Last updated on February 7th, 2023 at 08:05 pm
The period from the end of World War 2 through to (by some accounts) the early 1990s, commonly called the Cold War, is most often remembered as a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were sharply at odds, only moments away from nuclear warfare at any given time.
But there was a threat incredibly early on that could have sparked the heat of this war irreversibly, and it didn’t come from the United States.
One of the United Kingdom’s most famous political figures nearly spearheaded the beginning of a third World War in 1945 before the second War officially ended. His plan for a full-out invasion of Russia, Operation Unthinkable, could have had world-altering effects if it had been put into action.
Churchill’s Relationship With Russia
English Prime Minister Winston Churchill was well known for being a pragmatic leader whose leadership during the Second World War held the nation together despite massive losses.
Alongside Roosevelt and Stalin, Churchill led the Allied powers and claimed victory over the Axis powers in 1945 following the death of Adolf Hitler.
Still, this alliance between the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union was fraught from its inception. Churchill’s opinions of Russia were obvious before, throughout, and after the war.
Critical of the communist regime and its treatment of the Russian people, as well as Russia’s determination to access other nations and bring them under its rule, Churchill worked with the Soviet Union only out of pure necessity during the World Wars.
There was a brief moment when Churchill’s opinion of Russia was momentarily questioned, at Yalta when he and Stalin deliberated the distribution of former German holdings between the European Allies. However, the treatment of these territories under Soviet rule quickly sharpened Churchill’s resolve.
His criticisms became more targeted leading into the Cold War. Churchill was particularly concerned with the fate of the people of Poland, who were promised a free and fair election for their leaders by Stalin, but who instead were subjected to a largely useless election that left the country as an obvious Soviet satellite.
“I would not have believed it possible that in a year, the Soviets would have been able to do themselves so much harm, and chill so many friendships in the English-speaking world.”
– Winston Churchill to the House of Commons, “Foreign Affairs,” Jun 5, 1946
As elections in the UK grew closer, it became clearer that Churchill was prepared for desperate action and that desperation became tangible in Operation Unthinkable.
Operation Unthinkable: Churchill’s Plan to Invade Russia
Churchill’s concerns reached a head in 1945 when he introduced a plan to his inner circle in the British government. This information was considered top-secret due to its extreme, volatile nature, so much so that it was only ever made known to the key military advisors whom Churchill needed to help finalize the details.
The House of Commons and other law-making agencies of the government were not informed of its creation. This highly classified document was labeled Operation Unthinkable, a chillingly accurate title.
The plan began with a massive on land attack that banked on the element of surprise. It established a plan of attack that utilized forces from the United Kingdom, United States, Poland, and even Germany to push the Soviet army back from East Germany and Poland further into East Europe.
While this was happening, support was to be given by air and sea, as the Americans and Brits had access to high-altitude bombers that would have been superior to the older models used by Russia.
The eventual goal was to drive the Russians back into Russia and free Eastern Europe from Soviet control completely, decimating Stalin’s power and potentially bringing down his regime as a whole. Once this was done, the tentative plan was to establish a more democratic system in Russia.
“If they want total war, they are in a position to have it.”
– Operation Unthinkable Documents, The British National Archives
However, Operation Unthinkable was deemed far to dangerous to attempt. The Red Army outmanned the land forces of the other Allies nearly two to one, and an effective invasion into Eastern Europe would have been nearly impossible due to the poor roads and harsh terrain that gave the homeland advantage to the Soviets.
Beyond that, the threat of nuclear war was just beginning to become apparent; with the use of nuclear bombs on Japan, the power of these massive weapons was made obvious, and Russia was developing its version of the technology quickly.
The United States and the Soviet Union were already at an uneasy peace, so any retaliation on their part would have been disastrous.
As such, the plan was abandoned to focus on ending the Nazi threat once and for all, and the war ended roughly one month after Unthinkable’s proposition.
The Allies focused on rebuilding the rest of Europe post-war and keeping the peace to prevent nuclear retaliation. In 1945, Churchill was removed from office in a general election, and the plan was officially retired.
What If Operation Unthinkable Happened?
So, what if Churchill’s government had approved the drastic plan, and the rest of the Allies had agreed to support it? What if Operation Unthinkable had happened?
It’s largely agreed upon that Operation Unthinkable would have sparked a third World War, which, coming so close after the previous one, would have potentially been even more devastating on all countries involved and the world at large.
To begin with, the attacks would have lacked the element of surprise that Churchill had counted on. Because he was so public with his opinions, Stalin was well aware that Churchill did not fully trust him and that his actions in Poland were controversial.
He would have been prepared to deal with treachery on the part of the Allies and as such, may have been able to move troops quickly enough over land to suppress the initial attack and perhaps even start moving into the rest of Europe.
Additionally, support from the United States wasn’t guaranteed. Following the death of Roosevelt and the installation of Truman as president, the general American opinion of war was on a sharp downward trend.
The country was still feeling the effects of World War 2 despite its late entry. Unthinkable was set to happen before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so the full effects of nuclear warfare wouldn’t have yet been known or anticipated.
Still, it’s unlikely that Churchill’s war efforts would have been enough to sway Americans to give their full backing, which would have meant a nasty blow to the power held by the United Kingdom and its European allies.
Assuming their support, though, the United States had significant advantages regarding naval and air support and could have done a similar level of damage to the Soviet Union as it did to the Axis powers during World War 2.
This may have significantly slowed Soviet progress into Europe and even allowed for the reclamation or retention of cities in former German territory. That being said, this still wouldn’t have been enough to turn the tide of the war in their favor.
The homeland advantage in this scenario, given the harshness of the environment and the intense lack of visibility, as well as the sheer vastness of the continent, would have meant doom at the slightest miscalculation by the States or the UK.
Beyond that, the push would likely have solidified the “necessity” of the use of nuclear weaponry, and so, very likely, the United States, in a last-ditch effort to turn the tide of the war, would have started dropping nuclear bombs on key Russian cities instead of in Japan.
In retaliation, the Soviet Union would have begun to use nuclear bombs themselves; they could very easily have wiped out the entirety of the United Kingdom with nuclear weaponry combined with traditional bombs, and then set their sights on the Americas.
This would result in total war – leaving no man, woman, or child spared in even the furthest, most civilian areas of the countries. Most likely, there would be utter global annihilation from which we would probably still be desperately trying to recover today if there was anyone left to attempt a recovery. The global population would have taken a massive hit, and there would be huge swaths of land that would be utterly unusable and uninhabitable across all of Eastern Europe.
Operation Unthinkable is now, thankfully, just another wartime operation idea that never came to fruition. The information in the plan is no longer top-secret information; in fact, the full documents for the operation are publicly available from the British National Archives, and can be viewed for free on their website. Now, we can look back on the plan as a desperate backup set by a man with an intense, if somewhat justified, distrust for Russia’s political ideology and practices.
Still, it is sobering to see how close the world came to see an extended second World War or possibly a third World War altogether. The devastating predictions still feel uncomfortably close to those associated with modern nuclear powers and the tensions between them. Perhaps Operation Unthinkable can be a reminder of what could, but should never, be.