A Cossack Homage

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In the course of my investigative travel into the history of my father’s WW II journey from Ukraine to England, one might think that with all the available information today, it would be a simple task to analyse his past, link all the facts, and then follow the chain of information back to his hometown in Ukraine.

Unfortunately, it’s not so simple.

It is amazing how one can be misdirected under the influence of disinformation, or even simply missing a part of the information. In other words, manipulation.

For me this pilgrimage all started when I began tracing the towns in Austria shown in my father’s documents, looking for Displaced Persons (DP) camp locations. This is what took me into the Drau Valley, where by chance I happened upon the Cossack Memorial Cemetery in Lienz. Seeing this made me investigate its sad story of a horrific act by Allied forces.

The Tragedy on the Drau, as this incident has become known, and the events leading to the deportation of people at Peggetz, Lienz, over the years has become a confused issue.

A first hint of this type of confusion is the deceptive plaque, written in the German language at the entrance to the memorial cemetery. Translated it says:

“Also, in memory of all the other victims of the XVth Cossack Cavalry Corps.”

I was curious about its wording. Did the victims lying here die by the hands of the Cossack Corps? Doubtful, but then who were these other victims? Where did they come from? Was by any chance my Cossack father also here?

My telephone call with Herr Dieter K, (before he passed away Dec 2009) one of the last living survivors of the XVth Cossack Cavalry Corps, and the last chairman of their veterans association, made me even more curious when he told me that in fact they (the XVth Corps) had really nothing to do with Lienz. “They were NEVER there,” he said.

My reaction was not of astonishment but rather of confirmation. The nagging feeling I had at the back of my neck, which was telling me that something was terribly wrong here, was at last being established.

Dieter went on to explain to me that he believes no one knows for sure how many bodies lie in the Lienz cemetery, and that it is estimated somewhere between 190 – 300 victims are buried there, and at the most that there may be four or five remains from soldiers of the XVth Cavalry Corps which were found much later in other areas, and brought there to be laid to rest.

I habe been informed when the graveyard was reconstructed approx 50 - 60 remains could be found.

Another indication that I felt something was wrong with the well publicised story, is the deception of the Cossack Officers meeting in Spittal. All known reports that I have read state they dressed up in their parade garments displaying their cartridge belts across their chest.

To my knowledge, this was more of a custom of the Kuban Cossacks rather than the Don Cossacks who at the time wore only the German Uniform, and had mostly German Officers in their regiments.

The statement of Dieter K also collaborated the location plan of the Cossack units in Nikolai Tolstoy’s book, The Secret Betrayal. Christopher Booker’s book A Looking Glass Tragedy not only defines much more clearly the events leading up to the tragedy, but also shows the movements and whereabouts of the particular Cossack Units.
 
Another clue to the identity of the victims lying in Peggetz is the photos of the Cossacks shown at the 2007 Cossack International Congress in Lienz, with their captions stating that the troops were Cossacks. Regrettably they failed to reveal which host or regiment. Why was this?

The original pictures hang in the Imperial War Museum, and specifically state that the Cossacks marching and camped in the Drau Valley are the Domanov Cossacks belonging to the Kazachi Stan, or Cossack settlement belonging to the Kuban host. The bulk of these people had retreated with the Germans from Stalingrad and the majority were women and children. Booker says the men were armed, but only as a militia and not as an effective Army. This is another statement confirming my story of a survivor of this tragedy printed in Surviving Lienz.

Further investigation led me to believe not only Cossack soldiers lie there but also other refugee civilians of Ukrainian heritage.

Christopher Booker again explains in his book the complexity of the rapidly changing volatile situations happening between Klagenfurth and Lienz, an area more than one hundred miles long and fifty miles wide, in May 1945, with armed military forces.

The whole southern German army was travelling north from Yugoslavia and was aiming to cross the bridge in Klagenfurth (it was the only one that wasn’t blown up) to surrender to the British.

Brigadier Pat Scott, 38 Irish Brigade in Southern Austria, May 1945.
There was one very difficult principle that we were up against which I did not really know about to start with, that in accordance with the general surrender everyone was supposed to surrender to the Allied army against whom they had been fighting. Everyone in this part of the world had obviously been fighting against either the Russians (Soviet) or Yugoslavs, but the devil of it was that they were prepared to do anything rather than surrender to either of these armies.

Booker explains how all the mixed peoples of the retreating remains of the German Army met with refugees fleeing from the advancing ill-disciplined Yugoslav and Soviet Armies of the 3rd Ukrainian Front, and the 1st Bulgarian Army who had advanced much further in Carinthia than had been planned.* This created an instable pact, aggravating a pending war situation with the Yugolslavs because Tito was insisting on his claims to part of Carinthia and Northern Italy which were under British jurisdiction.

*Under the First Control Agreement and the occupation zones, the Soviet zone encompassed Lower Austria under the borders of 1937, Burgenland and the Muehlviertel region in northern Upper Austria; the United States took the southern part of Upper Austria and Salzburg; the British Styria, Carinthia, and East Tyrol; the French North Tyrol and Vorarlberg. In Vienna, the city centre (the first district) was placed under joint four-power control.

An eyewitness report of a German officer being taken prisoner by the British in Klagenfurth collaborates the situation General Keightley and his men were up against:

“We had to go over the mountains and through the Laubel Pass, which was a big tunnel over a mile long to get to Austria. When we reached the tunnel about fifty to a hundred partisans tried to cut us off there. We attacked them because we had to get through. After the fight we sent some men inside to see if it was safe. None of the partisans survived the battle and the tunnel was full of water, which was about two feet deep. There were many bodies in the water and I stepped on some of them as I walked through. As I retreated with thousands of German soldiers I became aware of their resentment towards me because I was in the Waffen SS. I didn’t see many other SS troops around and I felt very uncomfortable. The soldiers didn’t say anything, but they looked at me in an angry way. I then rubbed dirt on my uniform so they couldn’t see my SS insignia. I wasn’t sure if I was safe around them. It took me about a week to get to Austria. After we crossed the Alps there was fighting going on, but it stopped a day or two before we became prisoners. The ones who were further east in Yugoslavia probably had to fight their way out. The partisans got rid of whomever they found in Yugoslavia; cut off German units and things like that. I think there were mass killings. The Russians were near us. They came down from the Drau River. We also saw some Russians going through Klagenfurth and driving in jeeps. One of them had a half-naked woman bound on the hood; they did horrible things to the women they captured. We saw the British there too.”

Booker reveals that von Pannwitz and his Cossacks of the XVth Corps had travelled through Yugosalvia, via Celje to the Austrian border at Dravograd and were camped at Griffen, by Volkermarkt, and that even though the war was lost, von Pannwitz with his Corps planned to attack the advancing 1st Bulgarian Army.

With only 25,000 men at his disposal to cope with all these problems, General Keightley had to manage the explosive situation in this mountainous valley with an estimated armed 30,000 ill-disciplined Yugoslavs on his doorstep.

His greatest challenge, however, was the ever-increasing three hundred thousand plus Prisoners of War who were now under his control. And here is where I believe my father fits into this story.

In a remote valley north of Spital, 35 miles west of Klagenfurth existed a smaller group of Cossacks, (1,400 men) a Reserve Training Unit part of the 2nd Division of the Vaslov army, under the command of General Shkuro, holder of the CB, (Companion of the Bath, presented by King George V) known as the Wolf of the Kuban because he wore a wolf-skin cap.
 

General Shkuro

Spital was used as an ammunition depot for the Cossacks fighting in Yugoslavia. This reserve force, however, never saw combat. The war ended for them when they were discovered by the 56th Reconnaissance Regiment. This collaborates an eyewitness report I have of the Reverend Michael D who told me the story of the ammunition depot, and who knew of my father serving under Shkuro. Father Michael was himself part of the 10,000-strong 1st Ukrainian Division which the British at that time knew nothing about.

In addition to this Reserve group, there was also the 4,000 strong Russkii Korpus, known as the Schutzkorps. These were mainly made up of White Russian exiles and veterans of the Civil War who had lived in the Balkans between the World Wars and who had recently gained in strength due to Soviet defectors from the Red Army. This Schutzkorps (Defence Corps) had been fighting with the Germans against the partisans since 1941 under the command of Colonel Anotoly Rogozhin, and were now camped at Viktring.

To complicate matters further, another 300,000 German troops of Army Group E, along with 200,000 Croat troops and 100,000 Croat civilians escaping Tito’s forces were now heading towards the Villach and Klagenfurth areas.

General Keightley Signal to Eighth Army Command, 13 May 1945

Further 600,000 reported to be moving north to Austria from Yugoslavia, should this number materialise food and guard situation will become critical. I therefore suggest that all possible steps are taken to dispose soonest of all surrendered personnel in this area whether German, Austrian, or Russians by moving them to northern Italy or their homes, whichever may be the policy. Certain SS troops (XVth  Corps) already causing trouble, but this is being dealt with.

Upon receiving this signal, General Robertson, Chief Administrative Officer consulted the US Political advisor, Alexander Kirk. The first part of their answer was as follows:

Ref Eighth Army AC1189 of 14 May, 1945.
All Russians should be handed over to Soviet forces at agreed point of contact established by you under local arrangement with Marshal Tolbukhin’s HQ. Steps should be taken to ensure that Allied Prisoners of War held in the Russian area are transferred to us in exchange at the same time.

(It was estimated that 1,500 – 2,000 Allied soldiers were in fact making their way to Odessa to be shipped home).

The message reads on to say that all German forces should be disarmed and handed over to the local Yugoslav forces. Kirk then asked his State Department for concurrence and clarification. The State Department answered:

The Department assumes that the 28,000 Cossacks in question are Soviet Nationals and, if so, no objection is seen to delivering them to the Russian forces in accordance with the terms of the Yalta agreement.

Booker writes: This was probably the most significant order that led to the Tragedy on the Drau, at Peggnetz, Lienz.

Under this enormous growing pressure, it was difficult for the British to accurately count the exact number of Cossacks in their custody. Booker describes British Officers mentioning 28,000, 46,000, and 75,000 Cossacks.

In fact seven separate groups of 48,100 anti Soviet souls had established themselves in this area:

(Upper Drau valley by Lienz)

  • 15,000 Domanov Cossacks who had travelled over the Ploeckenpass from Tolmezzo. (approx 60% Ukrainian)
  • 7,000 (approx) Caucasian Cossacks who had also travelled over the Ploeckenpass, 2,000 of whom managed to escape to Munich, Germany
  • approx 5,000 civillian camp followers and family members
  • These were joined on the 16th May by General Shkuro’s Cossack 1,400 Reserves.
  • 2,200 Refugees who had made their way to Peggetz from Leoben to be come under the protection of the Cossacks, and later the Red Cross.
A British Army ration account placed the number in the Peggetz area at 28,600. I am presuming theses numbers, as in my story Surviving Lienz, includes the refugees who found their way to the Cossack camps in the hope of finding shelter and protection. These refugees are given a ‘wee’ mention by Booker in his book.

(Camped north of Klagenfurth)

  • General von Pannwitz and his 5,000 Cavalry (Don & Siberian with German Cadre) at Griffen, by Volkermarkt
  • 4,500 members of the White Rusian Schutzenkorps, at Klein St. Veit,
  • and the 10,000 men of the Ukrainian 1st Division camped east of Klaggenfurt

note: The XVth Cossack Cavalry Corps of van Pannwitz, 25,000 strong were made up of Don, Siberian, Kuban, and Terek Cossack Hosts.

 

Croats:

When the 200,000 Croat soldiers reached Bleiburg, their deputation was adamant that all of them, both soldiers and civilians, would rather die fighting the Yugoslavs than surrender to any Bolshevists. Brigadier Scott used his diplomatic skills to lure the Croat Army into surrender, telling them basically they had no choice. Complete annihilation would ensue, either by the Yugoslavian army, or if they advanced further, by the weight of the British, American and Yugoslavian forces. But if they surrendered peacefully he assured them he would use his influence to ensure that they were treated correctly.

A document was quickly drawn up (known as the Klagenfurth Conspiracy) with leaders of the Yugoslavian army and a truce was signed. The terms of surrender were that the Croatian Army was to be treated as prisoners of war with the exceptions of political criminals, who would be tried by Allied courts, while the civilian population was to be fed and returned to Croatia.

All weapons were surrendered and on the evening of 15th May, the Yugoslavian army started to march the 300,000 towards Maribor, some 53 miles away. But before doing so they had relieved all the people, men and women, some pregnant, others carrying siblings, of their personal goods, excess clothes, and their footwear.

One British officer concluded his own account of what he saw that day: The whole affair was the most brutal and disgusting I have ever witnessed.

Another officer enquired of the Yugoslav guards if the hungry Croats would be fed during the journey. This Yugoslav seemed taken aback with the question and said they would not be fed.

Thousands of the Croats, however, did manage to escape and penetrate the British lines. This gives me reason to believe why some Croats are buried alongside Cossacks in the graveyards of northern England.

From a military point of view, a vast mass of refugees had been turned back, and any imminent battle was avoided. Unfortunately, these Croat soldiers were in fact later executed by the Yugoslavs in Slovenia, not in Bleiburg, and I wonder if the outcome of all other acts of deportation would have turned out differently if the 500,000-man army of German and Croat forces had stood their ground and fought a battle, not forgetting the Cossack force of von Pannwitz who wished to attack the 1st Bulgarian Army.

 

Commentary:

I suppose one cannot legally blame the British Army for the Tragedy of the Drau, but ignorance of Soviet ways does not automatically mean innocence, and I understand that the deceitful diplomatic machinations of the Allies averted several battles between hostile groups, saving the lives of many British soldiers. And as Booker also states: the purpose of attempting to deceive the Cossacks was to minimise the chances of having to use force against them.

However, before the outcome of the Peggetz incident on the 1st of June, there was definitely an indication on May 15th at Bleiburg, with the Croats, and later at the Vitking camps of what might happen to the Cossack deportees once they were put into Soviet hands. This indication was ignored at the time by all the General Staff.

Before the British handed the Croats back to Tito’s forces, a concerned Major John Mennell, Staff Officer of the 6th Armoured Brigade, had drawn up some questions that he thought needed to be clarified. He noted down the answers from Brigadier Verney, Commander of the 1st Guards Brigade, which I believe to be of importance when the actions of the British carrying out their deportation of the Croats are compared to those of the deportation of the Cossacks at Peggetz.

Q:  What action is to be taken by British Troops if Croats object to entraining or embussing and Tito’s forces use violence?
A: Try and persuade, if no use, do nothing.

Q: Are British troops to stand by and see women and children killed?
A: Obviously not, and very unlikely to arise.

Q: What action is to be taken by British troops if the Croats refuse to embus?
A: Persuasion, but no force.

(Some Croat officers did in fact refuse to be deported. A demonstration of a nearby flame-thrower changed their minds.)

Contrary to Brigadier Venell’s wishes, the 36th Infantry Brigade did overreact to the peaceful resistance at Peggetz, implementing the use of lethal force towards men, women, and children by opening fire into the crowd. A living witness to this is Ukrainian-born (Odessa) Michael R, living near Lienz. His father was shot to death by a British bullet while holding his hand as a young boy, and from Iwan’s testimony written in my story Surviving Lienz, people fell like dominoes, and a killed woman fell on him.

In my opinion, Booker wishes to quieten down and polish over the disgraceful behaviour of the British actions that day and try to prove that basically they had no choice but to use force when panic broke out, in order to ‘make frantic efforts to save the lives of those persons trapped underneath’ and states the number of people actually killed by the soldiers that day at NINE. He also indicates that the 28 graves in the Cossack Cemetery are the nearest thing to an accurate picture of just how many deaths took place on 1 June 1945.

The British Army ration account not only states the number in the Peggetz area at 28,600 but also accounts for ‘evacuating’496 medical sitting cases, 238 transported by ambulance, and 2,806 unaccounted for. Of these unaccounted 1,356 were later rounded up by patrols of which 934 were handed over to the Soviets at Graz.

The officer quoted after witnessing what the Yugoslavs did to the Croats: The whole affair was the most brutal and disgusting I have ever witnessed, makes me wonder what he would have said whilst witnessing the ‘The Tragedy on the Drau.’

Ian Mitchell in The Cost of a Reputation writes:
Shortly after, Major Davis himself broke down. Like many of his soldiers he was so revolted at what he was doing that he could issue no further orders to attack these defenceless people.

The Regiments and Companies involved in deportation of the Cossack camps in the Upper Drau valley were:
8th Argyll and Sutherland – Y Company (Major Davis) &
5th Batl. Royal East Kent (known as the 'Buffs', at Peggetz)
6th Royal West Kents – B Company
2nd Inniskillings – A & D Companies

The remaining Upper Drau Cossacks were then shipped by train to Judenberg to be handed over to the awaiting Soviets (again confirming Iwan’s story in Surving Lienz). The XVth Cossack Cavalry Corps and von Pannwitz were shipped by truck to Judenberg under the responsibility of the New Zealander Major General Wier, Commander, 46th Division.

Finally, I would like to end my point of view of this tragedy with a listing of Military policies:

AFHQ letter to all commands, 7 March 1945

It is not the policy of the British Government to encourage any of those persons who become a British responsibility to put forward claims that they are NOT Soviet citizens.

Secretary of State for War, Sir James Grigg:
If we hand the Russian prisoners back to their death, it will be the military authorities who do so, on my instructions, and I am entitled to have behind me, in this very unpleasant business, the considered view of the government.

British Units taking part in the repatriation were told:
The return of the Cossacks to Russia is part of an international agreement, and we are disinterested spectators. Any Cossack who escapes will be a menace to British troops stationed in the area.

Instructions were given to capture or shoot any Cossacks trying to escape.

Brigadier Musson, 36th Infantry Brigade: (to his men 27 May, 1945)
…it should be recalled that they had taken up arms for the Germans because they expected to regain power in Russia; the Cossacks will be put to work on the land and be educated to be decent Soviet citizens.

 

Anton Schleha

 


 
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