They had high hopes, but at best Frantic was a strategic sideshow, at worst a waste of timeby Duncan Weldon / November 13, 2019 / Leave a comment
There are many books that claim to tell an “unknown” story of the Second World War. Few of them actually do. Serhii Plokhy’s Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Frontis a rare exception. Many of Plokhy’s sources consist of Smersh (the Soviet anti-espionage agency) documents released after the 2013-4 Ukrainian revolution.
Plokhy, a Ukrainian-American historian whose work on Chernobyl received the Baillie Gifford prize, has turned his attention to Operation Frantic, a joint US-Soviet plan to base US bombers in what is now Ukraine.
With Stalin pressing the western allies to open a second front but with the preparations for D-Day incomplete, the 1943 Tehran Conference established US bases in Soviet territory. US bombers based in Italy and Britain could then engage in a bombing relay run, overflying Axis territory to hit targets previously beyond their maximum range, before landing in the USSR.
The military plan was coupled with a political hope that deepening Soviet-US co-operation would tie the allies closer together. The US still, at this point, expected Soviet help in a land invasion to be crucial in the fight against Japan.
As Plokhy explains, though, a devastating German air raid inflicted severe casualties on the Ukrainian-based Americans. At best Frantic was a strategic sideshow, at worst a waste of time. More fundamentally, it failed to bind the allies closer together.
Plokhy is at his best when he turns to the human level, the culture clash experienced by US servicemen finding themselves inside Stalin’s USSR under constant surveillance from the secret police.
The changing US attitude towards the Soviets—from anti-Hitler ally to Cold War rival—can be tracked in the lived experience of those on the ground. This is gripping history, well told, that will appeal to a wide range of readers.
Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front: An Untold Story of World War II by Serhii Plokhy (Allen Lane, £20)