“Leaving the Po behind, we moved swiftly north in TCVs and passed through Udine. E and H companies were pushed up on to the Yugoslav border at Caporetto and Plezzo. Here, with some tanks, we hoped to persuade partisans from Tito’s Yugoslav partisan army, who had crossed into Italy, to go back. I managed to get to Mass on the Sunday. Although it was Italy, the Mass was in Serbian. We moved the next day back into Italy proper and passed into Austria by the Tarvisio Pass. It was Monday 7 May and the war in North- West Europe was in its final day. It was said that the Irish Brigade would be allowed to claim the European Star as well as the Italian Star which had already been awarded. In the event, we didn’t get it.
We were transported to Klagenfurt, where we met Nick Mosley, who was in charge of the advance party. We placed all the personnel in their allocated billets and separate accommodation was given to sergeants. I was quite happy about the arrangements but RSM Doug Meighan asked: ‘What about the colour sergeant and I? We are entitled to separate quarters.’ This was true for warrant officers. But I was only a staff sergeant. Nick blushed and stammered an apology. He then knocked at an auberge.
A top window was opened by a woman. Nick, when he was excited, had a terrible stammer.
“He said: ‘Ha..Haben sie eine einne ssschlaaaafe ziiimmmer fur zwei zwei Oooberfeldwebels.(Haben zie ein schlaffe zimmer fur zwei Oberfeldwebel?).’
The lady replied: ‘Bitte?.’
Nick, who had a good command of German, repeated his request but with an even worse stammer. Once again the lady said: ‘Bitte?’
I looked up and said: ‘Have you a bedroom for two Oberfeldwebels, please Madam?’
‘Certainly. How long will you be needing it for? I am English and I married my Austrian husband before the war. It is years since I spoke it, so I did not understand.’
She had not realised that we were British because of our strange headdress and thought that Nick was speaking in another language.”
Doug and I went for our kit but were stopped by E Company Commander Major Hood. ‘It’s all changed. We have to move to a POW camp at a place called Wolfsberg.’
‘What, Germans?’ asked Doug.
‘No. British, French and Russians and some others,’ Hood replied.
The company repacked their kit and, not too happily, paraded for the same transport they had vacated a couple of hours before. Before we left, Hood, normally a very tolerant man, gave them a lecture about their appearance. He told them that, as soon as they had been settled into their new quarters, they would have to look like a victorious army.
‘You will not be allowed out until you have cleaned up yourselves and your equipment,’ he said.
We arrived at Wolfsberg and were allocated billets which were less spacious than at Klagenfurt. One platoon was put in charge of the camp. Their quarters were large but spartan. The camp had been very short of food until two days before when the RAF had literally bombed them with food parcels. There were damaged tins of every type of food everywhere. The RAF did not use parachutes as these could have drifted into the town, then held by an enemy still at war. Low-flying aircraft tipped the food out over the camp. I don’t know if a warning had been given. If not, some people would have been injured.
That evening, the men spent their time cleaning uniforms and polishing boots. The next day E Company paraded and was inspected by Hood who was impressed. He told them that they would be allowed out that evening but they were not to fraternise with the population. They of course had never heard the term before. Hood explained what it meant. That evening, they walked out looking like conquering heroes but soon drifted back. Wolfsberg was small, there was nothing to do, nothing to buy and they could not talk to anyone.
That morning, I had driven to the POW camp to issue rations. The sergeant told me he had put the former camp commander under guard. He asked me to inspect his quarters and to be strictly regimental. I entered the room and the unfortunate man was ordered to stand rigidly to attention. The sergeant treated the prisoner harshly as he had a bad report about the commander from the former inmates. To my disgust, he had given the German a tin of bully beef but no opener.
I thought, ‘Are our people any better than they in dealing with helpless victims?’ I often said, after hearing about Belsen and other concentration camps, that one could find staff for such a place from my own home town.
The English prisoners were allowed relative freedom until they could be transported back to England as were the French and others. The Russian POWs were kept under close guard. They would remain so until an exchange could be effected for the many thousands of British and Commonwealth prisoners in Russian hands. A Russian commission turned up and were negotiating conditions for the swap. It was said that the Russian officers behaved abominably.
We were moved from Wolfsberg as the battalion was located close to Villach. E Company was billetted in a group of villages on the Ossiachersee and in the hills beyond. BHQ and HQ Company were at Annenheim. S Company was at Bohdensdorf. Annerheim and Bohdensdorf were very pretty places. E Company had the prize billet: a railway children’s convalescent home on the lake between the two. The large house and its smaller staff house occupied extensive grounds backing on to the Ossiachersee. The children were already being moved away and the staff were given notice to quit the smaller building.
The home provided ample accommodation for the company. It had five members of staff. The principal was a gracious lady in her fifties. Her assistant, whom we called, the adjutant, spoke perfect English with a slight accent. The adjutant thought that Rosie was a nickname for my rank and called me Der Rossy. At first, we dealt with them very correctly but soon spotted that the five ladies had a small cottage in the grounds. The house, which had about half a dozen rooms, became the sergeants’ mess and quarters.
I received notification that my gong had come through, but it wasn’t a medal, merely a Mentioned in Dispatches for distinguished conduct in Italy. I was pleased but at the same time disappointed. I expected more. It meant I could wear four medal ribbons with an oakleaf on a strip of khaki in the place the Victory Medal ribbon, which had not been issued, would be pinned. But five strips of cloth seemed a paltry reward for six years in the infantry. The same medals were issued to anyone who had been at base headquarters. The Defence Medal could be earned for just six months service there. RSM Meighan missed his by just a couple of months because he had not served in England for three years, as I had done, and served only in the front line when abroad.”