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Early on the morning of 14th May, reports were received from 17 Field Regiment of fighting between the Croats and the Yugoslav Tito troops. The Croats, apparently, had been fighting on the wrong side. In the evening, a Croat Liaison Officer appeared at the 17th Field offering to surrender to the British and lay down their arms after passing through the British outposts. The Liaison Officer arrived at my Headquarters to tell his story about 9pm. He said there were two groups of Croats, each of about 100,000 men under arms, and that they were at present attempting to get past the Bulgarians and Yugoslav outposts and surrender themselves to us. Their main object, apparently, was to escape from the Tito regime and they were not in the least particular about what country they were finally going to, so long as it was not Yugoslavia. Further questions revealed that there were half a million civilians, including women and children trailing along behind and the remnants of a couple of German divisions – quite a tidy little party, it seemed.
The German Liaison Officer said that their relations with the Bulgarians were pretty good. They had made an agreement with the Bulgarians that they should be allowed to pass through their outpost south of Lavamund and turn west to Bleiburg. This manoeuvre had started quite satisfactorily until the Yugoslavs came along, drove back the Bulgarians and then opened fire on the Croats. The Croats lost two or three of their rather doubtful tanks to the Yugoslav bazooka men and some civilians had been killed by shellfire but they succeeded in getting the Yugoslavs back from those crossroads and continued their advance towards Bleiburg and 17 Field Regiment. The remainder of the Croats were still coming up from the south. If the Yugoslavs had not turned up, it is quite possible that Bulgarians might have accepted the surrender of the Croats but that would not suit the Yugoslavs at all. Apparently Yugoslavs and Bulgarians cannot stand the sight of each other. It is awfully hard to know who likes whom in this part of Europe. Probably, the best assumption to make is that anybody will cut the other fellow’s throat for twopence.
On referring this nice little problem of the Croats to higher authority, I was told that on no account could we allow them to surrender to us; they had fought against the Yugoslavs in aid of Germany, and Yugoslav prisoners they must become.
By the morning of the 15th, it was pretty obvious that some sort of climax would be reached fairly soon. I could get not answer about what the aids were if the Croats would not surrender to the Yugoslavs. I had been told by the Croat Liaison Officer that there was no question of their surrendering to the Yugoslavs. The Yugoslavs on their side, I was told by the 17th Field, were equally determined that the Croats were not going to get out of their clutches and were taking up warlike positions to make quite sure that they did not.
I reached Bleiburg at 1230 and had a drive around the area. A desultory clatter of musketry seemed to be going on in various directions but I think it was only the “heartening” type, so dear to the Yugoslavs and fortunately quite harmless as a rule. I could not see anything except the Yugoslavs and so withdrew to Bleiburg castle and sent for the opposing contenders with whom I knew Rupert Lecky, commanding 17 Field Regiment, was in touch. Within half an hour, he had rounded up both generals and turned up at the castle and altogether sorry to pass the baby.
Our total resource at Bleiburg at that time was Paul Lunn-Rockliffe’s battery, a troop or two of 46 Reconnaissance Regiment, a couple of armoured cars of 27 Lancers and two or three tanks. The battery of guns was deployed in the most open place that could be found in case anyone should overlook this big display of force and another battery was moved south of the river Drava to support them – just in case.
The head boy of the Yugoslavs was a commissar, a most determined young man in his early twenties who, I gathered, ranked as a major general. He informed me, with some emphasis, that the Yugoslav Army was ready to fight and that he had issued orders for the battle to start in half an hour’s time.
His intention was to defeat the Croat Army on the field in battle.
Under no circumstances would he allow any delay in achieving this estimable objective.
He did not request any military assistance, as he said that the very large Yugoslav forces, which were now deployed in the hills round about, were quite adequate to deal with the situation. Moreover, he said, fresh troops were arriving every minute.
It certainly looked as if we were well situated for a front row in the stalls for the ensuing conflict. I had noticed, with relief, that the hills of the castle were exceedingly thick and the approaches to it extremely difficult.
I suggested to this firebrand that the elimination of the Croatian Army, which no doubt was highly desirable, would be more satisfactorily achieved if the Croats laid down their arms than if it became necessary to attack a force of such large dimensions. They agreed that this was so, but reiterated their desire to start the battle in half an hour
I did not think it was very likely that the battle would start while he was still with me and I had taken adequate steps to ensure that he did not leave until I was ready.
I pointed out that my only object in being there was that I, like all other British soldiers, in having a high regard for the way the Yugoslav Army had been fighting a lone battle for so long, was only out to do my utmost to prevent any more gallant Yugoslavs getting killed if there was anything I could do to find any easier way out. The commissar eventually agreed that if I would be good enough to try and make the Croats surrender to them, he would be very pleased but, if I did not mind, he could only wait for quarter of an hour before he would have to give orders for the battle. I congratulated him on the excellence of communications, which enabled him to launch such a mighty army from so many directions with such exactness.
He then withdrew and I sent for the Croatian party.
The Croats were a much more orthodox looking outfit. There were about ten of them all told, headed by a General and a very nasty looking commissar. The Yugoslav couple had had an American soldier of Yugoslav extraction as an interpreter. This fellow had apparently been living with them for the last 10 months. I kept the American to do the interpreting with the Croats so that he could explain what had been said to the Yugoslavs, who would then know that there had not been any funny stuff going on behind their back.
The Croatian deputation was absolutely adamant that both the Army and the civilians with them would rather die where they were, fighting to the last man, than surrender to “any bolshevists”. They pointed out that this movement was an emigration of the entire Croat nation as they had decided it was impossible for them to live under Bolshevist influence. They requested, therefore, that their plan should be referred to Field Marshal Alexander as a political matter. I asked them where they were emigrating to but their destination did not seem to be a matter that any of them had considered. I asked them how they proposed to feed such a vast multitude in a Europe that was already entirely disorganised and extremely unhappy. I told them that an emigration such as this was quite out of the question at the moment. They could not possibly be fed whatever part of Europe they went to and such an emigration could only take place after careful preparation, otherwise the whole party would undoubtedly starve. They suggested that they might go to America or Africa and I told them that the ways and means for such a movement were completely non-existent at present and that if they moved anywhere they would be bound to starve. Starving, they insisted, was an infinitely preferable course to surrendering to Tito.
The Yugoslav Commander in War, meantime, was sending me messages saying that he could not wait any longer and the battle must start.
I was getting a little tired of the Croatian commissar, who took the floor whenever he got the chance and started delivering himself of political orations.
Quite concisely, I gave them the alternative and five minutes to take choice.
The alternatives were there.
First: that they would surrender to the Yugoslavs. That I would use my influence, though unofficially, to try and ensure that they would be treated correctly.
Secondly: that they stayed where they were and were attacked by the Yugoslavs.
Third: that they endeavoured to advance into the British lines, when they would not only be attacked by the Yugoslavs but by all the weight of British and American Air forces, Land forces; and everything else that I could get my hands on, in which case, they would unquestionably be annihilated.
The chances of survival, I pointed out, were quite easy to determine and they were in direct relation to the order of the course as I had given them.
To put it at its lowest level, it would be difficult for the Yugoslavs to murder such a large number and it was anyway unlikely that they would want to. Therefore, it seemed pretty obvious that a high proportion of the Croat nation could survive if they followed this obviously sensible first course; if they took either of the other alternatives, they would be bound to die, so what?
After five minutes, they sensibly decided on the first course.
The Yugoslavs were brought into the room and I told the interpreter to explain the gist of the conversation and what the outcome had been.
An agreement was then made in my presence and signed by the two Armies.
The Yugoslavs demanded that the Croats should signify their surrender within an hour, otherwise the battle would start.
I must say this seemed to me rather short notice, if the Croats were to put over the surrender business to their unwilling thousands.
I recommended that a slightly longer period should be allowed.
The Yugoslav Commissar, however, who evidently knew his countrymen better than I did, said it was quite long enough and stuck to one hour as being the limit.
Needless to say, the Croats complained bitterly.
It was quite obvious, however, that the Yugoslavs meant business. I told the Croats, therefore, that they were already over a week late in surrendering in accordance with the general terms of surrender and that they were extremely lucky to be treated as prisoners of war at all and that, if they did not hang out their flags within one hour, I should call upon all the resources I had, to confirm their surrender to the Yugoslavs.
Off they went; their time was short – they had to get some white flags by half past four.
The terms of surrender were fair enough – the Croatian Army was to be treated as prisoners of war with the exception of political criminals who would be tried by Allied courts, while the civil population were to be fed and returned to Croatia by the shortest route.
With five minutes to spare, the Croatian Army signified their surrender and the handing in of arms commenced forthwith.
As far as I was able to see, during the next 24 hours, all the arrangements in connection with the surrender and evacuation were carried out by the Yugoslavs speedily and efficiently.
Thus ended the Bleiburg incident. The 17th Field Regiment and especially 13 Battery had had about as complicated a job to do as is humanly possible to imagine. Like the rest of us, they were well versed in the art of direct warfare but all this sort of thing was something none of us had a clue about. At all levels, everyone was inclined to blame the person above them for not telling them what the answer was when it did happen. The long and short of it was that nobody had the least idea what was going to happen next or where it was coming from. Commonsense and implementing a very general governing policy was all any of us had to rely on. I suppose nobody knew the sort of things that were going to happen. It was extremely difficult, therefore, for the junior commanders and soldiers to know what on earth they were supposed to do under given circumstances. The first thing to try and find out was who you were dealing with and, as likely as not, it would be a representative of some nation hitherto unheard of, probably what my jeep driver would have referred to as “one of them Gretes”. As a matter of fact, I think this semi-political mix up rather reminded him of his early days in Clonmel. There were certainly a grand variety of “rebels and people agin some government”.
It is when you are in a complete mix up like this, where anything can go seriously wrong at any moment, that the British soldier really reaches his peak. By some unerring instinct, he always seems to do the right thing. The chaps had serious confidence in themselves and it never occurred to them that any of these scallywags, who would cut each other’s throats without a moment’s hesitation, would dare to interfere with them. In this belief, they were absolutely correct and, as long as a British soldier was knocking about, the chance of trouble was at once reduced to a very great degree. The tremendous prestige of the British Army and all its representatives can only really be grasped when one sees its effect at first hand like this.
All through the 15th, the forces under my command had been steadily increasing in case there was any sort of showdown. We had a ‘Rover Paddy’, by which I was able to access the fighters to fly about during the morning and strike terror into the hearts of the wretched Croats. The 27th Lancers came under command and a squadron came in behind 13 Battery in case of trouble. The 16 Durham Light Infantry of 46th Division were on their way to Bleiburg to relieve the now exhausted 13 Battery and 17 Field Regiment’s sphere of responsibility would be restricted to the area north of the Drava. Some more tanks came under command too with a call on others should they be required.
However, the crisis was past. I went back to Brigade Headquarters that evening hoping that all would go well and wondering what the next problem was going to be.
On the morning of the 16th, I went down to see how the old Bulgarians were getting on at Lavamund. They, too, had been involved in this Croat business to some extent. Their Divisional Commander and I were now on the friendliest terms and there was never any nonsense about having to have two interpreters and not understanding what was said. His chief worry was that his booty collecting parties had been seriously hampered in the execution of their duties by having to stop and fight the Croats or the Yugoslavs – I do not quite know which it was – I do not think he did either! Anyway, the net result was that he wanted a bit of extension over the time limit I had given him to collect his so called spoils of war. This, I granted him, and we had a few drinks to cap the matter.
I had allowed the Bulgarians the use of the main road route through our area, going via St Andre, Wolfsberg and Koflach for their MT convoys, which were going to Graz. To describe their paraphernalia as on a MT convoy is certainly stretching the imagination a bit. Practically none of it could get up the hill out of Lavamund. The chief use of the tank we had sitting at the corner of the town was to pull their junk up the hill and launch it on its way. One would see small and inadequate looking ten horsepower cars often pulling a lorry, which, in its turn, could have a doubtful looking gun – probably with no breach block – hooked on behind. The Bulgarian artillery was certainly a sight for the gods! Sometimes, a motor bicycle would be seen pulling an antediluvian field piece, which was quite good going as long as one of its wheels did not come off. With great respect, the General told me that he did not think he would be able to collect all the cannons that he had an eye on. I should not think he missed much! These “convoys” had a great knack of running out of petrol in our area and blocking the roads. I think this was all part of the show as it is more than likely that the Russians were keeping them a bit short of this essential commodity. The departure of the Bulgarian Army was a long drawn out affair. How they had got as far as they had, the Lord only knows!
Horse drawn transport was a great feature amongst all the contesting Armies in this part of the world. The sight of a German Division on the move made one wonder how on earth they had even done as well as they had. It consisted of mile after mile of antiquated looking carts, pulled by most doubtful looking hairies. Most of their artillery was horse drawn too. It was not until we had seen sights like those that it was really borne home to us that the British and American Armies were the finest equipped in the world. Trying to get past one of those horse drawn convoys on a narrow road in a staff car nearly drove one crazy with impatience. It was not until just at the end of our time in Wolfsberg that I managed to get hold of an Air OP, which I found was the real answer to the maiden’s prayer. For several days, I worked the Air OP pretty hard but found it had unpleasant limitations when one was caught in one of the afternoon thunderstorms.
On the 17th, it was decided that we were to be relieved by the remainder of 46th Division and I was to hand over to Joe Kendrew, commanding the Hampshire Brigade. There was only one CO left in the Hampshire Brigade who had been in it when I was commanding them on the Garigliano. We were to go to Tarvisio on the Austro-Italian frontier and so release 138 Brigade to take over from the London Irish.
That afternoon, the 2nd and 5th Hampshires relieved the Faughs, who moved off and in turn relieved the 6th Lincolns in Tarvisio early the next morning. On the 18th, 1/4 Hampshires relieved the 17 Field Regiment, who started for Tarvisio about midday, at which time I also handed over and went off in an Air OP.
On the morning of the 19th, we assumed command at Tarvisio, with the Yorks and Lancs, 2/4 KOYLI and 71 Field Regiment under command, as well as the rest of our own group. Our command stretched right back to Udine. We wondered if we were going to settle in Tarvisio for keeps but we did not have to wonder for very long.
At half past nine on the morning of the 19th, the General telephoned, telling me to stop the London Irish at Villach and be prepared to move again tomorrow. I was to meet him for further orders in Villach at midday. Obviously, another flap had started. Paddy Bowen-Colthurst went off with strong reconnaissance groups to see what could be found in the war of accommodation for everyone in this new area.
This time, it was Yugoslav trouble. The Yugoslavs were not playing. Their infiltration into Carinthia was getting to be too much of a good thing.
The British and the American Governments had sent very stiff notes to the Yugoslav Government telling them that we had fought the war to stop people grabbing countries and, if necessary, we would go on fighting to uphold this principle.
A tactical regrouping with this aim in view was to take place immediately. 5 Corps was to face along the Austro–Yugoslav frontier. SHAEF was to take over some of our commitments in order to give us a freer hand. The Jewish Brigade was to take over Tarvisio. American Fifth Army were rushing two divisions to face east, south of the Jewish Brigade in the Tarvisio pass and to the south. 13 Corps were lining up between them and Trieste. It looked as if we might have to pull through our rifles once more. Not for the first time during the last fortnight! It was hardly surprising that we had had no time for VE Day.
I took to the Air PO again and in an hour was to get a view of the country that would have taken several days to do “on the floor”. The 17 Field Regiment pushed out their batteries to the battalions as they had done in the bad old days of war in Italy.
I must digress for a moment to bring you up to date over the Skins. They had stayed behind after Udine when we left for Klagenfurt. As soon as I got to Klagenfurt and heard what the project was, I had started agitating to get them back but in this I never succeeded. After a few days more in Udine, they had gone straight to Villach and were working under the orders of HQ RA in looking after prisoners of war and assisting to get Villach under control. They were comfortably established in a German barracks on the banks of the Drava. During this period, they had a good deal to do. I had flown down to see them the day before we left Wolfsberg. Landing at Villach was not without its funny side. We were told before we left that there was a landing strip there and I had sent off our second Air OP a couple of hours ahead to see where it was and guide us in. I had also sent my car along to the Skins to find the landing ground and wait there. When we arrived at Villach, we could find no trace of anything and so flew back to Klagenfurt to see what had happened to the first Air OP. We found the pilot there quietly having lunch. We hustled him into his aeroplane and led him off to a field off we had noticed near Villach, which we thought might do. The plan was that he should land first and when we saw him safely down, we would go and chase up a car from the air somehow or other and join him. This plan worked all right to start with. We saw him land safely. I then flew off to find the Skins, sweeping and swerving over the town until I spotted their transport in a barracks. After flying crazily round for a few minutes, I spotted David Shaw, the CO, gesticulating wildly towards the east. The next thing I spotted was John O’Rourke driving through the town in my staff car on his way to Tarvisio. All my efforts to stop him by diving at him and waving were quite unavailing. I suppose he had fallen into the usual deep sleep. The only thing I achieved was knocking a window out of the machine. Eventually, I spotted my car cruising about on the road below and, with some difficulty, persuaded it to follow us in the required direction. All was then well. My car, David Shaw and both Air OPs all fetched up together in a field outside the town.
I had a look round the Skins’ barracks on which they had done tremendous work and in a short time, they had made it look very neat and tidy.
When the Brigade Group arrived in Villach from Tarvisio, it was complete again. A battalion of tanks came under command and we were all ready for anything that might occur.
On the 20th, Marshal Tito issued orders that all his troops were to be out of Carinthia by 1800 hours on the 21st.
We all breathed a sigh of relief.
Any military operations undertaken at this date would have been very much in the nature of an unpleasant anti-climax.
It soon became evident that these orders were complied with. What was not as certain was whether the odd groups of partisans, who had been operating independently, would all get the orders or, if they did, whether they would comply with them. We had to be prepared to do a bit of sweeping and searching if this part of the programme went wrong.
By the evening of the 21st, it became clear that the chances of any sort of operation were most unlikely and, that evening, the Brigade Group started to disintegrate for the last time. A Squadron 56 Reconnaissance Regiment, ‘D’ Support Group and 254 A/Tank Battery reverted to the command of their units. 17 Field Regiment went under command of HQ RA and the tanks left us.
It almost looked as if the war was over at last. The thought uppermost in everybody’s mind was whether we were now really in our final occupational area. We certainly hoped so. We had expected to saunter straight into it from Italy. We had not been in the picture!
When we had left Italy, we had, to say the least of it, had new experiences. I wonder if a single Brigade had ever before had to deal with so many different nations in so short a time and all at once? We had fixed three international boundaries within as any days. We had handled vast numbers of surrendered Germans, Hungarians, Cossacks and a variety of lesser lights. We had stopped a war. We had fed Heaven knows how many people. We had moved trains around. We had rounded up “dyed in the wool” Nazis. We had liberated prisoners of war; in fact there was hardly any form of diversion that we had not tried.
It was high time we settled down.