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WITHOUT warning on June 22 1941, the invading forces of Nazi Germany poured across the Soviet border into Ukraine and Byelorussia and then into western Russia.
Despite a heroic defence, Soviet forces were initially overwhelmed and Hitler looked forward to an easy victory. Britain at that point stood almost alone, enjoying US lend-lease assistance — often involving redundant and outdated equipment — but with no ally of substance on the military front.
Recognising an opportunity, prime minister Winston Churchill immediately made overtures to the USSR that were gradually formalised into an alliance of huge importance for the successful outcome of the war.
Churchill had always been an implacable enemy of the Soviet Union and under other circumstances might have welcomed the Nazi invasion but the threat to the existence of Britain and its Empire parked this to one side, for a while anyway.
This almost forgotten alliance was multifaceted. The Soviet Union’s Red Army always bore the brunt of the war and, as much of it took place on Soviet soil, civilian losses were catastrophic — over 27 million died to bring about fascism’s eventual defeat in May 1945.
Aid on a military level took the form of some limited joint military activity but, importantly, supplies of war and other materials were shipped through the highly dangerous sea convoy route to the Murmansk and Arkhangelsk ports of northern Russia.
This was a mission that took a terrible toll. The Germans realised that the sinking of a 10,000-ton freighter was the equivalent of success in a major land battle, with a much lower cost to their men and equipment, so they concentrated aircraft and naval forces to disrupt supplies as much as they could.
On the home front, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) grew in stature and significance through its natural associations with the Soviet Union. In the early years of the alliance it agitated for a second front to relieve the pressure on the USSR and acted in the workplaces where they held sway to maximise war production to the same end.
This was a complicated story of strange alliances and ongoing sectarian warfare between the CPGB and others on the left who were challenging the party both electorally and within workplaces.
To its credit, the CPGB threw its weight behind equal pay for women struggles on Clydeside and elsewhere and for recognition of the importance of trade union strength and density.
Within the armed forces, communists played an important part in officially organised army education, designed to combat low morale among troops and empower them with the vision of a better country that was worth fighting for.
Out of this emerged the Labour landslide electoral victory of 1945 and the NHS and welfare state that was to follow. Serving communists also encouraged informal discussions among their comrades-in-arms and helped instigate forums like the Cairo Parliament of 1943 — a popular mock parliament quashed soon after its birth by the military authorities.
They also forged links in the areas they liberated, particularly Italy, with communist comrades in the partisan forces. In Britain, the only locality under Nazi occupation was the Channel Islands and here a small group of communists were involved in resistance activity and the hiding of escaped Red Army slave labourers.
By 1945 this group were ready for armed insurrection to dislodge the Germans but this was averted by liberation from external forces.
The wartime alliance is full of fascinating stories of unity in action almost buried by cold war hatred of the Soviets, a trend that started even before the war ended. Some British military activity in Germany in 1945 was designed more to avert perceived Soviet aggression than defeat German forces.
And the bombing of Dresden by the British and the US and the explosion of nuclear bombs over Japan were of negligible military significance by the time they took place but important as a warning to Stalin and the Soviets.
The evidence of any Soviet intention to continue its advance once Germany was defeated was always scant but continues to dominate Western Establishment accounts of the end of WWII and the start of the cold war. This seems to be based on the size of the Red Army in 1945 and statements by Stalin and other Soviet leaders that went back as far as 1925.
The fact is that the Soviet Union, especially in the western regions, was devastated — the people were tired of war and death and the idea of further territorial conquest was beyond anyone’s thinking. When the Red Army met the Americans and British on the Elbe in April, the Soviets were more interested in drinking and celebration than conflict.
In the 1950s and ’60s, most British historical memoirs of the war were written by former officers and reflect their class background and inbuilt prejudices against the Soviet Union, beginning with myths about Soviet ingratitude for the Arctic Convoys and unfriendly attitudes in the northern ports.
In recent years the accounts of ordinary seafarers campaigning for recognition have challenged such ideas and achieved, as late as 2013, the award of the Arctic Star for involvement in that campaign. We owe them a great debt.
Historical revisionism took a further leap after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. At a time when it seemed that there should be no impediment to accuracy and objectivity, right-wing nationalism in many of the former Eastern European countries sought, with various degrees of official support, to slander the Soviet achievement in defeating fascism.
The Soviet Union, it was argued, was equal to the Nazis in terms of invasion and occupation and the victims of both should be given equal place.
After the Prague Declaration of 2008, this dangerous doctrine became official European Union policy. Its pitch negates the overwhelming significance of the Soviet contribution to defeating fascism and has given way to a revival of “sympathetic memory” for so-called freedom fighters and patriots in the Balkan countries, Ukraine, Bulgaria and elsewhere.
Many of these individuals and their organisations were actually Nazi accomplices involved in murder, including directly in the Holocaust. Their histories are now celebrated in museums, exhibitions and commemorative events in these countries, while memorials to the sacrifice of the Red Army are neglected and erased.
In Britain, a generation is growing up who have no notion of the significance of the alliance and the hard-won battles of the Red Army.
On this anniversary we need more than ever to remember how we won the fight against fascism in 1945 and that this involved examples of unity in action against a common peril.
We could learn much from them today as we face new threats to humanity. Fascism may no longer be the danger it was in the 1930s but climate change and attendant pandemic demand a similar unified response and right-wing inspired historical narratives of the war do nothing to build alliances and understanding.
The Anglo-Soviet Alliance: Comrades and Allies in WWII by Colin Turbett is published by Pen & Sword, £25.
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