The destination for history

Operation Unthinkable – Churchill’s plans to invade the Soviet Union


If you thought the Cold War between East and West reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, then think again. 1945 was the year when Europe was the crucible for a Third World War.

So concerned was the Prime Minister Winston Churchill, that in the spring of that year he ordered his Chiefs of Staff to prepare a plan, ‘Operation Unthinkable’ to attack the Soviet Empire. The top secret plan was so sensitive that only Churchill’s immediate circle of military advisors were privy to the blueprint. The detailed proposal, which may seem fanciful today, sought to claw back East Germany and Poland, which had fallen under Soviet domination. Churchill felt particularly guilty over the fate of the Poles, who had fought valiantly for the Allies during the war but whose future was now dictated by Stalin.

If Churchill wanted to act, he knew that time was running out. The United States were about to move vast numbers of their troops and ordnance out to the Far East for the assault on mainland Japan, leaving Western Europe at the mercy of Stalin. Furthermore, demobilisation would start after VE Day and would rapidly reduce the size of the British Army and their capacity for offensive action.

The plan called for a massive Allied assault on 1 July 1945 by British, American, Polish and German – yes German – forces against the Red Army. They aimed to push them back out of Soviet-occupied East Germany and Poland, give Stalin and bloody nose, and force him to re-consider his domination of East Europe. But the plan was fraught with danger and the Allied force risked being dragged deeper into Soviet territory to face the nightmare of fighting in a Russian winter. The ghosts of Hitler and Napoleon were never far away.

Eventually in June 1945 Churchill’s military advisors cautioned him against implementing the plan, but it still remained a blueprint for a Third World War. There were numerous flashpoints around Europe, where Allied troops were face-to-face with the Red Army and any of these confrontations could have sparked another world conflict. The Americans had just successfully tested an atomic bomb, and there was now the final temptation of obliterating Soviet centres of population.

But Churchill’s political days were numbered. In July 1945 a General Election removed him from office and the plan for ‘Operation Unthinkable’ was but away in the bottom drawer. Churchill, alone amongst Western leaders, appreciated the Soviet threat, and it was only a matter of months before the Americans themselves woke up to the threat from Stalin and consulted the British military about a new war plan. The Cold War was now a reality. 

By Jonathan Walker

Yalta Conference 1945

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