You can find Winston Churchill’s instructions to Major General Sir Alfred Knox as commander of the British Mission to Siberia on page 37 of the secret “Narrative of Events in Siberia 1918-1920”. Paragraph 10 orders him to “address all your reports to the Director of Military Intelligence” in the War Office. Paragraph 8b2 states: “Major CA Cameron RA graded as GSO 3rd Grade to take charge of your Intelligence Service, will leave England in about a fortnight.”
Cecil Aylmer Cameron was a controversial appointment because he had served three years in prison for fraud after he claimed £6,500 for the theft of his wife’s pearl necklace, which had not been stolen. However, after his wife admitted sole responsibility for the crime, he was given a royal pardon and allowed to resume his commission in the army. During the First World War, he was awarded the DSO for running a spy network in German occupied France and Belgium under his code-name Evelyn.
In Siberia, Knox used Cameron as his Chief of Staff because he was fluent in Russian and knew everything about everyone. He also directed the network of officers, who kept tabs on Kolchak’s decisions and how the Siberian army fared in its fight with Trotsky’s Red Army. For his services in Siberia, he was awarded the CBE in the 1920 Honours List.
After the war, he was posted to Ireland where he continued to work for Military Intelligence. When the Labour Party won the General Election in 1924, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald immediately recognized the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and appointed Robert Hodgson as Ambassador. He had taken over from Sir Charles Eliot as High Commissioner in Omsk in 1919, but escaped with General Knox after they abandoned the soldiers, who became the last prisoners in World War One. Hodgson was very familiar with Cameron’s work and approved the War Office’s proposal for him to become the Military Attache.
Cameron was the best candidate for the job, but the Soviet government knew about his espionage background and used its influence with the Labour Party to get at the Prime Minister, who refused to endorse the War Office appointment on the grounds that he had previously been convicted (so ignoring his royal pardon).
Sadly, Cameron believed his career prospects were over and was found dead at Hillsborough Barracks in August. Together with Labour’s support for the communist newspaper’s incitement of British Service personnel to mutiny in the notorious “Campbell Case” and their controversial concessions to the Soviet Union, Cameron’s death contributed to the fall of the MacDonald government on 29th October 1924.
Several of Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners were part of the British Railway Mission in Siberia and Manchuria. Initially, this was led by Brigadier Archibald Jack, but he handed over to Brigadier William Beckett at the beginning of November 1919. Jack was awarded the CBE and CMG in 1919 and the CB in the Siberian Honours. In 1920, he became General Manager of the railways in Havana, Cuba. He was shot through the head by a striker, but survived this (he had already been torpedoed three times during the war) and was also a survivor of the 1927 Sevenoaks railway disaster. Beckett was awarded the CBE in the Siberian Honours despite abandoning his soldiers on the way back from Omsk. His penance was to remain behind when the British Mission closed in Vladivostok in May 1920. He continued to serve at Harbin in China as the British representative on the Inter Allied Technical Board of the Trans-Siberian Railway until 1923, for which he was awarded the distinguished Chinese Order of Chia Ho.
The leader of the prisoners-of-war, Major Leonard Vining, who had saved the lives of his men, was given neither public reward nor recognition and had his acting rank taken away from him by the War Office, while still a PoW. He published his diary and returned to his country of birth, to serve with the Indian State Railways. In the Second World War, he was eventually awarded an MBE (downgraded from a recommendation for an OBE) for his work in East Africa, where he cleared and reconstructed the port of Massawa and organised the railway and ropeway network in Eritrea.
Captain William Dempster, who had been awarded the Military Cross in 1918, returned to Canada where he became embroiled in a political scandal at the end of World War II. As a virulent anti-communist, he served in the Ontario Provincial Police Special Investigation Branch tasked to root out 5th Columnists. In this role, he compiled reports on the activities of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and opposition members of Canada’s Provincial Parliament. He was cross-examined over several days during the 1945 Royal Commission that exonerated the Drew government for knowingly spying on MPPs.
Warrant Officer Emerson MacMillan married Dallas Ireland (who had resigned as a American Red Cross nurse in Vladivostok) in London and returned to Philadelphia, where she gave birth to a son. Emerson then emigrated to Brazil with his family and developed the tram network in Sao Paolo, the financial centre of the country. During the Second World War, he kept an eye on German agents trying to persuade the Brazilian government to join the Axis and for his efforts, he was awarded an OBE in 1946.
The two infantry captains in the group of prisoners became famous generals in the Second World War. Brian Horrocks, who represented GB in the 1924 Olympics, impressed General Montgomery so much when he commanded 2nd Battalion Middlesex Regiment during the battle of France, that he was rapidly promoted through the ranks of Brigadier and Major General to take over 13 Corps after the first battle of El Alamein in 1942. When he arrived at the front on 18th August, he was worried that “command in the desert was regarded as an almost certain prelude to a bowler hat”. However, he earned an immediate DSO at the second battle of El Alamein and in Libya, he took over 10 Corps and fought with it all the way to Tunisia, where he led the critical outflanking manoeuvre that won the battle for Montgomery. He also successfully led 9 Corps after its commander was wounded, but his luck ran out in June 1943, when his lungs and stomach were shot through by a strafing enemy aircraft. It took him a year to recover fitness and in August 1944, he took over 30 Corps in France, leading this iconic formation all the way into Germany and commanding a pivotal role at Arnhem (he was played by the distinguished actor Edward Fox in the film A Bridge Too Far). Unfortunately, he was medically discharged before taking up the appointment as Commander in Chief, but there is no doubt that if it wasn’t for his wounds, he would have become Chief of the Imperial General Staff after after Bill Slim in 1952. Of his many achievements, perhaps the most remarkable was that he is the only person to have commanded four different corps in battle.
Horrocks owed his life in Siberia to his best friend, Eric “Georgik” Hayes, who also rose to high command. After taking 2nd Battalion Royal Norfolk Regiment to France, Hayes was promoted to lead a brigade in Kent and in 1941, he took over 3rd Infantry Division, which had been led by Montgomery in France. A year later, he was given command of West Africa and in the final year of the war, he became General Officer Commanding British troops in China, where he witnessed the surrender of Japan in September 1945.
Hayes died soon after the war after a short illness, but Horrocks had a very successful life, working as Black Rod in the Houses of Parliament and carving out a unique career in the media with his battlefield histories. He would never talk about his time in Russia, but in his memoir, he did admit that the ordeal “was an excellent preparation for the stresses and strains of command in war.”
Within a month, the last prisoners-of-war to return from Russia had scattered around the world, but before they departed to Argentina, Australia, Canada, India, Ireland and the USA, they submitted claims for their stolen property to the Russian Claims Department at the Board of Trade in Stamford Street. They also held a farewell dinner at the Cafe Royal when they were joined by Hector Boon and other members of the Siberia Mission. The prisoners signed the back of a photo that was taken on HMS Delhi and all of them acknowledged the part played by their inspirational leader, Leonard Vining who lost none of the soldiers during the year of their extraordinary ordeal.
Brian Horrocks (who was awarded an immediate DSO at El Alamein and commanded three different British Corps in the Second World War) knew something about leadership and wrote in his memoir “Thanks to [Vining] our morale had always been high and discipline in our strangely assorted party had withstood the strain of all those months of captivity. On his shoulders had rested the ultimate responsibility and now he had brought the whole party safely out of the darkness of Bolshevik Russia into the light of the free world again.” However, the only recognition he received for his outstanding leadership was a brief letter of thanks from a civil servant.
In the run up to Christmas, I will provide an update on what happened to the main characters in Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners.
After the Unknown Warrior was buried in Westminster Abbey, the way was clear for the latest Royal Navy cruiser, HMS Delhi, to pick up Captain Brian Horrocks and the other British prisoners-of-war, who had been waiting patiently in Finland.
The Royal Navy treated the freed men very well and landed them in Copenhagen where they spent a night in the same hotel that Jim O’Grady and Maxim Litvinov signed the Anglo-Russian prisoner exchange treaty.
The next day they caught a passenger ferry to Harwich and arrived early on 22nd November 1920, just over a year after they had been ordered to “remain to the last” in Omsk. Sergeant Joe Rooney ran straight up to a policeman and shook his hand, while Captain Bertie Prickett arranged quarantine for their mascot, Teddy. The Army tried to divert the men to Colchester, but the leader of the group, Major Leonard Vining slipped the net and took everyone straight to London on the train.
Arriving at Liverpool Street Station at lunch time, the gaunt soldiers were met by a gaggle of reporters and photographers. They were cautious about what they revealed because they knew that the Commanding Officer of 2nd Battalion, Hampshire Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Kelly, had been court-martialled on 28th October for writing to the Press about the campaign against the Bolsheviks. Nevertheless, they made it abundantly clear that the picture painted by official British visitors to Moscow was very different to the truth, adding: “People in England have no idea of the dreadful state of things that exist in Russia”.
On 17th November 1920, David Lloyd George met his cabinet at 10 Downing Street, with the agenda dominated by the question of resuming normal relations with Russia.
The Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon and the Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill, began the meeting by confirming that matters were in hand to send 300 British troops to help the League of Nations conduct the plebiscite in Lithuania.
The main discussion centered on the trade deal. The President of the Board of Trade, Sir Robert Horne, made an impassioned plea to vote in favour based on the dire economic situation in Britain, with business confidence low and unemployment high.
Curzon and Churchill spoke against the motion and wanted Britain to continue supporting Poland. However, the Prime Minister exclaimed: “When I mentioned the possibility of our going to war to support Poland, a shudder passed through the House and those who were clamouring against Bolshevism showed the white feather.”
The debate continued into a second day when Churchill made one final “frantic” appeal. The Lord Chancellor had mentioned that £10 million of diamond sales would be spent in England if the deal went through. However, Churchill claimed that these diamonds “were all stolen, many of them from the dead bodies of the Russian aristocracy”.
When they were asked to vote, the majority of the Cabinet sided with the Prime Minister. But Churchill asked for it to be recorded in the minutes that no Cabinet Minister was fettered with regard to speaking against Bolshevism and that night, he travelled to Oxford where he delivered a “violently anti-Bolshevik speech” at the university.
As the final preparations for the Cenotaph unveiling was happening in London, Leonard Vining was interviewed in Finland by John Scale, who had been head of MI6 in Russia before the revolution and was involved, allegedly, in Rasputin’s death in 1916.
Scale had been awarded the DSO and OBE for his intelligence work in Russia. He knew all the main British characters involved in the British Mission to Siberia, including the commander, Sir Alfred Knox and John Fraser Neilson of the 10th Hussars, who will forever be associated with the coup that brought Kolchak to power. He was also a friend of Robert Bruce Lockhart, who reveals all four of them met off the coast of Norway on the way to his ill-fated assignment in Moscow. Scale was also heavily involved in the raid on the Soviet fleet at Kronstadt in August 1918 and was lucky not to share the fate of Captain Francis Cromie.
The report from this interview was sent to the Foreign Office and Vining’s comments were used by Lord Curzon on 17th November in the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Meeting discussion about the resumption of normal relations with Russia: “we have it on the authority of Major Wining [sic] a Siberia prisoner who has reached Helsinki. he says there are considerable number of prisoners [still] in Russia.” Curzon’s vote against reopening trade was in vain as the President of the Board of Trade’s motion was passed.
The convoluted Anglo-Russian prisoner exchange was described in the House of Commons on 26th October by Cecil Harmsworth, younger brother of newspaper viscounts Northcliffe and Rothermere. Replying to Sir Frederick Hall’s question, he explained that the Russian political prisoner, Babushkin and seven Bolsheviks held in London were being transferred in the Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Dauntless, while the British prisoners-of-war crossed the Finnish frontier.
In Finland, the soldiers were met by an MI6 officer and taken by sleigh to a camp overlooking the Baltic Sea. This was formerly a collection of wooden dachas owned by the rich and famous from Petrograd. Here, they had a frustrating wait while the Unknown Soldier was buried at Westminster Abbey. Private Lionel Grant complained about the delay while “negotiations are suspended” in a letter to his regiment on 12th November.
Finally, news came through that Babushkin had crossed into Russia and the British soldiers were released at Vyborg where they rented a room each. The stillness of sleeping alone after more than two years military service was too much for the soldiers and many of them could not sleep on their first night of freedom.
While the British prisoners-of-war were held in Petrograd at the British Colony Hospital, they were given a tour of opulent private apartments in the Hermitage.
Leonard Vining could not resist playing a few notes on the magnificent gold piano that “still had a very sweet tone”, but Emerson MacMillan was more impressed by the Tsarina’s white marble bathroom that was decorated with marine views: “Beautiful it was as skill and art could make it, complete in every detail, but there was no water”. Their guards were still royalist to the core and quietly admitted that Russia was worse now than it had been under the Tsar.
Back in the hospital, the soldiers received many offers of marriage. “If only you will marry us so that we can get over the frontier out of Russia”, they would say, “we will promise never to worry you again”. The most persistent propositions were made by English women married to Russians who pleaded with Vining and the others to marry their daughters. Captain Brian Horrocks felt “very sorry for these unfortunate women and would gladly have helped them to escape from the country. But we all realised that we could not possibly just abandon them on the other side of the frontier. So after much discussion and soul searching we had to say no”.
After the ceasefire was agreed between Russia and Poland in Riga and Leonid Krassin’s delegation returned with positive news from London, a portly official from the Soviet Foreign Ministry visited the British prisoners-of-war and informed them they would leave for Petrograd on Wednesday, 20th October.
As they assembled in the courtyard, they felt bitterly sorry for their fellow prisoners whose pale, sorrowful faces gazed after them as they made their way across the icy cobbles to the police headquarters in Lubjanka Square.
There, they were joined by four of the British “grave offenders”, including Charles Maxwell with his daughter and niece. The soldiers made tea for them and began to sing. The guards came in to tell them to stop, but they continued to belt out their extensive repertoire.
Then the Chief of Staff, Colonel Popov, arrived and demanded payment for the cart they used to carry their belongings.
Quick as a flash, Leonard Vining replied that he could take it out of the money they owed them and asked for the remainder of the roubles, which had been confiscated in July. Popov smiled and left. Afterwards, the guards told Brian Horrocks that it was the only time they had ever seen him smile.
Eventually, they were taken to the railway station and ordered to board a cattle truck with wooden bunks. They had been given no food by the authorities and the train did not depart until after midnight, but to their great relief, they arrived the next morning in Petrograd where they were delivered to the British Colony Hospital and met by the careworn Matron, Violet Froom.