"The Country Where Human Sufferings and Human Life Count for So Little”
Under the Yalta Agreement, signed by the Allied powers in February 1945, Allied prisoners of war (POWs) freed from German captivity by one party’s forces were to be separated from enemy POWs and be gathered and provided for in points of concentration until they could be handed over, as quickly as possible, to their home country’s authorities, “at places agreed upon between those authorities.” Without consulting the Allies, the Soviets began sending all liberated Americans and other Allied ex-prisoners to Odessa, a port on the Ukraine’s Black Sea coast still recovering from years of Axis occupation. Although some American officials argued that the Soviets' unilateral designation of Odessa was a violation of the Yalta Agreement, their protestations were for naught, and Odessa became the de facto point of transfer for tens of thousands of freed POWs swapped among the Allied powers in the spring and summer of 1945. Downed American airmen—even those recovered by the Soviets and thus never technically POWs—were treated as if they were repatriated prisoners and transported to Odessa for shipment home, and Soviet prisoners similarly liberated by the Western Allies were sent to Odessa on British ships. Once at the port, the ships would discharge their cargo of Soviet ex-POWs and, after a quick turnaround, would be loaded with British, French, American, and other repatriates for the journey to parts west. The operation began in early March 1945 with the arrival in Odessa of the HMS Moreton Bay.
Even though the troopships that carried the freed POWs were British, Britain did not have a Naval Control Service Officer posted to Odessa. The job of supervising the arrival and departure of the British ships and working with the Soviet harbormaster and Inflot—the Soviet agency for servicing foreign ships—fell to Lieutenant Commander John Harrison Harshaw, who had been dispatched to Odessa from the US Military Mission in Moscow in January 1945 to set up the Assistant Naval Attaché office.
Jack Harshaw’s long road to Odessa began in the aftermath of the First World War. Harshaw, “a professional sailor who would have looked perfectly at home and appropriate aboard a cow pony,” was an eight-year naval veteran by the time he found himself on the USS Pittsburgh off the coast of Vladivostok during the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War. During his posting to the Pittsburgh, the tall, lean sailor met, fell in love with, and married a Russian. Twenty-two years later, as war clouds gathered once again, Harshaw retired as a chief yeoman. It was June 1941.
By the following year, Lend-Lease shipments to the Soviet Union were in high gear, and the Navy was desperate for Russian-speaking personnel to handle the shipments at receiving ports in Russia. Harshaw was recalled to service as a chief boatswain and in September 1942 found himself headed for the Soviet Union on Convoy PQ-18. The Battle of the Atlantic was in full swing, and PQ-18 took a severe beating from German U-boats and bombers. During one particularly severe attack from German bombers based in Norway, Harshaw, who had experience as a naval gunner, manned a 20-millimeter gun on his ship, the USS Virginia Dare. As one Heinkel dropped a torpedo on the convoy and turned away, exposing its belly, Harshaw opened up, and the German aircraft caught fire and plunged into the sea. Virginia Dare was one of 27 surviving merchant ships out of the convoy’s original forty vessels.
Harshaw’s journey didn’t end with Virginia Dare’s docking in Archangel. When word reached the office of the US Naval Attaché in Moscow that her cargo included two motor cars for the naval attachés as well as tons of food, Harshaw got the nod. He was to bring the goods personally to Moscow, where memories of the previous winter’s privations were still fresh, serving as a one-man “escort, air cover, heavy backup, and screen.” The intrepid sailor searched for several days for a flat car for the vehicles, a box car for the crated goods, and a functioning locomotive to pull it all. With the help of a Russian port official named Nina, Harshaw eventually acquired adequate transportation and was soon on his way.
For the next ten days, Harshaw transited 650 miles of bleak Russian countryside in his makeshift living quarters, a station wagon meant for one of the naval attachés. He had a mattress, blankets, and a jury-rigged stove made from a slotted gallon can, fueled by dried sticks he scrounged along the way. Harshaw had tins of meat, fruit, and vegetables, but they quickly froze solid in the subzero temperatures of northern Russia. For days, Harshaw “alternately froze, then smoked himself to half suffocation over the makeshift stove,” melting snow over the fire to make tea. Time seemed to crawl even more slowly than the train.
Many hours of solitude later, Harshaw caught sight of the outskirts of Moscow. “Soon they would be in the marshaling yards, and the accomplishment of a mission unique in naval annals would have been achieved,” one of Harshaw’s future colleagues in the Naval Attaché’s office later wrote. On arrival at the US Embassy, Harshaw received word that he had received a commission. At age 49, he became an ensign in the US Navy, a rank typically held by men less than half his age.
Harshaw excelled in the naval attaché’s office, including a stint at the branch office in Archangel, and he got promoted quickly. He understood the Russians, and he was able to get things done where others could not. When it came time to send someone to open an attaché’s office in Odessa, Harshaw was just the right man for the job.
“Coming into Odessa,” Harshaw wrote in a report to his superiors in Moscow, “the whole northern part of the city appeared to be completely destroyed, as well as most of the railway marshaling yard buildings.” He continued: "Practically all piers and warehouses in the port were badly damaged by bombs and mines. A number of small vessels were sunk alongside (the) docks. The electric power plant was destroyed as well as the water supply. The main telegraph station was completely destroyed."
When Harshaw and his staff of one lieutenant, six enlisted men, and two Russian civilians set up their dual offices and residences on the third floor of the “London” Intourist Hotel, the manager told the party apologetically that the Romanian proprietor of the establishment during the Axis occupation had taken everything, down to the plumbing and light fixtures, when she had evacuated the city. Though the hotel manager did his best to restore services, Harshaw and his men had “only occasional lights, no hot water, only occasional heat, and about half the time no water in the one wash basin in the hall that was used by everyone on our floor.”
From the hotel windows Harshaw and company watched with binoculars as Allied ships entered the harbor below. Though the team’s primary job was to expedite the receipt and transfer of Lend-Lease supplies to the Soviets, Harshaw also worked tirelessly to assist in the POW repatriation efforts. When an Allied vessel arrived and discharged its cargo, Harshaw was there to greet the master of the ship and brief him on what to expect in Odessa. According to one American ship master who was a recipient of Harshaw’s assistance in 1946, “He has all the duties of the WSA (War Shipping Administration), Naval Attaché, Consul, father-confessor, (and) lawyer . . . He has the patience of Job.”
Harshaw had his work cut out for him. “The piers are badly congested with cargo, all sorts of trash, and rubble,” an American ship captain noted. “The docks themselves are in a sad state, littered and cluttered with all sorts of cargo ranging from locomotives to scrap iron and other machinery looted from other countries.” Out of a total of 36 berths available before the war, only fourteen were functional, and only one troop ship at a time could be berthed alongside the quay.
And then there was the problem of Russian red tape and inefficiency. “Any normal service such as garbage removal, water, cargo complaints, etc. must be requested by letter for each service each time, then it might get done,” the captain noted. “In order to get anything accomplished, cigarettes must be passed to the right persons, otherwise you are ignored.” This was Harshaw’s world, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, during his stay in Odessa.
The living conditions greeting the American repatriates in Odessa left much to be desired. In early March 1945, Major Paul S. Hall, the American repatriation officer in Odessa, wrote an interim report on the facilities and conditions for GIs transiting the port. The resulting document, forwarded from the US Military Mission in Moscow to General Dwight Eisenhower’s headquarters in Paris on March 7, stated that there were four camps for housing Americans in Odessa, two primarily for officers and two mostly for enlisted men, and conditions in those camps varied greatly. Hall granted that the whole system had been set up hastily by the Soviets with a great deal of improvisation and that the Soviets were doing everything in their power to improve the welfare of liberated POWs. Yet, he concluded that “their criterion of living standards is far below ours and in some cases is quite unsatisfactory.”
One of the two officers’ camps, the report noted, housed 190 officers and 22 enlisted men and lacked running water, recreational facilities, and adequate means of heating. Latrines consisted of open-air slit trenches placed some distance from the camp. On the positive side, the facility had sufficient beds, blankets, and lighting.
Conditions were less satisfactory for the 43 officers and 566 enlisted men who resided at one of the two enlisted men’s camp described in Hall’s report. The men were quartered in an old stone structure that had been uninhabited for quite some time, and its floors and walls were wet. The camp was overcrowded, and many men lacked mattresses or blankets. There was no electricity, and the only lighting for the more than six hundred men came from six oil lamps. “Water,” the report went on, “is obtained from a hole in a field six hundred yards from (the) billets and is said to be fed from a broken water main.” Men going out to retrieve water or use the slit trench latrine had to navigate the two-inch deep mud that surrounded the camp.
Whatever the hardships greeting American repatriates in Odessa, the reception that many Soviet ex-POWs faced was far, far worse.
“Sir, sir, they are murdering the prisoners!” cried Leonid Lieven, a British lieutenant assigned to the HMS Duchess of Bedford, newly moored to the Odessa dock in early March 1945. The Duchess was one of the first British ships to transport Soviet repatriates to the city from Great Britain under the terms of the Yalta Agreement.
“No, no, that’s impossible!” replied Colonel Dashwood, then the British repatriation officer in Odessa. Lieven pleaded his case with Dashwood, but it was clear his efforts were futile, and Lieven doubted the colonel could do anything about the situation anyway. The lieutenant retired below decks, sick with fear that he had helped deliver sheep to the slaughter.
Less than an hour earlier, Lieven had watched with worry as Soviet police squads had come quickly up the gangplank to board the Duchess. Nikolai Tolstoy relates the incident in Victims of Yalta:
Handed lists of names and reports by the Russian officers on board, they acted with speed and efficiency. From the special lists, names were called out; prisoners stepped forward, deathly white. A speedy interrogation followed, and the selected groups were marched off the ship, across the quay and out of sight. NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) men with tommy guns flanked the stumbling and bewildered little columns. Then they were gone, and the more laborious business of disembarking the mass of prisoners began.
Then a deep roar filled the air as two Soviet bombers suddenly descended on the port and began circling the harbor. Soon, the shrieking of a mobile sawmill drawn up to the quayside added to the din. British sailors plugged their ears against the noise—all but Lieven, who was certain that the ruckus was an intentional attempt to mask the sound of something sinister.
After twenty minutes, during which Lieven tried unsuccessfully to share his fears with Dashwood, calm finally settled over the quay. According to Tolstoy:
The bombers disappeared behind the rooftops, and the saw, having apparently ripped through enough logs for a morning’s work, was likewise still. The debarkation proceeded without further incident, and only Lieven was left reflecting on what other sounds . . . might have gone unheard in the din.
Though he couldn’t prove it, Lieven’s instincts were correct. The Soviets were using the noise to mask the sound of the repatriates being shot. When the Soviets faced no backlash whatsoever from the British authorities, they soon dropped all attempts to conceal the retribution being meted out for the alleged sins of their returned citizens.
Edmund D’Arcy was an American POW who had escaped from German captivity in February 1945. He ended up in Odessa the following month after a long, frustrating journey through Soviet territory during which he was alternately interrogated, forced to work, and held incommunicado from the US Embassy in Moscow. Lieutenant Colonel Fennell, upon learning that D’Arcy spoke Russian, tasked the soldier to shadow Soviet officials, without letting on that he understood Russian, in order to learn what they were saying. Little did D’Arcy know that the Soviets’ actions would speak far louder than words. He would soon become one of the first American eyewitnesses to the slaughter of Soviet ex-POWs in Odessa.
As D’Arcy looked on in disbelief, a Soviet guard yelled “Russian colonels don’t surrender!” before bashing in a dazed officer’s face with a rifle butt. Moments earlier, Soviet NKVD officers had called the colonel off the British ship HMS Tamoroa upon docking in Odessa in April 1945. The officer had paused at the top of the gangplank, saluted, and given his name, rank, and serial number, at which point the guard had struck him. The stunned colonel was then hustled down the gangplank, where he was unceremoniously murdered with a single shot to the head. D’Arcy watched in horror as an alleged consort to a German general suffered the same fate. The stunned American counted as many as fifty Soviet repatriates shot at the end of the gangplank that day.
The travesty repeated itself again and again. Bad portents hung over the HMS Almanzora even before it arrived in Odessa on 18 April bearing former occupants of a camp for Soviet ex-POWs in Yorkshire. A British interpreter overheard Soviet liaison officers telling their repatriated countrymen lies about the Allies, including a tale that the Almanzora served high-quality food because it was the showpiece of the British merchant navy, whereas conditions on other vessels were abysmal. In Istanbul, the ship stopped to pick up four Soviet citizens who had leaped into the Dardanelles during an earlier voyage in hopes of escaping repatriation. The four had been held by Turkish police and were brought aboard the Almanzora for the final leg of their journey to meet their fate.
Before the debarkation process was even complete, automatic weapons fire rang out from behind a large shack on the Odessa quayside. A Soviet guard of Uzbek extraction, thrilled when a member of the British crew greeted him with a few words in the Uzbek language, confided to the seaman that two men had been executed on the spot because they had been “working for the Capitalists.” Later, the same crewman drove up on an execution squad in the process of murdering a dozen more repatriates. He protested to the Almanzora’s captain, who could do nothing. The ex-POWs were Soviet citizens on Soviet territory, and Britain could not interfere.
In the case of the HMS Empire Pride, trouble began even before casting off from Liverpool harbor. As more than a thousand Soviets marched to the dock in formation, one distraught individual smashed his teacup on the ground and slashed his own throat with a jagged piece of ceramic. British authorities insisted the man be rushed to a hospital, but Soviet liaison officers demurred, insisting the ship’s medical facilities would suffice. A British doctor sewed up the man’s throat right there on the quayside, and, at Soviet prodding, the poor bloke was locked in the brig for the duration of the voyage to Odessa. Days later, he was joined there by a man who had attempted to slash his wrists with a razor blade; the newcomer had already tried leaping overboard to escape repatriation, but Turkish police fished out of the Dardanelles and returned him to the ship.
The Empire Pride docked at Odessa in early June, and the inhumanity quickly began. Stretcher cases were made to stand and walk off the ship carrying their own baggage, and the man who had slashed his own throat in Liverpool was roughly moved, reopening his wound. Guards then manhandled him behind a packing crate on the docks, and a single gunshot soon rang out. Thirty-one others, fingered as collaborators with the Germans by a Russian informant from within their own ranks, were soon dragged behind a warehouse, and fifteen minutes later machine gun fire was heard from the area. The cycle repeated itself until some 150 Soviet repatriates were executed.
After the gunfire subsided, a small group of half-naked children between the ages of three and five scurried down the quay, begging for food and clothing, which sailors from the Empire Pride threw down to them. Soviet police quickly appeared to run off the ragamuffins, and a horrified British sailor watched one policeman pick up a three-year-old child and punch him in the face. Communists did not beg, especially in front of Capitalists.
The next day, one of the ship’s crew, a Canadian of Russian extraction, ventured to the scene of the massacre and observed chips, pits, and dark stains on the concrete of the warehouse. “We were dealing with men who might well have been our cousins, and who most certainly were our allies, and yet who treat their own kin worse than cattle,” he later wrote. “There was a callous disregard of human dignity and Stalin’s hard line—a POW is a traitor and to be considered a dead man—came through loud and clear.”
The US Military Mission in Odessa ceased operations on June 13, 1945, though Jack Harshaw stayed behind as Assistant Naval Attaché and was charged with caring for any stragglers who arrived. The repatriation of Allied POWs and downed airmen at Odessa continued until late June. In the end, nearly forty thousand Allied soldiers, sailors, and airmen, including almost three thousand Americans, were shipped out of Odessa on British vessels between March 7 and June 22, 1945.
Lieutenant Colonel Maurice Hurndall, the British repatriation officer at Odessa, was on the last ship out, the HMS Ascanius. Standing at the ship’s railing, watching as stevedores unmoored the ship from the dock, Hurndall was joined by a French former POW who had spent five years in German captivity. The Frenchman turned to Hurndall, gestured toward shore, and said with great bitterness, “La Russe . . . le grand Delusion!”
Hurndall later observed:
Odessa with its busy harbor filled with American Lend-Lease shipping, with its docks crowded with gangs of German and Romanian prisoners unloading stores of every description, Odessa with the broad flight of steps mounting from the waterfront to the cliffs above, with its “London” Intourist Hotel complete with evil-smelling lavatories, all this was slowly receding into the afternoon haze. We had completed our job.
On his way below decks, Hurndall turned and bode Odessa, and Russia, a final farewell. “Russia!” he wrote. “The country of permits, promises, and procrastinations. The country of suspicion and distrust. The country where human sufferings and human life count for so little.”
Sources: - Mark J. Conversino, Fighting with the Soviets: The Failure of Operation FRANTIC, 1944-1945 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997).
- Richard Foregger, “Soviet Rails to Odessa, British Ships to Freedom,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, Vol. 8, No. 4 (December 1995). - Nicholas Best, Five Days that Shocked the World: Eyewitness Accounts from Europe at the End of World War II (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011). - Maurice J. Hurndall, “Crimea Disagreement: The Story of the Repatriation of Prisoners of War Team attached to the British Military Mission to the USSR in 1945, Part 1” Army Quarterly (Vol. 63, No. 1, October 1951).
- Maurice J. Hurndall, “Crimea Disagreement: The Story of the Repatriation of Prisoners of War Team attached to the British Military Mission to the USSR in 1945, Part 3,” Army Quarterly (Vol. 65, No. 1, October 1952). - Kemp Tolley, Caviar and Commissars: The Experiences of a US Naval Officer in Stalin’s Russia (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1983). - Chief of Naval Operations, Intelligence Report No. 1-45, 31 January 1945, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Record Group 248, Records of the War Shipping Administration, Records of the Russian Shipping Area Section, Records of the Black Sea Region, 1942-1946, Box 47. - Letter from William Bowman, master of the SS A.B. Hammond, to the War Shipping Administration, 17 June 1946, NARA, Record Group 248, Box 47.
- Interim Report on Russian Transit for Liberated Prisoner of War at Odessa, NARA, Record Group 260, Records of US Occupation Headquarters, WWII, US Group Control Council, Adjutant General, General Correspondence, 1944-1945, Box 25.
- Lieven’s account, including the quotes, is related in Nikolai Tolstoy, Victims of Yalta: The Secret Betrayal of the Allies, 1944-1947 (New York: Pegasus Books, 2012). - D’Arcy’s account, including the quote from the Soviet guard, is related in Jim Saunders, Mark Sauter, and R. Cort Kirkwood, Soldiers of Misfortune: Washington’s Secret Betrayal of American POWs in the Soviet Union (Washington: National Press Books, 1992). - George Youmatoff quoted in Nicholas Bethell, The Last Secret: The Delivery to Stalin of Over Two Million Russians by Britain and the United States (New York: Basic Books, 1974).