Massacre of Cossacks at Lienz

This page is dedicated to our dear and longtime friend who passed away this year, a survivor of the massacre, Stepan Lazarevich Smirniy (Sept. 15, 1900 - Feb. 25, 2003).
May His Memory be Eternal!

Betrayal of Cossacks at Lienz, Austria
June 1945
Painting by S.G. Korolkoff

To the Representative of the Don Ataman in North and South America, Lt. General S. V. Denisov.

Your Excellency,

In view of the approaching fourth anniversary of the ghastly tragedy of the Cossacks, namely their compulsory extradition to the Soviet Union, I believe it appropriate to recall briefly this terrible event in the memory of Cossacks.

As already known, the Cossack Corps of General Domanov, consist ing of about 28,000 persons, including women and children, on leaving Italian territory in early May 1945, crossed over the mountain pass into Austria and set up camp in the valley of the river Drau.

The Staff of the Cossacks and a part of the administrative units were billeted within the city limits of the town of Lienz. The Cossack regiments (disarmed) camped on adjoining territory in tents, while the noncombatants, the aged, the women and children, found quarters in the camp Peggetz, about two miles outside the city.

The attitude of the British authorities towards the Cossacks was quite beyond reproach and even benevolent up to May 26th, and there was nothing to indicate the impending catastrophe. However, on that particular day two events took place which foreshadowed the imminent tragedy. Namely, a British truck pulled up before the Cossacks' Bank, and the soldiers, referring to orders from their superiors, demanded the keys to the strongboxes, locked them up, and, loading them on the truck, drove away to an unknown destination. The protest of the Director of the Bank, and his remonstration that the strongboxes contained but personal savings of the Cossacks, had no effect. According to the declaration of the Bank Director, those strongboxes had contained at that time about 6 million German Marks, and about as much in Italian Lire, all of which had been personal money of the Cossacks.

On the same day, a British officer came to the hotel where General Shkuro and four of his officers had been billeted, and ordered them to pack their belongings so as to move to other billets. When asked, "Which other billets," he answered, "Where your Staff will be."

Later on it became known that General Shkuro and his officers had been moved to Spittal camp and kept there behind barbed wire.

It is important to note that simultaneously a British order had been read, according to which all Cossacks were to receive increased rations and, in fact, were to receive full British rations, which fact had considerably lulled any suspicions there might have been among the Cossacks, and had made it easier for the British to carry out their intentions.

The pleasure of receiving increased rations lasted but a short while. The next day, May 27th, at about 10:00 A.M., the British ordered all officers to turn in their pistols which, so far, they had been permitted to keep. Scarcely anybody guessed the actual purpose of this disarmament. There were but a few who anticipated instinctively, or rather, subconsciously, something mysterious and evil taking place.

On the morning of May 28th all officers, military officials, and medics were ordered to report at 1:00 P.M. to the square before the Staff billets, to be moved in trucks according to directives from the British General.

The Town Commander of Lienz, the British Major Davis, declared that the luggage should not be taken, as everybody was supposed to be back in three or four hours. This declaration was taken at its face value, nearly all had reported and were driven away. But, actually, as soon as the truck convoy, carrying over 2,000 officers and officials, headed by General Krasnov, got under way, it was surrounded by British tanks and escorted to its destination.

Guarded in this manner, everybody was brought into Spittal camp, which was surrounded by several stockades of barbed wire, and was strongly patrolled by the British.

Twenty-four hours later, all these unfortunate prisoners were transported into the Soviet Zone and were handed over to the Soviets. Only five persons were able to escape by a miracle. Numerous camp inmates had committed suicide, numerous others were killed by the guards while attempting an escape, while some had been executed on the way to the Soviet Zone, and it is unknown to this day exactly how many reached the Soviet Union.

In the evening of May 29th, British trucks equipped with loud speakers drove up to the tent camp Peggetz, where the Cossack regiments were camping, and announced that everybody had to get ready to be voluntarily repatriated into the Soviet Union. The British repeated this announcement on May 30th and May 31st.

Everywhere the unanimous reaction of the Cossacks had been to refuse, and to emphasize their protest they declared a hunger strike and hoisted black banners. When British supply trucks rolled up as usual to certain distribution points, there was nobody to accept the rations and, having dumped the food on the ground, they drove away. No Cossack touched that food.

On the morning of June 1st the Cossacks of the Peggetz camp had decided to unite in prayer to God, maybe for the last time. For this purpose an altar was erected on the camp square and a crowd of thousands of aged, of women and children, gathered around. Cadets, as if to protect them, formed an outer ring, holding hands. Black banners were flying from every barrack.

This picture was deeply moving and awesome at the same time. No human nerves could have endured to watch this multitude kneeling, intensely praying, and bitterly weeping.

It was during this Liturgy that the British surrounded the camp area on three sides with tanks and soldiers armed with machine guns. The fourth side remained free: there was the deep and swift Drau river forming a natural barrier. Together with the tanks there appeared trucks and, about 150 to 200 yards away, on the railroad there pulled up a long train of freight cars, waiting for the victims, the Cossacks.

The British waited awhile. Then, seeing that the people did not discontinue their prayers, they fired a volley into the air, charging at the same time into the defenseless people who had sat down on the ground, embracing one another, and refusing to board the trucks.

Now there began a beastly, brutal, and inhuman bloodshed, a massacre of innocent human beings. They hit them with gunbutts, causing an indescribable panic. Soul-piercing screams filled the air. In this inconceivable cataclysm many were trampled to death, mainly children.

Whoever was able to do so put up a desperate defense as long as he had any strength left.

It was only the unconscious, many of them with broken limbs, whom the British were able to grab and dump like logs on their trucks filled with bodies.

When already on the trucks, some Cossacks, regaining consciousness, had jumped off. They were beaten until they fainted and were thrown on the trucks again. The cadets put up the fiercest resistance. They defended not only themselves, but did everything humanly possible to aid the women, the children, and the aged to escape imprisonment, repatriation, and their eventual doom in the USSR.

Numerous Cossacks and their wives committed suicide on that day, preferring death rather then deportation to a barbarous country which had once been Russia, our Fatherland.

Semiconscious, blood-soaked, and heavily wounded - that is how they filled the death train.

For unknown reasons the "Honorable Authority" had decided to give a respite, and the next voluntary transport "home" with respective victims was scheduled to take place on June 3rd. This respite saved the lives of many Cossacks and their wives.

During the night from June 1st to June 2nd there began the second act of the Cossacks' tragedy: the local population began to ransack the possessions of the Cossacks. Like black ravens who gather at the smell of fresh blood, the Austrians now looted the property of the Cossacks by the carload.

During these very days, and with equal procedures, the 15th Cossack Corps, consisting of 18,000 men, had been handed over to the Soviets near the town of Judenburg. Of this multitude there survived only 10 officers and 50 to 60 Cossacks who had broken the guards' cordon by using hand grenades, and who saved themselves by hiding in the nearby woods.

That is how, on May 29th, June 1st, and June 3rd, 1945, 45,000 Russians had been handed over to suffer violent retaliation, by close cooperation on the part of those governments of foreign powers, for whose integrity and interests the Russian Nation had shed its blood and had won victories in World War I.

At present the Peggetz camp is abandoned and has disappeared. Only in one of its comers there are, even now, as a momento of the Cossacks' tragedy, some forgotten graves of victims, with small, weather beaten crosses.

A future historian will pass an unbiased verdict on this bitter tragedy, a verdict on those representatives of "Proud Albion" who have disgraced the ruler of the seas in the past, and who are not worthy to call themselves contemporaries of civilized mankind.

Losses in personnel as great as had been suffered by these two units, namely that of General Domanov and the 15th Cossack Corps, in the course of a couple of days, in conditions of a finished war, have no precedent in Russian military history.

Within these units there had been representatives of the Don Cossacks, and they had formed the main cadres. However, there had been also Cossacks and their wives from other Cossack armies.

Within the 15th Cossack Corps there had been a number of compatriots who were not Cossacks.

Among the slain were heroic warriors of the former Army of the Russian Empire during World War I, and the leaders of the White Cossacks in the years of the Civil War: General Ataman P.N. Krasnov, the Generals Shkuro and Prince Sultan-Girei-Klytch, and others.

In the capacity of the acting Don Ataman, I believe it to be my direct duty to remind the Cossacks of this monstrous catastrophe, and of its victim, the distinguished Don Ataman and White leader, Cavalry General Peter Nikolaevich Krasnov.

I ask you to give this event wide and expressive publicity, and to commemorate the days of the tragic anniversary in a solemn way wherever there are areas in which Cossacks have settled more densely.

I believe that all Cossacks, also those of our co-nationals who are non-Cossacks, will offer their sincere prayers to commemorate the perished Russian soldiers.

I am convinced that the Cossacks, united in common grief in these days of mourning, will forget their personal discords, and that they will ever closer unite to serve our dear Fatherland and its loyal sons, the Cossacks.

The original signed by:
The Acting Don Ataman,
Major General of the General Staff POLIAKOV
Lienz, Austria
May 12, 1949

from Russia
Vol. VI, No. 84
September 1949

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