Operation Keelhaul

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Operation Keelhaul was a secret military operation agreed to a the Yalta Conference that forcibly returned 2 million Russians captured during World War II back to the communist Soviet Union, where Joseph Stalin would punish them for being "traitors" to communism. The operation was kept secret from the American people for decades. The term "keelhaul" refers the most brutal punishment inflicted on a sailor, whereby a sailor is tortured by tying him in ropes and hauling him under a boat's keel to virtually certain death.

One example of the subterfuge used to return these Russians was a conference on May 28, 1945, in Lienz, Austria. The British forces told Kazakh (Cossack) officials to attend this conference, and whose families were not to worry. An English officer calmed their nerves by declaring, "I assure you on my word of honor as a British officer that you are just going to a conference."[1] Then 2,749 Cossacks (including 2,201 officers) were driven into a prison camp to be picked up by Soviet armed authorities and forcibly returned to the Soviet Union.

Solzhenitsyn reports:

In Austria that May, Churchill perpetrated the same sort of "act of a loyal ally," but, out of our accustomed modesty, we did not publicize it. He turned over to the Soviet command the Cossack corps of 90,000 men. This surrender was an act of double-dealing consistent with the spirit of traditional English diplomacy. The heart of the matter was that the Cossacks were determined to fight to the death, or to cross the ocean, all the way to Paraguay or Indochina if they had to . . . anything rather than surrender alive. Therefore, the English proposed, first, that the Cossacks give up their arms on the pretext of replacing them with standardized weapons. Then the officers -without the enlisted men-were summoned to a supposed conference on the future of the army in the city of Judenburg in the English occupation zone. But the English had secretly turned the city over to the Soviet armies the night before. Forty busloads of officers, all the way from commanders of companies on up to General Krasnov himself, crossed a high viaduct and drove straight down into a semicircle of Black Marias,[2] next to which stood convoy guards with lists in their hands. The road back was blocked by Soviet tanks. The officers didn't even have anything with which to shoot themselves or to stab themselves to death, since their weapons had been taken away. They jumped from the viaduct onto the paving stones below. Immediately afterward, and just as treacherously, the English turned over the rank-and-file soldiers by the train-load-pretending that they were on their way to receive new weapons from their commanders.[3]

The first US attempt at repatriation resulted in several suicides:

Conforming to agreements with the Soviets, an attempt was made to entrain 399 former Russian soldiers who had been captured in German uniform, from the assembly center at Dachau on Saturday, January 19 [1946].

All of these men refused to entrain. They begged to be shot. They resisted entrainment by taking off their clothing and refusing to leave their quarters. It was necessary to use tear-gas and some force to drive them out. Tear-gas forced them out of the building into the snow where those who had cut and stabbed themselves fell exhausted and bleeding in the snow. Nine men hanged themselves and one had stabbed himself to death and one other who had stabbed himself subsequently died; while 20 others are still in the hospital from self-inflicted wounds. The entrainment was finally effected of 368 men who were set off accompanied by a Russian liaison officer on a train carrying American guards. Six men escaped en route...

The incident was shocking. There is considerable dissatisfaction on the part of the American officers and men that they are being required by the American Government to repatriate these Russians..."[4]

See also


  1. Julius Epstein, Operation Keelhaul: the story of forced repatriation from 1944 to the present (Devin-Adair Co., 1973), p. 77. Cf. Philip Rife, The Pariah Files: 25 Dark Secrets You're Not Supposed to Know (iUniverse, 2003), p. ISBN 0595291821, p. 137
  2. Black Marias were trucks or an enclosed step-van similar to an English Lorry at the time used by the KGB to transport prisoners.
  3. The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. I, page 259.
  4. http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/FRUS/FRUS-idx?type=turn&id=FRUS.FRUS1946v05&entity=FRUS.FRUS1946v05.p0159