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Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume II

448 — General Freyberg to the Prime Minister (San Francisco)

page 419

General Freyberg to the Prime Minister (San Francisco)

16 May 1945

Reference your emergency operations cable of 16 May.

The Division at the present moment finds itself carrying out a role fraught with political consequences of a grave nature.

In accordance with our orders we advanced across north-eastern Venezia towards Trieste, where such of the enemy as had not been cleared from the city by the Yugoslav Fourth Army surrendered to us. I was informed that an agreement had been reached between Marshal Tito and Field-Marshal Alexander that the port of Trieste and lines of communication through Gorizia to the north-west were to be used by us for supplying British armies operating towards Austria.1

On the spot, however, it has become clear that a serious divergence of views exists between our High Command and the Yugoslav Government as to how this agreement is to be interpreted. Following behind our advance were British port authorities and operating parties, an Area Headquarters, and officials of Allied Military Government, and it appears clear that the view of Field-Marshal Alexander was that we should occupy Venezia Giulia up to the Austrian frontier2 in the same way that the remainder of Italy had been occupied.

The Yugoslav authorities have taken and are acting upon exactly the opposite view. They are regarding the agreement as one under which they would permit us to establish and use port and transport facilities in a Trieste and Venezia Giulia area controlled and run by them. They have stated now that they understood we would not send our troops east of the Isonzo River, the natural boundary between Venezia Giulia and the remainder of northern Italy, and they are acting in a way which implies without question that they consider it is their form of Government and not the Allied Military Government which should be established there.

page 420

This has produced a situation which is not only fraught with political complications but even the risk of armed conflict with the Yugoslav Army.

From the military point of view the situation is briefly this: the Yugoslav Government consider that we have intruded into one of their operational zones and have asked us to withdraw behind the Isonzo. Marshal Tito's Chief of Staff added that they could not be responsible for the consequences if we did not. We have replied in strong terms that we would hold the Yugoslav Army responsible if fighting breaks out and have taken the necessary steps to dispose our troops to meet any outbreak of fighting.

On the political side the situation is that in the area of Trieste and Gorizia, and throughout Venezia Giulia, the Yugoslav Government is imposing vigorously its own political structure. The authorities under their sponsorship are running administration as part of Yugoslavia and crushing all opposition. This has involved not only the arrest of all Fascist elements, but of Italian national elements likely to oppose the incorporation of this area in Yugoslavia. The towns and villages are placarded with Tito posters and slogans. Yugoslav flags are flown everywhere and the Italian flag fired on unless it carries a red star in its centre. With the exception of the town of Trieste, the population between 16 and 49 is being mobilised, regardless of race, for service with the Yugoslav Army. All Italian Partisan organisations, even those that opposed the Germans, have been suppressed. A curfew has been enforced on the civilian population without reference to the Commander of our forces in Trieste. There have been reports of executions of opponents of the new regime, some of them of a summary nature. Movement of food from the outlying districts of Trieste has been controlled and, under present conditions, semi-starvation will soon prevail.

These conditions are bearing hard on the Italians of Trieste, who form a large proportion of the population of that and other towns of the region, though they are accepted willingly by the Slovene population, long oppressed by the Italians. Our headquarters have been approached repeatedly by Italians seeking protection or evacuation, a fact which causes further possibilities of friction with the Yugoslavs, who regard us as potential protectors of their opponents.

Although we have had the assistance of the capable military mission to deal with the Yugoslav Army on military issues, our dealings are hampered by the lack of rulings on policy. The result is that we are getting into a position which offends both sides. We offend the Yugoslavs by remaining here in what they consider to be their territory and at least observing, even if not checking, actions they are carrying out. We offend the Italians and conservative elements page 421 of the population by standing by while in effect a revolution to bring the country under a Communist Yugoslavia is carried out around us. We are coping daily by ad hoc military decisions with events which have political implications of great complexity.

These are my views on the present situation and of its current developments, which are factual. I am glad we have an American and British detachment with us in Trieste. I have not expressed an opinion on the wider issue because I am not in a position to do so. I do feel that strong diplomatic action is needed rather than military force. I fully agree with the opinions you express in your cable. I am a little uncertain only when it comes to the application of any ideal or principle in Balkan countries, where terrible things have happened and are still happening. I feel, as you do, that a firm stand in this particular instance may deter and produce the solution that you seek. On the other hand, it would be wrong to base decisions on the assumption that Marshal Tito is bluffing. The situation may become worse before it is better, and the Allies must be prepared to enforce their will if necessary. I consider that with the shortage of troops here, and feeling as you do, full operational control of your Division should be given.

1 After discussions with Marshal Tito at Belgrade in February 1945, Field-Marshal Alexander on 30 April informed Tito of his intentions in respect of operations by Allied troops in Venezia Giulia. His plans were to secure the port of Trieste and lines of communication through Italy to Trieste, and to secure lines of communication from Trieste to Austria necessary for further advance into Austria. Tito's reply was that the situation had greatly changed since the Belgrade discussions in that the Yugoslavs had broken through the German defensive line from Fiume to Trieste and had already liberated ‘nearly the whole of Istria’. He defined the western boundary of Yugoslav operations as the Isonzo River and, although prepared to grant the Allies the use of the ports of Trieste and Pola as well as the railway line Trieste-Tarvisio for supplying Allied troops in Austria, he asked in effect that Allied operations should stop at the Isonzo River line. Yugoslav military and civil authorities would, he said, continue to function in this area.

2 Another version of this telegram reads: ‘up to the 1939 frontiers’.