The Curious Case of Prince Yurka Galitzine
by Robin Saikia
The most remarkable story I unearthed while researching this book was that of the White Russian Nobleman Prince Yuri Galitzine, known as 'Yurka' to his friends. The discovery of Yurka was one of those rare moments, a bright sunrise, and I hope worth sharing.
Among the many misspelt or nearly illegible entries in The Red Book there is one, the decidedly exotic 'Turka Galitzine', that stands out from the routine list of English names. It had intrigued me from the outset, since neither Professor Richard Griffiths nor any other authorities on the period had ever identified the mysterious 'Turka'. Then, by chance, I came across a police report, written by a Right Club infiltrator, that identified the stranger and described him as being referred to as what sounded like "Eurha" at one of the Club gatherings. The Galitzine family were well known and it was comparatively easy to track down the elusive Eurha/Turka and identify him as Yuri Galitzine, one of a cluster of young - and possibly rather naive - army officers who were no doubt attracted by little more than what appeared to be the cloak and dagger eccentricities of The Right Club.
Yurka's name is down in the ledger alongside that of his future brother-in-law, Colin Dennistoun Sword, a lieutenant in the Gordons. Colin's future wife was Yurka's half-sister, Pauline Daubeny, also a Right Club member. Another of their circle joined too, David Scrymgeour-Wedderburn of the Scots Guards, soon to be killed at Anzio in 1944 aged only 31. The young naval officer Lord Ronald Graham, an indefatigable party-goer on the right-wing scene, seems to have been the recruiter of this youthful set, a role that fitted in well with one of Ramsay’s stated objectives, the dissemination of Right Club values among younger members of the armed forces.
My quest for Yurka led me to the Imperial War Museum in London where I found his war diary, a meticulously compiled scrapbook of photographs, tickets, press-cuttings, explanatory notes, references to girlfriends - his own and other people’s - and to cars, planes, trips, dances. It is an optimistic, cheerful document to begin with, but it darkens as the war wears on. When Colin Dennistoun Sword was captured and taken prisoner, Yurka carefully cut out the Times report, mounting it in the scrapbook. Similarly, when other friends were reported missing or wounded, or killed as David Scrymgeour-Wedderburn was, Yurka records the event with a press cutting or a diary entry. By 1944 he, and the reader, are at a great distance from the carefree Right Club cocktail parties in South Kensington in 1939. But so far there is nothing to distinguish his story from those of thousands of others, all of them punctuated by loss, loneliness, bereavement, disappointment and the corrosive tedium of war.
But in 1944 Yurka's war darkened still further when he was seconded to the Intelligence section of the Political Warfare Department of SHAEF, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces. It is at this point that the story becomes truly absorbing.
An American officer, Alfred de Garcia, also attached to SHAEF, remembered Yurka clearly: “Captain Galitzine, handsome and humane, somehow detaches himself and even gets back to England to get married, but then returns like an eel to the Sargasso Sea, very much alive and smiling. He has smashing pictures of the High Society wedding and articles from the Press.” Later, de Garzia tells of Galitzine’s increasing disillusionment at the day-to-day barbarities of the war.
[Galitzine] had just been to a trial of militiamen and was upset about the proceedings. A number of youths had been tried and, without the taking of a great deal of evidence and without much formality, they had been sentenced to death. The main fact that was brought out in court was that they were members of the Pétain militia. I remarked to him that I was glad that the FFI had already taken matters into their hands and were dispensing speedy justice. He protested, however, saying that, though he had nothing against the death penalty for traitors, these were mere boys who didn't know what they were doing and who had not committed any atrocity that was proven or done any real harm. They were just small fry. He thought the justice was too summary. I replied that I had no illusions about the individual justice being meted out. Perhaps their delinquency was more a matter of their environment than sheer will on their part. Undoubtedly, those more guilty would escape in large numbers. But who is responsible for anything in this world that he is brought into, warped, according to, and punished for? No eternal law justifies punishment. It is a social act that people often indulge in to expiate their own sins of thought and deed as much as to protect themselves from the criminal in the future. Galitzine didn't agree. He felt the sentence and the weakness of the convicts as a blow to his innards, a threat to his personal integrity, so great is the myth of personal responsibility, and so great the revulsion against punishment as a social policy (though it has always been unknowingly that).
It was Galitzine’s experiences as a war crime investigator that left the deepest impression of all. He was sent, as part of a three-man SHAEF Intelligence unit, to investigate Natzweiler, a notorious camp. In Flames in the Field, Rita Kramer tells us that he was tasked with an investigation of the atrocities at the Natzweiler-Rudhof death camp in Alsace.
Yurka Galitzine … made a number of discoveries. He found all of the camp records intact in the administration building; he heard that there had been some British men in the camp and that some women described as well-dressed spies had been brought there, and he carefully put together a record of the systematic shootings, hangings and gassings, the medical experiments carried out on live prisoners, the conditions of slave labor on starvation rations, the brutal punishments randomly inflicted by sadistic criminals put in charge of the barracks, and other details of daily life in the camps that had been intended to pave the way for the New Order promised by the Third Reich. No one would believe him. Galitzine had ‘heard’ about the atrocities in the camp from four escaped prisoners who gave him a tour of the abandoned camp.
Galitzine’s report – and the photographs that accompany it – speak for themselves.
The SS men conducting the interrogation were given wine and spirits to whip-up their fury still further, and afterwards, knew no restraints. The prisoners in the next room could not sleep during the night because of the continuous cries of pain of those being tortured. At reveille, the accused were taken away. Most of them had been tortured to such an extent that they were entirely beyond recognition. After four weeks, during which time they continued to have their hands tied to their backs and were exposed to the weather, those concerned were publicly hung, in the presence of all the prisoners. Those chained in this manner had remained chained at all times, and their hands were not free when they had to relieve themselves, or to eat and drink. The chains grew into their flesh, the upper arms were blue from the stopped blood, and had (so to speak) died off.
In the last weeks of the war, Galitzine drafted an ambitious document for circulation amongst the allies, a proposal for an International Bureau of Information. The laudable objective of the agency was to share information and, by doing so, scotch the attempts of extremists in their bid for global domination. Information would be, as it were, a weapon for peace, and the subscribing nations would effectively play the propagandists at their own game. Describing the project in a letter to the Times (11 October 1945), Galitzine wrote that “Few people realise the part propaganda has played in this war and even in the last war. It might well be said that Germany declared war on the world in 1933 when Hitler launched his propaganda offensive against civilization, and it is certain that the measure of success he achieved was in the main due to the influencing of public opinion, especially in undermining the unity of his victims by propaganda.”
As I've said, Yurka, unlike many of his fellow Right Club members, had travelled a long way since that first club meeting in South Kensington in 1939. Which all goes to show, I suppose, that not everybody is beyond redemption and that sometimes fate reshapes us in the most dramatic and unexpected ways.
© Robin Saikia 2010
All rights reserved
Robin Saikia's film script of Yurka Galitzine's story
is available from Tamara Kenton Associates