CHAPTER 19 — Exit 21 Battalion
Exit 21 Battalion
The province of Istria, extending from the eastern bank of the Isonzo to the Yugoslav border, is a political no-man's-land inhabited by Italians, Austrians and Slavs, the Italians and Austrians, broadly speaking, living in the towns and the Slavs in the country. The province had been ceded to Italy after the First World War. Coincident with the general rising of partisans throughout North Italy, Yugoslav forces, besides carrying on a civil war between themselves, had chased the Germans out of the province and occupied part of it, including the city of Trieste.
A city and seaport of a quarter of a million people of mixed nationality, Trieste was a madhouse where frenzied Italians took sides as Fascists or Monarchists and paraded with banners and German weapons against each other, while in the surrounding country Communist partisans under Tito shot up Monarchist partisans under Mikhailovitch.
There were two certainties: first, that Tito and his Communists were in the ascendant and meant to hold the province for Yugoslavia, and second, that the Allies were not going to permit it. In this combustible mixture of races and sympathies, it was the role of British, American, and New Zealand troops to keep the peace, while diplomacy, backed by swarms of Allied planes overhead and warships along the coast, convinced the Yugoslav leaders that Istria's future lay with the Peace Treaty countries.
The men of 21 Battalion, sensing the hostility of the peasantry around Aurisina, but too busy debating how soon they would be on the way home to worry about it, were not directly involved. In between times they guarded ships, explored Venice, lost Lieutenant-Colonel McPhail as battalion commander and regained Lieutenant-Colonel Thodey; they also discussed to the point of exhaustion the situation in the Pacific, where the Yanks had the war almost to themselves. Nobody wanted to deprive them of it.page 439
The battalion remained in the Aurisina area until 20 May, when it was ordered to Trieste to take over positions previously occupied by the Divisional Cavalry Battalion, which was moving further into the centre of the city. The job was to hold the main road out of Trieste and cover the withdrawal of 9 Brigade in the event of operations against Tito Force, as the Yugoslav Army was called. There were about 70,000 of them, and they still had not been convinced that Istria belonged at least for the time being to Italy. So that the troops would be clear in their minds as to the issues involved, Field Marshal Alexander released the following message:
The above ITALIAN and AUSTRIAN territory is now claimed by Marshal TITO, who wishes to incorporate it in YUGOSLAVIA. We have no objection to the claims being put forward by Marshal TITO to this territory. His claims will be examined and finally settled with fairness and impartiality at the peace conference in exactly the same manner as other disputed areas throughout EUROPE. Our policy, as has been publicly proclaimed, is that territorial changes should be made only after thorough study and after full consultation and deliberation between the various governments concerned.
It is, however, Marshal TITO'S apparent intention to establish his claims by force of arms and by military occupation. Action of this kind would be all too reminiscent of HITLER, MUSSOLINI and JAPAN. It is to prevent such actions that we have been fighting this war. We have agreed to work together to seek an orderly and just solution of territorial problems—this being one of the cardinal principles for which the peoples of the United Nations have made their tremendous sacrifices in an endeavour to obtain a just and lasting peace. It is one of the corner stones on which our representatives with the approbation of world public opinion are now at SAN FRANCISCO to build a system of world security. We cannot throw away the vital principles for which we have all fought. Under these principles it is our duty to hold these disputed territories as trustees until their ultimate disposal as settled at the Peace Conference.
Within these territories our duty and responsibility is to keep law and order by our military forces and to secure a peaceful and secure life for their peoples through our Allied Military Government. We may be relied upon to act impartially as we do not covet these territories ourselves.page 440
In this situation I tried my best to come to a friendly agreement with Marshal TITO but did not succeed. The US and BRITISH governments have therefore taken the matter up directly with Marshal TITO. The SOVIET government has been kept fully informed. We are now waiting to hear whether Marshal TITO is prepared to cooperate in accepting a peaceful settlement of his territorial claims or whether he will attempt to establish them by force.
It has always been my policy to keep you all, whatever your rank, fully informed about the general situation and objects for which you fought. I send you this message so that you may know the issues which are now at stake.
The 21st Battalion's role, while the high-level discussions went on, was to do an enormous number of double guards, with the troops decked out in their best clothes in an endeavour to impress the motley garmented Yugoslavs, whose uniforms were partly German, partly Italian, and partly British. In between times they bathed and lazed on the beach at Barcola by day and danced with the populace by night.
Tito finally agreed that might was right, and Istria still belonged to Italy. His forces moved out of Trieste on 12 June and the Italians gave themselves a celebration. Flags were displayed from windows, the Yugoslav flag being conspicuously absent; crowds roamed the streets, speeches were made at intervals, and the people enjoyed their first day of liberation very thoroughly indeed. But down in Barcola more serious things were afoot—the 7th Reinforcements were marching out to New Zealand, and appropriate functions were being organised. They left on the 16th, carrying their own hangovers and the good wishes of the battalion.
Leave by companies to Klagenfurt, in Austria, was punctuated by rumours of a Communist rising in Trieste, but nothing happened, and by the 19th all Yugoslav troops, with the exception of their sympathetic Guardia del Popolo police force, had departed. Cricket, rowing, and leave to Venice were interrupted by the necessity of convincing the People's Guard that their days of intimidating the Italians in Trieste were over. Most of them left quietly, and those who remained were arrested and sent to prisoner-of-war cages.
The rest of June and all July were passed in an unending page 441 round of leave, guard and picket duties, regattas, swimming, tennis, and athletic meetings. Just to remind the troops that they were still in the Army, all leave was stopped for a week and eight hours' daily work or duty substituted as a disciplinary measure.
The New Zealand Division's tour of duty in the Trieste trouble spot ceased at the end of July, when 56 (London) Division took over and the Kiwis departed for the divisional area near Lake Trasimene, which was reached on the afternoon of 2 August. Tents were pitched among oak trees. En route the convoy, after a warm farewell from the feminine populace of Barcola, staged near Mestre after an easy hundred miles, near Bologna after another hundred, near Fabriano after saying goodbye to Faenza, Forli, and Fano, and finally passed through the mountains to Trasimene. At each stop, whether leave was granted or not, the battalion farewelled the 8th Reinforcements, who were marching out to New Zealand at the end of the trek. It was a triumphant farewell to the battlefields and to the last of the North African veterans. Japan still remained as a possible objective for the later reinforcements, who recovered sufficiently to give the returning troops a rousing farewell on 6 August. Nine days later an early morning broadcast gave the news of the Japanese acceptance of the surrender terms. The war was definitely mafeesh, finito—over. The Army granted an official two days' holiday to celebrate—the celebration lasted longer than two days and was not completely over when the battalion moved to the coast at Mondolfo on 30 August. The troops ranged far and wide on leave, official and otherwise—Paris and Marseilles were put out of bounds. Toujours l'armée.
Another move brought the battalion back to Lake Trasimene on 14 September, and the first signs of the break-up of the unit appeared with the departure to New Zealand of the 9th Reinforcements on 26 September. This was not so much a farewell as a ‘See you later; we won't be far behind you’ celebration. The Italian summer was drawing to an end and on 7 October the troops moved to winter quarters in Florence. While it was the main object of the 2 NZEF to get the troops back to New Zealand as soon as possible, leave to the United page 442 Kingdom was available for those who were prepared to risk missing their turn if and when shipping became available. The first battalion party, 61 all ranks, left for England on 13 October, and two days later 90 men of the 13th and 14th Reinforcements marched out to J Force and the occupation of Japan. By the end of October the battalion was down to half strength. The first United Kingdom leave draft returned on 17 November, the second on the 25th, and the third left the battalion on the 26th. The married men of the 10th Reinforcements marched out on 27 November, and on 2 December the last entry was made in the battalion war diary:
An important order re increased allocation of shipping from Italy was published. As up to and including the majority of the 12 Reinforcements would be going home, a 5 Brigade group was made and the battalion ceased to exist.