(W)Archives: That Time Britain and France Almost Bombed the Soviet Union
Today, NATO is forced to consider the possibility of war with a revanchist Russia over the Baltic states. And of course, during the Cold War the prospect of military action against the Soviet Union seemed all too real. Not many people recall, however, that in the early days of World War II Britain and France seriously contemplated bombing the Soviet Union in Operations PIKE and RASPBERRY. Declassified documents housed at the U.S. National Archives at College Park, Maryland and Kew, London allow us to remember this remarkable period, which could have had radical implications for 20th-century history.
Seventy-five years ago, on July 19, 1940, Adolf Hitler spoke before the Reichstag in Berlin, crowing about the German victories in Poland, Denmark, Norway, France, and elsewhere. Many around the world thought that Britain’s surrender was just a question of time. The speech is best known for Hitler’s anti-Semitic justification for war and insults toward Allied leaders, especially Prime Minister Winston Churchill. What is less remembered today is that Hitler also mentioned that a month earlier German soldiers had captured a cache of documents from the Anglo-French Supreme War Council. These documents provided embarrassing evidence that Britain and France had hostile intent toward the Soviet Union, which in August 1939 had signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany.
Specifically, the captured documents provided details of by-then-defunct Anglo-French plans to help Finland counter the December 1939 invasion by the Soviet Red Army. While the French Government had been particularly eager to avoid fighting Hitler and proposed engaging Stalin instead, the British argued that Soviet economic support for Nazi Germany effectively made the two regimes military allies. Then, Field Marshal Gustav Mannerheim, Finland’s commander-in-chief, requested Allied assistance in the form of air attacks on the vital oilfields in the Soviet Caucasus.
In early March 1940, Helsinki was forced to accede to Soviet territorial demands and come to an uneasy truce with Moscow. However, neither Finland’s capitulation nor the German invasion of Norway in April put an end to potential Anglo-French military action against the Soviet Union. In fact, it was only after Finland’s exit that truly serious planning took place. In late March 1940, a specially-equipped and camouflaged twin-engine Lockheed flown by Royal Air Force (RAF) personnel under the auspices of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) flew photographic reconnaissance missions out of Habbaniyah in Iraq’s al-Anbar province over the prime targets of Baku and Batumi on the Soviet Caspian and Black Sea coasts, respectively. Sir John Slessor, later a prominent air officer in NATO, soon prepared the RAF plan for Operation PIKE, in which oilfields were to be bombed. By early April, the RAF was gathering aircrews, bombers and ordnance to send to Iraqi airfields, and the French also began preparations in Syria — this as war in Scandinavia was exploding. As late as April 23, the prospect of launching an aerial offensive against the Soviet Union was a major topic of discussion at the Supreme War Council.
The British would turn to the topic again as they picked up signs of an impending Nazi invasion of the USSR during the spring of 1941. This latter plan, dubbed RASPBERRY, was aimed at preventing Hitler from acquiring direct access to Soviet oil should Stalin cave in to Nazi demands for territorial concessions or should the Germans attempt to seize the oilfields against what the British assumed would be weak Soviet opposition. The British prepared maps of Baku and Batumi designating targets for British bombers, and prepared charts for bomber pilots who would fly out of Mosul, Iraq showing them the altitude profiles of their routes to Baku and Batumi.
Security around Operation RASPBERRY was not what it might have been, as a British source told an American diplomat all about it — albeit with a few inaccuracies — in the spring of 1941. Contrary to the expectations of many, the USSR did not collapse in the wake of Barbarossa, and British plans for offensive action in the Caucasus were shelved. By the autumn of 1941, British and Soviet troops, unified in an uneasy alliance against Adolf Hitler, occupied oil-rich Iran. Stalin’s postwar behavior, however, makes it clear he had not forgotten how close he had come to waging war against the West in 1940–1941. One wonders what experiences are now influencing Putin’s behavior.
Patrick Osborn has been an archivist with the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland since 1999. He is the author of Operation Pike: Britain versus the Soviet Union, 1939-1941(Greenwood, 2000). Recently he has contributed a chapter to A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, Edward Lengel, ed. (Wiley, 2014) and he is currently writing a comprehensive history of American armor in the First World War.