Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
V: Along Route 14
V: Along Route 14
The ease with which the New Zealand Division had passed through the Venetian Line demonstrated how catastrophic had been the enemy's defeat in the Po valley. It was obvious by 30 April that the Germans had decided to abandon Italy. They no longer had sufficient cohesion to fight delaying actions on the Piave, Tagliamento and Isonzo river lines, which had been contested in the First World War. Disorganised groups of the enemy were trying to make their way north with little transport and practically no communications, and apparently without any plan or central direction. Preference was given to the remnants of the best divisions—26 Panzer, 29 Panzer Grenadier, and 1 and 4 Para- chute—in the use of the vehicles and the stocks of petrol still available, and these formations were making their way as best they page 527 could towards the Alps with the object of continuing the battle in Austria and southern Germany. The enemy's headlong retreat was harassed not only from the rear; his columns were attacked from the air almost continuously during daylight, and were exposed to the guerilla tactics of the partisans at night.
The objectives of Fifteenth Army Group now took on a more political complexion: a rapid and orderly occupation of north-east Italy was the only way to forestall the troubles which might spring from the unrestrained assumption of power by groups of partisans. The probability of international disagreement over the fate of the port of Trieste and the province of Venezia Giulia, where Italy and Yugoslavia confronted one another, demanded that the Allied forces should enter this territory as soon as possible; it was also essential that they should anticipate rival claimants who were approaching the prescribed British and American zones of Austria.
The original Allied plan for the occupation of northern Italy had made Eighth Army responsible for the whole of the north-eastern portion, but this had become too formidable an assignment for the number of troops it could maintain in this region. It was agreed, therefore, that the boundary between Fifth and Eighth Armies should extend northward along the road from Treviso to Ponte nell' Alpi, which left Eighth Army with the Venetian littoral, through which Route 14 led to Trieste and Route 13 to Udine, farther inland.
The growing burden of maintaining the momentum of the advance as the lines of communication lengthened restricted Eighth Army's pursuit force to two divisions. With the exception of the troops of 56 Division sent to occupy Venice, 5 Corps was halted on the line of the Brenta River, while 13 Corps (with 6 Armoured Division, 2 New Zealand Division, 43 Gurkha Brigade and some armoured units) undertook the tasks of occupying Trieste without delay and cutting off the retreating Germans.
The 6th Armoured Division was to prevent as many as possible of the enemy withdrawing into the Alps. A force which included 61 Brigade, after making contact with 91 US Division at Treviso on 30 April, was divided into two mobile groups of infantry and tanks. One column went along the road to Ponte nell' Alpi, crossed the inter-army boundary, and accepted the surrender of a force of German parachutists at Belluna on 1 May; the other column drove along Route 13 to Udine, already in the hands of the partisans, and north of the town had a skirmish with a pro-German Cossack force which retired into the mountains.page 528
The New Zealand Division was to continue its advance along Route 14 around the north coast of the Adriatic to Trieste. General Freyberg explained at a conference at Headquarters 9 Brigade on the morning of 30 April that the object was to open the port as a naval base and also as a base for the Allied forces advancing into Austria, but ‘there was a somewhat awkward situation’1 because Marshal Tito wanted his Yugoslav army to get to Trieste.
Below San Dona di Piave, the limit of the Division's advance on 29 April, the Piave River flows in two divergent channels: Porto di Cortellazzo, where the wider and straighter course reaches the Adriatic Sea, is nine miles from Porto di Piave Vecchia, the mouth of the more southerly course which winds along the fringe of the Venetian Lagoon. German troops withdrawing between Route 14 and the sea were cornered in the pocket between these two branches of the river. They were known to be armed with coast-defence and anti-aircraft artillery.
While the leading New Zealand troops and vehicles were being ferried across the Piave River, 27 Battalion engaged the trapped enemy. Early on the morning of the 30th partisans reported that a German force was approaching on the road leading to Musile di Piave from the south. To meet this threat 2 Company was despatched down this road, and after a brief fight captured about 100 men and some vehicles loaded with ammunition, rations and other equipment.
About 7.30 a.m. 1 and 4 Companies, supported by tanks of B Squadron of 20 Regiment, were directed to clear the ground between the two branches of the Piave. Guided by partisans, 1 Company followed the more northerly course and by midday had cleared two villages, but while approaching a lateral road six miles downstream from Musile, was shelled by some 88-millimetre guns and came under small-arms fire which pinned down the infantry. The troop commander (Second-Lieutenant McLay2) went ahead in his own tank, silenced two spandau posts and a bazooka team and, engaging the 88s behind a house, knocked out two and drove the crews from two more. The infantry closed in, killed or wounded about 60 Germans, and overran the battery. The company's casualties were only one killed and seven wounded.
1 GOC's diary.
By this time, however, 4 Company was being counter-attacked by a strong German force using anti-aircraft guns and rocket projectors. Unable to support the infantry because of the lack of ammunition, the tanks retired out of bazooka range. The company occupied some disused enemy positions in a bend of the Piave Vecchia about four miles from Musile, but was in danger of being outflanked on the left and called for artillery support. At that stage—about 7 p.m.—the 25-pounders were returning to Musile along the stopbank of the other branch of the river, three miles to the north-east. At first, because the shells came from this direction, the forward observation officer did not realise they were from his own guns. With this protection, however, 4 Company withdrew to the junction of the Piave Vecchia and the Taglio del Sile (a ditch along the northern edge of the Venetian Lagoon), where there was a bridge. The company embussed in RMT trucks and returned by road to Musile, where the whole battalion was concentrated before 11 p.m.
The enemy south of San Dona di Piave had been foiled temporarily in his attempt to break out to the north, and was still in large numbers on the seaward side of Route 14. His resistance had been stiffened by the influx of Germans retreating from Venice.
While 27 Battalion was thus engaged on 30 April, other troops of 9 Brigade were ferried across the Piave River. First of all D Squadron of 12 Lancers passed through the bridgehead which C Company of 22 Battalion had secured at San Dona the previous night, and went ahead on Route 14. Meeting only slight resistance, the armoured cars took 350 prisoners, destroyed some vehicles, crossed the Livenza River, and in the evening of the 30th were between the town of Portogruaro and the Tagliamento River.
Except for C Company at San Dona and B Company in Venice, 22 Battalion had spent the night in the vicinity of Musile. In the morning Battalion Headquarters and A and D Companies went about four miles upstream to Fossalta di Piave, where they were ferried across, and early in the afternoon the battalion (still without page 530 B Company) assembled east of the river. It was followed by Divisional Cavalry Battalion, which completed the crossing in the evening. The tanks of A Squadron of 20 Regiment went about eight miles upstream to a ford which had been found at Ponte di Piave, near the Treviso – San Vito railway.
The engineers' last major bridging work was at the Piave River. Near the demolished bridge between Musile and San Dona, 6 Field Company constructed a 300-foot folding-boat bridge, which was open to traffic in the evening, and about a quarter of a mile downstream 8 Field Company salvaged and strengthened four Italian barges to use as floating piers for a Bailey bridge, which was ready to carry heavier transport next day.
Meanwhile 5 Brigade, having halted in the vicinity of the crossing of the Sile River, sent out parties to round up the enemy in the surrounding countryside, while 6 Brigade, nearer Mestre, permitted a proportion of each battalion to take leave in Venice. The area allotted to 23 Battalion for mopping-up was to a depth of five or six miles north of Route 14. Each company, employing an officer and about 10 men with a tank and one or two carriers, had completed the task by evening. C and D Companies of 28 Battalion, accompanied by mortars, carriers and flame-throwers, found no enemy in the rectangular piece of ground south of the Sile River between Route 14 and the Venetian Lagoon, but 10 Platoon of 21 Battalion, despatched with a few tanks and carriers from the Sile towards the Piave Vecchia on the seaward side of the highway, cleared several small pockets of enemy and took 31 prisoners, and learnt from 27 Battalion that the enemy in that locality was about 1500 strong. The 21st Battalion was told that it was to take over from the 27th next morning the task of clearing the Division's right flank.
The 5th Field Park Company had intended to laager for the night near Mestre, but because it had so many vehicles—between 200 and 300, which included the attached RASC and Polish transport carrying bridge-building material—decided to move closer to the Piave River, where the bridge-building had begun, and stopped on Route 14 near where a road branches northward to Meolo and Monastier. Some of the trucks were unloaded and ready to return to Padua at dawn for more material, and some were dispersed in the fields south of the highway. The engineers' overnight camp, therefore, was exposed on the seaward side where 27 and 21 Battalions had found the enemy in such strength.
About 2 a.m. pickets on the road saw a column approaching, but did not open fire because they thought it might be just another group of prisoners. The column, which was German, had gone up page 531 a road towards the Piave from the south and then turned south-westward down Route 14, apparently with the intention of crossing the Canale Fossetta by a bridge on the road to Meolo. The Germans opened fire on the engineers' transport and camp with faustpatronen and 20-millimetre anti-aircraft guns mounted on bullock wagons, and some of them infiltrated through the fields and attacked the engineers in the rear.
A convoy of a platoon of 7 Field Company, coming along Route 14 from the opposite direction, was ambushed. Men were asleep in their vehicles when the enemy opened fire, but most of them jumped out to take cover in a ditch, behind a bank, or in nearby buildings; several were taken prisoner, and three who stayed in a truck were burnt to death when a German threw a hand grenade into it. The enemy set fire to the trucks he could not use and drove off in all those he could start in the direction of Meolo, with the intention of crossing the Piave upstream from San Dona and joining the other Germans in the hills.
The disturbance had wakened a platoon of 1 Ammunition Company which had halted near 5 Field Park Company. The drivers prepared to defend themselves. ‘In the farmyard a quarter of a mile away transport and haystacks were on fire and there was a lot of noise and shouting. Tracers and explosive bullets from bredas, spandaus, and sub-machine guns whistled overhead, and beside these the enemy was using mortars, panzerfaust, and 20-millimetre guns. A continual confused shouting in German, Italian, and English made a worry of sound, like a dog-fight, but the drivers could catch a word here and there: “Avanti!” “Raus.” “Hey Bill!” “Raus!”
‘Rain fell steadily all the time…. Flame-lit cameos, glimpsed momentarily, appeared and vanished: a figure stooping to pour petrol on and around the YMCA van; two bewildered Germans and a blue flash from a tommy gun; a group of soldiers who seemed to be wrestling among the flames.’1 Captain Williams2 decided that his platoon should take part; he divided his drivers into two groups, one to defend the transport and the other to go to the farmyard. Except for a few stragglers, however, the enemy had gone before the Ammunition Company men arrived on the scene.
Warned by the partisans that a large German force with prisoners was in the neighbourhood, Captain Stewart1 (the transport officer) and two others from Rear Headquarters 9 Brigade in a jeep, followed by Captain Wilson2 and a few men from Headquarters Company of 27 Battalion in a 15-cwt truck, left Musile to investigate. Stewart and his companions stopped their jeep about 150 yards from the enemy, went forward on foot and unarmed, and demanded to see the German commanding officer. Stewart said he had tanks at his command, although there was none in the vicinity, and called on the enemy to surrender. This the German at first refused to consider; he proposed instead to release the New Zealand prisoners with their equipment in return for a safe passage over the Piave River. Stewart continued to bluff, and after some further argument the German consulted his fellow officers and agreed to surrender. The men from Brigade Headquarters and 27 Battalion began to disarm and shepherd the enemy into a nearby field.
The 21st Battalion had been advised at 3.30 a.m. that a large German force had attacked 5 Field Park Company while attempting to escape inland. When A and D Companies, with tank support, reached 5 Field Park Company's bivouac area about half an hour later, the enemy had gone. While these two companies proceeded to relieve 27 Battalion, B and C Companies, supported by half of A Squadron of 18 Regiment, set off at 7.30 a.m. to pursue the enemy. Eventually, in the vicinity of Monastier, Lieutenant-Colonel McPhail took charge of the 1530 Germans whose commander had surrendered to Captain Stewart. The captured New Zealand engineers were recovered. In addition A and D Companies rounded up over 1300 enemy along the banks of the Piave, which brought 21 Battalion's total of prisoners for the day to nearly 3000.
This was the last divisional conference before the cessation of hostilities in Italy. The General announced that 12 Lancers had discovered a bridge intact over the Tagliamento River. ‘I have told them to sweep along the coastal area and report any formed bodies of enemy troops.’2 The whole of 9 Brigade was to cross the Tagliamento and then await further orders. Sixth Brigade was to follow, and 5 Brigade was to mop up the enemy near the Piave River and deal with any enemy pockets found by 12 Lancers.
D Squadron of the Lancers again led along Route 14, while B Squadron combed the country on its seaward side and C Squadron on the other side. After reporting about 8 a.m. that a one-way wooden bridge over the Tagliamento probably would take all traffic, the armoured cars found that the bridge at Palazzolo, on the next river, the Stella, had been wrecked, but located an alternative crossing about six miles upstream, near Rivignano. This bridge made it possible to get right through to Trieste in the one day.
General Freyberg decided that the Division would have to be careful about petrol if it was to reach Trieste that day, and for that reason all captured vehicles would have to be left behind. As the traffic came off the bridge over the Piave, therefore, the provost diverted to one side the dozens of German cars and motorcycles. Their indignant drivers and passengers, reduced once again to the back of their regulation three-tonners, climbed with their gear on to the nearest passing vehicle. The Division passed through more villages of cheering crowds, along the tree-lined, superbly surfaced Route 14, in country which had not been touched by the war.
B Squadron of 20 Regiment went to the head of 22 Battalion, and the advance continued with the tanks leading A and D Companies, Battalion Headquarters, Brigadier Gentry and General Freyberg, C Company and Headquarters Company in that order. They drove at full speed through Fossalta di Portogruaro and Latisana (on the Tagliamento), around the 12-mile detour to cross the Stella, and reached San Giorgio di Nogara (a road junction) at 1.30 p.m. Behind 22 Battalion came A Squadron of 20 Regiment, then Headquarters 9 Brigade, 4 Field Regiment, and 27 Battalion.
1 GOC's diary.
About 3 p.m. D Squadron of the Lancers made contact with the most advanced troops of Marshal Tito's Fourth Yugoslav Army near the shipbuilding town of Monfalcone, and half an hour later 22 Battalion met Yugoslav troops near Pieris, just beyond the long concrete bridge which was still intact over the Isonzo. The New Zealanders noticed a change of atmosphere. There were partisans everywhere, with red scarves and red-starred caps. They marched in small columns with Yugoslav flags, and with Italian tricolours with the red star in the centre. On roadside walls were portraits of Tito, and the slogans ‘Zivio Tito’, ‘Zivio Stalin’ and ‘Tukay je Jugoslavia’— ‘This is Yugoslavia’. The New Zealanders felt like strangers in a strange land, as if at the Isonzo they had passed some unmarked but distinct frontier. They had driven from Italy into what was to become a no-man's land between Eastern and Western Europe. Obviously the people here had hoped to welcome Yugoslav forces and not those of the British Eighth Army.
Describing this situation three days later,1 General Freyberg said he had understood that Tito was fighting somewhere on the outskirts of Trieste ‘and one is very nervous of approaching another army, especially when many of the Jugoslav troops wear German uniforms, and on account of the great language difficulty. What we did not know was that Tito had determined to get to the line of the Isonzo before us and present us with a fait accompli. The first day when we crossed [the Isonzo] we caught him unprepared however—he had not even blown or picketed the bridge over the river….’2
Orders were given for 9 Brigade to advance to the road junction at San Giovanni, about three miles beyond Monfalcone, and there await further instructions; 6 Brigade was to occupy Monfalcone and despatch a column of all arms to capture Gorizia, about 10 miles to the north; 5 Brigade was to occupy San Giorgio and send a detachment to Palmanova, about six miles to the north-east.
1 At a conference at Divisional Headquarters.
2 GOC's papers.
D Squadron of 12 Lancers met its first resistance after passing through Monfalcone, when it was fired on in the vicinity of San Giovanni. The GOC ‘saw that some sort of battle was going on along the road ahead. I could not be sure with whom it was going on. So we stopped for the night at MONFALCONE, partly because of the danger of fighting with Tito's troops and also because of the heavy rain. There were some soldiers running about round a coastal battery and for all I knew they were partisans. However some of our tanks thought they were enemy and fired at them and they were Hun all right and surrendered.’1 A Company of 22 Battalion and some tanks from B Squadron of 20 Regiment, after a short exchange of fire, captured 150 Germans. Tanks of A and B Squadrons joined forces to round up another 50 near Duino, on the coast beyond San Giovanni.
Meanwhile B Squadron of the Lancers entered the little port of Grado, west of the mouth of the Isonzo, and discovered eight undamaged sloops and a tug, as well as 200 enemy surrounded by partisans. Beyond Grado another 400 enemy had to be left in the hands of the partisans. At Palmanova, an old fortress town whose walls show on the map like a nine-pointed star, C Squadron of the Lancers attempted to negotiate the surrender of 600 German marines and 600 Italian fascists, but the German commander declared that he was going to fight his way out. It was impossible to send infantry immediately to Palmanova, and consequently the enemy could not be prevented from breaking out to the north during the night. Nevertheless he did not avoid casualties.
General Freyberg met two senior Yugoslav officers at Monfalcone at 5.30 p.m. and, with the help of Colonel Wilkinson, as interpreter, proclaimed what a proud moment it was to be able to link up with Marshal Tito's ‘magnificent troops who had fought so long and bravely in the common cause.’2 He asked the Yugoslavs whether they would be content if his Division stayed overnight in Monfalcone pending further discussions, and was told this would be satisfactory. Arrangements were made to meet the commander of the Fourth Yugoslav Army at 7.30 p.m.
The New Zealand Division enters Trieste
New Zealanders shoot off flares to celebrate the end of the war with Germany
On leave in Venice
In front of the cathedral in Florence
The Maori choir singing a hymn during the memorial service in Crete
2 GOC's diary.
Freyberg reported to Harding about 6 p.m. that contact had been made with the Yugoslavs and that the advance had been stopped pending negotiations with their general. The Yugoslav general, however, did not keep his appointment. Freyberg concluded that the Yugoslavs were bluffing about how far they had advanced. He sent a message to Harding about 11 p.m. advising him that he now expected to meet the Yugoslav commander at 8.30 a.m. ‘It seems most obvious,’ he said, ‘that JUGOSLAVS did NOT expect our arrival for at least 48 hrs. Consider doubtful whether TRIESTE or GORIZIA in fact held by JUGOSLAVS and am continuing adv on both places 2 May.’1 Already fresh orders had been issued for 12 Lancers and 9 Brigade to continue the advance on Trieste and for 6 Brigade to occupy Gorizia.
The General went to the Monfalcone town hall at half past eight next morning, but the Yugoslav commander did not arrive. Freyberg then went to Headquarters 9 Brigade and directed the brigade to push on towards Trieste. ‘Do not hand any prisoners you take over to the partisans.’2 He received a signal from Harding saying that it was most important that the Division should occupy Gorizia as early as possible.
Freyberg returned to Monfalcone and conferred with the commander of 9 Corps of the Fourth Yugoslav Army. The language presented some difficulty: the GOC's statements were translated into Italian and then into Slav. He explained that 6 British Armoured Division, ‘in numbers about 20,000 with tanks and guns, now has its head in UDINE and their main body will continue to arrive there during the next few days. At MONFALCONE my troops which have arrived are only an advance guard at present. We have coming up the main body of some 30,000 troops with 150 tanks and many guns. The greater part of the force is at present moving along the road from VENICE to MONFALCONE. We would welcome the co-operation of your forces in our joint battle against Fascism.’
The Yugoslav corps commander replied: ‘That would give us the greatest pleasure.’ The ensuing conversation proved that he had not been briefed and could make no decision without consulting his higher authorities, but was anxious that the British should advance no farther eastwards.
2 GOC's diary.
Yugoslav: ‘We shall make contact.’
Yugoslav: ‘Your Army could go along the edge of the plain running North-West along the edges of the hills. I am not in a position to talk about GORIZIA as our Fourth Army is there and I would have to speak to the Army Comd.’
Yugoslav: ‘It would be better to send your troops Northwards as our troops are in that area.’
Freyberg: ‘We only wish to make a junction. There exists a verbal agreement between Marshal Tito and Field Marshal Alexander that we are to take over the Port of TRIESTE and use the road running up the coast from TRIESTE.’
Yugoslav: ‘Perhaps you could stop meanwhile on the line running South-West or just West of GORIZIA.’
Yugoslav: ‘It would be better to wait for my superior commander and also for the General of our Fourth Army.’
The conversation continued a while without making any further progress, and concluded with the New Zealand GOC assuring the corps commander: ‘All English-speaking people have a tremendous admiration for Marshal Tito and the great efforts made by the Yugoslav Army.’1
Whether or not the Yugoslav general had intended to meet Freyberg at Monfalcone, he probably could not have got there in time from his headquarters in the hills north-east of Trieste. A journey over rough mountain tracks requiring half a day at least would have been impracticable for an army commander at the height of battle.