Stalin’s Retreat

British leaders should apply the lesson of Churchill's firm resistance to a belligerent Stalin when dealing with the Kremlin

Daniel Johnson

Patrick Bishop’s Target Tirpitz (Harper Press, £20) is all that a work of military history should be: a dramatic story, well researched and beautifully told. One aspect of the struggle for naval supremacy in the Arctic that emerges with striking force, however, is the failure of Stalin to lift a finger to help the British to sink Hitler’s great battleship. It was not that the Soviet leader lacked a dog — or rather a bear — in this fight: he could not deny the strategic importance of the Arctic convoys to the Red Army, nor the threat to this supply route posed by the Tirpitz and the other German warships based in the Norwegian fjords.  

Yet as Bishop shows, Stalin’s ingratitude knew no bounds. He refused Churchill’s request to provide sea and air cover for the convoys during the last stretch of their perilous voyages to Murmansk, where many of their losses occurred. The most that the Soviet dictator would allow was for two RAF squadrons of flying boats to be based in Russia. In August 1942, reports that the Tirpitz was about to attack Convoy PQ.17 had caused the Admiralty to order the merchantmen to scatter, enabling U-boats and the Luftwaffe to sink 23 of the 32 ships, with huge losses. Stalin’s response was to taunt Churchill: “Has the British navy no sense of glory?”  

As the Battle of the Atlantic reached its climax in the summer of 1943, the Arctic convoys ceased temporarily, as no British warships could be spared to escort them. Stalin complained bitterly and also treated British sailors badly. The bosun and cook of the Dover Castle, a cargo ship stranded in a Russian port, were arrested after a fight broke out with a Communist Party official. The bosun had knocked down the apparatchik after the latter had accused Britain of failing to support its Soviet ally — which was of course Stalin’s party line. When militiamen arrived, the cook came to his rescue. After a summary trial, the two Britons were given jail sentences of seven and four years for what amounted to a quayside brawl. British public opinion was outraged.

The rift worsened after an exchange of telegrams in which Stalin tried to bully Churchill by describing the latter’s refusal to make the convoys a contractual obligation as “a kind of threat addressed to the USSR”. The Prime Minister drafted a furious response, but thought better of it and sent Anthony Eden to Moscow instead. The Foreign Secretary reported that Stalin had, in effect, backed down, while complaining that “if only our people … had treated his people as equals none of these difficulties would have arisen”. To the delight of the British, the brawling bosun and cook were released. “By a combination of courtesy and resolve,” Bishop comments, “Churchill had forced Stalin into a retreat and to offer the nearest thing to an apology he was capable of making.”

This incident prompts the reflection that British leaders today would do well to study Churchill’s methods when dealing with the Kremlin. Putin may not need Arctic convoys, but he certainly lays claim to Arctic oil, gas and mineral reserves. If he is to consolidate himself as president, he will need Western recognition and cooperation. David Cameron should not be too quick to accede to Putin’s demands. 

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