Riga Exodus #2

This is the second part of the story of Evelyn Knight’s escape from Estonia in 1940. You can read part one here.

By the second half of 1939 Evelyn must have been aware of the political events taking place around her, and yet she chose to stay behind in Tallin even when her elder sister Mabel returned to the relative safety of England. I wonder if the two women fought about that. Or is it only with hindsight we can see the cumulative effect of each action. Perhaps Evelyn believed each would be the last, and that she was secure in Estonia. I’m no historian, but in this post I’ll attempt to reconstruct what the winds of war might have looked like from Evelyn’s point of view.

When Neville Chamberlain announced Britain was at war with Germany – 3 September 1939 – it was a week after the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had signed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, in which the two countries agreed to take no military action against each other for the next 10 years. Each nation was smarting over the territories they had lost in the aftermath of WWI. I can imagine Molotov and Ribbentrop poring over maps and discussing who would reclaim which territory. Austria and the Sudetenland had already fallen under German control. Now with the pact signed, Germany marched into Poland. The Soviets eyed Finland and the Baltic States (and Eastern Poland). The Soviets put the squeeze on the Balts, gaining the right to install military bases there, and then invaded Finland at the end of November. Later, Germany moved on Denmark and Norway. Then the Red Army invaded the Baltic states in the summer of 1940 and compelled their governments to resign.

Estonia was home to people of various nationalities. As the Soviets amassed troops in Leningrad, only 25 miles from Finland’s border, reports reached Australia that “Hitler is moving out of the Baltic States as Stalin moves in. The evacuation of 15,000 Germans from Estonia and 65,000 from Latvia has already begun, and is described by British correspondents as a flight. The great haste indicates fear of a wholesale Russian invasion of the Baltic countries. Germans quitting Latvia are leaving their houses intact, merely locking the doors and putting up the shutters. They have requested the Latvian authorities to auction their homes and goods and send the proceeds to Germany. They are taking only personal luggage with them.” (News Adelaide, SA, Tuesday 10 October 1939, page 1.)

The Cairns Post (Qld), of Monday 6 November 1939, page 7, adds to the tally, reporting “from Tallinn that 10,000 Germans have left Estonia for Germany. Most of the children have gone and 81 German schools have been closed. The Germans remaining include 15 convicts, who appealed for a pardon, but were ordered to go to the Reich.”

One stated aim of this evacuation was that Germans from the Baltic countries were needed to introduce “German order” in East Germany. In other words … Poland.

When war was declared in September 1939, Evelyn may have anticipated that she could return to England via Finland, and even when the Soviets’ intentions were clear, may have been heartened by reports that “for the Russians to advance, they must cross frozen lakes, through thick forests or along narrow roads which were mined and covered by artillery.” But, despite brave resistance, Finland signed the Moscow Peace Treaty with the Soviet Union on 12 March 1940.

By June 1940, Estonia was also in the Soviets’ grip. And still Evelyn was in Tallin, with the noose slowly tightening around her.

According to information supplied to the Australian League of Nations Union, “the Baltic States and former Finnish province of Karelia have begun to undergo a process of ‘adjustment’ to the framework of the Soviets. Following the establishment in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania of Governments friendly to the Soviet Union, new National Assemblies were elected on July 14 in each country on the basis of the Soviet electoral system. On July 21 the three National Assemblies voted unanimously in favour of the union of their countries with the U.S.S.R., and early in August, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were formally incorporated in the Soviet Union by the Supreme Council of the U.S.S.R.” It was reported from Tallinn that, “The new Government announces that the first task is to develop sincere friendly relations with the Soviet, dismiss dishonest State employees, guarantee the rights of minorities and improve the conditions of workers as well as the Intelligentsia.”

Within months of the Soviet takeover, they had the British in their sights. One of the 174 British evacuees, Mr. Leslie Marshall, the Riga correspondent for the Exchange Telegraph Company and the London Morning Post for 20 years, gives it to us straight. “After Soviet occupation of the Baltic States it was clear that British subjects would no longer be able to work, move or act without hindrance, and they were glad when the British Consul at Riga gave them an opportunity to leave.”

We left Tallinn early in the morning of 26th October 1940 for Riga where we were joined by parties from Latvia and Lithuania so that we were 174 in all.

Evelyn Mary Knight, letter

At this point the evacuees did not know their ultimate destination. In that same letter, Evelyn wrote “When the British Consulate was closed on 4th September we were all prepared to leave for Finland – in fact some of us were down at the harbour with our luggage when the Consul received a wire from the Foreign Office telling us not to leave. This, I suppose, was because they thought we might be stranded in Finland and unable to get any further.”

I wonder what confusion and chaos ensued at Riga railway station when the evacuees learned they were not heading west at all. Instead, a long train ride to Vladivostock was in store for the 174. Britain, being mercilessly bombed by the German Luftwaffe, was in no position to take refugees. Was there a moment when the refugees imagined they would be held in Soviet hands? Evelyn’s letter makes no mention of that, but it was written after the event.

Again, we are reminded of the current plight of the Afghanistan refugees. Most of them would have no idea where they will end up, they only know they need to get out, and fast.

20 thoughts on “Riga Exodus #2

  1. Pingback: Riga Exodus #7 | The Reluctant Retiree

  2. Pingback: Riga Exodus #6 | The Reluctant Retiree

  3. Pingback: Riga Exodus #5 | The Reluctant Retiree

  4. Pingback: Riga Exodus #4 | The Reluctant Retiree

  5. Two posts from you and I’m ready to watch the movie that should be made from this story. With angles from people and history to politics and drama, it might only need an epic score of music to reach perfection. Kudos to your research as well as Derrick’s igniting of the wick that burns your flame.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know, right? It’s a fascinating story. You’ll catch up with #3 when you have time, I’m sure, and I have enough material for several more posts.
      I’ll write #4 in the next couple of days. I can hear and smell the steam whiffling around the railway station platform as 174 people board the train bound for Vladivostock.

      After WWII Australia embraced an immigration policy based on “populate or perish”, and many of the first assisted immigrants came from Scandinavia and the Baltic States (guess why, cynical voice says). The High School I attended was opposite a migrant hostel. It was the mid-60s by then, so those early nationalities had been expanded, but still, many of my classmates were “White Russians”.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Very timely post, as you mention those poor people trying to flee Afghanistan. History repeats itself, especially when aggressive, violent and murderous men rule hidden behind a thin veil of politics and/or religion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was Derrick who started them off, curiously only a few days before the news broke of the Taliban taking Kabul.
      I am watching the evacuation avidly. It was last June I heard a radio interview from a lawyer/former soldier who was trying to negotiate with Foreign Affairs and Immigration to bring out the interpreters etc, and had supplied the government with all the required paperwork and validations of who they were and what role they had played for Australian forces in Afghanistan. Once again, our do-nothing government pushed back, and now are acting surprised it’s come to this.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Riga Exodus #3 | The Reluctant Retiree

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