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Prisoners of War

IV: Evacuation of Prisoners released by Russian Forces

IV: Evacuation of Prisoners released by Russian Forces

The speed of the Russian advance in January 1945 did not allow the Germans time to move all the prisoners from camps on their eastern borders or in Poland. A good number of sick men remained in hospitals, together with the medical personnel attending them, and some of the smaller outlying working camps were overtaken by the Russian spearhead. One such camp came under Russian fire while being evacuated. Of its 40 men five were killed, including two New Zealanders, and 19 were released by the Russians. Men who had escaped either from camps or from marching columns were also able to make their way back to the Russian lines.

There was at first little organisation for the evacuation and eventual repatriation of these men, and they had for the most part to make their own way back, living as best they could while doing so. A New Zealander who reached the Russian front-line troops in December 1944, near Prague, stayed for a week with them, was quite well treated, and was then told to make his way back to Lublin. On the way he was picked up by some other Russian troops, who did not believe his story nor recognise his Army pay-book. He was put into a civilian jail and kept there for three to four weeks with very little food and under very bad conditions. He was then taken under guard by train to Brest-Litovsk, where there was a second New Zealander in the same circumstances. Eventually, when a train came through containing other ex-prisoners of war, these two were put on it. The second New Zealander picked up at Brest-Litovsk was shortly afterwards shot dead by a Russian guard on the train.

A party of hospital orderlies from Tost, after receiving several incorrect instructions from Russian officials as to how to make their way back, were ushered into the local jail of a Polish town and told they were in a transit camp. Here men of different nationalities were being put to work crating up dozens of pianos, and at four o'clock next morning the British hospital orderlies were invited to assist. This they declined to do and spent a boring few days, until page 481 they were taken on foot the rest of the way to Czestokova, the nearest railhead, which had been made one of the assembly points for recovered prisoners of war.

In September 1944, when it had become apparent that prisoner-of-war camps in Poland and eastern Germany might soon be liberated by the Russians, negotiations for the welfare and evacuation of British prisoners while in Russian hands were initiated. There were in the areas likely to be affected some 3000 New Zealanders. A British Commonwealth approach to the Soviet Government asked the latter to notify the names of recovered prisoners of war and civilians, and to allow facilities for British officers to care for and organise them. The Soviet response was at first unsympathetic. But in October the British Foreign Secretary obtained from Marshal Stalin an assurance that every care and attention would be given to British Commonwealth ex-prisoners as soon as they were freed by the Red Army. In order to give what assistance might be possible towards the welfare of our men repatriated through Russia, the New Zealand Minister in Moscow kept in close touch with the British military mission there. Later, an officer was seconded from the New Zealand Reception Group in England and attached to the mission.

The British military mission to Moscow arranged with the Soviet military authorities for the earliest possible repatriation of released British prisoners, through Odessa. As early as December 1944 considerable British Red Cross supplies (food, clothing, medical supplies and tobacco) were sent to Russia, where the Soviet Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies had promised co-operation in distributing them to British Commonwealth prisoners liberated by Russian forces. In January the Soviet Government gave high-level assurance that provision would be made for the welfare and protection of British Commonwealth ex-prisoners. They wished, however, to have the right to make released prisoners work, in the same way as the large bodies of Russians released by SHAEF were being put to work by the latter. The New Zealand Government took up a position strongly opposed to this, and in the end the agreement negotiated on behalf of the Commonwealth provided that work other than camp maintenance should be only on a voluntary basis. It was not until 11 February that this agreement was concluded, at Yalta, between the USSR and the British Commonwealth countries, for the ‘care and repatriation’ of each other's ex-prisoner-of-war nationals. And it was not until it was concluded that the Russians would allow British liaison officers inside Soviet territory.

By February 1945 70 British Commonwealth officers and 2571 other ranks were on their way to Odessa, where a transit camp to page 482 hold 5000 was in preparation, medical officers and contact officers being sent from the military mission in Moscow. No official advice had been received, however, of the recovery of any New Zealanders by the Russians. The British Commonwealth party of contact officers waiting to go to Moscow had not yet received their visas. In order to contact New Zealanders in the forward areas, the Second Secretary of the New Zealand Legation in Moscow was attached to a party from the military mission which went to Lublin at the beginning of March. The party was not allowed much freedom of movement and almost no New Zealanders were seen. After a fortnight the New Zealand representative returned to Moscow. He was able to report that, although the Russians had established collecting points, there was no proper organisation. Thousands of prisoners were wandering about Poland, neglected by the Russians, some hungry and ill, others robbed of their possessions by Russian troops and threatened (but many, fortunately, well cared for) by the Poles. While there may have been no intentional ill-treatment or neglect on the part of the Russians, their lack of organisation under the prevailing chaotic conditions in Poland often made it seem as if there had been. By the end of March the holding camps in Poland were being closed and ex-prisoners were being directed back to Lwow and Volkovysk, whence they were sent on to Odessa. Teams of contact officers were allowed only at these points, and evacuation was slowed down because many prisoners preferred not to report until they contacted a British officer.

Conditions on the long train journey east to Odessa were poor, but do not appear to have been any better for the Russian troops and civilians travelling at the same time. One party took over three weeks to travel from Oels to Odessa. On 10 March an accident at Rudawa, near Cracow, to one of the trains, involving the telescoping of five cars, resulted in eight prisoners being killed and 30 injured.1 The latter were taken to the Russian military hospital at Cracow, where they received excellent treatment and whence all except one who died of injuries were flown to Odessa.

In April and May a number of our men escaped to the Russian lines from German custody in Austria, either from the camp in which they were held or from a marching column moving westward. Some thirty of these men were evacuated to Odessa by the Russians. Some made their own way to Budapest and were then moved back through Roumania and the Ukraine. It would clearly have been more practical for these cases to have been repatriated across Western Europe, and representations were made on our side to

1 New Zealand casualties were four dead and two injured.

page 483 have any British ex-prisoners in Hungary and Roumania either flown to Bari or moved overland to Graz for transfer to our forces. On 8 June the Russians announced that no further prisoners of war would be sent to Odessa.

At Odessa conditions appear to have been very good. A former school building had been set aside as a transit barracks, hot baths were provided for disinfestation, and the Russian authorities provided clean underclothing. Here many of the men met members of the British military mission for the first time. Red Cross food and other supplies were available and there was adequate medical attention. The men were allowed to move about under escort (‘for their own protection’) and one of our men records having been twice to the opera.

British ships repatriating Russians to Odessa were turned round almost immediately to bring back British and American prisoners of war from the transit camp there. The first drafts of New Zealanders sailed in early March, arriving at Port Said on the 12th and 13th. It had originally been intended that the New Zealanders from Odessa should arrive on one ship, which after a brief stay in the Middle East, would take them on to New Zealand. The first drafts were therefore held for ‘processing’ at Maadi, where it appears some of the men became a little restive and impatient. But further difficulties were avoided by deciding almost immediately to send them and later drafts on to the Reception Group in the United Kingdom.

By June 1945 all the New Zealanders1 had been brought back from Odessa. Two-thirds of these were men from the camps and hospitals in Upper Silesia and Poland which had been swept up early in the Russian advance; another fifth were from camps in Austria, where the same thing had happened two months or so later. The remainder were stragglers who had made their way to the Russian lines in Poland or, perhaps unwilling to report to the Russians, had waited until they could contact a British liaison officer. Our men were (not surprisingly) indignant at being robbed of their possessions by Russian troops and at being kept under guard during their evacuation. Some realised, however, the problem which the Russian occupation troops faced in the masses of people of all nationalities who were wandering about Poland. Some realised, too, that they were being treated no worse than Russian soldiers and sometimes better, and that the standards of the Russian soldier in the matter of eating, sleeping, and washing were much lower than their own. Many men encountered friendliness; others said that so indiscriminate was the Russian use of firearms that they were glad to

1 The total number of New Zealand ex-prisoners who passed through Odessa was 168, out of a British Commonwealth total of 4310.

page 484 reach Odessa without being shot. Some officials took the attitude that the Russian authorities were deliberately neglecting to fulfil their part of the agreement concerning our released men. Such recrimination is almost inevitable when two nations whose standards of living differ vastly undertake reciprocal obligations which involve such things as warfare and accommodation.