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.
Seven brides of Anzac POW had to remain behind.
The Wives of Odessa
Under the terms of the Yalta Agreement, a transit camp was 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. B3/294 Deputy Commander E.R. Saunders of the International Red Cross was 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.
There were at least seven marriages. 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.
Contact Bill Rudd about this article.