Page 1

History Notes Issue 10 [February 1996]

The Katyn Massacre: An SOE Perspective

C:\Program Files (x86)\\docConverterPro\temp\NVDC\D94976F4-2B8B-44E6-BBBA-6DB0CE97695B\History Notes COVERS.doc


The Katyn Massacre: an SOE Perspective

HistorUftS, LRD



FeImltay 1996

The Katyn Massacre: an SOE Perspective

Historians, LRD

ISBN 0 903359 64 2


As part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's commitment to Open Government, the files of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) dIe being Ievtewe<i1Or" transfer to the Public Record Office. This History Note draws on SOE records for Eastern Europe, released in 1995, to cast a new perspective on a troubled episode in wartime history: the discovery in 1943 of a mass grave of thousands of Polish officers in Katyn forest, near Smolensk.

Ian Soutar Ubrary and Records Department

February 1996

fA , \





Part I The Special Operations Executive and its Records


Part II The Katyn Massacre



Since 1993, as part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's commitment to Open Government, a programme has been under way to release the fIles of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and transfer them to the Public Record Office. Four blocks of fIles have so far been released, covering SOE wartime operations in the Far East (transferred June 1993), Scandinavia (June 1994), Africa and the Middle East (September 1994) and Eastern Europe (March 1995). Because of the covert .n_ature of SOE operations, and their focus on propaganda and sabotage as part of the war effort, these ftIes cast a new perspective on a number of wartime issues. As such, they are a valuable addition to the archive already open at the Public Record Office, including the Foreign & Commonwealth Office wartime records which were released in 1972. It is important, however, to place the SOE papers in their proper context While the release of any block of files must offer scope for finding material which is historically significant, retained papers can acquire a false sense of mystery, so that when they are released their importance is distorted. The reasons for withholding papers are often more to do with the method of collection or distribution of infonnation than with the actual substance. The SOE flIes, therefore, should be seen as illuminating a new angle of the historical picture, rather than altering its composition. The purpose of this History Note is to show how SOE flIes contribute to the understanding of one historical episode, the Katyn Massacre, fIrst brought to light in 1943 when the Gennan authorities announced their discovery of. a mass grave of Polish officers

in Katyn forest near Smolensk. The exact numm:r of those ~ed at Katyn has never been established, but following the \ discovery of bodies at other



the total seems to have been at least 15,000. The Gennan

revelations were accompanied by an accusation of Soviet guilt: the Soviet Government rebutted


this charge, and accused the Germans of the killings. A mass of evidence was adduced on both sides, but conclusive proof of responsibility for the massacre was not av . when the Soviet Government admitted that Stalin had ordered the execution of the Polish


wWY\ ~

officers, which had been carried out by the NKVD or Soviet Security Service, forerunner of the

KGB. The reactions of the British Government to the discovery of the Massacre, as documented in the flIes of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, have been available in the Public Record Office since 1972. While the SOE documents add little to the factual detail, the nature, purpose and perspective of the SOE documentation sheds some new light on the British Government's approach to the tragedy and its possible implications for relations between the Allies and the successful prosecution of the war against Gennany.

The Katyn Massacre: an SOE Perspective is in two parts. In Part I, a brief account of the Special Operations Executive and its records explains the nature of the documentation. This sets the context for Part II, a short study on the Katyn massacre and the British Government's reaction to it, written in the light of recently-released SOE documents on Eastern Europe.


Part I The Special Operations Executive and its Records

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was a British covert operations service fonned in July 1940 by the amalgamation of three bodies which had been created shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War: Section D of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), which had studied the subject of sabotage and already had some resources in the field in Eastern Europe; EH (named after its headquarters, Electra House, on the Embankment), a semi-secret propaganda section of the Foreign Office set up in 1938 which was later to form the nucleus of the Political Warfare Executive; and Military Intelligence, Research (MIR), which had developed out of the research section of the War Office's general staff and which made a study of guerrilla warfare. l SOE was a secret, independent auxiliary service. Departmental responsibility for its work lay not with the Foreign Office, but the Ministry of Economic Warfare, in order to maintain SOE's independence from any of the orthodox services. Its headquarters were at 64 Baker Street, separate from the Ministry in Berkeley Square, and its fIrst Chief Executive Office was H M Gladwyn Jebb (later Lord Gladwyn), a member of the Diplomatic Service. When Jebb returned to the FO in 1942, Sir Frank Nelson became head of SOE, followed by Sir Charles Hambro

and then Major General (Sir) Colin Gubbins. SOE's task, memorably expressed by Prime Minister W S Churchill to the Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton, was to 'set Europe ablaze': to coordinate action against the enemy by means of subversion and sabotage, including propaganda on behalf of the Allied war effort. It had first to identify, train, supply and coordinate the efforts of Resistance groups in Occupied Europe. It had then a twofold purpose: ultimately, to raise secret armies to rise in concert with the eventual Allied invasion; in the meantime, to carry out a programme of sabotage detrimental to the enemy's fighting potential. SOE was divided into three branches: SOl (propaganda), S02 (active operations) and S03 (Planning). Its focus of activity was Europe, but it also operated in Africa and the Middle East and in the Far East including India. The specific nature of SOE activities varied according to the


A fuller account of the origins and structure of SOE is given in MRD Foot., SOE in France (HMSO, 1966). 3

conditions of Occupation. In France, for example, there was a complex web of classic underground networks and anned Maquis groups; in Yugoslavia and Greece, however, open guerrilla warfare was predominant. SOE was active in every theatre of war until it was disbanded in 1946. SOE records were never kept systematically. The organisation grew up hastily and piecemeal, and for reasons of security there was no central registry: an attempt to create a central archive was unfmished when the war ended. Some SOE records were destroyed in the face of enemy advance (for example, in Singapore before the Japanese advance), and considerations of storage and handling meant that they were subjected to rigorous 'weeding' at the end of the war. A portion of the SOE archive was also destroyed by frre in late 1945. It is estimated that only some 13% of the original papers have'S'Qrvived these processes of intentional and accidental destruction. Of the papers which remain, arrangement can be haphazard, and material is found in unexpected places. The fIrst release of SOE records for the years 1940-45 was in June 1993, when fIles relating to the Far East (Burma, Siam, French Indo-China, Malaya, China, Japan, Afghanistan, India, Australia and Anglo-Dutch Sumatra, together with organisational papers) were transferred to the PRO in class HS 1/1-350. This was followed in June 1994 by papers on Scandinavia (Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Scandinavia General), class HS 211-272; and in September 1994 by material relating to Africa and the Middle East (AdenIRed Sea, Abyssinia and East Africa, North Africa, West Africa, Arab countries, Cyprus, Egypt, Malta and Tunisia, Middle East general, Morocco, Palestine, Syria, Tangier and Turkey), class HS 3/1-245. The files on Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and the Soviet Union, released in March 1995, are in class HS 4/1-381. 2 Some official accounts of SOE's operations in various theatres have already been published under Cabinet Office sponsorship. 3 Others are in the course of preparation. In addition, it is planned to release certain other internal accounts of SOE operations to the Public Record Office in due course.

Useful guides to the SOE records in each of the fom classes, written by Louise Atherton, are available from the Public Record Office. 3 See note 1, and also: Charles Cuickshank, SOE in the Far East (OUP, 1983) and SOE in Scandinavia (OUP, 2



Part II The Katyn Massacre Reactions to the release in 1995 of SOE records on Eastern Europe have included suggestions that the ftIes reveal that HM Government had always known that the massacre had been perpetrated by the Soviet Union, but had acquiesced in a 'cover-up'. A close study of the papers, however, has revealed nothing regards the question of Soviet guilt: indeed the SOE documents ~ far Jeii expJjci t than those in Foreign Office fues", long since released into the public domain, which acknowledged that


weight of evidenre pointed


Soviet guilt.

There was, however, no prospect of an objective investigation in wartime, and conflicting reports on the massacre from Gennan and Soviet sources meant that the facts were in sufficient doubt to lead the Foreign Office Legal Adviser, Sir William Malkin, to state in 1944 that 'events


justify a suspension of judgment on our part' .



The Special Operations Executive was set up to coordinate action against the enemy by means of subversion and sabotage, including propaganda on behalf of the Allied war effort. As far as

Katyn was concerned, SOE was concerned not with proof of guilt but with seizing the opportunity to further the war effort, and preventing the Gennans from making effective use of the issue for their own purposes. This accounts for the rather forthright and brash tone of the SOE reports. There is no evidence to suggest that SOE reports had any effect upon the line taken by HM Government on Katyn between 1943 and the Soviet admission of guilt in 1990. Departmental responsibility for SOE within the British Government did not lie with the Foreign Office, but with the Ministry of" Economic Warfare, and in general SOE material only contributed to the fonnulation of foreign policy in matters concerning subversive and underground activity. TIle Foreign Office received far more infonnation on Katyn from diplomatic and Political Warfare Executive sources than from SOE.

Background The importance of the Katyn massacre was in 1943 and remains today political as well as human. In 1943 the discovery of a mass grave of 8,000 Polish officers was horrific and tragic. The massacre wiped out at a stroke many potential leaders of Polish society. Clearly a tenible 5

crime had been committed, but the Second W orId War was at the height of its brutality, and terrible things happen in wartime: both Foreign Office and SOE flIes make it clear that the British and American Governments - and to some extent the Polish authorities - shared this view. Reactions to Katyn were governed by the significance of the massacre and its repercussions to the cause in hand: British, German, Russian or Polish. Initial British official reaction to the Gennan revelations and accusations of Soviet guilt was that they were not genuine; the second, concern that if they were genuine, they should not be allowed to affect Allied solidarity in the war effort against Germany. The Foreign Office agreed with the US State Department's 'refusal to entertain this fresh piece of Axis propaganda designed to split the solidarity of the United Nations'. Foreign Office documents relating to Katyn in 1943-4 are concerned with the possible implications of the revelations for relations between two British allies, the Soviet Union and Poland: they do not analyse evidence or seek to attribute guilt, although they do analyse the motives of the Soviet Union and Gennany in each blaming the massacre on the other. HM Government's interests lay in looking forward to victory, and the importance of good Soviet-Polish relations in order to achieve this. The line taken in the flIes of the Special Operations Executive is the same as that in Foreign Office flies, but more exaggerated in emphasis. The SOE's purpose, according to its establishing directive of July 1940, was 'to co-ordinate all action, by way of subversion and sabotage, against the enemy overseas'. Propaganda was an important part of this effort, and although SOE was not in the business of disseminating intelligence, it was concerned to exploit the unpopUlarity of the Nazi regime whenever and wherever possible. In 1943, when the Katyn massacre was made public, SOE's position was clear: the Soviet Union was an ally of the United Kingdom; the latter was at war with Nazi Gennany. Anything which discredited Germany was useful; anything that depressed the morale of those fighting Nazism, whether they were British or Polish, was undesirable. All the material in the SOE flIes must be read in

this context. From the SOE standpoint, therefore, German guilt was clearly more acceptable - and useful for SOE purposes - than Soviet guilt, as explained in an undated SOE memo, Katyn and After, which was obviously the source of press reports in 1995. SOE were concerned with the propaganda value and morale implications of the Katyn affair: they shared the FO view that investigation of the facts, evaluation of the evidence and proof of guilt were not their affair, and their opinion as to who carried out the massacre was confmed to the simple statement that 'the


balance of the evidence available appears to be that the German report [of Soviet guilt] is substantially correct' . The Germans themselves soon realised the propaganda potential of the discovery of the bodies of some 8,000 Polish officers at Katyn. The timing of their revelations seem to have been carefully chosen: the bodies may have been discovered as early as 1941, and the question of why it took until early 1943 for the crime to be made public was never satisfactorily answered.

An SOE memorandum of 20 August 1943, Katyn and German Propaganda, pointed out that it was 'of considerable interest to German propaganda to exploit the Katyn affair to the utmost, and representatives of the propaganda departments made no secret of this to the Polish delegations. They said that the Reich is waging a desperate struggle against Bolshevism in defence of the whole of Europe, for which reasons the Katyn crime must play its appropriate part in the arsenal of German methods, policy and strategy'. The memorandum also states that 'the Katyn revelations coincided with an intensification of the campaign for extracting labour from the General Government', and followed 'very soon after a series of exceptionally brutal measures' in Poland. The Soviet rebuttal of the German accusations was indignant but vague. However, in the same way as the British Government, the Soviet Government wished to discredit and damage its enemy, Germany, in any way possible, and was quick to seize the opportunity to make, political capital out of the affair. They also wanted to secure leverage over Poland with an eye to the postwar settlement The rupture in Soviet-Polish relations, ostensibly caused by the Polish attempts to get the International Red Cross to investigate Katyn, alanned the British Government, and the prevailing view in the Foreign Office was that the Soviet Union had been actively seeking just such an opportunity to pick a fight with Poland. It is notable that in the Foreign Office files on Soviet and Polish affairs for this period, papers on Katyn are interspersed with papers relating to discussions on the future Soviet frontier with Poland. The SOB papers make it clear that from the start the Polish authorities believed in Soviet responsibility for the massacre. According to the memorandum Katyn and After, 'Most Poles were convinced that the officers in question were dead after it became evident in 1941 that the Soviet Government would give no information as to their whereabouts... The most widely believed version was that these officers had been put in barges at Yeniseisk and that these barges were towed out to the Arctic Ocean and scuttled'. The memorandum noted that the revelations about the massacre presented a dilemma to the Polish Government: 'if they ignore the whole matter they will rightly be considered to be a puppet Government, in which case they 7

might as well not exist, since they would lose all support in Poland. If on the other hand they protest against this Soviet action they will be accused of disrupting Allied unity and so would be equally inconvenient'. The Polish authorities clearly thought that their belief in Soviet guilt was shared by their allies, and suspicions of a 'cover-up' were voiced as early as 1943: 'We are trying not to talk of the careful silence of our Allies on this matter as if they already knew that they could annoy someone whom they do not want to touch'. This suspicion was tempered, however, by a keen realisation of political realities, and the Dziennik Polski article from which the above sentence was taken went on to ask the Allies to denounce the crime, rather than the criminals: 'a crime remains a crime, whoever may have committed it'. Foreign Office records support this view: the Polish Prime Minister, S Mikolajczyk, admitted in conversation with Prime Minister W S Churchill that the rupture in relations with the Soviet Union could be damaging to the Allied cause, and accepted the unwisdom, on political grounds, of the Polish request for an International Red Cross investigation. His concern, like that of the Soviet Government, was for what might happen after the war: what the massacre might portend for Soviet postwar treatment of Poland.

In the face of this political pragmatism, Katyn has nevertheless remained an emotive issue. For many Polish people who lived through the Second World War, and for those who have made a study of Polish history, the 'failure' of the British Government to react to the Katyn revelations and their unwillingness to be drawn into the evidential and legal discussions are seen as representative of the larger failure of the British and American Governments to save Poland from Soviet domination after the war. The 'sacrifice' of Poland to the larger issue of harmonious Great Power relations in 1945 is not forgotten. The Soviet admission of guilt for Katyn in 1990 still had some power to shock as a reminder of the unhappy history of Polish-

Soviet relations, even though most Poles had long believed in Soviet responsibility for the massacre.

Conclusion FO and SOE records make clear what line HM Government took, and the political and legal considerations behind it. These records are in the public domain and nothing in recently released papers conflicts with statements made by the British Government on Katyn in 1943 or thereafter. There was no question of a 'cover-up'. Until 1990, HM Government accepted that 8

conclusive proof of Sovi t guilt w uld only Government When such cooperation Polish-Soviet commission


obtained with th full cooperation of the Soviet

med as if it might be forthcoming in 1987, when a

t up into Soviet blank spots , the British Government stated

that 'there is indeed sub tantial circumstantial vidence pointing to Soviet responsibility for the killings. We look to th So . t-Polish commi ion to settle the question once and for all' (Lord Glenarthur, 11 July 1988 House of Lords Hansard, vol. 499). HM Government s line on Katyn was e

mplified in Lord Aberdare's observation in 1971


echoing Sir William Malkin in 1944 - that Governments are not at liberty to voice half-fonned views, speculations or suspicions. Th concern of the Polish peopl

British Government understands, however, the

who may have lived through the trauma of Katyn, and who

believe that its significance has never been acknowledged sufficiently internationally.


The Katyn Massacre: An SOE Perspective  

A study of the Katyn Massacre in 1943 as revealed by documents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) – a covert organisation engaged in...

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you