TIME TO SET THE RECORD STRAIGHT WITH SLOVENIA
The Queen’s forthcoming visit to Slovenia is an opportunity to set the record straight towards a friendly country that bravely freed itself from oppression in 1991 and is a NATO ally as well as a recent President of the European Union.
The record is not straight as it is. Three weeks after World War II finished, the British Army in Austria sent back to Slovenia 12,000 Slovene domobranci (Home Guard), who had withdrawn after resisting the Communist-led Partisans with German help. The British disarmed them and tricked them into returning to Slovenia by pretending they were being sent to Italy. Within weeks, the Yugoslav Communist regime had shot practically all the 12,000. That represented one per cent of the Slovene nation, equivalent to 500,000 in British population terms.
To the British who gave the order, this may have seemed no more than a rough and ready solution to a refugee problem at the end of a hard-fought war. But many of the British soldiers involved knew it was wrong immediately. A company of Welsh Guards herding the Slovenes into railway wagons came close to mutiny, according to their sergeant. Nigel Nicolson, a Grenadier Guards captain on the spot and later a publisher and Conservative MP, described it as “one of the most disgraceful operations British soldiers have ever been ordered to undertake.” Captain Tony Crosland of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, subsequently a British Foreign Secretary, wrote of “the most nauseating and cold-blooded act of war I have ever taken part in.”
J.M. Addis of the Foreign Office admitted in an internal note in September 1945 that “the extradition of Slovenes and others to Tito's forces by the 8th Army in Austria was a terrible mistake ... they were massacred by the Tito army.” His Foreign Office colleague J.R. Colville, later the Queen’s Private Secretary as Princess Elizabeth, described the incident in another internal memo two months later as shameful and indefensible.
But these misgivings were kept quiet. No British authority has ever publicly acknowledged sending the doomed Slovene soldiers back, nor admitted it was wrong or expressed any regret. Official files of the time show a consensus that the matter should be laid to rest. A reply to a Parliamentary question in 1947 categorically denied that any Yugoslav displaced persons or prisoners were returned against their will or under false pretences. This statement was drafted by the same British general whose troops had carried out the repatriations. It was patently untrue.
Does this matter any more? Yes it does. A large number of Slovene families alive today were bereaved of husbands, brothers, fiances and friends by this unfortunate act after the war was finished. In the villages of Slovenia, alongside the memorials to Partisan dead, church graveyards carry long lists of names of domobranci slaughtered after the British sent them back. Slovene Prime Minister Janez Janša’s father was one of the few surviving domobranci – spared from execution because he was very young. Finance Minister Andrej Bajuk accompanied the soldiers in their flight to Austria. His parents pushed him over the mountains in a pram at 18 months and he grew up in exile in Argentina.
Slovenes are our friends now. They do not deserve to be treated shabbily by failing to acknowledge what was done. We cannot speak for the leaders of yesterday, but a decent expression of regret would show that our relations are governed by different values today. 62 MPs of all parties signed a Parliamentary Early Day Motion in 2006 calling for such a move. We need feel no qualms about doing so. On the contrary, the gesture would reflect well on Britons of today. The Queen’s visit to Slovenia is the moment to put this right and reach honourable closure.
Co-author Slovenia 1945