Settling Frontiers III – Bulgarians

GENERAL KEIGHTLEY MEETS RUSSIAN GENERALS (NA 25104): The Russian General and his staff walks with Lieut. General Keightley towards Btn. H.Q., 2nd London Irish Rifles. Copyright: © IWM. 

On the same morning (12th May), 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.