Note to the Prime Minister on 27th May

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…”.


First International Football in Soviet Russia

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.

IMG_2097A photograph smuggled out of Soviet Russia in Vining’s football

British Military Mission to Siberia

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.  10 May 1920


VE Day Tribute

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!

VE Day

The Mysterious Hector J Boon

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!


San Remo Conference April 1920

Apart from accepting the mandates for Mesopotamia, Palestine and Syria, the San Remo conference, chaired by the Prime Minister of Italy, agreed the WWI Allies’ policy on Soviet Russia.

Believing that all the British prisoners-of-war held by the Bolsheviks were on their way home, Prime Minister David Lloyd George, supported by Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon, agreed on 25th April to adopt a resolution to restore trade with the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.

Little did they know that Captain Brian Horrocks and his compatriots in Irkutsk had been deceived by the Commissars and the train that had arrived under command of Captain Rex Carthew to rescue British citizens, was allowed to collect only the civilian families.

When he heard this news, the War Secretary, Winston Churchill, who did not attend the San Remo conference, lobbied the government to make the safe return of “all British prisoners-of-war captured in Siberia…” the essential condition of any trade negotiations.

IMG_3012Lord Curzon with the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey, en route to San Remo for the Allies’ Conference in April 1920


Good Friday 1920

On the night of Good Friday, 2nd April 1920, Captain Francis McCullough was arrested by the Soviet Secret Police in Moscow and taken from his room at the Savoy Hotel to the notorious Lubjanka prison.   He was arrested for sending a signal to the War Office informing them about Captain Brian Horrocks and the other British Army prisoners-of-war he left behind in Krasnoyarsk.

He had just removed the photograph with Director of Military Intelligence stamped on the back from the lining of his coat, which is just as well because the armed guards searched his belongings thoroughly.  In Lubjanka, he suffered the de-humanising process of three intrusive body searches and was then shoved into a cell with a wrenching smell of urine and excreta.  On the third day of solitary confinement, with his senses tortured by light and noise assaults, he was interrogated by the infamous Tcheka inquisitors Xenofontov and Mogilevsky.

After several hours of questioning, they switched tack and tried to recruit him into the Soviet intelligence network.  All this is revealed in the MI6 report written after he returned to London and was interviewed in the Hyde Park Hotel.

McCullough Moscow March Signal

British Medical Support in Siberia March 1920

On 26th March 1920,  Brian Horrocks and the other British PoWs arrived at Irkutsk anticipating that they would be heading east to Vladivostok before the ice on the river melted in April.  A few days later, Sgt Frank Illingworth and Lieutenant Edward Stephens joined them after “Illy” had recovered from a bout of dysentery.

While they waited for a connecting train, the commander of the British Military Mission to Siberia, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Wickham, updated the War Secretary in London and sent the following signal: A full train load of medical stores, drugs and clothing has been despatched to Chita area in charge of Colonel Young, Captain O’Driscoll RAMC and Captain Peacock.  This is the best consignment of medical stores ever supplied by the Mission.  It will be able to satisfy the urgent demand for drugs which is being made by every hospital from Harbin westward into which the sick from the remnants of the Siberian army are crowding in numbers out of all proportion to the space, staff or material available to deal with the situation. (WO 106/1278)



Lydia Yates heavily pregnant in a disease ridden city…

Shortly before the British PoWs departed from Krasnoyarsk, it was decided that Lydia Yates, a British refugee with her husband William and son Ernest, was too heavily pregnant to travel with them in the 4th class carriages they were assigned.

Lydia had to give birth in one of the most disease-ridden cities in the world.  There were 30,000 cases of epidemic typhus reported during February 1920 and the hospitals where these poor people went to die were crammed full of patients lying in their own vomit and excreta.

William Yates, who was born in Ekaterinburg to English parents, was trying to take his family back to England where they could live with his uncle, William Glover, a renowned explorer of the Siberian forests.  Glover was now the Congregational Minister in Tiverton and lived at The Manse, having moved from Heaton in Newcastle.

The Manse, 2 St Peter St, Tiverton

One Hundred Years Ago Today…

On 18th March 1920, Captain Brian “Jorrocks” Horrocks and Sergeant Frank “Illy” Illingworth had fully recovered from the epidemic typhus that had laid them low for a month and the British prisoners’ train departed from Krasnoyarsk.

Travelling east, they were led to believe their destination was Vladivostok, which was still in the hands of the Allies.  During the first day, however, Illy suffered severe gastric problems and Major Leonard Vining was concerned that he needed specialist medical care.  They took him to a hospital during a two-hour halt and Lieutenant Edward Stephens volunteered to remain with him for the duration of his illness.  When Vining returned to the station, the train had vanished and he had to hitch a lift for 25 miles before catching up with his compatriots at Ilanskaya.

That evening, he was visited by the Tcheka; the notorious secret police “indulging today in an orgy blood the like of which has never been seen”…

IMG_2712Brian Horrocks with his fellow prisoners-of-war at Krasnoyarsk in March 1918