‘The Last Secret’ of World War II

When the Allies invaded Europe at points along the Normandy coast 74 years ago on D-Day, June 6, 1944, ten percent of the men in German uniforms they took prisoner were Russians. Many belonged to German army labor battalions who had been strengthening coastal defense fortifications but most were members of the Russian Liberation Army (ROA) commanded by Gen. Andrey Vlasov, a former Red Army general who defected to the Germans. In what was known as Operation Keelhaul by the British who were its architects, the men captured in Normandy would be among 1.5 million Russian POWs forcibly turned over during 1945-47 to Russia’s Soviet Communist rulers to face summary execution or life in Soviet slave labor camps.

The number included 500,000 captured ROA troops who hoped to free their country from Soviet Communist rule. The remaining 1 million were Russians held in German POW camps, and who came into British custody when Germany surrendered. To the Soviets, these latter were as much traitors as the ROA fighters because Red Army troops were not supposed to let themselves be captured. Indeed, every soldier was ordered to keep one bullet with which to shoot himself rather than surrender.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called Operation Keelhaul “the last secret” of World War II. I’d call it the last dirty secret. A great deal about it is still not known. Many documents pertaining to it remain classified.

The name itself was revelatory. Keelhauling, if you are unfamiliar with the term, was a punishment inflicted by the Dutch navy on miscreant sailors in the 17th century. It consisted of tying a man to a line that was looped under a ship, dropping him into the water on one side of the vessel, dragging him across its barnacle-encrusted bottom, and hauling him (or what was left of him) up the other side. Few men survived. Those who did died of their injuries or were maimed for life. In a word, the Brits knew perfectly well that death or the Gulag Archipelago awaited the men they consigned to the Soviets.

Operation Keelhaul may have originated with some underling, as most ideas or policies in any government usually do, but it was British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden who proposed it to Prime Minister Winston Churchill and War Cabinet colleagues. Churchill signed off on it. Future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan oversaw its implementation.

What was its justification? Soviet Communist dictator Joseph Stalin demanded that the Russians be turned over and Britain was anxious, as was the U.S., that the wartime “grand alliance” (as it was called) between Britain, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. would continue after the war. Stalin’s demand had to be met even if it meant death or slave labor for the anti-Communist Russians. It was as simple as that, and also the reason why Operation Keelhaul continued when the Socialist government of Clement Attlee replaced Churchill and his government.

Of course the military had to do the dirty work. To their credit, many individual British officers and ordinary soldiers were disgusted by it. Years after the operation was over and news of it began to seep out, numerous retired officers and former soldiers expressed regret over their participation when interviewed by reporters and film documentarians. Some said they had nightmares over clubbing and beating Russians onto trucks and into the cattle-cars of trains headed east. All would finally plead that they had no choice. They were following orders.

The Allies hanged Germans at Nuremburg who offered the same plea.

Is there a difference between sending men to certain death and being the ones who actually kill them? It is a moral question. How guilty is the man who only drives a truck at the concentration camp? How about the U.S. Air Force major sitting in a trailer in Arizona who pushes a button that launches a drone missile that wipes out a wedding party in Pakistan in order to kill one of the guests deemed a potential terrorist by the CIA? Then there are the persons going into the armed forces or becoming government officials who swear “so help me God” to defend a Constitution interpreted as including the “rights” to abortion and same-sex marriage. What does God think of that? How far off is the day when anyone raising the question could risk being branded a subversive?

Russians weren’t the only victims of Operation Keelhaul. For instance, at the end of World War II the British held 40,000 Croatian POWs. (Catholic Croatia was an independent nation during the war and sent men to the Eastern Front to fight against the Red Army.) Many of the POWs had their wives and children with them. When Croatian independence was crushed at the end of the war, the British turned over all of them to the new Yugoslav Communist regime of Josip Broz Tito for liquidation.

The Cossacks also suffered. Famed for their skills as horsemen as for their distinctive dress, under the tsars, to whom they were fiercely loyal, they enjoyed semi-autonomy in their historical lands. Like the ROA troops, they also fought against the Soviets during World War II. When Germany surrendered, a group of them headed west, intending to give over their weapons to the Americans and with others attaching themselves to the column along the way. They wound up, a body of 35,000, in the British zone of occupation in southern Austria.

They were ignorant of Operation Keelhaul, but many of the Cossacks began to suspect something was wrong when the British separated 1,500 of their officers from the rest of the body and announced they would be held in another camp. A number of officers resisted. A British major on the scene gave his word of honor that there was no reason to resist. One of the Cossacks’ own commanders addressed the men, “Are we to doubt him when an officer of the King of England gives his word of honor?”

It was an encounter between two types of men in our modern age, a minority who still possess a sense of honor, and the great majority out of whom honor is running as fast as value, not coincidentally, out of their money.

When the Cossack officers at their separate camp saw trucks arriving to haul them away, they knew they were betrayed and began to fight with their bare hands. They were beaten savagely with rifle butts and clubs, some nearly to death. Once they were gone, the Brits began the transport eastward of all the remaining, leaderless Cossacks. A few managed to escape into the surrounding mountains. Descendants and others now gather periodically for a commemorative Orthodox Divine Liturgy at the site of the atrocity.

Now that Croatia is again an independent nation, there is also a Catholic Mass attended by countrymen who remember Britain’s perfidy. When it took place a few weeks ago a human rights commission of the EU warned that those who attend it represent a worrisome “fascist” element among today’s Croatians. It is the label now applied to all Europeans who fought alongside the Germans against the Red Army even when, as in many cases, they were as anti-Nazi as they were anti-Communist.

A few words must be said about the Germans during the war. They never knew what to do with Gen. Vlasov and his ROA troops. Why not? Men certainly were needed on the Eastern Front (by 1943 one out of three men fighting the Red Army was a non-German) but Hitler was an expansionist. He wanted an empire for Germany so it would have the same weight in the world as Britain and France, and he looked to the east for it. Russia was to be his India. The ROA could hardly be expected to fight for that. Vlasov sought to liberate his country from Communism, not make it a German colony. So his men wound up elsewhere in Europe besides the Eastern Front doing things like guard ports. Did Vlasov envision somehow reconciling his and the Germans’ irreconcilable ends? There is no way of telling. He was captured by Red Army troops in Czechoslovakia in May, 1945, and hanged on August 1, 1946. (There is a commemorative monument to him and the ROA at a Russian Orthodox convent and cemetery in Nanuet, New York.)