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One More River

With the Second New Zealand Division
from Florence to Trieste

Publ: Army Board, Wellington, 1946.


[p. 44, col. 2]

Chapter 12
To Tito and Trieste

The advance continued smoothly and effortlessly on 1 May, with the [Second] New Zealand Division rolling on up the coastal highway. [Venice had been captured on 29 April.] The Germans were powerless to stop the swift, sustained movement of such a powerful force. Those who attempted resistance were either isolated formations completely ignorant of the position or desperate bands trying to win through to Germany. They were afraid of the partisans, who, in fact, treated them with dignity and consideration before handing them over to our forces. The partisans reserved their hatred and retribution for their own quisling Fascists.

The value of the partisan movement following the crossing of the Adige cannot be over-estimated. Padua, Venice, Mestre, San Dona di Piave, Portoguaro, Latisana, San Giorgio, Pieris, and Monfalcone were all in partisan hands before our flying columns reached them. The leading example was Padua, where a pitched battle started early on 27 April. In it the partisans took 5000 Germans and 1200 Fascists at a cost to themselves of 682 killed and 1400 wounded. Their information as to enemy forces and the state of roads, bridges, and deviations was of the utmost importance.
[p. 45, col. 1]
Finally, they took over the responsibility of guarding many of the Division's prisoners. As these eventually numbered between 40,000 and 50,000, they could have been a serious embarrassment.

The Tagliamento and the Isonzo did not prove to be barriers. The former was crossed by means of a German wooden bridge, and the original concrete structure still spanned the latter. As the Italian flag gave way to the tricolour and star of Tito's Yugoslavia, a difference in the reception of the people was noticeable. An air of strain attended the frequent armed demonstrations, in which women took a prominent part, and the native townspeople showed an increasing tendency to stay off the streets.

The Tito influence reached its height in Monfalcone, where the streets were thronged with armed men and women in a state of hysterical excitement. Numerous banners and placards bearing greetings in Italian and Yugoslav indicated that the people had been prepared for forces coming the other way. It at once became obvious that, despite Marshal Tito's claim to have taken the city a few days before, Trieste was still in enemy hands.

An observation plane was heavily fired on by anti-aircraft weapons of all calibres located on the precipitous coastline between Duino and Trieste, and returned to report that the city was ominously clear of civilians and that fighting was going on in the streets. It was learned that the Germans were in force at many points, and that the Yugoslavs apparently lacked the heavy equipment necessary to take the defences by storm. On the twenty-seven mile strip of coast road between Monfalcone and Trieste, and particularly at Duino, Sistiana, and Miramare, there were strong German formations.

This was quickly proved by a clash which occurred in the late afternoon just beyond Monfalcone. The column halted as the Lancers went into action against enemy troops in a defile a few hundred yards ahead. As infantry deployed to meet this threat, Germans could be seen moving unconcernedly in a fortified position on a hummock scarcely half a mile away on the right flank. Three shells from a tank persuaded this second force, which numbered 400, to surrender.

[p. 46, col. 2]

Near dusk, as the threatening day broke into rain squalls, [Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard C. Freyberg] met the chief of staff of a Yugoslav corps in the town square of Monfalcone. This simple ceremony, which consisted of a few words and a handshake, marked the official linking-up between the Eighth Army and Marshal Tito's forces.

Trieste is Reached

But these Yugoslav forces had worked their way through the mountains, and the main road to Trieste had to be cleared. This was done throughout the daylight hours of 2 May. As garrison after garrison was engaged and overcome, the gleaming city came into view beyond the rugged headlands. At last the 22nd Battalion entered Trieste in the afternoon. The long trek of the Division was ended. In twenty-three days after the first Senio barrage, the New Zealanders had smashed at least three Germans and had ridden through for 225 miles through the wreckage of the German armies.

News of the surrender at noon on 2 May of all land, sea, and air forces commanded by Colonel-General [Heinrich] von Vietinghoff-Scheel were received gladly but without demonstration by men of the Division. For them the war was not yet over. The territory covered by the surrendering armies included all of northern Italy to the Isonzo river, as well as provinces in Austria; but the New Zealand Division was beyond that area.

'New Zealand troops were in at the death, and have fought with tremendous tenacity throughout,' cabled Mr. Churchill to the New Zealand Government. To General Freyberg, the Government signalled: 'The heart of every New Zealander is overflowing with to-day's news, with relief that a stubborn campaign through rough country and bitter weather is ended, and with pride that New Zealanders, who have always shared in the hard going, should have been triumphantly at the spearhead of victory.' From [the Eighth Army Commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Richard L. McCreery], General Freyberg received this message: 'My heartiest congratulations on reaching Trieste. To have led the advance of the Eighth Army from the Senio to the Alps is a tremendous achievement for your troops.'

[p. 47, col. 1]

Perhaps the most charming compliment of all was that paid by the Commander of the gallant 2nd Polish Corps [Lieutenant-General Wladyslaw Anders] in a letter to the General. 'The Polish soldier knows full well,' he said, 'that his own successes were to a very considerable degree dependent upon the brilliant actions which were fought on his right. Since that period, during which we had the honour of attacking alongside your troops, your incomparable fighting qualities have been still more evidenced by the speed of your advance against the toughest troops which the enemy could muster, and these qualities have aroused a feeling of respect, admiration, and comradeship which will live in our memories throughout the years of peace. May I say, too, how deeply grateful we are for the help which you have given to our people. The sympathy which you have shown will never be forgotten by the Polish fighting soldiers.'

After this, the events of 2 May and the succeeding days were almost an anti-climax. A company of the 22nd Battalion proceeded to the 750-year-old castle of San Giusto, the ancient citadel of the port, to receive the surrender of nine officers and 260 men. In the central courtyard, the company drew up opposite the paraded garrison, and returned the salute in a ceremony which had all the appurtenances of a military occasion. Bullets from Yugoslav snipers pattered against the old walls, and as the prisoners moved out the following day partisans demanded that the Germans be handed over to them. Tactful handling prevented trouble.

Meanwhile, tension in Trieste mounted. Tito's men regarded the city as theirs, both historically and by right of conquest, and opposed any attempt by the Germans still besieged in its vicinity to surrender to the New Zealanders. Thus began a period of light-triggered wariness and counter-patrolling which cast a gloom over the European surrender four days later. It is not within the province of this survey to discuss the political situation existing in the city, and in all the country back to the Isonzo during those days. When an amicable settlement was finally reached and the Tito forces withdrew, it was due not a little to the tactful handling of the situation by our men, from the lowest to the highest rank, that bloodshed was averted. Of this use of tact and common sense, coupled with a disregard of immediate danger, there were many instances.

[p. 47, col. 2]

On 2 May, the 26th Battalion, which had left the main line of advance and pushed north to the town of Gorizia on the Isonzo, found itself between a force of Tito's men and another of 12,000 Chetniks. The latter comprised a large part of what had been the Royal Yugoslav Army, and under Mikhaelovic had a record which revealed them as collaborationists with the Germans and implacable foes of Tito and Russia. A series of battles had driven this force out of Yugoslavia and across the Isonzo, where it was preparing to give battle.

New Zealanders Arrange Truce

Taking two Chetniks with them, a party of six New Zealanders in two jeeps drove from the 26th Battalion straight into the Chetnik lines, contacted General Damjanovic, the commanding officer, and negotiated a twenty-four-hour truce between the opposing Yugoslav armies. This undoubtedly saved the lives of many innocent civilians in Gorizia, as well as those of men of the fighting forces. Meanwhile another party from Divisional headquarters were able to reach the Chetniks, and these and other negotiations led to the eventual surrender and disarming of the 12,000 Chetniks by British troops. The 26th Battalion suffered one man killed when a Chetnik force mistook a New Zealand convoy for a Tito column moving to attack.

On the night of 2-3 May the surrender of the German garrisons remaining in Trieste was arranged between the commanding officer of the 22nd Battalion and Major General Linkenbach, the German area commander. By morning about 700 men had been taken prisoner, and from these it was learned that 1200 Germans at Villa Opicina were willing to surrender to New Zealanders but not to Tito's forces. Accordingly, a company from this battalion and a troop of tanks went to Villa Opicina, received the surrender, and made arrangements for the men to move to the Divisional cage.

[p. 48, col. 1]

The position was surrounded by Tito's men, who had been engaging the enemy for some time with little success. As the Germans moved, the partisans opened fire on the road with mortars and small arms. One New Zealander was killed and two were wounded. Prolonged negotiations failed to shake the partisans in their attitude, but in the meantime Divisional headquarters had decided that the responsibility was a partisan one. This decision was communicated to the German commander, who reluctantly agreed to surrender to the partisans.

During this operation, an anti-tank gun crew from the Divisional Cavalry Battalion, the last New Zealanders to be captured in the European war, were released again by men of the 22nd Battalion. Their portee had broken down on the evening of 1 May, and when the trouble was remedied the men carried on at all speed to overtake the Division. They passed right through Monfalcone and when near Sistiana, with no sign of a black diamond route marking, the sergeant became worried. Stopping the truck, he leaned out and in his best Italian said to a shadowy figure on the road, Dove Trieste?' ('Where is Trieste?'). Suddenly German soldiers materialised from all directions, and one replied, 'Trieste is there, but for you the war is over.'

Early the following morning an observation plane came over, and then they heard the crescendo of approaching dive-bombers. 'Now you will have an idea of what it is like to have your own planes over you,' said one of their hosts, as they hit the ground together. The first two bombs hit a battery of guns, sending one gun barrel seventy feet into the air. Two New Zealanders escaped in the confusion, and made their way to the 12th Lancers with valuable information. The German convoy moved slowly to Villa Opicina, fighting its way coolly against partisans. In the meantime the six-pounder gun was turned against the Divisional Cavalry Battalion, until it was forced to retire also. When negotiations were later proceeding for the surrender of the Germans, one of them said to a New Zealander, 'If the partisans take us, we shall lose our lives; if the New Zealanders, we shall lose our watches.'

[p. 48, col. 2]

After escaping from Trieste with the intention of landing along the coast and fighting its way back to Germany, a German force of 6000 men surrendered to the 21st Battalion. Loaded with equipment, which included 88-millimetre guns and trucks, the force made its way down the coast in flak lighters protected by E-boats and corvettes. It finally put in at the mouth of the Tagliamento, where the Germans realized that their plight was hopeless. All the craft were driven up on the beach in an effort to get into action, but some stranded on a bar with deep water between them and the shore, and with others the soft sand defeated all attempts at getting the guns and trucks on the road. The New Zealanders on the spot had an easy capture.

Strung out in a dozen bays and beauty spots along the bright coastline of the Gulf of Trieste, the units of the Division relaxed in the sunshine. There were guards and picquets, and always the nondescript columns of partisans passing aggressively to and fro between the city and the Isonzo; but the days were filled with swimming, boating, and sightseeing. At Sistiana and Miramare, New Zealanders rummaged among the wreckage of German surface torpedoes and midget submarines, tinkering with the motors of fast launches until they had fleets of them bouncing at speed across the sparkling waters. There were regattas, race meetings, and dances in plenty.

It took time to realize that the European war was indeed over, that there were no more river lines and no more mountains manned by a stubborn foe. The long dusty lines of prisoners shuffled hopelessly rearward, and the arrogant, boastful German of yesterday was now a pitifully co-operative captive, with the constant refrain, 'We were forced into it. We never liked Hitler.' The paratroopers, those doughty but unscrupulous fighters who had crept at night about the strongpoints facing Orsogna and Cassino, were indistinguishable in these columns of dispirited men.

For these New Zealanders, who had helped to stem the rush of the Afrika Korps thoughts were now of home. But there were many new faces, faces of men hardened in battle, and for them the eternal question was, 'Where do we go from here?'


[p. 49]
MESSAGE
from the
ARMY COMMANDER
to All Ranks
2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force

Now that the time has come for the Eighth Army to disperse, I want to thank and congratulate All Ranks of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force on the splendid contribution you have made to victory. Your Division has a longer association with the Army than any other and your magnificent record is second to none.

After your early battles in Greece and Crete, you concentrated in the Middle East, in June 1941, and joined the Eighth Army when it was first formed in September, 1941. Since then you have fought many famous actions. The relief of Tobruk in June, 1942, the action at Minqar Qaim, the Battle of Alamein and the pursuit to Tripoli, the Battle of Mareth and the famous left hook which broke through the Gabes Gap, and finally the hard battles in the Italian campaign which culminated in the decisive victory which destroyed the enemy South of the River Po; in all of these your Division has played its part with the greatest distinction, and your splendid fighting qualities have achieved successes that have often been decisive to the operations of the Army as a whole.

Well done, indeed. New Zealand will be proud of the high position that you hold among the Armies of the Empire. You leave the Eighth Army with the affection and the good wishes of all who have fought with you through the long and arduous campaigns of the past four years. We shall miss you much.

Good Luck to you all.

s/ R. L. McCreery
Lieut.-General,
Commander, Eighth Army
Main H.Q., Eighth Army
21st July 1945.

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