• U.S.

Blood, Tears, What Else?

4 minute read

A goodly company had assembled at the Soviet Embassy in Kensington Palace Gardens. Winston Churchill’s Clemmie was there, ageless and bright-eyed, looking and listening for her husband. Sir Archibald Sinclair, Britain’s Air Secretary, beamed at little Ivan Maisky, the Soviet Union’s bearded Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, the most popular foreigner in England. Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, grim as always, and Air Marshal Sir William Sholto Douglas had come to acknowledge a Soviet tribute to the R.A.F.

Mr. Maisky did not let them off with a tribute. He duly presented the U.S.S.R.’s second highest decoration, the Order of Lenin, to Wing Commander Henry Neville Gynes Ramsbottom-Isherwood and three other R.A.F. pilots who had flown in Russia. But the Ambassador also had a message from Moscow. It was a message urgent with appeal, warning, a sense of crisis:

“The secret of victory consists in having a decisive preponderance over the enemy at a decisive moment in a decisive place. The necessary prerequisite for that is an offensive spirit that will penetrate the whole strategy of the war, including political and economic warfare. . . . The allies . . . should take the initiative in their own hands. . . . The slogan ‘time is on our side’ is no way axiomatic. . . .

“The Allies together already have the essential implements for victory—troops, tanks, aircraft and arms. There is no time to wait until the last button is sewn on the uniform of the last soldier. Sometimes you have to fight, not under the conditions that are desired, but under the conditions that are unavoidable. In such a case you quickly have to change your plans and adapt yourselves to new circumstances.

“The time is now ripe. . . . The decisive moment is the year 1942. The decisive place is the front of the U.S.S.R. . . . If, as I strongly hope, the Allies will take this road, then the backbone of Hitlerite Germany will be broken this year.”

These were strong words for Clemmie to take back to Winston Churchill, facing a political crisis over his strategy of building up Allied defenses and arms in 1942 to strike in 1943. They struck bluntly on the ears of Sir Archibald Sinclair and Sir Charles Portal, who had based their R.A.F. policy on the idea that Britain’s decisive air front is at home and over western Germany. They were also blunt words for the U.S., a direct plea not to let the Pacific war obscure the Hitler front.

What Mr. Maisky did not say was as significant as what he did say. Moscow no longer asked the Allies to establish a second front in Western Europe. The Soviet argument now was that the Allies already had too many fronts, that in Russia they had the one front where Hitler could be beaten in 1942.

Hitler Now? If the Allies took the road to Russia, they might have to leave other roads open—Japan’s roads to Australia and India; Germany’s beckoning roads beyond the Balkans and Turkey to the oil of the Near East, her road through Malta, Cyprus and Libya to Suez and Mediterranean mastery. Britain still had a creeping fear that the Germans might attempt a blow at the home island. The Chinese in Chungking, skilled at reading Japanese plans and strength, predicted an imminent Japanese assault on Russia’s Siberian rear—a drive which could rob the U.S. of prospective bases for attack on Japan.

But Maisky & Moscow were saying: let the Allies choose one road, refuse to be fogged and defeated by alternatives and uncertainties. London and Washington responded, at least in part. Britain’s Lord Beaverbrook, broadcasting to his native Canada from Miami Beach, emphatically called Russia “the most critical battlefront in the history of civilization.” Winston Churchill began to talk of “the spirit of the offensive and counter-attack.” The day after Mr. Maisky spoke, Churchill promised Britons some successes along with blood, tears and reverses in 1942. And, if the U.S. public was preoccupied with Australia and MacArthur, Washington was not. There, as never before, the conviction grew that the Allies must manage somehow to find a place and a way to defeat Hitler in 1942.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com