Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
III: An Agreement Is Reached
III: An Agreement Is Reached
The New Zealand Division could not be employed in hostilities against Yugoslavia without the permission of the Government. On 14 May the Prime Minister, Mr Fraser, who was in San Francisco, consulted with the acting Prime Minister (Mr Walter Nash) and his colleagues in Wellington, and advised Mr Churchil that he was ‘in entire agreement with the proposed action of the United Kingdom and the United States to halt aggression on the part of Yugoslavia, and consider that it is our duty to assist by page 561 making our Division available to Field-Marshal Alexander for that purpose’. Fraser asked for an assurance that the proposed action ‘will be strictly confined to the resistance of aggression and will not involve interference in any way with the purely internal affairs of Yugoslavia, such as the restoration of the monarchy, and that our troops will not be used for that or similar purposes.’1 Churchill replied that ‘the proposed operations will take place, if they do, on Italian not Yugoslav soil and will be in no way concerned with the internal affairs of Yugoslavia, in which we have no desire to interfere.’2
Fraser also asked General Freyberg for an appreciation of the situation in Venezia Giulia. In a comprehensive survey the GOC reported that the situation was ‘not only fraught with political complications but even the risk of armed conflict with the Yugoslav Army…. the Allies must be prepared to enforce their will if necessary. I consider that with the shortage of troops here, and feeling as you do, full operational control of your Division should be given [to the Allied Supreme Commander].’3
Presumably with the intention of presenting a fait accompli of ostensibly popular government, the Yugoslavs were imposing civil administrations sponsored by themselves in Venezia Giulia. Already they had given authority to the CEAIS (the Italo-Slovene Citizens' Executive Committee) in Trieste, which was to be ruled as an autonomous city inside the Slovene littoral of a communist Yugoslavia.
Field Marshal Alexander, in a special message on 19 May explaining the issues at stake to all the Allied armed forces in the Mediterranean theatre, declared that apparently Marshal Tito intended to establish his claims to Venezia Giulia and territory around Villach and Klagenfurt in Austria by force of arms and by military occupation. ‘Action of this kind would be all too reminiscent of Hitler, Mussolini and Japan. It is to prevent such actions that we have been fighting this war…. it is our duty to hold these disputed territories as trustees until their ultimate disposal is settled at the peace conference….’
Tito expressed through the Yugoslav News Agency resentment and surprise at Alexander's statement, and asserted that the presence of Yugoslav troops did not imply conquest. Yugoslavia was prepared to co-operate with the Allies but could not allow herself ‘to be humiliated and tricked out of her rights.’4
1 Documents, Vol. II, p. 417.
2 Ibid., p. 422.
3 Ibid., pp. 420–1.
General Freyberg thought it necessary to advise Mr Fraser on 20 May that the situation ‘is at the moment most unsatisfactory. There is the makings of trouble both here and in Austria. The Yugoslavs have moved a large force into and around Trieste and Gorizia. We are now following suit…. I want the New Zealand Government to know the fact that we are sitting at the point of greatest tension and that fighting may break out. If it does we must expect a number of casualties….’1
Thirteenth Corps issued instructions on 20 May that, if all negotiations failed, it was to take ‘certain offensive measures’ to secure the port of Trieste and the lines of communication towards Udine so that the Allied forces in Austria could be supplied, and was to establish Allied Military Government with full authority in the region occupied east of the Isonzo River. As the first phase of what was hoped would be a ‘peaceful penetration’ to the east, the New Zealand Division on the right, 56 Division in the centre, and 10 Indian Division on the left were to form a front covering a lateral road and track through Sgonico – Dol Grande – Comeno – Montespino, north-north-west of Trieste. Later the three divisions were to advance by stages to the ‘Blue’ (or Morgan) Line, about 17 miles east of Trieste.
1 Documents, Vol. II, pp. 422–3.
The Allied forces quietly eased forward to the line north-north- west of Trieste on 22 May. Whatever perturbation this might have caused among the Yugoslav commanders, there was no reaction among their troops in the localities occupied by 6 NZ Infantry Brigade and 20 Armoured Regiment, in very stony, scrub-covered hills in the Sgonico-Sales-Samatorzo area, only a few miles from Trieste. Farther north 56 Division held positions from Dol Grande to Comeno, and 10 Indian Division from Comeno to Montespino.
The Yugoslavs firmly but politely asked the British to withdraw from Comeno, which they wanted as a communications centre, and threatened to establish road blocks behind the forward British positions. Eventually it was agreed, however, that both British and Yugoslav troops should remain where they were until they received orders from higher authority.
Many road blocks appeared in the approaches to Trieste, and at these the Yugoslav sentries demanded both Yugoslav and New Zealand signatures of authority for vehicles to pass, but soon the control of New Zealand traffic was greatly relaxed; there was only one report of a New Zealand vehicle being stopped after 26 May. When a Sherman tank gently pushed over a Yugoslav barricade in rear of the New Zealand forward positions, the sentries did not try to stop it but resignedly cleared the remnants off the road.
Fifth Brigade, which was near the coast between Barcola and Prosecco, found that the Yugoslavs still held Villa Opicina in strength. A patrol from 23 Battalion discovered that a wireles station near Barcola was guarded by about 50 armed men, and while reconnoitring towards Trieste met a group of 150–200 Yugoslavs, who politely but firmly refused permission to go farther. The Yugoslavs set up a road block on the Prosecco – Villa Opicina road, and 28 Battalion retaliated with a traffic post on the same road. When a Yugoslav officer in a car travelling towards Villa Opicina failed to stop, the Maori sentry fired his Bren gun into a rear tyre. The irate officer was escorted to Battalion Headquarters, where he was told he was at fault in not obeying the traffic rules, and was then allowed to proceed on his way.
A mild sensation occurred on the evening of 21 May when about 25 large Russian-type T34 tanks manned by Yugoslavs entered Trieste and passed along the waterfront in the direction of the docks; about half of them went through the city and were not seen again, and after a day or two the remainder withdrew in the direction of Villa Opicina.
Orders were given on the 24th that all social functions were to page 564 cease, but the ban was lifted three days later. A party of Yugoslavs approached 28 Battalion and ‘put up a proposal that they would invite the Maoris to their functions if they, the Maoris, would reciprocate…. and the battalion put on a dance every night of the week; civilians, Tito's men, and the troops were soon on the best of terms.’1 Other units, including 9 Brigade's battalions in Trieste, also held dances. Small parties of Yugoslavs came unarmed into 6 Brigade's lines and fraternised with the New Zealanders.
On 21 May Marshal Tito, in reply to an Allied Note, conceded for the most part the Allied requirements for holding the disputed territory in trusteeship, but made conditions for the retention of Yugoslav troops under the Supreme Allied Commander in the area controlled by the Allied Military Government, and for the continued use by the Allies of the existing civil administration. This volte face might have been dictated by Allied diplomatic pressure, Russian influence, or the Allied preponderance of force in the disputed territory and the obvious firmness of Allied intentions.
General Freyberg was able to advise the New Zealand Government on the 23rd that the situation had eased considerably. ‘The Yugoslav Government has sent a friendly note and, although there are still divergences of opinion which will require adjustment, I believe that the matter will be solved amicably and it will then be possible for the New Zealand Division to be released from its operational role. This may not be until the end of June….’2
Sixth Brigade completed the relief of 9 Brigade in Trieste in the afternoon of 1 June, and the 9th occupied the area vacated by the 6th. The troops' quarters in the city hotels and villas were very luxurious in comparison with bivouacs in the hills. If the negotiations with the Yugoslavs broke down, 6 Brigade was to remain as a firm base in Trieste for 48 hours, during which time the Navy was to put to sea with the non-fighting vessels, and the 2000 men of 55 Area, which operated the port, were to be given a safe passage out of the city.
2 Documents, Vol. II, p. 424.
A demonstration intended to express approval of the Yugoslav-imposed regime took place in the Piazza dell' Unita in Trieste in the evening of 8 June. All British troops were warned in advance to keep clear, and 6 Brigade ordered its men to be in their billets, where they stood by ready to quell any disturbance. But apparently the demonstration did not meet with the response that had been anticipated: the audience, mostly organised parties of factory workers, moderately applauded some 10 speeches, which seemed to give more emphasis to the advantages of communism than to incorporation with Yugoslavia. An Italian band was greeted with greater enthusiasm.
Next day the New Zealanders held a trotting meeting at the Montebello course, Trieste, which was attended by Generals McCreery, Harding and Freyberg and a large part of the Divison. In case there should be trouble with the Yugoslavs, a plan had been prepared beforehand for evacuating the course, and men carried tommy guns or pistols. The meeting was a social and financial success; the totalisator handled over £20,000, and after all expenses had been paid there was a profit of £800.
The same day (9 June) the Yugoslav Government signed an agreement accepting the Allies' requirements for the withdrawal of Yugoslav troops and administration east of the Morgan Line by 10 a.m. on the 12th. Some 2000 Yugoslavs were to remain in the territory under Allied control.
The Yugoslavs did not go empty-handed: they stripped machinery and accessories from garages, and emptied some barracks, hotels and houses of their contents; the amount of loot seemed to be limited only by the paucity of transport. By the morning of 11 June 16,000 troops on foot, 400 vehicles, 28 guns and over 1000 horses were seen straggling along the roads from Trieste to Fiume; the roads east of the Isonzo River also carried much horse-drawn, motor and foot traffic. The retreating Yugoslavs appeared to be ‘angry and humiliated’.3 The exodus continued throughout the next night, and by the morning of the 12th jubilant crowds were shouting ‘Viva Trieste’ in the streets of the city. The Allied Military Government assumed control and began distributing supplies the same day. The shortage of food had become critical.
2 War diary, HQ 6 Inf Bde.
Obviously to impede the AMG administration and discredit Allied efficiency, the Difesa Popolare and organised bands, including Yugoslav troops in civilian clothes, conducted a campaign of intimidation. Italian flags were forcibly removed, people visiting the AMG offices were molested, members of the new police force (volunteers in civilian clothes with armbands) had to be accompanied by military police for their own protection, and the Guardia del Popolo (an arm of the Difesa Popolare), although ordered to cease its activities, made many arrests. Demonstrators acclaimed communism and advocated local control—without directly challenging the assumption of Allied control. About 25,000 attended such a demonstration in Trieste on 15 June.
Meanwhile the New Zealand, British and Indian troops followed up the Yugoslav forces withdrawing to the Morgan Line. In 5 NZ Brigade's sector 28 Battalion occupied Villa Opicina on 12 June, but 21 Battalion did not secure the wireless station near Barcola until the departure two days later of a detachment of Difesa Popolare. On the Muggia peninsula south of Trieste 23 Battalion was involved in a dispute with the Yugoslavs about the exact location of the Morgan Line. The Yugoslavs set up road blocks behind some of the New Zealand positions and temporarily severed their communications, but a few days later adjustments were made by both sides, and 23 Battalion kept road blocks where the Morgan Line crossed Route 15 and other roads.
Ninth Brigade found the Yugoslavs reluctant to go from the sector east of Trieste. A Yugoslav brigade 1500 strong did not leave Basovizza, on Route 14, until the evening of 13 June, and a battalion lingered until the 15th at San Dorligo, south of the highway. The civilians in this region were obviously sympathetic towards the Yugoslav Army. In some villages the New Zealanders were aware of an atmosphere of hostility.
Because the establishment of Allied Military Government in the Anglo-American sector of Venezia Giulia and the return to a normal way of life for the civilian population were being impeded by the activities of the Difesa Popolare, it was decided to disarm and disband this force. Its members were to be called upon to parade and hand in their arms on 24 June; or if they preferred, they were to be escorted to the east of the Morgan Line with their arms. If the parades were not well attended, 13 Corps would order the cordoning of the barracks and billets of the Difesa Popolare while the police, assisted by troops if necessary, went in and arrested all page 567 the men, who were to be taken to a camp east of the Isonzo River.
At the specified time, 2 p.m., 1435 members of the Difesa Popolare paraded at the Trieste infantry barracks in an orderly manner and with their own band. Fifty-five of them chose to be taken to the Yugoslav side of the Morgan Line, and 620 volunteered for the new police force under AMG control; the remainder were allowed to go home next morning, when 6 Brigade had taken over the barracks and posts which the Difesa Popolare had held. About 20 truckloads of arms and ammunition were collected.
The Difesa Popolare co-operated elsewhere in the Division's sector: men paraded as requested and weapons and ammunition were collected. Altogether some 2280 members of the organisation paraded for 13 Corps, and of these 792 volunteered for police duty and 97 chose to be escorted across the line. No resistance was offered, and the whole procedure was conducted without incident.
A strike on 25 June, evidently instigated by the communists as a protest against disarming the Difesa Popolare, affected Trieste's trams, buses, shipbuilders, shops, post offices and dock workers. Fourth Armoured Brigade supplied working parties to assist with the operating of the public services and the docks. Next day, however, the city returned to normal. Apparently the majority of those who had taken part in the strike had done so because of the fear of reprisals.
The Yugoslav News Agency claimed in a press report on 27 June that the Trieste trade unions had sent cables to the British, Russian, French, and Italian trade union organisations protesting that the British and American military government was confiscating and requisitioning trade union property. The New Zealanders were said to have searched the Slovene Home of Culture in Trieste and made arrests.
These allegations prompted the New Zealand Government to ask General Freyberg for the facts and his comments, and also to inquire about the operational employment of the Division and the immediate prospects. In his reply, despatched on 3 July, the General said that the incident of the trade union cables appeared to be part of a general Yugoslav press and radio campaign to discredit the Allied Military Government in the occupation zone of Venezia Giulia. He gave an account of the disbandment of the Difesa Popolare, and said that the ‘so-called Slovene Home of Culture was, in fact, the former Italian Fascist headquarters in Trieste and is now in use as Allied Military Government offices. It was one of the buildings searched without incident by the Allied military police on 24 June.’page 568
‘In these difficult and often aggravating circumstances the conduct of the New Zealand troops was at all times exemplary.’1
The General also advised the Government that the situation in Trieste and Venezia Giulia had improved. The Yugoslav forces had moved out of the immediate Trieste-Gorizia area and the original line of communication had been made safe for the Allied forces occupying Austria. ‘I consider that we could now be relieved from our present operational role whenever our move is necessary. It is doubtful, however, if we will be relieved until the policy of the New Zealand Government as to future employment is finally announced….’2
The Peace Treaty between Italy and the Allied and Associated Powers in 1947 provided for the creation of the Free Port of Trieste, ‘wherein all nations would enjoy freedom of transit and be exempt from customs charges’,3 but another seven years elapsed before the occupying powers were relieved of responsibility in Venezia Giulia. Trieste continued to be ‘a bone of contention in international politics’; it even proved impossible for the United Nations Security Council to agree upon a governor. ‘The Allied Powers and Italy long found themselves at odds on every issue with Yugoslavia, which was supported, until the deterioration of relations between the two communist powers, by the Soviet Union.’4 When it became clear that the original plan would not work, the United States and Britain sought unsuccessfully to obtain agreement for the return of the Free Territory to Italy. Finally, in 1954, Britain, the United States, Italy and Yugoslavia signed an agreement whereby the zone garrisoned by the Yugoslav troops and a small section of the Anglo-American zone were ceded to Yugoslavia, and the remainder of the Anglo-American zone, including the city of Trieste, was given to Italy.
It is conceivable that the destiny of Trieste might have been different had the New Zealand Division not arrived there—as Mr Churchill told Field Marshal Alexander— ‘in time to put your foot in the door.’ The occupation of all the territory east of the Isonzo River, which no doubt his forces could have accomplished, would have strengthened Tito's hand, especially if supported by Russia, when the time came for the settlement at the peace table.
1 Documents, Vol. II, pp. 425–6.
2 Ibid., p. 426.
3 Coles and Weinberg, Civil Affairs: Soldiers Become Governors, p. 612.
4 Ibid., p. 613.