The Blurb On The Back:
In October 1943, with the outcome of the Second World War hanging in the balance, the Allies needed a new plan. The Americans’ audacious suggestion to the Soviets was to open a second air front, with the US Air Force establishing bases in Soviet-controlled territory. Despite Stalin’s obvious reservations about the presence of foreign troops in Russia, he was persuaded, and in early 1944 Operation Baseball and then Frantic were initiated as B-17 Flying Fortresses were flown from bases in Italy to the Poltava region in today’s Ukraine.
Award-winning historian Serhii Plokhy tells the gripping, little-known story of this encounter between American and Soviet soldiers and how their collaboration quickly fell apart, anticipating the transition from the Grand Alliance to the Cold War. Soviet secret policemen watched over the Americans, shadowing their every move. A catastrophic air raid by the Germans revealed the limitations of Soviet air defences. As their initial enthusiasm turned into disappointment, the American soldiers started calling themselves the Forgotten Bastards of Ukraine. Ultimately, no common purpose could overcome their cultural and political differences.
Drawing on newly opened KGB and FBI records, Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front offers a riveting bottom-up history of one of the Second World War’s most unlikely alliances.
Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
Serhii Plokhy is Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University, director of its Ukrainian Research Institute and a leading authority on Eastern Europe. This absorbing, very readable book looks at a forgotten period in World War II when Stalin permitted the USA to operate 3 airbases in the Ukraine between April 1944 and June 1945 and makes a convincing case for how the US/Soviet experience there fuelled the start of the Cold War.
I picked this book up because I’d previously read Plokhy’s CHERNOBYL: HISTORY OF A TRAGEDY and really rated it and also because my dad is a military historian so I’ve inherited an interest in military history and having studied World War II back when I did my History A Level cough-cough years ago, it’s a conflict I’ve always found fascinating.
This is a really well-researched, very easy-to-read look at an often-forgotten episode in World War II when the USA convinced Russia to allow it to establish 3 airbases within the Soviet territory of Ukraine (specifically at Pyriatyn, Myrhorod and Poltava). The focus of the book in terms of operations is more on what happened at Poltava than at the other two bases but Plokhy also looks at the negotiations and communications that went on behind the scenes, both in trying to get the bases set up in the first place (including the various motivations for both countries) and the fall out from the experiences of officers involved in the bases in terms of the start of the Cold War through its initial few years.
Plokhy used the recently opened KGB and FBI files to give a fresh perspective on this period, which gives the reader a fascinating insight at some of the forces at play behind the scenes. Particularly interesting is how SMERSH (the Soviet Union’s counter-intelligence agency) was deeply concerned about the US presence in Ukraine and was using informers to constantly second-guess what the US was “really” trying to do with the bases.
I did wish that there had been more on the Ukrainian women who entered into relationships with US airmen (some of whom had also had relationships with the Nazi occupiers) and what their thoughts and feelings were at the time. It’s particularly noticeable that Plokhy does not reference any attempt to contact either the women themselves or their living relations in the book’s Acknowledgements section. There are some interesting stories about some of these women, e.g. Zinaida Belukha who tried to get in touch with her US lover Igor Riverditto after the War without success and was hassled and viewed with suspicion by the KGB for her efforts so to then get told that she essentially disappears without trace in 1968 is quite frustrating. Likewise, the daughter of the US ambassador to Russia – Kathleen Harriman – is quoted extensively in the book because she was one of the few Western women who visited the bases and who was at some of the high level events between US and Soviet diplomats and yet there is nothing on what happened to her or any attempt to ascertain whether she or her descendants have a take on the events.
Plokhy does a good job of setting out just why and how relationships between the Americans and Russians began to break down at the bases and how this was partly because of pure cultural differences between the countries and partly because of Russian paranoia about what the Americans “really” wanted and their at times ham-fisted and painfully obvious attempts to prevent them getting it.
Particularly interesting is how the breaking points came due to the difference in Stalin and US’s intentions for Poland (Stalin was determined to put in place his own puppet government and so did not want to relieve the Polish nationalists fighting the Germans while the US officers on the ground were pushing Roosevelt to intervene but Roosevelt had one eye on potentially needing Stalin’s cooperation in the war against Japan) and in the treatment of prisoners of war (where the US from the top down was outraged at the poor treatment that the Russians showed US/British POWs while the Russians from the top down viewed POWs as traitors and cowards who were lucky to receive the bare minimum).
Also fascinating is the detail that Plokhy goes into with regards to the attitudes of US personnel who had Russian/Ukrainian heritage towards the Soviet Union and what impact service at the bases had on those attitudes. Particularly interesting is the experience of George Fischer with Plokhy paying attention to what happened to him after the War and how his continued interest in the Soviet Union drew the attention of the FBI.
Plokhy makes a convincing case that the experiences of some of the US officers at Poltava and the suspicions they had following their dealings with the Soviets played into the origins of the Cold War. Certainly, he draws clear lines between communications that Ambassador Harriman had with newly appointed President Truman as shaping US attitudes as the War drew to a close and he also points out how both US and Soviet officers from the bases were then sent to the political hot zone of Berlin where their respective dealings helped to shape decision making.
All in all I found this to be a really engrossing read that completely held my attention from beginning to end, not least because of the way Plokhy brings in human interest elements while also giving details on military operations and the wider political and military context to World War II. If you have an interest in this period, then I definitely think that it’s worth a couple of hours of your time.