Irish Brigade

The story of the 38th (Irish) Brigade in the Second World War

Into Austria – Settling Frontiers


The only people east of us at present were 27 Lancers under Andrew Parker. Their RHQ was at Wolfsberg and they had squadrons reaching out towards Graz. They had contacted the Russians. Our job was to come in behind them and stabilise the situation. To do this, we would obviously have to push out quickly in all directions in order to contact the Russians on all likely lines of approach. At the same time, we would set up some form of civil administration and try to ease the Jugs out if they were there. It had become quite obvious to me as soon as I got to 6th Armoured Division’s Headquarters that I was in very urgent need of two things. A squadron of a Reconnaissance Regiment and a Russian interpreter. I never got either until the need for them had passed.

The main stumbling block to the advance of the Eighth Army was the German column retreating from the Russians, which effectively blocked most of the roads. Added to this were parties of Yugoslavs doing all sorts of funny things. As far as we could make out, the Jugs had decided that, as well as Trieste and a certain number of other places in Italy east of the River Isonzo, they had territorial designs on Carinthia also. They were trying to set up a sort of dual control with us. Any direct dealings with the Jugs were most correct and punctillious on both sides but they were not exactly doing all they could to help us on through Austria. Any parties of Germans they came across were lucky to get away with their trousers. They also did a certain amount of rough handling of the local inhabitants – usually with the object of forcing them to subscribe to the idea of Yugoslav rule and eventual incorporation into that country.

All this I had found out during my day’s pause at Klagenfurt with Adrian Gore. When we started to Wolfsburg next morning those, as far I knew, were the main problems.

To recapitulate, our task was to make contact with the Russians, a problem we did not know much about, to get some order out of the chaos ensuing from the retreating Army Group South East and Army Group East and to disarm its assorted membership and to deal with the Jugs.

 


I got to Wolfsberg between 10 and 11 o’clock in the morning and got as much form as I could from the 27th Lancers. At once, it appeared obvious that concentrating the whole Brigade Group in Wolfsberg was not the right answer. I accordingly sent back word to stop the Faughs at St Andre about 10 miles south at Wolfsberg. The London Irish took over the responsibility for the Wolfsberg area. The 17 Field Regiment came initially to Wolfsberg. 26 Battery joined the Faughs the next day but, by that evening, I found it necessary to send the whole Regiment to the area of Volkemarkt and eventually as far south as Bleiburg. 254 A/Tk Battery came up to Wolfsberg to start with and that evening I sent them off to Preitonegg and then east to St Oswald to contact the Russians. The contacting of Russians had already been successfully done in the Koflach area by 27 Lancers and it was merely a question of extending contact to the south of that place. We never had a moment’s difficulty in our dealings with the Russians; everything was done most correctly and with the minimum waste of time.

As soon as the Faughs got to St Andre, they collected up 1,200 SS troops. These were the only sort we really bothered much about. All other types were just more or less shuffled backwards under their own steam but the SS were given a special form of treatment all for themselves. They were the one type that we were definitely not prepared to have running spare about the country, either now or in the future. The SS were to be eliminated for all time.

When I got to my new Headquarters, which was an imposing looking building in the middle of the town, several deputations were already waiting there. There was a German Corps Commander, a Hungarian Divisional Commander and a number of other erstwhile centurians. I did not know about the Hungarian Army – apparently, that was in our midst too.

While I was dealing with these people, I got word that the Bulgarian Army was bearing down on us. There was word of a Croatian Army doing something somewhere and there were a lot of Cossacks alleged to be running wild to the south-east. Which side all these people belonged to, I had some difficulty in determining. The Bulgarians turned out to be Allies, and the Croats and Hungarians were enemies, as of course were the Cossacks who had changed sides when things had looked bad for Russia.

I told the Hungarians to stay where they were and look after themselves which they seemed quite willing to do. I told the Germans to push off to the west and then devoted my attention to the Bulgarians.

The 1st Bulgarian Army had established a Divisional Headquarters in Lavamund about 25 miles to the south east and were apparently surging along in a westerly and north westerly direction. Murphy Palmer had heard about the Bulgarians too and very wisely sent off a platoon of Faughs to try and hold the fort at Lavamund. Shortly after, I picked him up and we went off there together to see what was going on. The whole village was seething with Bulgarians, who were terrifying the local populace. We found the Bulgarian Corps Commander and a Divisional Commander in a village inn.

In the village, too, were about a hundred British Prisoners of War who had been in a Prison Camp there. As soon as the Germans had gone, these fellows, under command of three of their Sergeants, had organised themselves into a company in the most businesslike and efficient way and had promptly proclaimed the town to be British. Those lads were worth their weight in gold. They knew the local form and several of them were first class interpreters. I got a rough picture of what was going on from them and then took one of them to the inn in the hope that the Bulgarian would talk some known language.

Eventually, the Bulgars produced somebody to speak German. Taking through two interpreters can be a very slow and irksome business, especially if a large part of the time has to be spent in exchanging windy compliments on the magnificence of each other’s Army. The trouble was that the last thing they wanted was to meet other people. They wanted to get as far as possible and collect up as much loot as possible before they met anyone likely to stem their tide.

Fortunately, we persuaded them that the only thing to do was for both sides to halt until our respective commanders had had an opportunity of giving “we poor soldiers” some fresh orders.

I thought it might be a good idea to try the mixed road post technique that was so popular with the Yugoslavs but the only answer I got to this proposal was something like: “Bulgaria is a small country and, unfortunately, had not had an opportunity of studying the culture of the great nations like England and America but now that we have met them, they hoped they would be able to repair this omission.” Such remarks, of course, necessitated a digression in admiration of the fine efforts of the Bulgarian Army, which we had always studied with great interest.

All this was a little far-fetched as none of us had even heard of them two hours before and, if we had, we would probably have mistaken which side on which they fought.

It was quite obvious that nothing more could be achieved and anyway stopping them going any further was my main object at that time. So, I packed them off in a car to go and see our Corps Commander in order to ratify the rather vague agreement that we had reached. This, I gather was successfully done but it still remained pretty vague. A number of photographs of the first British and Bulgarians forces to meet were taken and then the highlights departed for Klagenfurt.

As soon as they had gone, I was set upon by all sorts of people in the street; Hungarians wanting to be taken away by us; civilians who had been experiencing some of the fruits of victory at the hands of the Bulgarians; Germans, who were begging to be removed; Yugoslavs, who were trying to get through and were being stopped by the Bulgarians; Bulgarians who complained that they were about to be attacked by 5,000 Cossacks; and our own Prisoners of War, who had the Cossacks all round their camp. There was the father and mother of a “party” going on.

Earlier that day, I had an order from 6th Armoured Division to disarm and accept the surrender of 21,000 Cossacks, who were reported to be near Dravograd, further to the east and well inside Yugoslavia. I supposed that these were part of the contingent in question, if not the whole lot. 6th Armoured Division, of course, had never heard of the Bulgarian Army. Further enquiries revealed that these Cossacks were a real menace to everybody and that, unless something was done and done quickly, there was going to be no ordinary shambles in the midst of this representative body of actions. There was a German SS battalion offering fight also.

I asked the Bulgarians, therefore, in whose area these Cossacks now appeared to be, if they would be good enough to disarm them and remove them quickly. This, they said they were quite unable to do, as the Cossacks would resist them and they had not enough men for a fight. I do not think that “fighting” was item No 1 on their agenda at that moment anyway!. They thought it would be an excellent idea if I disarmed them. There was only Murphy Palmer and myself, with a couple of  drivers and a platoon of Faughs somewhere scattered about in the village, so that if the strength of arms was required to deal with the Cossacks, the Bulgarians compared quite favourably with us. The Bulgarians only real worry concerned the final destination of the Cossacks’ arms. I said I did not care a brass button what happened to the arms and they could have them if they liked. As soon as the Bulgarians saw the way the wind was blowing over the matter of this booty, they implored us to disarm the Cossacks before everybody got killed by them. One of the Prisoner of War Sergeants knew where the Cossacks were, so I told the Bulgarians that I would disarm them and give them the weapons provided they guaranteed that the Cossacks should pass through them to the British area. This, they were only keen to do. Murphy and I accordingly got in the jeep and drove up to the Cossacks’ camp, leaving word for any of the Faughs’ platoon that could be spared to come along up there and join us.

We arrived in the Cossack camp where there was an incredible army of cut throats all armed to the teeth, some in defensive positions around the perimeter of their camp. We drove straight past all these to what appeared to be their Headquarters and summoned the head boy.

I asked him if he proposed to surrender to the Bulgarians in accordance with the terms of the general surrender.

This, he said, was quite out of the question. All his men would fight before doing that.

I told him that he would be outlawed if he did not surrender.

He said he was quite prepared to surrender, provided it was to the British.

I, therefore, accepted his surrender and told him to get cracking straight away and in a very short time, all his warriors were filing past outside the house, putting their arms in a heap but as there were 5,000 of them, it was nearly dark before they had finished. I thought that if we tried to get them through the Bulgarians in darkness, there would certain to be attacked so I decided to put off their march to the east until the next morning.

They complained that they would be attacked by the Bulgarians during the night.

I assured them that they would not and that I had an adequate guard to stop that. The adequate guard consisted of about eighteen Faughs, who were now peacefully “brewing up” in the middle of the party, not bothering their heads about any of the strange nations that were surrounding them.

The amazing thing that one discovered at this time was that one British soldier was quite enough to restore order and prevent one of these nations attacking another. The one thing nobody was prepared to do was to have a row with the British.

I discovered that all the Senior Officers were German. The Commander had a very nice Irish setter, which I rather set my heart on and I told him it was more appropriate that I should own it than he. When he told me that he bought it in Dublin in 1937, when he had been jumping at the Horse Show there and that it had always been with him ever since, I had not the heart to do any more about it though, looking back on it, I think I was a fool. The dog was bound to be taken off him before long.

I deployed the Faughs platoon between the Cossacks and the Bulgarians for the night and left them to it. On the way back from Lavamund, I told the Bulgarian General that the Cossacks would be marched out under British guard at 5.30 the next morning and that that they would be disarmed just before they left. If I had told him that they were disarmed already, the Faughs’ platoon might not have proved adequate.

I told the Bulgarians that I intended to move the Cossacks out on their horses. This caused a bit of hard feeling and they asked if they could have some of the horses. I was getting a bit fed up with the whole thing by this time and told them that either the Cossacks would move off on their horses as I had no transport to move them or they could jolly well go and disarm the lot themselves. If they wanted any of the horses, they could get their Army Commander to ask our Army Commander for them at a later date. This, they appeared to accept.

In the early hours of the 12th, I had a message that the Bulgarians had retracted from their agreement about the Cossacks and could not let them through, By the time I got the message, they should have been well on their way so I had no idea what had happened – whether the whole place had gone up in smoke or what. However, I knew Murphy Palmer was down there so I thought nothing desperate would happen. Actually, the Bulgars had let them through after some delay without incident and the Cossacks were marching through Lavamund with one Faugh on a horse at their head. This was quite sufficient to ensure that both sides did what they were supposed to do.

I had kept the Corps Commander in the picture about what was going on and he met me on the road to Lavamund just about the time that the first Cossacks were beginning to show up. He told me that, by our agreement with the Russians, the Cossacks should have been handed over to them and that my action might produce some international incident.

Whatever ultimately happened to the Cossacks was no concern of mine, but I am quite certain that our efforts on the previous night  was the only course open if a battle was to be avoided, in which the British prisoners of war would have found great difficulty in not becoming involved.

It transpired that the Bulgarian 1st Army was under Russian Command. When I saw the Commander of their 3rd Division that morning, he told me that the Russian Command had not ratified the orders for the release of the Cossacks but that their Army had done this on their own to save an incident.

On the same morning, 13 Battery of 17 Field Regiment was ordered to occupy the village of Bleiburg on the Yugoslav frontier about 20 miles west of Lavamund. This was due to become an exciting area a little later.

254 Anti Tank Battery contacted the Russians near St Oswald and a temporary boundary was drawn up straight away.

There was a large number of railway trains between Wolfsberg and Lavamund; some contained food, some ammunition, some forage, some wounded and some had tanks on them. We started straight away to try and collect up these trains near Wolfsberg as they were being pillaged by all and sundry. The Faughs had put a guard on a couple of trains in Lavamund.

It was only on this day that the 17 Field Regiment really assumed responsibility for the area between Volkemarkt, Griffen and Bleiburg. They had a great deal to do in that area, both in handling German prisoners, who were passing through by the tens of thousands and in dealing with the Yugoslavs, who were becoming difficult.

I got some tanks on this day and pushed them out to Lavamund, Bleiburg and other places, where a display of strength was useful. ‘D’ Support Group was very useful with carrier patrols in helping out 17 Field Regiment.  

The London Irish were working very hard trying to get the Wolfsberg area under control, while the Brigade ‘Q’ Staff were having a tremendous time fixing up an enormous German store, which they had found, to cope with the needs of the vast floating population of prisoners of war and surrendered Armies.

It looked by the afternoon as if things were beginning to get under control but we spoke too soon. At 7 o’clock in the evening, the Commander of the 3rd Bulgarian Division arrived at Brigade Headquarters to say that he had orders to occupy all territory east of the River Lavant up to a point four kilometres south of Wolfsberg. This was awkward indeed. It meant he was coming miles right into our area. He said, however, that he had been told to withdraw in the Volkemarkt area and that he had already issued orders to do this. He wished to commence his move forward at first light in the morning and requested permission to use the main road from Lavamund to St Andre.

Obviously I had to play for time. The Bulgars had done this on me before and I was determined to get a bit of my own back. I indulged in some long winded speech about how delighted I was to think that our Allies were going to move up so near us and that I looked forward to seeing a lot more of this. He was obviously surprised at this line of approach. After a bit more of this sort of thing, I sent for more drinks in order that we might toast this happy occasion. After a bit, when we had each had a few drinks, I told him that much as I liked the idea of the closer union of our forces, I felt that the area was little cramped and that if he was to come where he was intending to, of course, I would have to move out in order to make room. He would understand., of course, that as a soldier that I could not do this without getting orders from my Corps Commander, and that it might be an occasion where the Corps Commander would feel it was necessary to refer the matter to his Army Commander. He and I were merely the pawns of mightier men and all we could do was to try and carry out their wishes. At the same time, we had to look after the welfare of our men. But both lots could clearly not come into that area at the same time without their well being suffering.

I felt the time had now come for some dinner. My guest was anxious to get back as he said he had a lot to do but I told him that my officers would be very disappointed if he did not honour us with his presence for dinner and so he duly accepted. I had sent an SOS to the kitchen for the maximum number of courses to be produced and to the piper to come in towards the end and play non-stop until he could play no longer. However, all good things come to an end and finally he succeeded in tearing himself away after last minute injunctions from me to the effect that I was sure he would not move until I had got orders from my Corps Commander and that he would not risk crowding his troops in on top of mine, which might possibly have an adverse effect on the excellent relations, which he and I were hoping to maintain between our respective Armies.

Just to make quite sure that he really did play ball on this, I told Murphy Palmer to go to Lavamund early in the morning and make quite sure he did not move. A tank could inadvertently block the road, if necessary.

The only other incident of note that occurred on this night was the German Puppet Minister to the Croat Republic was captured by the London Irish. He had a bag of 250 gold sovereigns with him amongst other things and a very fine car.

On the morning of the 13th about 10 o’clock, I set off with Dolly de Fenblaque, CCRA 5 Corps, to try and make some final agreement with the Bulgarians. He was of the opinion that we would have to let them do what they wanted. I was convinced that they were chancing their arm. We had two useful indications in support of my theory. They had told me the evening before that the Bulgarian Army was not allowed to remain in Yugoslavia. A cursory glance at the map showed that it was impossible for the Bulgarians to maintain themselves in their proposed new area without going through Yugoslavia. The second point was that the boundary, which Murray Anderson had arranged with the Russians, on the Bulgarians’ northern flank, made the Bulgarian project appear an absolute nonsense if the thing was really being coordinated at all. The Bulgarians said that their orders had come from the Russian command, but this seemed a very hard one to swallow as obviously the boundary was uncoordinated with the Russian boundary on their north, which ran south from Koflach along the Ker Alps. When we got to the Hungarian Headquarters at Lavamund, we accordingly started to ask a few awkward questions on the lines of these two points, which I have just mentioned. They had no satisfactory reply to either of them.

When things appeared to have reached an impasse, some new orders suddenly arrived, purporting to come from the Russian command. They appeared at exactly the right psychological moment. It was just too opportune for words! When those orders were translated on the map, it was quite obvious that the Bulgars’ line was coordinated with the Russian boundary line, which we had fixed to the north and the whole thing made sense. They were not to go into our area at all, but keep behind the Ker Alps. I do not want to be uncharitable but it would take a lot to persuade me that the orders they now produced were not the ones they had really all along. An extra packet of square miles to have a good run over for the purposes of booty is an attractive thought to many people.

As soon as a final agreement had been reached, the Divisional Commander asked me if I would wait and see his Army Commander as he had just had a message to say he was on his way. Within about 5 minutes, the Army Commander drove up outside with a great flourish. I suppose he had been waiting round the corner to see which way the cat would jump. After spending some minutes outside having his boots polished by a couple of flunkeys, in he came and was introduced to us all. It was a perfect godsend to discover that he spoke English and one did not have to deal through one or two interpreters. Actually, I noticed that when they wanted something, the interpreter situation improved enormously; in fact, on one occasion, one of the people, who usually sat mute, suddenly discovered he could speak English. Anyway, the Army Commander was a realist and got things cracking very quickly. The thing they were most concerned about, he told me quite blatantly, was the “booty”. Until he came, there had been a certain amount of cross talk about “evacuating captured enemy equipment”, but there was no nonsense like that that with the Army Commander – he called a spade a spade!      

One thing that was exciting their envy was a couple of trains in Lavamund. However, having won the main issue, one was prepared to be generous. I gave them the trains and gave them a limited period to collect up their booty in the area that they had previously occupied. This satisfied everybody and champagne was produced and a veritable orgy of toast drinking started. Everything in the garden was lovely at last. I felt I could really drive off feeling that the Bulgarian business was over now. It was, but there was a new problem waiting just round the corner, to which I refer later under “Balkan Troubles.”

While I was out settling the Bulgarian matter to which I have referred, the Commander of the 299 Soviet Division and his staff had arrived at Brigade Headquarters to settle the Anglo Russian boundary, which we had already provisionally arranged. Bala Bredin was representing me. There was a bit of trouble over rank, as the Russian Colonel thought he was dealing with someone on too low a level. Andrew Parker, CO 27 Lancers, happened to turn up while this was going on and someone had the bright idea of dressing him up in my service dress jacket in order to give the right relative ranks. Just as this idea was about to be put into execution, Andrew discovered that he had met this particular Russian before so the idea was hastily discarded. All was well, however, and Bala Bredin managed to get everything signed and sealed and, afterwards, entertained the Russians to lunch. We had not done badly that morning – I had fixed the Bulgarian frontier and Bala had fixed the Russian one.

On the 13th, we changed from being under command, 6th Armoured Division to come under command 46th Division. In many ways, it was only a nominal change of command because distances and communications were such that we had to solve our own problems on the spot and usually had to deal directly with Corps.

On the morning of the 13th, the German General Lehr, commanding Army Group East, arrived at Bleiburg with his staff. He had been preceded by a few hours by one of his Divisions, which was ordered to concentrate at Griffen. Both these places were in the 17th Field Regiment’s area.

The 17th Field Regiment was beginning to get pretty stretched. They had a large area and on the direct route for the Army Group East retreating from Yugoslavia. They were having an awful lot to do. In addition to the German Army Group problems, there were a certain number of Bulgarians knocking about looking for loot and the Yugoslavs were beginning to look rather martial. I was given two reconnaissance squadrons, one from 46th Division and one from our own 56 Reconnaissance Regiment. The tanks were also stepped up.

Apart from prisoners on the move, we had on our ration strength on the 14th a fairly representative cross section.

They were:

17 Field Regiment Area – 7,000 Cossacks. 

3,000 369 Croat Division. 

700 Army Group E Headquarters. 

300 42 Jaeger Division. 

1,100 Miscellaneous.

London Irish Area – 

7,000 Laszlo Hungarian Division. 

400 Hungarian Cadet School. 

2,000 2 Hungarian Corps. 

700 Croats. 

1,600 SS.

Royal Irish Fusiliers Area – 1,300 Wounded on hospital trains. 

10,000 Miscellaneous.

I am afraid that the war diary does not reveal what this large bag of miscellaneous was that the Faughs had at this time. In addition to the above, there was a fair amount of what became known as “displaced persons”. A displaced person is merely somebody, who is in his wrong country through no apparent fault of his own and that included almost any nationality – we even had Arabs. There were a good many Allied prisoners of war spread about the country also.

I never had time to check up on what was going on over this very considerable problem of prisoners of war but that sort of thing was pretty straight forward and I found my time was taken up negotiating boundaries and so on at some outstation. One had to do this on a rank for rank basis, otherwise the other party would not pay any attention to you. In fact, I had to let it be thought on several occasions that I was a Divisional Commander in order that I might deal successfully with my opposite number. This innocent promotion, of a very temporary and bogus nature, had the blessing of the Corps Commander. In fact, General Weir, Commanding 46th Division, had been told to keep out of my area for fear of compromising my status.

  



 

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