Operation Keelhaul

This was a British and US 'repatriation' operation in Austria that decided the fate of thousands of post-war refugees fleeing eastern Europe (14 August 1946/9 May 1947).

One of the conclusions of the ‘Argonaut’ conference at Yalta in February 1945 was that the Western Allies would return all Soviet citizens found in their zones to the USSR. In the short term this immediately affected Soviet prisoners of war liberated from German captivity, but was also extended to all Eastern European refugees found in western Europe. 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.

On 31 March 1945 Premier Iosif Stalin, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt concluded the final form of the agreement in a secret codicil to the Yalta agreement. Outlining the plan for the forcible transfer of refugees to the USSR, this codicil was kept secret from the US and British people for more than 50 years. The refugees fleeing the Soviet-occupied parts of eastern Europe were numbered in the millions, perhaps as many as 5 million, and included many anti-communists of several types, large numbers of civilians from both the USSR and Yugoslavia, and fascist collaborators from eastern Slavic and other countries.

Of the 5 million or more refugees from the USSR in Western Europe at the end of World War II were about 3 million persons seized by the Germans for forced labour, and on their return to the USSR these persons were often classified as traitors. Many of them were then further transported to remote locations in the USSR. Cossack soldiers of Generalleutnant Helmuth von Pannwitz’s XV SS Kosaken Kavalleriekorps, together with their relatives, were forcibly repatriated from Austria to the Soviet occupation zones in Austria and Germany. These prisoners were often subjected to summary execution by the receiving Soviet authorities, sometimes within earshot of the British who transferred most of them.

Ustaše personnel from Yugoslavia were repatriated to the Yugoslav armed forces in what became known as the Bleiburg repatriations: some of these prisoners were killed, but the majority were sent to internment camps. Despite the British Foreign Office policy, stated after the Yalta conference, that only Soviet citizens, after 1 September 1939, would be compelled to return to the USSR or be handed over to the Soviets in other places, these included significant numbers of ‘White’ émigré Russians who had never been Soviet citizens, but who had fought for Germany against the Soviets during the war: among them were Generalleutnant Andrei Shkuro and the Ataman of the Don Cossack Host, Pyotr Krasnov.

Within the overall scheme were some 50,000 Cossacks from the USSR and perhaps 20,000 members of the anti-communist Ustaše movement from Yugoslavia, including about 11,000 women and children. On 1 June 1945 the British loaded some 32,000 Cossack men, together with their women and children, into trains and trucks for transfer to the Soviet forces and thus, it was hoped. repatriation to the USSR. Similar transfers took place during 1945 in the US occupation zones of Austria and Germany.

Most of the transferred Cossacks were sent to the Gulag camps in the far north of the USSR and in Siberia, where very many of them died. Some escaped, however, and others lived until the amnesty promulgated by Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, in the course of his destalinisation policies. In overall terms, about 2 million people were repatriated to the USSR at the end of World War II, this total including some 45,000 to 50,000 Cossacks, while other estimates put the figure as low as 15,000 or as high as 150,000.

On 28 May 1945 British forces arrived at Camp Peggetz, in Lienz, where there were 2,479 Cossacks, including 2,201 officers and soldiers. The British invited the Cossacks to an ‘important conference’ with British officials, informing them that they would be returned to Lienz by 18.00 on the same day. Some Cossacks had deep concerns about this truth of this entire process, but the British assured them that all was as stated. The British them forcibly loaded the Cossacks onto trucks and transported them to a prison where the Soviets took over their custody.

On 1/2 June 1945 some 18,000 Cossacks were handed over to the Soviets near Judenburg in Austria, though 10 officers and up to 60 men escaped and hid in nearby woods. At a location near Graz, the British handed over some 40,000 Cossacks to the Soviets.

Though repatriation was at one time believed to have taken place only in Europe, it also occurred in the USA at Fort Dix, New Jersey, from where 154 people were sent to the USSR; three committed suicide in the USA, and seven were injured.

‘Keelhaul’ was the final forced repatriation, and involved the selection and subsequent transfer of about 1,000 ‘Russians’ from the camps of Bagnoli, Aversa, Pisa, and Riccione in Italy. These had served in the German army were selected for shipment starting on 14 August 1946 despite the fact that was obvious to all that those being handed over were being sent to execution, torture and slave labour.

The transfer was codenamed ‘East Wind’ and took place at St Valentin in Austria on 8/9 May 1947. This marked the end of forced repatriations of Russians after World War II, and ran parallel with ‘Fling’ which aided Soviet defectors to escape from the USSR. On the other side of the exchange, the Soviet leadership found that despite Stalin’s demands, British intelligence was retaining a number of anti-communist prisoners with the intention of reviving ‘anti-Soviet operations’.

The phrase Bleiburg repatriation is used for events which occurred after the end of the war when thousands of soldiers and civilians fleeing Yugoslavia were repatriated to that country. Some of the soldiers and also some civilians were then murdered, and most were then marched over long distances to forced labour camps. The process is named for the Carinthian border town of Bleiburg, where the main repatriation was conducted.

On 3 May 1945, the government of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), the German puppet state established in the Croatian and Bosnian parts of German-occupied Yugoslavia, decided to flee to Austria with the remnants of the Croat armed forces so that they could surrender to the British army rather than the Yugoslav liberation forces which the Croats, believed, rightly, to be bent on revenge. Five days after the issue of this order, Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allied powers, but for another week many of the Axis forces in Yugoslavia repeatedly refused to surrender and even attacked Yugoslav liberation army positions in order to avoid encirclement and keep open their escape routes. When one of the columns of fleeing Croat troops, together with civilians, neared Bleiburg, the British refused to accept the surrender of the Croat troops and ordered them to surrender to the Yugoslav liberation army. The Croat refugees were mostly remnants of the Croat military forces, but some were remnants of the Četnik movement and the Slovene home guard.

Several other armed incidents and repatriations occurred at and after this time elsewhere in Carinthia on the Austrian/Yugoslav frontier. Near Rosenbach, several thousand prisoners were repatriated to Yugoslavia on a daily basis, these including many men of the Slovene home guard. The repatriations covered some 32,000 people, and were ended by the British on 1 June.

Repatriations also took place just to the north-east of Bleiburg at Lavamund. On the evening of 20 May, a group of Croat soldiers approached Ferlach, some 25 miles (40 km) to the west of Bleiburg, and tried to negotiate terms for their passage to the west before being attacked and killed by the 2/11th ‘Dalmatia’ Assault Brigade. It is difficult to prove the number of casualties that occurred at the time of the repatriations and in the weeks that followed, but it remains clear Yugoslav troops killed most of the ‘collaborationist’ soldiers they captured at the end of the war: estimates of the death toll range from a minimum of 14,000 to a maximum of 150,000 or more.