Operation Keelhaul: Secret Protocol at Yalta

Robert McConnell
August 17, 2022

The Secret Protocol at Yalta Must Be Known and Acknowledged If the Callousness of the past Is Not to Be Repeated

Bob McConnell

Last Sunday, August 14, was the 76th anniversary of the beginning of Operation Keelhaul, the execution of a secret protocol agreed to at Yalta.

I believe perhaps one can best get an appreciation of the horror of the operation by watching the British documentary, Orders from Above, a link to which can be found at the very end of this email and below. I recommend it whether or not you read the rest of this email.

I do note that throughout the documentary Soviets are consistently inappropriately referred to as Russians. Of course, the "Soviet Union" and "Russia" were erroneously seen as synonyms throughout the life of the Soviet Union and in too many cases after.

Individually and collectively man is supposed to learn from history yet one must address man's inhumanity to man over-and-over again. And, in the case of Operation Keelhaul it is important know it was not a case of the Nazis brutality but the British and Americans doing the unthinkable.

Background and More

In 1941, after Hitler ignored his agreement with Stalin – the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – that started World War II, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. In doing so, the Nazis took several million prisoners in the early months of their offensive.  

In addition to the prisoners of war, civilian men, women, and children were also taken prisoner, many of whom ended up as part of the forced labor used to support the Nazi war machine.

Also, in Western Europe, there were people who had fled the repression of the Soviet Union, and, indeed, many of these joined German forces to fight against the Red Army.  

The handling of Soviet POWs and other “Soviets” in the late stages of the war and after is difficult in its complexities but knowing the essentials is important.

During the summer of 1944, despite strong contrary views within the British government, British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden was able to convince Winston Churchill that all Soviet POWs needed to be repatriated to the Soviet Union.

When Churchill and Eden traveled to Moscow in October 1944 to meet with Stalin, the Foreign Secretary offered the unconditional return of all Soviet POWs. To Vyacheslav Molotov’s suggestion that Soviet citizens, not just POWs, should be returned regardless of their personal wishes, Eden replied that he had no objection.

In December 1944, the British began delivering Soviet POWs to a Soviet port in the far north White Sea. There the British officials delivering the POWs witnessed the rough treatment administered to the returning POWs and heard the automatic gunfire once the POWs were out of their sight. Soviet intentions were no mystery.

At Yalta in February of 1945, the treatment of Soviet POWs and others was brought up. The Americans balked. To the United States all prisoners captured in German uniforms were considered protected by the provisions of the Geneva Conventions. U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull telegraphed a message to Ambassador Averell Harriman in Moscow the previous September to state unequivocally what had been American policy since December of 1943: No Soviet POW could be returned by force.

Note, this was now all Soviet citizens and what I would define as former Soviet citizens, not only POWs.

The reality was that in the late stages of the war, many fled Soviet territory ahead of the advancing Soviet Army and everything it stood for in their minds from the pre-war years.

An example of the latter group was Omelan and Irene Komarnyckyj, who walked out of western Ukraine and into Austria so as not again to live under Kremlin rule. They intended to return home when the war ended, and the Soviets withdrew from western Ukraine – which they understood would happen via the Allies' underground communications.

The repatriation effort was named Operation Keelhaul

Estimates of human beings repatriated to the Soviet Union range from three-quarters of a million to three million, with the higher estimate seemingly far more accurate to me from all I have read.

By this time central and western Europe – or much of it – had been divided into occupation zones, controlled by members of the Allies: the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and, on a much smaller scale, the French.

In the British and American zones, Soviet authorities were often allowed to roam freely to identify “Soviets” and there were occasions of kidnapping and murder, even though the repatriations – most forced – were ongoing.

The American and British governments increasingly were in very difficult positions. Individual soldiers asked to be replaced from their duties or refused to carry out orders, and there was a growing fear that if details of the Soviet repatriation operation became known, it was expected the public would be outraged. Thus, not only was the Yalta protocol secret but the entire operation was classified and stayed so for years.

With good reason.

The only news releases regarding repatriation coming out of Yalta made no mention of force and implied the Soviets were anxious to return.

The stories that did eventually come out about people committing suicide to keep from being “repatriated”, young mothers holding their infants jumping off moving trains to their deaths to avoid being returned to Stalin, people having just been turned over to Soviet authorities being executed within minutes were often brought under the British Official Secrets protection.

Whether Hitler’s exterminations, Stalin’s mass murders, or Putin’s 21st-century genocide, one cannot deny the existence of true evil. That the British and American governments facilitated the "repatriation" of millions to death or the Gulag is history of which we need to be aware.

We must not allow the inexcusable callousness of the 1940s to find its way into how we respond in helping Ukraine fight Putin's genocidal war today. Greater and more timely assistance must be delivered.

As for the Komarnyckyj family mentioned above: they stayed just ahead of the Red Army in Austria and their daughter Nadia was born on a mountaintop barn above Spitz.  

They lived in two other places in Austria for 5 years before getting permission to immigrate to the United States.

Decades later when I asked my mother-in-law how they had avoided Operation Keelhaul, her immediate answer was, “We were in the French sector.”

The French had not been a part of the Yalta Conference.

Again, I strongly recommend you watch the documentary.

Bob McConnell

Coordinator, External Relations

U.S.-Ukraine Foundation’s Friends of Ukraine Network

Robert A. McConnell is a co-founder of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation and Coordinator of External Relations for the Foundation’s Friends of Ukraine Network. He is Principal of R.A. McConnell and Associates. Previously, he has served as head of the Government Advocacy Practice at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, Vice President – Washington for CBS, Inc, and Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Justice during the Reagan Administration. robert@usukraine.org