With Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front Serhii Plokhy delivers on his subtitle, “An Untold Story of World War II.” Not literally untold of course, but one that lived on mainly in the archived files, official histories, and small print runs of participants’ memoirs. Plokhy’s most useful source from a major publisher was The Strange Alliance: The Story of Our Efforts at Wartime Cooperation with Russia, which was put out by Viking in 1947 and can stand as a reminder that a wider variety of works and perspectives were printed in the war’s immediate aftermath than is present in popular memory.
What is this tale that has been ignored down through the decades? For a short time in 1944 and 1945, there were American air bases inside the Soviet Union. Hundreds of B-17s flew in and out of Soviet Ukraine on missions to bomb targets in Germany and in Axis-occupied (or Axis-allied) Central Europe. These targets would have been out of reach if the planes had had to return to their bases in Britain or Italy, and striking them effectively was beyond the abilities of Soviet air forces, which never built much of a strategic bombing capability. A series of missions under the code name Frantic started in England or Italy, attacked targets in Central Europe, and landed at airfields near Poltava, Ukraine. They then refueled, reloaded, and attacked Nazi-held targets on the way back to their home bases in Western Europe.
The plan was conceived when Stalin was keen to see commitment by the Western Allies to opening a second front in Europe. Lend-Lease was crucial to the Soviet war effort, but Stalin wanted a firmer commitment and feared that the Western powers might be content to let Nazism and Bolshevism bleed each other. The Americans looked past the defeat of Germany and wanted eventual Soviet assistance in defeating Imperial Japan. Despite the Axis Pact, and the US-UK-USSR alliance, Japan and the Soviet Union were not at war. Indeed, Plokhy describes American envoys’ shock at encountering Japanese diplomats in wartime Moscow. The Soviets wanted a demonstration of earnestness by the Western Allies, the Americans wanted a basis for future cooperation in the Far East, and all of the Allies wanted the ability to hit parts of the Nazi war machine that would otherwise have been out of reach. Win-win-win, right?
Well, British and to a lesser extent American armed forces had tried to stop the Bolshevik revolution in 1918–1920. That intervention was closer in time to the negotiations that led to the Frantic missions than Bill Clinton’s first inauguration is to today, and people remembered. Stalin certainly remembered. And so while on the one hand he said he wanted the Western Allies to help his war effort, on the other he did not really want a significant presence on Soviet soil — and indeed some people within the Party thought that the bases might be used later as springboards for an effort to undo the Russian Revolution. As a practical matter, the Soviet Union strictly limited contacts between its inhabitants and any foreigners; letting foreigners set up actual bases would lead to uncontrollable interactions.
Plokhy sets out these contradictions and documents how they functioned in practice. The Soviets were impressed with American technology and the sophistication of the planes (B-17s and P-51s, mostly), but were appalled at the Americans’ material profligacy and what the Soviets saw as lack of commitment. On the other hand, they were astonished that in the army of the capitalist bourgeois power, enlisted men talked with officers more or less as equals, and that a landowner with holdings as big as a collective farm might serve as enlisted personnel. The Americans were impressed by Soviet commitment and ability to make repairs from almost anything, but appalled at the living conditions that the Soviets regarded as normal.
Plokhy is also good at showing how political winds affected people at the working level. When the higher-ups wanted to get along, they were willing to overlook a lot of nonsense that was causing real problems, and they also re-assigned people who pointed that out. The Soviets sometimes took advantage of those conditions to push out men or officers who spoke fluent Russian or who understood the Soviet system only too well. Plenty of energy was used up in low-level infighting. On the other hand, there really were larger issues at stake, and if the cost of Soviet cooperation against Japan was reassigning a few officers from Poltava to Italy or England, then that was a tiny price to pay. (The Manhattan Project was known only at the very highest levels of the Army Air Force.)
The book has quite a bit of detail about social relations between the Americans who staffed the base and local people, especially with local women. Some of the outlines will be familiar to anyone who has considered or dealt with American bases in other countries, while some of it is particular to the Soviet experience. The local secret police and military counterintelligence swung back and forth between prohibiting social contact between the American men and Soviet women. At times, such contact was discouraged (often with punches, slaps and kicks) as an offense against Soviet honor. At other times, it was fitfully tolerated, the better to provide opportunities to spy on the Americans. Plokhy correctly highlights the risks that women ran by dating Americans. What he does not spell out — and what an audience that knows World War II well but is less versed in Soviet history might not know — is that there were plenty of other reasons a secret policeman could dream up if he wanted to arrest someone, presuming of course he felt the need to give any reason at all.
Operationally, Frantic was a bust. It got going too slowly for bombing to have a significant effect on Nazi-held Central Europe before the Red Army arrived. Once the front was moving steadily west, planes could reach their targets and return to bases in Western Europe, obviating the need to use a Soviet airfield. The Soviets also controlled permission to fly in and out of the bases in Ukraine, and withheld it if they thought the Western Allies might learn something about Soviet actions or dispositions that they were not inclined to share. Further, inadequate air defenses led to serious losses during a German nighttime attack. Each side blamed the other, straining cooperation.
Major rifts in the alliance appeared when American and British leaders suggested using the Poltava bases to support the Polish Home Army, which had risen in Warsaw to throw off Nazi occupation in advance of the Red Army’s drive to the city. Soviet troops stayed on the eastern bank of the Vistula, claiming overextended supply lines, while the German army destroyed the Polish forces and then burned central Warsaw to the ground. The Americans and the British wanted to airdrop supplies to assist the Home Army, which answered to the London-based Polish government in exile. Stalin had a pliant Communist government that he wanted to install, and the Soviets stalled, eventually giving permission for a few flights that were too little, too late. Considerable bitterness remains among Poles to this day about these Soviet actions.
Warsaw leads Plokhy into consideration of the last months of American operations in Ukraine, which he casts as a preview of the Cold War. Lacking military objectives, the Americans set about doing what Soviet counterintelligence had suspected they were up to all along: gathering whatever information they could about Soviet activities and intentions in Central Europe. The Soviets saw that departure would soon be at hand, and some of them set about stealing as much material as they could. Social tensions continued. Additional problems arose from differing perspectives on the treatment of prisoners of war. Americans regarded their countrymen captured by the Germans as a top priority, to be brought home at all costs, to be treated well and nursed back to health once returned. The Soviets saw POWs as little better than deserters, as potential traitors and infiltrators infected by contact with the fascists. The Americans wanted wide-ranging access to Soviet-controlled areas behind the front in order to recover previously German-held Americans; the Soviets were not inclined to grant it.
Interestingly, once the war was over a fairly large share of people who had been involved with Poltava were part of their respective nations’ occupation forces in Germany, particularly in Berlin. Americans who had seen Soviet practices first-hand in Ukraine tended to be skeptical of the intentions and actions of the Soviets as part of the occupation. Ironically, a Soviet officer from Poltava negotiated the air corridors to Berlin which were later crucial to saving West Berlin when the USSR imposed a blockade on land traffic between the city and the zones of Germany occupied by the Western powers. In one of the book’s final ironies, Plokhy sketches how an American officer was seen as a potential spy by both the KGB and the FBI. Mutual suspicion produced nearly identical mirrored assessments.
Forgotten Bastards sheds light on a little-known corner of the war in Europe, and that in turn illuminates relations both then and now. The book is less technical than a monograph aimed at an academic audience, but more detailed than a casual reader would probably desire. The men of Frantic and Poltava are forgotten no more.