On 25th June, 1950 Soviet backed troops crossed the 38th Parallel and began a civil war in Korea less than five years after the end of World War II. That same day the United Nations drafted Resolution 82, which called all members to support its attempts to resolve the crisis.
The government of Australia joined Britain and America in immediately offering troops to assist. Over 17,000 Australians served in the War under the UN flag between 1950 and 1953 with 339 dead and 1,200 wounded. The picture is of my father commanding a Centurion Tank whilst serving with 2nd Armoured Brigade at Puckapunyal during the Korean War. The poor driver looks like he had a mouthful of dust, but fortunately for him, Australia never deployed their tanks to the Korean Peninsula.
In June 1920, as the Prime Minister negotiated with the Soviet envoy, Leonid Krassin, Winston Churchill was in open rebellion. The Secretary of State for War was supported by a large section of MPs, who were appalled that Lloyd George was “grasping the paw of the hairy baboon”. On 11th June, Churchill circulated a secret memorandum to the Cabinet with his demands of the Soviet Union and a week later, he sent a Military Intelligence report describing the treacherous execution of Britain’s recent ally, Admiral Kolchak, at Irkutsk.
Above all else, Churchill demanded that “All British prisoners of war captured in Siberia..are to be returned forthwith alive and well.” He now took up the cause of Brian Horrocks, Leonard Vining and the other British PoWs being transported from Irkutsk to Moscow. With an obsessive determination, he encouraged his friends in Parliament to press the Prime Minister for action to secure their release. See Chapter 14 of Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners…
After Captain Rex Carthew departed with the British women and children from Irkutsk, Brian Horrocks and the other prisoners-of-war were left in limbo. The promised train with supplies and mail never arrived. In Vladivostok the head of the British Mission sent a telegram to the Secretary of State, Winston Churchill asking “To what extent may dealings be undertaken with the Soviet authorities in regard to prisoners; please wire urgent.” The strict policy in place was for local commanders not to say anything that gave recognition to Lenin’s Government and this did not change.
Despondency pervaded the prisoners’ carriage where they lived. In June, the Commissars, who had initially led them to believe they would go east to Vladivostok as part of the Litvinov-O’Grady prisoner exchange agreement, changed their tune and told them they were being sent 4,000 miles to Moscow. Understandably, they felt abandoned by their country and deceived by the Soviets. On 12th June, two months after they said farewell to Carthew, their carriage was attached to a locomotive and at 2 p.m. they pulled out of the station on the long, depressing journey west.
When Captain Francis McCullagh was interrogated in Lubjanka, he refused the offer to work as a double agent for the Soviet Union. Eventually, he was released with dozens of other prisoners and crossed the frontier into Finland on 15 April 1920. He was picked up by the head of the MI6 section, John Scale, who debriefed him in Helsingfors before he returned to England on the SS Dongola with the Reverend Frank North and a young Dmitri Tolstoy disguised as the son of his nanny, Lucy Stark.
In London, he was interviewed again by a Military Intelligence officer, Commander Boyce, at the Savoy Club Adelphi at the end of May and then in June by Lord Emmott’s Committee to Collect Information on Russia, which reported to the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. The information McCullagh gives in these interviews is quite different to the story he tells in his memoir published the following year. For more on this, see Chapter 11 of Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners.
One hundred years ago today, the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George received a note from Lord Curzon about his forthcoming meeting in London with the Soviet Minister Leonid Krassin on 31st May 1920.
The Foreign Secretary listed his main concern as the remaining British prisoners in Russia and described the three categories as: civilians in Moscow and Petrograd; prisoners-of-war in Siberia; and the naval mechanics recently detained in Azerbaijan. When the Prime Minister dismissed the problem of the prisoners as an inconvenience, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff accused him of treason and Winston Churchill attacked him for grasping “the hairy paw of the baboon”.
Meanwhile in Irkutsk, Major Vining in charge of the deceived British prisoners in Siberia, wrote in his diary: “nothing has been sent us and no telegram, or letter has reached us…Our mail, an accumulation of some ten months is at Vladivostok, this could have been sent through ten times over…”.
It is claimed that the first international match in Soviet Russia was in 1922 when the Finnish Workers’ Sports Team played a team in Petrograd. However in May 1920, two years before the Finns crossed the frontier, Leonard Vining organised an international match between the British Army and a Soviet team in the city of Irkutsk.
The British, bolstered by a Sikh named Jiht Singh, played four matches, which they lost. Vining included a couple of rugby players in the team, who lacked skill but flattened the opposition and this brought loud cheers from the spectators on the touch line. The match against the German and Austrian former PoWs, who were now employed as guards, was a surprisingly friendly affair, but Vining was very irritated to lose 2-4.
Vining kept two footballs in his possession. One was used in the matches, but in the other, he placed his photographs between the bladder and the outer skin. These were never found in the searches by the Secret Police and he managed to smuggle them out of the country when he was released six months later.
A photograph smuggled out of Soviet Russia in Vining’s football
On 11th May 1920, Colonel Charles Wickham closed the British Military Mission to Siberia and took the train to Shanghai, where he caught a steamer and returned to the United Kingdom to start his new career with the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
He was upset that he had to leave behind the British prisoners-of-war in Irkutsk, but he had sent a positive update to the Army Council and Lord Curzon on 5th March and ensured that a carriage full of supplies was left for them with Captain Norman Stilling of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, who was seconded to the Foreign Office.
The supplies included 58 gallons of rum and 7,758 packets of cigarettes. It was a pity these never reached the prisoners because they ended up on starvation rations, when they refused to work for the Bolshevik commissars.
My mother, whose name is on the Bletchley Park Roll of Honour for those who worked in Signals Intelligence during the War, was selected to march past Buckingham Palace on VE Day 1945.
She was posted to HMS Flowerdown as a Morse operator soon after her 18th birthday and listened to German and Italian radio messages from Libya and the Mediterranean. She took down code words for alphabet and cipher for numbers; the hardest part was mid sentence at the end of the page when she had to move the carbon paper and cardboard (everything was recorded in triplicate) without missing a letter. She reported “Benghazi Gone!” when it was re-captured by the 8th Army in November 1942.
By May 1945, she had moved to HMS Hornbill and after Victory in Europe, she volunteered for overseas work, sailing to Colombo on the SS Athlone Castle before working in Bombay (Mumbai) for ten months. In 1946, she deployed to South Africa on the aircraft carrier HMS Vindex, joining a female officer and a nurse, whose floor she slept on rather than being alone in a 20 bunk cabin!
The train with Rex Carthew that arrived in Irkutsk to collect the British prisoners and refugees at the beginning of April also brought an American, named Hector Boon. It seems strange that at a time when everyone sought to escape from Bolshevik Russia, this mysterious man arrived and rented a lavish apartment in the middle of Irkutsk.
Was he an American spy like Margueritte Harrison in Moscow, or merely an enterprising, but naive, businessman who didn’t understand that the Soviet system banned all capitalist trade?
Whatever his ulterior purpose, he was most generous to Brian Horrocks and the abandoned British prisoners by giving them food and money to buy clothes. I haven’t found any subsequent trace of him other than his signature on the back of a photograph later in 1920, when he gives his address as 46 Upper Park Road, a large house in a leafy suburb of North London!