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In Peace & War: A Civilian Soldier's Story

14 — To Trieste and Victory

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To Trieste and Victory

By now the division had been joined by the 12th Lancers — a famous British regiment with a long and proud history. Equipped with the latest armoured cars, they were a welcome acquisition for the General who used them as they had been in the desert, long range patrolling ahead of the division. The crossing of the Po River had acted as a signal for an uprising of the Italian partisans in northern Italy and this was to have serious consequences for the Germans. From now on we could rely completely on the information passed on to us by the local Italians who were anxious to help. The partisans rounded up a great many German prisoners and handed them over to the 12th Lancers and to us until their numbers became an embarrassment.

The 22nd was hard on the heels of the 12th Lancers and was able to consolidate the ground won. We worked in well together; sometimes they saved a bridge for us to speed across and sometimes we built bridges to enable them to cross. Their history pays a remarkable tribute to the New Zealand Division:

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“Then on 12 April (1945) came orders to move to Cotignola to join the 2nd New Zealand Division, then advancing with Polcorps on its left and the 8th Indian Division on its right up on the Sillaro. With this there opened a remarkable partnership. The 2nd New Zealand Division, under its famous commander Lt. General Freyberg, was perhaps the finest fighting division in any theatre in the war; certainly it was the finest in Italy. Tough, self-reliant, disciplined and tenacious, the men who composed it had their own standards of courage and efficiency, their own private pattern of loyalty and affection. To live up to one and to be accepted by the other were not easily achieved. But within a month the Regiment wearing the Fern Leaf sign of the Division, had accomplished both.”

We were delighted to have them with us. Our Bren carriers, practically unchanged since the beginning of the war, were not a patch on their fast, mobile, rubber-tyred armoured fighting vehicles carrying a gun which meant something. Like us at this late stage of the war, they had reached a high degree of efficiency, they were aggressive and reliable and never let us down. Like the 22nd Battalion, their motto was ‘Second to None’. We saluted them.

Our approach toward the Venetian Line was cautious as it was known to be strongly fortified and there were sufficient German troops to man it. While division was mulling over the need for a set piece attack, news came through at one o'clock on April 28 that the Americans had broken through the Venetian Line in their sector and had advanced as far north as Vicenza. Off went the General in his Jeep with his tin hat in place and a revolver on his hip, and off went the page 161 division to crash through our section of the Venetian Line. All thoughts of set piece attack had been abandoned. Within 12 hours, with the 22nd Battalion in the lead, we were in Padua, 25 miles beyond the fortifications. The way to Trieste appeared to be wide open.

With a troop of the 12th Lancers' armoured cars scouting ahead, followed closely by our 22nd Battalion Bren carriers escorting B Company in their three ton trucks, and then a troop of tanks from 20th Armoured Regiment, we sped along the autostrada towards Mestre. Our battalion headquarters was immediately behind the leading company, followed by the remaining tanks of the squadron under my command.

I personally travelled in a Jeep with my driver and a wireless operator so I could move freely up and down our column while still being in close contact with my battalion headquarters. When a skirmish erupted ahead I went forward to investigate and found Major Spicer in complete control, his carriers and his three tanks and a platoon of infantry coping with an enemy post ahead which yielded 40 prisoners. With scarcely a pause, we were off again through Mestre, but now without B Company which was about to receive its just reward by being detached to join Thodey Force, whose job it was to take the prize city of Venice.

On we swept, cheered and fêted by the locals who kept us informed about German movements. To highlight the fluidity of the situation, after passing through Mestre, 9th Brigade headquarters, following behind the 22nd, drove over a bridge on the autostrada while a German column in flight passed beneath them on a secondary road heading north. Both columns proceeded merrily on their way without being aware of each another.

The next major obstacle was the Piave River, some 20 miles beyond Mestre. All the bridges in our area of advance had been blown so with C Company, under Major Lloyd Cross, in page 162 the lead, we were faced with the problem of crossing the Piave River to the township of San Dona di Piave. Happily, we were told by locals of a disused ferry, a short distance upstream, which had been overlooked by the Germans. With their help, we soon had it in working order and I sent C Company over with their carriers to occupy the town just before dark. The ferry could not cope with the tanks but, with more help from the Italians, we discovered a ford some miles upstream and they were able to cross there at dawn.

However, when I reported back by radio to 9th Brigade headquarters that we had crossed the Piave, had a company installed without casualties and were about to cross with the rest of the battalion, the disturbing message came back from Brigadier Gentry that we were getting too far ahead too fast and I should withdraw C Company to our side of the river and await orders. Unknown to us, the 27th Battalion, which was advancing behind us on the right of 9th Brigade, had run into stiff opposition which culminated in a pitched battle against a sizeable German force trying to escape to the north from the coastal defence area. What was I to do? We were pleased with ourselves to have crossed over under difficult circumstances and were loathe to give up ground.

I checked with Major Cross who was completely confident his troops were safe where they were as there was no enemy in evidence, so I decided to leave them there but not to press on with the rest of the battalion until morning. As a civilian soldier, I felt my interpretation of orders could be a little more liberal than if I had been a career officer. Also, I had over me a very competent and understanding brigadier who did not insist that his orders must be carried out to the letter.

In the early hours of the morning of April 30, the 22nd Battalion sped on while the bridge over the Piave was being built so the rest of the division could follow. We had our tanks with us and the 12th Lancers, ever reliable, were scouting out page 163 ahead. I must pay tribute to the 12th Lancers and can do no better than to quote again from their 1950 history, a copy kindly sent to me by Major W Grant. They also crossed the Piave River and had pressed on to a village called Alvio Opoli where they were engaged during the night by a column of Germans with their escape route barred.

“It was an interruption only; it could do nothing to stem the tide of advance which next morning, 1 May, flowed steadily eastwards. The River Tagliamento was soon reached and as soon crossed, Partisans and an Air OP directing the leading troops from the blown bridge to a well-made diversion a little way up stream. Driving hard ‘D’ Squadron reached the River Isonso shortly after midday to find the long bridge intact but, as a quick inspection showed, prepared for demolition and with a time fuse steadily ticking away the moments of its existence. The sappers were hastily sent for but it was no time for delay. L/Cpl Mason of the Support Troop was let down over the parapet on a rope and removed the detonator, 3 Troop passed over the bridge immediately, and the advance went on.”

This was typical of the deeds performed by the 12th Lancers.

Our spirits were high that day — we had advanced in triumph a total of 76 miles, over the Isonzo River and, about five miles further on, to the outskirts of Monfalcone, a shipping city on the northern-most shores of the Adriatic. Cheering crowds and pretty girls with flowers lined the route. We could not stop to join them but we looked forward with glorious anticipation to the grand victory so close to us now. Through almost six years we had gone through varying emotions, page 164 ranging from the deepest depths of despair to the dizzy heights of elation which we were now experiencing. Only war can take a human being through such a wide range of feelings and only those who have been through it can possibly understand.

Meanwhile, B Company was celebrating victory in advance in Venice, one of the glamour cities of the world. Thodey Force, with our B Company as its infantry component, had been detached from 9th Brigade by the General to take over the city, reportedly cleared by the partisans. Our division had earlier been allotted the Excelsior Hotel in Rome as a Forces Club but, when we went to take it over, we were told by the Americans to buzz off. So the General, with affectionate memories of the Danielli Hotel, was determined to secure for his troops the best hotel in Venice. As with the Americans in Rome, it was first come, first served.

Major Spicer, with his company headquarters and one platoon, took up residence in the Danielli and immediately clapped a guard on the entrance, claiming it as New Zealand territory. A staff officer of 56 London Division, who came to claim the Danielli for his division, was escorted by a private soldier with fixed bayonet to Major Spicer's office. He tried to explain we were trespassing on their territory, only to be politely told that, under orders from “Our General” that absolutely no-one other than New Zealanders would be allowed to use the hotel.

Quoting 8th Army Regulations that no civilian food was to be eaten by servicemen, a guard was placed on the restaurant and our good major offered a little bread and butter to those senior British and American officers wishing to dine there. When our rations were delivered to the kitchen, our troops were welcomed in the restaurant and entertained lavishly by the staff and prominent Venetian citizens, many of whom had private apartments there. For B Company the war was virtually page 165 over and they felt inclined to enjoy themselves. Some sizeable accounts were run up in the restaurant, all being debited to the New Zealand Forces Club. These were later generously written off by the staff to the ‘Liberation of Venice Account’.

Meanwhile, great numbers of German prisoners were being rounded up and delivered back to the prison compounds. Major Spicer learned that a number of Germans were still at large on several of the outer islands including the Lido, with its world famous beaches, and that their headquarters was at the Albergo Warner. With remarkable aplomb, he spoke to the English-speaking German commander on the telephone and suggested politely that they may like to surrender. With a small party, he visited the island, where he was welcomed by the Germans and civilians alike, returning to the city with six German officers and 350 other ranks, the telephone having been a truly novel method of taking prisoners of war.

On the night before their departure to rejoin the battalion, the company was entertained at a spectacular ball in the hotel ballroom hosted by the staff and the local civilian high society. For them, it seemed like a fitting climax to the war, but such thoughts were rudely dashed by the serious situation which had developed in Trieste. Their quandary, on leaving Venice, was whether to give priority to bottles of cognac or ammunition in their platoon trucks. I am sure a satisfactory compromise was reached!

Meanwhile I waited until General Freyberg and Brigadier Gentry came forward to meet the first two senior Yugoslav officers we had encountered. The Red Star had been in evidence and pro-Tito slogans were plastered on walls. The atmosphere was tense and we felt we were not welcome among the scattered Tito forces parading the streets. The local populace was obviously cowed and uncertain about their fate and we were still 20 miles from our objective, Trieste, where we expected our war to end.

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Passing through Monfalcone, the first fighting broke out at the crossroads near San Giovanni, where the Germans held a strong position involving anti-aircraft and coastal defences with a road block covered by several machine guns. A determined show of force by A Company and the Bren carriers backed up by the tanks soon produced a white flag and 150 prisoners were taken. This had become the pattern — the Germans would not surrender without resistance but it did not last long when they had identified who we were. By resisting they also kept alive some semblance of pride. In this engagement we had no casualties.

An interesting account of this incident was given by Colin Armstrong in a letter to his parents dated May 6.

“The advance became a rout. First went three tanks then the CO in his Jeep, then mine, then the first company of infantry and we were jubilantly hoping for Trieste that night. About four o'clock we ran into a small body of Tito's Partisans in Monfalcone and it looked all over. The advance was then three tanks, CO, Brigadier Gentry, General Freyberg, a bunch of correspondents and myself with the Div. Provost on motor cycles surging in front of the trucks to sign the way. It was a rout with the bludgers up in front — and how they were shown up! About two miles past Monfalcone, the leading trucks were fired on. The column halted, the bludgers and the correspondents, as the odd shot cracked overhead, seemed to melt away as snow before the sun and within five minutes all that was left was the 22nd Bn. — the picnic was over, the war was on, so leave it to the poor bloody infantry. It was typical, it was ironical, and very amusing. In an hour we had the situation under control with page 167 some 500 prisoners who had little fight left in them.”

Colin's total of the number of prisoners taken differs from mine, possibly explained by the numbers swelling after the initial surrender.

A meeting was promised with the Yugoslav Fourth Army commander at 7.30 pm but he did not turn up and the General rightly judged that the Slavs were stalling for time. They assured us their commander would be there at 8.30 next morning but, when he did not show up, General Freyberg gave the order to carry on with the advance.

The Yugoslavs had fought hard and well against the Germans and had been subjected to many atrocities. However, although they had previously agreed with the Allies not to take Trieste, they had entered the city before us forcing the Germans to consolidate on various strong points. Obviously they had hoped to subdue the city before we arrived, but the speed of our advance had upset their calculations. Instead of presenting us with a fait accompli, which they would have exploited to the utmost, we arrived too soon for their liking and they regarded us as intruders. Under these uncomfortable circumstances, we pushed on to cover the last 20 miles of our advance.

At 8.30 am, the 22nd Battalion at the head of the New Zealand Division, with a troop of 12th Lancers scouting ahead, pressed on along the coast road towards the city. There was a fork in the road at Sistiana, giving the brigade a two-pronged approach to Trieste, and the Divisional Cavalry had been brought forward immediately behind the 22nd to exploit the top road. We encountered a road block at Sistiana so I sent forward some carriers, a platoon of infantry and a troop of tanks to deal with them, when much to our amazement, a Jeep came hurtling along the road from behind us. Passing page 168 our stationary column and, in spite of our signals to stop, it drove straight into a hail of German machine gun fire.

The Jeep contained a British naval captain and an American naval officer, both of whom were sent back by ambulance in a serious condition. It is hard to imagine what they were doing; perhaps it was sheer bravado but it turned out to be total stupidity involving, as it did, casualties on both sides. During our attack, we killed a number of Germans and took eight prisoners; two of our men were wounded.

With that obstruction dealt with, the Divisional Cavalry came up and took over the advance on the upper road while we pressed on along the main coastal route. The race was on and we were determined to be first into the city centre, now some 12 miles away. There was a short hold up when our aerial reconnaissance located a strong enemy position around Miramare Castle, some five miles north of the city. A large number of troops protected by 88 mm guns were detected guarding the castle, and it was decided to call up the fighter bombers to deal with them. Immediately the bombing ceased, I detailed Captain Jock Wells with A Company and supporting tanks to occupy the castle. This they did successfully, taking 600 men and 15 officers prisoner — almost the equivalent of our battalion.

While we were waiting for the ‘Cab Rank’ (fighter bombers available to divisional commanders at all times) to do its job, I noticed a flotilla of three German motor torpedo boats moving along the coast below us in the direction of Trieste. There was a troop of 20th tanks close by so I suggested they have some target practice as the boats were well within range. Their shooting was good and they sank one and damaged another; sinking ships was an unusual task for tanks!

We were chafing at the bit, thinking that the Divisional Cavalry were going to get ahead of us and, with Miramare page 169 Castle under control, we pushed on down the rather narrow, winding coastal road overlooking the sea, a route hewn out from rock, which lent itself to defence, demolition and ambush. We were in close convoy, with the Lancers and our carriers probing forward, as we knew we were approaching a tunnel which would probably be protected by the Germans and almost certainly prepared for demolition. Sure enough, as we approached, the German garrison opened fire with machine guns at the Lancers' armoured cars and our Bren carriers. However, I had withdrawn the soft-skinned vehicles of my leading company and had the tanks well ahead.

A furious but short-lived exchange of fire took place but was cut short by the appearance of a small group of Germans, led by a lieutenant colonel carrying a white flag, marching up the road towards us. I dismounted from my Jeep, which was tucked behind a tank for protection, and went forward to meet the German commander who luckily, was fluent in English. Although he was obviously anxious to co-operate, I nevertheless asked him to hand over his pistol. He was easy to talk to and, being in close radio contact with the five German strong points throughout the city, was anxious to inform me about all that was going on. In fact, he advised me how to go about taking control of the situation. “Right,” I said, “Will you come with me in my Jeep, bring your wireless operator and guide me in?” We were still then about three miles from the city centre.

A few minutes later we had clambered aboard my Jeep, with my wireless operator and the two Germans. Major Colin Armstrong, my second in command, had come forward in his Jeep and, on his own initiative, tagged on behind, and I radioed Captain Terry McLean, my adjutant, to bring the rest of the battalion and the tanks through the road block and to follow us into the city. The two 12th Lancer scout cars were there too, so I told them to follow us, as our German guide page 170 knew where to go and how to get there. Our convoy of four vehicles with about 12 of us, plus two Germans, aboard, set off for Trieste, through the tunnel that had been prepared for demolition. We felt sure we had beaten the Divisional Cavalry to it. As it happened, they had run into serious opposition at Villa Opicina and did not get through until much later.

On the way into Trieste, my German guide gave me all the details of the enemy defences. The Tribunale Building, as the Law Courts were called, was the closest and most difficult situation to deal with, and he advised that we should go there first. The next most strategic position was the Castello San Guisto, which dominated from a knoll in the heart of the city. The overall German Area headquarters was situated in the northern suburbs of the city and there was a strong garrison at Opicina, about four miles to the north. They were anxious to surrender to us but were besieged by the Yugoslavs. There was one major problem. The defenders of the Tribunale Building were truculent Hitlerites who vowed they would surrender to no one. I was told they were SS troops. They had defied the German area commander who had sent a staff officer and party to order them to surrender to us. They refused and shots had been exchanged — German against German.

My mentor, the German lieutenant colonel, recommended we set up our headquarters in a building on a side street adjacent to the Square in front of the Tribunale. This we did, but he was unable to make radio contact with the garrison inside the building. Something had to be done so I talked over the situation with Colin Armstrong and decided to try on my own to persuade them to surrender. With no flag of truce available, I made do with my handkerchief, which was white and reasonably large. Holding it aloft, I advanced unarmed across the Square towards the massive front door.

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I stopped at the foot of the broad steps leading up to the front door and called out. Looking up, I could see several windows partly open with machine gun barrels protruding from them, all pointing in my direction. This explained the series of clicks I had heard as I was nearing the fortress — the release of safety catches. There was a shuffling behind the door and I could hear muffled voices. The door opened a crack and slowly the crack became wider and wider until two German officers were exposed within. One came forward carrying a submachine gun and spoke to me in German which I could not understand. The other one, who stood just inside the door in the shadows, appeared to be waving a half empty brandy bottle in one hand and a Luger pistol in the other.

I knew enough Italian and sufficient German to be able to explain who I was, that the Allies were entering Trieste in force and that, if he would surrender with his garrison, we would give them safe conduct back to a British prisoner of war camp. I was not impressed with their appearance — they were unshaven, their tunics were unbuttoned and they looked bleary eyed. After conferring for a moment, they stepped back inside and slammed the door.

The walk back across that 50 yard square seemed to have grown to rugby field proportions and I held my white handkerchief aloft, very conscious of all those machine guns pointing at my back. Colin Armstrong also retained vivid memories of my lonely walk back across that square. With an enormous sigh of relief, I turned the corner for the safety of our temporary headquarters. By this time I had expected to see at least my leading company commander and the tank squadron commander at my headquarters, but there was no sign of them. Colin explained that, after we had passed through the German road block at the tunnel, the Germans had closed it again, holding up the advance. It had taken nearly half an hour to sort out the problem, but they were on page 172 their way and Colin offered to go back and guide them to our headquarters. They arrived soon after, much to my relief.

My German adviser then suggested we should take over the Castello San Guisto as its commander, a German vice admiral who had served in the First World War, was anxious to surrender. Major Lloyd Cross had arrived with C Company by this time, so I pointed out the 700 year old fortress to him, plainly visible and sitting impressively on its hill about half a mile away. Major Cross went off with his company and a troop of three tanks and two 12th Lancer scout cars.

At this stage, Trieste was in turmoil with at least five different factions fighting one another — Italian fascists versus Italian partisans, Tito's men and Chetniks, Slavs versus Slavs, Germans versus Germans, Slavs versus Germans — with us trying to keep the peace. We regarded this local infighting as a sideshow, but it was real enough and there were a large number of Italian casualties. Major Cross and his company were sniped at by the Yugoslavs on the way up to the castle and he eventually radioed back that he was close to the objective, but there was too much shooting going on to risk proceeding further. The Yugoslavs had shot at one of his tanks with a Bazooka but, fortunately, had missed. I had given instructions that we were not to shoot except in self defence, so Lloyd was rightly hesitant about moving closer.

This time, instead of going in my open Jeep, I borrowed a 12th Lancer armoured car and went to Lloyd's headquarters to assess the situation. Lloyd pointed out the Yugoslav positions to me and I decided that, if the tanks led the way with the troops on foot sheltering alongside, the Slavs, with whom we had by now made some contact, would be unlikely to blow up equipment belonging to their allies, and that we could bluff our way in. I left him to it and, with some variations, this plan worked. As the tanks drew close, down came the drawbridge over the moat and over they went into the page 173 courtyard followed by the soft-skinned platoon trucks.

A fascinating scene then unfolded, with two professional soldiers — Major Lloyd Cross and the German commander — conducting a military surrender according to the book as laid down in Standing Orders. Both the Germans and our C Company paraded in the courtyard of the castle and, after the ceremony, with much saluting the Germans stacked their arms and our troops took over sentry duty. The tense situation with the Yugoslavs outside settled down and the Germans were escorted to our prisoner of war camp the following morning.

Back at battalion headquarters, a message came through from General Freyberg and Brigadier Gentry, waiting impatiently in the suburbs for things to settle down, enquiring whether it was now appropriate for them to make a triumphal entry into the city. I had to report to them that we had taken the Castello San Guisto, but the Germans were still holding out in the Tribunale Building, and there was a good deal of indiscriminate shooting going on in the streets as the Slavs rounded up everyone who might or might not be a fascist. As a result of this information, they came in cautiously, with 9th Brigade headquarters setting up in the Grande Albergo della Citta near the waterfront and divisional headquarters settling in at Miramare Castle five miles north of the city.

I was fast losing my patience with the SS types in the Tribunale. but decided to have one more go at offering them safe conduct. We did not think much of their chances of survival if they were taken prisoner by the Yugoslavs, but neither did we want to suffer any casualties in our final attempts to end the conflict. Terry McLean, my adjutant, could speak some German and by this time an Austrian civilian had joined us to act as an interpreter. The three of us, under a better constructed white flag this time, marched once more across the Square to parley with the Germans. It was almost a repeat of the previous performance but this time we told them page 174 that, if they did not surrender, we would surround the building with tanks and blow it apart. The answer was “We won't surrender to any bastard” and the door slammed in our faces once again. That settled it and back we went to headquarters — that long march all over again, thank goodness without incident. I gathered up all the tanks I could muster from the 19th and 20th Regiments, 18 in all, and placed them strategically round the building on the Square, in side streets and at the rear.

A Yugoslav liaison officer had attached himself to us and I told him that, when we had finished our bombardment, they were welcome to go in and collect the prisoners, which seemed to please him. I gave the order to fire and to keep firing until we had blown several entries into the building. A number of civilians had been sheltering in the safety of the upstairs rooms of our headquarters and a wild flurry of skirts and trousers came tumbling down the stairway when the guns opened up. “Mama Mia, Mama Mia” was the cry as they sought refuge in the cellar, holding their hands over their ears as they dived below.

It was soon obvious that the tanks were not making much impression on the three feet thick stone walls, so I told them to concentrate on the downstairs doors and windows. The tank boys were having a wonderful time. Never had they had such an easy target and nobody was shooting back at them. As dusk approached their gun barrels became red hot and started to glow and then they ran out of ammunition. It was now up to the Yugoslavs to finish off the job. From his vantage point in the castle, Lloyd Cross reported a huge pall of black smoke hanging over the area.

After about an hour, the Yugoslav officer came to me and reported his men were in the building, but the Germans had all retreated into the basement and were refusing to surrender. He asked if I could give him a large supply of petrol so they could be page 175 burned out. The thought of it made me choke, but I realised that their war had been much more personal and brutal than ours, and I found it hard to blame them. Fortunately, I did not have access to a large supply of petrol. In the event, in the early hours of the morning when the Germans had sobered up, they came out like sheep from a pen and the Yugoslavs took them away to their fate. We discovered that the basement was loaded with loot including cognac, exclusive wines and food and a large supply of silk stockings. Those Germans had been living high.

By this time Colin Armstrong had found us more elegant headquarters in the Albergo Regina, quite sumptuous really, though I was too busy at the time to appreciate it. My faithful German colonel was still around and we had received various messages that General Linkenbach, German commander of the whole area, wished to surrender to us with all his staff and troops. I sent my intelligence officer, 2nd Lieutenant Clem Currie — later Mayor of Taupo — together with Sergeant Morrie Klein, who could speak German, and the co-operative Austrian interpreter, to bring the general to my headquarters where we could discuss the issue. He arrived in a very smart, almost new BMW sports car and, as he would not be needing it in a prisoner of war camp, I had it delivered to my transport section to be carefully looked after.

After some discussion, back went Lieutenant Currie, this time with Lieutenant Jim Sherratt and his platoon with eight trucks to bring in the Germans, past Yugoslav outposts in the pitch dark and, of course, with no lights showing. The trucks were filled and still there were more. Finally, 300 had to march on foot, bringing the total number of prisoners to 800.

General Linkenbach insisted that he wished to surrender personally to General Freyberg so, in the early hours of the morning — about 3.00 am — I took him off in my staff car to report to the General. He was asleep in his caravan alongside the castle and his aide rather hesitantly woke him up. I overheard page 176 him telling the general that General Linkenbach, the overall German commander of the Trieste area, was outside with me and wanted to surrender to him formally. In a sleepy voice, the General said: “Tell him to surrender to Colonel Donald”. I felt I had done my part, so we packed him off with the rest of his troops to the prison cage. By daylight everything was back to normal but it had been a long day and I was pleased to be able to retire to a soft hotel bed for two or three hours' sleep.

So ended perhaps the most action packed 24 hours of my life. The 22nd Battalion had taken Trieste and, with the help of the German colonel, we had subdued four of the five enemy strong points and Trieste was now safely in Allied hands.

Orders came through in the morning that the German stronghold at Opicina, which was really in the Div Cav area, was still holding out and I was to deal with the situation. Captain Jock Wells, with A Company, and a troop of tanks from A Squadron 20th Armoured Regiment were sent to investigate. Captain Wells had a German interpreter with him and, as they approached, they found the garrison was besieged by Yugoslavs. Wells and the German interpreter went forward on foot to make contact with the Germans, but the Yugoslavs, who were firing indiscriminately at anything that moved, wounded two of our A Company soldiers. One of them, Lance Corporal Russell, subsequently died, a sad outcome from such an unproductive venture. As one of our signalers had been wounded on the way into the city, Tito's troops were now responsible for three battalion casualties. Captain Wells made contact with the Yugoslav commander, accompanied by a British liaison officer who had been fighting with them, but there appeared to be stalemate so I made my way up to Villa Opicina to sort matters out. There I discovered that Captain Wells and the Slav and British officers had left to return to 22nd Battalion headquarters. They then reported to 9th Brigade headquarters and Brigadier Gentry directed us to withdraw and leave the Germans to their fate. page 177 This was a great relief to me as I did not want any more casualties.

For the last three weeks in April 1945, the New Zealand Division had led the 8th Army with a superb show of skill and capability which could not have been matched by any other division. To my knowledge, there has not been another division in history as strong as the Second New Zealand Infantry Division was at this stage. Hannibal may have had his elephants to create terror in the ranks of the Roman legions, but they would have been no match for Freyberg's tanks.

We were, in fact, an army in miniature, cleverly built up by General Freyberg over the years. He held a unique position within the Allied forces. As commander of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force as well as the Second New Zealand Division, he was answerable only to the New Zealand government, which he knew would back him in any dispute with senior Allied commanders. He had to use this clout on several occasions.

With the formation of the 9th Infantry Brigade, which included the former 22nd Motorised Battalion, the 27th Machine Gun Battalion, and the Divisional Cavalry, the General had within his command three infantry brigades with one extra battalion, the 28th Maori, three regiments of tanks, three regiments of artillery with anti-aircraft and anti-tank support, his own engineers, transport, supply and recovery units, three hospitals with dental units, his own leave centres and a fully comprehensive base unit for handling reinforcements and supply. We even baked our own bread. The division then consisted of nearly 30,000 personnel, twice the size of a normal British division, with the firepower to go with it.

Had the Maori Battalion been incorporated in the new 9th Brigade, leaving the Divisional Cavalry to revert to its old role as a reconnaissance unit, equipped with modern scout cars, we would have been better balanced. Instead, the British 12th Lancers were placed under command of the New Zealand Division and more than adequately filled this gap in our page 178 capability. They were old, reliable friends who had worked with us in the desert days, and we had complete confidence in them.

The one missing link was our own New Zealand squadron of fighter bombers directly under the General's command. This presence in the air above us at dawn after a successful infantry night attack would have harried the retreating Germans, preventing them from establishing fresh gun lines. With direct communications between our attacking battalions and our own New Zealand fighter bombers, we would have been even more effective at eliminating German Tiger tanks and other strong points. A compromise was made with the introduction of a ‘cab rank’ of fighter bombers, and this proved effective.

With such organisational strength, led by such a seasoned commander as General Freyberg, supported by highly skilled subordinate commanders and backed up by the most courageous front line soldiers, (the whole combination specialising in and excelling at night attacks), even the most determined German troops could not have stopped us. The final battles in northern Italy, followed by the speedy advance to Venice and Trieste, where we took the last German surrender of the war in Italy, were a fitting finale to five and a half years of conflict.