen. Sir Archibald Nye, acting CIGS in Brooke’s absence, was unaware that the raid was taking place. It is scant wonder that Churchill lacked confidence in his commanders, and remained morbidly fearful that Britain’s war-making instruments were doomed to break in his hand.

Only Beaverbrook, still banging a drum for the Second Front, seemed unchastened by the experience of Dieppe. His Evening Standard asserted that the shipping problems impeding an early invasion could be overcome if the Chiefs of Staff displayed more guts, declared the raid to have been a near victory, and editorialised on August 21, 1942: “The Germans cannot afford any more Dieppes either on land or in the air … Two or three simultaneous raids on a large scale would be too much for the three solitary Panzer divisions in France.” No general or minister doubted that such calls to arms were delivered at Beaverbrook’s explicit behest. The pressures upon the prime minister not merely for action but for success were now greater than at any time since he assumed office.

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