Operation Keelhaul, the forced repatriation of millions of people to the USSR after World War II

In his work gulag archipelagowritten between 1958 and 1967, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn refers to an agreement reached between the participants in the Yalta Conference.

According to that agreement, after defeating Germany, the two blocs that were beginning to form as a prelude to the Cold War the prisoners would be returned to each other of their respective countries to free from the hands of the enemy.

The Russian writer described this pact as the last secret of world war ii because it was not made public until decades later. Today it is known by the name of Operation Keelhaul.

Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in Yalta / Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Keelhauling is the English term for what in Spanish was called go through the keel, that is to say, that punishment that was applied to sailors who committed a very serious infraction and consisted of throwing the offender overboard tied to a rope that was pulled from the other side of the ship, so that the unfortunate person passed under the keel, facing a double problem: if they dragged it too fast, it would be half destroyed by the molluscs attached to the hull, while if the process was too slow, it would drown. In practice it was equivalent to the death penalty but due to its barbaric nature it was abolished in the mid-18th century.

It is assumed that the name was chosen for that exchange of prisoners for what they passed from one side to the otheralthough the truth is that it was a bit sinister.

The Yalta Conference took place from February 4 to 11, 1945 with the assistance of Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt Y Joseph Stalinas respective heads of government of the United Kingdom, the United States and the USSR.

Since the war was practically won and over (it would only last seven more months), what was discussed more than anything else was how to manage postwar: distribution of territories and areas of influence with their corresponding compensation, compensation to be demanded from Germany, Soviet intervention against Japan and even the creation of what would later become the United Nations.

One of the extra topics covered was that of the repatriation of prisoners allied war fighters to be released, not an easy task because they numbered many thousands.

The difficulty was double because, apart from the soldiers, Stalin demanded to include also refugees and displaced civilians, which raised the figure to almost two million people. The problem was that they were not consulted, since the commitment, embodied in a secret codicil signed on March 31, 1945, implied forced transfer.

What interest did the Soviets have in bringing people into their country against their will? The explanation was that many of them were dissidents of communismWhite Russians who had fought in the civil war against the Bolshevik Revolution (in the case of General Andrei Shkuro or the Cossack hetman Piotr Krasnov) and even collaborators with the Waffen SS and the Ostlegionen (military units made up of volunteers from the countries that made up the USSR), including tens of thousands of Cossacks.

These had integrated a considerable part of the White Army, hence Trotsky began a campaign against them in the twenties. When Hitler began the invasion of the USSR, many joined him. constituting a division with their own uniforms and insignia, although they did not fight on their soil but in Yugoslavia and northern Italy, under the command of the Waffen SS and with manifest “savagery”in the words of Stalin.

Those who fought in central Europe were interned in concentration camps. In case of canvas, under British control, became famous because when the Cossacks found out that, despite their word to the contrary, they were going to be deported to the Soviet Union, they rioted and the guards violently overpowered them, forcing them to get on the trucks with butts. «The NKVD or the Gestapo would have killed us with batons; the British did it on their word of honor» was the tremendous phrase of one of the prisoners.

The thing was repeated in Judeburg, Graz and other places. British and American soldiers discovered to their horror that many of those men who began delivering in August 1946 were summarily hanged almost at the moment of its reception, mainly commanders and officers, since the Soviets considered them traitors and in addition many were implicated in war crimes.

Column of German and Croatian prisoners/Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

It should be said that a large part of them did not have Soviet citizenship and therefore did not consider themselves such, but they ended up confined to Siberia until Khrushchev granted them amnesty. Approximately two million people were delivered, as there was also a significant amount of ostarbeiter (Slavs used by the Nazis as slave laborers), multitudes of displaced civilians and some eleven thousand Croats of all ages and sexes. The deliveries were made in the part of Germany controlled by the USSR, in Austria, northern Italy and Slovenia.

In the latter country, at that time one of the regions that made up Yugoslaviawas where the call occurred Bielburg massacrewhich took place in May 1945 in the town of the same name and led to the death of around fifty thousand Ustasha Croat fighters who supported the establishment of the self-proclaimed Independent State of Croatia (a puppet fascist state of Hitlerite Germany).

together with them, chetniks Montenegrins (ultra-conservative guerrillas led by the royalist and anti-communist colonel Dragoljub Mihajlović), domobranci Slovenes (literally defenders of the home, militants of the Slovenian National Guard, a Catholic paramilitary body financed by the Nazis) and Bosnian Muslims at the service of the Germans, responsible for committing authentic atrocities; they all fell, either at the hands of Tito’s partisans, or during the hard marches of transfer. It is estimated that there are in Slovenia about five hundred and forty mass graves corresponding to that episode.

The last deliveries of prisoners were made in St. Valentin, Austria, on the days May 8 and 9, 1947in what was internally called Operation East windand affected a thousand Russians from the Allied concentration camps in Italy: Bagnoli, Aversa, Pisa and Riccione.

Paradoxically, it developed in parallel to the Operation fling, which helped dissidents and defectors flee the Soviet Union. Because at that point, as we said before, the Second World War had ended but the Cold War and the British intelligence services already held and housed anti-communist prisoners.

The operation Keelhaul remained hidden until a journalist named Julius Epstein (by the way, a descendant of composer Johan Strauss II) stumbled upon the matter when he found some classified archival records while working for the Hoover Institution in 1954.

Epstein was an Austrian of Jewish origin, who fled Europe in 1938 and settled in New York. A convinced anti-communist, he plunged into a twenty year research which led him to sue the US government to declassify the documentation on the subject. That work was published in 1973 under the title Keelhaul Operation, paving the way for other authors.


gulag archipelago (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn)/The Failure of America’s Foreign Wars (Richard M. Ebeling and Jacob G. Hornberger)/Winning Without Victory (Rolf A.F. Witzsche)/Victims of Yalta. The Secret Betrayal of the Allies, 1944–1947 (Nikolai Tolstoy)/Operation Keelhaul exposed (Jeffrey Rogers Hummel)/Wikipedia.