KEELHAUL

In February 1945, Major Denis Hills, an officer of the British Eighth Army in Italy, was given command of a POW camp at Taranto containing 8,000 men of the 162 Turkoman Infantry Division, classified as ‘repatriates’. His charges had been conscripted into the Red Army, been captured on the Eastern Front by the Germans, and had endured starvation and cannibalism under arrest before volunteering for service with the Wehrmacht. Having sailed with them to Odessa, whither they were transported under the terms of the Yalta Agreement, he had no doubts that all such Soviet repatriates were being sent home to be killed.

In subsequent assignments, Hills repeatedly faced the age-old dilemma of a soldier whose conscience did not match his order. In the case of the SS Fede, which was trying to leave La Spezia for Palestine with an illegal shipload of Jewish emigrants, he advised his superiors that regulations should be waived to let them sail—which they did. ‘I had wished to extinguish a small glow of hatred before it grew into a flame.’

During Operation Keelhaul (1946–7), Hills was given 498 ex-Soviet prisoners for screening in a camp at Riccione. His orders were to repatriate to the USSR (1) all persons captured in German uniforms, (2) all former Red Army soldiers, and (3) all persons who had aided the enemy. By inventing spurious categories such as ‘paramilitaries’ and by privately urging people to flee, he whittled down the number of repatriates to 180. When they left, the Russian leader of the group told him: ‘So you are sending us to our deaths … Democracy has failed us.’ ‘You are the sacrifice’, Hills replied; ‘the others will now be safe.’

In the case of Ukrainians from the Waffen-SS Galicia Division held at Rimini, Major Hills was one of several British officers who personally rebuffed the demands of the Soviet Repatriation Commission. When the Division was reprieved, he was sent a letter from the division’s CO, thanking him ‘for your highly humane work … defending the principles in the name of which the Second World War has been started’. According to international law, the Galicians were Polish, not Soviet citizens.

Hills admitted that he ‘bent the rules’. Shortly afterwards, he was court-martialled and demoted on a charge of unseemly conduct, having been caught doing cartwheels and handsprings at dawn in the city square of Trieste.

The Allied policy of forcibly repatriating large numbers of men, women, and children for killing by Stalin and Tito has been called a war crime. In the Drau Valley in Austria, where in June 1945 British troops used violence to round up the so-called Cossack Brigade and their dependants, it provoked mass suicides. But it was well hidden until a report written by Major Hills came to light in the USA in 1973, and the opening of British archives. Solzhenitsyn called it ‘The Last Secret’. It only reached the wider public through books published thirty and forty years after the event.

More recently, an unusual libel trial in London awarded £1.5 million damages against Count Nikolai Tolstoy, author of The Minister and the Massacres, who had written of an official British conspiracy and cover-up. The plaintiff was not the minister accused of ordering the handover of the Cossacks, but a British officer who, faced with the same problem as Hills, had pursued a different policy. He did not receive a penny of his award, as the defendants fought on in the European courts.

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