We thought that the time had now come for a leisurely move forward into whatever place we were going to settle down for good. We thought there was nothing more to do. We thought the days of sudden moves and quick ‘O’ Groups were a thing of the past. We were wrong.
We discovered that that the German Army Group South East, opposite to the Yugoslavs and the Russians, had not played on the general surrender in Europe, which had occurred in the meantime. Everyone in Europe, it seemed, was laying down their arms with the exception of those “Krauts”, who happened to be disposed just about the very place we were wanting to go to.
There were other complications too.
There was a Cossack Corps milling about on its own somewhere on our front and the Yugoslavs were not taking too kindly to our having reached Trieste and a few other places to the north of it before then. All in the garden was not a bed of roses.
At 8 o’clock on 4th of May, we were warned to concentrate in the area of Pordenone some 20 miles west of Udine. Advance parties left that morning and the Brigade was to start the next day. It was a long journey and it would take some time to get through. Just the right length of time, I thought, for a couple of nights in Venice en route. One CO was to bring the brigade along while the rest of us would just join up with it two days hence. The 2nd Armoured Brigade was, unfortunately, not due to move with us – it was to stay behind in Italy – which was a great disappointment to us all.
When the Brigade reached Pordenone at about 0600 hours on the 6th, they were told to go on to Udine and arrived there complete by 1200 hours. The Skins were in the town itself, the London Irish were near Brigade Headquarters about 4 miles to the north and the Faughs a couple of miles to the east of the town. We also collected up the 17 Field Regiment, 254 Anti Tank Battery, ‘D’ Support Group and 152 Field Ambulance in the Udine area.
We at once found ourselves involved with the Yugoslavs, who were bent on removing food dumps from anywhere they could find them. Our predecessors had been a bit slow in realising the form and the “Jugs” had got away with quite a good deal already. The technique was that whatever we found a Yugoslav post in the area, we greeted it with effusion and established one of our posts beside it. These Allied posts managed to keep things running more or less straight. We also had to hunt about for any more food and ammunition dumps and out guards on them.
It got very hot in Udine about this time – far hotter than it is as I now write in Austria at the end of June. This pause in Udine enabled us to collect our bits and pieces, horses and so forth, some of which were proceeding “on hoof” from the Po. Unofficial convoys of horses, both on foot and on wheels were not an uncommon sight at this time. Our Brigade HQ horse arrived intact in a 3 tonner but we lost a pony, which we had asked someone else to bring and were told that it had jumped out of the 3 tonner en route and made off – no mean feat!
We met a new outfit in this part of the world – the real Italian partisans. Their chief characteristic was their war like appearance. They all came from the Osoppo Partisan Division, divided into two factions, who distinguished themselves by red and green scarves. Apart from a few conflicts among themselves and occasionally with the Jugs, they were not nearly as troublesome as they looked. It was a little disconcerting, however, to drive down a narrow road and find a heavy load of these scallywags coming at you from the opposite direction with Bren guns mounted on the roof pointed at you with rather a doubtful finger on the trigger. No doubt, there was a round up the spout as well! The green scarf merchants seemed the more biddable of the two. Some of these fellows had undoubtedly made a scourge of themselves to the Germans with their guerrilla activities in the more out of the way places but exactly how much they had achieved, it was impossible to find out. Their stories were always colourful.
On the morning of the 7th, I was ordered by 5 Corps to send troops to the Cividale–Caporetto area. The Faughs moved to Cividale on the morning of the 8th and two companies of the London Irish went to Caporetto and Plezzo in order to relieve 6th Armoured Division in their move forward into Austria.
The rest of the Division, in the meanwhile, had gone surging off into Austria and left us behind. They had gone into the Western corner of Carinthia. It was all too bad. We had visions of finding nothing when we get there and we were afraid that all the best mansions would have been taken by someone else. We were anxious to get moving into our final area but in this desire, we were still very premature.
On this day, the 8th May, at 1500 hours, Winston Churchill announced the end of the War in Europe at midnight that night.
This was splendid but we were all too busy to do anything about it.
We had had our moment of inward thanksgiving that night on the Po.
The Jugs in the meantime were doing all they knew to get into Carinthia ahead of us and our job at Capotetto and Plezzo was to try and deflect them back into their own country or, at any rate, to keep them off any road, which the 8th Army had to use. All this was achieved in quite a friendly spirit – but they were very persistent.
At 2000 hours on the 9th, I got an order from 5 Corps for the Brigade, less the Skins, to move as soon as possible tomorrow morning to Klagenfurt, the capital of Carinthia, where we were to come under command of 6th Armoured Division. I went off to Headquarters, 6th Armoured Division first thing in the morning to find out what the form was. It was all a bit vague. The general theme was that 6th Armoured Division had now established themselves in the Klagenfurt area, where there was a good deal of Yugoslav friction going on and it would be much quicker for us to hound through them and take over the next chunk of country instead of relieving them to go forward and do it. This was sound enough as 46th Division were eventually to go to the eastern end and we would hold the ball there until they arrived. General Murray, commanding 6th Armoured Division, told me that he thought I would do well if I get my Brigade nicely concentrated all round Wolfsburg by the following evening.
We did not get everyone in until it was getting dark that evening as it was a long drive and, even using two roads, the congestion was considerable.
I spent the rest of that day with Adrian Gore, Commander of 61 Rifle Brigade, seeing what the local form was. It was certainly a pretty good “pig’s breakfast”. The problems we had to handle were legion. There was Jug trouble; German Corps Commanders coming to surrender; German troops all over the country, sometimes being stopped by the Jugs after they had already surrendered to us; attempts to get some form of civil administration functioning – and all with far too few troops for the job in hand. The road to the east of Klagenfurt was alleged to be blocked by the Jugs, apparently to impede further progress. I told Adrian that I had hoped he would have this one sorted by the morning, unless he wanted to have us on his hands too! After that, we issued orders for the move tomorrow to Wolfsburg, had an excellent dinner and went to bed.
Our Mess staff had been absolute adept at producing a meal in the minimum of time – and a good meal at that. For the last year, they had never failed to produce an excellent meal at the normal hour if it was humanly possible to do so. They really seemed to take pride in keeping their record unbroken and, in this, they succeeded most admirably.