The aim of this story is to provide an answer to the question I was  asked during our Canadian lecture tour: “Why did the Cossacks, and  the XVth Cavalry Corps, not want to surrender to the Italian partisans, but preferred to risk the journey over the Italian Alps via the Ploecken Pass into Austria, to surrender themselves to the British Army located in East Tyrol, Drau Valley?”


Title: copyright, Anton Shleha.



    The Cossacks’ Last Ride
From Carnia to Lienz

back


Tens of thousands arrived in trains. For three weeks hundreds of railroad cars stopped, letting off horses, covered wagons, women, children, and soldiers with their Generals: Krasnov, Shkuro, Naumenko, and Domanov.

Far away in Berlin, sat their Marshall, General Andreij Vlasov.

They came from the Steppes and the mountains beyond, wearing their Kubankas, round black hats, and carrying their sabres and scimitars. 
They were the Cossack hosts of the Terek, Kalmuck, Khirghize, Turkestan, Circassian, Azov, Donets, Ural, Don, Kuban, Ussuri and Amur areas.

With the immediate enemy threat of ‘partisany,’ who wanted to free their land of all invaders, the Cossacks knew only too well that there was always a chance of ambush. None of the native young men were anywhere to be seen. Whenever they asked the villagers where the young men were, the answer was always the same: “Soldier. Gone to the Front.”
While travelling to the towns and villages of Gorto, Incaroio, and the valleys of San Canciano and Friuli, the Cossacks were at their most vulnerable.

Upon reaching their destinations they immediately set up guards, while others put up tents and felt yurts, creating their Stanitsa, or Cossack settlement.

Their history had taught them to be constantly alert. Sad emotional Kobzar songs matching the yearnings of the Cossack soul were passed down from generation to generation.

These songs were sung at night, around campfires. They told tales of the Abrek marauders, who came down from the Caucasus Mountains through the valleys to prey on the Cossack Stanista.

For them, 1944 was just as dangerous. Time had not been generous to these nomadic warriors. Armistice had created an almost impossible situation for the Cossack to survive. Former enemies had become friends, and former friends, enemies.

The Cossack fight was against Stalin and his Communist Red Army. All  the Cossacks desired that. But in Berlin the German General Staff kept denying General Vlasov’s wish for his Cossack Army to be sent to fight on the Soviet front.

The Nazi leaders treated Vlasov with contempt. For them the Cossacks were an inferior nation, barely civilized, and useless in warfare. Many of them had deserted the Cossack force when they had fought in  the Crimea.

What the Wehrmacht, the German Army commanders, didn’t realize, was that the German officers could not be understood by the common soldier. This caused a great communication problem in their unit’s chain of command. In addition to this predicament, the Wehrmacht  refused to supply the Cossacks with new weaponry. They had to fight  with overhauled, obsolete weapons.

These commanders thought the best the Cossacks could do was to serve as guard dogs, to watch out for partisans.
But these so-called deserters had returned home to defend their lands and property not only from the Red Army, but also from the German SS Cleansing Units.

Even though the Germans were retreating on all fronts, their leaders refused to unleash the Cossack forces on the advancing Soviet enemy. 
This was incomprehensible for the Cossack soldier camped in Carnia, Northern Italy.

The Germans treated the Cossacks as inferiors, which caused the Cossacks to hate their “masters” even more. This hate was intensified also because the Germans had given the Cossacks this land which was not theirs to give, and had failed to provide them with sufficient provisions, forcing them to plunder for survival.

The Cossack leaders knew that in wartime the temptation to abandon restraint and harass and terrorize the people by raping the women and killing the men was brutally strong. However, they also knew this would only fuel the partisan cause. They ordered their officers and NCOs to be vigilant and make sure that their men did not relapse into this primitive behaviour while they requisitioned supplies. Any Cossack caught disobeying this order was to be publicly flogged.

The Cossacks took possession of rooms, tools, provisions, grain, corn, and straw for their horses and camels. It was never a request, but always a demand. They went about their business without asking anyone for anything. They needed lodging and they knew it was best to take what they wanted quickly, to avoid any friction with the inhabitants who knew only too well that restraint was pointless, and any hope of reimbursement was pathetic.

With the Stanista completed, a quiet village atmosphere reigned. 

Women could sit at the fountain in the market square and chat, while the Cossacks brought their horses and camels to drink. Blouses and icons appeared in shops where the villagers hoped to entice their conquerors out of some money. For the military leaders, boredom was becoming a problem.

Their Generals, Atamans and Hetman had to somehow keep hope alive for their people. Without hope, and with no homeland or future, the Cossack people would not survive.

Allied planes from Italian bases often flew over their Stanistas on their way to their bombing raids in Germany. But one evening, explosions, close to Krasnov’s headquarters lit up the sky. The Cossack garrisons had now become their targets, and the tranquillity the Cossacks had felt was all at once extinguished.

Partisans took advantage of the situation and began making their presence known.

They attacked without warning, blowing up bridges, barracks and power lines. They killed Cossacks of both sexes and all ages.

Sometimes a Cossack would disappear, and his body would be found days later with his head stuck in mud or the snow. The body would have been gnawed by rats and wild animals. Every day, from all different areas of Carnia, fresh reports of ambushes and killings were being received.

The Cossack was once again doomed to die on foreign soil. Where they travelled, they left behind a trail of their dead.

Their journey as German soldiers began in 1941 in Mittenwald, southern Germany, where they received their military training. From there they were sent onward to the Crimea, Poland, France, Yugoslavia, and finally, Italy.

The Cossack leaders realized with each passing day that there was no possibility of returning to their homes, ever. They were beginning to think they should never have left their lands. Whatever destiny had in store for them, they should have faced it there. At least they 
would be buried in their home soil. Yet there had to be something to live for. An entire people could not give in to despair. They must keep their faith in a better future.

An all-out battle with the partisans would raise their moral. However, the partisans were hiding in the high mountains ranges, rich with forests. This was terrain where they had lived for many generations, making it ideal for their guerrilla warfare. For a foreigner to find them was a most difficult task indeed.

It was said that the partisans were Communists, and they had been reinforced by other Soviet soldiers who had escaped from Austrian Prisoner of War camps. Filled with wrath, the Cossacks sharpened their swords. Their honour was at stake. They would show no mercy for any Communist partisan.

During the winter, food supplies became even more rare. Everyone felt hunger. Even the full-bodied Cossack horses were dwindling in stamina, and getting thinner due to the lack of hay and feed. Their ribs were clearly visible despite their winter coat. Whining with 
desperation, the poor animals were turned loose, free to wander the valleys to scrape the snow in search of grass or tree bark. Some were stolen secretly by the local townsfolk or hungry partisans to be slaughtered for food. When a horse went missing, a Cossack pined. The sorrow of this loss stoked their anger and hatred for the partisans.

These animals were more than just horses to them. They were their companions in battle. A Cossack would die of hunger before he would eat his treasured hoofed friend.

Many young men were dying on both sides, but with the continual Allied air raids many more Cossacks were dying. In March 1945, with the Red Army in neighbouring Austria advancing extremely close to their garrisons, and even though the Cossack leaders knew the war 
could no longer be won, their Cossack spirit regained hope. Surely now they would be released to engage the advancing Bolshevists. 
However, even this last wish was denied them.

The retreating German army was fleeing through the north of Italy, plundering what was left of any resources they could find. They burned some of the villages on their way into Austria, causing the roads to overfill with refugees, blocking the path for the advancing British forces.
Reports of Cossacks surrendering to the partisans were rumoured. But that could not be.

The Cossacks knew if they were taken prisoner nothing but a firing squad would await them. Regarded by the Soviets as traitors, if it wasn’t a partisan bullet that would kill them, then it would be a Soviet one. For them it was a more honourable death to be killed in battle, a fight to the end. But then what would become of their women?

Impregnated in their soul was the understanding of the Soviet mentality - that is, the victors had the right to possess the enemy’s women, to use and abuse them as they wished.

They couldn’t let that happen. Capitulation to the Communist partisans was out of the question. The Cossacks felt trapped.
Then came news of treachery. The Georgian North Caucasus Legion led by Colonel Tsulukidze had deserted the Cossacks. He had changed sides, joining the partisans, and the remaining German garrisons had surrendered.

Deflated by this news, the only alternative left for the Cossack force was to surrender to the British who were still bombarding their garrisons from the air. Their Cossack officers were educated in military history of the Napoleonic and Crimean wars. Their Generals told them that the British, like themselves, were an honourable people, and would treat them with respect. A British Prisoner of War  camp, and resettlement in a British Commonwealth country, or even America sounded to them like the perfect solution to their dilemma.

Funds from their Field Bank would help provide a new start for them.

Preparing for the retreat, the various Cossack garrisons made up their parades of livestock, wagons, horses and vehicles. They knew on their march toward their destination they again would be most vulnerable to attack. Travelling up the precarious narrow winding roads of the Ploecken Pass made them easy prey for the partisans Adding to this problem was the weather. The summits of the high mountains were still white, covered with snow, and warm spring weather could come quickly, or turn unexpectedly into a hazardous snowstorm. Loss was inevitable of horses pulling wagons with the elderly, the sick, pregnant women and children riding in them.

A giant wagon train consisting of an estimated thirty thousand souls wound their way through the valleys of Carnia. Tired, hungry, anxious, always on the lookout for ambushes, they made their way to Timau, the last Italian village at the foot of the Ploecken Pass. 

There they stayed for three weeks, to recuperate and regain their strength while waiting for the thaw so they could start their journey over the mountains and down into the Drau Valley to surrender to the British Army.

May came, and the last snows covering the pass melted, making the trek muddy and slippery. News had come them that the Soviets were as close as Klagenfurth. They felt they could wait no longer. Taking with them only the essentials, and leaving behind horses which were too young to survive the horrendous journey, the Cossacks set out on what was going to be their ‘Last Ride.’

It was as though some of these Cossacks were gifted with a premonition of what was to await them. These people left even their most precious belongings and jewellery behind, giving them to the townsfolk who had helped them over these weeks of needed rest.

As expected, the journey was not without loss. Fighter planes flew over the column, startling the horses. A terrible snowstorm raged. 
Some wagons slipped on the ice and fell into the depths of the gorge.

Women died giving birth. The weak and elderly, who fell asleep eternally, were left by the roadside to be buried later. Finally on May 4, 1945, they reached the Drau Valley.

It was a month before the last of the remaining Cossack rearguard and stragglers made their way down into the wide, long stretching valley of the Drau River.

The Cossack camp locations were spread far apart from each other in this immense, picturesque valley:

Lienz – General Domanov’s Kuban Cossacks
Oberdrauburg – Caucasian Cossacks
Spittal – General Shkuro's Cossack Reserves, Ammunition Depot, and Prison for the Cossack Officers
Feldkirchen – Colonel Wagner and his Don Cossacks
Klein St. Paul – General Kononov
Althofen, Volkermarkt – General von Pannwitz, and his XVth Cossack Cavalry Corps
Viktring - Colonel Anotoly Rogozhin's White Russian exiles (Russkii Korpus), known as the Schutzkorps

The Red Cross International Committee had warned the Allies what would become of the anti-Soviet forces and asylum seekers if they were caught by the Soviets. On Monday, May 7, the first British soldiers reached the foot of the Ploecken Pass.

Cossack General Wassiljew contacted the British soldiers in hope of  starting peace talks. He asked that the civilians be put under the King’s protection. He made no special request concerning the military.

Days passed. Then, Brigadier Patrick Scott, 38th Irish Brigade, reassured the Cossacks that they would not be handed over to the Soviets. However, they did not realise the British were only trying to buy time while waiting for specific orders on how to deal with the Cossack army. Unknown to the Cossacks, their fate had already been predestined by the Yalta pact under the code name ‘Operation Keelhaul.’

The British, charmingly helpful, in the meantime quartered the Generals and Atamans in the Golden Fish Hotel in Lienz. They said, “To honour these distinguished ranks.” But what they actually did was cut off the leaders from their unaware Army. The Cossacks without their Atamans were hopelessly lost. There was no one there to make the most minimal decision for them.

On May 10, the XVth Cossack Cavalry Corps, commanded by General Pannwitz encountered some British and Yugoslavian officers who requested their immediate unconditional surrender. This request was immediately denied since they had already received orders to surrender in Griifen, Volkermarkt. There they paraded the streets to the sound of Prince Eugene’s March, then surrendered.

Except for the officers, who were allowed to keep their pistols, all firearms were given up, and even the horses were rounded up for requisition.

At the Tehran Conference, Stalin obtained an agreement that the Balkans was to be considered part of the Soviet sphere of influence. 
Thus the Allies were in favour of Tito, and there was no need for a Croatian state.

What remained of the bulk of the Croatian Army, approximately 200,000 strong (plus 100,000 civilians), camped at Bleiburg, were marched away under escort of the Yugoslavian partisans only to be slaughtered in Slovenia’s forests.

On May 26, official talks began between the British and the Cossacks. The very same day, the British confiscated the Cossack Field Bank, estimated value at the time six million British Pounds. This was an illegitimate act, since the bank was composed mostly of private funds.

On May 28, General Alexander invited about two hundred disarmed Cossack officers to a conference in Spittal. Krassnoff himself encouraged all his officers to participate.

Dressed in their traditional uniforms, the officers in a convoy of trucks with the generals following in their cars, made their way to Spittal. Twenty minutes later in Nikolsdof, an armoured escort met the convoy. Some officers, at the sight of the armoured vehicles, 
jumped off the back of the trucks and fled. When the column eventually arrived in Spittal there was no General Alexander to be met, but a military camp. There the officers’ personal documents were confiscated.

General Krassnoff was humiliated and felt utterly responsible for having encouraged this pretence. Moreover, he saw in this immoral act the fulfilment of a plan that aimed to deprive the Cossacks of their leadership. Above all, he was personally disappointed. He was shocked 
by the behaviour of General Alexander and by the betrayal of the British officers who had given their word of honour that the Cossacks would not be handed over to the Soviets. Krassnoff told his men: “Death is  for us, and we must face it with pride.”

The following day, the convoy with the officers on board, along with their armoured escort, were driven to Judenburg, where they were handed over to the Soviets on the bridge over the River Mur. Along the way some managed to escape by jumping off the travelling trucks. 

Unfortunately some died in the effort.

In three days, a total of one thousand, six hundred and eighty-three officers were evacuated and handed over to the Soviets.

A few days later in a nearby mine, hundreds of them were executed.

The rest of the Cossacks, still camped in the Drau Valley, were joined by other refugees fleeing from the nearby Soviets. These refugees were of various nationalities, including Ukrainian slave labourers from the iron ore quarry and steel works in Leoben.

The civilians and troops were without leadership. Kuzma Polunin, a troop Sergeant, was elected ‘Feldataman,’ an Ataman in charge only for a particular problem and for a limited time. His first act was to ask the British, in the name of freedom, and in the name of God, to save the Cossacks. A written plea for mercy was even drawn up and addressed to the King of England. This plea never reached its destiny and went unanswered.

On May 30, 1945, the first contingent of Cossacks camped in nearby Lavant were evacuated and handed over to the Soviets in Judenburg. 
Alarmed by this outrageous act, the Cossacks who were camped in Peggetz, alongside the river Drau, decided the next day, June 1st, to hold a Liturgy and create a shield of peaceful human defiance.

The British arrived early in the morning at 7:30. Colonel Malcolm, commander of the Lienz garrison, informed Ataman Polunin of his orders, which were to immediately evacuate all Soviet citizens to Judenburg, where they would be handed over to the Soviet military. A  congregation of five thousand, three hundred and seventeen individuals had assembled. Men and cadets stood on the outer perimeter, circling themselves around the praying women, children, elderly and teenagers to form a passive, defensive human barrier.

To counter this resistance Major Davis ordered the praying to cease.

His order was ignored, and the praying continued. Then he ordered his troops to evacuate the camp by force. The soldiers of the Argylls and Sutherland attacked the gatherers with a brutal determination to achieve their task.

The Cossacks, men, women and children of all ages were beaten with riot batons and rifle butts. They were shot at and run over with vehicles. The wounded were slung like a sack of potatoes into the  back of the waiting trucks.

In the resulting mass panic, women and children were trampled to death. Some Cossacks chose to commit suicide before they would accept deportation to the Soviet Union; women jumped into the torrential river Drau still holding their children. Some even succeeded in escaping.

When this mass evacuation procedure was complete, four thousand, four hundred and twenty-five victims had been transported to Judenburg. A sorrowful cloud hung over the Peggetz undertaking. Operation Keelhaul had claimed its first victims.

Days later, further downstream, the river began to relinquish the bloated bodies of the drowned martyrs. Soldiers used long poles to fish out the corpses and pile them up on the banks. More discoveries of suicides, either by hanging or bullet, were found in nearby woods and buildings, adding to the number of fatalities.

Between the 31st of May, and the 15th of June 1945, twenty thousand, one hundred and thirty-seven victims were handed over to the Soviet authorities in Judenburg. This includes the seven hundred and thirty- four who were transported in ambulances.

Two thousand eight hundred and six were classified ‘unaccounted for.’

The majority of the abandoned Cossack officers, after being found guilty of treason to a country they felt no longer was their country were executed. The rest of the survivors were sent off to a Gulag, a Soviet slave labour camp.

On August 12, 1946, together with all his family, General Andreij Vasslov was executed.

On January 16, 1947 Krassnoff, Shkuro, Klitsch, Domanov and von Pannwitz were hanged.

The Soviet newspaper Pravda headlined the news, one day after their execution. Their bodies were exposed to the Moscow citizens along with forty Cossack officers. The location of their tombs is still unknown.

In 1951 a monument was erected at Peggnetz, by the River Drau, in Lienz, Tyrol, Austria at the nearby Cossack cemetery where the victims of ‘the Tragedy of the Drau’ are buried.

Some Cossacks who didn’t make it to the Drau Valley, and were imprisoned in Italy, were shipped to Russia by train. These trains wore the Red Cross marking to mask the true nature of the convoys. 

Trucks and ships were also used for deportation purposes, and a large number of suicides were always associated with these ‘evacuations.’

One of the few units to escape this tragic end was the 1st Ukrainian Division. Its General, Pawlo Schandruk, managed to have the Allies think they were Polish from Galicia. With the help of Archbishop Ivan Bucko of the Ukrainian Catholic Union, present at that time in the Vatican, they were sent to Rimini, Italy. From there the were dispersed to the commonwealth countries, USA and various countries around the world as labourers.

For more information see: http://www.infoukes.com/history/ww2

 

A Cossack Homage

 

back