CRAIG BROWN: How Stalin’s lies duped Churchill – but couldn’t fool Howlin’ Mad Howley 

Checkmate In Berlin

Giles Milton                                                                                           John Murray £25


Three months before the end of the Second World War in Europe, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met for an eight-day conference at Yalta in the Crimea. An Allied victory was in sight.

‘The immense task of the organisation of the world,’ was how Churchill described their purpose. He was barely exaggerating. Apart from agreeing on an unconditional surrender from the Nazis, each of the three leaders had his own agenda: Churchill wanted to keep the British Empire intact; Stalin wanted to retain Poland; and Roosevelt wanted both to persuade Stalin to join the war against Japan and accept his proposals for a new organisation, the United Nations.

Surprisingly, perhaps, it was Stalin who shone at Yalta. By all accounts (not least his own team’s), Churchill was under-prepared and over-talkative. ‘Silly old man,’ complained a senior aide, ‘without a word of warning he plunged into a long harangue about [the] World Organisation, knowing nothing whatever of what he was talking about and making complete nonsense of the whole thing.’

Surprisingly, perhaps, it was Stalin (above) who shone at Yalta. By all accounts (not least his own team’s), Churchill was under-prepared and over-talkative

Surprisingly, perhaps, it was Stalin (above) who shone at Yalta. By all accounts (not least his own team’s), Churchill was under-prepared and over-talkative

President Roosevelt was terminally ill: on one day, he was obliged to conduct discussions with Stalin from his sickbed. But Stalin was completely on the ball – listening hard to what everyone had to say, and then, when it came to his turn, keeping to the point. 

‘Of course the man was ruthless and of course he knew his purpose,’ observed the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, adding: ‘He never wasted a word. He never stormed, he was seldom even irritated.’

Churchill, too, was impressed. ‘It is no exaggeration when I say that we regard Marshal Stalin’s life as most precious to the hopes and hearts of us all,’ he said, toasting him at a banquet on the fifth day. 

Two days later, he went even further. ‘The fire of war has burnt up the misunderstandings of the past. We feel we have a friend whom we can trust, and I hope he will continue to feel the same about us.’

Checkmate In Berlin offers a wonderfully clear and digestible account of what happened next. By the time of the second Allied conference, at Potsdam in July 1945, Germany had surrendered, Roosevelt had died, and Churchill had lost his famous bulldog resolve. 

Checkmate In Berlin offers a wonderfully clear and digestible account of what happened next (Above, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin meet at Yalta in the Crimea in February 1945)

Checkmate In Berlin offers a wonderfully clear and digestible account of what happened next (Above, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin meet at Yalta in the Crimea in February 1945)

Anthony Eden couldn’t believe it when he heard Churchill surrendering the captured German naval fleet. ‘[I] urged him not to give up our few cards without return, but he is again under Stalin’s spell. He kept repeating, “I like that man.” ’

Churchill’s mood wouldn’t have been helped by the fact that he was awaiting the result of the first post-war General Election: halfway through the conference he flew back to Britain, only to hear that he had lost.

Stalin, on the other hand, was cock of the walk. He arrived at Potsdam in a blaze of glory, dressed in a cream jacket with gold braid on its collar, and with a red stripe on his blue trousers, ‘like the Emperor of Austria in a bad musical comedy’, according to one member of the British delegation.

He could afford to parade his power. The Russians had arrived in Berlin two months before their allies, and had proceeded to secure their position with utter ruthlessness. 

Though it had been agreed that the city would be divided between the Allies, Stalin secretly planned to secure it for the Soviet Union, regardless of any pledges or agreements. 

The British and Americans were slow to realise that the Soviets had no intention of playing by the rules.

‘They will promise anything, sign anything, provided it benefits them, and will scrap the pledge the moment it doesn’t,’ declared the less easily deceived Colonel Frank ‘Howlin’ Mad’ Howley, who led the American contingent of the joint British-American Military Government of Berlin.

He had arrived in the German capital on his guard against the Germans. ‘But it was becoming more evident by the day,’ he recalled, ‘that it was the Russians who really were our enemies.’

By and large, the Russians covertly agreed with this analysis. ‘America is now the primary enemy,’ one of Stalin’s generals had announced after the fall of Germany. ‘We have destroyed the base of Fascism. Now we must destroy the base of Capitalism.’

When they took Berlin, the Soviet high command had tolerated any atrocities committed by their troops. Ninety thousand women sought medical assistance for rape: many thousands more would have been too ashamed to report it. 

Soviet general Marshal Zhukov’s only fear was that his soldiers might contract venereal disease.

The devastation wrought on Berlin by the Russians is vividly described by the British historian Giles Milton in a series of sharp vignettes. Those Berliners who had survived now faced starvation. 

There were no dogs, cats or birds left in the city – they had all been eaten. In Berlin zoo, people chanced upon one of the few animals still alive – an ox – and killed it. ‘Someone wrenched out the liver, others snatched at the dripping tongue,’ reported an eyewitness. 

‘“The tongue is mine… the tongue… the tongue!” Five blood-covered fists angrily pull the tongue out of the ox’s throat. At the rear of the beast, a shrill-voiced woman hacked off the tail and fled the scene in greedy triumph.’


Churchill was bored by the classical music at a dinner given by Stalin in Potsdam, and to ‘get even’ had the RAF band blast its brass at a banquet he hosted.

Meanwhile, the Soviets were systematically stripping the Western sector of Berlin. ‘Take everything!’ ordered one senior official. ‘Do you understand? Everything! If you can’t take it, destroy it!’ 

Hospitals were raided for anaesthetics and antibiotics. Objects great and small – watches, rings, bathroom taps, washing machines – were confiscated or wrecked. Notices were placed on public buildings declaring that all typewriters and telephones should be handed in. 

‘Those who won’t give them up will be shot.’

Museums were looted, and their contents sent to Moscow under the direction of a leading Russian art historian. Milton calls it ‘the greatest looting spree in history’. One Moscow museum alone received 12,500 stolen works of art. 

Many bits and pieces found their way into the homes of Marshal Zhukov, among them 85 crates of furniture, a suitcase full of diamonds and emeralds, priceless tapestries and nearly 240 lb of gold and silver.

Stalin’s mendacity extended to the corpse of Adolf Hitler.

Early on, the Russians discovered his burnt remains outside his bunker; Hitler’s former dental assistant had identified his skull from dental records. But it suited Stalin to fuel rumours that Hitler had escaped to the West. 

Lest she spill the beans, the dental assistant was placed in solitary confinement in Moscow for the next six years, before being condemned to ten years in a Soviet gulag.

At the Potsdam conference, when President Truman asked Stalin how he thought Hitler had died, Stalin replied that he was probably alive and well and living in Spain or Argentina. 

The official Soviet newspaper Izvestia went a step further, claiming that Hitler and Eva Braun were living together in a castle in Westphalia, the British zone of Germany.

Checkmate In Berlin charts the growing tension between the Soviet Union and its former allies in the post-war years. After repeatedly being outwitted by America and Britain, Stalin cut off all food and fuel in 1947, leaving Berlin effectively under siege for the next 323 days. 

Milton’s account of the breaking of the siege is as gripping as any thriller.

Until quite recently, historians liked to take an ‘on-the-one-hand/but-on-the-other’ view of the relationship between the Soviet Union and its former allies. But Milton refuses to be mealy-mouthed in his defence of the West.

He champions those who identified Stalin as the enemy, and stood their ground, most notably Labour’s Ernest Bevin and our old friend Colonel Frank ‘Howlin’ Mad’ Howley.

‘He was the first to recognise that the Soviets were no longer an ally; that Stalin was plotting the seizure of both Berlin and western Germany,’ he writes.

‘Howley saw Soviet duplicity in razor-sharp focus, with kidnappings, looting, murder and espionage being a daily reality in Berlin, along with lurid propaganda and the rigging of elections.’