Operation Keelhaul

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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[by whom?] – 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.

Yalta Conference[edit]

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,[2] but was also extended to all Soviet 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.[3]

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.[citation needed]

Treatment of prisoners and refugees[edit]

The refugee columns fleeing the Soviet-occupied parts of Europe included anti-communists, civilians, and Nazi collaborators from eastern european countries. They added to the mass of 'displaced persons' from Soviet Union already in Western Europe, the vast majority of which were prisoners of war and forced laborers (Ost-Arbeiter).

Russian Cossacks of the XVth SS Cossack Cavalry Corps of the Waffen-SS with their relatives were forcibly repatriated from the Western occupation zones of Allied-occupied Austria to the Soviet occupation zones of Austria and Allied-occupied Germany. 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 the Repatriation of Cossacks after World War II).

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 "McNarney-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.[4]


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called this operation "the last secret of World War II."[5] 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 avoided paying damages by declaring bankruptcy.[6]

Tolstoy described the scene of Americans returning to the internment camp after delivering a shipment of people to the Soviets. "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."[7]

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

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Nikolai Tolstoy (1977). The Secret Betrayal. Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 360. ISBN 0-684-15635-0. 
  2. ^ Sheehan, Paul (August 13, 2007). "Patriots ignore greatest brutality". The Sydney Morning Herald. 
  3. ^ Sanders, James D; Sauter, Mark A; Kirkwood, R. Cort (1992). Soldiers Of Misfortune: Washington's Secret Betrayal of American POWs in the Soviet Union. National Press Books. 
  4. ^ Costello, John (1988). Mask of Treachery. p. 437. 
  5. ^ Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I (1974). The Gulag Archipelago 1. Harper and Row. p. 85. 
  6. ^ "Lord Aldington". The Guardian (London). 9 December 2000. Retrieved 25 May 2010. 
  7. ^ Murray-Brown, Jeremy. "A footnote to Yalta". Boston University. 

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