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21 May 2012

21 May: black day for the British Army, and the Cossacks they tricked

War criminal?
Lord Aldington: the man who broke the rules
in 1945 and sent 45,000 Cossacks and others
to “slavery, torture and probably death”.
Today, 21 May, is a day on which it is worth remembering something other than the English language. It is the anniversary of the signing, in 1945, of a British Army order which had the effect of handing over to Stalin 45,000 Cossacks, White Russians, German solders in the XV Cossack Cavalry Corps and other miscellaneous refugees from eastern Europe. The order was drafted and signed by the young “spring-heeled jack” (as Lord Lambton later called him) who was the General Staff Brigadier at the headquarters of 5 Corps of the British 8th Army in south west Austria at the time. He later came to prominence in British public life as Lord Aldington, but was then an ambitious young lawyer who was friendly with the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, and keen to use that friendship to get himself a safe seat in the House of Commons at the 1945 general election—which he did.
     The price of his smooth passage from the Army, where he had fought bravely and efficiently for five years, into the corridors of power and the smoke-filled rooms of the Tory party hierarchy, was the sacrifice of these 45,000 people, including women, children and old men. Aldington knew that he was condemning them to what Harold Macmillan, then a political liaison officer at Allied Headquarters in Italy, and later Prime Minister, had written in his diary a week earlier after having visited the headquarters where Aldington worked, was “slavery, torture and probably death”. Aldington had no grudge against these people; he simply did not care whether they lived or died, so long as Mr Eden’s informal request to co-operate with the Red Army was fulfilled.
     The Soviet commander in Austria was Marshal Fyodor Tolbukhin (whose face adorns the wall of the Frunze Military Academy not far from Park Kulturi metro station). Tolbukhin handed Aldington’s superior, General Keightley, a list of about 20 names of people that the Soviet intelligence services believed were in the British area, and whom the Soviet hierarchy wanted to lay its hands on. Keightley was outraged and said, “Over my dead body!”
     But Aldington, who was Keightley’s administrative Man Friday, thought it better to oblige the Soviets and hand over the people, even though he knew this was contrary to the terms of the Yalta Agreement which had, since February that year, governed the post-war repatriation of displaced persons in Europe. The basic idea was that people who had been Soviet citizens before the war should go back to the Soviet Union and the rest be treated as refugees, pending further decision on their disposal.
     The only way to take decisions on an individual basis was for everyone to be screened, one by one—as was done in most other theatres of war. But that would obviously defeat the Soviet aim. Equally obviously Aldington could not order soldiers into the camps to pick out the 20 named men—who were all well known: Generals Shkuro, Krasnov, Sultan-Ghirei Klitch; none of them Soviet citizens—and deliver them to the Red Army. That would cause an outcry and might scupper his prospects of a smooth ride into parliament.
     By far the easiest way to deal with the issue was to categorise everyone in the British area as Soviets (minus the mysterious case of one Ukrainian SS Division) and hand them over ostensibly within the terms of the Yalta Agreement. Presumably Aldington did not envisage receiving any dangerous flak from within the Gulag. The fact that there were a couple of thousand German military personnel, who could never possibly have been thought of as Soviet, did not seem to trouble him. But they had to go, because one of the names on the list (or so we think: it has never  been found) was their commander, General von Pannwitz.
     Aldington’s plan nearly came unstuck, for two reasons. First the Supreme Allied Commander in the area, reflecting Winston Churchill’s declared will, issued orders that no-one was to be handed over until they had been individually screened. Field Marshal Alexander had fought in Latvia, against both the Germans and the Bolsheviks in 1919 and was well aware of what might happen if the wrong people were delivered into the wrong hands. So Aldington hurried the handovers up, pleading the urgent need to clear the area while British troops were so few on the ground (which was true).
     The second problem came from the Americans who were occupying southern Germany. They were quite prepared to send a huge column of lorries south over the mountains to take away any surplus people in order to keep the 5 Corps are free of refugees. Suddenly numbers were no longer an issue. Aldington told them that he had the matter well in hand now and did not need the Americans’ help.
     The story of the handovers is a grisly and bloody one. It seems that all the twenty men on Tolbukhin’s list were executed in the Lubyanka in January 1947, but many of the rest survived their ordeal and returned to life. A couple even wrote books about their experiences.
     The controversy flared up again in the 1970s when the British records were released into the public domain under the 30-year rule and several authors wrote books about the events. The best known, and the most comprehensive, was Nikolai Tolstoy’s The Victims of Yalta.  As an indirect result, in 1989, Lord Aldington went to court claiming that Tolstoy's allegation that he bore responsibility for the handovers and therefore, in part, the resulting deaths was libellous. The headmaster of his old school, Winchester College, of which he was then Warden, wrote a circular to parents saying (in rather tortured language): “No Brigadier in the British Army could conceivably have undertaken what Lord Aldington is accused of doing.”
     But Tolstoy had over-reached himself. He was now pursuing a vendetta, and a poorly informed one at that. The standard of his research had declined since he wrote Victims of Yalta. He was looking for enemies to vanquish and the evidence he brought to trial was inaccurate in parts, incomplete in others and in many respects irrelevant. The result was that the trial was badly conducted and Aldington won the largest libel award in British legal history--£1.5 million. (More than double that at current prices.)
     Unable to pay, Tolstoy declared himself bankrupt, so Aldington never got a penny. Fourteen further cases flowed from this original litigation. Some came about because Tolstoy tried to appeal the verdict and the award, including one to the European Court of Human Rights, which caused a change in the British libel laws. Others sprang from Lord Aldington’s attempts to get his costs out of Tolstoy, which was unsuccessful, and to have his collaborator in the original trial, a man called Nigel Watts, sent to jail, in which he was successful.
     Some of this litigation was provoked in part by the fact that it became clear as time went on that Ministers in the British government had been secretly helping Aldington with information for his case, and also withholding important documents that Tolstoy needed to present his arguments in court. Added to that, the judge was plainly biased in favour of Lord Aldington—a fact I have had confirmed at first hand by his best friend, a judge in Edinburgh, who has told me a lot about what the judge thought of the trial.
     It is one of the most incredible legal epics of modern times, and anyone in Russia who is interested in how English law works in the real world, should read the book about the whole story, of both the handovers and the litigation, which I published, with the help of my patron, the Earl of Portsmouth, in 1999 (The Cost of a Reputation, for details see opposite).  The saddest irony of the whole affair is that the reason why the victims were so keen to surrender to the British Army in 1945 was that, as they repeatedly said, “believed in British justice.”
     A flavour of the evidence which came to court in 1989 can be gained from this extract from the sworn witness statement of one of the German Cavalry Corps officers, Karl-Gottfried Vierkorn, who survived eight years in Siberia, and returned to Germay to write a book about his experiences. In his evidence for Tolstoy, he described how the British officers deceived them as to their fate, so they voluntarily got into the lorries which drove them out of the almost open camp in which they had been accommodated for ten days or so, and from which, if they had been told the truth, they could easily have escaped. After a while they noticed more and more armed British soldiers guarding the route so they no longer had the possibility of escape. Then they saw they were approaching the Soviet lines, which were at the other end of a bridge over the river Mur at Judenburg. The effect on the men was electric:
“I then remember hearing a sudden disturbance in the corner of my lorry. I looked and I saw a young lieutenant whom I had always known to be a very calm and restrained person. He was trying to cut his arteries with a sharp knife. Quickly those around him fell upon him and wrenched the knife out of his hands. Shortly after this, I remember the lorries of the convoy moving across the bridge in Judenburg separately. On the other side of the bank was the Red Army and we were handed over to the Soviets. Everyone in the lorry looked very wooden and motionless. When the lorry stopped we all knew we were in the hands of the Bolsheviks. Hardly had the vehicle stopped than what appeared to be a wild pack of heavily armed Soviet soldiers and Commissars fell upon us. Many of them seemed to be under the influence of drink and presented a terrifying appearance. Their uniforms, in stark contrast to those of the correctly attired British, were filthy and ill-cared for; for example their boots and belts had not been polished. Their army shirts were mostly unbuttoned and wide open, revealing a variety of fantastic and obscene tattooings. With indescribable longing, I remember gazing after the British drivers as they turned their vehicles and drove back to the other side.”
     In court Lord Aldington’s barrister used Vierkorn’s inability to speak English perfectly to extract from him the completely erroneous admission that he and his fellow officers had gone voluntarily to the Soviet Union so as not to “desert” the Cossacks who had served them. That was not at all what Vierkorn had been trying to say, and was the precise opposite of the content of his witness statement. But the lawyer ignored this.
     “So, great credit to all the officers who did this,” the barrister said condescendingly. The judge did not bother referring to this in his summing up of the evidence for the jury.
     It is hard to know which comes out worse from this episode, the British Army or the English court system. Fortunately, I think it would be fair to say that both have been reformed and improved since these things happened.

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