Operation Pike

Discussion in 'The Eastern Front' started by Kyt, Nov 27, 2006.

  1. Kyt

    Kyt Very Senior Member

    Has anybody mentioned the proposed "war" between Britain and the USSR during 1939-1941? I ask because I came across a reference to a book, that discusses it, and I'd never heard of "Operation Pike before". I found the following review of the book (NB - the cheapest copy that I've found is over £60!!):

    Osborn, Patrick R. Operation Pike: Britain versus the Soviet Union, 1939-1941. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.
    ISBN 0-7006-1015-4
    274 pages Preface; Prologue; photos; maps; Conclusion; Notes; Sources; Index

    Operation Pike mostly concerns the period of the Phony War. Although this "Drole de Guerre" is far from terra incognito, Patrick Osborn explores it from the unusual perspective of British preferences for a peripheral strategy and in particular their penchant for military action against the Soviet Union. In doing so, the author investigates one of the less-visited areas of the war and unearths some interesting information and ideas. Not all this information, such as British preparations to bomb the Soviet Union, will come as a revelation to anyone who has been paying attention—after all, the Germans captured and published many of the relevant Allied documents after the fall of France—but Osborn's comprehensive exploration of the extent and earnestness of British desire to get at the Bolsheviks proves enlightening.

    As early as 1927, during a time of strained relations, the British government undertook preliminary planning aimed at using Fairey IIIF aircraft and flying boats based in the Near East to bomb Soviet petroleum centers in Grozny and Baku. These plans apparently fell into Soviet hands shortly after they were formulated.

    Osborn uses those British contingency plans as the starting point for a survey of diplomatic relations between the USSR and the West in the later inter-war years, emphasizing here and elsewhere in the book Moscow's legitimate fears about renewed Western intervention. From Stalin's perspective, few realistic terms for cooperation were offered by the British and French, and there was little reason to trust Anglo-French overtures.

    Given events such as the Soviet exclusion from Munich and the belated, seemingly insincere nature of the military mission to Moscow in 1939, there is little wonder that Stalin elected not to play ball with the West. On the other hand, when the Russo-German Pact was signed on 24 August, it seemed to Britain and France that their fear and dislike of the Bolshevik regime had been proved fully justified. Given the Russo-German partition of Poland, the Soviet war against Finland, and the fact that the Germans had access to critical Soviet resources, it made a certain amount of sense for the Allies to consider military steps against the nation that gave every indication of being Germany's most important partner in aggression.

    Under the publicly stated terms of the British guarantee to the Poles in March 1939, the British would have been within their rights to declare war on the Soviets for their invasion of Poland, although a secret clause in the Anglo-Polish treaty stipulated that the term aggressor applied to Germany only. For the moment, the British confined their response to a Foreign Office note delivered to the Soviets condemning their invasion of Poland and making it clear that a permanent partition of the country was unacceptable.

    Among other Allied responses to the new situation was negotiation of a joint treaty among Britain, France, and Turkey. Osborn provides a long, detailed examination of the circuitous route by which an agreement was finally concluded after strenuous maneuvering by both Moscow and Berlin. The treaty was hailed as a major coup for the Anglo-French alliance and would eventually become an important consideration in Allied plans against the Caucasus, but in practical terms—as the planners discovered—it did not guarantee a great deal. Nevertheless, the terms of the treaty, as the author foreshadows, set the stage and provided a springboard for potential Allied action against Turkey's northern neighbor.

    In reading Operation Pike, it soon becomes clear that, in addition to providing a traditional outline of the opening months of the war, Osborn's account adds a variety of interesting twists. For example, he discusses in considerable depth Winston Churchill's seriously hare-brained scheme, Operation Catherine, for providing Royal Navy battleships with water-filled "galoshes" to reduce their draft, "mine bumpers," and an additional "umbrella" of deck armor—all so they could sail into the Baltic and isolate Germany from Scandinavian iron ore, consequently winning the war in record time.

    More realistically, Churchill also proposed bombing German oil supplies—a proposal which would return more than once—but the Allies rejected the scheme for fear of German reprisals. Given the state of Bomber Command navigation and bomb-aiming, it was probably a moot point. The same point surfaces again later in regard to the Caucasus.

    Churchill, still First Lord of the Admiralty, also forecast that Germany would promptly move into the Balkans before attacking France; this led to his much-cherished dream for a Balkan bloc to offer a unified front against Germany. Similarly, General Weygand in the Levant wanted desperately to introduce Allied troops into the Balkans. Meanwhile, General Wavell in Egypt communicated fears of a Russo-German thrust through Turkey or Iran into the Near East to capture the oilfields in Iran and Iraq and the Suez Canal and proposed strategies for dealing with the threat.

    Various other far-fetched schemes were mooted by assorted diplomats and soldiers: convincing Tokyo to join in an Anglo-Japanese declaration of war against Russia; infiltrating agents and saboteurs into the country; sailing a Royal Navy squadron into the Black Sea to "hold it" in case of war with Moscow; slipping submarines into the Black Sea to attack Soviet oil tankers; "encouraging" Free Polish submarines to sink Soviet shipping in the Baltic Sea. In short, many Western leaders were in favor of going to war against Stalin, and indeed many in a position of power in the British government still found Bolshevism more of a threat than Nazism. This attitude was mirrored in Paris, and soon reached new levels.

    The Soviet invasion of Finland set off another frenzy of brainstorming that hatched more hopeless schemes of anti-Bolshevik intervention, now including, at least in theory, Mussolini's Italy. Among those seriously considered was "intervention by proxy" with Free Polish troops landed at Petsamo, since Poland was already considered to be at war with Russia. Even the most rational leaders were divided about whether or not to intervene on Finland's behalf. Churchill pushed for contingency plans for war against the Soviets alongside Finland, Norway, and Sweden, and continued to favor his Operation Catherine in the Baltic, albeit less enthusiastically and perhaps recast for use against the Soviets. Again, Britain sought a peripheral approach to war, and one that involved the Soviet Union as much as Germany. Osborn meticulously charts the course of discussions, planning, and negotiations at this stage of the conflict, including repercussions of the Russo-Finnish War as far afield as Turkey and the Near East.

    Inevitably, the bottleneck of the supposedly vulnerable Soviet petroleum industry came up again. When the Finns requested "long-nosed" Bristol Blenheim 4 bombers from the UK, the RAF's response is revealing: "Moreover we have no long-nosed Blenheims in the Middle East and the aircraft of this type are essential if we are to carry out air operations against Baku."

    And there were other level heads who were able to measure the relative importance of Finland, appealing as Helsinki's cause might be: "'We are at war with Germany,' [Major General Richard] Dewing reminded his superiors, 'and nor Russia. The influence of Finnish resistance to Russia should therefore be considered rather in relation to Germany than in relation to Russia.'"

    Still, the thrust of Allied thinking was to intervene in Finland and force the Soviets to declare war against the Allies, then bomb oil centers in the Caucasus to deprive Germany and the USSR of oil and thus knock both out of the war. Some extremely optimistic planners contended that, with a little luck, drying up the supply of oil would precipitate the fall of the Bolshevik government.

    As the Allies were drawn inexorably to thoughts of winning the war by bombing Soviet oil, even the Iranian government sought to get in on the act. "Nakhjevan [the Iranian War Minister], who claimed he 'could not say this to the Shah,' stunned the [British] attache when he 'insisted on the necessity to carry the war into the enemy camp and expressed readiness to sacrifice half the bombing strength of Iran in order to destroy or damage Baku....'"

    With the conclusion of the Winter War, the Allied gaze remained fixed on the Caucasus. Osborn suggests that Stalin's relatively favorable terms to Finland might have resulted in part from his desire to prevent Allied measures in the Caucasus. In any event, for some Anglo-French leaders, the failure to accomplish anything in Finland was all the more reason to do something elsewhere. Apparently the Soviets, tipped off by various sources, continued to be alarmed.

    It is clear that by this time the Soviets were apprehensive about Allied intentions in the Balkans and Near East. On March 15 Massigli passed on to Knatchbull-Hugessen a message from his counterpart in Moscow. Ambassador Naggiar had told Massigli that "the Russian are in a great panic about a possible bombardment of Baku from the air and had asked American advice as to what exactly would happen in such an event and how great the damage would be." What was more, Steinhardt had told the Turkish ambassador in Moscow that "the Russians are so anxious of the danger of fire and bombardment in the oil region of Baku that the Soviet Russian management has asked American engineers whether and how fire caused by bombardment could be fought with success." "The engineers are supposed to have answered," Massigli informed Paris, "that, as a result of the manner in which the oil fields have been exploited, the earth is so saturated with oil that fire could spread immediately to the entire neighboring region; it would be months before it could be extinguished and years before work could be resumed again."
    And indeed increasingly detailed negotiations with the Turks continued to move forward with the aims of establishing airbases, reinforcing the Turkish air force, and transferring Anglo-French squadrons to Turkish fields. Although this was partly with an eye on the Soviets in the Caucasus and partly with an eye on the Germans in the Balkans, the Turks themselves were also concerned about Mussolini's intentions and wanted to discuss a strike against the Italian Dodecanese Islands. Osborn gives an impressive summary of Turco-Allied ground and air forces and planned dispositions. Nevertheless, the terms of Turkey's treaty obligations and Ankara's stance regarding the bombing of the Caucasus and other offensive action against the Soviet Union remained a sticking point.

    Regardless, that part of the world continued to figure in new Allied plans. By the end of March Churchill was advocating that three British submarines move into the Black Sea to intercept Russian oil traffic there.

    All of this planning and maneuvering—mostly unrealistic, but deadly serious—is charted in vast detail by Osborn. He also reveals, perhaps for the first time, the details of Operation Pike itself, the military plan for attacking the Russian oil industry. He shows the origins of the plan, economic estimates (including a willingness to lose Iranian and Iraqi fields to Soviet retaliation if the Caucasus fields could be successfully shut down), investigations of Soviet defenses in the area, the state of rail and water transportation networks, construction of airfields in Turkey (ostensibly for defense against Soviet invasion), and deployment of RAF aircraft to the Near East.

    These developments were reaching a climax when a special reconnaissance aircraft departed from the UK on 23 March and reached Habbaniya in Iraq via Egypt a few days later. On 30 March, devoid of RAF markings and mounting a battery of special cameras, the aircraft left Habbaniya and flew unannounced into Iranian airspace at 20,000 feet, then over the Caspian Sea and onward to Baku where it spent over an hour photographing the city and its oil complexes. On 5 April the British spy plane flew from Habbaniya again, this time violating Turkish airspace to reach Batum. While the first mission had been uneventful, this time Soviet AA fire greeted the plane and a Soviet fighter attempted to intercept. Nevertheless, the British had obtained everything they needed for photo interpretation purposes and for mapping the Soviet petroleum centers. (Osborn illustrates his description of these audacious flights with photographs of the aircraft, the pilot and mission commander, sample shots taken on the flights, and maps created from the photographic survey.)

    The verdict: the rickety system of wells, pumps, pipes, refineries, and tanks was extremely vulnerable to air attack.

    As of April 1, preparations were being made to transfer 48 new Bristol Blenheim Mk IV bombers (four squadrons) to the Middle East Command to replace the older and slightly slower Mk I models. Although Slessor hoped to have aerodromes in Turkey and Iran at his disposal, all three of the major targets, Baku, Batum, and Grozny, were within range of Mk IV Blenheims if they were stationed in Syria or Iraq. The Blenheims could be supplemented by obsolete single-engine Wellesley bombers that could operate at night if their bomb loads were reduced. The French had offered an additional force of 65 Glenn Martin bombers and two dozen Farman 222 aircraft (the latter were rather slow despite the use of four engines and would be used for night operations as well). These aircraft were scheduled to be ready in Syria by May 15.
    Even without the Wellesley's and French support, Slessor estimated, three squadrons of 18 Blenheims flying two sorties a week "could lay waste to all three refineries between 5 and 12 weeks." The same job could be accomplished in as little as one week or as much as three weeks if the 60 French Glenn Martins were combined with the British effort. Since refineries could not be left unattended for more than four hours at a time, owing to the need to regulate temperatures and adjust valve pressures, it would be desirable to sustain raids for up to four hours or make use of bombs with delayed fuses. Slessor was not much concerned by Soviet antiaircraft capabilities, deprecating the ability of the standard Soviet fighters, the Polikarpov I.15 and I.16 models, to do damage to the British bombers. "They are likely to be ineffective against Blenheim aircraft with a top speed of 280-290 miles per hour approaching from the sea."
    And the French offered their own calculations about assaulting the refineries:

    The French based their calculations on the assumption that the average refinery covered an area of 250,000 square meters and that bombers flying at the height of 5,000 meters (about 16,400 feet) at a speed of 250 kilometers per hour (155 miles per hour) could hit such targets with 15 percent of their bombs. If 50 bombs were required to destroy one refinery, and each aircraft carried ten 100-kilogram bombs (220 pounds each), then one group of 11 aircraft would be capable of destroying a single refinery after three sorties (15 percent of 330 bombs, to be precise, is 49.5 bombs). "The destruction of 120 refineries would," the French planners thought, "call for 360 group sorties. Assuming that 12 groups are available, each group would have to carry out 30 sorties. If each group carries out 3 sorties a week, the total time required would be 10 weeks."
    The German invasion of Norway diverted Allied attention and resources while threatening to halt planning for Operation Pike. A meeting of the Supreme War Council on 23 April, however, approved continuation of preparations. New French airfields in northern Syria were to be ready by 15 May.

    Of course, it was already too late. Germany invaded France, Belgium, and the Netherlands on 10 May 1940, and grandiose schemes in far-flung theaters collapsed almost as rapidly as the Allied armies under the onslaught of the panzers. German capture of Pike-related documents in French files and their subsequent publication caused considerable embarrassment to the British in 1941 and resulted in a Nazi death sentence in absentia on the photo interpreter who had signed some of the reconnaissance papers.

    But this was not the end of Pike. When Operation Barbarossa was launched in June of 1941, the British, concerned that Russia would collapse as rapidly as France, and Hitler would then seize the Caucasus, revived Operation Pike as a contingency plan to be executed if necessary to prevent German occupation of the oilfields. The RAF prepared a new, seventy-page document titled "Outline Plan for the Denial of Russian Oil to German Controlled Europe by Air Action." Osborn provides a summary of the salient points.

    In conclusion, Allied motivation for bombing the Caucasus was partly to deprive Hitler of oil, partly to support Finland, and partly to weaken or even cause the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even with the end of the Russo-Finnish War, Allied planning and preparations continued until the fall of France radically altered the geo-political balance of power.

    In regard to depriving Hitler's Germany of oil, Osborn shows that British economic experts were fully aware that Soviet oil at that time made up only a small fraction of German supplies. Osborn also demonstrates that Anglo-French planners were hopelessly unrealistic about the amount of effort required to successfully carry out Operation Pike. Not only that, but forcing Stalin into an open war with the Allies would almost certainly have backfired on London and Paris. In the first place, the Allies were already far weaker militarily than they realized; it would soon be shown they were incapable of holding off Germany alone, let alone a combination of Germany and Russia. In the second place, Osborn offers an even grimmer alternative for the Allies.

    An Allied bomber offensive against the USSR in 1940 likely would have driven Hitler and Stalin into a de facto, perhaps even a de jure military alliance against Britain. In this case British resources would have been strained to the limit, perhaps beyond the capability to cope with the combined Nazi-Soviet threat. One can only imagine what would have transpired had Hitler been able first to enlist Stalin on his side against the Allies, only to turn against him later with the knowledge that the Soviet Union would not receive aid from the West.
    Finally, had the Allies miraculously managed to weaken the Soviet Union to the point of internal collapse with such a puny bomber offensive, what would have been the result?

    In what seems a staggering oversight, the Allies also failed to analyze the complications of actually inducing the collapse of the Soviet regime, had this been the result of their attacks. Someone would have had to have filled the power vacuum if Stalin's government collapsed; that in all likelihood would have been Hitler, who could have hardly passed a golden opportunity to seize the natural resources of the western USSR and the Caucasus if he had the chance. Then it would have been Hitler, not Stalin, who controlled the oil deposits of the Caucasus, which was hardly the result the Allies desired or expected to achieve by attacking the Soviet Union.

    As an aside, it's interesting to note that Osborn explains the derivation of "Pike" as the operational code name. It turns out that "one British intelligence officer was killed during the brief [British] military incursion into the Caucasus [in 1920]; his name was Colonel Pike."

    Operation Pike is a thoughtful, provocative look at what could have become a decisive turning point in the war. Not only does the author offer fresh information about the exact nature of the military plans and how they evolved, he points out how the Soviet attitude toward the West during and after the war was shaped in good part by Stalin's knowledge of these plans. While some readers might emerge overwhelmed by the almost excruciating detail of diplomatic reports, news stories, rumors, propaganda, and intentional leaks that surrounded London's dealings with Moscow, Osborn provides the most thorough investigation ever undertaken of this shadowy aspect of the Second World War. Recommended.

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