Tag Archives: USSR

The Silent War Part 1 – BBC

On 5 December 2013 the BBC broadcast the first episode of a two-part series called The Silent War, which dealt with a secret underwater espionage war that the UK and USA fought against the USSR during the Cold War. The BBC website describes the first episode, titled Know Your Enemy, as follows:

For decades, Britain and America’s Cold War submarines waged a secret war of espionage against the Soviet navy. Deep in the ocean, crews were locked in a game of cat and mouse as each side battled to gain the tactical and technological advantage.

After decades of silence, submariners from both the east and west are now allowed to talk more openly than ever before about how they plotted to win the war beneath the waves. The west’s superior technology allowed them to secretly shadow the Soviet fleet, at close quarters, giving them vital intelligence and the upper hand if war broke out.

Shadowing submarines was dangerous. The film explores close encounters between western and Soviet forces that put the lives of submariners at risk. Candid interviews with British, American and Russian submariners reveal the pressures of lengthy underwater patrols that drove them to the edge of their physical and mental limits.

1950s submarines were little advanced from those of WWII. They were still powered by diesel-electric engines on the surface and rechargeable batteries underwater, limiting the time that they could stay submerged and the speed that they could travel at when underwater. Water supplies were restricted, meaning that even junior officers such as Sandy Woodward, later commander of the RN task force that recaptured the Falkland Islands in 1982, were unable to wash whilst at sea. Much of their time was spent giving anti-submarine training for their own side.

NATO was heavily outnumbered on the ground, and had little hope of resisting a Soviet land offensive by conventional weapons. Dr Owen Cote of MIT pointed out that this meant that nuclear weapons were to NATO an ‘incredibly attractive’ way of deterring the Soviets and preserving the status quo. In the 1950s these would be delivered by aircraft or land based missiles. However, the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, by the USSR in 1957 left the USA vulnerable to nuclear attack, meaning that its land missiles could be destroyed before they could be launched.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower therefore decided that submarine based nuclear ballistic missiles were required, but the necessary technology did not then exist. Nuclear powered submarines were developed, which were armed with Polaris nuclear ballistic missiles capable of destroying a Soviet city from over 2,000 miles away. They were twice as fast underwater as diesel-electric submarines, and could stay submerged indefinitely. They produced their own water, and the only constraint on their time at sea was food supply. One US nuclear submariner told his wife that in wartime he would be safer on his submarine than she was at home.

The USSR needed to develop its own nuclear missile submarines, but struggled to do so. In the interim it tried to establish a land base for nuclear missiles closer to the USA, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviet forces sent to Cuba included four Foxtrot class submarines, which were powered by diesel-electric engines, but each armed with a torpedo with a nuclear warheads. They were detected by SOSUS, a system secretly laid by the USA in the Atlantic to detect submarines. The USN harassed them, forcing them to surface. They would have been destroyed had it been a shooting war, and returned home in disgrace.

This experience convinced the Soviets that they needed nuclear powered missile submarines of their own, building 34 of the Project 667A class in five years. Both sides could destroy the enemy’s land based bombers and missiles, but not its nuclear missile submarines. They were the ideal weapon for the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction, which meant that neither side would attack the other because it would be destroyed in retaliation. In what was an ideological conflict neither planned to attack, but both feared that they would be attacked. Cote argued that nuclear missile submarines actually made the world more secure, because they deterred both sides from attacking.

Britain launched its first ballistic missile submarines in 1966. Its submarine service worked extremely closely with the American one, with submarines from both countries being based on the west coast of Scotland. Submarines from all three navies went on long patrols, trying to remain undetected. Only a very few officers knew exactly where they were. British captains had sealed orders telling them when to fire. Soviet ones did not know which enemy cities their missiles were aimed at.

By 1970 NATO was concerned at the growing size of the Soviet Navy, fearing that there was no reason for the USSR, which had invaded Czechoslovakia two years before, to have such a large fleet unless it intended to use it. A plan to detect and track all Soviet missile submarines so that they could be destroyed before launching their missiles in the event of war was therefore devised.

Soviet missiles had a range of only 1,300 miles, compared with 2,500 for the Polaris ones used by the RN and USN, so Soviet submarines had to cross the Atlantic in order to be in a position to fire on the USA. SOSUS could detect them, and was now so sophisticated that it could identify different types of submarine. However, NATO needed to know the as much as possible about the acoustic signatures of the Soviet submarines.

In order to obtain this information hunter killer submarines were used to closely track Soviet submarines. The hunter killer boats were also nuclear powered, but armed with only torpedoes, so were smaller and stealthier than the missile submarines. The programme implied that they were a new type, but in fact they predated the missile boats. From 1975, however, the RN and USN hunter killers were given a new role, which was to track Soviet missile submarines in the Atlantic.

The Soviet submarines were first detected by SOSUS. An RN or USN hunter killer submarine would then be ordered to get as close to the Soviet boat as possible, exploiting its advantages of being quieter and having twice the detection range. The objective was to gather as much information as possible about the acoustic signature of the Soviet submarine.

This was dangerous work because the two submarines were so close to each other. One British boat was badly damaged in a collision with what its crew were told was an iceberg. Lord Owen, a former government minister, admitted that it was a Soviet submarine, but the Ministry of Defence has never officially confirmed this. Crews from all three navies were banned from talking about their missions at the time.

NATO was also concerned by the Kiev, the USSR’s first aircraft carrier, which was armed with eight cruise missiles with nuclear warheads as well as aircraft, and was faster than any submarine. In 1977 HMS Swiftsure, Britain’s newest submarine, was sent north to the Barents Sea to gather information on her acoustic signature. This was a difficult and dangerous mission as Swiftsure had to go into the Soviet Northern Fleet’s home waters.

Submarines have their interior lit by only dim red lighting when it is dark outside as it is essential that the light at the bottom of the periscope is at least as dark as that at the top, or else it will be impossible to see anything after dark. As there is only an hour’s daylight per day so far north at that time of the year Swiftsure had only red lighting all day for almost two months.

Her task was made even harder because the Soviets were conducting a major naval exercise when she entered the Barents Sea. However, she was able to get close enough to Kiev to take photographs through the periscope, and to obtain full details of her acoustic signature. This would have enabled NATO to detect and sink her before she got close enough to Europe to fire her missiles in wartime.

This fascinating programme concluded by arguing that the RN and USN hunter killer submarines for two decades obtained vital intelligence that gave NATO ‘a priceless strategic advantage.’ The second episode, to be broadcast on BBC2 at 9 pm on Thursday 12 December, covers the Soviet fight back, weapons under the ice and a disaster at sea.

No overseas co-producers were listed, so those outside the UK will have to hope that their local stations buy it.

There are profiles of  some of the submariners interviewed on the BBC website. For UK viewers it is available on the I-Player until 19 December and is repeated at 11:20 pm on BBC2 on 11 December and at 3:15 am on BBC2 on 22 December: the latter showing may have signing for the deaf, as repeats of BBC programmes in the early hours of the morning often do so. The second episode is on BBC2 at 9:00 pm on Wednesday 12 December.

2 Comments

Filed under Political History, Reviews, War History

In the Fog (V Tumane)

In the Fog (original title V Tumane) is a German/Dutch/Belarussian/Russia/Latvian Film, directed by Sergei Loznitsa. It is set in Belorussia, as Belarus was known when it was part of the USSR, in 1942, during the German occupation. It is in English with Russian subtitles. Click here for cast and other details from the IMDB.

The central character is Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy), a railway worker who is married with a son. It starts with the execution of three suspected saboteurs by the Germans and their local collaborators.

Sushenya was arrested with the three executed men, but then released. This leads the local partisans to assume that he betrayed them. Two men, Burov (Vladislav Abashin) and Voitik (Sergei Kolesov) are sent to execute Sushenya as a collaborator.

The enemy appear just as Burov is about to shoot Sushenya. He escapes, but returns to rescue the wounded Burov. The partisans decide to keep Sushenya alive, as he can carry Burov and knows his way round the local forests.

The back stories of all three men are told in flashbacks. Sushenya is trapped between an occupier who kills anybody who resists and carries out reprisal killings of innocent victims, and a resistance that kills collaborators. While he is a prisoner of the Germans, they give him a choice that is really only a choice of which side will kill him.

The film is very well acted, especially by Svirskiy, whose haunted expression conveys the impossible dilemmas faced by Sushenya far better than any dialogue could. It is slow-moving, but thoughtfully directed and well filmed. It lasts 127 minutes, but I was very surprised when it ended, as I thought that at least 15 minutes less had passed.

The final scenes are shot in fog, but the title probably refers to the fog (or uncertainty) of war.

Although a war film, there is not much violence; one shot of the three hanged men and three brief shoot-outs. There is no nudity or swearing. The UK certificate was 12A, which means that anybody can see it, but those under 12 must be accompanied by somebody over 18.

A bleak but thoughtful film about the dilemmas faced by somebody living in a country under a brutal occupation. Unfortunately, it has not been widely distributed in the English-speaking world. It was released in the UK on 26 April 2013, but did not reach the Edinburgh Filmhouse, where I saw it, until 10 May and finishes on 15 May. According to the IMDB, it has been shown only at film festivals in the USA, and has no release date for any other English-speaking country.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews, War History

MI6 and the Media: Document, BBC Radio 4

The latest programme in the BBC radio series Document dealt with alleged links between MI6, as the organisation officially called the Secret Intelligence Service is popularly known, and the British media during the Cold War. The format of this programme is that it starts with a document or documents and then tries to find the historical story behind the document or documents. A previous post on this blog discussed an earlier episode, which analysed relations between Britain and Vichy France during WWII.

Click here to listen to it from the BBC website; as far as I am aware, there are no time or geographic restrictions on its availability. Note that the online recording starts with a brief trailer for a later programme.

The BBC describes the programme as follows:

Jeremy Duns examines leaked documents which suggest close links between MI6 and the British press during the Cold War.

In December 1968, the British media was shaken by a series of secret documents leaked to Soviet state newspapers. The documents claimed a range of key Fleet Street correspondents and news chiefs were working for the intelligence services. Further papers alleged close links between the BBC and MI6.

At the time, the documents were dismissed by the British media as forgeries, part of an escalating propaganda battle played out in the Russian press. In this edition of Document, Jeremy Duns uncovers evidence which suggests that the papers were genuine and examines how they might have found their way into Soviet hands.

Notorious spies George Blake and Kim Philby are among those under suspicion of having leaked the documents.

Jeremy Duns speaks to distinguished Sunday Times journalist Phillip Knightley, and historian of the intelligence services Professor Christopher Andrew.

The story began with in August 1968, when the Red Army invaded Czechoslovakia in order to put down the Prague Spring, crushing the Czech leadership’s vision of ‘Socialism with a human face.’ The invasion was heavily criticised in Britain by both the media and the government.

This coverage appeared to anger the USSR, since in December the Soviet newspaper Izvestia published a series of articles attacking the British media, which it accused of ‘being an accomplice in ideological subversion.’ Jeremy Duns came across this whilst researching a book on an unrelated spy operation. The Soviets claimed that a large part of the British media was directly working with MI6.

Their source was what they claimed to be a series of MI6 memos. These are the documents analysed in this programme. They included the code names of MI6 officers assigned to work with named journalists, all beginning with BIN. It was also alleged that the BBC was broadcasting coded messages on behalf of MI6.

The allegations were described as ‘rubbish’ by the left-wing Guardian, whilst the right-wing Daily Telegraph thought that they were ‘clumsy and crude.’

Duns looked into the story to see if there is any truth in it. He started with government archives, but MI6 has not released any relevant documents, and none could be found in the UK National Archives.

He then proceeded to interview a number of people who might know the truth. In 1969 Bill Norris reported on the Nigerian Civil War for The Times. He was approached by the British military attaché, who wanted him to provide intelligence on military strength in the north of the country. He declined as he was not a spy and regarded what he was being asked to as being both unethical and very risky. Others agreed to help the military attaché , but Norris would not say who they were.

Kim Philby, the KGB double agent inside MI6 who defected in 1963, made allegations about links between MI6 and the British media in a 1971 interview with Izvestia. One of documents was dated 1959, raising the possibility that Philby might have supplied them to the KGB.

Rupert Allason, who writes on intelligence matters under the pseudonym of Nigel West and studied the KGB files on Philby in the 1990s, did not find this credible as Philby had no access to MI6 files after 1951. Allason was unsure of the authenticity of the documents. He said that MI6 was very cautious of journalists, although some of them were ex MI6 officers.

Dr Stephen Dorril of the University of Huddersfield found the documents more compelling; he has written several books on the British security and intelligence services. He said that the details of how MI6 operates and its relations with journalists revealed in the memos suggested that they were real. He had previously been told of the BIN code names by an ex officer. He suspects that the memos came from George Blake, another KGB double agent in MI6. Blake was involved in recruiting journalists for MI6 and gave almost all the documents he encountered to the KGB.

Philip Knightley, a former Sunday Times journalist, was a contemporary of many of the journalists named in the memos. The allegations do not surprise him, as he had heard the same names quoted before around Fleet Street. He thinks that the documents are genuine.

The former Labour Cabinet Minister Tony Benn wrote in his diary in December 1979 that Mark Arnold-Forster had told him that he worked for MI6 whilst being a Guardian journalist during the period covered by these allegations..

One of the journalists accused of working for MI6 was David Astor, editor of The Observer. Jeremy Lewis, who is writing a biography of him, thinks that the allegations are plausible. Astor had a relationship with MI6 at start of WWII, and this may have continued.

Duns then visited the BBC archives in order to investigate allegations against it. A redacted memo of 24 April 1969 could be read by holding it up to the light. It expresses sympathy for friends who had been caught up in the Soviet propaganda attacks; friends is a euphemism for MI6, but there was nothing else on the subject in the BBC files.

Prof Jean Seaton of the University of Westminster, the official BBC historian, pointed out that the KGB would try to brand BBC World Service Russian broadcasters as spies in order to discredit them.

There is less evidence against BBC than the print media of the employment of journalists by MI6, but the question of it transmitting secret messages on behalf of MI6 remains. This involved the broadcast of prearranged tunes or sentences so that an MI6 officer could prove to somebody from the Soviet Bloc that he was trying to recruit that he had official backing. This is plausible according to Seaton, who pointed out that it was WWII tradecraft.

Prof. Christopher Andrew of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, the official historian of MI5, said that his first instinct on seeing the documents was that they were photographs taken by a Minox miniature camera rather than the originals. This points towards them having been taken by Blake, who used a Minox to copy large number of MI6 documents.

All the journalists singled out as potential MI6 agents are now dead, but cross-referencing of their careers suggests that the documents are from the late 1950s, when Blake was operating as spy. He was discovered and sentenced to 42 years in prison in 1961, but escaped in 1966 and reached the Soviet Bloc. Philby was already in Moscow, and the KGB would have sought Philby’s advice on what propaganda  would have the greatest impact on the UK public. Andrew pointed out that this would apply whether or not the documents were genuine.

Sir Alastair Horne worked for British intelligence in WWII. After the war he became a journalist for the Daily Express, which sent him to Berlin in the early 1950s. He was asked by Maurice Oldfield, his wartime boss, to run three agents in West German ministries. He did not want to and thought that it would interfere with his journalism, but felt that it was something he had to. He thought that it was unethical, but that we were fighting a war against a miserable and ghastly dictatorship that wanted to take over our way of life.

Soviet propaganda may actually have been the truth in this case, but the nature of the contacts remains unknown; they might have been more informal than claimed by the Soviets. Andrew has no doubts that there were contacts, but is cautious about their nature. Dorril thinks that there is much more to come out about co-operation between MI6 and newspapers during Cold War. Knightley believes that such links are dangerous as the opposition will assume all journalists have intelligence links if one is shown to have them.

An interesting programme in an interesting series. The intelligence services played a major role in the Cold War, and there is no doubt much more still to be discovered on the subject.

Leave a comment

Filed under Political History, Reviews

The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in World War II – Halik Kochanski

On 23 January 2013 I attended a talk given by Dr Halik Kochanski at the National Army Museum in London on her book The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War. It was part of a regular series of talks that are held at the NAM on Thursday lunchtimes.

She argued that this is the first book published since the fall of Communism to cover the full story of Poland in World War II. Previous works have concentrated on Poles in the Battles of Britain and Monte Cassino, the Holocaust and the Warsaw Uprising.

Poland had a population of 32 million in 1939, which was made up of 22 million Poles, 4.5 million Ukrainians, 3 million Jews, 1 million Belarusians, 0.75 million Germans and 0.75 million people described as ‘locals.’ A total of 6 million of them were killed in the war, only 10% in military actions. The dead included 90% of the Jews. Five million of the pre-war population were outside the altered post-war borders of Poland at the end of the war.

Poland was in a hopeless position in 1939, with only 1 million troops to defend itself against a German attack from three sides. The Polish plan was to defend and withdraw slowly, launching a counter-attack once the Western Allies had drawn off the Germans.

This plan failed because of the speed of the German Blitzkrieg and because the British and French did little: they were preparing for a long war.

It is a myth that the Polish cavalry charged tanks. There was an action where Polish cavalry successfully charged German infantry but were then surprised by German armour.

It is also untrue that the Polish Air Force was destroyed on the first day. It managed to disperse and continued to fight.

The Poles had few tanks, but the 10th Cavalry (Mechanised) Brigade, the only Polish armoured unit, put up a good fight. Its commander, General Stanislaw Maczek, later commanded the Polish 1st Armoured Division, which fought in Normandy in 1944 and captured the German naval base of Wilhelmshaven in 1945.

The Poles had few forces left in the East to defend when the USSR invaded on 17 September.

The Polish government and high command left the country for Romania and ordered the army to follow. About 85,000 troops escaped to Romania. Most of the government were interned, but 40,000 troops and some politicians escaped to France. 19,000 soldiers made it to Britain in 1939.

Polish military casualties in 1939 were 200,000, a third of them dead and the rest wounded. The Germans took 640,000 prisoners. The officers remained PoWs for the duration of the war, but the other ranks were employed as forced labourers. The Soviets took 240,000 prisoners.

The German policy was to make Poland into an intellectual desert, with a pool of labour that would receive only a very basic education. They killed or imprisoned many intellectuals and priests.

The main difference in the part of Poland occupied by the USSR in 1939 was that education continued, albeit in Belarussian or Ukrainian and with a big political content. They imprisoned 10% of the population, targetting anybody who had been active in the Polish state, whether as a politician or a government employee. They murdered 15,ooo Polish officers at Katyn and elsewhere.

A single resistance body, initially called the ZWZ (Union for Armed Struggle in English) and later the AK (Home Army), was established. An underground government of all political parties was set up. Attempts to extend the network to the Soviet occupied area were made but ran into the problem that the NKVD was more efficient than the Gestapo.

The Germans annexed part of Poland, establishing the General-Government in the rest of their occupation zone. Poles were expelled from the annexed territories to the General-Government; Jews went  to the Lodz Ghetto, which was inside the annexed area. The Poles took revenge by expelling Germans from Poland in 1945. Poland then lost the territory taken by the USSR in 1939, but was compensated with parts of eastern Germany.

There was some collaboration with the Germans at a low-level but none at a political level. Some Poles obtained jobs with the local administration as this protected them from being deported for slave labour. Others were conscripted into the German army and deserted as soon as they could in order to join the Allies.

The Soviets deported a million Poles to the east. Victims were selected for political reasons. Both the Soviets and the Germans gave deportees little notice. Poles expelled by the Germans were given little time to pack, and were sometimes expected to leave their homes clean and tidy for their new German occupants.

After the Germans invaded the USSR in June 1941 Poland and the USSR signed an agreement. The 1939 territorial changes were annulled and diplomatic relations restored. Poles deported to the USSR were given an amnesty, although they had committed no crimes, and a Polish army was established on Soviet soil.

Poles made their way from labour camps and collective farms to the new Polish army. Most were in poor health, and many died along the way. There was a shortage of officers because many had been murdered by the NKVD. The army was eventually evacuated to Iran, where it was supplied by the British. Many civilians accompanied it; they were sent to various parts of the British Commonwealth or to Mexico.

In 1942 the Germans proposed deporting 30 million Slavs, including 85% of Poles, east. The rest of the Poles would be Germanised. 200,000 blue-eyed, blond children were taken from their families and sent to Germany and Austria. Only about 20% returned home after the war. This great tragedy was overshadowed by the even greater tragedy of the Holocaust.

The first of 400 ghettos was set up in October 1939, and mass shootings began when the Germans invaded the USSR in June 1941. These did not reduce the Jewish populations quickly enough, so the death camps were set up. Most Polish Jews died in the four purpose built camps of Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor and Treblinka.

The vast majority of those sent to these camps were murdered in the gas chambers on arrival, with only a small number of Jews being kept temporarily alive in order to provide the slave labour to operate the gas chambers and burn the corpses. Only 110 Jews survived these camps. Auschwitz and Majdanek were combinations of concentration and death camps, where a higher proportion of Jews were initially selected for slave labour rather than immediate death, and not all the inmates were Jews.

The systematic murder of the Polish Jews began in mid 1942 and was largely over by the end of 1943. By then, the only Jews left in Poland were either slave labourers, including the inhabitants of the Lodz Ghetto, or in hiding.

It was difficult for Polish Jews to find help in escaping, as 80% of them were unassimilated, and Poland was the only occupied country where the penalty for helping Jews was death. Despite this, Zegota in Poland was the only government sponsored scheme to help Jews in occupied Europe.

It took 100 helpers to save one Jew, whilst one collaborator could betray a 100 Jews. The people named as The Righteous Amongst the Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel include over 6,000 Poles, but far more helped Jews. A few Jews collaborated; one of their tactics was to speak Yiddish in public in order to trick Jews into revealing themselves.

Jews resisted, including breaking out into forests and revolts in the Sobibor and Treblinka death camps and the Warsaw Ghetto.

The Polish government-in-exile in London commanded two corps and the AK. The Poles made a major contribution to the war in the air, most famously in the Battle of Britain, where 303 Squadron shot down more enemy aircraft than any other fighter squadron.

The 1 Corps included the afore-mentioned 1st Armoured Division and a parachute brigade. The latter unit was originally earmarked for operations in Poland, but was sent to Arnhem. Its commander, General Stanislaw Sosabowski, was unfairly criticised by General Frederick Browning, the commander of the 1st British Airborne Corps, after the operation failed. Sosabowski was later praised in the memoirs of General Robert Urquhart, commander of the 1st Airborne Division.

The 2 Corps, commanded by General Wladyslaw Anders, was made up of the men who had been captured by the USSR in 1939 and then moved to the Middle East. It fought in Italy, including at Monte Cassino. Most of its members came from the eastern parts of Poland, which were annexed by the USSR in 1945. Few of them returned to Poland after the war.

Poles made a major contribution to Allied intelligence, including the first success in breaking the Enigma code. The Germans knew that an early version of it had been cracked, and tortured four captured Polish code-breakers in order to discover if the current code had been broken. It had, but the Poles insisted, even under torture, that it had not. The Poles also provided intelligence on the German scientific research site at Peenemunde, the V2 rocket and the German plan to invade the USSR in 1941.

Poland broke off diplomatic relations with the USSR after the bodies of the Poles murdered at Katyn were discovered. It had little say in the decision taken by the Big Three of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. Stalin wanted eastern Poland, but was prepared to give Poland some German territory in return.

The Soviets formed the 1st Polish Army in 1943 from Polish PoWs who had not moved to the Middle East and Soviet officers. It was commanded by General Zygmunt Berling, a Polish officer who had refused to follow Anders to the Middle East. Its first battle at Lenino took place in October 1943, before Anders’s 2 Corps had been in action in the Middle East.

The AK had 400,000 members. A general uprising, called Operation Tempest, was planned in order to liberate Polish territory ahead of the advancing Red Army. The AK liberated Vilna and Lvov, but its members were conscripted into the Red Army when it arrived.

In 1943 a political body called the ZPP (Union of Polish Patriots) was formed in the USSR. It was dominated by Communists. In July 1944 the PKWN (Polish Committee of National Liberation) was established as a rival administration to the Polish government-in-exile in London. It was based in Lublin from 1 August, so was known as the Lublin Committee.

Also on 1 August, General Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski (Bor was his code-name and Komorowski his surname), the leader of the AK, launched the Warsaw Uprising. He thought that the Red Army was about to enter the city.

There were 50,000 members of the AK in Warsaw, but only 10% were armed. The German responded brutally to the uprising; 40,000 civilians were killed in one day. Stalin refused to give support to the AK. Only one US air supply mission was allowed to land on Soviet territory; other Allied air missions suffered heavy casualties and only 50% of the supplies dropped reached the AK.

The 1st Polish Army was ordered not to the cross the Vistula and join in the fighting. It made an attempt to do so in September, which resulted in Berling being removed from command.

Fighting ended on 2 October; most of the AK survivors were treated as PoWs, but the Germans destroyed Warsaw. The Red Army did not enter it until 17 January 1945.

A government recognised by the UK, USSR and USA was formed in 1945; it included representatives of the government-in-exile. Elections in 1947 were rigged, and the government-in-exile continued to exist in London until 1990. A referendum was held in 1946, with three questions. The official results showed majorities in favour of all three. However, in Krakow, where the elections were fair, around 85% supported the recommendation of the main anti-Communist party, the Polish People’s Party, and opposed the first question.

Dr Kochanski concluded by saying that Poland was the only Allied country to lose World War II.

6 Comments

Filed under Political History, Reviews, War History

Leningrad by Anna Reid – Aye Write Book Festival, Glasgow

I recently attended a talk by Anna Reid on her book Leningrad: Tragedy of a City Under Siege, 1941-44, held as part of Glasgow’s Aye Write book festival. The US edition of the book is called Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944.

She described the Siege of Leningrad as being one of the great atrocities of World War II. Estimates of civilian casualties range from a quarter to a third of the population of 2.5 million; she says that the best estimate is that 750,000 civilians  died, most in the first winter of the siege, 1941-42. This excludes military casualties. The Germans tried to starve the population rather than assaulting the city. The Siege lasted from 8 September 1941 until 27 January 1941

The book covers military history, but it is mainly a social history about civilian life in the city. Internal government documents are now available, as are NKVD archives, including informers’ reports.  She mainly used diaries written at the time to learn the opinions of Leningraders, although she did conduct half a dozen interviews with survivors. She didn’t do any more because of the amount of information available in diaries. Diarists risked arrest if their diaries were found and contained criticism of the Soviet regime. Many therefore wrote in coded language and hid their diaries. They are still being handed in to museums and archives.

The differences between the traditional Soviet view of the siege and the truth is now being discovered:

  • A  significant minority of the population at first wanted a German victory as a price worth paying to get rid of the Bolsheviks. These attitudes mostly changed once the brutality of the Germans became apparent. Most people distinguished between the country and the regime and fought for their country rather than for Communism.
  • The dreadful military mistakes were not talked about in the USSR. There was criticism of Stalin by Khrushchev and subsequently, but specific actions such as the huge casualties caused by sending the militia, the Opolcheniye, into action with no training and poor equipment were not mentioned. Neither was a naval retreat from Tallinn that was ordered too late because the leadership were in denial over the situation. Half the ships were lost in what was like Dunkirk, but without air cover.
  • Stalin considered giving up the city, as it was more important to preserve the army.
  • Political repression continued during the siege. The NKVD archives contained a number of diaries whose authors had been arrested. They were harmless people, often denounced by neighbours.
  • Contrary to the view that everybody was in it together, there was inequality in the allocation of rations. They were skewed in favour of soldiers and manual workers and against women, infants and adolescents. Some institutions, such as the Hermitage and the radio station, were privileged and their employees did better. Those at the Party HQ did best of all. In the winter of 1941-42, people’s world narrowed and they became interested only in food. In the spring of 1942, some mothers were offered evacuation with their work places. They could generally take their children but not their elderly parents, who were often dependent on them. Some mothers even had to leave their children. Anna Reid told the harrowing story of one mother who was evacuated. Her daughter went with her, but her son was too weak to travel. The mother died, but the daughter survived and returned to Leningrad; she was unable to find out what happened to her brother.

Russian historians now discuss the truth about the Siege of Leningrad, but the general population still believe the Soviet myth. The view that, whilst Stalin was a murderous dictator before and after the war, he was a great war leader persists. Anna Reid employed several Russian researchers and translators who were shocked at what they learnt during the course of their work.

There is some self-censorship in discussion of the Siege because of consideration for the feelings of the survivors. Anna Reid finds their stories inspirational once the Soviet propaganda is stripped away.

Leningrad was the first city that Hitler tried and failed to take. Neither side had the strength to end the siege, resulting in static warfare. It differed from Stalingrad, where fighting took place in the city and most civilians were evacuated. Civilians could not leave Leningrad until the spring of 1942.

Even in the spring of 1942 evacuation was difficult. People not being evacuated with their work place had to bribe the drivers to get onto the trucks that were driving along the Ice Road across Lake Ladoga. The trucks were open so many died on the journey. The presence of feeding and medical stations is a myth, at least in the spring of 1942.. Even once across Lake Ladoga, you still had to get onto a train and find a town that would give you a residence permit and ration card.

The city’s normal death rate of 4-5,000 per month rose to 11,000 in November 1941, 50,000 in December and 100,000 in each of January, February and March 1942. There was a subsequent drive to clean up the city, grow more food and return to normal life.  a mass evacuation by barge in the summer of 1942 reduced the population to 600,000 by August, making life more normal in the winter of 1942-43, when things were better organised.

This was a very interesting talk, although my interests are more towards the military aspects of the Siege. The book took three years to research and a further two to write. It is available in hardback and as an e-book. Amazon are taking orders for the paperback, but do not give a publication date.

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews, War History