jump to navigation

Operation Unthinkable: The war that never happened December 26, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in History, Uncategorized.

I hadn’t heard of this before, though apparently it became public knowledge in 1998, but apparently according to this pretty comprehensive overview in a Russian/Indian online publication:

…the ink had barely dried on Germany’s surrender document when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked his War Cabinet to draw up a plan to invade the Soviet Union.

This was driven by a sense on Churchill’s part that the USSR had gained too much and Britain too little from the war. Perhaps he realised that the post-War dispensation was going to see the latter displaced by the United States and the Soviet Union. Perhaps too he was, quite simply, too old, too used to violence. It’s somewhat chilling to read the following:

According to Alan Brooke, Britain’s Chief of Army Staff, Churchill told him at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945: “We can tell the Russians if they insist on doing this or that, well we can just blot out Moscow, then Stalingrad, then Kiev, then Sevastopol.”

That sort of glibness about what would – of course – be mass murder, whatever one’s thoughts about Stalin and the high Stalinist period in the USSR, suggests a certain detachment from reality. This wasn’t unnoticed by his own armed forces:

Asked to prepare for war just days after the end of the bloodiest conflict in history, the British generals thought the Prime Minister had really lost it. Brooke wrote in his diary: “Winston gives me the feeling of already longing for another war.”
The generals drew up a plan, appropriately codenamed Operation Unthinkable, which proposed Western forces attack the Soviets on a front extending from Hamburg in the north to Trieste in the south.

And the British military was all too well aware of how thinly spread their forces were during that period. With 103 divisions against the Soviets 264 it is implausible that any conflict would have been easy, even if one factors in the then dubious proposition that Poland and others states being subsumed into the Soviet orbit would have been in any position to rise up and assist such a war.

Ironically, in view of the rhetoric of the subsequent Cold War, British military planners thought it possible that the US might simply not be interested, particularly since they were bearing the brunt of the war in the Pacific. Of course this wasn’t the only curious plan unveiled in the dying days of the Second World War.

There’s more on this here.

The article mentions the Morgenthau Plan, whose aim was to destroy ‘forever’ the prospect of a united, industrialised Germany by destroying the country’s industry and forcing it to return to an agrarian stage of development. Thankfully wiser heads prevailed.


1. Michael Carley - December 26, 2013

It would be interesting to know if Orwell had heard of it when he was writing 1984.


EWI - December 28, 2013

Orwell had an English nationalism blind-spot, and might very well have approved.


2. Johnny Forty Coats - December 26, 2013

When reading Ronan Fanning’s, “Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution, 1910-1922” recently I was stuck by the following quotation which he attributes (p.329) to Lord Robert Cecil:

“I don’t think Winston [Churchill] takes any interest in public affairs unless they involve the possibility of bloodshed.”


Johnny Forty Coats - December 26, 2013

Just now perusing Christopher Clark, “The Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914”, and the following passage jumped out at me (p.532):

“The First Sea Lord Winston Churchill was cheered by the thought of the impending struggle. ‘Everything tends towards catastrophe & collapse,’ he wrote to his wife on 28 July [1914], ‘I am interested, geared-up and happy.'”


que - December 28, 2013

Today he would have been a fan of Zero Hedge


ejh - December 29, 2013

Clark is reviewed by Thomas Laqueur in the London Review of Books (possible paywall).

Odd line: Like a chess analyst, Clark shows how each move and countermove by many different players led to a colossal checkmate.


Johnny Forty Coats - December 30, 2013

I’d second the LRB review: Clark’s book is outstanding.

It seems even better to me because I read a very unsatisfactory work on the same subject a few years ago: Richard Hamilton and Holger Herwig, “Decisions for War, 1914-1917” (Cambridge University Press, 2004). The authors claimed that the Austrians were eager to find a pretext to take Serbia out, that their ultimatum was written in such a way as to ensure its rejection, and that they were fully prepared to trigger a general European war. Hamilton and Herwig redistributed the “war guilt” among the Central powers but kept it well away from the Entente powers. I thought their thesis was entirely unconvincing.

In contrast, Clark claims (honestly, in my opinion) to be concerned with the “how” rather than the “why” of the war. It follows that he doesn’t seek to assign blame to any particular state or figure but instead presents a detailed narrative of events.

Having lived through the 1990s, I must admit that I bring a deep prejudice against Serb nationalism to this subject. That prejudice has been strengthened rather than weakened by reading Clark’s book. However, it seems clear to me that the state most responsible for transforming a minor Balkan conflict into a continental conflagration was Russia. Without Russia’s gratuitous offer of military support, it is quite possible that Serbia would have accepted the terms of the Austrian ultimatum. Alternatively, if Serbia had unilaterally rejected the ultimatum, the result would have been a short punitive campaign which would now be a minor footnote in European history (Austria had declared that it had no designs on Serbian territory).

Russia’s backing emboldened Serbia to reject the ultimatum. It was then all but inevitable that Germany would react to Russia’s decision to mobilise by itself mobilising in support of its Austrian ally. This set the stage for a major war in eastern Europe; what brought western Europe into the picture was the Franco-Russian alliance which obliged France to mobilise in response to German mobilisation. Faced with the nightmare prospect of a war on two fronts, German military strategy called for a quick strike to knock out France while Russian mobilisation (slowed by poor infrastructure and long distances) was incomplete. Belgium then became a useful propaganda card for pro-war elements in Britain (and their Irish camp-followers), but the reality was that any German offensive against France would have brought Britain into the war. The Liberal Party might have split if Belgium had not been invaded, but the Tories were committed to the entente with France and would have provided a large parliamentary majority for war in any event.

If you buy into the idea that a state must stand by its allies if it is not to find itself friendless, then the actions of Germany, France and Britain are all perfectly understandable. If you buy into the idea that a state must respond to a terrorist attack by punishing any state that sponsored and harboured the terrorists (cf. the US invasion of Afghanistan), then Austria’s action is perfectly understandable. If you buy into the idea that all the regions inhabited by members of a particular ethnic group should be formed into a single nation state (cf. Garibaldi and the Risorgimento), then Serbia’s collusion with the “lads” who were taking direct action against Austria is perfectly understandable.

On the other hand, Russia’s action is explicable only in terms of a vague pan-Slavonic, pan-Orthodox solidarity – combined with a macho desire to prove that it was still a great power despite the drubbing it had received from Japan in the far east. Unlike all the other actors in the drama, Russia could have remained aloof without compromising its national security in any way. Avoiding the emotive term “guilt”, it seems clear to me that Russia bore the primary responsible for converting a local Austro-Serb conflict into a world war.

Viewed in a certain light, the Bolsheviks could be seen as agents of divine retribution.


ejh - December 30, 2013

Unlike all the other actors in the drama, Russia could have remained aloof without compromising its national security in any way.

Although Niall Ferguson would have you insert “Great Britain” into that sentence, and without buying the rest of his thesis it’s not clear that he’s wrong.

Of course you can argue with perfect reason that Great Britain could not in fact politically do this, but then again yu can argue that Serbia could not in fact accept the Austria ultimatum (nor indeed take on face value its claimed disinterest in Serbian territory).

Personally I find all they-were-to-blame arguments unsatisfactory. (I do normally anyway, but I particularly do so this morning having spent several hours last night refusing to accept a Catalan friend’s insistence that Madrid is to blame for everything.) I tend to the old-fashioned view that if you have a system of heavily-armed states and alliances then sooner or later somebody’s bluff if going to get called and it’s going to be a wrong call.


Johnny Forty Coats - December 30, 2013

Ferguson’s view is untenable. While there was no formal military alliance between Britain and France, the entente had progressed to a point where France had a legitimate expectation of British support. For example, with Britain’s encouragement the French had concentrated their navy in the Mediterranean in the belief that their Channel ports would be defended by the Royal Navy. If Britain had failed to support France in 1914, revenge against ‘Albion perfide’ would have been high on the agenda of any post-war French government and no other state would have wanted such an undependable ally.

On the other hand, it was widely expected that Tsar Nicky would tell the Serbs to desist from killing members of imperial households, to hand over the ring-leaders to Austria, and to dismantle the organisation responsible. An isolated Serbian government might well have complied. If it didn’t, Nicky could have expressed his pan-Slav solidarity by extracting guarantees from Vienna that there would be no annexation of Serbian territory and that Austrian forces would withdraw in a reasonable time frame.

The last thing the Austrians wanted was more Serb subjects and they were absolutely sincere about having no designs on Serbian territory themselves. They were, however, trying to tempt Bulgaria into attacking Serbia in the rear by holding out the prospect of Bulgarian gains at Serbia’s expense in Macedonia. Given that the Bulgarians were also Slavs and traditional allies of Russia, such a development should not have caused any great problems for the Tsar.

This was a dispute that Russia had no compelling reason to become involved in. Had it not done so, there would have been – in the worst-case scenario – a small Balkan war in 1914.


ejh - December 30, 2013

Yeah, but I’m not seeing why France had a compelling reason to get involved if Russia did not.


Johnny Forty Coats - December 30, 2013

Under the (secret) terms of the Franco-Russian military alliance of 1894, both countries were obliged to immediately mobilise their armies if Germany mobilised.

The alliance was nominally defensive and did not require France to fight Germany if Russia was the aggressor, but simply by mobilising its army France would have pinned down half of Germany’s strength in the west because of the threat of a sudden French attack. It was to break out of this encirclement that Germany launched a pre-emptive strike once France mobilised.

Significantly, in last-minute talks with London, Kaiser Willy indicated that he would accept a British guarantee of French neutrality. That would have involved Britain putting pressure on France to renounce its alliance with Russia, and would have allowed Germany to turn the bulk of its army eastwards. Instead of a world war, there would have been a Russo-German war.

Britain did not take up the Kaiser’s offer, and even if it had the effort would probably have failed. France regarded the Russian alliance as its best security against a rerun of the Franco-Prussian war (and also, of course, as its best prospect of recovering Alsace-Lorraine).


ejh - December 30, 2013

And this is why I take the view that the problem ws a deeply unstable system rather than any particularly bad decision or judgement by any of its component parts. Because if you have a system in which an action in Bosnia, sponsored by Serbia, directed against Austria, means that Germany has to mobilise, which means France has to mobilise, which means Britain has to mobilise….then I’m more interested in that system and its problems rather than in the question of whether Russia needed to join in, or in whether we judge the particular imperatives which led Russia to act as being less wieghty than those which directed Germany, France, or Britain.

Obviously all these are important historical questions (I come to this as much as somebody with a degree in modern history as somebody of leftist and antiwar sentiment) but – in a point the LRB review does not neglect – what strikes me most clearly is how driven by events and the actions of other actors everybody was.


Liberius - December 30, 2013

I’m not greatly convinced that Serbia acquiescing to the Austro-Hungarian Ultimatum would have been an end to it though as Mlada Bosna were primarily a Yugoslavist group even if it had been heavily infiltrated by the Crna ruka; by that period a head of stream had been built up which surely would have returned quickly even if dampened down by diplomatic actions on the part of the Serbians.


Johnny Forty Coats - December 30, 2013

But the “action in Bosnia, sponsored by Serbia, directed against Austria” did *not* mean that Germany had to mobilise. Germany had no intention at all of getting dragged into the conflict between Austria and Serbia. What made Germany mobilise was Russia’s mobilisation in support of Serbia and against Austria.

And the distinction I am drawing is that there was nothing in the system of European alliances that required, or even made it very likely, that Russia would intervene in support of Serbia and against Austria.

That decision can’t be blamed on the system. It seems to have been a rush of blood to the head by two people – the Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov, who was something of a pan-Slav ideologue, and Tsar Nicky, who wasn’t the brightest intellect among the crowned heads of Europe. The likelihood is that Sazonov made the running. If there was a systemic component in the process, it probably lay in the Russians’ miscalculation that French mobilisation would be enough to dissuade Germany from helping Austria: they then imagined that their own mobilisation would dissuade Austria from retaliating against Serbia.

How many people have even heard of Sazonov? Yet without his bungling there would have been no Easter Rising, no Bolshevik Revolution, no Treaty of Versailles, no Irish Free State, no Third Reich, no Fourth International, no Second World War, no People’s Republic of China, no Cold War, no Kim Jong-Il.


Johnny Forty Coats - December 30, 2013

Liberius is, of course, right to point out that acceptance of the Austrian ultimatum and the dismantling of Crna ruka (‘black hand’) – which was a Serbia-based outfit – would not have settled the national question in Bosnia. All I am saying is that it would have avoided the outbreak of World War I.

As for what would have happened next in Austria-Hungary, we can never know. However, there were moves afoot to convert the dual monarchy into a triple monarchy by uniting Slovenia (then part of Austria), Croatia (then part of Hungary) and Bosnia (an imperial province) to form a third “south slav” pillar of the empire. The main obstacle in the way was Hungary, which was reluctant to surrender Croatia.


Liberius - December 31, 2013

Many things would have avoided the outbreak of war at that particular time though, for instance if the various socialist movements around Europe had kept to the principals outlined in the Second International’s 7th congress resolution ‘militarism and international conflicts’ the war could have been averted by depriving it of both the soldiers it needed and more importantly the munitions that only the workforce of Europe could produce. The only benefit which could be said to have come out of that was the underlining of which European forces claiming to represent the interests of the proletariat were solid on the principal of cross border unity of workers and which were more keen to be subservient to their already extant national identities. Indeed on top of rejecting worker unity, in Britain there were people like Arthur Henderson etc. who spent the entire war attempting to reign in the militancy of workers who inherently weren’t all that impressed by the conscriptions, consequent deaths and indeed the restrictive working practices instituted by the war time coalition.

Incidentally, I’m not greatly convinced that the triple monarchy concept would have ever really born fruit as there was too much probability for conflict to be created between a Hungary unhappy at a loss of territory and the inevitable marginalisation created by being only one-third of the Monarchy. Additional to that you have to consider that republicanism as a concept was also growing in popularity in the Triune Kingdom as exemplified by the general popularity, only suppressed by voting rights, of the Radić brother’s Croatian People’s Peasant Party(HPSS). Having said that it is undoubted that the switch to a tripartite structure would have changed the context of any conflict, probably in a civil war direction.


3. EWI - December 28, 2013

Churchill was also enthused by the notions of invading (and perumably conquering) Éire, and failing that, poison-gassing the south-east coast in case of German landings.

But as the IT will remind us again soon enough, he had an Irish assistant, so was clearly a great friend of Ireland all together.


WorldbyStorm - December 28, 2013

That was the English coast too, that was their last gasp defence there – not sure it would have worked though a broader question is the lack if use if gas in ww2


EWI - December 29, 2013

That wasn’t for lack of enthusiasm by Churchill for its use, ever since the First World War (he also wanted to use it against Iraqi villagers in the ’20s).



Pangur ban - December 29, 2013

‘Poison gassing the south coast of Ireland’ …..source?
A tricky job given the prevailing winfs


EWI - December 29, 2013

There was something a couple of years ago, that I think was in the papers. Believe me, if I could find a URL to an online reference of the original, it’d be bookmarked 😉


Dr.Nightdub - December 29, 2013

Everyone’s probably familiar with British artillery being borrowed for the shelling of the Four Courts, but at a recent conference on the Civil War held in Athlone, historian John M. Regan quoted from a letter wriiten to the British by either Collins or the Provisional Govt (can’t remember which). As well as more artillery and armoured cars, the British were asked to provide supplies of poison gas. They said “No” but it’s the thought that counts…


4. Brian Hanley - December 29, 2013

Poison gas was all the rage it seems.
On 29 April 1938, during the debate on the return of the treaty ports, Fianna Fáil TD Martin Corry declared that he favoured ending partition by ‘storing up sufficient poison gas, so that when you get the wind in the right direction you can start at the Border, and let it travel, and follow it’. Corry didn’t explain how this would work exactly, though he did on an other occasion say that when he talked about a united Ireland he didn’t mean that all the people who lived in the 6 counties would be part of it. Of course neither Corry, nor the Irish government had any poison gas, while the British did have plenty of it.


EWI - December 29, 2013

That’s pretty atrocious, even as rhetoric in anger (and not the first time I’ve encountered odious utterances from Corry, either).


CL - December 29, 2013

‘It is a scandal that we should produce and export butter at practically an uneconomic price at the expense of a subsidy from the taxpayer in order to bring back a tambourine or a flute for a pop singer’

-Martin Corry, Dail Eireann, November 11, 1964



Dr.Nightdub - December 30, 2013

Although in fairness, if you were to believe everything Corry said, he had more corpses piled up in the back field than the Grim Reaper. See Eunan O’Halpin’s documentary “In The Name of the Republic”.


Jim Monaghan - December 30, 2013

Even on a genocidal basis it was strange. Did he regard Northern Catholics as crypto Protestants. Corry, indeed a fascists, but a most stupid one.


5. Brian Hanley - December 29, 2013

Corry was on Cork County Council from 1924-1975 and had three separate terms as a TD. His wit and wisdom does include some gems alright.


6. Jolly Red Giant - December 30, 2013

There have been some choice comments in the Dail over the years. One of my favourties were a series of rants by Cumman na nGaedheal TDs who condemned plans to build the Ardnacrusha power station as communism.


Jim Monaghan - December 30, 2013

To be fair it was v who built it. And gave teh contract to a German company. Not just a slavish pro Brit party.


7. Jim Monaghan - December 30, 2013

It was Cumman na nGaedheal who built it.


8. Brian Hanley - December 30, 2013

See Liam Cosgrave’s speech at the 85th anniversary of the Shannon Scheme earlier this year for undisguised class hatred, if factually incorrect in parts. He claimed that Jim Larkin came back from the the US intent on disrupting the building of the power station but Larkin’s ‘best men’ were seen off by Joe McGrath. There were large scale and bitter strikes during the construction alright, but they involved the ITGWU, not the WUI, and McGrath (a sinister man alright) had left the government party over the army mutiny in 1924. Interesting that Cosgrave took this tack in his speech though, given that in other respects the project was a real triumph for the first Free State administration.


9. santoshwebseo - February 24, 2014

Thank you for sharing valuable information. Nice post. I enjoyed reading this post. The whole blog is very nice found some good stuff and good information here Thanks..Also visit my page chess training .


10. bathmate review - June 6, 2015

bathmate review

Operation Unthinkable: The war that never happened | The Cedar Lounge Revolution


11. penis extender system - August 10, 2015

Alrighty then, the penis stretcher that you stated is not as
useful as mine.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: