Sculpture of iconic snap from Yalta of (l-r) Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin
Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin sculpted from Yalta conference

Winston Churchill wanted to execute captured Nazi leaders including Herman Goering and Albert Speer after World War II, rather than put them in the dock at the Nuremberg trials.

Churchill's opposition to the trials was based on fears that a hearing on war crimes charges would set a dangerous precedent, secret documents have revealed.

The then UK prime minister was outvoted by his Allied partners at the Yalta conference in February 1945 - as the end of hostilities drew near, with victory over Germany in sight.

US president Franklin D Roosevelt believed American citizens would demand a criminal prosecution of the Third Reich's elite. Soviet leader Josef Stalin opposed summarily executing Nazi leaders because Russians enjoyed show trials, he said.

The conflict stemming from Churchill's call for extrajudicial killing came to light in the diary of a British secret agent named Guy Liddell, which was recently declassified. He was head of counter-espionage at MI5 and backed a plan for the likes of Goering to be "bumped off".

Shortly after fighting ceased in May 1945, Liddell was a member of a team charged with gathering evidence of Nazi war crimes. He wrote then of his opposition to a court.

"I think the whole procedure is quite dreadful. The DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) had recommended that a fact-finding committee should come to the conclusion that certain people should be bumped off and that others should receive varying terms of imprisonment, that this should be put to the House of Commons and that the authority should be given to any military body finding these individuals in their area to arrest them and inflict whatever punishment had been decided on. This was a much clearer proposition and would not bring the law into disrepute."

But opposition from the United States and Soviet Union meant Nazi leaders got their day in court. In one entry, with proceedings under way, Liddell echoed the view that Nuremberg had a damaging whiff of hypocrisy.

"One cannot escape the feeling that most of the things the 21 are accused of having done over a period of 14 years, the Russians have done over a period of 28 years," he wrote.

"This adds considerably to the somewhat phoney atmosphere of the whole proceedings and leads me to the point which in a way worries me most, namely that the court is one of the victors who have framed their own charter, their own procedure and their own rules of evidence in order to deal with the vanquished."

The landmark trials of the Third Reich's high command at Nuremberg trials set the blueprint for transnational judicial proceedings practised today by the likes of the International Criminal Court, at The Hague. Nazi leaders who faced proceedings also included Rudolf Hess and Fritz Sauckel.

Twelve of the 24 defendants were sentenced to death.