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THOUSANDS OF BODIES WERE FOUND IN MASS BURIAL PITS; A service will be held in a corner of Cannock Chase to mark one of the darkest episodes of World War Two, when members of the Polish 'intelligentsia' were massacred by the Soviets. MIKE LOCKLEY reports.


THERE was just one woman among the thousands of Polish soldiers murdered in one of the worst wartime atrocities committed by the Soviets.

Flight-Lieutenant Janina Lewandowska of the Polish Air Force was among those poor souls slaughtered in the Katyn Forest.

The slaughter, eight miles from the western Russian city of Smolensk between March and May 1940, remains one the darkest days of the war.

She had been shot down in September 1939, and held at Kozielsk camp before she was unceremoniously killed.

Next Sunday, at 1pm, she will be remembered, along with the other victims of the atrocity, in a corner of Cannock Chase.

The massacre is remembered each year, 1,600 miles away from the rural Russian town, with a commemorative service at the Katyn Memorial at Springslade.

It was a horror that Russia initially denied. The majority of those killed were officers in the Polish Army, Navy and Air Force, as well as hundreds of the "intelligentsia" - lawyers, teachers and lecturers.

In short, those the Soviet Union feared could spark a rebellion.

The initial confession came from Stalin's eldest son, Yakov Dzhugashvili, who admitted to a fellow prisoner at a camp near Lubeck that the murders had been authorised by his father.

"Why, those were the intelligentsia, the most dangerous element to us, and they had to be eliminated," he said.

It was a killing spree spawned by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939, which carved up Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union.

Germany invaded Poland on September 3, 1939, and Russia in August 1940. Polish soldiers captured by the Soviet Union were told that they were being "protected" and would be released once the fighting had stopped.

But in October 1940 Lavrenti Beria, head of the Soviet NKVD, ordered Polish officers to be separated from soldiers in prison camps. He told Stalin in March 1940 that the officers should be executed to minimise the risk of insurrection - and Stalin agreed.

The mass burial pits in the Katyn Forest were discovered by the Germans on April 13, 1943. In the first broad, deep pit excavated lay the gruesome remains of hundreds of Polish soldiers, packed tightly like sardines in a tin.

Shamefully, Britain, then a Russian ally, dismissed the claims as just a Nazi propaganda exercise.

The information about the burial pits was provided to a German Secret Field Police unit in February 1943, by local farmhand Ivor Kisselev.

He told how, between March and May 1940, trains with gratings over the windows began arriving at Gniezdovo station six miles away.

Each contained between 100 and 300 Polish soldiers. The prisoners were marched away. None returned.

On April 15, 1943, Radio Moscow broadcast "vehement denials".

But at 2.15pm on April 23, 1943, Radio Berlin announced: "A report has reached us from Smolensk to the effect that the local inhabitants have mentioned to the German authorities the existence of a place where mass executions have been carried out by Bolsheviks and where 10,000 Polish officers had been murdered."

One German newspaper ran the story under the headline "Forest Unveils Mass Burials".

The BBC claimed the initial broadcast to be "German lies" and all the Allied countries easily accepted the statement. The Polish Government in exile was in a quandary, believing the Germans and Soviets equally capable of the executions.

Polish commander General Mieczyslaw Smorawinski was found among the bodies and identified by his Virtuti Militari - his country's Victoria Cross. He had last been seen at Kozielsk camp.

Other excavations uncovered bodies of Russian civilians, some buried as far back as 1918.

Every victim had been killed with a gunshot to the neck. Hands had been tied behind backs with lengths of preprepared rope; some had their mouths stuffed with sawdust - standard Soviet practice to deal with those who shouted out or offered resistance.

The German authorities were alarmed to find German 7.65mm bullets had been used. However, in May 1943, they checked the source of the bullets and pistols, and found they had been provided to Poland and the Soviet Union between 1922 and 1931.

This forensic "evidence" was used for years to show that the Germans were responsible.

The most damning discovery was 22 diaries, all of which stated the owners had been captured by the Soviets. Crucially, none had entries after early 1940.

Major Adam Solski's diary had a final entry about the journey to nearby Gniezdovo station: "A transfer in the prison bus. Terrible. We were brought somewhere into a forest like a country house. Here searched thoroughly. They were interested in my wedding ring and took away my roubles, belt, pocket knife and my watch, which showed the time to be 6.30am."

Locally recruited workers focused on expanding the excavation area, and German doctor Buhtz headed a 13-strong autopsy team. Foreign journalists were invited from Sweden, Switzerland, Poland and Spain and allowed to move freely amongst the bodies and check documents.

On September 25, 1943, the Red Army recaptured the forest. A 330-page report was released stating that 4,143 bodies had so far been exhumed, of which 2,815 had been identified by name, and the rest by rank.

Eventually, Polish research alculated that those buried included three generals, one rear-admiral, 100 colonels and lieutenant-colonels, 300 majors, 1,000 captains, 2,500 1st and 2nd lieutenants, more than 500 cadet officers and over 200 air force and 50 naval officers.

When the Soviets re-occupied Katyn they set up a "counterinvestigation" and dug up over 900 bodies, inviting foreign journalists from Moscow, although their reports were censored.

The old peasant Kisselev, who had led the Germans to the area, suddenly became deaf. New witnesses were found who blamed the Germans.

Still, Britain refused to condemn the Russians. Lieutenant General McFarlane, head of the British Military Mission in Moscow, advised Winston Churchill: "We've got to keep out of the affair as much as we can, and when we do intervene we must remember that Russia can help us to beat Hitler, and not Poland."

Churchill reflected at the time that the best way to stop the killings was to end the war as quickly as possible.

Not for the first time, US President Franklin Roosevelt was duped by Stalin - "a man with whom I can do business" - believing, too, that the murders were committed by the Germans.

As the Cold War began, a conspiracy of silence smothered the story.

It was not until the 1990s that Russia officially owned up.

On the 50th anniversary of the massacre in April 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev announced an inquiry would investigate the massacre.

Shortly afterwards, two additional areas where Polish bodies were buried were "found" - one near Kharkov, the other near Tver, 100 miles north-west of Moscow.

In total, 6,287 bodies were exhumed.

And on October 14, 1992, Soviet President Boris Yeltsin confirmed to his Polish counterpart Lech Walesa that his country had indeed been responsible.

Poignant memorial to the slain THE Katyn Memorial on Cannock Chase was initially a small, wooden affair.

But in 1979, Frederick Kocon, a Wolverhampton man involved in various ex-servicemen associations across the Midlands, raised the funds for a more permanent tribute.

The Wolverhampton branch of the Anglo-Polish Association was also involved.

On June 29, 1979, he appealed to readers of our sister newspaper, the Birmingham Post, for "a sympathetic person" to help with a digger.

Three months after the appeal, on September 16, an unveiling ceremony took place.

Poignantly, the son of Major Zygmunt Staniszewski, Stefan Staniszewski from Wednesfield, unveiled the memorial.

His father had been a military judge in Poland and was one of those executed. Stefan was the chairman of Branch 239, Wolverhampton Polish Ex-Combatants Association.

In 2010, PS6,000 was raised for a replacement memorial to reflect on the reassessment of the facts - mainly the fact that Russia was responsible.

Contributions were received from Staffordshire County Council, the local Polish community, former Polish servicemen, the Polish Government, the ASDA Foundation and personal donations.

The British Government declined a request for a contribution.

The current, larger memorial has a new plinth and a jar of Katyn soil beneath it.

Why, those were the intelligentsia, the most dangerous element to us, and they had to be eliminated STALIN'S ELDEST SON, YAKOV DZHUGASHVILI


| The Katyn memorial on Cannock Chase and (right) Stanislawa Matejczuka and Stefan Staniszewski with the casket of Katyn soil at the unveiling of the memorial in 1979

| Bodies recovered from the mass graves in Katyn Forest (main picture), a Polish delegation visiting the site of the massacre in 1943 (left) and Lavrenti Beria, head of the Soviet NKVD, who is believed to have been responsible for the 1940 massacre
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Apr 29, 2018
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