The German force was split in two: Army Group B headed toward Stalingrad on the river Volga, and Army Group A advanced southeast toward the oil fields of the Caucasus, the region just north of Iran and Turkey. For Hitler, this oil was one of the greatest potential prizes of the war in the East.
Within four weeks, the Germans had pushed five hundred miles into the USSR, eventually capturing more than half a million Soviet prisoners. On July 6, for the first and only time in the war, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin allowed Red Army troops to retreat. Hitler was so confident of victory that he moved his headquarters from the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia almost five hundred miles southeast to Vinnitsa in Nazi -occupied Ukraine.
For most of a year, the Soviets had been demanding that the Western Allies invade France, which would create a second front for the Germans and take pressure off the Red Army. But the British and American governments agreed that they would not be ready for such an operation in 1942. British prime minister Winston Churchill decided to deliver the bad news to Stalin in person, though the British delegation knew the meeting with Stalin would be difficult. As one of Churchill’s generals later said, “We were going into the lion’s den and we weren’t going to feed him.”
“I dislike and distrust the English. They are skilful and stubborn opponents but the British Army is weak. If England is still ruling the world, it is due to the stupidity of other countries which allow themselves to be bluffed.”– Joseph Stalin, 1939
In August, Churchill made an arduous journey, flying in an unpressurized American bomber at fifteen thousand feet, to meet with Stalin in Moscow. Stalin was upset to learn about the delay of the second front, but his anger was tempered by Churchill’s promise that Britain was stepping up its bombing raids against German cities, having already attacked Cologne, Lübeck, and Düsseldorf. If necessary, Churchill pledged, the British would shatter almost every dwelling in every German city. Although Churchill later tried to distance himself from the deliberate bombing of civilian targets, in this meeting with Stalin he was enthusiastic about the campaign, asserting, “We seek no mercy and will show no mercy.”
Churchill also told Stalin about the Allies’ plan to land 250,000 troops in North Africa to battle the Italian and German armies. Although initially pleased, Stalin sent Churchill a note the following day accusing the British of breaking a promise to mount a second front in 1942 and taking action that “prejudices the plan of the Soviet Command.” Despite the tension between the two leaders, newsreels and articles contended that the Allied leaders were getting along famously.
“We will continue hand in hand like comrades and brothers until every vestige of the Nazi regime has been beaten into the ground.”– Winston Churchill, 1942
Churchill attempted to form a personal bond with Stalin even though the two men had almost nothing in common. When Stalin confessed that the Bolsheviks had murdered large numbers of wealthy landowners while trying to collectivize Soviet farms in the 1930s, Churchill passed no judgment. He later explained that, “with the World War going on all round us it seemed vain to moralize aloud.”
On his way home from Moscow, Churchill stopped in Cairo where he met with General Anders, commander of the Polish 2nd Corps , who were fighting with the British in the Mediterranean. Anders expressed concern about a large number of Polish officers who had been missing for more than two years. At the time, neither Churchill nor the Poles were aware that Stalin had ordered the execution of thousands of Polish officers and elites in March 1940. Churchill urged caution on the part of the Poles. As he would throughout the war, the British prime minister tried to maintain a careful balance between Poland and the Soviet Union. He realized that Great Britain had gone to war to protect Polish independence, but he also knew that he needed Stalin’s help to beat the Nazis.