Operation Unthinkable – a preemptive attack by the West against Soviet Russia at the conclusion of WWII. Luckily, the strike never occurred.
The operations were planned as a response to a set of factors at the conclusion of the second world war. Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill, had the plan drafted in utter secrecy, only his top command knowing of its existence. Disappointed at the fate of Poland being given to the Soviets, Churchill had the Joint Planning Staff draft the plan to invade the Soviet Union. Dubbed “Operation Unthinkable” for the madness the plan presented and would bring with it, it was the first plan for a “World War 3” scenario before the second one had ended.
Approaching the Unthinkable
There were six insinuating circumstances surrounding the operation that would need to be in place, in the JPS’ eyes, for the operation to take place with any manner of success.
“We have examined Operation Unthinkable. As instructed, we have taken the following assumptions on which to base our examination:
- The undertaking has the full support of public opinion in the British Empire and the United States and consequently, the morale of British and American troops continues high.
- Great Britain and the United States have full assistance from the Polish armed forces and can count upon the use of German manpower and what remains of German industrial capacity.
- No credit is taken for assistance from the forces of the other Western Powers, although any bases in their territory, or other facilities which may be required, are made available
- Russia allies herself with Japan.
- The date for the opening of hostilities is 1st July, 1945.
- Redeployment and release schemes continue till 1st July and then stop.” (Source)
Conceptualizing the Unthinkable
The report explicitly states that the operation is an attempt to “ impose upon Russia the will of the United States and British Empire.” (Source) The JPS further entertains the idea of a total war with Russia, bolstered by the remnants of Germany’s and Poland’s armies. The term “total war” is used to describe the drafted conflict. (Source)
Pushing the Soviets out of Eastern Europe and back to their 1939 borders would not stop the war, and the JPS realized that. They concluded the only war to truly win a war over the Soviets would be to obliterate the entirety of their armed forces in a swift, Barbarossa style attack on all known Soviet positions. (Source) If this failed, the only option from there would be to push into Moscow, the Volga, and the Caucuses, and hold them until the Soviet Union tired of occupation and was forced to capitulate. (Source)
The Unthinkable Avoided
The JPS understood that Hitler and first, Napoleon, could not tame Russia. What made them different? They knew that they could not force Russia not complete capitulation without another prolonged World War. Their strategy was not to take over Russia, but rather to force it into submission through sheer dominance.
The report includes that due to given circumstances, Soviet and Allied forces, in ground-level capability, are roughly the same. Bolstered by lend-lease agreements, high numbers, and cunning offensive commanders, the Red Army was in a fighting state in 1945. While only ⅓ of their units were properly equipped, they had all nearly seen frontline combat. (Source) And although inferior to the Allies, their command and supply structure defeated Germany on the Eastern front.
Using all of this information, the JPS concluded the following:
“Assuming, however, that it is decided to risk military action on a limited basis, accepting the dangers set out above, we have examined what action we could take in order to inflict such a blow upon the Russians as would cause them to accept our terms, even though they would not have been decisively defeated and, from the military point of view, would still be capable of continuing the struggle.” (Source)
It is hard to think of the world today, if “Operation Unthinkable” occurred. Success could have been a “free” Eastern Europe – the Iron Curtain drawn at the Soviet border. The Soviets would be decimated militarily, and social unrest would run rampant in the war-torn country, fighting two invasions consecutively. A reset of world order could have occurred 50 years early, and the Berlin Wall fell before it was raised.
If it failed, who truly can gauge the losses on either side? The US could have used nuclear weapons to destroy Moscow, Leningrad, and Vladivostok, gripping the country in a nuclear winter. The Red Army could have won the initial engagements in Germany and Poland. Then pushed past the Rhine and into France.
Churchill weighed these options heavily in his mind. He dissuaded from the plan when he realized that Japan would capitulate to the US after nuclear weapons were dropped. Also losses in another total-style war would be insurmountable while ensuring the economic and social destruction of both countries. Although the history we know of post-WWII Europe is already grim, it is unthinkable to conceptualize a world order without it.