Operation Keelhaul

Operation Keelhaul

Operation Keelhaul was carried out in Northern Italy by British and American forces to repatriate Soviet Armed Forces POWs of the Nazis to the Soviet Union between August 14, 1946 and May 9, 1947.[1] The term has been later applied - specifically after the publication of Julius Epstein's eponymous book - to other Allied acts of often forced repatriation of former residents of the USSR after the ending of World War II that sealed the fate of millions[2] of post-war refugees fleeing eastern Europe.[3]


Yalta Conference

One of the conclusions of the Yalta Conference was that the western Allies would return all Soviet citizens who found themselves in their zones to the Soviet Union. This immediately affected the liberated Soviet prisoners of war,[4] but was also extended to all Eastern European refugees. In exchange, the Soviet government agreed to hand over several thousand western Allied prisoners of war whom they had liberated from German prisoner of war camps.[5]

On March 31, 1945, Soviet General Secretary Joseph Stalin, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt concluded the final form of their plans in a secret codicil to the agreement. Outlining the plan to forcibly return the refugees to the Soviet Union, this codicil was kept secret from the US and British people for over fifty years.[2]

The name of the operation comes from the naval practice of capital punishment, keelhauling. In his book Operation Keelhaul, Epstein states: "That our Armed Forces should have adopted this term as its code name for deporting by brutal force to concentration camp, firing squad, or hangman's noose millions who were already in the lands of freedom, shows how little the high brass thought of their longing to be free."

Treatment of prisoners and refugees

The refugee columns fleeing the Soviet-occupied eastern Europe numbered millions of people. They included many anti-communists of several categories, assorted civilians, both from the Soviet Union and from Yugoslavia, and fascist collaborationists from eastern Slavic and other countries.

At the end of World War II there were more than five million refugees from the Soviet Union in Western Europe,[3] of whom approximately three million had been forced laborers (OST-Arbeiters).[6] On return to the Soviet Union, OST-Arbeiters were often treated as traitors. Many were transported to remote locations in the Soviet Union and were denied basic rights and the opportunity to further their education.[7]

In particular, Russian Cossacks of XVth SS Cossack Cavalry Corps of Waffen-SS with their relatives and Ustaše from Yugoslavia, were forcibly repatriated from Austria to the Soviet occupation zones of Austria and Germany and to Yugoslavia (Slovenia) respectively.

Often prisoners were summarily executed by receiving Communist authorities, sometimes within earshot of the British. One of the killings at the hand of the Yugoslav Partisans is known as the Bleiburg massacre. The majority were not killed in this incident, however, but were instead sent to prison camps.[2]

Among those handed over were White émigré-Russians who had never been Soviet citizens, but who had fought for Nazi Germany against the Soviets during the war, including General Andrei Shkuro and the Ataman of the Don Cossack host Pyotr Krasnov. This was done despite the official statement of the British Foreign Office policy after the Yalta Conference that only Soviet citizens, who had been such after September 1, 1939, were to be compelled to return to the Soviet Union or handed over to Soviet officials in other locations. See Betrayal of the Cossacks for example.

The actual "Operation Keelhaul" was the last forced repatriation and involved the selection and subsequent transfer of approximately one thousand "Russians" from the camps of Bagnoli, Aversa, Pisa, and Riccione.[1] Applying the "NcNarney-Clark Directive", subjects who had served in the German Army were selected for shipment starting August 14, 1946. It was obvious to all that prisoners were sent to a fate of execution, torture, and slave labor. The transfer was codenamed "East Wind" and took place at St. Valentin in Austria on May 8 and 9, 1947.[1] This operation marked the end of forced repatriations of Russians after World War II, and ran parallel to Operation Fling that helped Soviet defectors to escape from the Soviet Union.[1]

On the other side of the exchange, the Soviet leadership found out that despite the demands set forth by Stalin, British intelligence was retaining a number of anti-Communist prisoners with the intention of reviving "anti-Soviet operations" under orders from Churchill.[8] In response, the Soviets did not complete the repatriation of the Allied prisoners of war in their possession, leaving roughly 23,500 American and 30,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers in Soviet hands.[5][dubious ] Some of these men were to be repatriated in the coming years, but others were sent to the GULAG camp system and never returned home.[5]


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called this operation "the last secret of World War II."[9] He contributed to a legal defence fund set up to help Nikolai Tolstoy, who was charged with libel in a 1989 case brought by Lord Aldington over war crimes allegations made by Tolstoy related to this operation. Tolstoy lost the case in the British courts but the award against him was overturned by the European Court of Human Rights.

Tolstoy described the scene of Americans returning to the internment camp after having delivered a shipment of people to the Russians. "The Americans returned to Plattling visibly shamefaced. Before their departure from the rendezvous in the forest, many had seen rows of bodies already hanging from the branches of nearby trees."[10]

In 1957 a Polish anti-communist writer Józef Mackiewicz published Kontra, a narrative account of this event.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Nikolai Tolstoy (1977). The Secret Betrayal. Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 360. ISBN 0-684-15635-0. 
  2. ^ a b c Jacob Hornberger Repatriation — The Dark Side of World War II. The Future of Freedom Foundation, 1995. [1]
  3. ^ a b Joel Skousen's World Affairs Brief. "Historical Deceptions: Operation Keelhaul". http://www.worldaffairsbrief.com/keytopics/Keelhaul.shtml. Retrieved 2009-01-14. 
  4. ^ Patriots ignore greatest brutality. The Sydney Morning Herald. August 13, 2007.
  5. ^ a b c Sanders, James D., Mark A. Sauter, and R. Cort Kirkwood. Soldiers Of Misfortune: Washington's Secret Betrayal of American POWs in the Soviet Union. Washington, D.C.: National Press Books, 1992.
  6. ^ "Forced Labor at Ford Werke AG during the Second World War"
  7. ^ (Russian) Павел Полян - Остарбайтеры
  8. ^ John Costello, Mask of Treachery (New York, 1988), page 437
  9. ^ Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 1. Translated by Thomas P. Whitney. New York: Harper and Row, 1974, page 85.
  10. ^ A FOOTNOTE TO YALTA by Jeremy Murray-Brown, Documentary at Boston University

Further reading

  • Tolstoy, Nikolai. Victims of Yalta, originally published in London, 1977. Revised edition 1979. ISBN 0-552-11030-2
  • Epstein, Julius. Operation Keelhaul, Devin-Adair, 1973. ISBN 978-0815964070

External links

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