Hidden legacy of the fugitives from war: 'Sloppy' screening process may have allowed war criminals into Britain

MORE THAN 200,000 East Europeans settled in the UK in the years after the Second World War. The discovery that more than 30 members of a notorious Lithuanian police battalion are living here today underlines the sloppiness of the screening procedures which allowed war criminals of various nationalities to slip in among Poles, who had fought for the allies, and genuine displaced persons.

The Lithuanians who have been traced in the UK come from a 160-strong company which defected to the allies in northern Italy, probably in late 1944. The company was subsequently attached to the 2nd Polish Commando Battalion serving in 2nd Polish Corps. Then it was common for the Polish forces to accept Poles and other East Europeans captured in German uniforms as replacements for their losses.

Deserters and 'turned' prisoners of war were usually examined by a tribunal comprising Polish and British or American officers before being permitted to enter the Polish Armed Forces. However, since the Lithuanian unit defected en masse no detailed screening may have been undertaken. The Poles were desperate for personnel and there was enormous pressure to take what was offered. If the unit was screened, the process was ineffectual.

Because the unit was composed of Lithuanians rather than Poles it was employed by the PAF on a 'contract' basis and kept distinct from the rest of 2nd Polish Commando. However, as a part of the PAF, the Lithuanian Company became part of the Polish Resettlement Corps which ended up in the UK.

By the end of the war 250,000 Poles were serving in the allied armies in the West. After the Red Army liberated Poland and installed its followers in power, there was little question of the mass of Polish soldiers opting to return home. When Britain recognised the Soviet-inspired Warsaw regime in July 1945, it accepted a moral and political responsibility for the Poles. But what was to be done with them?

Britain's parlous economic situation provided the answer. In February 1946, Clement Attlee, the Prime Minister, set up a Cabinet Foreign Labour Committee to look at ways of drafting foreign workers into essential industries. Hugh Dalton, Chancellor of the Exchequer, was in charge of a Cabinet Polish Forces Committee and responsible for planning a way of utilising the Poles.

In May 1946, Ernest Bevin announced the formation of the Polish Resettlement Corps 'to effect as speedily as possible the orderly disbandment of the Polish Armed Forces in this country and to facilitate their repatriation to Poland, emigration to other countries, or resettlement in civilian life here . . .'

The PRC operated like a military formation, but supplied its members with instruction in English and employment training with a view to settling in Britain. More than 114,000 Poles joined the scheme, and were only released into regular civilian employment with the Ministry of Labour's approval. These controls were essential to placate the trade unions which resisted the inauguration of the PRC. Miners and agricultural workers were the most obdurate. Part of their opposition stemmed from the belief, encouraged by pro-Moscow propagandists, that the Poles were fascist-minded.

The Government made efforts to allay these fears, but there was no proper political screening or any effort to find out whether the men had chequered histories. According to a report on post-war migration for the National Institute of Economic and Social Research in 1954, 'individual members were to some extent screened as to their political past, but disablement, ill-health, old age, or other characteristics unfavourable from the manpower point of view did not preclude admission'.

It should have been clear at the time that there were weaknesses in the selection system. In 1946, the Polish government demanded the extradition of Dr Wladyslaw Dering who was accused of experimenting on the inmates of Auschwitz. He had become a medical officer in the Polish Armed Forces and come to England in August 1946. Although he was on a United Nations list of known war criminals, he was not detected at any stage of his admission into the army or on his entry into Britain.

By spring 1948, 96,000 Poles had been found work and in September 1949 the PRC was wound up. The most common immediate occupations were in agriculture, the building trades, coalmining, textile production and hotels and catering. A third settled in the London area, with about 20 per cent in the Midlands and 10 per cent in the North-west. About 7 per cent lived in Scotland and 2 per cent in Wales. A few thousand were helped to emigrate to Argentina, the dominions and the United States. The entire scheme had cost the Treasury pounds 122m.

Some years later in 'Operation Post Report', East European immigrants who had arrived between 1946 and 1950 were subjected to a screening process. But the Home Office personnel were looking for left-wing subversives and either did not inquire after or ignored evidence of wartime collaboration with the Nazis. Along with other immigration records which might throw light on the entry of wartime suspects, the files of 'Operation Post Report' are closed to public inspection.

The discovery of the Lithuanian Company raises serious questions about British wartime and post-war policy. How could an entire collaborationist unit have been permitted to change sides and enrol in the allied forces, under British command, without being subjected to effective checks? How could these men have been brought to this country, admitted into the Polish Resettlement Corps and civilianised, all at the expense of British taxpayers, with no further investigation of their wartime activities or political allegiances? If their war record was known, has there been a cover-up of war criminals in the UK for nearly 50 years?

David Cesarani is deputy director of the Wiener Library, London, and author of Justice Delayed, a study of how Nazi war criminals entered the UK after 1945.

(Photographs omitted)