Operation Pike- When the Allies almost declared War on the Soviet Union in 1940

The French Military High Command after the first world war may have had the most unfortunate set of assumptions and beliefs of any High Command in history. I say unfortunate in light of the fact of how disastrous the French command dealt with the German invasion in the spring of 1940. But if one needs more evidence of “unfortunate” decisions by the French Generals, look no further than Operation Pike.

While doing some light reading through my copy of The Collapse of the Third Republic by William Shirer, I had to do a Samuel Johnson double take. As someone who has read a fair bit about World War II, I was stunned by what I had just come across, that in the spring of 1940 the Allies came ridiculously close to declaring war on the Soviet Union.

For those not keeping track, the end of 1939 and beginning of 1940 was the eight month period in which Great Britain and France watched Poland get obliterated by the Germans and the Soviets while the Allies sat and watched. While the Soviets would later join the Allied side after the Nazi German invasion in 1941, in the spring of 1940, a majority in the French government saw the Soviets as complicit in the German schemes in Poland and later in its own encroachment on Finland. The French governments were traditionally more fearful of Communism than anything else, going so far as to actually ban communism in 1939. In addition, most of its top military leaders were strongly conservative and even anti-democratic at times.

A notable example being the “hero of Verdun” Marshal Petain himself, who became the head of the French collaborationist government at Vichy when France fell in 1940. Charles De Gaulle later said that “Certain circles saw the enemy in Stalin rather than Hitler. They busied themselves with finding means of striking Russia, either by aiding Finland or bombarding Baku or landing at Istanbul, much more than coming to grips with Germany”.[1] So it was seen in France by some that the Soviet Union was not just a threat, but a graver threat than the Nazis they were already at war with.

The French understandably did not want to fight another war on French soil with Germany, considering how much damage the first one had caused. There was also the belief that if war did come to the western front no side would be able to win an offensive, much like in the first war, and that it would turn into a war of attrition, which the Allies hoped to deny to Germany using whatever steps necessary.[2]

This brings us back to Operation Pike, the plan designed to knock out the Soviet Union's oil fields in the Caucasus, theoretically destroying the Soviet Union’s economy while also cutting off resources to the Germans. The Baku oil fields, which they intended to bomb, provided the Soviet’s with 80% of their oil during the war. In addition to cutting off the Red Army’s supply of oil, it would theoretically, by Allied estimations, drastically hamper the fighting capability of the German army. As laid out in treaties ratified after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the non aggression pact and secret dismemberment of Poland treaty, the Soviets agreed to send the Germans critical natural resources that Germany and later Nazi occupied western Europe were lacking.

This was also part of the reason the allies were so aggravated with the Soviets that the French and British almost declared war. The Soviets were not just helping to keep the massive material production of German armaments running, without gas, Germany’s most powerful tools, the Luftwaffe and the Panzers, could not be used for any length of time.

Essentially, it was thought that it would cripple the war effort of both countries who were seen as collaborators against the Allies. As the initial strategy towards winning was a war of attrition and blockade, it does make sense why they might pursue a plan like this.

To the French, it was so serious a plan that on January 19th 1940, Premier Daldier himself instructed General Gamelin, Commander-in-chief of the French Armed Forces, and Admiral Darlan the Chief of Staff of the French Navy “to prepare a memorandum concerning eventual intervention for the destruction of the Russian oil fields.”[3]

To be fair to the French High Command, the impetus for the planned strikes against the Soviets came largely from the politicians and not from the French military. According to Gamelin himself, he understood what adding the Soviets to their list of enemies would mean, but did not feel he should stand up to the French government and tell them otherwise.[4] Whereby at this point the French Senate on both sides of the aisle were clamoring for action to be taken against the Soviets for their actions in Poland and Finland with Senators specifically calling for action to be taken against the Soviets in the Caucasus.[5] And as mentioned previously, there were certain sympathies in the French government and military that leaned towards treating the Soviets as the larger threat. Even though to both Britain and France, the Soviet Union was militarily seen as inept.

Due to the decimation that the Red Army had suffered from Stalin's purges, the Soviet army could not even push back the small Finnish army. From the information they had at the time, the Allies assumptions about the Red Army were not completely out of the blue, but as World War II journalist and historian William Shirer succinctly puts it, “The idea that France could destroy the distant Russian colossus when after six months of war it had been unable to deliver the slightest blow against Germany on its frontiers staggers the mind…”[6] General Gamelin nevertheless started to draw up plans for the invasion that General Weygand, commander of French Forces in the Near East, would be tasked with carrying out.

A month after Daladier had asked General Gamelin for a plan, he finally delivered his report on February 22. Gamelinn’s report suggested it would be better to bomb the Baku and Batum oil fields by getting permission from Turkey and Iraq to fly over them as opposed to sending in the navy into the black sea to disrupt the shipments of resources themselves. Gamelin also considered in this report that starting a “Moslem” uprising might be to the Allies’ benefit, probably thinking something along the lines of Lawrence of Arabia.[7]

General Paul Stehlin of the French Air Force discussed with his colleagues in early February 1940, not just a bombing campaign, but “armed forces which will advance in the general direction of Baku to halt the production of oil. From there they will march Northward to meet armed forces from Scandinavia and Finland marching on Moscow.”[8] Also on the same day, General Gamelin was telling General Weygand that he expected ground operations in the Caucuses to be carried out using Turkish forces with air support from the British and French.[9] Considering Turkey would stay neutral until February 1945 when it was all but clear the Axis had lost, it was a pretty sizable claim to say they would be ready and willing to invade the Soviet Union in early 1940.

Later on March 16, Gamelin again suggested he wanted Turkey's assistance but also their allowance of Submarines into the Black Sea and for them to cooperate with Iranian land forces to invade the Soviets.[10] Since the Soviets and British would invade Iran in August 1941 for fears it had German sympathies, this is also an incredible assumption on the part of General Gamelin to assume they would help in the invasion.

So by this stage in March 1940, the French High Command was considering bringing Turkey, Iran, and the Soviet Union into the war, launching a sizeable air offensive in which planes would have to be moved from Western Europe, a land invasion of the Soviet Union by Turkey and Iran, and instigating a “Moslem” uprising. At the very least their plan was not timid.

The French continued to prepare for the “invasion” well into April. On April 17th General Weygand reported on the progres of the mission saying that none of the required aircraft had arrived, no reconnaissance had been flown, and that pilots still needed special training. But curiously reported the mission planning was “far advanced” and could be ready in approximately 45 days.[11] Which of course only 23 days after April 17th the Germans started the Battle of France which General Gamelin would so disastrously manage as to have the French Government recall General Weygand from the near East to replace him. Ending the planning for what could have been the worst mistake the Allies never made in World War II, Operation Pike.

[1] William L. Shirer, The Collapse of the Third Republic (New York City, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1969), 544. [2] Richardson, French Plans for Allied Attacks on the Caucasus Oil Fields January-April 1940 (French Historical Studies 8, no. 1 (1973), 134. [3] Ibid, 130. [4] Ibid,149. [5] Shirer, The Collapse, 543. [6] Ibid, 545. [7] Richardson, French Plans, 138. [8] Ibid, 139. [9] Ibid, 141. [10] Ibid, 142. [11] Ibid, 151-152.


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