In Peace & War: A Civilian Soldier's Story
15 — Intrigue in Trieste
Intrigue in Trieste
From the time we had entered Trieste until we left two months later, no member of the 22nd fired a shot. We had organised the tank attack on the Tribunale but that was all. We were shot at many times by the Yugoslavs who seemed to be obsessed with wreaking their vengeance on as many Germans as they could round up and as many fascists and Italians as they could find and, if we were in the way, on us too. Many lives could have been saved had they co-operated when we first entered the city. All we wanted was for the war to end as quickly as possible, but they wanted Trieste. We had landed up in a hotbed of intrigue.
The following is an extract from a letter written to my father on May 6 1945.
“Well it looks as though the whole show is drawing to a close over here though we have found ourselves mixed up in one of these eternal page 180 Balkan squabbles which always seem to be cropping up in this part of the world. As you probably know, we are in Trieste and it appears as if Tito and his brigands are trying to annex this part of the world from Italy, and are very much resenting our intrusion. However, the whole thing is now being thrashed out at a high political level but, in the meantime, the Slav rabble is controlling the city — imposing all sorts of stupid restrictions and shooting people up in the streets. It is Hitler's methods all over again and, if we allow it to happen, I think we will be failing in our duty. However, it is over to the Heads now to fix up so we will see how they get on — it is really quite a test of the principles for which we have been fighting.”
On the night of May 2 General Freyberg had appointed Brigadier Gentry senior commander of all the British forces in Trieste and his headquarters set up in the Albergo Grande on the waterfront. And just around the corner in the Piazza del Unita, the Yugoslavs had installed their administration headquarters. They had already posted orders imposing a curfew, putting clocks back an hour to correspond with Yugoslav time and making numerous other demands. Many local arrests were being made and, in no time, delegation after delegation of fearful Italians were clamouring in the lobby of the Albergo Grande trying to get protection for their lives and possessions. Brigadier Gentry visited the Slav headquarters and it was agreed that, in the meantime, they should carry on with local administration, with the proviso that no one should be arrested and moved from the city without trial.
Previously, Marshal Tito had agreed at a conference with page 181 Field Marshal Alexander that the Allied military government would take over the administration of Trieste when the time came, and that the city would be used as a supply port for the invasion of southern Austria. At the time it was not known who would take Trieste and what the wider war situation would be.
As events transpired, the necessity to invade southern Austria passed and Tito, greatly assisted by his Western allies with armaments, supplies and military liaison, made such good progress against the Germans that his troops reached Trieste two days before us. In that time, though, they had made little impression against the five German strong points which were well fortified, and had shown no sign of yielding until we arrived.
General Freyberg made indirect contact with the Yugoslav 4th Army commander in his mountain retreat and arranged for him to meet with General Harding of 13th Corps in Trieste. At this time a communique was issued from the headquarters of the Yugoslav Army stating that “The New Zealand Division could not occupy Trieste and Gorizia, and that there was no question of any German garrison being found in these two towns as they had been completely cleared of the enemy by Yugoslav forces by April. 30. Also Allied forces had entered these towns without permission, a fact which might have undesirable consequences.” A message also came from the Yugoslav 4th Army that they would not be responsible for anything which might happen, so, to counter this nonsense, there was nothing for it but to draw up a defence plan and be prepared for anything. From then on our troops were to be armed at all times, whether on duty or on leave. It was galling; this should have been a time for glorious celebration and we were angry at the way everything was developing.page 182
While our endeavours to finish the war in Italy did not lead the world headlines because of so many other momentous happenings at that time, we of the 22nd were proud we had led the New Zealand Division which had led the 8th Army in the final act of the war in Italy. The following article, written by an eye witness journalist, appeared in the British Daily Express on May 4 1945.
Col. Donald's Tanks
Wind up a War
Nazis shelled out
“Lieut. Colonel Haddon Donald, a New Zealander, fired the last shot in the Italian war that ended in Trieste today, long after the official capitulation of the Germans. The war ended when the colonel's tanks ringed the Palace of Justice in Trieste and blew holes in the last stronghold of 200 German SS troops who were too drunk to accept the chance of surrender. The Germans had retreated to the cellars and there — as I found today — they had broached case after case of looted Italian brandy to fortify them for a siege. The siege lasted four days. The Yugoslavs fighting in the city were not strong enough to oust them. Nor could they subdue other strongholds in the Castle and the coastal base at Miramare but these citadels surrendered as the New Zealand forces, spearheaded by the 12th Lancers' cars, under Lieut. Colonel Saville, entered the town last night.”
By coincidence, we had wound up the war in Italy on May 2 page 183 1945, having set sail from our homeland in the Empress of Britain on May 2 1940 — five long years previously. The hanging of Mussolini by the partisans on April 29, the suicides of Hitler and Eva Braun on April 30, the fall of Berlin on May 2, the unconditional surrender by Admiral Donitz on May 7 and the proclamation of VE Day on May 8 all obscured our victory and the fact that another Balkan eruption could break out at any time in Trieste.
With a little time to think now, I wondered what had happened to my German friend, the lieutenant colonel, who had helped me so much on the first day in Trieste. He had melted away and I hope he found his way back safely to his family in Germany. Time now to take stock of our surroundings. Our stay at the Hotel Regina was brought to an abrupt end when we were asked by Brigadier Gentry to make way for the Yugoslav headquarters. This did not please us at first but it proved to be a blessing. Our ever resourceful second in command — Colin Armstrong — had ferreted out the smartest suburb in Trieste, and he soon found billets for us among welcoming local families. We were all envious of his quarters, but pleased with our own.
The families with whom we were billeted, mostly Italian, were delighted to have us because we represented security for them and their property. If we dined with them, as we did mostly, our food was a much appreciated addition to their meagre supplies. Everything was scarce and, inevitably, a black market soon emerged. At this stage I was introduced to Marco Vucetic, a ‘Mr Fixit’ whose motto has been imprinted in my mind ever since. “Sir,” he would say, in rather broken English, “nothing is not possible.” and he set about to prove it. He was a likeable rascal who no doubt drove a hard bargain with his compatriots, but with us he never put a foot wrong. I suspect he finished up a very wealthy man in Trieste.
Another unusual character, an artist named Guido Fulignot, page 184 lived next door to my billet. He was held in high regard by his contemporaries and several of his portraits had been hung in art galleries in Paris before the war. He was particularly anxious about the fate of a beach house he owned on the coast south of Trieste in Yugoslav occupied territory. The war was over and the Slavs were meant to be our allies, so one day I took him down to see his beach house which was only two hours drive away. To his great relief, we found it undamaged and unoccupied.
Our journey south had not been obstructed but, on the way back, we were stopped and taken in by an armed guard to be questioned by a Yugoslav major. While Guido did the interpreting, I assessed the situation and could see that the major was hostile and we were not getting very far. There was an armed guard with a machine pistol at the door and the major, in spite of our harmless intentions, was being very difficult. Enough, I decided, and looking the major square in the eye, I pounded my fist on his desk, told him in English that I was not putting up with any more of this nonsense and stormed out past the guard before they could recover. I climbed into the Jeep with Guido and told my driver to head for home. Looking back, I saw a cluster of Slav troops with the major in the middle with his mouth still open — I do not think it had closed since my outburst. They did not shoot and away we went with our mission accomplished.
Guido was very grateful and, in return, offered to paint my portrait which I found to be an unnerving experience. When mine was done, he did one for Colin too, and we took them home as reminders of those memorable days.
We had some interesting conversations with our Italian hosts and could not find one who had been a ‘fascist’. “No, no! Mussolini had been good for Italy until he started to go to war, and to have joined with Germany had been a great mistake.” We were there to make friends not enemies, so we page 185 did not remind them of the shortness of their memories. In the eyes of the Yugoslavs, they would all have been branded fascists, and their properties would have been plundered and their lives threatened, if not taken.
On the side of the hill in an adjacent suburb I had noticed a very prominent mansion with a view out over the city so I suggested to Colin we might establish a club there for our battalion officers. We needed a place where we could all meet together because, in our present circumstances, we were rather scattered. Colin went up to investigate and was given a rapturous welcome. Villa Valerio was owned by the Sevastopolou family of Greek descent and Madam Sevastopolou — the matriarch — was living there with her son Mani and two daughters. Every night the unruly Slavs would roam through their grounds taking pot shots at their peacocks and staring through the windows. The family was living in a constant state of fear. We were the first Allied troops they had seen and the idea of an Officers' Club appealed to them greatly. We moved in a section of infantry to act as guards, and established a cookhouse for the club, and soon began to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of a lovely home and a friendly family.
A large foyer led into a magnificent ballroom which opened on to a terrace with wide steps leading down to spacious lawns and gardens. The view from the terrace was glorious, taking in the whole city and the bay beyond. What a place for a ball and, when the thought was mentioned, it was taken up enthusiastically by the family. Their friend, the count, a local socialite, would organise the girls to be chosen from Trieste's high society. This would be the first ball in Trieste since before the war — “What a wonderful idea,” they said.
The date was set with the count relishing the thought of interviewing the 60 prettiest girls in Trieste, who would partner our battalion officers, plus a few others with whom we were page 186 closely involved. Marco Vucetic was directed to procure the wines and local victuals needed to augment our supplies and an Italian chef was drafted into the kitchen to help our cooks produce the supper. We saved up our supplies of spirits, which were unprocurable except from army sources, and the stage was set for a very special occasion. There was no difficulty assembling a dance band of local musicians and our own pipe band would play outside and below the terrace, so that its music would not overpower the more romantic dance music inside.
Madam Sevastopolou and some of her friends would act as chaperones, and staff cars, Jeeps and trucks were arranged to pick up the girls and deliver them home safely after the ball. The night before the big event the count reported that his life would no longer be worth living in Trieste if he had to restrict the number of girls to 60. The clamour was so great he could not possibly invite less than 90 and even at that figure his life would be in jeopardy. We had to agree but where were we to find extra officers? Someone suggested the navy and, once again, they came to our rescue, but this time in more pleasant circumstances.
Our hostess stipulated that all the officers should assemble in the ballroom before the girls arrived and I was asked, as host, to join her and her family to receive the guests who were introduced to us by the count. In they came, bubbling with excitement, one beauty followed by another even more beautiful. I had never seen such an array of smashing looking girls and, by the time I had shaken hands with them all, I was exhausted. The ballroom was full of gaily dancing couples and I must have looked disconsolate as the girls had all been snapped up keenly by our enterprising officers with no thought for their CO. “Don't worry, colonel,” said our hostess, “I have saved the nicest one of them all for you” and, true to her word, Maria, a charming Greek girl appeared and my page 187 night was made. What forethought on the part of our hostess!
I discovered that Trieste society had a definite pecking order based on the historical importance of the family concerned and Maria was treated with deference by the other girls. She was a lovely and charming person, who spoke English and about four other languages well, and we met up at various social functions later during our tour of duty in Trieste. The ball was to culminate with supper after which the girls were to be transported home in our army vehicles before the curfew started. When the band announced supper was served, to my amazement there was close to a stampede. For them this was the most important part of the evening and it was as well we had a plentiful supply of food. The girls deserted their escorts and made for the laden tables, using plates rather as an afterthought. They were hungry — for the past several years their thoughts had been dominated by a constant struggle to find enough food to stay alive. At the sight of such a banquet, good manners went out of the window until they realised there was more than enough for all. I was saddened by the sight and next day asked Madam Sevastopolou what life had been like in Trieste during the latter years of the war. She told me of the hardships they had suffered. Family treasures lost their value when there was no food on the table and many had to be sold at ridiculously low prices. It was only the accumulated wealth of generations which had kept some families going and their future was most uncertain.
The ball had been a great success and we were invited out to meet many of the families whose daughters we had entertained. On several occasions I met up with Noretta Cosulich, whose family had shipping interests in Monfalcone. She was a most attractive young lady whose favourite drink, Campari, was new to me. Fifteen years later, while making a nostalgic return trip round Italy, my wife and I met her at a page 188 Trieste restaurant. I ordered a Campari for her and she was delighted I had remembered. It was still her favourite drink.
To those of us in the 22nd who were there at the time, the period we spent in Trieste was probably the highlight of the war. We were elated to be the first of the Western Allied forces to enter the city and proud of the part we had played in bringing the turmoil reigning there to a speedy conclusion. Three of the city's five German strongholds were taken by the 22nd Battalion together with about 1,500 prisoners. We shot up the S.S. stronghold in the Tribunale building and arranged for the Yugoslavs to take the Germans prisoner. Then, after a confrontation with the Germans at Vila Opicina, we withdrew to let the Slavs take that garrison's surrender.
The 22nd had served in the Eighth Army as a hard hitting, aggressive force and was gratified to be leading such a famous army in its final assault. Recent reports from the contingent of veterans who visited Cassino on the 60th anniversary of that campaign, suggest many Italians remember with gratitude the part we New Zealanders played in saving Trieste from being annexed by Yugoslavia. Undoubtedly, Tito attempted to take over Trieste. He falsely claimed the Germans had all surrendered before our arrival and had tried to bluff the Allies into accepting he had a prior claim to occupying the city. Happily, diplomacy intervened and after a few tense weeks he withdrew and a serious flare-up was avoided.
As tension was easing in Trieste, Brigadier Gentry took leave to explore southern Austria and for five days, as senior officer, I took his place as brigade commander. Thankfully, there were no incidents which required attention and, apart from making daily contact at brigade headquarters, I was not called on to take any action.
Reading an official history written by Robin Kay, of the New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs, I was astounded to note that the 20th Armoured Regiment had claimed, in their page 189 official history, to have been the first of the Allied troops to enter Trieste. This claim was repeated by Kay in his book and was, I believe, originally made by one of the 20th squadron leaders who was nowhere near the scene of action. Those tanks of the 20th which were there with us were under my command. I knew where they all were and they were certainly not the first to enter Trieste. In reply to my enquiry about this misrepresentation, Kay acknowledged he had not researched the situation carefully enough. Unfortunately, our 22nd Battalion history does not make any such claim as we all knew we were the first and took it for granted that everybody else knew as well!