After German surrender on May 2, there was one complication. German Army Group South-East, opposite the Yugoslavs and Russians in Austria, had not joined in the capitulation. There was also a Cossack Corps milling about on its own, and the Yugoslavs were not taking kindly to the British and American forces having reached Trieste. The 1st Battalion London Irish were at Dolo, where they had been promised a week’s rest after the exertions of the latter stages of the fighting. The rapid advance had prevented all the little things of life being done, such as washing clothes and generally tidying up, for nearly a month. But hardly had the promise been made when 167 Brigade was ordered to move at once. No one knew what it was all about, but the London Irish set off eastwards through country which showed scarcely any signs of war. At the end of their journey they found themselves at Gorizia and in the middle of a typically Balkan squabble about which they knew little.
They were in Venezia Guilia, formerly a part of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had been given to Italy after the First World War. The Slav minority in the province resented the way Mussolini had kept them in subjugation for over twenty years. With the fall of the Italian Dictator they were out for vengeance.
When 1 London Irish reached Gorizia on May 3 they found parties of Yugoslavs ready to stake their claims. There had been skirmishes between them and the Italian population, who were equally determined to keep the territory Italian. At the same time there was a third party under the leadership of the Church which was in favour of independence, and while being pro-Slav was anti-Tito and anti-Communist. To make matters worse there was a good deal of hunting of former Fascists, which appeared to be a good excuse for paying off all sorts of old scores. Finally, there were some sixteen thousand Chetniks outside the town. They were Serbs who supported General Mihailovitch and were violently anti-Tito. The Chetniks from time to time fired mortars indiscriminately into Gorizia, but a squadron of New Zealand tanks had unobtrusively made its presence felt and a large-scale uprising or civil war was prevented. The London Irish relieved the New Zealanders in their difficult task. Eventually the Chetniks were shepherded away to camps in Italy, the Yugoslavs kept on their side of the River Isonzo, and although there were sporadic and noisy demonstrations, the town was reasonably calm.
Just as the 1st Battalion were settling down and everything was going comparatively smoothly, they were ordered to move to Doberdo, between Gorizia and the sea. There was some tension because of a fear that the Yugoslavs might forcibly occupy Gorizia and the rest of the province, and talk about it afterwards.
But ultimately a treaty was signed and their truculence subsided.
The Irish Brigade, with the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish, also took the part of Balkan peacemakers. They had been ordered to move north to Udine, while the rest of the division surged into Austria. On May 7 the brigade passed into the Cividale-Caporetto area. Two companies, H and E, of the 2nd Battalion London Irish went to Caporetto and Plezzo, the idea being in a very friendly way to try to deflect the Yugoslavs back into their own country, or at any rate to keep them off the road which the Eighth Army had to use. That was achieved in good spirit, although the Yugoslavs were very persistent.
On May 8, at 1500 hours, the Prime Minister announced that the end of the war in Europe would be at midnight.
That was splendid, but the Irish Brigade were still too busy to do much about it, though the 1st Battalion was able to celebrate the historic occasion in Doberdo.
The next day the Irish Brigade moved into Carinthia. The main stumbling-block to the advance of the Eighth Army into Austria was the German columns retreating from the Russians. They blocked the roads effectively. Added to that there were parties of Yugoslavs trying to get to different places ahead of the Anglo-American forces and to set up some form of civil administration.
Usually the British or the Americans got there first, and when the Yugoslavs arrived they set up a sort of dual control with them. Any direct dealings with the Yugoslavs were always correct and punctilious on both sides. And as the Yugoslavs dashed about the country, any parties of Germans they came across were lucky to get away with their trousers! The task of the Irish Brigade was to contact the Russians, get some order out of chaos caused by the retreating enemy armies. and to disarm their assorted membership.
The London Irish took over responsibility in the area of Woltsburg, in the Austrian Alps, while the 27th Lancers successfully contacted the Russians at Korflach, a few miles to the north. Everything with our Soviet Allies was done most correctly and with the minimum waste of time, and the brigade concentrated on rounding up the S.S., who were moving about in some strength. They were the only enemy troops really worth bothering about, and they were given a special form of treatment all to themselves. They had to be eliminated as a force for all time.
To add to the general difficulties, including a shortage of interpreters in the various tongues, the terms of surrender laid down that the enemy were supposed to lay down their arms to the Allied Army against which they had been fighting. Everyone in that part of Europe had been fighting either the Russians or the Yugoslavs, and the trouble, so far as we were concerned, was that they were prepared to do anything rather than surrender to either of these Allied Armies.
Brigadier Scott, in his report on this period, explains in detail the difficulties with which he and the rest of the Irish Brigade had to contend. On one occasion he was ordered to disarm and to accept the surrender of twenty-one thousand Cossacks, who had changed sides when things had appeared to be going badly for Russia! There was also a Bulgarian Army in the country, and to these the Cossacks flatly refused to surrender. Their leader told the Brigadier that they would rather fight than do that. They would, however, surrender to the British. The Cossacks, all of whom were armed to the teeth, were disarmed, and they then complained that they would be attacked during the night by the Bulgarians. “I assured them that they would not and that I had an adequate guard to stop that,” records Brigadier Scott. “The adequate guard consisted of about eighteen men of the Royal Irish Fusiliers who were peacefully ‘brewing up in the middle of the party, not bothering their heads about any of the strange nations that were surrounding them. The amazing thing one discovered at this time was that one British soldier was quite enough to restore order and prevent one of these nations attacking another. The one thing nobody was prepared to do was to have a row with the British! ”
Eventually the Cossacks passed through the Bulgarian lines with one man of the Royal Irish Fusiliers mounted on a horse at their head!
The Irish Brigade assisted in the temporary alignment of frontiers, which was carried out with great tact and without bloodshed, while the London Irish worked very hard in getting the Wolfsburg area under control. On their ration strength were: seven thousand men of the Laszlo Hungarian Division, two thousand belonging to the 2nd Hungarian Corps, one thousand six hundred S.S. men, seven hundred Croats, and four hundred Hungarian cadets! The London Irish captured the German Puppet Minister to the Croat Republic. He had, among other things, a bag of two hundred and fifty gold sovereigns as well as a very fine car.
The Brigadier’s greatest headache was caused by the approach of two groups of Croat soldiery, each reported to be a hundred thousand strong, and who were attempting to get past the Bulgarian and Yugoslav outposts and to lay down their arms to the British. Trailing along behind them were said to be half a million civilians-men, women and children-whose object it was to escape from the Tito regime. The remnants of a couple of German divisions were also on the road. There had been a clash between the three- Bulgars, Yugoslavs, and the Croats-and the problem was to get the Croats disarmed before there was a grave international “incident.”
The Croats refused point-blank to surrender to the Yugoslavs, while a Commissar from the latter Army refused to accept their offer even if it were made. His intention, he told Brigadier Scott, was to defeat the Croats on the field of battle l
After some delicate mediation with the parties, in which the Croats sought an appeal to Field-Marshal Alexander, the Croatian Army laid down its arms to the Yugoslavs and were treated as prisoners-of-war, while the civilians were ordered to be fed and sent back to Croatia by the shortest possible route. The arrangements connected with the surrender and the evacuation were carried out by the Yugoslavs speedily and efficiently.
Commenting on these events, Brigadier Scott wrote: “Nobody had the least idea what was going to happen next or where it was coming from. . . . It is when you are in a complete mix-up like this, where anything can go seriously wrong at any moment, that the British soldier really reaches his peak. By some unerring instinct he always seems to do the right thing. The chaps had supreme confidence in themselves, and it never occurred to them that any of these scallywags, who would cut each other’s throats without a moment’s hesitation, would dare to interfere with them. In this belief they were absolutely correct, and as long as a British soldier was knocking about the chances of trouble were at once reduced to a very great degree. The tremendous prestige of the British Army and all its representatives can only really be grasped when one sees its effect at first hand like this ! ”
The Balkan troubles subsided as problems were dealt with on a Government level. SHAEF took over some of the Irish Brigade’s commitments, and eventually Marshal Tito issued orders on May 20 that all his troops were to be out of Carinthia by 1800 hours the next day.