Ironically, the US chiefs were now discussing all the scenarios that Churchill had foreseen 18 months before, when formulating his plan for Unthinkable. President Truman had even appointed a Special Counsel, Clark Clifford, to report on the growing Soviet menace, concluding that Stalin believed ‘a prolonged peace’ between the Marxist and capitalist societies was impossible and the only outcome was war. At a top-level meeting between the US and Britain, even the new US chief of staff, General Eisenhower, was talking the Unthinkable talk of establishing Allied ‘bridgeheads’ in Europe. In the face of any Soviet onslaught he advocated withdrawing forces to bridgeheads in the Low Countries. As Churchill had earlier recommended, this would deny the enemy the use of bases from which to launch rocket attacks at Britain, as well as offering the Allies a short line of communication back to Britain. The UK would be of huge strategic value for the Allied air forces, though the Americans noted that longer airstrips would be required in British bases to enable more B–29 squadrons to be accommodated. The Naval representative also argued for a reoccupation of Iceland to broaden the reach of naval forces.
So, with a consensus reached, the meeting broke up, but not before it was agreed that the utmost secrecy should be imposed on the Combined Joint Chiefs of Staff outline plan, and that no one beyond the level of the chiefs and their immediate planners should be allowed access. The US chiefs were most keen to drive on and agree a command organisation for the US and Britain in the event of Soviet aggression, which they saw as ‘imminent’. However, it was not long before other senior British commanders became involved in the plans. On 16 September Field Marshal Montgomery, supposedly on a private visit to the United States, met with General Eisenhower and President Truman to discuss the war plan options for the West. Cabling Prime Minister Attlee to advise him of developments, Montgomery referred to the highly sensitive plan and stressed it was ‘Personal and Eyes only for PM’. ‘So far as I am aware, no (repeat) no one here knows anything about matter.’
Montgomery was keen to add, ‘all agree that secrecy is vital.’ To cover their trips to meet US Joint Planning Staff, the British planners used the excuse of researching for a ‘report on the strategical lessons of the recent war’. There was even concern within the British camp that the amply proportioned ‘Jumbo’ Wilson might have presented a large silhouette on board the yacht where he met with US chiefs. Furthermore, it was questioned whether British planners should wear ‘uniform or mufti’ when meeting with their American counterparts. Fortunately, the idea of ‘cocktail parties’ for visiting teams was hastily dispensed with.
Yet it seemed that the tight security in the US was now unravelling. The British were horrified to learn that the secretaries to the US War Department and Navy Department were also aware of the plan and it was only a matter of time before operatives in the US State Department heard of the details. British security operatives may well have been aware of the leaks to the Soviets from within the State Department and feared the worst. Attlee certainly did. Confiding to Field Marshal Wilson, he stated ‘the issues now raised are of the utmost importance and potential value, but any leakage would have the gravest consequences.’
During October 1946 the Canadian war planners were also introduced to the operation and a representative met with British and US planners for further meetings in London. Discussions included the intended bridgeheads and the capacity of Naval forces to evacuate US and British troops from mainland Europe, should the Red Army advance to the West. There was also the pressing problem of renewed Soviet threats to Greece and Turkey, as well as the issue of ‘standardisation’ of weapons and equipment between the US, Britain and Canada.
Operation Pincher went through a number of modifications during the summer of 1946, and the US Joint Planners ensured that it remained relevant, but it still excluded specific reference to the use of atomic bombs by the strategic bomber force. As with Unthinkable the planners made little attempt to project beyond the initial stages of a conflict, since there were just too many variables. One of the constant worries remained the issue of demobilisation. For with peace came a great desire for ‘bringing the boys home’ as soon as possible and for reducing the huge cost of a vast army.
Consequently, by June 1946 the US armed forces, which had numbered more than 12 million at the end of the war, were reduced to fewer than 3 million. Secretary of State James Byrnes was frustrated with the whole process, ‘The people who yelled loudest for me to adopt a firm attitude towards Russia,’ he moaned, ‘then yelled even louder for the rapid demobilisation of the Army.’ So formidable was the strength of Soviet armour and infantry that once US troop reductions were underway, the planners concluded that Allied land forces would not be strong enough to drive into the Soviet interior for at least three years. Allied air power offered the only hope of victory, by employing massive strikes against ‘the industrial heart of Russia’.
It was unrealistic to believe that the Soviet Union could be threatened with oblivion in 1946. Even by the autumn of that year the US only possessed nine atomic bombs. There were two Mark III Fat Boys earmarked for testing off the US mainland, and seven Mark IIIs were held in secure housings on the mainland. They could only be delivered to the Soviet Union by the Silver Plate B–29, suitably modified to hold the weapon in place, but there was a lack of properly trained aircrews, as well as bomb assembly teams. Furthermore, scientists were returning to civilian life and the production of both uranium and plutonium was falling. However, production would be dramatically increased in the next few years, so that by the time of the first Soviet atomic test in 1949, the US would have a stockpile of some 400 atomic bombs. Despite the comfort of atomic superiority, senior commanders in the West were in no doubt about the consequences of an imminent world war. ‘My part in the next war,’ wrote Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, ‘will be to be destroyed by it.’
While Britain and the US faced up to the Soviet Union, Poland, as a cause, had slipped off the list of priorities. During Christmas Eve 1946 the ‘Polish Sixteen’, who had been the hope of a future liberated Poland, were languishing in various Soviet prisons. One of the most prominent leaders, General Okulicki, passed his last hours in Moscow’s Butyrka Prison. His disappearance, together with other leading members of the Polish underground, in April 1945, had done much to increase the climate of fear surrounding Soviet intentions. He was either murdered by the NKVD or died as a result of his hunger strike; it has been estimated that between 1944 and 1947 some 50,000 Poles, including many members of the AK, were deported to the Soviet gulags. In the spring of 1946 the US Joint Chiefs declared that the Soviet Union was giving the highest priority to ‘building up their war potential and that of their satellites so as to be able to defeat the Western democracies’. To combat Soviet plans for ‘eventual world domination’, the West would also have to provide military and economic aid to frontline states, such as Greece, Turkey and Iran.
So the post-war Western governments continued their stand-off with the Soviet Union, a situation that became known as the Cold War. The 1947 elections in Poland were duly rigged and a communist government was returned. But the Polish government-in-exile in London continued its existence, despite the worldwide recognition of the communist puppet government in Poland. In fact, showing all the old stoicism, the London Poles continued their existence until 1991, when the old presidential seals were finally handed over to the first post-communist government in Warsaw. Throughout the late 1940s the Cold War festered with intermittent crises erupting, such as the Berlin Blockade, when the Soviets attempted to cut off Western access to Berlin. The West arranged an airlift of supplies to lift the ‘siege’ and, in 1949, the Soviets backed down. It was, however, a momentous year for other reasons – the Soviet Union developed its own atomic capability and the balance of power shifted again.
Operation Unthinkable might have been just another quiet footnote in the story of the Cold War, but in 1954 there was a bizarre incident involving Churchill and Montgomery that threatened to expose the whole plan. In a low-key speech at his Woodford constituency, Churchill suddenly announced that in 1945 he had ordered Field Marshal Montgomery to preserve captured German weapons and to be ready to reissue those arms to ‘German soldiers whom we should have to work with if the Soviet advance continued’. An intrigued press tackled Montgomery for his comments and there ensued a wrangle over whether or not Churchill had ever formally issued the order. The Soviet press immediately seized on his comments, attacking ‘Churchill’s crusade’, and there were critical articles in the British and the US press. The Chicago Tribune attacked Churchill and his wartime policy with headlines that screamed ‘Folly on Olympian Scale’. The whole episode blew up out of nowhere but more rational observers wondered why, at the height of the Cold War, the prime minister would casually disclose such controversial plans to attack the Soviet Union. Major-General Sir Edward Spears was wheeled out in defence of Churchill. ‘The whole thing is absurd,’ he countered. ‘The Times is behaving as if Sir Winston had called in Hitler for help against Russia. Hitler was out of business.’ But the prime minister still had to calm the storm by admitting that he could find no telegram in his records and that he must have issued a verbal order to Montgomery. Privately he confessed, ‘I made a goose of myself at Woodford.