- Contributed by
- Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 20 November 2003
The penultimate meeting
It was in February 1945 that the Big Three wartime leaders - Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Franklin D. Roosevelt - had their penultimate meeting in the Russian resort town of Yalta on the Crimea. They were there to discuss the future of Europe now that the end of the war was assured. Barring accidents, it would end in ultimate victory for the Allied nations.
I use the term penultimate meeting as in August 1945, at the very last meeting of the Big Three, Roosevelt was dead, and Churchill ousted by the British people in the July elections. Only Stalin was still in power in the USSR. The new Big Three was therefore Stalin, Harry S Truman and Clement Attlee.
Mr Attlee was the socialist leader of the British Labour Party, the chief executive of the demise of the British Empire and originator of the British welfare state. The Labour Party would look after the ever increasing social and health needs of the great British public, from the 'cradle to the grave' as mastermind Professor William Beveridge phrased it.
Many far-reaching decisions were made at Yalta concerning the defeat of Germany and Japan. The partition of Poland, which Britain went to war to save from Nazi Germany, now handed over to Russia. There was the formation of the United Nations and so on.
However, most of these decisions did not come to light until 30 years later. Then the British government allowed publication on the grounds that most of the people involved would, in most likelihood, either be dead or, at least, in a position to deny that it was their fault. Or that they could do nothing about it at the time, as Harold Macmillan, the erstwhile political commissar of the 8th Army, did when challenged in 1976.
Stalin’s dubious request
One request that was granted came from Stalin. He had asked that there should be an interchange of prisoners of war between the three nations at the meeting. These three nations were the ones, by and large, most concerned with the winning of the war, with large numbers of their citizens being involved in the conflict.
On the face of it, Stalin's was an innocuous request, which, basically, went through on the nod, as it were. In hindsight, of course, the motive behind it should have been considered suspect, coming as it did from such a man. Churchill did not trust Stalin too far, but, by then, Britain was almost bankrupt. Both the USA and the USSR were on their way to becoming superpowers, controlling the world scene, as Britain had done for nearly 300 years.
British and US POWs in Russia
The other factor to consider was how could Russia have had British and American POWs when their fighting fronts were so far apart and had little or no communication? It should be recalled that Russia had refused permission for the US Air Force to land in Russia after the bombings of the Ploesti oil refineries in Rumania and ball-bearing factories in Schweinmunde in eastern Germany.
There had been horrendous casualties, owing to the fact that they had to take off from Foggia in southern Italy, fly to eastern Germany/Rumania and return to Italy.
I witnessed what had been three squadrons of US liberator bombers return from one of the raids badly shot up. One aircraft finally went out of control, hit two others and all three crashed to the ground. There was very little that could be done for the 36 men involved.
Austria, spring 1946
The issue of the interchange of prisoners came to the fore for us in Austria in the spring of 1946, when we returned to our billets in Knittelfeld-Steiermark. We had spent the winter lumber jacking for firewood at a camp near Leoben, in order that the population of Vienna might have some warmth. We were already sharing our rations with the starving Austrians. So keeping them warm was just another task.
As B-squadron of the 16/5th Lancers, we were ordered to drive our Sherman tanks to Judenberg ('Jews' Mountain'), a few miles north of Knittelfeld. There we were to mount guard on a camp containing - as we thought - Jewish refugees, who were making their way to Palestine. Their departure was still illegal - but they were going anyway.
No holiday camp
This was no luxury holiday camp - the future Butlin's would have been rated very highly - but a very squalid place, where thousands passed through on a daily basis.
Our orders were strange to say the least. We had to surround the camp and turn our 76mm gun and the two 300mm Browning machine guns inward -on to the camp. This was not at all usual. In guarding camps, dumps, lagers, and so on, the guns were invariably turned outward - hedgehog style, in the expectation of an attack from outside, not from within.
Questioning the orders
Questions were asked, but it was discovered that all officers over the rank of major were in Italy on a big meeting. We were assured that everything was OK. We would be relieved inside 36 hours - all squadrons of the brigade were to do 36-hour stints.
As with all things, these days passed. We thought no more of them, especially as the next task was the potentially more enjoyable Vienna Tattoo in the grounds of the Schoenbrunn Palace.
A massacre revealed 30 years later
In 1976 the BBC reported that a decision taken at Yalta was to be promulgated by the British government in compliance with the 30-year rule. It revealed that elements of the British 8th Army were involved in rounding up some 50,000 Russian deserters, both men and women, and handing them over to the Russian troops. The Russian army herded the men and women on to trucks and drove five miles north of Judenberg. There they shot and killed them before burying their bodies in mass graves.
As can be imagined, we were not happy with this news.
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