Chapter 9 - Odessa Repatriation
The Politics behind the second "Big Three" Conference at Yalta, 1945
Britain had gone to war over the German invasion of Poland in 1939.
Despite the initial hegemony of Germany over most of Europe, the entry of the United States resulting from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 turned the tide of war in favour of the Allies.
By 1944, after the successful Normandy landings, Germany had been brought to her knees.
Based on the premise of Hitler’s imminent defeat, the agenda of the Yalta Conference of February 1945 was basically about the partition of post-war Europe, but that same tide confirmed that there was little the Allies could do about the physical Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.
The exact number of Soviet citizens and POW liberated by the advancing Anglo-American armies from the West and that of their equivalents from the East probably will never be accurately known. The details of their treatment immediately the war ended were not spelled out by the "Big Three" at Yalta.
It was becoming increasingly obvious that the mutual antipathy and suspicion of the USSR and the USA was leading to a “Cold War” between them while the political importance of Great Britain and France was in terminal decline. This was underlined by the defeat of Churchill and his replacement as Prime Minister by the Socialist Clement Atlee right in middle of the Yalta negotiations - the "Big 5" was reduced to the "Big 3".
Although under the terms of the Yalta Agreement, Britain would appoint a Military Mission to Moscow to deal with the repatriation of Allied POW, with a transit Camp to be established in Odessa, the logistical problems lacked political clout while the magnitude of them on the ground were immediate and immense.
The basic problem of world hegemony as seen through the eyes of the POW, was one of culture. This was coupled with the fact that Russia had not signed the Geneva Conventions of 1929, so when the International Red Cross set up a facility in Odessa, the returning Russian POW were not included in their rehabilitation program. Moreover to the Russian command their POW were expendable - a complete antithesis to Allied traditional military philosophy.
Many Russian POW and forced labour returnees arrived back in the transit camps of Odessa dressed in German uniforms. This created local animosities, while the expectations of the freed Allied POW were dashed by their perceived lack of action from their Russian hosts.
The Russians claimed they had no ships available to send Allied POW back across the Black Sea to Southern Europe. The Allied response to this explanation for lack of action was swift - they immediately dispatched a mini-fleet of Allied troop and hospital ships to Odessa. A memo sent from 30 Military Mission, Moscow to Middle East Headquarters in February 1945 advised that:
(a) Members of the armed forces and merchant seamen of the UK, Canada, and Australia were to be picked up by the “Duchess of Bedford” and taken to the UK.
(b) Personnel of other Dominions, Colonies and India by the “Morton Bay” and “Highland Princess” to the Middle East.
(c ) Any surplus UK, Canadian or Australian personnel left after the “Duchess of Bedford” was full, were to be embarked on the “Morton Bay” for the Middle East before proceeding in convoy to the UK.
(d) Americans may be included in any spare accommodation.
By March 1945, this mini-fleet had brought back 4,363 Allied POW of whom 350 were Anzacs. This .pdf lists all 350 - 174 Australians then 176 New Zealanders.
Seven brides of Anzac POW had to remain behind.
Who were they and who were those later “stragglers” including those brides to be brought out of Odessa by air to the UK? And when did these brides finally reach Australasia?
Answers to these questions is the purpose of this research.
Trek to Odessa from Stalag 344 - Lamsdorf - 23888 H. C. "Bill" Bentley 2NZEF
In 1989, over four issues of the quarterly magazine “POW-WOW” - the official journal of the New Zealand Prisoner-of-War Association, H. C. “Bill” Bentley (German POW No. 33194 of Stalag 344 - Lamsdorf) relates his experience of the long march from that camp as the Russian juggernaut rolled relentlessly towards Berlin. He was among the last group of some 300 POW, many from the camp hospital, to be evacuated by the Germans, before it was liberated by the Russians.
"In mid-February, the advancing Russians seemed to be just over the horizon. The artillery fire was plainly audible in the camp and the flashes from the guns lit up the sky at night. The Germans had finally decided to clear the camp completely.
We were put on the usual type of train with box cars for forty men. Our first stop was Prague. As the train came down through Austria, life became quite hectic. Rocket-carrying Typhoons of the USAAF would mount three or more raids a day, the targets always being the engines as they reasoned that without engines the trains would not run. Every station we passed through was badly damaged and it was bad for the nerves to be sitting in a locked box car unable to get out as bombs dropped nearby. Finally we arrived at Kaisersteinbrucke, not far from Vienna.
Meanwhile, the Russian advance became closer and at night Russian planes began bombing the camp. One evening, towards the end of March, the Germans came to our hut and announced they were leaving and those that wished could accompany them. About half of the group, including all of the senior NCO’s elected to go with the guards. About 25 of us took our chances in staying behind. With the departure of the Germans, all hell broke loose. The starving prisoners, broke open the food stores. We had to barricade ourselves into our hut arming ourselves with clubs to deter any unwelcome visitors.
Early next morning there was a burst of cheering and we went outside to find a group of Cossacks mounted on shaggy ponies had galloped into the camp carrying a large red flag with the hammer and sickle on it. The Russians had arrived at last!
A couple of hours later we were told we could start our journey eastwards, so with a light heart we set out, free at last after three and a half years of captivity. Shortly we were passing through elements of the Russian forces and I was amazed that such a motley collection had defeated the might of the German Army.
The following morning our first priority was food. One of the party found a cow that needed milking and another found a nest of eggs so we made an omelette, something we had not tasted for years. We caught some of the loose horses around and one man found a bicycle without any tires. In high spirits, we started out eastward journey.
Along our route were mute evidences of the fierce fighting that had taken place. Burnt-out tanks and vehicles littered the fields on every side. We always managed to find an empty barn or deserted house in which to spend the night plus also caches of vegetables to keep ourselves from starving. Our faithful little mare did best of all - the barns contained plenty of hay.
About every 40 km we would strike a road block manned by the green-capped military police. We would be questioned and then allowed to proceed. We were never given any rations or any assistance whatsoever.
As we progressed further into Hungary, we found that some of the villagers had returned to their homes and we were able to barter for food. By this time we were about 40km from Budapest. That afternoon, way out in the country, we came to a railway station where there was a train waiting. We learned that it was proceeding to Budapest that evening so we decided to join the couple of hundred others who were hitching a ride. We turned loose our faithful little mare who had drawn us so many miles, gave her a thankful pat on the rump and hoped she found a new caring master. Early the following morning we arrived in Budapest.
On April 12, we were told that President Roosevelt had died suddenly.
The real British Military Mission had dis-possessed up of the comfortable quarters we had mistakenly been given on our arrival in Budapest. We were now in a barbed-wire stockade. The food was adequate, the only nark - our lost liberty.
After several days we were told that we would be taken to Odessa. We were marched to the railway station and put aboard our usual mode of transport - box cars. But they were not crowded and the doors were left open. Our armed guards travelled in a passenger carriage. For rations each man was given the dried front quarter of what might have been goat, each car had a sack of toasted bread crusts, truly hard rations indeed.
We had no means of cooking the meat. We had to gnaw what we could cut off the bone. In a couple of days all the food had gone. We had to resort to bartering clothes for food, which was mostly bread or boiled eggs. Thefts by the locals was prevalent and we always left someone to guard our gear. One chap in the box car was using his boots for a pillow and when he woke up one morning they had gone! The guards however, found him a replacement pair.
It was the tail end of winter, with snow still on the ground. We also got an insight into the Russian method of crowd control. While waiting at a station, a train came in with the usual horde of people hitching a ride on top. Ignoring commands to get off, a burst of machine gun fire changed their minds.
But we did have a couple of pleasant breaks. One evening, somewhere in Rumania, we stopped at a station with a large shed attached. In it were a group of Russian soldiers, both men and women. It was decided to hold a party. They entertained us with a delightful display of Cossack dancing and songs. The refugees put on their national dances and my British mates did their best to demonstrate their artistry at ballroom dancing.
In Bucharest, Rumania, the station had a canteen. By this time we had accumulated enough roubles through our trading ventures to have a meal and some drinks.
We finally reached Odessa and were taken to a building where we were given a lovely hot shower the first for many weeks. Our bath attendants were women soldiers, but our years of army life had banished modesty. Meanwhile our clothes had been taken away and fumigated. Afterwards, we were again fully interrogated, finger printed and given a hot meal. We were then driven to a villa about 4 km from the city.
There we met quite a number of other Allied servicemen, including a number of American airmen who had been force-landed in Russian territory, when they ran out of fuel returning from bombing raids over German lines. Their planes had been impounded. It was actually all political. The Allies were holding large numbers of Russian POW, many of whom did not want to be returned to Russia where their fate would probably be liquidation as the Russians were of the opinion that no soldier should be taken prisoner.
We had been well supplied with food and other supplies from the well-stocked Red Cross stores, but the Russians had never signed the Geneva Protocols, so were ineligible for such help.
At that time, Mrs. Churchill had been on a goodwill tour of Russia. Unlike her husband she was very popular with the Russian hierachy. She saw to it that we would be on a boat “next morning”. That evening a big bonfire was lit and we all gathered around singing songs from our various homelands. But not all were happy.
My little Greek friend from Salonika and a Canadian soldier who had married a Polish girl while on the loose, had to stay behind. On May 8, we pulled into the port of Naples. We were taken to Caserta Barracks where we were told that Germany had surrendered that morning.
Trek to Odessa from Stalag 344 - Lamsdorf - VX11604 Ken Drew, 2/7 Bn AIF
When Ken Drew was transferred from Stalag 7A/Moosberg in Austria to Stalag 344/Lamsdorf in Poland, he was a hardened "kriegie". Despite his limited education (he had left school in the Great Depression aged only eleven years) he had managed to learn a good working knowledge of German.
"Working parties had about 150 POW at Lamsdorf. There were 159 in mine.
It was mainly made up of English troops that had been captured at Dunkirk. 34 of us were Australians there were a few South African and a few New Zealanders. An English fellow was in charge. He gave us a rundown of what to expect and what not to expect.
Our group worked in a coal mine, eleven hundred metres below ground level. We used to travel out in little trains, three mile out underground, under the town. You did three different shifts a day and I’d done the afternoon shift on about four occasions. There would be two of us and we’d go down with a guard. The afternoon guard would go down to the Post Office and pick up their mail. Also they’d go round to a family brewery which was run by a woman and her son. They would go in there and there would be bottles of beer for the other guards and they’d sit down for half an hour having a beer themselves. The other fellow and I would take the opportunity of sitting out in the sun.
One day, I saw a young lass sitting on a seat in the sun. I got talking to her. She said her name was Lucy. About the third time I did this, she was with her mother and said that if at any time I wanted to escape they would help me. That’s what you need - outside help to be successful. For about twelve months the opportunity never arised, but when they decided to move everybody back to Germany, I decided it was time for me to make my attempt to escape.
Whenever there was an air raid, they never bombed the camp but used to fly over the Russians to other places. Of course the air raid sirens would go off and they’d move us out of the camp and into the yards at the mines. There used to be a tunnel that ran into the mines so the trains would go in and they’d seal both ends off with steel doors. One day they took us into that tunnel. The rest of the shift was down below. So there was about 50 of us in the tunnel. When the all-clear siren went off they’d take you out. And like they always did whenever they took you on a tram or whatever, they’d count you on and off do they had their numbers OK. So on this particular occasion, I curled up in a cavity in the mine and pretended to be asleep. Well they didn’t have their numbers and two guards came back with torches. They thought they were waking me up and said the raid was all over and I had to go back to camp.
So I went back and by the time we got there, because we knew we would be moving out the next day, to stop any escapes they put extra searchlights on and the place was lit up like the Melbourne Cricket Ground. I walked around and around the perimeter fence till three in the morning trying to figure out a way of getting out. Eventually I lay down and got some sleep and a fellow came up to me and said “are you still intending to escape?” I said “yeah” and he said “well come and have a look at this”. He took me right around to the back of the camp and there was no guard there. It led out to a big paddock. He said “the reason is that as you could only take what you can carry on the march, a lot of prisoners are throwing over excess belongings to the Poles, who were starting to climb up the wire to get things that had caught in it. This was the reason they had brought the two guards from the back to help control them.
So I grabbed my little escape gunny sack with some food in it, my civilian type clothing with a big “E” on both light suits and climbed over the wire and dropped down into the paddock. It was snowing as I took off across it. I could hear some fellows yelling in the background but couldn’t make out what they were saying. I dragged my bag behind to cover up my footprints until I reached the exit gate. So I wandered out on to the roadway and there were two buildings. One was completed and one was just up to the cellar. I wanted to change and turn the suit inside out, so that the “E” would be inside.
As I went around the corner there was a young lass there and she was bathing a practically new born baby. She panicked, got very excited. I said “Don’t worry about it” and went on next door where there was only a concrete floor. Pulled out the snow inside and crawled in there. Every moment you swear somebody will hear you because you are in an enclosed spot.
After I’d stayed there for an hour or so, I was frozen stiff. I had to get out of there. I had been told by the girl to head this way. There was this big long street where the coal miners lived, so I headed there. I got on to the road and damn me, around a bend comes a squad of German soldiers. They used to march in single file on either side of the road, There was nowhere I could go, the fields were on both sides, but I still had my pack on my back. I walked right down the centre of them. They never took the slightest notice of me.
When I arrived at the street, all of a sudden, a voice came and said “You're not Polish”. It was no use denying the fact. I couldn’t speak much at all. It was a girl. She said “you are from the camp”. I said “Yes”. She said ”Follow me but stay a few paces behind”. We went down about a hundred yards or so and she took me up into the second floor of a house and said “You can’t stay here, but I want you to stay here until I get my sister who lives on the other side of the town.” She said “Don’t go anywhere near the windows, I shall be back in a minute" and she came with a young lass who looked about seventeen who was going to keep me company. The other girl came back just on dark with a car coat that half a coat as it only comes down to your hips. I went arm-in-arm with her and we got to the main road. It was just lined with German trucks, artillery and tanks all ready to evacuate if the Russians came through.
Then we went back to her place. Her Mother wasn’t there. They had a two storey place but it consisted only of two rooms. There was a kitchen downstairs and upstairs was a dining room with two bunks along the wall. Apparently her Mother had gone to work and couldn’t get back because the curfew stopped her. The toilet was like an Aussie toilet - out the back. I had to wait until dark to use it. On the third day she went out to work and never came back.
I heard fighting go past and when that stopped decided to go to her sister’s place, the one who had offered to help me. The only way out was through the window. Finally I got there.
They thought I had gone out with the march from the camp, but had broken away from it. They doctored me. The Mother was a midwife. She’d get called out on different jobs. I stayed with the family. I got on well with Lucy. She was 20 at the time. She was a Catholic but not a strict one. One day, out of the blue, I told her I wouldn’t mind marrying her. Her parents agreed.
We went across to the Catholic Church to see if we could be married there. Lucy had her papers but I had none. The Priest told them that he could not marry them without the Bishops permission. So her Mother took me up to the coal mine where I had worked. The authorities there filled in the necessary forms that I had worked there, that I was a POW. She took me along to the Russian and Polish Red Cross and my name became Drev not Drew. We had enough to go back to the Bishop who couldn’t talk Lucy out of it.”
Eventually Lucy and Ken were married by the local Priest.
The Poles had got their freedom from the Germans, but the Russians were looting Poland. They took everything out of the country they could - engineering stuff - the lot - left them with nothing.
But one day Ken, and his mate Laurie, with Lucy and her Mother made a train trip to Cracow to see relatives there. They reported to Russian Headquarters. But the two women were refused entry. Moreover they locked the two freed POW in a room with only two empty wire beds while they checked out their identity. Ken and Laurie made the mistake of coupling the two beds together and escaping back to his in-laws apartment. Ken was subsequently arrested and taken to the Allied Transit Camp at Odessa.
It had been a long battle to obtain permission from the Roman Catholic Church in Poland to get married properly and now it was turning into a longer battle to return to Britain with his wife. He was told that his case would proceed more quickly as brides had no priority for a scarce place in any ship. Reluctantly he bowed to the logic of his own officers. He was returned to the AIF Reception Camp at Eastbourne, leaving his wife behind in Odessa.
It was to be another full year before they were re-united back in Australia.
The Wives of Odessa
Held in the Reading Room of National Archives in North Melbourne, is a file in the B3856 Series - 144/2/9 - “POW released from German Camps by advance of Russians”. This file contains newspaper clippings and army signals relating to AIF POW marriages that took place in Russian controlled territories, particularly Poland.
Under the terms of the Yalta Agreement, a transit camp was to be established in Odessa to process and succour Allied POW liberated by Russian forces, or who had already escaped from German captivity by their own means, and thereafter being sheltered and fed by local civilians. WX1555 Major Outrim AIF and B3/294 Deputy Commander E.R. Saunders of the International Red Cross were appointed to locally supervise the welfare of all Anzac POW (and, by extension) their wives.
Thousands of Russian ex- POW and “guest workers” were also streaming back to Odessa by three main routes:
1. An estimated 80,000 from Marienbad and Karlsbad from the south
2. 60,000 from Berlin and Leipzig in the centre
3. 100,000 from the Baltic coast
A quarter of a million “refugees” were clogging up the transport system. There were 2,661 British POWs of which there were 152 AIF, 8 RAAF while the RAN were represented by a single sailor.
Among file 144/2/9 papers were reports of three marriages.* In actual fact there were at least seven:
VX678 Laurence Clarke 2/3 RAA (Aka Bransden) b. 27.10.17, Latrobe, Tasmania. Bride?
VX11604 Kenneth Drew 2/7 Bn. b. 18.11.21, Melbourne. Bride Lucia Maria Kawiszka (of Polish parents).
WX1929 William Stanley Grayson 2/11 Bn.* b. 04.10.18, England. Bride Raisa Mefodwana Sergeta b. July 4, 1921 (of Polish parents).
VX7095 Victor William Hawking 2/6 Bn* b. 04.11.11, Maroopna, Vic. Bride Anna Helena Solows b. July 4, 1921 (of Ukrainian parents).
WX8915 Angus Mitchell MacCallum 24 A/Tk* b. 01.03.15, Scotland. Bride (?) b. July 2 1924 (of Polish parents).
QX1579 James McMillan 1 A/Tk b. 16.05.06, Scotland. Bride Evelyn Joy Asomira.
VX25266 Kenneth Douglas Tonkin 2/23 Bn b. 24.05.19, Fitzroy, Vic. Bride Nina ------ (KIA).
To the Russians, all the brides were Russian citizens and as such had to relinquish their Russian nationality before they could join their husbands. They did not automatically become British citizens authenticated by a Church marriage ceremony.
This required paperwork from the birth places of the brides which was a long drawn out process. Ultimately the brides were eventually flown out to Britain under sponsorship of the Roman Catholic Church.
A10. Australian National Archives Series B3856:
144/2/9 POW Released from German camps by Russians
144/11/2 Repatriation of POW in Europe
144/1/205 Recovered POW in Odessa
A9. U.K. Archives WO208/1860 - 30 Military Mission, Moscow - Repatriation of British POW from Odessa.
WO208/1859 - Information given by Allied POW ex Odessa
WO224/227 - Repatriations from Odessa of POW from German Prison Camps