Operation Unthinkable: Churchill’s plans for war with Russia

Operation Unthinkable was the plan Winston Churchill ordered his generals to drawn up in the aftermath of World War 2.

Operation Unthinkable: What was it?

In May 1945 after the war against Germany was finished and the allied forces were victors. However, whilst the street parties and celebrations rolled on throughout the streets of Britain, Churchill harboured a growing sense of alarm.

Churchill was furious that the allied forces has let the Red Army capture Berlin unchallenged. Churchill despised communism and is anger in the months after the war was rooted in the fact he did not trust the Stalin and Russian intentions.

Operation Unthinkable was the British Prime Minister’s answer the to the Red Threat. A plan on paper to go to war with the Russionas.

What was the threat from Russia?

The mistrust Churchill had in Stalin was not misplaced. The Yalta Conference was the meeting of the leaders of the USA, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union between 4 – 11 February, 1945. The objective was to discuss the reorganisation of Germany after the war. Stalin has already broken many promises made in the conference.

It was clear that as the USSR moved West, they installed puppet regimes loyal to Moscow. This was a clear threat for the West and Churchill sought action and reassurance from his allies to reduce the growing threat from Russia.

Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference, 1945.

What were the plans for Operation Unthinkable?

Churchill wasted no time working on the plans. Whilst most people were either still partying or nursing hangovers in the wake of VE Day celebrations, Churchill had already tasked his military top brass with drawing up viable plans for war with Russia.

The first question he wanted answered was whether the British military with assistance from the American army could force the Russians back East into a retreat from the River Elbe which flowed through Central Europe.

Another avenue he explored was using what dregs remained from German personnel and the Germany economy.

Churchill had even gone as far a thinking of a day to enact the operation – 1 July 1945. This would’ve been just a few weeks after the German surrender of World War 2 in April 1945.

Reaction to Operation Unthinkable

News of the plan was not received and people reacted angrily to the news that Churchill had even gone as far as he did.

Sir Alan Brooke was Chief of the Army and the highest military advisor to the Prime Minister. He played an integral role in the allied victory of 1945. However, on hearing of the plan Churchill has cooked up he reacted with rage brandishing Churchill as “longing for another war”.

One thing that emboldened Churchill was his knowledge that the USA was successfully progressing with Manhattan Project – atomic bombs. He told Brooke that that was their Ace. If Russia didn’t listen to the UK and America’s warnings or bow down, they could bomb Moscow, Stalingrad, and Kiev.

Stalin discovers the plan

Thanks to his elaborate and well connected spy ring operaiting in London and beyond, Stalin soon discovered the secret plans that were only dared spoken of in highly-classified meetings.

And any suspicions the Communist leader held were confirmed when Field Marshall Montgomery was ordered to stockpile any captured German equipment and weapons for “future use.

However, Stalin needn’t have worried too much. The idea never really garnered much support and the advisors who has been tasked with project questioned the feasibility of such a plan. There were too many shortcomings.

The details of the plan and why it wouldn’t work

Operation Unthinkable: A map showing the two pronged plan from Stettin and Poznan in West Poland.

In simple terms the allied forced just didn’t have the manpower to pull of a plan of this magnitude. It was calculated that would need:

  • 47 divisions to mount an effective offensive against the Red Army
  • 14 of the 47 divisions would need to be tank divisions
  • A two pronged attack that would set off from Stettin in North-West Poland and Poznan in West Poland
  • This two pronged attack would need to make use of 10 newly acquired German divisions and 10 existing Polish divisions
  • 40 divisions would need to be held in reserve

The numbers weren’t there and neither was the will to fight. In any case, the military advisors warned that the Red Army could still supply double the amount of troops as the allies and double the amount of tanks.

They advised that the operation would be “hazardous” and “long and costly”. I think this their way of saying “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!”

Brooke described the chances of success as “quite impossible”. Again, I think he was also being polite here.

The plan is shelved

The plan for Operation Unthinkable was given to Churchill on 8 June 1945. It conlcuded that for the plan to have even a small chance of success, the USA’s full support needed to be given, and this could not be guarenteed.

Therefore, the plan was shelved. Brookes and the other planners must’ve got through to the Prime Minister as in the margin of the report he wrote that war against the Red Army was “a highly improbable event”. This was later revised by Churchill as a “purely hypothetical contingency”.

What’s more after receiving news of the”hypothetical” operation, President Truman said in no uncertain terms that he would not support such action.

Churchill went on to lose the General Election of July 1945.

Watch our video on Churchill’s plan 

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