OPINION: by Mark BrahamNews Weekly
Forced repatriations from Austria in 1945
, August 22, 2009
I was astonished to read in Bill James's review of D-Day: The Battle for Normandy that author Antony Beevor draws attention to "one of the West's most shameful actions in its otherwise honourable participation in one of the most justifiable of wars. This was the forced repatriation to certain death of soldiers from the Soviet empire who had culpably, but understandably, joined the German army." (News Weekly, July 25, 2009).
Nikolai Tolstoy's version of Britain's "war crime" in 1945 when the British 8th Army in Austria forcibly repatriated 70,000 Cossacks and Yugoslavs who had been fighting for the Germans, was thoroughly researched and dismissed as "make-believe history" by Christopher Booker in his book, A Looking-Glass Tragedy: The Controversy Over the Repatriations from Austria in 1945
(London: Duckworth, 1997).
When the repatriations by the 8th Army in Austria took place, I was commanding a thoroughly battle-exhausted British platoon on the Yugoslav-Italian border, facing our former allies, Tito's Partisans. Tito's claims to southern Austria and north-east Italy had created an international crisis which involved Churchill, President Truman and Stalin.
At Allied Forces HQ in Italy, the possibility of World War III was not ruled out. That is why Harold Macmillan flew to Klagenfurt, and not, as Tolstoy and his friends claimed, to arrange the forcible repatriation of the Cossacks and Yugoslav prisoners.
Truman flatly refused to allow American forces in Europe to delay their departure. We were still at war with Japan, hence British battalions were being returned to the United Kingdom to be refitted for the Far East, which is why, with three years' overseas service behind me, I was left behind and posted to a strange battalion and given a new platoon.
The Monte Cassino operation alone cost 100,000 casualties; a high price was paid for the delay in bombing the heavily defended monastery. The 8th Army suffered sickness, desertions and was starved of fresh reinforcements, even new equipment; everything had gone to "D-Day".
Britain was perilously short of manpower, Churchill battling to maintain bankrupt Britain's "special relationship" with the US. Morale in the 8th Army - the men, many overseas for two to three years without home leave, wounded twice and returned to the front, worried about the rockets falling on London, their wives and families, German pamphlets telling the men their wives were going with the highly-paid Americans - was at an all-time low.
What they called "shell-shock" in World War I was "battle-exhaustion" in World War II. Seven divisions had already been withdrawn for the South of France landings.
The decision to comply with the Yalta agreement, both sides to repatriate all prisoners, left Britain no choice. The alternative, it was genuinely feared, could have been World War III, not the 50-year Cold War which it did not start.
It is certainly not true that the anti-communist Cossacks and Yugoslavs who joined the German army were hoping for an Allied victory. The Cossacks worked closely with Himmler's SS, and the Domanov Cossacks were moved by the SS to Tolmezzo in 1944, under the overall command of Globocnik, the man who set up Treblinka, the notorious death camp.
They fought ferociously alongside the Germans to win back territory from the partisans, our allies.
Cossack generals, such as Krasnov and Shkuro, had moved to Berlin in 1937.
Krasnov was vetted by Heydrich and came under the patronage of Himmler, later becoming "Chief Administrator of the Cossack Armies" based in Berlin, under SS control, commended by Himmler as having shown himself to be a true friend of Germany, and a fanatical enemy not only of Bolshevism but also of "Jewish-influenced Western democracies". (Patrick Martin-Smith, former member of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), who had encountered the Domanov Cossacks in northern Italy in 1944, quoted by Booker).
The dreaded Croatian Ustashi had slaughtered tens of thousands of Serbs and Jews.
Nor were Cossacks repatriated to "certain death". The majority, although consigned to the Soviet Gulag labour camps, were not specifically tortured, let alone massacred; they were released into "internal exile" in 1946.
The versions put out by Bethel, Tolstoy and the BBC are, as Booker writes, "make-believe history".The author Mark Braham was a British Army officer during World War II, after which he migrated to Australia. An Orthodox Jew, he is author of Stronger than Fiction: Jews and Christians Are Natural Allies (London: Minerva Press, 1999).- For a response to this article, see OPINION: 1945 Allied repatriations a crime against humanity, by Patrick J. Gethin in News Weekly, September 19, 2009.