Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front
America Airmen behind the Soviet Lines and the Collapse of the Grand Alliance
Oxford University Press, New York, 2019, 360 pages
Book Review published on: February 14, 2020
It was a good plan: use U.S. Air Force bombers to attack targets in occupied Europe, but rather than returning to bases in Italy and England and dealing with the Luftwaffe’s frontier defenses, the aircraft would continue onward, through Eastern Europe, where the German air defenses were much lighter. The bombers would land at airbases in Soviet territory, where they would rearm and refuel in preparation for flying over Nazi Europe and delivering another blow against Adolf Hitler. The Americans would be able to reach targets previously out of range of its B-17s and B-24s and the Soviets would have a strategic bombing capability “by proxy” via nomination of targets. It would be a sterling example of the Grand Alliance between East and West. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way.
With access to Soviet-era secret police records, author Serhii Plotkhy looks not just at the diplomatic wrangling and the military work that made the frantic missions possible, but also the clash of cultures that would put the two allies on a collision course. His thesis is that the Cold War did not start in the aftermath of World War II and the establishment of the Iron Curtain but at the Poltava, Ukraine, airfields and the eye-opening treatment that American airmen experienced in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front makes excellent use of both firsthand accounts and documentation to make his case.
During World War II the United States and Britain were aligned with the communist dictatorship of the USSR out of necessity. Ironically so, the USSR had, in 1939, aligned itself with the Axis powers and had been feeding the German war machine raw materials right up until Hitler’s all-out attack on the Soviet Union. In any case, the United States provided lend-lease assistance, giving the Soviets tanks, aircraft, and trucks to keep them in the fight. On the home front, Joseph Stalin became “Uncle Joe,” and the “Russians” became honorable allies. Hollywood movies were produced about life in Soviet Russia that can only be described as wartime propaganda.
As a result, most Americans who flew the B-17s to the USSR were at the very least open-minded toward the Soviets. This did not last long. First, the Soviets failed to impress the Americans who arrived at Poltava. The hygiene standards were not what GIs were used to, with poorly located and maintained latrines and disgraceful handling of food. The Russians did not live up to their fearsome reputation as soldiers either, with airfield sentries found asleep and a disastrous Luftwaffe nighttime bombing raid on the airfields, which was not met with effective antiaircraft fire or fighter interception.
Second, the Soviets treated Americans with suspicion, in the case of airmen, and with contempt, in the case of liberated POWs. Paranoia was an integral part of so-called Soviet culture, since its basis was the theory that countries that practiced capitalism were exploitive and the masses were downtrodden. Yet Americans of different ethnic groups and religious backgrounds did not seem downtrodden. In fact, they seemed far better off than their Soviet allies. In addition, many of the Americans with Ukrainian- and Russian-language skills belonged to families who had backed the Whites during the Russian Civil War. The Reds naturally thought that the airmen sent to their country were actually there to undermine it, especially when the need for the shuttle raids became less obvious. This bit of transference gives us a good idea of how the communists did business with erstwhile allies.
The Soviets alienated the Americans in almost every way imaginable. Onerous restrictions were put on Americans trying to leave the bases, and people (usually women) who had unsupervised contact with Americans were harassed. Flights from the bases were grounded for hours and sometimes for days while waiting for “permission from Moscow.” American airmen were not permitted to provide transportation and medical assistance to GIs liberated by the Red Army from Nazi POW camps. The last outrage was due to the way the Soviets viewed their own prisoners of war: nothing less than traitors. As a result, the Red Army felt no obligation to feed, house, or transport American POWs since, as far as they were concerned, they had failed to do their duty.
But Plokhy’s most stunning revelation was one that could not have been known at the time: the secret police organization known as SMERSH was deployed to put the Americans under surveillance while in the USSR. SMERSH, whose name was derived from the Russian phrase “death to spies,” was a counterintelligence arm of the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs). The only other enemy it had been used against had apparently been the Nazis.
The Soviets treated the Americans as dangerous provocateurs. Those Americans who were former POWs were traitors and those who could speak Russian were spies. It did not take the Iron Curtain to open many American’s eyes to the threat the Soviets posed, it took Poltava.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. James D. Crabtree, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas