Operation Keelhaul

well_chuffed, Going Postal
Anthony Eden
Walter Stoneman [Public domain]
Come the end of the second world war, the last thing Stalin wanted was any number of Russians who were potentially his enemies wandering around the Western countries. To ensure this did not happen his agents in the Allied governments managed to get an agreement that all Russian prisoners and civilians would be returned to the Soviet Union one way or another. This was even applied to citizens of countries that had not been in the Soviet Union at the outbreak of the war, good examples are the Baltic States.

It is no secret that all of those who were sent back ended up in the Gulags and most of them died. This was something these poor unfortunates suspected would happen and very few were willing to go back voluntarily. They were herded onto transports at gunpoint by US and British soldiers. It is little wonder that there is a very limited amount of information about this.

One of the few times this matter was publicised was when Lord Aldington took Count Nikolai Tolstoy to court in 1989 for defamation over allegations of war crimes. MoD skulduggery was at play during the trial, they refused to release documents and generally clammed up. Tolstoy lost but his appeals dragged on for eternity, he even declared bankruptcy to avoid paying the millions awarded in damages.

The name given to this affair was Operation Keelhaul though this applied to the actual return rather than the machinations that led to the agreement. It is mighty difficult to find out the truth. Some say Keelhaul involved about 40,000 former PoWs, others say close to 2 million people were shipped back. The millions figure is closer to the truth.

Why did the Allies agree to this in the first place. It was to keep Stalin onside against the Germans, he had already tried to negotiate a ceasefire with the Germans, more than once in fact. The Allies needed the Russians to keep the Eastern Front up and running. It was made all the easier because of Stalin’s agents pushing for this in the US Administration. The US is, or at least was, fond of admonishing us for the damage the Cambridge 5 did, what they tend to ignore is Stalin’s horde of agents in place in the US Administration let alone the number of spies working on the Manhattan Project. The US was completely penetrated by Soviet Intelligence.

The agreement was disguised as a Prisoner Swap and was signed off by two military men at the Yalta Conference. Originally the agreement was to swap Russian PoWs the Germans held for western Allied PoWs they had liberated from the Germans. It was soon amended to include all Soviet citizens in the areas controlled by the Western Allies.

Among the Soviet citizens returned were:

  • Russian PoWs
  • Russian forced labourers
  • Russians who had volunteered for the German Army
  • White emigré Russians who had fled Russia at the 1917 revolution.
  • People whose nations had been occupied by the Soviets since 1939

It is obvious that some of these categories could expect a less than warm welcome from the Soviets and in fact all of them were considered as traitors by the paranoid Stalin.

During the deliberations of the Morgenthau Plan, using Germans as slave labourers was seriously discussed and only the intervention of Justice Robert Jackson who predicted a war crime in the making discouraged it. The idea of shipping humans about for Stalin’s benefit was then an acceptable one for the plotters, it was not a great step further to envision a couple of million Soviet citizens being shipped back to the USSR, forcibly if necessary. As is often the case, nobody was willing to be associated with all this, it was always someone else or another committee. Eventually this decision was adopted on the last day of the Yalta Conference but was not signed by Roosevelt or any other US political or diplomatic figure. The signatories were a US Major General and a Soviet Lieutenant General and appeared to be a swap of military prisoners and therefore of little or no interest to the diplomats.

The agreement was the consent of the US to hand over prisoners of Soviet nationality to the Russians. A similar deal was agreed by the British. This was the basis for shipping millions of often anti-Soviet refugees to the USSR usually via the nearest Red Army troops. This was as good as a death sentence and the western allies must have known it.

British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden said at the time that it was British policy to send all Russians home whether they want to go or not and by force in necessary. His successor Ernest Bevin said much the same as did US officials. The Army handbook, updated with the Morgenthau Plan ideals, said the captives would be released expeditiously to the control of the USSR without regard to their individual wishes.

The details of the handover were gruesome. Some of the Russians committed suicide, even killing their own children, rather than go back to the Soviets. Those who did go were herded into boxcars at gunpoint and then often transferred to ships. Shades of the Germans rounding up the Jews and shipping them off to concentration camps.

As you would expect, the US and British governments have tried to keep this story under wraps and there is still not a lot in the way of available documentation. Considering the Allies were themselves now behaving like the SS and Gestapo they had just fought against, it is not surprising. The decisions and who made them is shrouded in buck-passing and the implementation is even more murky. A few of the soldiers involved have spoken out and no doubt warned not to.

The final shipments were of Russian prisoners in Italy and happened in May 1947, two years after the end of the war. Those prisoners were shipped to the Russian zone in Austria. Obviously they were lied to about their destination and driven into the hands of the Red Army. It’s all too much like the way the Germans shipped their undesirables off for resettlement in the east. A shameful chapter in the history of the Allies and one that they still would prefer to ignore.

© well_chuffed 2020

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