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Operation Keelhaul was carried out in Northern Italymarker by Britishmarker and Americanmarker forces to repatriate Russian captives to the Soviet Unionmarker between August 14, 1946 and May 9, 1947. The term has been later applied - specifically after the publication of Epstein's eponymous book - to other Allied acts of often forced repatriation of former residents of the USSR after the ending of World War II that decided the fate of millions of post-war refugees fleeing eastern Europe.

Yalta Conference

One of the conclusions of the Yalta Conferencemarker was that the Allies would return all Sovietmarker citizens that found themselves in the Allied zone to the Soviet Union. This immediately affected the Soviet prisoners of war liberated by the Allies, but was also extended to all Eastern European refugees.

On March 31, 1945, Soviet General Secretary Joseph Stalin, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt concluded the final form of their plans in a secret codicil to the agreement. Outlining the plan to forcibly return the refugees to the Soviet Unionmarker, this codicil was kept secret from the American and British people for over fifty years.


The name of the operation comes from the naval practice of corporal punishment, keelhauling. In his book Operation Keelhaul, Julius Epstein states: "That our Armed Forces should have adopted this term as its code name for deporting by brutal force to concentration camp, firing squad, or hangman's noose millions who were already in the lands of freedom, shows how little the high brass thought of their longing to be free."

Treatment of refugees

The refugee columns fleeing the Soviet-occupied eastern Europe numbered millions of people. They included many anti-communists of several categories, assorted civilians, both from the Soviet Union and from Yugoslavia, and fascist collaborationists from eastern Slavic and other countries.

At the end of the World War II, there were more than 5 million "displaced persons" from the Soviet Union in the Western Europe. About 3 million had been forced laborers (OST-Arbeiters). On return to the Soviet Union OST-Arbeiters were often treated as traitors. Many were transported to far off locations in the Soviet Union and were denied basic rights and the chance to get further education.

In particular, Russian Cossacks of XVth SS Cossack Cavalry Corps of Waffen-SS with their relatives and Ustaše from Yugoslavia were forcibly repatriated from Austriamarker to the Soviet occupation zones of Austria and Germanymarker and to Yugoslavia (Sloveniamarker) respectively.

Often prisoners were summarily executed by receiving Communist authorities, sometimes within earshot of the British. One of the killings at the hand of the Yugoslav Partisans is known as the Bleiburg massacre. The majority were not killed in this incident, however, but were instead sent to prison camps, and actually avoided the gulags.

Among those handed over were White émigré-Russians who had never been Soviet citizens, but who had fought for Nazi Germany against the Soviets during the war, including General Andrei Shkuro and the Ataman of the Don Cossack host Pyotr Krasnov. This was done despite the official statement of the British Foreign Office policy after the Yalta Conference that only Soviet citizens, who had been such after September 1, 1939, were to be compelled to return to the Soviet Union or handed over to Soviet officials in other locations. See Betrayal of the Cossacks for example.

The actual "Operation Keelhaul" was the last forced repatriation and involved the selection and subsequent transfer of about a thousand "Russians" from the camps of Bagnoli, Aversamarker, Pisamarker, and Riccionemarker. Applying the "NcNarney-Clark Directive" subjects that had served in the German Army were selected for shipment starting August 14, 1946. It was obvious to all that prisoners were sent to a fate of execution, torture, and slave labor. The transfer part was codenamed "East Wind" and took place at St. Valentin in Austriamarker on May 8 and 9, 1947. This operation marked the end of forced repatriations of Russians after World War II. Paradoxically it ran parallel to Operation Fling that helped Soviet defectors to escape from the Soviet Union.


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called this operation "the last secret of World War II." He contributed to a legal defense fund set up to help Nikolai Tolstoy, who was charged with libel in a 1989 case brought up by Lord Aldington over war crimes allegations made by Tolstoy related to this operation. Tolstoy lost the case in the British courts but the verdict against him was overturned by the European Court of Human Rights.

Tolstoy described the scene of Americans returning to the internment camp after having delivered a shipment of people to the Russians:

In 1957 a Polishmarker anti-communist writer Józef Mackiewicz published Kontra, a narrative account of this event.

Some critics addressing the subject have claimed that Operation Keelhaul, if it happened today, would currently be classified a crime of war punishable under international law, because of the summary executions which took place as the consequences of turning over military prisoners, and also because of the alleged murder and rape of refugee women and children from anti-communist eastern European, Russian and Cossack families.

See also


  1. Jacob Hornberger Repatriation — The Dark Side of World War II. The Future of Freedom Foundation, 1995. [1]
  2. Patriots ignore greatest brutality. The Sydney Morning Herald. August 13, 2007.
  3. "Forced Labor at Ford Werke AG during the Second World War"
  4. Павел Полян - Остарбайтеры
  5. Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 1. Translated by Thomas P. Whitney. New York: Harper and Row, 1974, page 85.

Further reading

  • Tolstoy, Nikolai. Victims of Yalta, originally published in London, 1977. Revised edition 1979. ISBN 0-552-11030-2
  • Epstein, Julius. Operation Keelhaul, Devin-Adair, 1973. ISBN 978-0815964070

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