Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
I: The Occupation of Trieste
I: The Occupation of Trieste
THE campaign in Italy ended officially at midday on 2 May, but news of the unconditional surrender of the German Army Group C did not reach Eighth Army until the evening. This surrender did not apply to the German troops east of the Isonzo River; nor did many of those on the other side of the river receive the order to cease fire owing to the disruption of the enemy's communications. Eighth Army issued an order at 9.40 p.m. that its troops were to cease fire west of the Isonzo unless the enemy committed an overt hostile action, in which case ‘normal operational action’1 would be taken. Throughout 2 May, therefore, Eighth Army continued to advance in north-eastern Italy, with troops from 6 Armoured Division in the mountains north of Udine and with the New Zealanders along the Adriatic coast to Trieste, where the German garrison was still holding out against the Fourth Yugoslav Army.
At Sistiana the highway forks. While 22 Battalion continued along Route 14 by the coast, Divisional Cavalry Battalion took the more hilly inland route through Aurisina, San Croce di Trieste and Prosecco. Shortly after midday B Squadron of 20 Regiment and 22 Battalion halted while the air force bombed enemy positions at Miramare, on a small peninsula about three miles from Trieste When three of the Lancers' armoured cars and Lieutenant-Colonel Donald in his jeep approached Miramare about 2.30 p.m., they were met by a German coastal artillery commander, who offered to surrender his garrison. ‘He said he had based his surrender on his interpretation of the directive issued by Doenitz.1 He had not received a copy of this directive himself, but his radio operators had picked up the message containing it being sent to Army Gp C…. He was under the orders of the Naval Commander at Fiume, who had refused to approve his decision and ordered him to fight on. This he refused to do….’2 Fifteen officers and 600 men were disarmed and taken prisoner.
As the day wore on it became increasingly apparent that the enemy preferred to surrender to the New Zealand Division rather than to the Yugoslav Army, which was in control of a large part of Trieste. The first risings of the partisans in the city apparently had taken place on the night of 30 April – 1 May, before the New Zealanders had begun their advance from the Piave River. The partisans had been joined in the city on 1 May by Yugoslav tanks. The Germans' reluctance to resist the New Zealanders was shown by their failure to blow the tunnels through which the road passed near Miramare and to demolish the road itself.
A road block a mile or two beyond Miramare was quickly silenced by some tanks of B Squadron of 20 Regiment, which ‘sprayed the pillboxes with their Brownings and then charged straight through…. the tanks were ordered to push on and leave their prisoners to be collected later. The drivers then accelerated, the last few miles were covered at a grand pace, and at three o'clock on that sunny and momentous afternoon the regiment's first tanks, the spearhead of the Division, entered Trieste.’3
3 20 Battalion and Armoured Regiment, p. 589.
Meanwhile A Squadron of 20 Regiment and Divisional Cavalry Battalion met resistance at Prosecco on the longer, winding inland route. The enemy used mortars and a six-pounder anti-tank gun which had been captured from the battalion the previous evening. The anti-tank portée had developed engine trouble in the afternoon and its crew had set out to rejoin the battalion at dusk, but had driven past it. ‘They had stopped and asked a soldier at the side of the road the inevitable question of the day, “Dove Trieste?”, only to realise too late that it was a German who replied in English: “Trieste is there; and for you the war is over.” That was not quite so. They all escaped the very next day. Two of them seized the first chance, during a dive-bombing raid, and so, in a very short space of time indeed, were able to give valuable information to the leading cars of 12 Lancers which picked them up as they came along. The rest hid up in a house until things had quietened down….’1
A Squadron's tanks engaged some enemy-occupied houses and the infantry took a few prisoners. Divisional Cavalry then proceeded down the road to Trieste, which it entered about 6 p.m., and went through to the southern part of the city.
Colonel Donald, accompanied by two German officers, endeavoured to obtain the surrender of the garrison still holding out in the Tribunale (law courts) in Trieste. He also led some armoured cars, tanks, and C Company of 22 Battalion to the 700-year-old fortified castle, the Castello San Giusto, on the hill in the centre of the city, where he left Major Cross2 to accept the surrender of the garrison while he himself returned to the Tribunale.
C Company was greeted at the castle about 5.30 p.m. by much indiscriminate shooting. The Germans fired a bazooka at one of the tanks, but missed. Yugoslav troops threatened to shoot anyone who went into the castle, but C Company passed through the gates and entered the courtyard, where the Germans were waiting. The garrison of 12 officers and 170 men was disarmed, and 13 Platoon took up positions previously occupied by the Germans. The castle was well stocked with ammunition and prepared for siege.
1 Divisional Cavalry, pp. 415–16.
Late in the evening the New Zealanders and Germans shared a meal. ‘From time to time members of Tito's partisans had called at the castle gate to demand entrance, but in vain. From houses on higher ground partisan snipers had been shooting at movement within the walls. The captured force now suggested with some enthusiasm uniting with the New Zealanders and fighting side by side if the situation grew worse. Major Cross, suddenly immersed in the intricacies and duplicities of peace, replied non-committally. Next morning the garrison, under escort, marched down the road to the waiting three-tonners. Howls of protest and anger rose from the demonstrating partisans and civilians, who demanded the prisoners. The New Zealanders saw the Germans off safely.’1
At the Tribunale Donald could not persuade the garrison commander to surrender; he was an SS officer who ‘was still humbugging undecidedly and was apparently under the influence of alcohol.’2 Donald therefore arranged with the Yugoslav commander that tanks of C Squadron of 19 Regiment and C Squadron of the 20th would surround the building and give it a 20-minute pounding with their guns and Brownings. First the square was cleared of all troops and civilians, and at 7 p.m. 18 tanks at ranges of from 20 to 50 yards blew gaping holes in the walls and through the windows of the Tribunale. The Germans took shelter in the cellars and had few casualties, but the Yugoslavs entered the building and by morning had rounded up some 200.
Headquarters 22 Battalion was established in the Albergo Regina and the companies disposed in the northern part of the city, including C Company at the castle. The 27th Battalion, which entered the city at dusk, dispersed in the vicinity of the docks. Headquarters 9 Brigade was set up in the Grande Albergo della Citta. Divisional Headquarters took over the castle built in 1845–46 for Archduke Maximilian at Miramare. ‘Many pairs of Kiwi eyes goggled—the “poor country lads” had never seen anything like it. But notwithstanding several fine suites of rooms with sunny balconies overlooking the Adriatic the GOC would not budge out of his caravan.’3
1 22 Battalion, pp. 441–2.
2 War diary, 22 Bn.
3 GOC's diary. Early in the war the German radio had described the New Zealand soldiers as ‘poor country lads’.
The discussion at Headquarters 22 Battalion was facilitated by a German-Italian interpreter and an Italian-English one. Linkenbach wanted an assurance that his men would not fall into Yugoslav hands. Eventually, after Donald had conferred with General Freyberg, it was decided to remove all the Germans to a British prisoner-of-war camp. Currie took the German general back to his headquarters by jeep, again under a white flag, and D Company arrived at the villa about 4 a.m. to disarm the garrison. At daybreak Currie led the column down the hill: behind his jeep came eight German staff cars containing Linkenbach and his staff, a German truck and motor-cycle, eight D Company trucks carry ing prisoners, and about 300 Germans on foot. Altogether 24 officers and 800 men were safely escorted to the cages near Monfalcone.
About half past eight that morning (3 May), after a message was received from the commander of the 1200-strong German garrison at Villa Opicina, a village a couple of miles north of Trieste, A Company of 22 Battalion and three tanks of A Squadron of 20 Regiment were sent to negotiate the surrender. One of the tanks was ditched on the way, and the infantry three-tonners could not pass a demolition, but the two remaining tanks carried a platoon up the road. Here again the Germans were willing to become prisoners of the New Zealanders but not of the Yugoslavs. While the company commander (Captain Wells1) was negotiating with the Germans, the Yugoslavs opened up with mortars and small arms. A Company came under fire, ‘and to the sorrow and anger of the battalion,’2 Lance-Corporal Russell3 was killed and another man wounded.
2 22 Battalion, p. 444.
Wells visited the Yugoslav brigade headquarters and what seemed to be a divisional headquarters in an attempt to reach a settlement, and eventually the commander of 20 Yugoslav Division and a British liaison officer from the Yugoslav headquarters were taken to Headquarters 9 Brigade to confer with Brigadier Gentry. It was decided that, rather than risk more lives, A Company should withdraw and the Yugoslavs would be allowed to take the Germans prisoner.
Meanwhile the New Zealand tank commander (Captain Foley2) was attempting to stop the fighting between the Yugoslavs and Germans. ‘With a German colonel and a captain on board, “both very scared”, he took his tank down the road to the German lines, where he found bitter fighting raging…. His proposal that he was going over to the partisans’ lines to speak to them was considered “verr dangerous” by the colonel, but after some parleying in no-man's-land with “some Tito men”, carried out in Italian with his gunner's assistance, “we got them to understand that if they stopped firing the war would be over.”
‘Foley then adopted the role of referee, dashing between the two parties, who had again resumed the fight, “and by much frantic waving, with my heart in my mouth, got them to stop…. Then proceeded further along the line and the same performance went on. Villa Opicina was taking an awful pasting so decided to go and stop that too.” Negotiations with first a lieutenant, then a major, a brigadier (“a real pirate”), and, last of all, a general only confirmed that the Yugoslavs were determined not to let the Germans—and all their equipment—be surrendered to the New Zealanders.’3
By this time the New Zealanders had been ordered to return to their units, and another troop of tanks arrived to ascertain what was delaying them. Two Austrians on a motor-cycle followed them back to Trieste and were their only prisoners.
The surrender of the Villa Opicina garrison to the Yugoslavs ended hostilities in Trieste and its environs. Although the situation in the city was to remain tense and confused for some time, the Division had fired its last shot in the war.
1 22 Battalion, pp. 444–5.
2 Lt-Col W.C.T. Foley; Wellington; born Stratford, 7 Jul 1916; Regular soldier; 26 Bn, 1940–41; Sqn Comd, 2 Tank Bn (in NZ), 1942–43; LO, Special Tank Sqn, 2 NZEF(IP), 1943; 20 Armd Regt, 1945; 2 NZEF (Japan) 1945–46; Commander V Force, South Vietnam, 1964–66.
3 20 Battalion and Armoured Regiment, p. 591.
On the morning of 2 May 6 Brigade was faced with two tasks: the occupation of Gorizia, and the sending of a force to Grado to capture or drive back into the sea the Germans who were landing there while fleeing from the Yugoslavs. The 26th Battalion was to take Gorizia, while 24 Battalion was to go to Grado.
Sixth Brigade's progress along Route 14 on 1 May had been exasperatingly slow because of the huge volume of traffic and the delay at the Piave River, where the Royal Engineers completed a 340-foot Bailey bridge late that day; 8 Field Company's Bailey on four barges anchored in the river on piers was not open until next day. It was raining heavily when 26 Battalion, in the lead, crossed the Piave, and it did not reach its dispersal area just short of the Isonzo until 5.30 a.m. on the 2nd. A Company, which had the role of protecting Divisional Headquarters, continued along Route 14 beyond the Isonzo.
Taking the road on the west bank of the Isonzo, 26 Battalion set off about midday in the direction of Gorizia. About 12.45 p.m. B Company, at the head of the column, saw evidence of recent fighting at the outskirts of the town, six miles north of Monfalcone. Groups of Chetniks (Yugoslav royalist partisans) close to the road obviously belonged to a large force in the hills west of the river. Colonel Fairbrother attempted to discuss the situation with one of their officers, but could not do so without an interpreter. The Chetniks were not hostile, however, so he decided to continue into Gorizia. Actually 26 Battalion, without knowing it, had driven through the no-man's land of a battle between the Chetniks and Tito's communist forces.
Machine-gun fire could be heard in Gorizia when the New Zealanders debussed and prepared to enter the town. The main bridge over the river had been demolished, but a wooden one was wide enough for jeeps and carriers. The shooting died down as B and C Companies and Tactical Headquarters occupied various buildings. D Company stayed with Battalion Headquarters on the west bank of the river to guard the footbridge and the transport assembled there. Two Chetniks were persuaded to lead the Adjutant (Captain Cox1) to their headquarters a few miles from the Isonzo, where the local commander assured him that his men would not resume hostilities while the New Zealanders were in the Gorizia area if Tito's forces did not cross the river. Cox also made contact with 6 British Armoured Division, to whom 12,000 Chetniks later surrendered.page 547
Gorizia was held by troops whom Tito had ordered to occupy the territory of Venezia Giulia as far as the Isonzo River. Throughout the afternoon noisy demonstrators paraded the streets, singing, shouting slogans and waving flags and banners. ‘Yugoslav Communist bands carrying red, blue, and white flags with the red star prominent in the centre were shouting “Death to the Fascists. Death to the Italians. Long live Tito. Viva Stalin. Viva the Allies.” Parties of Italians answered them with “Gorizia for the Italians. Viva America. Viva England” and carried the red, white, and green flag of Italy. Both factions carried the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes.’1
Divisional Headquarters ordered 6 Brigade to concentrate two battalions at Gorizia until relieved by 56 Division, which was coming under the command of 13 Corps to occupy the town and the Latisana area but was not expected to arrive before 3 May. Sixth Brigade, therefore, sent 25 Battalion and C Squadron of 18 Regiment to join the 26th. When these reinforcements arrived in the late afternoon of the 2nd, the New Zealanders at Gorizia received a more responsive and attentive hearing from the Yugoslavs.
The 26th Battalion's transport, which was stranded on the western side of the Isonzo because of the lack of an adequate bridge at Gorizia, was ordered to go back to Route 14 and return by Route 55 (on the eastern side of the river), the road by which 25 Battalion had arrived. While following a Yugoslav car on the way back to Route 14, the New Zealanders' convoy was fired on by the Chetniks, who may have mistaken their identity, and one man was shot. Next day 167 Brigade of 56 Division relieved 25 and 26 Battalions, which withdrew from Gorizia. The New Zealand tanks stayed a few days longer until they could be replaced by a British unit.
Meanwhile 24 Battalion cleared the enemy who still lingered between Route 14 and the coast west of the Isonzo. Nearly 100 Germans were collected at Belvedere and Grado, and 160-od who had come by sea from Yugoslavia gave themselves up between Grado and the Isonzo.
1 25 Battalion, pp. 617–18.
A small party from 23 Battalion on 2 May secured the surrender near Latisana (where Route 14 crosses the Tagliamento) of some 500 Germans who were willing to give themselves up to the New Zealanders but not to the Italian partisans. When 21 Battalion reached Latisana, partisans reported that an enemy force 4000- strong was landing from ships at Lignano, near the mouth of the Tagliamento. Lieutenant-Colonel McPhail obtained permission to deal with this, and despatched B, C and D Companies, B Squadron of 18 Regiment and the battalion's carriers to Lignano. On the way they met about 200 Germans who were being escorted to Latisana by partisans.
Major Swanson, who went ahead with three carriers to investigate, found a large force of Germans landing from 36 ships of various types at the mouth of the Tagliamento, protected by naval craft holding off three British torpedo boats at a range which prevented them from interfering. The Germans were fleeing from the Yugoslavs and believed they were landing in country still held by their own forces and therefore would be able to make their way into Germany. Swanson saw their commander, who agreed to a truce. The ensuing argument between McPhail, Swanson and the battalion Intelligence officer (Second-Lieutenant Craig1) on one side and three German officers on the other lasted longer than three hours, during which time a large landing barge was beached and vehicles and artillery unloaded. The Germans insisted that they were going back to Germany, but McPhail told them they would have to lay down their arms immediately. Eventually the enemy agreed to surrender. The sight of B Squadron's tanks in hull-down positions might have influenced this decision.
A prisoner-of-war cage was set up at Latisana and another at Lignano to accommodate the 6000 Germans, most of whom were army and navy men who had been employed on coastal defence and port work in and around Trieste. Next day they began unloading food from their fleet to feed themselves until other arrangements could be made. While they were doing this they set fire to four ships, but after the naval commander was severely reprimanded, there was no further attempt at sabotage. Several days passed before 21 Battalion was able to hand over all its prisoners to the divisional cage and return to 5 Brigade.
The total German casualties in the last offensive were estimated at 5000 killed, 27,000 wounded and sick, and some 407,000 taken prisoner or accepted as surrendered enemy. The campaign in Italy undoubtedly had drained the enemy's strength more than the Allies'. Between 10 July 1943, when the invasion of Sicily began, and 9 April 1945, the total German casualties (from figures based on enemy records) were estimated to be 426,339, and the losses to the Allied ground forces in killed, wounded and captured were 304,208. By 2 May the enemy's losses (excluding those in the final capitulation) had increased to 658,339, and those of the Allies to 320,955.
This, of course, was not the first time General Freyberg had participated in the final act of a campaign. At the end of the First World War, as a brigadier commanding 88 Brigade of 29 Division in pursuit of the Germans retreating in Belgium, he had been ordered on 11 November 1918 to seize the bridges over the River Dendre at the town of Lessines, 20-odd miles from Brussels. With a detachment of 7 Dragoon Guards Freyberg had galloped on horseback into the town, and in the last minute before 11 a.m., when the Armistice came into force, had prevented the demolition of the main bridge and the escape of more than 100 Germans. For this exploit he was awarded the second bar to his DSO.
By the end of the Second World War Freyberg had spent altogether ten and a half years fighting the Germans. He had conducted long advances in North Africa and Italy. In the last offensive, therefore, he brought an unrivalled background of martial experience to the command of the New Zealand Division, which (while 43 Lorried Indian Infantry Brigade was under command) comprised four infantry brigades and an armoured brigade supported by highly efficient artillery, engineers, and other services.
On 8 May, when the unconditional surrender of all German forces on land and sea and in the air had been announced, Freyberg addressed the Division's commanding officers and heads of services and praised the work of all arms during the 23 days of the advance from the Senio River to Trieste. First he drew attention to what had been achieved in rear of the Division. The NZASC trucks ‘were often working the clock round for 36 hours on end during our big ammunition dumping periods…. we functioned as page 550 a mobile division with adequate troop carriers and originally had petrol for 300 miles, food for 12 days and sufficient ammunition for two battles.’ To provide the necessary troop-carrying transport and still maintain the Division over a distance of 200 miles ‘was a truly magnificent performance’. The medical services ‘were constantly stepped up behind us—there were complete surgical teams always available and even nursing sisters were moved up well forward so that our casualties had treatment equivalent to that of a general hospital.’
What the engineers had achieved ‘in crossing seven rivers and various odd canals was really extraordinary—they too often worked the clock round.’ The Division had crossed these water obstacles with ‘over 5,000 vehicles and 20,000 men and 165 tanks at a speed very much faster than most and while the other divisions on parallel axes arrived at their objectives with only a coy of a bn we had all these troops there … because of the engineering work’ on bridges and rafts.
The plan in the opening battles had been to smash the enemy and not simply to drive him back, the General said. That had necessitated great speed in planning, and the Division had employed the maximum artillery in the shortest possible time. The Intelligence branch of Divisional Headquarters, working in co-operation with the Mediterranean Air Interpretation Unit (West) and the artillery, had kept the most careful intelligence about every position the Division was going to attack. The main outline of the artillery programmes had been settled at the divisional orders group conferences, but all the detailed work in fixing individual targets had to be done during the planning and much movement. ‘You owe the fact that you have had relatively few casualties to the work of the “I” section and the whole set up of the Div Arty.’ The artillery had fired over 500,000 rounds during the 23 days; this included 20,000 rounds by 5 Medium Regiment, half the total it had fired during the whole of the campaign in Africa.
Ninth Infantry Brigade had received ‘its first baptism of fire as a brigade…. I think that the way in which they worked was in the fine traditions of the other infantry brigades….’ The infantry, ‘who after all win the battles’, throughout the advance had done ‘as well as they usually have done’. The armour ‘everybody agrees did very well. Apart from what they did in battle I think great credit is due to the workshop side because of the way the tanks kept going mechanically.’
The General was especially pleased with 12 Lancers' contribution: ‘We can learn much from them—in particular the collecting and page 551 sending back of information…. It would have been a risky operation to go 200 miles from the Adige without protective recce. That responsibility was taken from me because for 25 miles on either side of our axis they searched for formed bodies of the enemy. The boldness of our move was due to the fact that it was not carried out blindly and the cavalry were able to save many bridges—or where the bridges had been they were able to recce routes round and to search and find out what the opposition was….’1
Between 1 April and 3 May 1945, from the time of the Division's return to the line on the Senio River until the cessation of hostilities at Trieste, its losses were 1381 dead and wounded. This total2 was shared among the formations as follows:
|4 Armoured Brigade||24||89||113|
|5 Infantry Brigade||47||279||326|
|6 Infantry Brigade||53||278||331|
|9 Infantry Brigade||86||361||447|
1 GOC's papers. To commemorate their service with the New Zealand Division, 12 Lancers and 5 Medium Regiment were granted permission to wear the New Zealand fernleaf badge on their vehicles.
3 The engineers' casualties include a man who died of wounds on 7 May, one killed in action and another wounded on 19 May.