From Russia with love, the old soldiers' diaries seized by Nazis

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The documents were like a window on the world of yesteryear, in some cases evoking voices from beyond the grave. Diaries and records of Allied servicemen seized by the Germans during the Second World War were finally returned yesterday after lying in a Russian vault for more than 50 years.

The documents were like a window on the world of yesteryear, in some cases evoking voices from beyond the grave. Diaries and records of Allied servicemen seized by the Germans during the Second World War were finally returned yesterday after lying in a Russian vault for more than 50 years.

Three surviving veterans, three widows and dozens of children and grandchildren of dead servicemen gathered at the Imperial War Museum in London to receive the faded documents, which were once held by their loved ones.

It was an astonishing moment. That the governments of the UK and Russia should hold talks lasting years, that archivists in the former Soviet Union could trace the papers of 79 Allied servicemen when millions of their own had perished, and that their counterpart in Britain should take three years tracking down all but seven of them amazed the gathering.

"I can't believe that they have found time to do this, but I suppose it sends the message that each individual serviceman is important," said Jim Petherick, 78, formerly a captain in the Devonshire Regiment. He was presented with his blue, brittle Officer's Record of Service. In it was carried his service number - 189226 - and details of inoculations - smallpox, typhoid - and his training courses - intelligence, signals and mortar firing.

"More than 21 million Russians died, and yet they can be bothered to do this for us. It really is quite amazing," he said.

Mr Petherick, who was taken prisoner of war at Anzio in 1943, had no idea how his records had been captured by the Germans. Like many, they were probably taken to gather intelligence as Allied rear headquarters were overrun by the Nazis.

Lewis Moonie, a Defence minister, said the papers had been taken to Berlin to be studied, but then transported to Moscow when the Red Army marched into Germany. In the early 1990s, word of a small archive of Allied documents reached the West and talks were opened.

Eventually, in 1997, photocopies were handed over, with the originals following last year. A paper chase began, with the Ministry of Defence, the NHS, associations for ex-servicemen, the War Graves Commission and even the press trying to trace servicemen for their families. Handing over the documents - mostly pay books and service records, with several diaries - Dr Moonie said the personal journals often told of soldiers' boredom, fear and courage. "Some people receiving things today, particularly those with relatives killed during the war, seeing and holding something which belongs to someone you loved so long ago, will experience a mixture of emotions," he said. "I hope any inevitable sadness will be vitally balanced with pride."

And it was. Ellen Pollington, 65, and her sister Margaret Kent, 63, from Cheshire, had come to collect their father's pay book. Lance Corporal Charles Collins of the Grenadier Guards had been taken prisoner at Anzio in 1944 but survived.

His pay book showed how much he had moved around before being captured: 800 lire one month, 200 francs the next. It was all too much for Ellen, whose eyes filled as she held the frayed record. "He was a lovely man - he died in 1979," she said. "He was such a gentle person, much too gentle to go to war. But he insisted on enlisting. He told my mother it was his duty."

There was pride too, from the family of the late Lt-Col George Duncan from East Lothian in Scotland. His son, Peter, was given two almost pristine pale orange diaries detailing the war efforts of his father, who was captured in May 1940. A year later he told of his escape when 26 prisoners crawled through a 345ft tunnel out of the Biberach PoW camp near Munich. "He was only one of four who made it to Switzerland," said Mr Duncan. "We were told later that he was only one of 12 officers during the whole war who made it all the way home.

"Holding his diaries is an incredibly moving experience. The impact is so immediate. It's like he's talking to you again." Lt-Col Duncan died in 1983.

For some of the papers, the journey is not yet over. At the ceremony were representatives from the embassies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Within weeks, if not days, they are expected to see them safely to the relatives of servicemen who travelled from all corners of the globe to fight against the forces of fascism.

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