South African Military History Society

News-sheet No. 89. DURBAN BRANCH November 1980


Our speaker at the well attended November get-together, fellow-member Victor Conrad, presented to his audience one of the so-called "unsolved" horror mysteries of WWII, - "The Massacre of Katyn Forest". Unsolved, because the two suspects, Russia and Germany, accused one another, Governments not directly involved suppressed vital information, and not even the War Crimes Tribunal of Nuremberg pursued the counter-charges levelled by Russia against Germany - so in the end on the evidence that is available everybody is therefore entitled to form his own opinion. Our speaker presented much of this evidence as part of his talk.

Outlining the unenviable position which Poland occupied between two mighty oppressors, squeezing her as in a vice from two opposite directions, the speaker led up to the main subject - a picture of utmost horror and incredible premeditation. On September 1, 1939, when the German armies invaded Poland she and the Soviet Union were bound by a number of seemingly unbreakable treaties and agreements. But in the dawn of September 17, at a time when Poland was most hard-pressed by her German aggressors, the Russian army crossed the Polish frontier in considerable force. During the next days the closeness of the collaboration between Germany and Russia became apparent.

Following the eventual surrender of Poland on September 27, 1939, the Soviet Union commenced immediate deportations of Polish citizens who resided in the sector now under Russian control. Whole families were dispatched to camps in north-eastern Russia. An estimate of the total number of deportees is well over 1 200 000. This number does not include approx. 250 000 Polish soldiers, of which 10 000 were officers, captured by the Russian army in the eastern part of Poland. Polish NCOs with technical qualifications and all officers, some 15 000 officers and NCOs, were accommodated in three camps at Kozielsk, Starobielsk and Ostashkov.

In the first days of April 1940 the final clearing of all three camps began simultaneously. About 400 of the 15 000 prisoners were transported to a new camp and from these 400 survivors the Polish military authorities later were given fullest information about the living conditions in these camps. But from their comrades who had shared these conditions no further word was ever heard. Their silence was final and absolute.

When Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, her armies penetrated deeply into Russia. The town of Smolensk fell on July 16, 1941, and with it the area of the Katyn forest, hastily deserted by the Russians fell into German hands. It was here that in the spring of 1943 the German authorities, acting on information from local inhabitants, discovered mass graves containing the bodies of approximately 4 500 Polish officers, in uniform, with their personal papers intact, all with pistol shot wounds in the back of their heads. Many of the men had their hands tied behind their backs, while a number of bodies also had bayonet wounds which it was observed had been made by four-cornered bayonets, the tyoe of weapon used by the Soviet Army at the time. Microscopic analysis of the rope used to bind the victims also showed it to have been Russian made.

The Russians immediately denounced these findings as anti Russian propaganda and counter claimed that when the Germans had invaded Russia they had overrun the Polish prison camps and that it was they who had shot the Polish officers. As already mentioned this charge was repeated at the War Crimes Trials but dropped. It is significant, however, that soon after these discoveries the Russians suddenly broke off their diplomatic relations with the Polish Government in exile.

The story was supported by a grim and shocking documentary film showing the actual exhumation of the graves and examinations performed on the corpses, firstly by the Germans and then again by the Russians a year later, and emphasized the fact that modern wars are more death than glory and gave much food for thought.

Ken Gillings thanked the speaker on behalf of the audience for his well researched talk.


"War Comes to Umvoti" by John Laband and Paul Thompson is a history of the Greytown and Kranskop area of Natal during the Anglo-Zulu War, and a guide to the significant military sites of the period. It tells of then early white colonists in Umvoti County, of the black inhabitants of the locations along the Tugela, of the Zulu across the river, and of the war's impact on all these communities. The book is the first comprehensive account of the military operations in 1879 on the middle Tugela border.

Will any interested members please place orders with Mrs. Belinda Gordon, the curator of the Greytown Museum, Greytown, Postal code 3500. Price R3.


A warm welcome is extended to new member Mr. Alec Bunker.


December 11thFellow-member DR. ANGUS ALLEN will give a talk on "THE JACOBITE WAR IN IRELAND, 1689 - 1691 : BANTRY BAY TO THE BOYNE".



February 12th Mr. Norman Reeves will show films on the Rhodesian War, including the Rhodesian army raids into Zambia and Moçambique.

The venue will be the Lecture Room, 'SB' Bourquin Building, (the Port Natal Administration Board's head office) on the corner of Jan Smuts Highway and Buro Crescent, Mayville, commencing at 8 p.m. Glasses and ice will be supplied so please bring your own bottled or canned refreshments. Friends and interested persons are welcome to come along.

(Mrs) Tania van der Watt,
Secretary, Durban Branch,
S.A. Military History Society,
Box 870, HILLCREST 3650
Tel 742970 (HOME)

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