On June 1st, 1945 in Lienz, Austria, some 29,000 Cossack men, women and children being held prisoner by the British military were to be transferred into Soviet custody. Each of these people knew this transfer would likely result in their deaths. These Cossacks endured over 20 years of brutality, starvation and murder under the Soviet régime. These actions led these people to become traitors to their government and align themselves with the Axis powers in the hopes of defeating Soviet government who had repressed them. Aligning themselves with the Germans would eventually led to drastic catastrophic consequences.
The Cossack men were members of the XV SS Cossack Cavalry Corps, a corps created in the winter of 1945 by combining the German led 1st and 2nd Cossack Cavalry divisions. The prisoners were a mix of members of various Cossack tribes, including Don, Terek, Kuban, and Siberian. They all had suffered brutally at the hands of Soviet régime; first through Leon Trotsky’s decossackization policy which resulted in the mass murder of thousands of members of both the Don and Terek Cossacks tribes, and then later though Josef Stalin’s murderous purges, forced collectivization, and manufactured famines of the 1930s. Although many of the Cossacks in the camp had been citizens of the Soviet Union others were so called “White” Russians. White Russians were those who had fled Russia after the Bolshevik victory in 1921. Some has been members of the White Guard, veterans of the Russian Civil war. A few had even fought along side British and American troops in that same war. These so called White Russians settled in whatever country would allow them to stay in the years following the Civil War. Many capitals of Europe had sizable White Russian communities, but they were not citizens and remained stateless peoples.
With the invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941 the German army quickly pushed a disorganized Red Army back to the gates of Moscow and Leningrad. As the legions of field gray marched though Cossack lands, they were greeted as liberators. It is hard to blame the Cossacks for seeing the Germans at that point as their saviors after years of mass murder committed against them by the Soviet régime. The Cossacks believed the Germans were their best chance for ridding themselves of the hated Soviet régime who had slaughtered so many thousands of their people.
Starting toward the end of 1941 the Germans began recruiting dissatisfied Soviet citizens into specially
formed foreign volunteer units with the end goal of fighting the Red Army. At this time White Russian émigrés General Andrei Grigoriyevich Shkuro and General Pyotr Nikolayevich Krasnov approached Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels for permission to organize a Cossack unit to fight along side the Germans in their war against the Soviet Union. Both men were former Tsarist era and later White Guard Generals. These men had been active for years in the anti-Bolshevik movement of the 1920s and 30s are were highly regarded in the White Russian community. General Krasnov had fought along side the British in Russian Civil War and had been decorated by them in 1919. While General Krasnov was known to have acted honorably in the Civil War, General Shkuro had not. At least one historian described Shkuro as a cruel psychopath. This may in fact be the case. When his troops took Kiev in 1919, they engaged in a large scale pogrom against the Jewish residence resulting in the murder of 20,000 in two days of savage violence. A representative of the Kharkov Jewish community, reportedly begged Shkuro for protection of the Jews, Shkuro coldly stated, “Jews will not receive any mercy because they are all Bolsheviks”. Despite this Shkuro would later write in his memoirs in 1921 that he intervened to save the lives of a Red army battalion of captured Jewish volunteers during the Civil War. Even if Shukuro’s claims were true, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that he tried to stop the orgy of violence in Kiev in 1919.
The new division would be formed entirely of Cossacks. The recruits would come from both the White Russian émigré community where both General Krasnov and Shkuro had deep ties and from amongst captured Soviet Cossacks POWs. The Cossacks had several reasons for joining this new unit. The White Russians saw aligning themselves with the Germans as an opportunity to over-through the Soviet Union and returning Russia to it’s former self. What that might look like seemed to be up for debate, as some wanted a Western style democracy while other hoped for the return of the Tsar. Both options raise the questions as to whether the Nazi régime would have actually allowed such a thing upon a German victory. The recruits that came from the Cossack population in the German occupied portions of the Soviet Union or from the German POW camps had similar motivations. Everyone of them had suffered under the yoke of Soviet communism losing loved ones and family members to Stalin’s manufactured famine in the 1930s, random deportations, and mass executions. Many had been jailed and or tortured by the NKVD, Stalin’s masochistic police. With circumstanced like these, it is hardly surprising that many came forward to fight against their own government. Aside from these reasons there were some who volunteered simply for an opportunity to leave the squalid conditions of the German POW camps where they were interned. Those Cossacks that were citizen of the Soviet Union had joined the enemy’s army and, by most definitions, were considered traitors to their country; however, they probably did not see it that way, but believed that they were fighting against a criminal government that had brutalized them. The White Russians, having never been citizen of the Soviet Union, could not be accused of being traitors to their country.
The division was formed in April 21, 1943 under command of General Helmuth von Pannwitz, a Prussian aristocrat and First World War Cavalry Veteran. The men were outfitted with German equipment and uniforms, but they maintained some bits of Cossack flare. Many of the men wore dark blue riding britches trimmed with a colored stripe running along the outside of the seam indicating the wearer’s tribe. These trousers harkened back to Tsarist times, and served to readily identify the soldier as Cossack. For headgear the Cossacks would don black Kubankas, a traditional sheepskin Cossack hat trimmed with German insignia. The Cossacks also maintained their distinctive curved Shashka sabers, a hallmark of Cossack units going back hundreds of years.
The division initially was put into service in Belarus and Ukraine where they became engaged in the savage partisan war the was raging there. The division would not remain there for long. Later that same year, much to the disappointment of many members of the division, they were transferred to Yugoslavia and put under the command of 2nd Panzer army. The Cossacks had believed they would only be employed to fight in the Soviet Union. While they no longer would be fighting against their former country men, in Yugoslavia the division still fought committed communists. The division was assigned to fight Tito’s partisan forces. While in Yugoslavia, the division fought a number of engagements against Tito and his men. Like all partisan wars, the fighting in Yugoslavia was particularly bloody and savage even by WWII standards. Both the German forces and Tito’s men engaged in despicable acts and war crimes. During the division’s time in Yugoslavia, it has been alleged members of the division committed war crimes against the local population. While the crimes and the numbers committed seems to be up for speculation, there is no doubt there is truth to the allegations. A report about the Cossack’s crimes in Yugoslavia reached Goebbels desk which allegedly disturbed even him. While war crimes are not justifiable, it is not surprising some of the Cossacks engaged in them perhaps seeing an opportunity to take vengeance against those holding an ideology that has resulted in the death an misery of so many Cossacks. Whatever the truth is General Pannwitz issued an order dated October 20, 1943 to all under his command that any such crime would result in the death penalty.
In January of 1945, the 1st and 2nd Cossack cavalry divisions were combined and transferred to the command of the Waffen-SS. The transfer to the SS was vehemently opposed to by General Von Pannwitz who argued with Himmler against the move; however, in the end, the Cossack divisions were still transferred to the command of the SS. As the war turned against the Germans, it wasn’t long before the Red army marched into Yugoslavia. The Cossacks fell back from Yugoslavia to Northern Italy and Austria in the winter of 1945. The war ended just a few months later in May. On May 12, General Von Pannwitz surrendered his men to the British authorities in Klagenfurt – St. Veit, Austria. The British interred the Cossacks men and their families who had followed them from Yugoslavia, in Camp Paggetz.
Initially relations between the Cossacks and their British captures were quite positive. British Major Rusty Davis who was assigned as the liaison office, developed an amicable and trusting relationship with the Cossacks at this time. In an interview conducted years later he mention how he would often walk though the camp handing out bits of chocolate to the small children. Rumors ran rampant in the camp as to what would happen to the Cossacks, some believed they would be resettled in Canada or Australia while other believed they might be sent to the far east to fight the Japanese. Many Cossacks believed the British’s initial promises that they would not be transferred to the Soviet Union. On May 9, General Von Pannwitz sent one of his aids with a letter to the British military authorities. In it, he openly expressed that “to hand the Cossacks over to the Red Army would have terrible consequences because the Soviet government had threatened them with textually exterminating them all as a race.” The British received Von Pannwitz’s messenger but never sent a reply. The fact that no reply was sent does seem to indicate that the British had already made the decision to turn the Cossacks over; they were just waiting for the right time to do it. In fact the fate of the camp had actually been decided well before the end of the war. During the Yalta agreement Stalin demanded the concession from British and the U.S. that at the end of the war they would hand over to Soviet custody every Soviet citizen who served in the German armed forces. Roosevelt and Churchill readily agreed to the concession fearing that the Soviets may delay the handing over of British and U.S. servicemen who had been liberated from German POW camps in the East. Aside from that more practical concern, both men probably held little sympathy for men who were considered traitors. Churchill, had always been more wary of Stalin then Roosevelt, who often showed a naïve degree of admiration for the Communist dictator, seemed to display some phase. After the conference he queried Stalin, “Did the Cossacks and other minorities fight against us?” Stalin replied, “They fought with ferocity, not to say savagery, for the Germans”. The fact that Churchill asked the question at all does seem to indicate he may have been uncomfortable with the arrangement already knowing the brutality of Stalin’s regime. While the Yalta agreement clearly laid out that former Soviet citizens were to be turned over the White Russian émigrés were exempt, having left Russia before the establishment of the Soviet state, Stalin had every reason to want these people returned to him. In the years after the Civil War, the White émigré communities had engaged in anti-communist activist aimed at destabilizing the Soviet régime. While these efforts were mostly unsuccessful, both Lenin and later Stalin had taken note. Stalin had even gone as far as to hunt down those who he believed were traders outside of the Soviet Union. Now with the end of the war and so many ex-soviet citizens with combat experience and a true grudge against their former government, Stalin knew that these people could represent a possible threat to his régime and future plans of spreading communism to Eastern Europe. They would need to be dealt with to mitigate the threat they posed.
In mid May, General Von Pannwitz was told by his British captors that it was likely that the Cossacks would be turned over to Soviet custody. General Von Pannwitz knew that he personally had nothing to fear from the news. Being a German officer he and the rest of his German staff would remain in British custody. However, Von Pannwitz felt duty bound to stay with his men and share their fate if necessary. When General Krasnov heard the news he quickly dashed off a letter written in French to his friend, Field Marshal Harold Alexander, to intercede in their behalf. He also forwarded similar letters to King George the VI, to the Pope, and to King Peter of Yugoslavia, due to the fact that many of the White Russians in the camp had lived in Yugoslavian and managed to obtain citizenship. Field Marshall Alexander was Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces with responsibility for all operations in the Mediterranean. General Krasnov and Alexander had known each other in the Russian civil war. Alexander still wore the Order of St. Anne ribbon he had been awarded by the White Guard General Yudenitch for his actions in Courland. If anyone could intercede in Cossack’s behalf, Alexander would be the man to do it. Unfortunately for the Cossacks, Krasnov’s letters were interceded and not sent out. Alexander was in fact well aware of the Cossacks and their situation and had requested direction from the British government on how to proceed. He didn’t wait long for a reply. On May 26th, Alexander was presented with an order from the highest levels of the British government that the “Cossacks, without exception, and especially their officers, were all to be handed over to the Soviet Occupation Forces.” This action was to be carried out immediately.
The repatriation was carried out in two stages. When Major Davies was told about the order, he reportable broke down. He later confessed, “I literally collapsed; this went against everything we had been saying to the Cossacks. During weeks . I explained to my chief I have been a friend of the Cossacks, I have served as guide and counselor, I have answered their questions and calmed their feelings of uneasiness, assuring them that nobody was thinking about repatriating them by force.” Davies was sickened by the order and he resigned his commission however, the resignation was refused. Perhaps believing that the Cossacks would be easier to handle without their officer, the Cossack officers were told that they would be transported to a meeting with Field Marshall Alexander to discuss their case. The officers would have been aware of Krasnov’s relationship with Alexander and likely felt no reason for angst. Though a few officers believing something was amiss, escaped during the night. Attesting to the trust the Cossacks had developed with their British captors, the wife of one of the Cossack officer later said that her husband told her he would return that night and expected to share an omelet with her.
The day of the meeting many of the officers wore their best dress uniforms for the occasion, some even in their old Tsarist or White Guard era uniforms. Once on the transports, the officers were taken to another camp in the town of Spittal which was surrounded by barb wire. There they were told that instead of their meeting with Field Marshall Alexander they would taken across the line to the Soviet sector and turned over to their custody. Krasnov once again took to writing letters and requested that a telegram be dispatched to King George the VI, Winston Churchill, the United Nations, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the International Red Cross; yet, no help was to come. In his last hours before repatriation, the old Tsarist General penned a farewell letter to his wife, Lydia. As the news of what was about to happen to the officers sank in many attempted to prove to their British captures that they were not Soviet citizens and had the right to protection from the British. Many of the White Russian émigrés had identification cards issued to them by the League of Nations identifying them as a stateless person.
Others showed their Tsarist era uniforms or metals attempting to validate their claims of not being Soviet citizens. A few even presented Albanian or Yugoslavian citizenships papers they had acquired in the pre-war era, but it was to no avail. The British had agreed to turn the officers over and at this point nothing would stop that. The Cossack officers were ordered to board waiting transport vehicles which would take them to the Soviet sectors. Before the boarding, the officers asked and received permission to hold a short prayer service. The officer kneeled down, bowed their heads, and said the Lord’s prayer and sang, God Save Thy People. At the completion of the service, the men were ordered onto the trucks. The boarding did not go smoothly as many of the officers refused to board. The British guards ended up resorting to violence, using their rifle butts to force the Cossacks into the waiting trucks. Many were badly bludgeoned, and more then a few were unceremoniously tossed into the trucks. Some jumped out of the transports and were then beaten to unconsciousness by their British guards, and then thrown back into the truck. At least two officers were killed in the scuffle. General Krasnov, who had a heart attack the night before, had to be carried onto one of the trucks. He reportable ripped the British military cross that he had been decorated with in the Civil war from his tunic and dropped it in the mud; without a doubt a symbolic gesture to the betrayal he felt from his former British allies he had once fought alongside.
As the convoy left the camp and continued to the Soviet sectors, the officers tore their shoulder boards, metals and other rank insignias and threw them over the sides of the trucks. This was a final act of defiance. The officer had been ordered by the British to keep their rank insignia intact in order to verify to the Soviet’s that the British were in fact handing over the officers per their agreement. A number of the officer’s chose to commit suicide instead of allow themselves to be handed over to the Soviets. Some of the British guards commented that blood ran from the backs of the trucks. Although the men had all been searched for weapons prior to the loading, some had managed to smuggle on their person straightedge razors which they used to slit their wrists or in some cases their throats. The large quantity of blood seen running from the transport vehicle beds must have been from these suicides. The convoy reached the Soviet sector and the 2000 Cossack officers were marched into Soviet captivity. In the hours that followed, British soldiers who were close to the Soviet sector reported hear machine gun fire. While many of the officers were murdered outright, General Shkuro, General Krasnov, and General Von Pannwitz were sent to Moscow for trial. All three men were publically hanged in 1947. In 1996 the family of General Von Pannwitz petitioned for a posthumous verdict of acquittal of his conviction. The Military High Prosecutor in Moscow subsequently determined that Von Pannwitz was in fact eligible for rehabilitation as a victim of Stalin-era repression. The acquittal was short lived and in 2001 the rehabilitation was reversed in a ruling that disputed jurisdiction of the 1996 proceedings. It seems that General Von Pannwitz’s ghost may need to wait for another generation of Russians to receive clemency.
With the instances of drama that played out with the Cossack officer’s repatriation even more dramatic events were to occur in the coming days. When the officers did not return as their British captors had promised the remaining enlisted men, NCOs, elderly, women and children knew something was terribly wrong. Their fears would be conformed when Major Davies addressed the camp and informed them that the following day all of them were to be returned to their homeland. Initially the news provoked a violent reaction. The clergy in camp requested that the following day a mass be held before the deportation. Permission was granted. The following morning the clergy set up an alter and surrounded it with Russian orthodox icons and began a prayer service. The Cossack women, children, and elderly surrounded the alter and their priests. While the Cossack NCOs and enlisted men linked elbows and formed a protective ring around them. It seems unclear exactly what the Cossacks had hoped to accomplish by this without a doubt planned display. They may have believed that by the show of religious devotion and unity the British may rethink the transfer. What may be more likely is that this was a last desperate appeal for divine intervention when all other hope was lost. The British guard initially stood down and allowed the prayers to continue. When what was supposed to have been a brief mass, turned into much longer affair. The guards, perhaps tired of waiting, decided to act by first ordering the Cossacks to board the waiting transports; however, the prayers and service continued. When the guards saw that no one was moving toward the transports, force was employed. The guarded moved toward the Cossack men who stared back defiantly at them with their arms tightly linked. The guards moved forward some brandished their Enfield rifles with fixed spike bayonets, others swung pick-axe helves. When the Cossacks saw the armed guards approaching, they began to chant in unison, “Move back, Satan! Christ has risen from the dead! Lord, have mercy!” The chant had little affect, with a few bayonet jabs, rifle butt, and truncheon bashes the British guards managed to break the protective circle the Cossack men and placed around their women and children. When the line broke panic quickly spread amongst the prisoners. With over 20,000 people fearing for their lives the guards no doubt realized that they had the potential full scale riot. At least a few of the guards fired rounds into the crowd. The British later claimed the guard only fired over the heads of the crowd to restore order, this maybe be true, but a few people were struck and killed with bullets, including some of the children. First hand accounts seem to vary greatly as to what happened next, but what is clear is the guards ruthlessly loaded the prisoners into the waiting trucks using their bayonets, rifle butts and pick axe helves. In an interview conducted by historian Nikolai Tolstoy, a survivor recounted, “I saw a soldier pulling a child away from his mother’s arms to throw him into the trucks. The mother held one her son’s legs tightly and they both pulled at him. Finally the mother fell down and the boy was thrown to be crushed against the trucks.” Like the officers before, a large number of the crowd committed suicide. Tragically some mothers smothered their children choosing to die together. It took a full day befor the loading was complete. The vehicles were then driven to the Soviet sector where the unfortunate Cossacks were turned over. As before in the following days, British soldiers who patrolled the Soviet frontier claimed to hear machinegun fire and see the corpses hanging from tree branches.
The British guards were mostly Scottish highlanders drawn from Y company, 8th Argyle, and Sutherland regiment. While some of the guards carried out their assigned duty with reckless abandoned, other were sickened by what they had done. The Catholic Chaplain of an Irish Regiment who watched the situation unfold later said what happened was “shameful.” He remembers watching some guards crying as they pushed the Cossacks with the rifles. “This was certainly,” he added, “the very first time I saw a highlander crying. I personally proved,” he confesses, “how many soldiers were morally broken.” A few of the guards did in fact try to do something about what was happening. Some took it upon themselves to help the prisoners escape, even going so far as to pull families off the transports. Not surprisingly some of the guards were near mutiny and refused to participate. The London Irish regiment who had been ordered to take part stood down perhaps sympathizing with the Cossacks having a history of repression in their own background. Major Davies later said of the affair, “The Cossacks could have lynched me. Instead, they didn’t want to believe me… they implored me. They continued trusting in me. That was horrible. I remember all of it with true horror. It was truly a diabolic plan.” In the years that followed some of these men who participated in this action felt a pangs of guild whenever they heard the often uttered excuse given by Nazi war criminals in their trials, I was just following orders. While this action may not exactly be on par with the crimes of mass genocide committed by the Nazis and their collaborators, the end result was the same for many of these Cossacks. Those who were not outright murdered were sent to Gulags in Siberia where they were forced to labor for years in unfathomable conditions.
The Lienz betrayal, as this tragedy is often called, is not the only event of its kind that occurred at the end of WWII. Both the Americans and British readily turned Russian, Ukrainian, and other former citizens of the Soviet Union over to Soviet authorities in the imitate post-war era. The Lienz betrayal with the large number of women and children who were turned over may make this particular event even more heart wrenching. American authorities acted equally callous when they drugged 154 Russians with barbiturates in order to force them onto waiting Soviet ships at Fort Dix, New Jersey. A number of explanations have been put forward attempting to justify these actions. The Yalta agreement is most often put forward as the logically explanation for the transfer. It does not explain why the British chose to turn over the White Russian émigrés and others who clearly had no ties to the Soviet régimes, and who were exempt from the agreement. It also does not explain why the women and children were also transferred. Some of the British guards who had participated in the transfer later said they had been told that the transfer had to take place before the Soviets would turn over British POWs in their care. While this may have been told to them, it does raise other questions. It seems that both the Americans and British followed or ignored the Yalta agreement whenever it suited them. While the Cossacks were readily turned over by the British, the SS-Galician division was not. The 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Galician) was a SS unit recruited entirely of ethnic Ukrainians. The division fought mostly on the Eastern font. At the end of the war they surrendered to American and British forces. While the Soviet government apply pressure to have the Ukrainians turned over it was not done. In 1947 the majority of the division’s members received permission to immigrate to Canada or Great Britain. While many members of the division did claim to have been former citizen of the 2nd Polish Republic, the Yalta agreement did not apply. The American held Estonians and Latvians who had served in 20th Waffen-SS Division (1st Estonian) and they chose not to return them to Soviet custody. If the repatriation of British and American POWs was truly the issue, then why were Ukrainians exempt but White Russians and Cossacks not? The fact that both America and the Britian seemed to follow Yalta at certain times, it does call into question as to whether the issue of British and American POW repatriation was even truly an issue.
Another reason put forward is that the British believed that the Cossacks were mostly war criminals and sorting out the good from the bad would be too difficult. This argument doesn’t hold up well to any scrutiny. War crimes were certainly a hot button issues at the end of the war. With the liberation of death camps and stories of Nazi atrocities rapidly spreading, it stands to reason that it would have an effect on decision making. The British authorities were probably aware of some of the war crimes that Cossack troops committed in Yugoslavia, but to what degree is uncertain. The British were certainly aware of the war crimes committed by Cossack members of SS-Kaminski Brigade during the Warsaw uprising. The members of SS-Kaminski Brigade conducted themselves in the manor of deranged criminals and their crimes during the upraising made international headlines; however, these men were not with the Lienz Cossacks.
Whether the crimes of other Cossacks clouded the judgment of British authorities is hard to verify, but what can be know is that even if every male member of the Cossack camp were verified war criminals, the women, children, and elderly were not. If the British had truly believed it was impossible for them to sort out the good from the bad, they at least had the option of turning over the men and keeping the women, children and elderly in their care; yet, they choose to turn them all over. The war crime theory also does not hold up when applied to the Ukrainians from the Galician division. While the Galician division has a remarkable clean record for an SS unit concerning war crimes, there certainly were members within it’s ranks who had committed despicable crimes. Yet the Ukrainians were spared.
The Cossack at Lienz may have been victims of political aspirations. Nikolai Tolstoy who spent years researching the Lienz betrayal, and wrote several books on the subject of repatriation which he termed Operation Keelhaul, believed he knew exactly who made the decision and for what reason. Tolstoy laid the blame at the feet of Lord Aldington. Tolstoy alleged that Aldington using the opportunity of returning the Cossacks to the Soviets as a way to curing favor with Stalin.
Lord Aldington had intended to run for prime minister after the war, and may have wanted a good relationship with Stalin. In 1989 Lord Aldington sued Tolstoy for libel and won. Tolstoy avoided paying the damages by declaring bankruptcy. Allegations were later made that Aldington used political connections to hide documentation that would have proven his complicity in the whole affair.
Whether the Cossacks were simply the victims of Yalta or political opportunity probably matters very little to those who suffered the repatriation. They were a people stuck with few options. They had been persecuted and murdered by their own government, and were then forced to choose whether to serve that same government or serve another who was equally barbarous. Today these unfortunate warriors of the steppe are mostly forgotten, little remembered outside the Cossack community and their decedents. A small monument to their memory, however, can be visited in Lienz if one knows where to look. Strangely the story of Lienz did see the light of day, albeit briefly, in 1995 in the James Bond film Goldeneye. In the film MI6 agent, Alec Trevelyan, the son of a Lienz Cossacks, conspires to destroy the UK due to “the British betrayal and Stalin’s execution squads” In the film James Bond when learning of the Lienz betrayal commented, “Not exactly our finest hour.” It truly was not. In the end the Lienz betrayal is just one tragedy in a war that was full of them.