CHAPTER 22 — The Final Offensive
The Final Offensive
The 9th April dawned warm and clear with a light westerly breeze, which removed all fears that a change in the weather might prevent the heavy air bombardment that was to precede the attack. As noon drew near the sky remained almost cloudless and the day grew warmer. A little before 2 p.m. the first flight of heavy bombers appeared from the east and began to discharge their loads of fragmentation bombs on the enemy positions behind the Senio. More and more aircraft continued to arrive, and the sound of their bombs swelled into an earth-shaking roar as successive waves of bombers ran in over their targets. Then, an hour later, the infantry fell back from the floodbank to a safety line while the guns put their curtain of fire along the line of the river. After playing along the river for a time, the barrage began to lift forward in six steps—the ‘Dragnet’ method—and then switched suddenly back to the river line. The bombardment continued, with pauses of ten minutes in which fighter-bombers swooped in and raked the enemy side of the river with machine-gun and cannon fire, until shortly before H-hour (7.20 p.m.).
By this time the Crocodile and Wasp flame-throwers and the leading infantry companies with their kapok bridges had closed up to within 200 yards of the river. A few minutes before H-hour, just as the last rounds of the artillery bombardment fell on the river line, the fighter-bombers came in again, this time in a dummy run to force the heads of the enemy down while the infantry and flame-throwers thrust forward. Then, suddenly, spurts of flame appeared along the whole of the divisional front, snaked lazily towards the floodbanks, and lobbed clumsily over onto the river line in great searing gouts of fire that charred the ground on the western floodbank and utterly demoralised the enemy troops crouching in their dugouts.
Within five minutes of the start of the assault leading elements of the forward companies were across the river and on the page 498 enemy stopbank, where only scattered resistance was encountered. By this time the artillery barrage was falling on its opening line 400 yards beyond the river, where it paused to allow the infantry to close up before lifting forward.
Heavy and medium bombers resumed their attacks on enemy positions on the 10th, after which 5 and 6 Brigades, supported by tanks and artillery concentrations, advanced against light spandau and mortar fire until, early in the evening, they had reached a lateral road just short of the Santerno River and only two and a half miles south-east of Massa Lombarda. By early morning on the 11th both brigades were in possession of shallow bridgeheads on the western side of the Santerno, and at first light on the 12th were striking beyond the river. The advance went ahead against heavy resistance, and at midnight Massa Lombarda was occupied.
On the Division's right and left, 78 British Division and the Poles had drawn abreast, and the first phase of the offensive was complete. While these operations were in progress, 56 (London) Division, on the right of 5 Corps, successfully carried out an amphibious assault across the flooded areas south of Lake Comacchio and landed a brigade near Menate, thus outflanking the enemy's Reno line which covered the approaches to the Argenta Gap on the western side of Lake Comacchio. The Londoners caught the enemy napping and Menate and Longastrino fell on 11 April. At this stage, when 56 Division was sitting in the entrance to the Argenta Gap and 78 Division, the New Zealanders, and the Poles were lying on a wide arc through Massa Lombarda, Fifth Army had not yet launched its attack against Bologna. On the morning of the 14th when it did so, Eighth Army had already closed up to the Sillaro River on a broad front.
In the early hours of the 14th 6 Brigade, which had side- stepped to the right to relieve 5 Brigade the previous day, and 9 Brigade, which had come through on the left of the New Zealand front simultaneously with 5 Brigade's relief, pushed on behind a heavy artillery barrage in an attempt to seize a bridgehead across the Sillaro. The first to cross was 24 Battalion of 6 Brigade, followed soon afterwards by the Divisional Cavalry Battalion, a favourable augury for 9 Brigade, which was entering page 499 its first full-scale attack. All that day 6 Brigade and Divisional Cavalry clung tenaciously to their footholds on the far stopbank, while the German 278 Division strove desperately to throw them back across the river. Soon after sunset 22 Battalion got across the river for the second time that day and hung on grimly, despite the enemy's efforts to push it back.
Throughout the 15th the Sillaro battle continued with fierce counter-attacks by the enemy, who fought strongly in an effort to cover the relief of some of his formations which had been severely mauled on other parts of the front. The two New Zealand brigades not only succeeded in holding against the attacks but managed to enlarge their bridgeheads.
An advance of several thousand yards was made on the 16th, and by the evening of the following day leading elements of 2 NZ Division had reached the line of the Gaiana Canal against failing resistance. The far bank, however, was strongly held, and after an unsuccessful attempt by the Gurkhas of 43 Brigade to rush it, a pause occurred in the advance to enable preparations to be made for a set-piece attack.
At 9.30 p.m. next evening, the 18th, a tremendous artillery barrage from nearly 200 guns rent the night with its thunder; half an hour later spurts of flame along the line of the canal showed where the flame-throwers had again come into action, throwing their searing fire along the west bank, where the ardent and fanatical paratroops of 12 Parachute (Sturm) Regiment —old and bitter opponents of the New Zealanders in the Crete battles of 1941—crouched in their defences to meet the infantry onslaught.
Ninth Brigade and 43 Gurkha Brigade pressed forward and carried the Gaiana Canal, and by early evening of the 19th leading elements of 22 Battalion and Divisional Cavalry were on the Canalozzo, a mile and a half south-east of Budrio. On the left of the New Zealand front 43 Gurkha Brigade, which had suffered very heavy casualties from mortar and spandau fire, was relieved by 6 Brigade, and on the right 9 Brigade was relieved by 5 Brigade.
On the evening of the 20th the enemy began a hurried retreat to the Po River, a decision forced on the German commander by the pressure north of the Gaiana line, where both page 500 the New Zealanders and the Poles, farther to the left, were advancing swiftly towards the Idice, the last river obstacle before Bologna. Fifth Army had cut Route 9 west of Bologna on the afternoon of the 18th, whereupon the enemy had begun to withdraw a considerable portion of his forces hurriedly northwards; this was in effect the signal for the retreat of the German Fourteenth Army.
When the New Zealanders and the Poles pressed on on the 20th, they found that the Idice, the much publicised Genghis Khan Line, built as the last inner defence line for Bologna, was only lightly held. Nevertheless the enemy put up a fierce resistance, but by midnight this was overcome. A short pause ensued while the Engineers caught up with their bridges. The advance was resumed next day, when the Poles entered Bologna without much difficulty. The New Zealanders encountered only isolated rearguard opposition until they neared the Reno.
Ferrara fell to 8 Indian Division on 24 April, and by noon that day all organised resistance west of the city was at an end; this brought to a close the first phase of Eighth Army's offensive —the seizure of the general line lying between Ferrara and Bologna.
At this stage Eighth Army's formations were disposed with 5 Corps on the right along the Po and facing northwards on a front of fifty miles; 13 Corps on its left was halted, with 10 Indian Division facing north on the line of the Reno and 2 NZ Division facing north-west on the Reno with forward elements across the river; to the south the Poles were halted east and north of Bologna, which, however, now lay in Fifth Army's sector.
Only 5 Corps, which was holding an extensive front, was now in a position to press the pursuit, the immediate battle having passed beyond the reach of 13 and 10 Corps and the Poles. At this stage 13 Corps was given command of the sector immediately west of Ferrara. Eighth Army's task was now to turn north-east, breach the enemy's Venetian line on the Adige, and seize Padua. Of the two possible routes available as an axis of advance, the westerly one, which lies through Ficarolo, Trecenta, Badia and Este, was chosen because of more favourable tactical considerations.page 501
Thirteenth Corps began the crossing of the Po on a two-divisional front on 24 April and met practically no opposition. The 6th British Armoured Division crossed at Stienta and the New Zealand Division at Gaiba without much difficulty. After a short pause, during which the two bridgeheads were merged into one and the river bridged by the New Zealand Engineers, both divisions pressed on through isolated and disorganised groups of enemy, few of whom attempted any serious resistance. The New Zealanders reached the Adige on the afternoon of the 26th and by dawn next day had a firm footing on the far side of the river. The 6th British Armoured Division reached the river in the evening. Farther to the right 5 Corps' bridgehead across the Po had been secured simultaneously with that of 13 Corps on the 24th, and the two formations took up the pursuit in company.
A review of the signal communications in 2 NZ Division in the final offensive which drove the enemy into the hinterland of the Italian peninsula, and in less than a month played a major part in bringing him to capitulation in the Mediterranean theatre, can best be related to three distinct phases of the campaign: first, the move of the Division, with all its attendant aspects of security and deception measures to deceive the enemy, from the Matelica-Fabriano-Camerino area to its new positions on the Senio; second, the preparations for the Senio crossing assault and the breakthrough; and third, the exploitation phase, which quickly developed into a rapid pursuit when the enemy's resistance began to melt rapidly away.
When the Division moved out on 31 March for its new Senio positions, a strict wireless silence was clamped down on all divisional nets and was not lifted until thirty minutes before H-hour on 9 April, a period of ten days. Then, on 8 April, a number of Divisional Artillery sub-units, comprising in all nine guns and attended by three forward observation officers, each equipped with wireless sets, moved into an area in 10 Corps' sector occupied by an Italian formation, and proceeded, with the aid of directions given by the forward observation officers in radio telephony, to simulate the registration of the guns on targets opposite that sector.
Finally, when the Division moved into the Senio positions and took over the sector occupied by a brigade of 78 British Division, the wireless sets of the British brigade remained in the area and continued to transmit traffic as before.
The extent to which these measures deceived the enemy was never disclosed, but it is known that he was aware on 7 April that the New Zealanders had taken over the sector from 78 Division. This information may have been obtained by his line-intercept units, but it is more probable that it was disclosed by the capture of three New Zealand infantrymen on 5 April by a neat little cutting-out attack against a post on the eastern floodbank of the river.
Near Castiglione during the action for Lignano
Signal unit headquarters, Castellina—from a painting by J. Figgins
A telephone in Faenza ruins
When the Division took over from 11 Infantry Brigade of 78 Division on the Senio at the beginning of April, the line network grew rapidly. This represented an enormous amount of work for C (cable) Section, although many of the circuits had been taken over on the ground from the British brigade.
For the break-out stage from the Senio position, the line plan provided for two lines to be laid from rear to front along the divisional axis of advance, the front ends working to the forward brigades—usually two—and the rearward portion working to Rear Headquarters 2 NZ Division, Headquarters 4 Armoured Brigade, and the formations held in reserve. Except for one or two minor and unimportant defects, this plan worked well. Detachments of C (cable) Section were attached to the signal sections of both forward infantry brigades to assist them to extend brigade lines forward along brigade axes right up to the headquarters of battalions, and sometimes even beyond.
Both brigade signal sections were well drilled in this method of carrying lines forward, particularly L Section at Headquarters 6 Brigade, where line communications to battalions were maintained almost continuously without interruption, despite advances of sometimes five miles a day. This L Section drill was simple and methodical. The section commander, armed with early information from the brigade staff and ordinary common sense, was able with surprising accuracy to anticipate moves of both Brigade Headquarters and the battalions. He had his section divided evenly into two parties: the forward signals group, which was in a constant state of readiness to move at fifteen minutes' notice, and the closing group, which remained at Brigade Headquarters' old site until it had settled into its new position. The forward signals group, usually led by the section commander himself, included the section sergeant, a lance-corporal operator, a signalman operator, an electrician and a line detachment; it was equipped with two ten-line universal-call switchboards, six telephones and enough twisted cable to provide the local lines within Brigade Headquarters' area. The subaltern second-in-command usually remained behind with the closing group.page 506
As soon as firm information of a move of Brigade Headquarters was known, the forward signals party went to the new location, usually in company with the Brigade Headquarters' reconnaissance party, established a signal centre on arrival, and ran two trunk lines back to the old headquarters' site. In the usual run of events existing lines between Brigade Headquarters and the battalions were used for this purpose. The method of carrying line forward to the headquarters of the battalions varied according to the circumstances. For example, if a battalion headquarters was making a daylight move to a known location, the L Section cable detachment might follow up some distance behind or accompany the headquarters, laying its cable as it moved. But if the battalion was making a night move to an undetermined location, the usual arrangement was for the cable detachment to join the headquarters in good time before the move began and accompany it on the march. Immediately the headquarters halted a line was laid back to Brigade Headquarters.
In mobile operations forward battalions were often connected to a single trunk or ‘omnibus’ circuit. Battalion signallers were never asked to lay line back to Brigade Headquarters unless the run of cable was very short. Civil poled lines and power lines were not used during the advance at all because few were intact where there had been fierce fighting in the areas between the enemy defences on successive river lines, and when the advance entered areas where little damage had been done, the speed of the pursuit prevented adequate reconnaissance and reconstruction of poled circuits.
In 6 Brigade line faults were not very frequent during the advance, most of them being caused by enemy shellfire and the movements of tracked vehicles. Often the L Section linemen had great difficulty in raising cables sufficiently high at overhead crossings to give adequate clearance for massive bridging equipment. In the later stages of the advance inductive interference from high-tension power circuits rendered many earth-working lines completely useless, and metallic circuits had to be provided.
Wireless in the brigade worked extremely well and at times was almost as efficient and stable as a telephone service. page 507 There was some trouble on occasions from frequency congestion between the brigade's nets and those of its neighbouring formations; some of these frequency clashes were investigated, and it seemed to the L Section operators that the Indians and Poles were tuning slightly to one or the other side of their allotted frequencies to find a clear spot on the band on which to operate comfortably. No doubt amongst themselves the Indians and Poles accused the New Zealanders with equal vehemence, so on balance the overall blame was probably fairly evenly apportioned.
In 5 Brigade K Section found at the beginning of the offensive that the staff was more than ever ‘line communication minded’, so that when the advance began to gather speed the linemen were hard put to it to provide circuits to meet changing day-to- day needs. As the brigade's advance neared the Po and began to accelerate, the staff had more and more recourse to wireless.
K Section's method of carrying line communications forward to successive locations of Brigade Headquarters was similar in most respects to that employed in 6 Brigade by L Section. K Section's main problem, however, was the provision of continuous line communications to the headquarters of battalions, which sometimes moved several times in one day. With each move a battalion established a tactical headquarters, and a drill for taking lines forward was evolved in which K Section linemen and the battalion signallers assumed approximately equal responsibility. The battalion signallers would lay line forward to the tactical headquarters and be responsible for its maintenance until in due course the tactical headquarters became the main headquarters, at which point K Section took over total responsibility for the circuit.
For the Po crossing the K Section linemen laid single cable (weighted) from a boat, from which it sank to the bed of the river. This provided very satisfactory communication, but as it was in use for only fourteen hours, no proper observation of the resistance of its insulation fabric to water was possible.
In the early stages of the advance from the Senio wireless was not used in 5 Brigade with nearly the same easy facility as line communication, mainly because staff officers were prone to ‘microphone shyness’ and, because of the long period of page 508 static conditions in which wireless had been used only for occasional test calls between operators on the brigade forward command net, had lost a good deal of their former familiarity with the procedure and security precautions. But this was merely a matter of practice and before long a very marked improvement was noticeable.
When 9 Infantry Brigade arrived on the Senio its attached signal section, the new J Section, was as yet untried in battle as a team, but it was tremendously enthusiastic and eager to show its paces. It was well up to strength in equipment, transport and men, and during its training period in the Fabriano area had developed an excellent team spirit.
At the time the offensive opened and during the initial stages of the advance, 9 Brigade was employed as the reserve brigade and used line communications extensively and wireless hardly at all. This placed a fairly heavy burden on the J Section linemen, and presently they also evolved a drill to lighten their responsibilities. Whenever Brigade Headquarters halted at a fresh location one line, or perhaps two, was quickly run out, and all battalions were connected in ‘omnibus’. By the time this had been done the section commander usually had a better idea of the likely duration of the headquarters' stay in that particular place and could then start to plan and lay individual circuits to battalions by the method most economical in cable and time.
Sometimes Brigade Headquarters moved at very short notice, and frequently it travelled a considerable distance before it halted again. J Section then found that it was often impossible to recover all the cable laid out in the old position, and as a result demands for additional supplies from Divisional Headquarters Signals were frequently considerably in excess of normal wastage.
In fair weather J Section laid a good deal of its cable in roadside ditches to reduce the number of faults from damage by tracked vehicles. Surprisingly enough, faults from this cause continued to occur with irritating regularity, and linemen tried hard to imagine how carriers and tanks could possibly fish lines out of ditches and chew them to pieces in their tracks.
During the early stages of the advance, when 9 Brigade moved page 509 along in the wake of the other two brigades, the J Section linemen found that it was imperative to label their lines at very frequent intervals because of the large amount of disused cable lying about on the ground.
Throughout the operation wireless in 9 Brigade behaved very satisfactorily, principally because the ranges between the control set and terminal sets on the forward command net were never very great. These terminal stations varied between twelve and fifteen in number at different stages of the advance, and when there was no line communication between Headquarters 9 Brigade and the battalions—a state of affairs which occurred with increasing frequency as the advance developed into pursuit—much traffic passed over the net, particularly between the headquarters of battalions and the reconnaissance sets mounted in the battalion commanders' jeeps. These were No. 22 sets and were part of the brigade forward command net, being in effect extensions of the battalions' headquarters terminal sets, whose call signs they used in conjunction with an affix letter or number, usually the latter.
Of all the signal sections none were harder worked than those of the Divisional Artillery, particularly H Section at Headquarters Divisional Artillery, whose forward exchange alone had twelve main lines. Of these, three went forward to the New Zealand regiments and four back to Headquarters Divisional Artillery; the others served regiments and batteries—including two medium regiments of Royal Artillery—which were under the command of New Zealand Divisional Artillery at the time.
There was a considerable amount of frequency congestion between different artillery wireless nets and this at first caused appreciable delays in the transmission of traffic. At first the usual cause—illicit off-frequency operating by offending stations —was suspected, but on several code signs being traced to their ‘registered owners’, it was found that the interfering sets belonged to neighbouring formations and that they were operating on their allotted frequencies, which were separated by only a few kilocycles from those of the New Zealand artillery nets. Representations were made to Corps Headquarters, of course, but as nothing much could be done about it at short notice, the various page 510 control set operators shared the air in a happy spirit of compromise, and in this way managed to shift their traffic with surprisingly short delays.
Less than thirty-six hours after the assault began against the enemy's Senio positions, the first move of Main Divisional Headquarters took place early on the morning of 11 April, when it crossed the river and took up a new position about a mile from Cotignola, where a forward signals party, which had gone ahead the evening before, had already laid out circuits to the armoured and infantry brigades and to Headquarters Divisional Artillery. From then onwards the headquarters rarely stayed more than two or three days in one position. These moves were carried out very smoothly; on nearly every occasion a forward signals party went forward some time earlier than the main group of the headquarters and prepared communications at the new site.
Later, as the speed of the advance increased and the distances between river obstacles grew longer, the linemen of C (cable) Section had ever-increasing difficulty in keeping lines forward to brigades. Whenever this occurred, with the brigades pressing forward as rapidly as possible towards the next river line and Main Divisional Headquarters half a field behind in the hunt, attempts to keep cable up to brigades were usually abandoned, the G staff being content if lines were run out again when the headquarters halted before the next river obstacle.
The laying of cables across the rivers—which, except for the Po and the Adige, are by New Zealand standards mere creeks— presented no special difficulties. For the crossing of the Po and the Adige, rubber-sheathed quad cable was laid across the pontoons of the Engineers' bridge. At the Po another quad was submerged on the bed of the river, but as the headquarters moved on again soon afterwards, it was in use for too short a time for its circuit performance to be properly observed.
The most prolific cause of faults and of most delays in getting cable forward to brigades was divisional transport blocking the narrow, often one-way roads and lanes; frequently this held up cable-laying and fault detachments for hours at a stretch. Attempts to find cross-country cable routes were seldom successful because of the canals and small streams which intersected page 511 the country at frequent intervals and which were impassable even to jeep detachments.
Despite Lieutenant-Colonel Foubister's fears that his modest reserve of cable would soon be exhausted, no serious shortages occurred during the whole of the operation. About a quarter of the cable run out on the ground was recovered, and adequate supplies of new cable came forward regularly from Corps Headquarters.
A corps' signal detachment, consisting of a sergeant and twelve rank and file of Royal Signals, was attached to Divisional Signals throughout the operation; its task was to extend the 13 Corps' line forward as Main Divisional Headquarters moved.
Wireless communications between Main Division and its subordinate formations worked smoothly and without any serious hitch throughout the advance, and became the main means of communication when the brigades so outstripped Main Headquarters that line communications could not be kept forward to them.
Throughout the final offensive, which ended in the streets of Trieste less than a month after the crossing of the Senio, Divisional Signals' casualties were astonishingly light. There was one bad day, the 13th—and a Friday—when Main Divisional Headquarters halted on the eastern outskirts of Massa Lombarda and took up its position in an orchard. The morning was fine and balmy and the surroundings equally pleasing. Soon after the headquarters' arrival most of the men set to work—a little more industriously than usual, it seemed—to dig spacious slit trenches. They were warned, perhaps, by some premonition, or more likely by the sound of incessant shellfire, mostly outgoing, which echoed all about the town as the infantry pressed towards the Sillaro. About noon the enemy shelling started. The sound of his guns was flat and distant, but with a sinister note that made men pause at their tasks and cock their ears apprehensively towards the north-west. Three distinctly separate reports could be heard each time the enemy guns fired —three flams on a distant drum. There was an interval of quiet for a time; then, about 2 p.m., came the three curiously muffled reports again. The shells fell on the orchard and, page 512 detonating among the branches of the trees, strewed their fragments around the headquarters' area. There were many casualties, of which Signals' share was one killed and eleven, including two senior officers, wounded. The man killed was Signalman Peddie,1 who took shelter when the enemy guns were heard, but was killed instantly where he lay in his slit trench when splinters fell from the trees above. Lance-Corporal Brambley,2 who had crawled beneath the front of a nearby truck, was struck in the legs, which were protruding into the open. One leg was smashed to pulp and later had to be amputated.
The afternoon of 26 April found Main Divisional Headquarters and Signals in an orchard north of the Po River and more than half-way to the Adige. Here they waited until the early afternoon of the 28th, when they moved off again and crossed the Adige. There was a short pause that afternoon, and then a long swift move lasting most of the night brought the headquarters to the outskirts of Padua, where 9 Brigade, in the vanguard of the advance, was already probing into the city. Next day, a Sunday, Padua was in New Zealand hands. Very early that morning a signal office was opened in the city. Line communications were almost non-existent because of the speed of 9 Brigade's advance, and wireless was the main means of communication.
In Padua John Shirley leaped into the limelight again. Since his serious work with line-intercept experiments on the Senio, he had played another of his pranks. An American Public Relations team which was to make a commentary on a heavy bomber operation had taken up an observation position on the top floor of a building in which a signal office was already established on a lower floor. As the aircraft came over in wave after wave the commentator described the scene into his microphone for ‘the folks at home’. After a time he said, ‘Now, folks, I'm going to lower the mike outside the building so that you can hear our page 513 ships going over….’ He lowered away and the microphone stopped outside the window through which Shirley was gazing. The latter never failed to grasp quickly the potentialities of a situation like this. He grabbed the microphone and took up the patter in a very fair imitation of an American broadcast: ‘There they go, folks! They're running in over the target now. Uh-huh! There's one of our ships down. And another! And another! Goddam! There's another one down….’ Up on the top floor the Americans remained completely oblivious of the liberties that were being taken with their recording gear, but in the signal office Shirley's men were convulsed with laughter. One version of the story, probably incorrect, relates that the illicit interpolation remained undiscovered by the Public Relations men and was not found until the recording reached the Office of War Information in America some weeks later.
At Padua Shirley was bent on more serious business. He had got wind of a German prisoner who was reported to have worked with a line-intercept unit in Cassino during the heavy fighting there a year ago, and he haunted the ‘I’ office so as to be on hand to hear the prisoner's interrogation. There was some delay in bringing the German, who was still in partisan hands, into Divisional Headquarters, so the ‘I’ officer suggested to Shirley, who was fidgeting about with ill-concealed impatience, that he should get an escort and go into Padua and collect the prisoner and some others, said to include some generals. Shirley set off in high glee and in due course returned in triumph, standing outside the turret of a Sherman tank and brandishing a tommy gun in a most business-like manner. The outside of the tank was festooned with four senior German officers, including General von Alten, a number of wild brigand-like partisans, and several New Zealand infantrymen.
That same afternoon, a little after midday, the armoured cars of 12 Lancers entered Venice, only a few jumps behind a small adventurous party from 5 Field Regiment consisting of the commanding officer (Lieutenant-Colonel Sawyers3), a regimental despatch rider (Gunner Daglish4), and a driver-operator page 514 of F Section, Lance-Corporal Frazer,5 who operated the wireless set in Sawyers' Dingo scout car. This party had set off while the Division was still on the southern outskirts of Padua, had passed through the city, where sporadic fighting between enemy groups and 9 Brigade—with considerable and enthusiastic assistance from Italian partisans—was still going on, and raced far ahead to the east towards Mestre, where a vast concrete causeway leads off from the mainland to the city of Venice. At Mestre they saw the first signs of enemy resistance. Leaving 12 Lancers to deal with this, Sawyers and his two men turned off along the causeway. Presently they met a small car, containing eight men all armed to the teeth, coming towards them from the direction of Venice. Sawyers sent a pistol shot over their heads, whereupon they dropped their weapons and raised their hands. The partisans, as they turned out to be, on discovering that the Colonel's party was friendly, turned their car about and led them triumphantly into Venice. They entered the Piazzale Roma soon after midday, to find it utterly deserted, but loud shouts of ‘Liberatori!’ and ‘Inglese!’ from the escort soon brought the crowds thronging into the streets, waving flags and plying Sawyers and his men with gifts of flowers and wine.
Soon afterwards a telephone message was brought from a British liaison officer who had been dropped in the city by parachute several days previously. After expressing the officer's satisfaction that an Allied party had reached the city, the message stated that he was sending a launch to take them to his headquarters. The news spread like wildfire, and soon a delirious crowd lined the Grand Canal. In due course Sawyers and his two companions reached the Hotel Danieli—later to be turned into a New Zealand club—where the British officer and a battery of cameras awaited them. A great throng before the hotel clamoured for speeches from the ‘liberators’. The Colonel, Frazer, and Daglish delivered their few words from the balcony amid cries of ‘Viva liberatori!’ and ‘Bravo!’ Meanwhile the British officer had produced useful information about routes and enemy dispositions, which was sent off by Frazer on the Dingo's wireless set.
Long before the crowd's voices had become hoarse from page 515 shouting ‘Bravo’ and ‘Viva liberatori’, Sawyers and his party had left the city and gained the main road, in time to join the Division as it swept forward towards the Piave.
On 30 April 9 Brigade crossed the Piave, the last obstacle in the battle of the rivers. Twenty miles farther to the east, 12 Lancers had found a bridge intact across the Tagliamento River, and the way to Trieste was open. The Division sped forward on 1 May and, crossing the Tagliamento and Isonzo rivers by bridges which the enemy had failed to destroy, entered Monfalcone in the afternoon. Crowds of armed men and women of the partisan movement filled the streets and dozens of posters— ‘Zivio Tito’, ‘Zivio Stalin’, and ‘Tukay je Jugoslavia’ (This is Yugoslavia)—flaunted their nine points of the law from the walls of buildings. For this area was in the possession of the Yugoslav partisans under the control of Marshal Tito who were awaiting the arrival of the Fourth Yugoslav Army, which had entered Trieste that day and was expected to occupy the territory westwards as far as the Isonzo.
On 2 May 9 Brigade pressed on along the coast road and, after clearing out several enemy positions, entered Trieste in the afternoon. That evening news came in a statement by General Alexander that the German forces in Italian had surrendered unconditionally. The long arduous Italian campaign was over at last, but the news was received by the New Zealand troops without demonstration, despite the elation which had borne them forward in the headlong pursuit during the last few days. It was not the sort of peace they had dreamed of in the far-off desert days or even in the early stages of the Italian campaign, when the picture had promised to be so much brighter; rather it was an armed and uneasy truce in a strange new political scene heavily charged with tension. The German enemy was gone now, caged in captivity, but in his place appeared a powerful, suspicious, unwilling and truculent ally, the Yugoslav, who resented the British share in the prize he claimed as his alone—the Italian partisan movement had been summarily put out of business as soon as the Fourth Yugoslav Army had reached Trieste.
In the city, where the Yugoslavs had set up and were already operating a civil administration, the summary arrest of all page 516 Italians opposed to the Slovene occupation continued. This was an inevitable outcome of the political wranglings which had torn north-eastern Italy since the First World War, prior to which the territory had been part of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, and large numbers of Slovenes had been implanted there to counter-balance the predominant Italian influence. Naturally enough, when the two provinces became part of Italy after the Peace Treaty, the Fascist government sought to reverse the process and ousted the Slovenes. Distrust between the two races grew apace, mainly because of the harsh treatment meted out to the Slovenes and the Fascist prohibition against their holding administrative posts.
Such was the uneasy background of the Allied occupation of Trieste in 1945. Throughout the early days of May tension mounted quickly and soon assumed a hair-trigger expectancy. At various points throughout the city armed sentries, both New Zealand and Yugoslav, were posted within a few yards of one another and eyed each other with cautious and frankly suspicious sidelong glances. In a similar atmosphere of distrust and suspicion New Zealand and Yugoslav patrols passed along the waterfront, on opposite sides of the streets, set of countenance and ready in an instant to meet any hostile act.
By this time the people of Trieste, regaining some of their composure, had come into the streets again. As each day passed they waited patiently to see what new ideological regime was to be thrust upon them.
In mid-May the situation moved to a climax with the exchange of diplomatic notes between the British and American Governments and Marshal Tito. An unfavourable reaction from the Marshal to the Allied proposals or, more correctly, bald statements of their intention to administer the disputed areas by Allied Military Government, brought the next move, this time by Field Marshal Alexander, who on the 19th issued a statement, a sort of order of the day to all Allied troops in the Mediterranean, to the effect that it was the duty of the Allies to maintain trusteeship over disputed territories until their final disposal was determined at the Peace Conference. The Field Marshal added, for good measure, some comparisons of the methods of conquest of Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese page 517 leaders with those of Tito. This, of course, provoked spirited denials from the Yugoslav Marshal. But the deadlock had begun to loosen and, by the 21st, several important areas, including the southern Carinthian district of Austria, had been evacuated by the Yugoslavs, whose leaders eventually agreed to the establishment of Allied Military Government.
In Trieste, however, the tension remained, although about the middle of May the strained relations between Allied and Yugoslav troops eased a little, only to worsen a few days later with demonstrations and propaganda outbursts directed against alleged British injustices to the Yugoslav cause.