Operation Pike

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This article is about the World War II operation. For the New Zealand mine recovery, see Pike River Mine disaster .
Oil refinery in Baku. 1912. The French diplomat René Massigli, in a report to Paris, noted that American oil engineers observed "as a result of the manner in which the oil fields have been exploited, the earth is so saturated with oil that fire could spread immediately to the entire neighboring region; it would be months before it could be extinguished and years before work could be resumed again."[1]

Operation Pike refers to a strategic bombing plan, overseen by Air Commodore John Slessor, against the Soviet Union by the Anglo-French alliance.[2] British military planning against the Soviet Union occurred during the first two years of the Second World War, when despite the Soviet Union's neutrality, the British and French came to the conclusion that the Nazi-Soviet pact made Moscow the ally of Hitler.[3] The plan was designed to destroy the Soviet oil industry, to cause collapse of Soviet economy and thus deprive Nazi Germany of the Soviet resources.


After the conclusion of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, Britain and France became deeply concerned that Stalin kept supplying more oil to Hitler's Germany.[4]

Planning began shortly after the Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939 and gained momentum after Joseph Stalin launched the Winter War against Finland in December 1939. The plan included the seizure of northern Norway and Sweden and an advance into Finland to confront Soviet troops and naval forces in the Baltic Sea. The plan was seen as costly and ineffective in dealing with the German threat and were thus scaled back to the seizure of Norway and the Swedish iron ore mines. The British and French politicians were for the continuation of the conflict between Finland and the Soviet Union. This would legitimize their attack on the Soviet soil.

Planners identified a dependence by Nazi Germany on oil imported from the Soviet Union as a vulnerability that could be exploited. Despite initial opposition by some politicians, the French Government ordered General Maurice Gamelin to commence a "plan of possible intervention with the view of destroying Russian oil exploitation", while U.S. Ambassador Bullit informed U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the French considered that air attacks by the French Air Forces in Syria against Baku would be "the most efficient way to weaken the Soviet Union."[4] According to the report by General Gamelin submitted to the French Prime Minister on 22 February 1940, an oil shortage would cripple the Red Army and Soviet Air Force, as well as Soviet collective farm machinery, causing possible widespread famine and even the collapse of the Soviet Union: "Dependence on oil supplies from the Caucasus is the fundamental weakness of Russian economy. The Armed Forces were totally dependent on this source also for their motorized agriculture. More than 90% of oil extraction and 80% of refinement was located in the Caucasus (primarily Baku). Therefore, interruption of oil supplies on any large scale would have far-reaching consequences and could even result in the collapse of all the military, industrial and agricultural systems of Russia."[4] An important source of raw materials would also be denied to Nazi Germany with the destruction of the oil fields.

Serious preparation by the British began after the end of Stalin's war with Finland in March 1940. By April, plans to attack oil production centres in the Caucasian towns of Baku, Batum and Grozny were complete. Bombers were to be flown from bases in Iran, Turkey and Syria. The plans were called "Western Air Plan 106" and given the code name "Operation Pike".[5] The French side proposed accelerating the planning, whereas the British side was more cautious, fearing a possible German-Soviet alliance, should the allies attack the USSR.[6] The Soviet leadership also anticipated allies' actions. Thus, from 25 to 29 March, the leading staff of the Transcaucasian Military District conducted the following map exercise. According to scenario, the “black” forces, continuing their actions against the “brown” forces at the Western front, attacked in cooperation with “blue” and “green” forces; they were repelled by the “reds” in Caucasus, who then started a counteroffensive towards Erzurum and Tebriz.[7]

Some scholars do not take the British plans of attack seriously and regard them as mere contingency plans.[8] On the other hand, the Soviet-Russian historian Vilnis Sipols notes that the British and French military staff had developed strategic plans of assaulting the Soviet Union from the South but the two governments lacked a political decision to invade.[9]

Reconnaissance missions[edit]

In March 1940, after the end of the Winter War, the British undertook secret reconnaissance flights to photograph areas inside the Soviet Union, utilising high-altitude, high-speed stereoscopic photography pioneered by Sidney Cotton.[10]

Using specially modified and unmarked Lockheed Model 14 Super Electra aircraft painted in a special blue camouflage scheme developed by Cotton himself (who led the RAF's Photographic Development Unit or PDU), the Secret Intelligence Service launched the high-altitude reconnaissance flights from RAF Habbaniya, a Royal Air Force station in Iraq. One such mission was flown on 30 March 1940. Flying over the mountainous region of southeastern Kurdistan, across the coast of the Caspian Sea then north towards Baku, the flight entered Soviet airspace at 11:45 after a four-hour flight. Loitering for an hour whilst making six photographic runs with its 14 in (36 cm) aerial camera, the aircraft left Baku at 12:45 and returned to RAF Habbaniya.[11]

Another reconnaissance sortie was flown on 5 April from RAF Habbaniya, this time crossing Turkish airspace to reach Batumi. This flight encountered Soviet anti-aircraft fire and a Soviet fighter attempted to intercept it. However, the British had obtained everything they needed for photo-interpretation purposes and for mapping the Soviet petroleum centres.

Preparations for the air campaign[edit]

Subsequent analysis of the photography by the PDU revealed that the oil infrastructure in Baku and Batum were particularly vulnerable to air attack as both could be approached from the sea, so the more difficult target of Grozny would be bombed first to exploit the element of surprise. Oil fields were to be attacked with incendiary bombs, while tests conducted at the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich revealed light oil storage tanks at the oil processing plants could be detonated with high explosives.

As of 1 April, four squadrons comprising 48 Bristol Blenheim Mk IV bombers were transferred to the Middle East Command, supplemented with a number of single-engined Wellesley bombers for night missions. A French force of 65 Martin Maryland bombers and a supplementary force of 24 Farman F.222 heavy bombers were allocated for night operations during the campaign. The French were preparing new air fields in Syria which were expected to be ready by 15 May. The campaign was expected to last three months. Over 1,000 short tons (910 t) of ordnance was allocated to the operation: 404 armour-piecing bombs, 554 500 lb (230 kg) and 5,188 250 lb (110 kg) general-purpose bombs, and 69,192 4 lb (1.8 kg) incendiary bombs.[12]

Germany foils Allied plans[edit]

The German Blitzkrieg and the swift fall of France on 10 May 1940 derailed the plans when the French military failed to hold back the Wehrmacht's advance. The Germans captured a train stalled at the village of La Charité-sur-Loire that contained boxes of secret documents evacuated from Paris. Amongst these were documents dealing with Operation Pike.

On 4 July, in a propaganda campaign to justify the invasion of France, the German News Bureau (DNB) released excerpts of the captured documents relating to Operation Pike, asserting that "Germany must be credited with saving these other states [including the Soviet Union] from being drawn into this chaos by Allied schemings .... because she took timely counter-measures and also crushed France quickly."[13]

Thus, the operation was compromised and the strategic Anglo-French bombing campaign against Soviet targets was postponed and eventually abandoned.[14]


After the attack on the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany in Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, Operation Pike was revived as a contingency plan to be invoked in the event that German forces occupied the Caucasian oil fields.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Osborn, p108
  2. ^ Osborn, Patrick (2000). Operation Pike: Britain versus the Soviet Union, 1939-1941. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-313-31368-4. 
  3. ^ Keith Neilson, Stalin's moustache: The Soviet Union and the coming of war , Diplomacy & Statecraft, Volume 12, Issue 2 June 2001 , pages 197 - 208
  4. ^ a b c Vagif Agayev, Fuad Akhundov, Fikrat T. Aliyev and Mikhail Agarunov (Summer 1995 (3.2)). "World War II and Azerbaijan". Azerbaijan International. Retrieved 22 September 2010. 
  5. ^ Osborn, p148
  6. ^ М.И Мельтюхов Упущенный шанс Сталина. Советский Союз и борьба за Европу: 1939-1941 (Документы, факты, суждения). - М.: Вече, 2000 С. 262-263
  7. ^ Упущенный шанс Сталина С. 264
  8. ^ Osborn, p.x
  9. ^ В.Я. Сиполс. Тайны дипломатические. М.,1997. С.210.
  10. ^ Cotton, Sidney as told to Ralph Barker. Aviator Extraordinary: The Sidney Cotton Story. London: Chatto & Windus, 1969. ISBN 0-7011-1334-0
  11. ^ Osborn, p146
  12. ^ Osborn, p236
  13. ^ Osborn, pp198–99
  14. ^ Osborn, p ix