Churchill and Stalin did not trust each other. Certainly it was stupendously important that the Russian leader fought with the Allies and did so ferociously. Churchill was a student of history and with his access to the finest intelligence services the west could provide he knew what had happened in the 1930s. He knew that Stalin had purged a huge number of Soviet commanders who he felt were not loyal, and no doubt many of them were felled in tiny and petty political battles and rivalries. It doesn’t take a giant leap to see that rivals at the state level could use a virulent paranoid NKVD police state against each other. Churchill knew that ‘purged’ meant murdered, or worse, and he knew about the massive ethnic cleansing done in the Ukraine. So many of the senior Soviet military command were in fact not loyal to Stalin and wished a pox on the family of this ruthless murderer. Consider the death of Soviet General Vatutin, the leader of the Soviet forces that helped encircle the German 6th Army at Stalingrad. He was inspecting the Sixtieth Army in April of 1944 and just traveling from one encampment to the next he was ambushed by Bandera. Bandera were the Ukrainian nationalist guerillas who lost the war of independence against the Communists. He was shot in the hip and died days later in a hospital in Kiev, newly retaken from the Nazis. We touched on this before. The Soviet Union was a massive quilt of cultures and languages and traditions and landscapes, each with their own stories, their histories and their own desire for self-governance. Think about how fast a dozen new nations formed after the fall of the Soviet Union. Think about how fast tiny Yugoslavia became seven nations in the two decades after Marshall Tito’s death. Many Soviets were fighting against the Germans, not for the Communists.
Churchill saw Stalin for what he was, and Stalin, a master of political maneuvering, knew what Churchill thought of him. This was never more prevalent than during the conferences between them and Roosevelt in Tehran in late 1943. The discussion on the table was where the second front would be opened against the Germans. After Dunkirk, there were still no troops in Western Europe in mid-1943. The Allies were busy with massive disinformation intelligence to keep the Germans guessing where the invasion would take place. Many German high commanders felt that Calais with its wide flat beaches and gentler tides and closer proximity to the English coastline would be the invasion route. But Churchill wanted the second front to be in the Balkans. Stalin balked. He ignored Churchill and negotiated only with Roosevelt. Stalin knew what Churchill was trying to do. By invading in the Balkans, the British and Americans could blunt the advance of the Russian forces and ultimately the Russian Empire into Southern Europe.
Stalin played his hand very well and got what he wanted. His country still had 200 German divisions to fight, but he knew he had the manpower to finish off the Wehrmacht. Even if Churchill had convinced the architects of Operation Overlord to invade into Southern Europe, the tide had already turned against Germany and the German Army was simply playing a desperate defensive countdown against the inevitable fall of the Third Reich. Just to stack the negotiations in his own favor, Stalin promised Roosevelt that he would enter the war against Japan. He got what he wanted, a second front from the French coastline. This was more than just winning a hand against Churchill. This was a smackdown.
Soviet forces were on the move westward. They were enjoying wins in the Crimean, and in the Ukraine, in the North and in the central front. Now the Russians had the forces and the commanders who knew that the best tactic on a battlefield like this was encirclement. You don’t just push out an army. An army can push back and easily create stalemates and trench warfare. You have to push through, get around behind and in front of the retreating army and destroy them. During the final days at Stalingrad, when Von Paulus had already pleaded with Hitler to allow his army to punch out and regroup, Von Manstein tried to breakthrough and create a pocket. He couldn’t. He noted “…strong Soviet tank forces pushed through in depth…just as we had taught them to do.”