THE Russian guard was in no mood to argue – he wanted the cigarette case and razor. He had already confiscated the British soldiers’ money. Now there was an uneasy stand-off over the two outstanding items of value. Finally a senior member of the Cheka, the Russian secret police, was consulted and permission was given for Major Leonard Vining to keep his prized belongings. After a five-hour search, the Russians herded Vining and his 13 men into a single room for their first night in the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow. But if they thought they had broken the spirit of their new captives, they hadn’t reckoned with their pluck, a new book by ex-army colonel Rupert Wieloch reveals.
“Vining did what the Russians least expected,” Wieloch writes. “He pulled out a banjo and, with two others, led a rousing sing-song.” By the next morning, the Cheka had clearly heard enough because the band of brothers found themselves marched off to another prison.
It was 1919, a year after the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and the imperial family, and the newly-appointed War Secretary, Sir Winston Churchill, had sent the men out to Russia to help put down the Russian revolution.
It was an unpopular order, and one which defied the wishes of Prime Minister Lloyd George. It even prompted some British soldiers to go on strike. When the Bolsheviks triumphed, most British troops were recalled, but Major Vining’s band of brothers were captured. It was the start of a horrific ordeal that marked Churchill’s darkest moment – and one that has almost been airbrushed from history.
The soldiers’ extraordinary journey after they were stranded in Russia without communication for 11 months is described in the book, Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners.
“Parliament was dismayed that the government had lost track of the prisoners-of-war five months after they were captured in Siberia,” Wieloch writes. “The Daily Herald demanded Churchill’s impeachment and The Nation denounced the War Secretary.”
Churchill also fell out with Lord Beaverbrook, then owner of the Daily Express, which ran a feature headlined: “Are we to be committed to aWar with Russia?” While Lloyd George was trying to negotiate a trade deal with Lenin’s new government, Churchill believed Bolshevism should be “strangled in its cradle” and sent a team out to complete the mission.
Major-General Sir Alfred Knox, commander of the British Military Mission to Siberia, ordered the soldiers to “remain to the last” at their post in Omsk, to aid the evacuation of refugees.
As a result, the men were trapped in Russia from November 1919 until October 1920, and endured an 8,700-mile journey in sub-zero temperatures by train, sledge, foot and ship to reach Britain.
They were led by Royal Engineer Major Vining, who kept up team morale throughout the ordeal, diplomatically persuading the Bolsheviks to keep to the Hague Convention.
But he was never given an honour.
“All he got was a notice of thanks from a civil servant,” writes Wieloch, incredulously.
Another of the group was Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks, who went on to become Commander-in-Chief of the British Army of the Rhine during the Second World War. The prominent TV historian and Black Rod in the House of Lords died in 1985 at the age of 89.
During the First World War, he was wounded at Ypres, was awarded a Military Cross and became a German prisoner-of-war. But, after surviving that, he ended up in Russia, where he narrowly escaped death, first from typhus and then jaundice.
Equally eminent was war journalist Francis McCullagh, a 45-year-old captain in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, who worked for military intelligence in Omsk. He escaped after taking off his uniform and reinventing himself as an Irish journalist sympathetic to the Bolshevik cause.
But he was captured and sent to Lubyanka where he was tortured, put in solitary confinement, starved and had his sleep disturbed with lights and noises.
He spent 70 hours in isolation, walking up and down his cell singing and praying. He was finally freed under the O’Grady-Litvinov Agreement, known as the Treaty of Copenhagen, and later made an MBE.
But others were ordinary soldiers: Royal Engineer Emerson Macmillan; Bob Lillington, 24, a soldier in the Hampshire regiment, who got stranded in Omsk after giving up his place on his voyage home to his new Russian wife; Private Percy James, who ended up with frost-bitten feet and narrowly avoided gangrene and amputation; and Londoner Captain Herbert Prickett, of the Royal Service Corps, who rescued an injured dog run over by a train, naming him Teddy, and adopted him as the team mascot.
It was in January 1920, after travelling 885 miles from Omsk to Krasnoyarsk that the group were found by the Bolsheviks. For the next five months, they had to report to the authorities but remained at large.
Eventually they were sent to the city of Irkutsk and expected to be released, but were transported to Lubyanka. “As they climbed down and stood in the courtyard, Emerson noticed many faces watching them from behind barred windows,” writes Wieloch. “Suddenly he recognised a woman he knew from Irkutsk. She shook her head and made a sign of a rope around her neck.”
After the banjo sing-song, the men found themselves on the move again the next day amid more absurdity. “At 10am, the group were ordered to take what they could carry and be ready to march to another prison,”Wieloch writes.
“Vining demanded a cart so they could take the pile of possessions, but this caused another argument. Their heap contained stoves with chimneys for cooking, as well as pots and pans, wash basins, all their winter clothes and equipment.
“Eventually, a cart came and they rapidly loaded. They marched out of Lubyanka as a squad behind this cart, surrounded by Red Guards. Sergeant Lillington carried Teddy the dog in his arms.
“They all put on their smartest uniform and the officers wore their Sam Browne belts and they created a mild sensation as they passed through Lubyanka Square, heading south towards the river.”
The group was moved to the Ivanovsky monastery, which had been converted into a political prison surrounded by barbed wire. There, they lived under the constant threat of being executed.
“Hundreds of prisoners were shot while the British were in prison,” adds Wieloch. “In 1918, the head of the Cheka, Felix Dzerzhinsky, developed a technique, Nackenschuss, that became the favoured method in Ivanovsky as it caused instant death and avoided the loss of much blood.
“The prisoner was ordered to descend some steps and was shot in the nape of the neck as his head bent forward. The executioner then went back for another victim whilst the guards removed the body.”
Despite the threat, the British soldiers refused to work, citing the Hague Convention. In retaliation the Russian guards reduced their meagre rations and conducted unannounced raids.
“They quickly realised that the daily food issue was below starvation levels,” “The staple was dried herring, which reminded them of strips of shrivelled shoe leather, but smelled worse.
“Three quarters of a pound of black bread was issued in the morning; some unpalatable boiled grain arrived at midday and a watery soup was the sum of the evening menu.
“At night when the lights were extinguished, battalions of biting creatures emerged from their hiding places in the wall crevices. “On the word ‘Go’, everyone lit their candles and killed as many as possible before the bugs beat a hasty retreat.”
After three months, they were transferred to the notorious Andronovsky Prison, another former monastery commandeered by the Red Army. “The conditions in their new prison were harsher than the Ivanovsky and the guards were sharper,” writes Wieloch.
“Night-time searches resumed on a regular basis; razors and cameras were confiscated. Fortunately, Vining had hidden his films inside a football, wedged tightly between the bladder and the outer skin and these were never found.
“They had an alternative football which they used in a courtyard.”
Some were tortured. “Emerson suffered the same torture as Francis McCullagh during several uncomfortable sessions with the Cheka,” adds Wieloch.
“They were not certain whether the Soviets were trying to trick them into admitting guilt for something, or turn them into double agents.”
Then, one day, they were just set free. “They received a visit from a portly official from the Soviet Foreign Office,” writes Wieloch. “He introduced himself as Naoetava and said that he was the Minister for Entente Affairs and that he had recently returned from England.
“After asking about the health of Brian Horrocks (who was in hospital with jaundice) this courteous diplomat slipped in the news that they would leave for Petrograd on October 20. There was stunned silence for five seconds as the news sunk in and then five minutes of loud cheering.”
Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners by Rupert Wieloch (Casemate, £20) was out yesterday. Available www.casematepublishing.co.uk and select book stores
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