Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume II
The Prime Minister of New Zealand (San Francisco) to the acting Prime Minister
I have received a message from Mr. Churchill regarding the implications of Tito's occupation of Trieste, and he has sent me copies of the messages exchanged between President Truman and himself.1 I have asked that all these cables, which set out the issues quite clearly, should be sent on to you at once.
In my own mind, there is no doubt that these acts of encroachment for the purpose of snatching territory by force of arms before a peace conference can meet and adjust territorial claims are just that form of aggression against which the United Nations have fought for over five and a half years and are still fighting, and which, if unchecked, will nullify and destroy all that has been won. In that case, the heavy sacrifices of New Zealand, as well as of the United Nations generally, will be in vain. In my opinion, therefore, Tito or any other similar aggressor—Allied or otherwise—must be halted at the earliest possible stage. You will see from the telegrams that Field-Marshal Alexander is asking what part of his present troops will be at his disposal in the event of action which might develop into hostilities against Yugoslavia's deliberate aggression.
1 Not published. On 12 May the President sent a personal message to Mr. Churchill containing the text of a message which he proposed should be delivered to Marshal Tito by the United Kingdom and United States Ambassadors at Belgrade. ‘I have come to the conclusion that we must decide now whether we should uphold the fundamental principles of territorial settlement by orderly process against force, intimidation, or blackmail,’ his telegram ran ‘…. The problem is essentially one of deciding whether our two countries are going to permit our allies to engage in uncontrolled land-grabbing or tactics which are all too reminiscent of those of Hitler and Japan.’ He suggested that the United Kingdom and United States should insist that ‘Field-Marshal Alexander should obtain complete and exclusive control of Trieste and Pola, the line of communication through Gorizia and Monfalcone, and an area sufficiently to the east of this line to permit proper administrative control.’
Mr. Churchill replied: ‘I agree with every word you say and will work with all my strength on the line you propose…. If [the situation] is handled firmly before our strength is dispersed, Europe may be saved another bloodbath. Otherwise the whole fruits of our victory may be cast away and none of the purposes of World Organisation to prevent territorial aggression and future wars will be attained.’ He detailed the eighteen divisions available to Field-Marshal Alexander in the event of hostilities against Yugoslavia, adding that he would have to obtain permission from the New Zealand and South African Governments for the use of their two divisions.
I have discussed with a United Kingdom representative here the matters raised in Mr. Churchill's message, and I informed him that I would place my views before the New Zealand Government at once with the request that the question of the use of the Division for the purpose of stopping aggression on the part of the Tito Government and forces be given immediate and favourable consideration, and that the decision of War Cabinet and the Government Cabinet might be conveyed to Mr. Churchill. I am also informing Mr. Churchill that, in my opinion, the proposed action by the United Kingdom and the United States must only be taken when it has been demonstrated clearly and beyond dispute to the world that every effort to arrange a fair and reasonable agreement on the important matters in dispute, in strict accord with the principles for which the United Nations have fought and are still fighting, has failed through the obstinate and definitely aggressive attitude of the Government of Yugoslavia.1
I am also asking Mr. Churchill for an assurance that the proposed action by the British and United States will not involve interference in any way with the purely internal affairs of Yugoslavia, such as the restoration of the monarchy, and that our troops will not be used for that or similar purposes.
I deeply deplore this most regrettable development arising after the people of New Zealand believing, as everybody did everywhere else, that peace as well as victory had been won in Europe and that the war there had ended. I also very much regret that there should be any clash with the Government of Yugoslavia, as I have greatly admired the splendid fight put up by Tito and the Partisans against the Germans, which to the largest extent the United Kingdom and the United States made possible. It appears to me, however, that a prompt stand is inevitable at this moment if the principles for which so many of our men fought and died are not to be trampled underfoot and aggression again enthroned.
Would you please repeat your reply to me.
The Prime Minister of New Zealand (San Francisco) to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
I am personally in entire agreement with the proposed action of the United Kingdom and the United States to halt aggression on the part of Yugoslavia, and consider that it is our duty to assist by making our Division available to Field-Marshal Alexander for that purpose. The proposed action by the United Kingdom and the United States, however, must only be taken after it has been demonstrated clearly and beyond dispute to the world that every effort to arrange a fair and reasonable agreement on the important matters in dispute, in strict accord with the principles for which the United Nations have fought and are still fighting, has failed through the obstinate and definitely aggressive attitude of the Government of Yugoslavia.
I feel with you that if action is not taken, after every effort to reach an agreement has failed, all that we have won during five and a half years' fighting will be lost. I am, of course, particularly interested in the Trieste area, where the New Zealand Division is stationed at present.
I would be glad if you would enable me to give an assurance to the New Zealand Government in line with New Zealand's policy—although personally I take it for granted—that the British and United States proposed action will be strictly confined to the resistance of aggression and will not involve interference in any way with the purely internal affairs of Yugoslavia, such as the restoration of the monarchy, and that our troops will not be used for that or similar purposes.
I would be obliged if you could please let me have this assurance immediately so that it can be conveyed at once to New Zealand.1 Kind regards.
The Prime Minister of New Zealand (San Francisco) to General Freyberg
The whole question of the implications of Tito's action in occupying Trieste and other territories has been raised with us by the United Kingdom Government.page 418
It is clear that this situation may have the gravest possible consequences for the future, and the dangers of permitting unilateral encroachments on the part of Tito or any other of our allies are so great as to necessitate our taking the most serious view of the present situation.
I myself feel that everything for which we have fought and are still fighting will be nullified, and that our whole attempt through this war to prevent aggression will have been in vain. In the event of an outbreak of hostilities Field-Marshal Alexander has asked what part of his present forces will be at his disposal. I do not see how we can do otherwise than authorise the use of our Division, which happens to be at the very point at which the trouble has occurred. The wider issue seems clear, and this decision is based on the belief that a firm stand in this particular instance will not only deter Tito from taking similar action in neighbouring areas but will serve to quell an extension of such situations which can be met only by further disastrous concessions on our part or with another war.
My views have been placed before the New Zealand Government with the request that they be considered immediately and a decision conveyed to the United Kingdom Government. I wish to keep you apprised of my view of this turn of events, and would like an early appreciation of your own views on the present situation and of its current developments. Please repeat your reply both to me here in San Francisco and to New Zealand.
General Freyberg to the Prime Minister (San Francisco)
Your emergency operations cable of 16 May is acknowledged.
I am preparing an early appreciation as requested. This will take some hours. I send you an interim report. The situation on our level as between the Commanders on the spot is cordial and there is no reason to fear immediate trouble. While I am of the opinion that the situation will get worse before it gets better, bringing with it possibilities of trouble, I do not see how you can do otherwise than authorise the use of the Division, which happens to be at the critical point, neither would any of the force wish you to do otherwise. We are disposed therefore for any possibility.
A more detailed appreciation on the present situation and current events follows in eight hours.
General Freyberg to the Prime Minister (San Francisco)
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’.
The Prime Minister of New Zealand (San Francisco) to the acting Prime Minister
Thank you for your telegram of 16 May.1 You will have received earlier today the pledge which Mr. Churchill has sent me that the proposed operations will not be concerned in any way with the internal affairs of Yugoslavia, in which none of the Allies desires to interfere.2
The immediate question, as I see it, is that of stopping aggression which, if unchecked, will inevitably extend in the instance of Yugoslavia beyond Italian territories to those of Austria, Hungary, and Greece, and the peace conference will be quite unable to compose the resulting situations which may lead to further wars. In other words, the present crisis calls not only for a stand on the immediate issue but on the future of a lasting peace.
In my view, unless the President and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom are backed up now, it is not only the peace but the war appears to have been lost….1 We cannot, in my view, countenance on the part of Yugoslavia, or any other of our allies, a repetition of the smash and grab policy against which we went to war.
1 A personal reference has been omitted.
The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to the acting Prime Minister of New Zealand
Mr. Fraser at San Francisco has asked me to repeat to you the following personal message which I sent him on 15 May:
Many thanks for your message.2 I gladly give the assurance you ask for in your last paragraph. The proposed operations will take place, if they do, on Italian not Yugoslav soil and will be in no way concerned with the internal affairs of Yugoslavia, in which we have no desire to interfere.
General Freyberg to the Prime Minister (San Francisco)3
…. The general situation here is at the moment most unsatisfactory. There is the makings of trouble both here and in Austria. The Yugoslavs have moved a large force into and around Trieste and Gorizia. We are now following suit, and the 2nd American Corps are moving in between our 13th Corps and 5th British Corps in Austria. The 10th Indian Division is moving into line to the north of the New Zealand Division. When these moves are completed we shall be in a stronger position.
In considering the military side of this situation it is just as important not to overestimate the strength of the Yugoslav Army as it is [not] to underestimate it. Their army with its horses, its lack of heavy equipment and transport, compares unfavourably with Allied formations. In this war material has counted for much, and the Yugoslav Army is not upon a continental basis. Nevertheless, I page 423 want the New Zealand Government to know the fact that we are sitting at the point of greatest tension and that fighting may break out. If it does we must expect a number of casualties….1
1 The text omitted refers to the relief of the 6th and 7th Reinforcements and their return to New Zealand.
The acting Prime Minister of New Zealand to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
Thank you for your messages.2 We have considered the position very fully and carefully. The offer made by the Yugoslav Government3 appears to open the way to a settlement of the dispute. Accepting the spirit of the words of this message, the New Zealand Government anticipate that an agreement will be reached that will avoid armed conflict and will give the Yugoslav Government and its forces the opportunity to work in harmony with the Allied forces in the area and in accord with the principles that you and President Truman have enunciated.
The progress already made since the receipt of your own and President Truman's messages is so great, and the principles for which we have fought so near to realisation, that we feel sure that a continuance of the negotiations in the spirit of the offer made by Tito will result in complete agreement and the attainment of your objective.
3 The New Zealand Government was advised of this offer in a telegram on 21 May from the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, which read as follows:
The following note has today, 21 May, been received from the Yugoslav Government:
The Yugoslav Government agree to the establishment of the Allied Military Government, under the authority of the Allied Supreme Commander in the Mediterranean, in the Slovene littoral area on the basis of the demarcation line proposed by Field-Marshal Alexander, subject to certain minor modifications to be suggested later by the Yugoslav Government. At the same time, the Yugoslav Government in accepting in principle such a solution consider indispensable:
That representatives of the Yugoslav Army should be included in the military administration of this area.
That units of the Yugoslav Army should remain in that area (being of course under the command of the Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean).
That, as it has been already stated in the proposals of Field-Marshal Alexander, the Allied Military Administration should act through the civil authorities which are already set up in that area.
The Yugoslav Government propose that the Governments of Great Britain and the United States start immediate negotiations with the Yugoslav Government in order to settle all questions in this connection.
General Freyberg to the acting Prime Minister
After a period of tension here, when it looked as if hostilities with the Yugoslav forces were imminent, the situation has eased considerably. The Yugoslav Government has sent a friendly note and, although there are still divergences of opinion which will require adjustment, I believe that the matter will be solved amicably and it will then be possible for the New Zealand Division to be released from its operational role. This may not be until the end of June. When the situation here allows, I will fly to Allied Force Headquarters to talk over the whole question of our possible move with Field-Marshal Alexander and his staff. These talks will only be of an exploratory nature. No action will be taken without your concurrence. I will keep War Cabinet in touch with opinion here.
The acting Prime Minister to General Freyberg
My immediately following telegram contains the text of a press report dated 27 June from the Yugoslav News Agency. I would be grateful if you would let me have the facts and your comments regarding the action allegedly taken by New Zealanders, and, in addition, if you would advise me of the present position in regard to the operational employment of the Division as well as the immediate prospects.
The acting Prime Minister to General Freyberg
Reference my immediately preceding telegram.
The following is the text of the report: The Trieste trade unions have sent cables to the British, Russian, French, and Italian trade union organisations protesting against the British and American Military Government's policy towards them. The protest alleges page 425 that the Military Government is confiscating and requisitioning trade union property and also making arrests, and appeals to the trade union organisations to do their utmost to end the Military Government's unfriendly policy.
According to the Yugoslav News Agency, New Zealanders have searched the Slovene Home of Culture in Trieste and made arrests.
General Freyberg to the acting Prime Minister
Your telegram of 30 June.
The incident of the trades union cables appears to be part of a general Yugoslav press and radio campaign at present being carried out with the object of discrediting the Allied Military Government in the occupation zone of Venezia Giulia. On 24 June Headquarters Eighth Army ordered simultaneous parades throughout the Army area of all Partisan forces, who were publicly thanked and informed that as their task was done they were to be officially disbanded and would be required to hand in their arms forthwith. In Trieste there was an armed Partisan organisation known as the Difesa Popolare,1 whose members consisted of imported Yugoslav sympathisers, local Slovenes, and political prisoners released from the local prisons by the Yugoslav forces after their arrival in May. As far as is known, the Difesa Popolare is not officially associated with the local trades unions, which have come to light only since May but which contain a proportion of Slovene working men. This Difesa Popolare had, since the departure of the regular Yugoslav Army on 12 June, taken up a very truculent and anti-Allied attitude, had been responsible for considerable looting and intimidation, and was proving a serious embarrassment to the Allied Military Government authorities. The strength of the organisation in Trieste was estimated at from two to three thousand. It was suspected that there might be a poor attendance of the Difesa Popolare on the 24 June parade, and that a plan might have been made to conceal at least a portion of their arms and munitions. Military guards were accordingly posted on the buildings known to be occupied by the Difesa Popolare and these buildings were searched by British, American, and New Zealand military police who confiscated any arms and munitions found therein. This search was carried out while the parade was actually being held. In fact, the parade was well attended by some 1420 individuals who, in the main, page 426 appeared only too glad to hand in their arms. There were no incidents or disorders of any kind and at no stage was any military action in support of the police necessary. From the parade and from the search of the buildings a quantity of arms and munitions totalling approximately eighteen 3–ton lorry loads was removed. The so-called Slovene Home of Culture was, in fact, the former Italian Fascist headquarters in Trieste and is now in use as Allied Military Government offices. It was one of the buildings searched without incident by the Allied military police on 24 June.
In these difficult and often aggravating circumstances the conduct of the New Zealand troops was at all times exemplary.
1 Translated as ‘Popular Defence’ or ‘People's Defence’.
General Freyberg to the acting Prime Minister
The present position in Trieste and in Venezia Giulia generally has improved. After many conferences the Yugoslav forces have moved out of the immediate area Trieste-Gorizia. Thus the original line of communication is ensured for the Allied forces occupying Austria. It seems therefore that from the military point of view the situation now is satisfactory.
The actual move back from Trieste of the Yugoslav Army was carried out on 12 June, and on 24 June the Partisans were disbanded and their arms collected without incident.
I am certain that the part played by the New Zealand Division in this last difficult stage of operations here has had a far-reaching effect upon the Allied scheme for the occupation of Austria. I consider that we could now be relieved from our present operational role whenever our move is necessary. It is doubtful, however, if we will be relieved until the policy of the New Zealand Government as to future employment is finally announced….1
Everyone is in great form and everything goes well.
From messages received earlier from General Freyberg it was understood that the New Zealand Division was expected to be withdrawn from operations by 20 June.3 The Division is still in an operational role in Trieste, and we are anxious that it should be withdrawn as soon as possible and arrangements made to repatriate the men who are to return to New Zealand, particulars of whom were given in my telegram of 21 June last.4 We should be glad, therefore, of very early advice of the date when the Division will be withdrawn from its operational role.
1 Mr. Fraser had arrived back in New Zealand on 5 Jul.
General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence
Reference your telegram of 19 July.5 We begin the move today from Trieste to a concentration area north of Rome.6 The move will be completed in twelve days, except for part of the Armoured Brigade which is remaining in the present area until the New Zealand Government's policy is finalised. As soon as we are concentrated in the new area, I shall withdraw the 8th Reinforcements and send them to Advanced Base ready for onward passage to New Zealand when shipping is available.
A further cable dealing with the short-comings of shipping follows.7
6 Near Lake Trasimene.
The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs to the Prime Minister of New Zealand
Your telegram of 18 July (No. 458) regarding the withdrawal of the 2nd New Zealand Division from operations in Italy. The Division commenced to hand over its present role in Trieste on 22 July and is moving down to the Spoleto area.
No specific date has been given for the completion of the move but the assumption is that it will be in the very near future.