THE 1945 EVENT THAT THE ALLIES BURIED: American And British Handover Of Russians And Cossacks To The Red Army

 A Cossack noted: “The NKVD or the Gestapo would have slain us with truncheons, the British did it with their word of honor.”

Cossacks British Red army 1945 handover
British soldiers handing over the Cossacks to the Russians

This is something that Britain would like buried in the ground. It is said that there were no good guys in the Second World War. The forced return of Cossacks to the Red Army by the British in 1945 only proves the point.

A bit of background. The Cossacks have always been fiercely independent. They had fought the Bolsheviks with the Whites in 1919. Many had emigrated to other countries. In 1941 when the Germans invaded Russia the Cossacks found a way to fight the Stalinist regime. They fought in the Wehrmacht against the Red Army.

As the war was ending, the Cossacks  found themselves cornered in Austria, in areas controlled by the British. They thought they would be safe. But their fate had been sealed at the Yalta conference.
What followed was something that the British would hardly be proud about. All the captured Cossacks were handed over to the Red Army. Women and children included. Knowing full well the sad fate that awaited the Cossacks.
 In the Bond film "Golden Eye" Bond says about this bit of history, "Not exactly our finest hour".
Equally reprehensible for the Allies was the handing over of those Russians who were anti-communists, anti-Stalin and had fought the Red Army with the Germans.

Yalta made the Allied democracies do things that has left an indelible blot on their history.

The Cossacks didn’t go willingly. British troops had to beat them into submission with billy clubs and rifle-butts. Eventually, almost 35,000 Cossacks were transported to their ‘mother country’ where the Soviets ‘welcomed’ them.

The vast majority of them were sent immediately to labor camps in Siberia, which were little better than the death camps the Nazis had built. Almost all of the Lienz Cossacks ‘repatriated’ back to Russia died in brutal suffering.

The ‘lucky’ ones didn’t even make it that far. Because many of the Cossacks weren’t born in Russia (their parents had left following the Russian Revolution) they were unable to be tried for treason as Soviet Citizens. Therefore the Red Army saved themselves the hassle of a military trial and executed them on the spot, with a bullet through the brains.

Cossacks handover lienz painting korolkoff
Betrayal of Cossacks at Lienz A painting by Korolkoff
“Betrayal of the Cossacks at Lienz” by S.G. Korolkoff. Korolkoff was a survivor of the forced repatriations and the people depicted in the painting were all real people who were there. Korolkoff recreated the faces from photographs.

In the National Archives in Washington there exists a short clip of film which would appear to be the only one of its kind ever made. It is the unedited footage taken by an American army camera unit at a prisoner of war camp in southern Germany in February 1946. A card, headed "Return of Russian Prisoners to Russia," identifies the subject matter of the film and the location where it was taken. 

For many years this unique piece of film was not available for public inspection. What it recorded was a small part of a vast operation that was one of the most sensitive of the Second World War, the handing over to Stalin  of large numbers of Russians who in varying circumstances found themselves under German control by the war's end. Some of these Russians had been organized into military units to fight alongside German forces against the Red Army; in addition to them were well-known Cossack regiments who had left their homeland in the period 1917 - 1921 after the defeat of the White Russian armies by the Bolsheviks. In all, several hundred thousand Russians - a staggering number - took up arms against the Soviet Union in the years following the German invasion in June 1941. 

Cossack general Kononov
Cossack General Ivan Kononov: Kononov was captured and released in 1946 by the British from a DP Camp in Klagenfurth, and later moved to Munich.
After failing to establish a political organization with the various foreign associations, he feared extradition to the Soviet Union. In 1948, he travelled to Adelaide, Australia, where he settled and became a target of KGB surveillance.
Kononov was the only general who had defected to survive the war and evade subsequent Soviet persecution against all so-called traitors of the Motherland.

The fate of these Russians was one of the best kept secrets of the war. As many as could surrendered to American and British forces, trusting that they would eventually be able to settle somewhere outside the Soviet Union. But in February 1945, at the Yalta conference, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to Stalin's demand that they be handed over to him. The anti-Soviet Russians in the hands of the western allies would therefore be betrayed. To carry out the repatriation order, American and British servicemen often had to resort to deception and brute force. No one doubted what was in store for the Russians once they were in Soviet hands.

 Many were executed on the spot. In some instances, Allied guards responsible for turning over their prisoners could see their bodies hanging in the forests where the exchange took place. Some were transferred on the same boat that had brought the British delegation to Yalta a few months previously. They were shot behind warehouses on the quay side with low flying Soviet planes circling overhead to help drown the noise of the rifle fire. Many returned prisoners were tortured before being shot. The remainder disappeared into prison camps for long sentences, receiving the worst treatment of all the Gulag's inmates. Needless to say all were immediately stripped of the new winter clothing and personal equipment that had been generously issued to them by the British in response to the cynical demands of Soviet liaison officers. American and British officers were the appalled eyewitnesses to many desperate acts of suicide by Russian men and women who preferred their own death and that of their wives and children to falling into the hands of the Cheka/NKVD/GPU/KGB. 

The Cossack General, Pyotr Krasnov, had fought against the Bolsheviks back in 1918 and hoped that the British would sympathize with his situation, remembering their own intervention at that time on the side of the White Russians. Churchill, British Secretary for War in 1919, had then been the most ardent supporter of their cause; while the Allied Commander-in-Chief in Italy, Field Marshal Alexander, still wore a Russian Imperial order awarded to him for his services against the Bolsheviks in Courland. Krasnov in turn had then been decorated with the British Military Cross. He like other White Russians had never been a Soviet citizen. But his appeals were unavailing. Under the Yalta agreement, he too was sent back to the Soviet Union to certain death. He was for Stalin a prize captive. Another bonus came Stalin's way when zealous administrators for good measure threw in individuals and groups from the Baltic republics and Yugoslavia who found themselves on the wrong side when hostilities ended and whose repatriation had never been part of the Yalta negotiations. 

Cossacks 1945

Of all this, the public in the democracies knew nothing. For three decades the subject remained a closely guarded secret. Western eyewitnesses were obliged by official policy to keep silent. A few journalists knew that some handing over was taking place, but not its scale. But Alexander Solzhenitsyn had met some of the surviving Russians in Soviet prison camps and learned about their history. His account of their fate and that of their leader, General Vlasov, which appeared in the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago, published in 1973 - itself a sensation - was the first the general public in the west heard of the subject and the phenomenon, as Solzhenitsyn put it, of so many young Russians joining in a war against their own Fatherland.


Abruptly the stillness of the camp was broken by the shrieking blast of a whistle. Startled, Meandrov's men woke and looked about them. At once a ghastly cacophony of yells burst from all around. Without any warning, and with accompanying shrieks and curses, the Americans began to lash with the bludgeons at each recumbent figure. "Mak snell! Mak snell!" they shouted in pidgin German, driving the bewildered figures out of their beds, through the doorways and across to the camp gates. Anyone slow in scrambling from his bed was beaten ferociously until he too fled in his underclothes out into the night. At the gates stood a row of trucks, their engines humming, into which the prisoners were driven by their screaming guards. Off along darkened roads the speeding convoy clattered and swayed. 

Operation Keelhaul was carried out in Northern Italy by British and American forces to repatriate Soviet Armed Forces POWs of the Nazis to the Soviet Union between August 14, 1946 and May 9, 1947

There followed a hasty transfer to a train, and the journey was continued some hours later. The train rattled on towards the east, where already a pale cold light was failing in the darkening sky. Near the Czech frontier, beyond Zwiesel, the train halted in the dripping stillness of the Bavarian forest. Blue-capped troops were waiting; officers exchanged brief words through an interpreter, and the bruised and terrified men of Meandrov's Division were shepherded down beside the railway track. Dazed, they stood in little groups amongst the puddles. The American guards, silent and awkward, jumped back into their carriages and prepared to make off. There was a brief hissing and clanking of pistons, and then the blank gaze of the Vlasov men watched swaying lights disappear back along the line. 

The Americans returned to Plattling visibly shamefaced. Before their departure from the rendezvous in the forest, many had seen rows of bodies already hanging from the branches of nearby trees. On their return, even the SS men in a neighbouring compound lined the wire fence and railed at them for their behaviour. The Americans were too ashamed to reply.


It wasn't just Ike and the Germans, Jeff. British Gen. Alexander, a fervent Christian, refused to obey Churchill's direct orders to hand over anti-Communist Russian prisoners of war to Stalin after the war. Since he was too widely admired and respected to fire, Churchill moved him 'up and out' to be Governor-General of Canada, then proceeded to get his purposes accomplished. British troops were ordered to hunt down and shoot Russian prisoners who tried to escape their fate. Some British troops, weeping, refused to fire on the hapless Russians and were then threatened by their officers with drawn pistols and made to do so. All were then read the Official Secrets Act and compelled to keep their silence. 

To this day, the vast majority of the British public know nothing of this war crime - directly ordered by Churchill. And those handed over to the NKVD? As they crossed the bridge which was the handover point, multitudes of Russians threw themselves off it too their deaths on the rocks below as soon as they saw the black-uniformed troops waiting for them on the far side. The others all perished as slave labour.

Cossacks Wehrmacht


In the spring of 1943, in Poland was formed one Cossack Cavalry Division and since the Red Army was advancing from the east, the main center for the collection of Cossack refugees who fled from their villages with the Germans, became the headquarters stationed in Kirovograd under Pavlov. By November of the same year his command had eighteen thousand Cossacks, including women and children, and from which was formed the Cossack camp. The main challenge facing the Cossack troops  was to the fight with the guerrillas and ensure the safety of the rear of Army Group "Center". June 17, 1944 during one of the operations against the guerrillas Pavlov was killed accidentally: A German outpost in the darkness took his headquarters for a guerrilla group. Pavlov's successor was an army captain called T. Domanov. A month later, the division was transferred to Poland and from there to Northern Italy, where the Cossacks again had to battle with the guerrillas. 

At the time of migration to Italy the Cossack camp population reached 15,990 people, including 7155 reservists of five infantry and one cavalry regiment. Originally Cossacks were placed on their carts around Gemona, where they underwent massive bombing by British bombers. Subsequently they moved to Tolmezzo, Alesso and Caladesi. After a long journey through Europe Cossacks finally nursed  hope for a peaceful and quiet life and finding a new homeland in the Italian lands. They founded a new village, giving them the names of those from where they had once fled. Some time later they were joined by other Cossacks, who had left Russia during the Civil War and lived all that time in the Czech Republic, Yugoslavia, France and other countries. In their new home they started publishing the magazine "Cossack land".  in Tolmezzo a Museum was opened depicting Cossack life, in the village of Villa Santina was established a cadet school.

 All the time, that the Cossacks wandered in Europe and lived in Italy, accompanying them to the clergy did not disrupt communication with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. In every village and parish priests were appointed, and worship services and weddings held in Catholic churches . 

Relations of the newcomers Cossacks with the local population  were diverse, and according to some historians, some Italian girls married Cossacks. Alesso city, later renamed to Novocherkassk,  all the locals, except the baker and translator, were evicted . Whatever it was, due to frequent clashes with the guerrillas in the early 1945 the Cossacks appealed to their neighbors that their enemy was Bolshevism, not the Italian people.

On April 30, 1945 the commander of German forces in Italy General Ritinger signed an order to cease fire and surrender, which was scheduled for May 2. The Command Cossack camp, by that time had swollen to 36,000 people, 20,000 of whom were combat-ready soldiers and officers. They were ordered to move to Austrian territory in East Tyrol, and honorablly surrender to the British forces, and not fall into the hands of Italian partisans or Tito-ites. After a rough passage through the Alps under constant attack by guerrillas the Cossacks achieved their goal. On Easter, May 6, refugees came to the valley of the Drava River and settled near the town of Lienz. On May 18 the British took their surrender.

General Krasnov
The tough Cossack General Krasnov confers with his men

The link between the Cossacks and the English Command became commandant of the Lienz Army Maj. His Majesty Rusty Davis. With his kindness and friendly demeanour, he quickly gained the sympathy and confidence of the adult population of the Cossacks and the younger generation. Rusty Davis was always a welcome guest in Peggets camp, where most of the Cossacks, the total number of which was variously estimated 40-50 thousand people stayed. Davis assured the people that the worst was over and they were in no danger. In addition the Cossacks started getting English rations. 

Gen. PN Krasnov taking advantage of personal acquaintance with the commander of the British Army Field Marshal Alexander , wrote him a letter in which he asked for a "Special position for the Cossacks, in which the allies should not consider them either enemies or collaborators or captured." But he received no answer.

May 20 Davis gave the order to his command, according to which all ordinary Cossacks were obliged to surrender their weapons - the order was executed unconditionally and on time. An angry Krasnov again wrote a letter to Alexander, but instead of an answer even Cossack officers and generals were disarmed. 

At the same time the British soldiers took away part of the Cossacks horses. When Domanova questioned the decision, he received a reply from one of the senior officers that "there are no Cossack horses. They belong to the English king with Cossack prisoners. " This remark, perhaps,  first, albeit unofficially, definied the status of the Cossacks - being prisoners.

On the morning of May 28, 1945, the day after the disarmament of officers, Davis arrived at the Cossack camp with a new order: "All parts and head of department immediately submit nominal lists of officers, and within 12 hours all the officers were to arrive at the assembly point from where they were to go to the town of Spittal in vehicles. They were to talk with Alexander about "Overall political situation of prisoners of war and the Cossacks." It was also announced that the Cossacks would return to the camp in the evening of the same day. 

Domanov immediately summoned all his officers. 

From the camp went four trucks and one bus and on the road  they were joined by several other cars from other places where the Cossacks lived. Into the city of Spittal rode 14 generals, 2359 officers, 65 military officers, 14 doctors, paramedics and 72 priests. 
After some time two British gunners climbed aboard each vehicle  and tanks appeared out of the woods. Motorcycles equipped with heavy machine guns too appeared. 

Immediately upon arrival at Spittal the Cossacks were searched. Lights, cigarette cases, lighters, watches and pocket knives were seized, and then the captured officers were taken to the barracks. Shocked at this treacherous betrayal, Krasnov spent the night at his desk, writing petitions addressed to the International Red Cross, the League of Nations, the King of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

Many trucks arrived next morning. The British command asked for voluntary consent to return to the USSR, which nobody naturally gave. The opinion of the Cossacks could change nothing. Loading of trucks was supposed to begin with senior officers. A whole company of infantrymen with fixed bayonets burst into the general's hut. He was found on the floor of the hut: the white general had suffered a heart attack. Krasnov when he was being carried out, turned to his subordinates: "I urge the Cossacks to die, but not to worship Satan!" After a brief fight British soldiers still managed to shove, or simply throw the Cossacks into the waiting trucks which were taken under heavy guard to the city of Judenburg: The demarcation line dividing the troops of the British Army and 83 Ukrainian Front. 
During the trip, some brave souls tried to jump from a moving car, but very few managed to reach the forest. Most of the fugitives received bullets in the back. 

 Many Cossacks jumped into the stones and rock below as their truck was crossing a river bridge. After which it was decided to transport prisoners across the bridge with trucks moving in a very tight formation to deprive people of the opportunity to get out and jump as some had done earlier. Handing over of Cossack officers to the Soviet Army was completed at 17:00 on the same day. 

Cossack officers executed red army lienz 1945
Painting showing Cossack officers being executed by the Red Army at Lienz in 1945

Cossack cemetery Judenburg massacre red army
The cemetery at Judenburg of Cossacks massacred by the Red Army


Helmuth von Pannwitz (14 October 1898 – 16 January 1947) was a German general who distinguished himself as a cavalry officer during the First and the Second World Wars. Later he became Lieutenant General of the Wehrmacht and Supreme Ataman of the XV. Kosaken-Kavallerie-Korps. He was executed in Moscow for war crimes in 1947 of which he has been rehabilitated by the military prosecutor in Moscow in April 1996 almost fifty years after his violent death. The revocation of the Red kangaroo court’s conviction of Pannwitz was itself overturned in June 2001

Helmuth von Pannwitz
(14 October 1898 – 16 January 1947)

The Last Knight of Europe

Pannwitz surrendered on May 11, 1945, to British forces near Völkermarkt in Carinthia, Austria, and made every effort to ensure that his men would remain in the custody of the Western powers. But by mid-May it was becoming obvious that the Cossacks would be handed over to their deadly enemies, the SMERSH, an action often referred to as The Betrayal of Cossacks. The same fate overtook the members of the Kazachi Stan at Lienz, another 30,000 old folk, women, and children. All were executed, were sent to GULAG prison camps, or committed suicide to avoid being repatriated.

Pannwitz was a German national, and under the provision of the Geneva Convention not subject to repatriation to the SMERSH. But on May 26, he was deprived of his command and placed under arrest while the forceable loading of the Cossacks into trucks began and continued through the following days.

Although many escaped from their camps following these actions, General von Pannwitz and many of his German officer cadre did not want to leave their men alone and shared the uncertain fate of the Cossacks who had been comrades in combat for more than two years, so these Germans surrendered with the Cossacks to the NKVD at Judenburg and were mostly all killed cold-bloodedly, women and children raped or sent to the Gulag.

Almost fifty years later, on April 23, 1996, during the Russian presidency of Boris Yeltsin, members of the Pannwitz family petitioned for a posthumous verdict of acquittal of the 1946 conviction. The Military High Prosecutor in Moscow subsequently determined that Von Pannwitz was eligible for rehabilitation as a victim of Stalin-era repression.

Suggested Reading
victims of yalta nikolai tolstoy

The story starts at Yalta in February 1945, when the return of all Soviet citizens that may find themselves in the Allied zone was demanded by Stalin ≈ and was duly agreed to by Churchill and FDR. Accordingly, hundreds of thousands of Soviet POW liberated by the Allies were sent back home, regardless of their wishes, and regardless of what Stalin had in store for them. In addition, in May and June 1945 tens of thousands of refugees from Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union ≈ unarmed civilians escaping communism, as well as anticommunist resistance fighters and assorted collaborationist ≈ were rounded up by the British in Austria, and forcibly delivered to Stalin and Tito. Most of them were summarily executed, sometimes within earshot of the British. Forced repatriations were known as Operation Keelhaul ≈ the "last secret" of World War II, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn called it. Men, women, and children were forced into boxcars headed for the Soviet zone in the east, or for Slovenia in the south.

Non-Soviet and non-Yugoslav citizens and Serbian royalists were supposedly exempt from the deportation order, but key military officials in the British chain of command surreptitiously included them, too. As a result ИmigrИ Russians waving French passports and British medals from the World War I were all rounded up and delivered to Stalin.

There was panic in the camps when the inmates realized what was going on. The British lied to some that they were to be taken to Italy, or some other safe haven; if the subterfuge didn't work they used rifle butts and bayonets as prods. Some refugees committed suicide by sawing their throats with barbed wire. Mothers threw their babies from trains into the river. To its credit one British regiment, the London Irish, refused: they went to war to fight German soldiers, they said, not to club refugee women and children. (Americans proved willing to open the gates of refugee camps and look the other way as the desperate inmates fled.) 

In late June 1945 the original policy of screening the would-be deportees was reinstated, but it was too late: most of them were already dead, or in the depths of the Gulag. The tragedy would have remained little known outside obscure ИmigrИ circles were it not for British historian Count Nikolai Tolstoy, who has dedicated his life to exposing the truth and identifying those responsible. This great-grand-nephew of Russia's famous novelist ≈ and heir to the senior line of the family ≈ has written three books on forced repatriations, each more revealing than the previous one, as more suppressed information came to light. In 1977 his Victims of Yalta was published, followed by Stalin's Secret War in 1981, and then his most controversial book, The Minister and the Massacres (1986).

In his books Tolstoy argued that refugees not covered by the Yalta agreement ≈ ИmigrИ Russians and royalist Yugoslavs ≈ were forcibly repatriated because Harold Macmillan, "minister resident" in the Mediterranean and later prime minister, wanted to advance his political career by appeasing Stalin. He persuaded a British general whose 5th Army Corps occupied southern and eastern Austria to ignore a Foreign Office telegram ordering that "any person who is not (repeat not) a Soviet citizen under British law must not (repeat not) be sent back to the Soviet Union unless he expressly desires."


last secret nicholas bethel
The Last Secret by NICHOLAS BETHEL

 The Last Secret (1974), broke to the British public the story of the part played by the British V Corps after the end of the Second World War in handing over two million White Russian refugees to death or imprisonment in Soviet camps.

The book, the forerunner of Count Tolstoy's better known but more polemical Victims of Yalta, told a horrifying story with restraint and balance, and was made into a television documentary, Cossacks, in 1974. As a result of Bethell's book, in 1980 Mrs Thatcher personally overruled objections from the Foreign Office to the erection of a memorial to the Yalta victims.

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