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Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste

II: Confrontation with the Yugoslavs

II: Confrontation with the Yugoslavs


After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the First World War, both Italy and the newly created state of Yugoslavia claimed the province of Venezia Giulia, of which the peninsula of Istria, the Slovene littoral and the port of Trieste form part. As the price of her participation in the war on the side of the Allies, Italy was awarded territory which advanced her northern frontier to the Brenner Pass and also gave her Trieste, Gorizia, Istria, northern Dalmatia (except Fiume) and some Adriatic islands. She page 552 relinquished Dalmatia to Yugoslavia in 1920, but annexed Fiume four years later.

Marshal Tito hoped that when the Germans were defeated his Yugoslav Army would be able to seize all of Venezia Giulia east of the Isonzo River. The Western Allies, however, were determined to prevent the settlement of a frontier dispute in this manner; they also intended to secure Trieste as a port from which to supply their future occupation zones in Austria. During a visit to Belgrade in February 1945 Field Marshal Alexander persuaded Tito to agree that the Supreme Allied Commander should be placed in charge of all operations and forces in Venezia Giulia; but he realised that it might be difficult to enforce this arrangement without physical possession of the territory.

The Yugoslav Army, sustained by supplies from the British and Americans, launched its offensive towards Trieste on 20 March, three weeks before the Allied armies began their last offensive in Italy, and made good progress from the start. The Germans, retreating in Italy and before the Russians in Hungary, also pulled back as fast as they could in Yugoslavia. Tito announced on 30 April that his troops had reached the suburbs of Trieste. Already, on the 26th, however, Alexander had proposed to the Chiefs of Staff in London that he should ‘seize those parts of Venezia Giulia which are of importance to my military operations’1 as soon as possible, including Trieste and Pola (at the southern tip of Istria) with their communications to the north, and that he should inform Tito of his intentions. The British Prime Minister and the President of the United States had concurred, and the Supreme Commander had been ordered on 28 April to establish Allied military government over the province, including that part of it already occupied by the partisans. Alexander informed Tito of his intentions on the 30th, but the latter's reply, while offering facilities in and from Trieste and Pola, showed that, contrary to the Belgrade agreement, the Yugoslavs regarded all the territory east of the Isonzo River as their property. Mr Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff told Alexander to hold firm and, if possible, to concentrate troops in the region with whom he might enforce his authority.

Alexander reported to Churchill on 1 May: ‘Tito's regular forces are now fighting in Trieste, and have already occupied most of Istria. I am quite certain that he will not withdraw his troops if ordered to do so unless the Russians tell him to.

‘If I am ordered by the Combined Chiefs of Staff to occupy the whole of Venezia Giulia by force if necessary, we shall certainly be committed to a fight with the Yugoslav Army, who will have

1 Grand Strategy, Vol. VI, p. 130.

page 553 at least the moral backing of the Russians. Before we are committed I think it as well to consider the feelings of our own troops in this matter. They have a profound admiration for Tito's Partisan Army, and a great sympathy for them in their struggle for freedom. We must be very careful therefore before we ask them to turn away from the common enemy to fight an Ally. Of course I should not presume to gauge the reaction of our people at home, whom you know so well.’1


As has been related, the first formation of Eighth Army, the New Zealand Division, entered Venezia Giulia on 30 April, met Yugoslav partisan irregulars near Monfalcone next day, and reached Trieste and Gorizia on 2 May. General Freyberg advised the commander of 13 Corps (General Harding) in the evening that Tito's forces had not captured Trieste. ‘I contacted partisan Town Major and tried [to] find a senior Yugoslav officer but was informed no Yugoslav general would arrive until tomorrow. Have therefore taken over town and harbour and all installations….’ But the occupation of Gorizia by Tito's forces was ‘well organised and complete.’2

Next day (3 May) contact was made for the first time with the commander of the Fourth Yugoslav Army, General Drapsin. At San Pietro, a small town about 20 miles east of Trieste, the commander of 37 Military Mission3 (Lieutenant-Colonel J. Clarke) and the senior New Zealand Intelligence officer (Major Cox) met Drapsin and Tito's chief of staff (General Jovanovic). The latter protested ‘in the name of Marshal Tito … against your troops in crossing into our operational zone…. “I must ask your commander to withdraw his troops at once behind the Isonzo. You are getting in the way of operations we are undertaking to the north, and in Gorizia your tanks have broken up a partisan demonstration and protected local Fascists. You are interfering, too, with our civilian administration.”’4

Clarke reported to Freyberg that Drapsin claimed that the Allies had not captured Trieste but had merely wiped out certain remaining pockets of resistance, and he therefore could not see the need for such a considerable concentration of forces in the town; he understood that, although the Allies were to have access to the port

1 Churchill, The Second World War, Vol. VI, pp. 481–2.

2 GOC's papers.

3 This acted as a channel of communication between the Allied commanders and the Yugoslav headquarters.

page 554 of Trieste, their troops were not to have gone east of the Isonzo, and he did not see what had been gained by fighting troops going so far; he claimed also that the Italian authorities in Trieste had been definitely fascist and therefore a new administration had been installed and was functioning already.

The New Zealand Division was given a copy of a formal protest from Tito to Alexander which said, ‘this moment I have received signal from my 4th Army saying tanks and infantry units of Allied Forces which are under your command have entered Trieste, Gorizia and Monfalcone, cities liberated by the Yugoslav Army. Since I do not know what was meant by that, I wish you would give me your immediate explanation of matters: with respects. Signed J. B. Tito.’1

The chief of staff of the Fourth Yugoslav Army (General Jaksic) issued what was tantamount to a threat of force: ‘In the name
situation, 4 may 1945

situation, 4 may 1945

1 GOC's papers.

page 555 of HQ 4 Army we request Allied troops immediately to withdraw to west bank river Isonzo and that Allied Military authorities do not mix in our internal affairs. After this warning 4 Army will not be responsible for anything that might happen if our request is not met. This is categorical.’1 When this was shown to General Freyberg on 4 May, he told Colonel Clarke to demand an explanation from the Yugoslavs, and to say that ‘we would meet force with force if necessary.’2 Freyberg then conferred with General Harding, who approved of the instructions he had given Clarke, and said that higher authority took the view that Tito was trying a bluff; but Harding agreed that they could not plan on this assumption. The two generals discussed what should be done if their forces had to withdraw to a tactical line.

Clarke reported to Freyberg that he had seen Drapsin, who had assured him there was ‘no question of their ever using force of arms against us—and gave me a long story to the effect that during 1000 years the Jugoslavs had never laid hand on their allies. I said that that was all right, but it was a threatening signal. He said that it was a question of interpreters and the language difficulty. I said that that was not very satisfactory, and suggested that he explain the whole thing to General Harding tomorrow, and place before General Harding any complaints which he might have. He said he would be delighted to do that. I asked him if he could guarantee that he would not attack our troops and pointed out that if he did we would resist most violently. He said there was no question of their ever attacking us—the blood of Jugoslavia and England had flowed together etc. etc. etc….’3


Already the Yugoslavs had begun to administer Venezia Giulia as an integral part of Yugoslavia. Their military government issued decrees aimed at crushing fascism and securing their grip on Trieste. A curfew was imposed on the civilian population, and demonstrations of national sentiment were forbidden, a restriction which gave authority for the suppression of all pro-Italian activity.

Much depended on the demeanour of the New Zealanders who shared the occupation of Trieste with the Yugoslavs. At a divisional conference on 4 May General Freyberg stressed how important it was to ‘establish very firm touch with the various branches of the community.’ He suggested that games of soccer be arranged with the Yugoslav Army, that race meetings be held, and ‘anything that will help relieve the tension will be to the good…. In the mean-

1 GOC's papers.

2 GOC's diary.

3 Ibid.

page 556 time we must have a policy of defence. I have arranged that if there is any trouble in Trieste we should withdraw our troops out of it. If we did not it would mean committing the whole Division and there would be most unwelcome casualties and much acrimony.’1 The GOC had decided upon a plan for 5 and 6 Brigades to take up a position west of the city behind which 9 Brigade would withdraw, but this was only a precaution ‘and there is not much likelihood that we shall have to use it.’2

Thirteenth Corps declared that it would continue to occupy the points reached by its leading troops at the time of the German surrender in Italy while negotiations were in progress with the Yugoslav Army for the use of the port of Trieste and the road and railway from it into Austria; thereafter the corps would be responsible for safeguarding these communications. The New Zealand Division was to stay in Trieste and Monfalcone and the intervening coastal belt, 56 Division was to secure the corps' access on Route 14 westward over the Isonzo River, and 91 US Division was to take over the territory to the north, including Gorizia and Palmanova. All troops were to be ready to defend themselves immediately if attacked, and were ‘to take all possible action short of actually opening fire’3 to prevent conflict between local factions. General Harding's intention, ‘in the unfortunate event’ of the Yugoslav Army starting hostilities, was to withdraw from Trieste and hold a bridgehead east of the Isonzo River with the New Zealand Division on the right, 56 Division in the centre, and the American division on the left. Meanwhile, ‘minor incidents must be accepted….’4

The corps instructions were discussed at a divisional conference in the evening of 4 May. General Freyberg warned that ‘you must be at fairly short notice and keep your people well in hand. Tito has moved a division in NE of our L of C [lines of communication] with Monfalcone. The country is very difficult—we can't use tanks except on the road. What we have got to be prepared to do if they cut the road is to get some elbow room for ourselves…. If the situation deteriorates we shall have to be prepared to occupy the positions tomorrow night.’5 An operation order was issued for the action to be taken if this became necessary.

Ninth Brigade was disposed with Divisional Cavalry Battalion in the centre of Trieste (where it took over the castle from 22 Battalion), the 22nd in the northern sector, and the 27th in the

1 GOC's papers.

2 Ibid.

3 War diary, G Branch, HQ 2 NZ Div, May 1945, p. 58.

4 Ibid.

5 GOC's diary.

page 557 southern, where it was required to prevent interference with the dock installations; tanks of 19 and 20 Regiments were in support. The remainder of the Division was spread out between the city and the Isonzo River.

The New Zealanders and the Yugoslavs both patrolled the streets of Trieste, the latter usually in groups of about a dozen, every man carrying an automatic. The Yugoslavs held parades and pro- Tito demonstrations, with their troops fully armed and their weapons loaded. They swiftly dispersed an unarmed mob of Italians who attempted to stage a counter-demonstration. The Italians ‘came marching along the waterfront carrying a New Zealand flag, an American flag and numbers of Italian flags. As they marched they chanted over and over “Italia” “Italia” and finally halted in front of Bde HQ where they began singing a patriotic song…. Partisans appeared everywhere and began firing automatics from the hip over the heads of the crowd. No one was hurt in the immediate vicinity…. The crowd panicked and a large proportion fled to the Albergo Citta overwhelming our two sentries on the door.’1

After parading through the streets 20 Armoured Regiment left Trieste on 5 May to join 6 Brigade in the Monfalcone region, which halved the number of tanks supporting 9 Brigade. Next day, because it had been decided that an international representation of the Allied forces in the city would be preferable to a solely New Zealand one, a battalion from 363 Regiment of 91 US Division and a battalion of the Scots Guards from 56 Division relieved Divisional Cavalry Battalion and 27 Battalion respectively, and the two New Zealand units moved to the Barcola area, near the northern outskirts. Headquarters 9 Brigade remained in operational command.


Field Marshal Alexander had reported to Mr Churchill on 5 May that Tito ‘now finds himself in a much stronger military position than he foresaw when I was in Belgrade, and wants to cash in on it. Then he hoped to step into Trieste when finally I stepped out. Now he wants to be installed there and only allow me user's right.

‘We must bear in mind that since our meeting he has been to Moscow. I believe he will hold to our original agreement if he can be assured that when I no longer require Trieste as a base

1 Diary, B. C. H. Moss. As mentioned earlier, HQ 9 Bde was located in the Grande Albergo della Citta.

page 558 for my forces in Austria he will be allowed to incorporate it in his New Yugoslavia.’1

Churchill replied that he was ‘very glad you got into Trieste, Gorizia, and Monfalcone in time to put your foot in the door. Tito, backed by Russia, will push hard, but I do not think that they will dare attack you in your present position. Unless you can make a satisfactory working arrangement with Tito the argument must be taken up by the Governments. There is no question of your making any agreement with him about incorporating Istria, or any part of the pre-war Italy, in his “New Yugoslavia”. The destiny of this part of the world is reserved for the peace table, and you should certainly make him aware of this.’ The Prime Minister added that, ‘to avoid leading Tito or the Yugoslav commanders into any temptation, it would be wise to have a solid mass of troops in this area….’2

Alexander sent his chief of staff (Lieutenant-General W. D. Morgan) to Belgrade on 7 May to seek an agreement with Tito that the Yugoslav forces should withdraw behind a line east of Trieste and that the Allied Military Government should take over the administration of the territory west of this line. Tito insisted, however, that the region should remain under the political control of Yugoslavia. Since this was a matter which could be settled only by the Governments, Alexander informed Tito that it had passed out of his hands, but in the meantime he proposed to use the port of Trieste and maintain the lines of communication in north-east Italy and Austria.

The news of Germany's unconditional surrender was received in the evening of 7 May, and the victory in Europe was celebrated next day—VE Day. But there was little jubilation in Venezia Giulia, where the New Zealanders, British and Americans stood to their arms again; for them the victory had brought an uncertain peace.

The Yugoslav forces continued to move north-westwards through Venezia Giulia, and occupied towns and villages on both sides of the Isonzo River as far north as Caporetto, but later withdrew from the west bank. Eventually an estimated 57,000 were within the Trieste-Monfalcone-Gorizia region, armed with a high proportion of automatic weapons and supported by horse-drawn and some tractor-drawn artillery, including German 88-millimetre, 75-millimetre and 105-millimetre pieces, as well as anti-tank guns and an armoured formation believed to have 52 Stuarts. Their dispositions,

1 The Second World War, Vol. VI, p. 482.

2 Ibid., pp. 482–3.

page 559 strengths and movements were unobtrusively investigated and reported.

As the international negotiations might be protracted indefinitely and the attitude of the Yugoslavs was unpredictable, 13 Corps issued orders for the security of its forces, which were to be organised for immediate local defence in an emergency, and were to hold in reserve petrol for 100 miles, supplies for seven days, and additional quantities of ammunition. The New Zealand Division concentrated with 5 Brigade in the hills east of Monfalcone, 6 Brigade farther east again, and the artillery in the proximity of the infantry; 9 Brigade continued to hold Trieste with five battalions (including the Scots Guards and Americans) in the city and north of it. For the time being the Yugoslavs controlled the civil administration (but had no jurisdiction over the Allied troops) east of the Isonzo River, and the Allied Military Government exercised the same authority west of the river.


The tension between the Allied and Yugoslav forces was relaxed in the second week of May, when friendly overtures were made by both sides. A party of British and American officers visited Ljubljana as the guests of General Drapsin, who was hailed as liberator of the city. The Slovene premier, Drapsin and local officials made speeches from the balcony of a university to a crowd who displayed banners, chanted ‘Our Trieste, our Istria’, and applauded any mention of the Allied leaders. A Yugoslav military band advertised, in Slovene, Italian and English a concert at Monfalcone, and played music representative of the different nationalities. At Iamiano, in the hills east of Monfalcone, the Maori Battalion was on friendly terms with the partisans and peasants, who were delighted to discover that some of its men were of Maori- Dalmatian descent, and that the Maoris shared their love of singing.

Except for the Maoris who could overcome the language barrier, however, the New Zealanders did not get to know the Yugoslavs well. They admired Tito's forces for having tied down many German divisions in the Balkans and for having fought so courageously for so long. ‘But we came up against a barrier of reserve which discouraged any individual mixing in Venezia Giulia. We and the Yugoslavs met on the football field or at other sporting events. We got drunk together at formal dinners. We saluted each other's officers. But when the matches were over or the dinner done you realised that, though you might know Yugoslavs better, you did page 560 not know any one individual Yugoslav better. There was fraternisation but no friendship, mingling but no meeting. The Tito troops may have had orders to avoid us except on official occasions, or they may have genuinely disliked us as intruders into what they felt was their country. The civilians were either unwilling to mingle with Western troops, and so be singled out as being pro-British or pro-American, or they disliked us too. As a result it was only towards the end of the first month of Yugoslav administration that any real contact developed at all, and then mostly in the villages and outlying areas. In Trieste itself there was never any really close association comparable to that which rapidly grew up between the Italians and the British, American and New Zealand troops.’1

The Italians of Trieste ‘came more than half-way to meet us. Desire for protection, desire for bully beef and the chance to buy a pair of army boots or an old blanket, friendliness for the troops whose arrival had prevented the city passing completely to the Yugoslavs, natural friendliness (there is more than a touch of the Viennese about the Triestini) and calculated designs to influence our opinions may all have entered into this….

‘As a result the ordinary soldier heard the Italian case from every angle, and heard very little of the Tito case. He had come, moreover, to regard the Italians as full allies, not, as did the Yugoslavs, as very recent enemies who had invaded their country only four years before.’ The New Zealanders saw that there was an Italian majority in Trieste itself, and that Venezia Giulia was at least mixed in race, ‘and they blamed the Yugoslavs for prolonging the active service period of our armies long beyond the end of the war by claiming the immediate administration of Trieste for Yugoslavia.’2

1 The Road to Trieste, pp. 233–4.

2 Ibid., pp. 236–7.