Operation Keelhaul

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

As part of Operation Keelhaul (Engl. For careening ) were from 1943 to 1947 approximately two and a half million people from the territory of the Soviet Union came, sent back by the British and the Americans, often against their will in the course of forced repatriation . Many of these people were killed, by executions or even by suicide.

The approximately two and a half million Soviet citizens who were repatriated were from different groups: These included former slave laborers, prisoners of war and soldiers from various nations who had fought on the side of the Germans, but also thousands of emigrants who had been in Western Europe, as well as other people who were of Russian descent but had never lived in Russia.

Originally, the term Operation Keelhaul only referred to such an action in northern Italy, until the historian Julius Epstein published a book in 1973 and coined the term for all such repatriations of people to the Soviet Union. Epstein researched archives for over 20 years and had to seek access to the relevant files in the US, while the British archives remained closed to him.


Before the end of the war

As early as June 1944, the British Foreign Office decided to repatriate all Soviet prisoners of war , regardless of the consequences for those affected. Stalin had previously made it clear that he considered all Soviet citizens who, for whatever reason, temporarily stayed outside the USSR during the Second World War , as “traitors” and announced draconian punishments. On June 24, 1944, Patrick Dean , advisor to the British Foreign Minister, declared: “In due course all those with whom the Soviet authorities desire to deal must […] be handed over to them, and we are not concerned with the fact that they may be shot or otherwise more harshly dealt [...]. ”(Eng.“ In due course all those with whom the Soviet authorities want to deal will be handed over to them, and we cannot concern ourselves with the fact whether they were shot or treated badly in other ways. ")

However, British Army Special Forces , which had supported resistance groups on the continent, had distributed leaflets saying that all Russians who would surrender to the Allies would be granted political asylum. Despite violent protests, however, the military could not prevail against the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At the Yalta Conference in January 1945, the repatriation was decided between the Soviet, British and US governments, although originally only prisoners of war were mentioned. In return, the Soviet government promises to hand over Allied prisoners of war who had been freed by the Red Army . On March 31, 1945, this agreement between the Soviet ruler Stalin, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt was confirmed in a secret codicil .

In the summer of 1944, the British began to ship thousands of Soviet citizens from POW and refugee camps to the Soviet Union. Many committed suicide when they learned where to send them. The State Department tried to suppress news of these suicides as, according to Patrick Dean, "could potentially cause political problems [in Britain]". British officers transferring prisoners to Soviet ports such as Murmansk and Odessa witnessed how NKVD execution squads shot people leaving the ships within earshot. Around 1.5 million former prisoners of war were sent to prison camps after their return. In response to a request for mercy on those who did not want to return to the Soviet Union, Secretary of State Anthony Eden wrote that the terms of the Crimean Accords were to be followed and that one could not afford to be sentimental.

After the end of the war

When the war ended in Europe in May 1945, there were around two million Soviet citizens in Western Europe. Soviet repatriation committees were set up with agents from the NKVD and SMERSch ; some Soviet officials announced that Stalin would issue a general amnesty. Many Soviet citizens were happy to finally get home to their families and voluntarily returned to the USSR. Others, however, had an inkling of what was to come; they invoked the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War.

In the areas of Austria controlled by the British there were around 50,000 Cossacks at the end of the war. Together with around 100,000 Georgians, some Cossack tribes had fought with the Germans against the Soviet Union and had fled there with their families towards the end of the war. When it came to the return of the members of the XV. Cossack cavalry corps, the British persuaded them by claiming that they would first be brought to Italy and from there to Canada. In other cases, troops had to be used against unarmed men, women and children to board trucks or train wagons. Many of them had French, Italian or Yugoslav identity cards or Nansen passports issued by the United Nations .

Among the people who were "repatriated" were many opponents of Stalin and communism who, according to the definition of Yalta, were people "who were born or lived within the Russian borders before September 1, 1939" . This definition also included Russians who had fled Russia during the Russian Civil War between 1917 and 1920. Among the thousands who were extradited to Stalin's Soviet Union were the 76-year-old Tsarist General Pyotr Krasnov , the cavalry leader Andrei Shkuro , who was honored with an order by the British in World War I and the 1st Cossack in World War II. Division had fought on the side of the Germans. Sultan Kelech Ghirey, leader of the Caucasians , was also transferred to the Soviet Union. The British officers told them that Field Marshal Alexander wanted to meet with them, whereupon they voluntarily got into cars or trains to be handed over to the Soviet authorities in Austria. Nikolai Tolstoy wrote in his book Victims of Yalta : "Even the Soviet authorities who received them were astonished that the British also extradited people who, in their opinion, were not covered by the agreement." In Judenburg , the handover point in Austria, the General of the Red Army, Dolmatov, is said to have asked why these "old" emigrants were extradited, even though the Soviet Union had not asked for it. Many of these "old" emigrants had fought as allies of the British in the First World War.

On January 12, 1947, Krasnow and Shkuro were executed together with the German commander of the 1st Cossack Division, General Helmuth von Pannwitz , after spending 19 months in Lubyanka prison . Many officers of the Cossacks and the Germans who fought with them were also executed.

The British and US officers were often surprised at how frightened refugees reacted to the news that they should be taken east. Some forced laborers asked to be allowed to stay in Germany. Some officers believed their fears were unfounded, as wartime propaganda had portrayed the USSR positively. On July 5, 1945, the Vatican sent an appeal to the British and US governments that thousands of Ukrainians should not be sent back. Allied commanders also objected; Field Marshal Alexander told a Soviet repatriation committee under General Basilov that he would not allow Ukrainians to be sent back to the Soviet Union against their will. General Eisenhower detested the coercion used against helpless Soviet refugees and prisoners of war. He ordered a temporary halt and asked his superiors in Washington for a definite settlement on the matter. Field Marshal Montgomery decided in autumn 1945 that repatriation should no longer be coerced. The two governments, however, stuck to their repatriation policy. Its advocates suggested that Stalin would otherwise keep British prisoners as bargaining chips. However, the repatriation continued after all British and American prisoners freed by the Red Army had returned.

On the other hand, anti-communist prisoners were not sent back to the Soviet Union by the British if the British secret service believed they could be of use in the future. Citizens of the Baltic states that were independent until 1940 were also excluded from the measures .

The different groups

Nikolai Tolstoy distinguishes in his book The Secret Betrayal (British title: The Victims of Yalta ) the following different groups:

  • "Russians" who were apprehended in North Africa, Italy and France after the Allies landed in Normandy and who had mostly worked as forced laborers in Germany, as well as "Russians" who had fought on the side of the Germans. Most of them were executed or sent to labor camps.
  • Don Cossacks , Terek Cossacks and Cuban Cossacks and some groups from the Caucasus who had resisted the Soviet leadership in the Russian Civil War and had been persecuted by Stalin. When the German Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union in 1942, these Cossack groups hoped for German support in their struggle. During the German withdrawal they fled west with their families and at the end of the war were in Carinthia and near Lienz in Austria. Around 35,000 people were handed over to the Soviet troops in May 1945, even though they were not Soviet citizens. Many of them were executed in Judenburg , the survivors sent to the east.
  • The XV. Cossack cavalry corps under the command of Helmuth von Pannwitz surrendered to the British on May 10, 1945 near Völkermarkt in Austria. On May 17, 1945, 702 soldiers were handed over to the Soviet NKVD in Judenburg.
  • The Russian Liberation Army was near Prague at the end of the war . Parts of the army helped to liberate the city from German occupation, only to fight the Red Army together with German troops shortly afterwards in order not to be captured. Many soldiers finally surrendered, some fled to the Americans near Pilsen , but were handed over to the Soviet Union by them.
  • The 162nd Turkmen Division consisted of men from the Caucasus and from Turkic peoples further east who had fought in Italy. Most of them surrendered near Padua in May 1945 . They were taken to a POW camp in Taranto and taken to Odessa by ship . You were sentenced to 20 years of forced labor.
  • After Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, many Soviet citizens who had been prisoners of war, volunteers and forced laborers were liberated . From July 4, 1945, 1.5 million of them were transferred to the Soviet zone of occupation as Displaced Persons by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force .
  • The final Operation Keelhaul was carried out in Italy between August 14, 1946 and May 9, 1947, during which around 1,000 Soviet citizens were transferred from Italian camps to the Soviet troops.


In 1972 the book Operation Keelhaul by Julius Epstein was published, in which the extent of the repatriations and the tragic consequences associated with them was first known. In his book Archipelago Gulag , Alexander Solzhenitsyn called the operation the "last secret of World War II". He initiated a support fund for Nikolai Tolstoy , who in 1989 was the subject of a libel trial against Lord Aldington . He was involved in the operation as Field Marshal Alexander's officer and chief of staff, and Tolstoy, author of the book Victims of Yalta , had called him a "war criminal."

In 1957, the Polish author Józef Mackiewicz published the novel Kontra , the plot of which is based on what happened at the time.

See also


  • Nikolai Tolstoy : Victims of Yalta. Hodder and Stoughton, London et al. 1977, ISBN 0-340-19388-3 (US edition as: The Secret Betrayal. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York NY 1978, ISBN 0-684-15635-0 ).
  • Julius Epstein : Operation Keelhaul. The Story of Forced Repatriation from 1944 to the Present. Devin-Adair, Old Greenwich CT 1973.
  • Józef Mackiewicz : Tragedy on the Drava or Freedom betrayed . Translation: Armin Droß. Munich: Bergstadtverlag, 1957. (1988)

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Julius Epstein: Operation Keelhaul. 1973.
  2. ^ A b c d e Charles Lutton: Review of the book The Secret Betrayal by Nikolai Tolstoy. 1978. In: The Journal of Historical Review. Vol. 1, 1980, No. 4, p. 371.
  3. Jim D. Sanders, Mark A. Sauter, R. Cort Kirkwood: Soldiers of misfortune. Washington's secret betrayal of American POWs in the Soviet Union. National Press Books, Washington DC 1992, ISBN 0-915765-83-7 .
  4. a b Repatriation - The Dark Side of World War II ( Memento of October 14, 2012 in the Internet Archive )
  5. ^ Paul Sheehan: Patriots ignore greatest brutality . In: The Sydney Morning Herald , August 13, 2007. 
  6. John Costello: Mask of Treachery. Collins, London 1988, ISBN 0-00-217536-3 , p. 437.
  7. ^ Nikolai Tolstoy: The Secret Betrayal. 1978, p. 42 ff. And 113 ff.
  8. ^ Nikolai Tolstoy: The Secret Betrayal. 1978, pp. 150 ff., 176 ff. And 198 ff.
  9. ^ Nikolai Tolstoy: The Secret Betrayal. 1978, p. 223 ff.
  10. ^ Nikolai Tolstoy: The Secret Betrayal. 1978, p. 278 ff.
  11. ^ Nikolai Tolstoy: The Secret Betrayal. 1978, p. 304 ff.
  12. ^ Nikolai Tolstoy: The Secret Betrayal. 1978, p. 361 ff.
  13. Alexander Solzhenitsyn: The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956. An experiment in literary investigation. Volume 1. Harper and Row, New York NY et al. 1974, ISBN 0-06-013914-5 , p. 85.