I got involved in a “what if” discussion about “OperationUnthinkable” over the weekend. It was very enjoyable, this mental masturbation of considering all of the things that might have been, had this alternative history actually taken place.
First and foremost, I wonder what it would be like to drive a Russian sports car? Tam did a post that I can't find, which was essentially a picture of two cars, one of them a 1990 mercedes sports car that looked awesome, and the other, a Trabant, one of those awful 2-stroke nightmares that the luckiest among the East German population could acquire, and said something to the effect of “take the world’s most intelligent, industrious people, put one group under communism, and one under captitalism, and this is your result." Makes me wonder what Russian sports car would even look like…
A lot of the arguments against the possible success of “Unthinkable” came from arguments revolving around sheer numbers. I think there were three soviet tanks for every allied tank, and four soviet soldiers for every allied soldier, and so the folks in the conversation that thought “Unthinkable” was, well, un-doable, generally relied on that fact. Based on sheer numbers alone, the Soviets would be our masters in any confrontation.
Most people do, in fact, consider the Eastern Front to have been the actual war in Europe, whereas the western front was simply a side-show, and they base that on sheer numbers. As Tam has pointed out (can’t find that post, either), that is probably simplistic thinking. I also have a more nuanced view of the situation, and consider that the war against Germany was won by the following key factors. Without any one of these, things would have gone very differently:
Allied Supply and Industry
Germany could not touch us when it came to the ability to produce war materials. Russia could not touch Germany in that same regard, and would likely never have surpassed Germany if it were not for Allied lend/lease programs keeping Russia in oil and ammunition and food. Without Allied supply, Russia would have almost certainly collapsed after the first few months of war.
The United States Air Force
At the same time that Allied supply chains were dwarfing those of the Axis, Axis supply was being pounded to dust by a relentless air bombing campaign by the Allies. This also served to degrade the strength of the Luftwaffe, putting them on more equal terms with the degraded Russian air forces. Without this, German supply could possibly have dwarfed Russian supply, and they could have had a chance at winning a war of attrition with the Russians (maybe).
The Russian Winter, and German Arrogance
No German commander gave the situation in Russia it’s due regard, specifically as applied to winter, but also as applies to the will of the Russian man, and their ability and willingness to feed their people into the meat grinder, and finally, in having the humility to withdraw and set up defensive lines and perimeters during the worst times of the year instead of attempting to press forward and outstrip their ability to supply. The Russian winter gave the Russian army a chance to gain a foothold, as Germans outpaced their supply in many fronts.
Notice that the Russian Army doesn’t make this list. That is on purpose. If you look at the total number of Russian casualties, and carry that over to the US and British armies without considering these other facts, you would be tempted to exclaim “there is no way that Britain and the US could have absorbed such massive quantities of casualties!” And so you’d be tempted to add the Russian Army to that list.
I agree. They could not have.
But they would not have, either, and that’s what the folks arguing that line fail to see. The war in Western Europe was entirely different than the war on the Eastern front, for one reason – the plains and steppes of the eastern front. The spaces to maneuver were massive, but there was no cover from the air. Neither side had much of an airforce left towards the end, and so the war was a ground war, won by gross tonnage of men and equipment each side was willing and able to feed into the grinder.
Consider one famous battle, the battle of Kursk, and think about that battle had one of the belligerents had an actual, operating air force at the time of the battle. Think about masses of German tanks, sitting out on the open steppes, with nothing to protect them from wave after wave of B-17, B-29, and B-24 bombers. The entire front of that battle could have been carpet bombed ten times over by the time the Germans fielded an offensive, and no offensive would have ever occurred. Instead of the largest tank battle in history, you’d have had an unremarkable, nearly casualty-free (for the allies, anyway) bombing campaign (made possible by the absolute allied air superiority at that time of the war, and also their superior supply chains for the bombs and fuel), followed by another unremarkable “mopping up” campaign where stragglers that survived the bombardment were destroyed by ground forces and artillery. How many would have been lost had that battle been fought between Germany and the Allies, instead of Russia? I’d argue not many allied troops at all, and probably not as many Germans as actually died, because they would never have been able to field such a force in the first place.
That battle, alone, as I recall, was responsible for 350,000 Russian casualties, which is damn close to the total casualties of the allies in the entire European war! If it had been fought against Germany by the US and Britain, the “Battle of Kursk” would have been no different than the “turkey shoots” that US and British air corps inflicted on the Germans and Japanese later in the war on their own fronts. Couple the horror of this air bombardment with the fact that the Germans would not have been nearly so reluctant to surrender to the Americans, because they knew they’d be treated better, and you’ve got an entirely different dynamic at Kursk.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that, yes, the Russians lost a lot of men in the war, but historically, the Russians ALWAYS lost a lot of men when they went to battle. You might argue that the Russians did the lions’ share of the work by fighting these massive battles of attrition against the Germans, and I’d agree, but it was not necessary that they did so in order for the Allies to win. With our supply and our air power, we could have fought the entire German army ourselves, and we’d have still won. We just wouldn’t have had to kill every one of them to make it happen, as the Russians found necessary.
So any argument that the Russians would have been a formidable foe that the other allies could not have handled as easily as they’d handled the Germans tends to fall flat. Fighting the Germans in mountainous, treed western Europe is entirely different than fighting them on the steppes of Russia. Our air force became useless in ground support roles in several instances of direct fighting in western Europe, but on the steppes and plains of Russia?
No surface army could move without air cover, and air cover is one thing that Russians would not have had once the allied lend/lease and alliances dried up.
Moving on to supply chains. Even if they could have found someone to supply them (as they were still incapable, even as late as 1945, of supplying themselves) they could not have defended their ports for long. The American and British navies would easily have crushed the Russians, again, because moving surface ships after 1938 without air cover was suicide, especially against an American Navy that had just fought the largest naval war ever seen, and won handily.
Every port the Russians had would have been in allied hands in a matter of weeks, which was a key advantage the Germans never gained against Russia because of their lack of a strong navy.
An Atlantic Ocean empty of German “wolf packs” meant that supply would be pretty much uncontested to any port on Earth (except for those few controlled by Japan in the very early days of the war against Russia), so Allied supply would be unfettered. Add in the fact that we would no longer be diverting a huge portion of our supply to the Russian cause, or to the bottom of the atlantic, or, after August 1945, to the Pacific Theater, and I think no person could argue against the statement that the balance of supply would be tipped drastically in allied favor. Drastically.
So now we’ve got material superiority, and air superiority. We still don’t have manpower superiority, but with smart deployment, as discussed before, we wouldn’t need it. The entire Russian army in Germany was being supplied by 20 locomotives. They wouldn’t last the first week before allied bombings took them out. If the Russians weren’t quick to retreat, we could have had them cut off from retreat and re-supply in a matter of a few days, using encircling tactics, and avoiding direct confrontation with the main body of the Russian Army whenever possible. All that would be needed is to repel any counter-attacks, which again, would be made easier by the fact that our air force would be constantly degrading their ability to make war, tighten the noose, and wait for their supplies to run out.
It was pretty well known that the only reason the Russian army stayed in force during the war was that they hated the Germans more than they hated Stalin. But give them a chance to choose between surrendering to a benevolent force like the US and British, and starving to death?
There would be no Stalingrad. No fights to the last man. The second they got rumbly in their tummies, they would hoist the white flag.
If they did not, it would only change the outcome by a few weeks and a lot of Russian blood, anyway. No Russian force, encircled, cut off from supply, and out in the open, could possibly survive the allied air barrage that we were capable of laying down. B-29s were almost impervious to Russian anti-aircraft batteries. Don’t forget, too, that we had nukes and they did not. The T-34 was good tank, but even it could not withstand a 500 pound bomb, much less a 12 kiloton nuclear blast.
It would simply be a case of how many Russians you had to blast to smithereens before they gave up. But give up they would, without a doubt.
But I still don’t think that such a thing could have been done without the Russians attacking us, first. Believe it or not, my biggest reason for thinking that it might not have worked was popular opinion and politics.
No one could have possibly foreseen how powerful and dangerous the USSR was going to get. In 1945, they were our allies. How could you possibly convince the American and British pubic, now that they’d won their hard-fought victories, to make war on a key ally and keep fighting? How could you convince the troops? Especially when they all knew of the massive attrition rates that the Russians had inflicted on the Germans?
How do you explain to them that it won’t be the case when we go up against them?
I think that this, more than any other thing, is the reason that I do not believe that “Unthinkable” could ever have worked. The US and Britain were tired of war, and would never have supported such an endeavor. Turns out I was right, because they didn’t, and “Unthinkable” never got it’s legs under it.
Without that, the campaign never started, and we had 60 years of nuclear brinksmanship and fear as a result.
Pity I never got to drive that Russian sports car.