The book cannot be closed on World War II until the American and British people know the full story of the crimes their governments committed against anticommunist Russians, Yugoslavs, and others who desperately wanted to avoid Soviet terror and who, nevertheless, were turned over to Stalin’s killer squads—all in violation of American and British traditions and international law. This dark chapter in the history of the two great democracies must be acknowledged now, 50 years after the hideous events.
For five decades, the cruelties committed against White Russians and other anticommunists have been largely concealed from public view on both sides of the Atlantic. For Americans who are justly proud of the accomplishments of their men at arms, it is appalling to discover that on the orders of the highest officials of the wartime government, terrible cruelties were committed on American soil and abroad in an effort to appease Stalin and his tyrannical communist regime. Much of the horrifying story has remained hidden as a result of the confidential classification placed on the story. The same situation prevails in Great Britain.
Two writers, Julius Epstein in America and Count Nikolai Tolstoy in Britain, have done heroic work in lifting the curtain of official secrecy, though much more remains to be disclosed. Epstein, for many years a scholar at the Hoover Institution, revealed the dark stain on American honor in his pioneering book Operation Keelhaul, published in 1973. Unfortunately, there has been little investigative follow-up in the years since then. An exception to the silence in the United States is the first-rate study by Mark R. Elliott, Pawns of Yalta: Soviet Refugees and America’s Role in Their Repatriation (1982). On the first page of his book, Mr. Epstein explains: “Operation Keelhaul is the code designation the U.S. Army gave to its own—Top Secret—documentary record of the forced repatriation of at least two million prisoners of war and displaced persons to Stalin’s hangmen and slave labor camps.”
The reality of this vast operation has never been understood by the American people. It was cloaked in secrecy when it began in 1944—even before the Yalta Agreement—and remains largely unknown today. It was not mentioned at all at the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of D-Day. This is understandable, for the facts were hidden from historians and journalists as well as ordinary citizens. The same cover-up has taken place in Great Britain. Indeed, Count Tolstoy believes that the cover-up has been much worse in Britain because of the absence of a Freedom of Information Act and the use of libel laws to silence historians and journalists seeking to expose the savage treatment of women and children by British forces. The enormity of Operation Keelhaul is staggering; it is astounding that American officials authorized it.
The Geneva Convention of 1929 clearly implied that prisoners of war were not to be repatriated against their will. The Hague Convention of 1907, to which the United States was a signatory, forbade the abuse of surrendered soldiers. In addition, there is the long American tradition of political asylum for victims or potential victims of tyrannical regimes. Despite all this, the United States began forcibly repatriating Soviet prisoners in 1944. On September 17, the Roosevelt administration issued a directive. Joint Chiefs of Staff order 1067, which notified General Dwight Eisenhower that Soviet citizens would be repatriated regardless of their individual wishes.
Implemented between 1944 and 1947, this policy resulted in the return to the Soviet Union of at least two million unwilling and terrified people, that is “to jail, slave labor camps, ruthless persecution, and death,” notes Epstein. The perpetrators of this crime “were not the Nazis, nor the communists, but the military authorities of the Western allies.” Operation Keelhaul served only the interests of Josef Stalin and world communism. In October 1944, acting Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius told Soviet Ambassador Gromyko that the War Department had issued instructions that prisoners be turned over as the Soviets demanded. Incidentally, the United States continued to drop leaflets that promised humane treatment for all who surrendered.
Operation Keelhaul had nothing to do with humane treatment. Epstein discloses that Soviet representatives “were admitted to POW camps (in both the U.S. and Europe), picked their own victims, and British and American authorities accepted their choices.” Those who were repatriated were handled with the most appalling brutality”. American soldiers who were forced to take part in the handover have described the horrors of the action. The prisoners sought by the Soviets were beaten and loaded on cattle cars in Europe and herded onto Soviet ships in American ports.
Bertram Wolfe, another Hoover Institution scholar, recalls “the deportation . . . of refugees who had reached the apparent safety of our Fort Dix and our city of Seattle. In Seattle Harbor we watch American soldiers, some of them weeping, dumping Russian bodies into trucks, subduing them with blackjacks and bayonets, fishing them up when they leap into the water, dumping them on a Soviet ship.” Those at Fort Dix who resisted were beaten, gassed, and drugged so that they could be loaded on a Soviet ship for dispatch to Stalin’s hangmen.
How could this happen in America at the hands of Americans? It is important to understand the atmosphere of those days. The same year Operation Keelhaul commenced, Vice President Henry Wallace toured Siberia, where the prison camps were located. He sent a telegram to Stalin, praising the bloody dictator for his administration of the region. According to Arnold Beichman of the Hoover Institution, Wallace “described Magadan [one of the more notorious Gulags] as a combination TVA and Hudson’s Bay Company.” “Wallace had thrown in his political lot with the communist apparat which operated successfully in Washington, D.C. throughout the war—Alger Hiss, Lauchlin Currie,” and others.
There were powerful forces at the highest level of the Roosevelt administration who were bent on carrying out Stalin’s wishes. Alger Hiss was at Roosevelt’s right hand during the President’s Yalta conference with Stalin. The desire to appease the dictator colored American policy and made possible these violations of American tradition. To this day, these influences and the horrors that resulted from them remain outside the consciousness of the American people. The chief appeasers remain nameless, their evil deeds locked away in vaults marked “Top Secret”—hidden from the American people.
At the same time, similar ugly events were unfolding in territory under British control. These events were documented for the first time by Count Tolstoy in his books Victims of Yalta and The Minister and the Massacres. A distinguished British historian and man of letters and a descendant of one of Russia’s most famous families, Tolstoy described the turnover to the Soviets in May 1945 of tens of thousands of Cossack men, women, and children who had never been Soviet citizens. As soon as they were turned over in a brutal roundup, some were machine-gunned by the Soviets. Those who escaped immediate execution died en route to or in the forced labor camps in Siberia. This operation was carried out as the result of a verbal directive issued by Harold Macmillan, British Resident Minister in the Mediterranean and later Prime Minister and head of the Conservative Party. His agents were General Sir Charles Keightley and Brigadier Toby Low, whom Macmillan later made Lord Aldington.
Ironically, the turnover violated orders issued by Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Alexander. Keightley and his staff tricked Cossack officers into believing they were to be provided safe haven in Italy. Scores of thousands of Yugoslavs were similarly dispatched to Fito, also on Macmillan’s secret and unauthorized orders, and suffered torture and mass slaughter. Keightley and Low deliberately disobeyed Field Marshal Alexander’s orders to screen the thousands of White (non- Soviet) Russians and not to use force to compel Russians to return to the Soviet Union. Tolstoy published the details of these crimes in his monumental work of scholarship, retrieving the facts from obscurity and secrecy. He overcame all sorts of hindrances to his research, including the removal of documents from archives. The moment Lord Aldington filed his libel writ against Tolstoy in 1987, both the British Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defense withdrew from public access files revealing that Field Marshal Alexander and General Eisenhower arranged to evacuate the Cossacks to Germany and that it was this move that Aldington and his colleagues prevented. The foreign secretary who ordered the withdrawal on Aldington’s behalf was Sir Geoffrey Howe, who went to the same school as Aldington and who sat on the Board of Sun Alliance when Aldington was company chairman.
For his efforts to discover the ugly truth, Tolstoy has been persecuted by the British establishment. In 1989, a court tried to silence him with the largest libel verdict in British history—1.5 million pounds. The trial judge told the jury that Tolstoy was a “fanatic” and a “self-styled historian,” though Tolstoy is renowned in Britain and abroad for his historical and literary work. Eyewitnesses, both British and foreign, were denied an opportunity to testify, though many had traveled from around the world to reveal the atrocities committed by the British V Corps and to explain who bore direct responsibility for the crimes. Efforts continue in Britain to seize Tolstoy’s library of documents on the crimes. His book has been withdrawn from circulation. Libraries have removed it from their shelves. And as Britain lacks a First Amendment, the British press has no means of exploring the events and the ongoing actions against Count Tolstoy. The establishment is determined to prevent the world from knowing that a future British Prime Minister and his minions were responsible for war crimes.
In Operation Keelhaul, the victims were former prisoners of war. hi the British case, they included thousands of elderly men, women, and children who were beaten by British troops and forced into railway cars in the manner of Jews shipped to Auschwitz by the Nazis. The scenes were appalling. In 1990, the BBG, in a rare report on the crimes, cited cases of extreme cruelty in the roundup of White Russians: “There was an old man and he was on his knees. The British were hitting him on the head methodically, and the tears were mixing with the blood.” The BBG also reported a case of soldiers turning a flamethrower on a Cossack who had resisted. A number of White Russians, who realized the fate awaiting them, jumped to their death from a high footbridge, many with babies in their arms.
Major “Rusty” Davie, a young Welshman assigned to the roundup, reported that platoons of soldiers battered their way into the densely packed White Russians who fiercely resisted because, as Tolstoy points out, many “had experience of the death camps of the Gulag or the torture cells of the NKVD.” Davie said that “those who suffered most were the young children. Children were torn from their mothers and thrown into trucks.”
Many British soldiers were shocked and horrified by the brutal task assigned to them. The medical officer of one battalion reported that the second in command was “openly weeping.” A chaplain reported that soldiers came to him later in agony saying “they could not believe that this is what they had been fighting the war for.” And remember, these atrocities were committed as a result of orders issued by Macmillan, General Keightley, and Brigadier Low. The image of the elegant, suave Macmillan is blood-stained for all time.
The chronology of this war crime is fascinating. On May 11 the Soviet NKVD General Vsevolod Nikolaevich Merkulov demanded that General Keightley hand over all Cossacks. Three days later, Macmillan flew to Austria and issued the verbal directive to Keightley for the forced transfer—against all standing orders and Churchill’s clearly stated policy. According to Count Tolstoy, there are “positive indications that SMERSH was deeply involved in the British side of the repatriations, and links between the British organizers of the covert operation and the Soviet security forces went beyond mere illicit compliance with an official request.” General Keightley took the extraordinary step of allowing SMERSH officers to accompany British patrols searching for fugitive Cossacks. They were even granted license to shoot or beat Cossacks on British-controlled territory.
At the same time, Brigadier Low issued orders for the forced return of Yugoslav prisoners to Tito. Macmillan, Tolstoy says, made this parallel recommendation. In other words, Macmillan enabled Stalin and Tito to get their way. In doing so, he hoodwinked his own Prime Minister and top British and Allied military leaders. Tolstoy goes no further than to say that “Macmillan’s motive remains tantalizingly mysterious.” But American commentators, who have greater freedom, may want to go further. For Macmillan to flout Allied policy in order to oblige the illicit demands of SMERSH raises the darkest suspicions. What is one to make of this covert operation carried out within days of the SMERSH demand?
The handover of Yugoslavs is equally horrifying. Ariana Delianach, a White Russian, was at the Viktring camp when 3,000 Slovenes were forcibly transferred to the Titoists. She described how many wounded, “their limbs amputated or in plaster, many blinded, were shoved roughly into trucks.” She told of a blinded Slovene: “Two English soldiers picked him up and tossed him head over heels into a truck. A prolonged scream of agony pierced the air.” The British also lied to the Yugoslavs about where they were going. Nigel Nicholson testified in court in 1989: “We had to lie to these people . . . not just once but twice a day for ten days. In my view, this was the most shameful episode in the history of the British army.” The British officers involved knew perfectly well that they were luring their charges to their deaths.
The British troops drove the Yugoslavs into the boxcars of waiting trains. When the cars reached the Yugoslav lines, the Titoists gathered a mob to beat and stone the prisoners. On reaching Kocevje, their hands were bound with barbed wire. As they were moved by truck, the prisoners were slashed with knives and some had their eyes gouged out. They heard machine guns and terrible screaming accompanied by raucous laughter. When they reached their destination, the prisoners were lined up, shot, and their bodies tossed into a huge pit.
For years, Count Tolstoy was handicapped in his researches by the British authorities’ unwillingness to make all the archival sources available and by the curtain of secrecy draped over this covert operation. Today, however, the situation has changed with respect to the Russians. Russian authorities have opened long-secret state archives and given Tolstoy every assistance in his researches. General Golkogonev, who is in charge of all Russian archives, asked Tolstoy: “How is it that British officialdom doesn’t understand what everyone in Russia knows to be true?” Official Soviet war diaries were made available to Count Tolstoy, documents which show the full extent of the collaboration of British V Corps negotiators with SMERSH. Most importantly, Tolstoy has a videotape of an interview with Captain Soloviev, the former SMERSH officer who conducted the secret negotiations with the British V Corps. In it Soloviev claims that the plan for the turnover was first suggested to him by his British opposite number, the late Et. Colonel Ralph Turton. Tolstoy observes that on the basis of his discoveries in Russia, “I was over-charitable to Keightley and his colleagues in mv book.”
The aim of Tolstoy’s supporters in Britain—and they include many distinguished people—is to secure justice for him. To this end, the European Court of Human Rights will soon consider whether the imposition of the enormous libel penalty (not for his book but for a pamphlet) is a violation of Tolstoy’s right to tell the truth without being penalized. It is unconscionable that he should have to labor under this burden in his endeavor to tell the full story of a crime against humanity. Ultimately, the awful details must be made known in Britain, acknowledged officially, and the process of atonement begun. In the United States, a new generation must also learn of the horrors committed during Operation Keelhaul.
American journalists and historians need to uncover the documents associated with these crimes and to expose the persons responsible for them in the Roosevelt administration. It is late in the day to recognize the achievement of Julius Epstein, but not too late. Of course, he should have received the Medal of Freedom 20 years ago. In Count Tolstoy’s case, a Nobel Prize would be an appropriate honor. Two nations that have upheld liberty over centuries have a special obligation to honor citizens who fearlessly expose those in high places who violated their countries’ traditions of freedom.