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20 Battalion and Armoured Regiment

CHAPTER 21 — ‘This is Yugoslavia’

page 595

‘This is Yugoslavia

Tukay je Jugoslavia’ proclaimed the slogans on the walls of Trieste and Monfalcone, ‘This is Yugoslavia’. The claim embraced all Italian territory east of the Isonzo, proclaiming it Yugoslav by right of conquest and adding the warning—a threat, perhaps, or bluff—that the Yugoslav Army ‘would not be responsible for anything that might happen’ if the New Zealand Division was not withdrawn at once behind the Isonzo. This was how Marshal Tito proposed to keep the agreement made earlier with Field-Marshal Alexander at Belgrade. The New Zealanders, said General Freyberg, were going to stay.

For the next six weeks ‘the Jugs’ were the Division's main preoccupation. The New Zealander is not notably a diplomat, but common sense, a rough tact, cheerful friendliness and an impression of quiet strength helped to smooth over many a difficult situation. Twentieth Regiment's tanks were chiefly concerned with the last of these virtues, and throughout May and for the first two weeks of June its crews manned gunlines in support of the infantry battalions to which they were attached or ‘showed the flag’ in parades of strength, both in their tanks and on foot. Even church parades provided the opportunity for propaganda, and for a thanksgiving service on 13 May the regiment marched through Monfalcone ‘for the benefit of Tito's clan’. ‘There are too many of his men around to suit me,’ says the same diarist. ‘They could cause a lot of bother.’ It is to the Division's credit that none of the many incidents where provocation was given developed into serious friction.

For the fortnight it was at Monfalcone the regiment was on three hours' notice. Two troops in turn patrolled the three-mile stretch of road from Monfalcone to Ronchi ‘as a reminder to Tito that troops were on the job.’ On the afternoon of the 5th the regiment lost B Squadron to 25 Battalion, with whom it went to give support near San Pelagio, but as reinforcement it welcomed back from Venice Lieutenant Sisam's troop, which returned with apparent reluctance on the 9th after ten days in that fascinating city.

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As for the men themselves, first there was VE Day to celebrate with parties and a monster fireworks display; official duties were few, the weather beautiful, the Isonzo and the Grado lagoon not far away. This was a time of swimming parties, picnics, and squadron dances in the open air, at some of which ‘Tito's chaps’ appeared uninvited and had to be firmly persuaded to look elsewhere for their entertainment, or else caused trouble afterwards by accosting guests on their way home. Leave parties left frequently for three days in Venice or on ‘swanning’ trips to Udine or across the Alps to Austria, journeys which, with unofficial extensions, often covered several hundred miles. In spite of the ‘Jugs’, the men were in holiday mood and determined to enjoy themselves before other battles or other fronts claimed their attention.

Meanwhile, a watchful eye had been kept on the situation in Trieste and Venezia Giulia. By 20 May things looked no better and it was decided to move up the armour into forward positions in a policy of ‘peaceful infiltration’ of Yugoslav positions. Accordingly, at 4.30 a.m. next day the regiment moved to the Sistiana area to support 6 Brigade. The tanks took up defensive positions among pine trees and scrub oaks on a rocky hill overlooking a bay, in which at least twenty two-man German submarines lay with their backs broken and hulls blown apart. It was a pleasant spot, but most of the crews were not destined to stay there long. Next morning reconnaissance parties from the squadrons went out to reconnoitre suitable areas for their next infiltrating move, and in one squadron ‘Some fool fired a Very light and set the scrub on fire. Took half an hour to put out.’ By half past two in the afternoon the squadrons were on their way again, closing the Allies' grip on Trieste by taking up gunline positions supporting their infantry battalions, ‘should hostilities commence’, on the inland road from Prepotto to Sgonico. As in some of the earlier battles, A Squadron was again with 24 Battalion, B with the 25th, and C with 26 Battalion. Two troops of 28 Assault Squadron moved with the regiment and came under its command.

The grip tightened still further on the afternoon of the 23rd when A Squadron and 24 Battalion moved up to a crossroads north-east of Prosecco. As one of the regiment's diarists saw the move: ‘Tanks moved up the road as Tito has been told page 597 to get out or get pushed out.’ Road blocks were set up and Trieste buzzed like an angry hive.

On the 25th the 6th Reinforcements of the Hawea draft left the regiment on the first stage of their journey home. As always, they were suitably farewelled (‘They sure poured some booze into me,’ one man records feelingly); the Colonel said goodbye at 7 a.m., the General at 8.30, and for the farewell parade at Monfalcone the regiment supplied three Honey tanks to discourage Yugoslav participation. For those left behind the Grado and Venice leave schemes still operated, there was swimming at Barcola, inter-squadron cricket matches, and a baseball match against 28 Assault Squadron. By this time the regiment's star cricketer, Major Martin Donnelly, had left B Squadron for the United Kingdom, where he had been posted to the Prisoner-of-War Repatriation Unit. On his way to the United Kingdom also was Major Pyatt, who was succeeded on 20 May as second-in-command by Major Ryan1 from the 18 Regiment.

On the evening of 31 May and in the early morning of 1 June the regiment moved into Trieste with 6 Brigade to relieve 19 Regiment and 9 Brigade. Regimental Headquarters took over the Littoria seaplane base, A Squadron occupied the Savoia hotel on the waterfront, B Squadron found quarters in a block of flats near the Tribunale building, and C occupied the Castello San Giusto, with a fine view over the city and of a muscular group of statuary in the square below. One B Squadron troop stayed back near Sistiana to protect B Echelon. Infantry companies and tank troops manned strategic positions guarding vital points in the city, while RHQ and the reconnaissance troop patrolled the docks and the railway yards.

At this period there were constant reports of ‘incidents’, of Yugoslav troops looting warehouses and factories, of demonstrations and arrests. In Trieste the Yugoslav Army imposed a curfew on the civilian population and maintained armed patrols in the streets by day and night; at each alarm tank crews and infantry would stand-to ready to take up their battle positions. In the evening of 8 June a big demonstration by Yugoslav troops and local Communists threatened trouble, but ‘blocking’ tactics by Allied troops in the town confined it skilfully to page 598 parades and processions through the streets and at no time did the situation get out of hand.

After some high-level diplomatic exchanges the Yugoslavs were at last brought to reason and on the 11th began to withdraw from Trieste. No incidents were reported, and apart from the inevitable processions and parades the city's streets were orderly. The withdrawal was frenziedly celebrated next day by the Italians as the last of the Yugoslav Army departed: ‘The big square not far away is just packed with cheering people and from every window there flutters the Italian flag where yesterday fluttered Tito's,’ wrote Sergeant-Major Hamilton. Reports that armed Slovenian peasants proposed to stage a counter-demonstration caused all leave to be stopped and kept the troops at their posts. Trouble threatened later in the day when partisans and local Communists tore down or set fire to Italian flags, but Allied provosts with their usual brisk efficiency quelled all disturbances and the troops' services were not required. Among the list of vital points—docks, broadcasting and power stations, etc.—which the troops were called on to guard after the Yugoslavs' departure was a brewery, which units were charged with safeguarding ‘for future military use’ and to prevent looting.

The men then settled down to enjoy themselves in earnest. Earlier in the month the regiment had borrowed two large yachts and two motor launches which it used for sightseeing and swimming trips round the harbour, and other parties went on minesweeping trips with the Royal Navy. A roof-garden bar and lounge at the Littoria seaplane base was another pleasant spot in which to pass the time between alarms. Leave was generous: even during ‘the trouble’ only half the troops were kept on duty, and of the rest half had daily leave in the city on one hour's notice to return to their posts and the rest were on unrestricted leave. For a divisional race meeting in the Trieste trotting club grounds on the 9th all men carried arms —as they did even at the opera—and awaited the summons of Very light signals to return instantly to their posts in the event of trouble. In the evenings they went to the pictures or played crib, and went to bed on huge suppers of oyster fritters from Patriotic parcels.

Beautiful weather, attractive female companions (a ‘say-it- page 599 with-flowers’ service operated in Trieste), good food (Italian cooks in some of the messes excelled themselves in creating tempting meals from bully beef or from a few tins of fish), dances, swimming, farewell parties, four-day motor tours of north Italy: the idyll could not last for ever, and in fact some men record that they were bored with nothing to do. Work was found for many of them at Villa Opicina, whence the regiment, less A Squadron, moved on 17 June into a large and dirty barracks on the outskirts of that hilltop village overlooking Trieste. A Squadron, left behind in Trieste under 6 Brigade's command, moved from the Savoia hotel area to the Littoria seaplane base. At Opicina, after three days of cleaning, the barracks were at last considered habitable; and then followed a period of ‘one-stop-two’ with squadron and regimental parades, ceremonial guards, route marches twice a week, NCOs' classes, and gunnery and wireless classes for the later reinforcements. All the while the Division boiled with rumours about its future: would it go home or would it find further battlefields in Burma or in the Pacific?

On 24 June the partisan forces in Venezia Giulia, the Difesa Popolare, were paraded and thanked for their past services; their arms were then collected and the organisation disbanded. While the partisans paraded their buildings and headquarters in Trieste were searched, with some success, for hidden arms, an action that provoked protests from local trade union organisaations which reached as far abroad as the New Zealand Government. In a form of direct protest not unknown in New Zealand, the watersiders and ‘public services’ of Trieste went on strike. On 25 June a party of fifty men from the regiment took their places loading and unloading ships, and all leave to Trieste was cancelled. The strike lasted only one day. When B Squadron relieved A in Trieste on 30 June, a troop of tanks was stationed at the entrance to the docks to check the entry of all personnel and vehicles.

And this was about the regiment's last official duty, for B Squadron handed over to 18 Regiment a week later and joined the rest of the regiment in the Villa Opicina barracks. A guard of 1 officer and 18 men went to Prosecco on a six-day tour of duty at the corps petrol dump and a smaller party manned patrols in Villa Opicina, week about with the other page 600 regiments, later in the month; but apart from a ceremonial parade and march past for Colonel Campbell, 4 Armoured Brigade's commander, on 19 July and an informal visit by General Freyberg a few days earlier, the month's occasions were domestic and social rather than military. Chief of these were Headquarters Squadron's dinner on the 14th and a regimental race meeting and smoke concert on the 21st. A memorial service by Padre Gunn for those of the regiment who lost their lives in Italy will also be long remembered by all who took part in it. A printed order of service containing the names of the regiment's dead was sent to their next-of-kin.

On 22 July the Division began to move back to a concentration area near Lake Trasimene, and when the other 4 Armoured Brigade units left on the 31st the regiment was left behind as rear party for the Division. Attached to it were some thirty-odd men from each of 18 and 19 Regiments and 16 from 28 Assault Squadron, as well as the brigade workshops, the armoured section of Ordnance Field Park, and a small section of the Divisional Postal Unit. Five officers and 123 other ranks of the Tekapo draft also left with the brigade convoy after the usual exhausting farewells.

August was a social month and the regiment's daily record of events reads like a debutante's diary: dances, launch and yacht trips, cricket and tennis matches, visits to the opera at Gradisca, visits exchanged with the Royal Navy. Its rear-party duties of handing in tanks and equipment and cleaning up took some time too. Ammunition was handed in in the last week of July and taken by truck to a dump at Udine, and a lot of maintenance work was done on the tanks before they, too, began to move back to Bologna in the last week of August. Leave parties had their last looks at Venice's handsome club, their last rides in the city's graceful black gondolas, or went farther afield to the New Zealand alpine leave centre in the Dolomites.

And then on 31 August the rear party left Trieste. ‘“A rivederci, New Zealand Brothers”—we love you and you know it, and for this reason we are happy that you return to your healthy country and leave this old patient we call Europe ….’, said La Voce Libera in a fond but premature farewell on 7 August. The regiment's destination was Bastia, a village of no special page 601 note in a hot, dry valley below its better-known neighbour, Assisi.

The move back took the regiment through towns and villages it had known in other days and other circumstances: Mestre, Ferrara, Padua, to Bologna, which few men knew before at first hand but now had opportunity to discover during a stay of four days while the last of the brigade's tanks, ninety-nine in all, were being handed in. Some men preferred to go farther afield to renew old friendships in Forli and Faenza and were welcomed enthusiastically and farewelled with tears. Then, on the 6th, an aching twelve-hour drive continued the journey back through Forli and Iesi to Fabriano, and a four-hour trip next morning ended it at Bastia—a move of 500 miles in three and a half days' motoring. Tents were put up and a unit ERS officer at once appointed. The appointment was symbolic of the times.

This was not a happy period in the Division's history. Among the men there was a general feeling of restlessness at the apparent slowness of repatriation and at delays in Government decisions on the composition of the force to go to Japan. Most men were bored, many ‘broke’, and official efforts to amuse and entertain were often uncooperatively received. Discipline was relaxed, the mercato nero a temptation to the unscrupulous; absence without leave and the ‘flogging’ of army stores and equipment were regrettably common. Ample leave, conducted tours, and later the provision of leave in the United Kingdom for men awaiting repatriation helped to pass the time during this barren wait, but those without the money to go farther afield killed time in the bars and cafés of Bastia and Petrignano and sometimes got into trouble.

In mid-September it was announced that single men of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Reinforcements would form the New Zealand component of the occupation force for Japan, and that the earlier reinforcements would return home in turn as shipping became available. The first to leave the regiment were the 9th Reinforcements, and with them (or about the same time) went two of the squadron commanders, Majors Jim Moodie and Charlie Caldwell, and the Adjutant, Captain Hazlett. With the reduction in strength the regiment was reorganised for a time into two squadrons, Headquarters Squadron and page 602 No. 1, but with the arrival on 19 October of 199 other ranks from 27 Battalion a third squadron was formed, No. 2 Squadron containing all 10th Reinforcement men, the next to go home. The 27 Battalion men with the regiment were those not eligible for service in J Force.

By now the regiment had moved from Bastia to winter quarters at Arno camp, near Florence, but from the record of comings and goings few seem to have spent much time there. Colonel Robinson and some of the few ‘old hands’ who were left took part in memorial services in Crete, at the Sangro, and in Cassino before making their departure for Advanced Base and return home. At regular intervals, beginning on 14 October, parties left by lorry on the long overland journey to Calais and Folkestone and leave in ‘the old Dart’, and some of those who didn't or couldn't go to the United Kingdom got jobs helping to run the staging camps that were dotted across France as overnight halts for the leave convoys.

On 20 October Major Ryan returned to the regiment, after a month's absence as second-in-command of 18 Regiment, to take command and preside over its dissolution. General Freyberg took the salute at the last parade of 4 Armoured Brigade in mid-November, Padre Spence conducted his last service in the regiment, snow fell on the hills round Florence, the leave parties from England began to return. The time had come to make an end. On 2 December 1945, 20 New Zealand Armoured Regiment was officially disbanded.

It is now time to end, too, a narrative that has taken the 20th through six long years of war. In various capacities and with varied skills, men served the trade of war in countries thousands of miles from their homes; they suffered hardships and cruel losses, shared victories and defeats, and those who survived returned to their homes happy to bring this interlude in their lives to an end. This is the story of the men who served the 20th in infantry and in armour throughout those years, and of the comradeship which binds together those with whom dangers and hardships have been shared.

1 Maj W. H. Ryan, OBE, m.i.d., Order of King George I and Silver Cross (Gk); Mangaia, Cook Is; born Auckland, 1 Jun 1911; civil engineer; 18 Bn and Armd Regt; CO 20 Armd Regt 18 Oct-18 Dec 1945.