Churchill and Britain blamed again

Undermining the British people’s pride in their performance in the twentieth century’s two world wars is a key part of the mind-set which seeks to undermine their sense of national identity.

The Times carried two such articles on Thursday, 12th March 2009. These relate respectively to Britain’s and specifically Churchill’s ”betraying the Poles” and ”ignoring the Jews’ pleas for help” during the Second World War. These two allegations, repeated in the articles, are part of ”the long running debate” on these matters according to colomnist Ben Macintyre.

Briefly, what are the relevant facts?

In 1939, Britain and the British Empire declared war on Germany when she refused to withdraw her invading armies from Poland. By February 1945 the Russians were in control of the whole of pre-war Poland as a result of their 1944 summer and 1945 New year offensives. The Russian advance  had been greatly faciliated by Germany’s determined defence against the invading British and American armies in the West during the summer and autumn, and Hitler’s committing the whole of Germany’s strategic reserves to attacking the Allies in the Ardennes at the turn of the year.

When the three leaders, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt met at Yalta from February 4th to 11th, 1945, the future of Poland was discussed exhaustively at seven out of eight of the plenary sessions of the conference and at many separate meeting of the three foreign ministers. The British record alone of the plenary discussions on Poland contains nearly 18,000 words.

British policy as pursued by Churchill and Eden tenaciously throughout, was what we had gone to war for, namely a free and independent Poland.

American policy was very concerned not to press the Russians hard on the issue of Poland, or indeed on anything else in Eastern Europe. This was because above all else, Roosevelt was anxious to get Stalin to declare war on the Japanese and attack them in Manchuria, thus denying them the means of reinforcing their army in Japan itself.

Russian policy on Poland was simple: they would not allow any form of election which would result in a government, which they deemed ”hostile” to the Soviet Union or likely to permit a revived Germany, to launch an attack against her, as had in fact happened in 1941 less than four years before. In practice this meant a communist government, which the Russians had already set up in ‘provisional’ form in Lublin in Eastern Poland, where their summer offensive had carried them by September 1944.

It should be remembered that at the time of Yalta the Allies had not crossed the Rhine, while the Russians were only about 50 miles from Berlin.

As Sir William Hayter, then British ambassador in Moscow, observed in the recent TV Docudrama, Churchill, then aged 70, not so long recovered from a serious illness brought about by the immense stress of his position, fought like a tiger for Poland’s freedom to choose a non-communist government. So what would the historian M.R.D. Foot have had Britain do, given his view  in the Times article by one Kamil Tchorek” that Britain ‘turned a blind eye’ to Stalin’s European ambitions as well to the holocaust?

Mindful of the immense losses the Soviet forces had already suffered in fighting the Germans, the British and American peoples would not have stood for any form of hostile action by the Allies against the Soviet Union: indeed Stalin was seen as a hero by the general public in both countries. Their sympathy for the Russian people greatly outweighed their sympathy for the Poles, although many in Britain knew of their gallantry on the battlefields of Italy and Normandy.

Moreover, while everyone in Britain knew that Britain had declared war to free Poland many, particularly on the Left, also knew that Poland had not been a democracy at any time in its existence. Under Marshal Pilsudski, Poland had invaded the Ukraine in 1920 and incorporated the western part into Poland at a time when the Soviet leadership was engaged in a ferocious civil war against the ”Whites”, mainly former Czarist forces with whom almost no-one in Britain or the USA had the slightest sympathy. In 1938, Poland took advantage of Germany’s carve-up of  Czechoslovakia to carve a bit out for herself , namely Teschen.

So the question is posed to Mr Foot and to those many Poles who have claimed that Britain betrayed them: what in February 1945 would you have had Britain do which she did not do, bearing in mind she faced in Burma about a quarter of all Japanese land forces, in Northern Italy a German army of about 20 divisions (the defeat of which would in fact be the main insurance against  a  Marshal Tito-led invasion of Italy), in Greece a communist insurgency, on the Rhine the invasion of Northern Germany still to come, while at home call-up of 55 year-olds to meet the acute shortage of manpower?

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2 Responses to “Churchill and Britain blamed again”

  1. Ageing Albion says:

    This isn’t quite right. The German defence against Russia was vastly greater in numbers than the German defence against the allies; the reason the Russians prevailed is that they raised a vastly bigger army still, and their high command cared not how many soldiers or civilians died in pursuit of their victory. The West was not capable of deploying the same numbers and frankly everyone should be pleased that they chose not to fight in the same manner. For the most part the German army was much the best field army in the world during the war, and it only ceased to be so because of fuel and manpower shortages, and the end of German air superiority, as well as the crushing weight of numbers it faced on the Eastern front in particular.

    Nor did Britain face “a quarter of the Japanese army” in Burma; the vast majority of the Japanese army was in China throughout the war (the war in China has not been given its proper weight in most Western histories of the war). That does not belittle Britain’s considerable achievement in that theatre (given the atrocious and humiliating beginning, with the fall of Singapore and elsewhere), but we need to acknowledge the Chinese theatre.

    I think all we can say is that Britain tried its best for Poland but didn’t stand a chance: it could do nothing militarily and therefore, in those dark times, nothing politically or economically either. The Poles went the way of so many others before and since – squashed beneath the realpolitik of great powers whose interests did not coincide with their own.

    As for the Jews by the time the atrocities were known the war had been joined and Britain fought to the end to defeat the Nazis, which is the only way the Jews could have been spared. So other than criticising the way the war was fought in general, it is fanciful to think that Britain could have done much more.

    Guilt about failure to provide sanctuary to all the Jews before the war led to the Refugee Convention of 1951, whose use has long since shifted from helping victims of equivalent persecution to being by and large a cynical means of circumventing normal immigration controls, but that’s another story.

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  2. Gillian Bush Gillian Bush says:

    Reply from Stephen Bush

    Japanese data is hard to come by. The army in Manchuria really didn’t do much after about 1941, whereas in Japanese eyes the war in Burma was their equivalent of the Russian front in German eyes – more or less continuous fighting – after Mountbatten’s 1944 decision to fight on during the monsoon.

    In terms of British effort, ignoring the huge British bomber offensive night after night for 2 years (1943-45) ignores the fact that (a) more 88 mm guns were deployed with their crews than either on the Russian or Allied fronts; (b) virtually the whole of the German fighter force was from 1943 onwards deployed to combat the bombers, allowing the Soviets and Allied forces to gain air superiority over their battlefields in the key battles of 1944-45; (c) the Soviets couldn’t have functioned without the colossal amounts of equipment shipped to them in the Arctic convoys in the whole period of their war involvement 1941-45.

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