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26 Battalion

Chapter 20 — The Break-up of a Unit

page 528

Chapter 20
The Break-up of a Unit

WITHIN twenty-four hours of their arrival in Gorizia the roops had come to realise that the trouble found there existed throughout the greater part of the province of Istria. This province, which extended from the east bank of the Isonzo to the Yugoslav border, had been ceded to the Italians in 1919. The countryfolk were mainly of Slav origin and the larger towns, through predominately Italian, contained many Slavs and Austrians. As the war in Italy reached its climax and the Division sped through Padua and on to the Piave River, Yugoslav forces drove deep into the province and occupied the greater part of it. They also captured the greater part of Trieste and immediately set up a military administration there. Widespread arrests followed, and the Italian police were in most instances marched away. Subsequently, civil administrative bodies sympathetic to the Yugoslav cause were established, and harsh measures were taken to subdue all opposition. For the Yugoslavs considered the province was theirs, if not for any other reason, then by right of conquest.

The problem was a political one which could only be settled at the Peace Conference, but in the meantime the Yugoslavs had to be prevented from carrying out their declared intention of absorbing the province. The problem was eventually settled on high military and political levels, but until this happened the New Zealand, British, and American troops in the area had to remain constantly alert and maintain a strict impartiality so that no incident precipitated an outbreak of hostilities. Various measures were taken to convince the Yugoslavs of the futility of such a course. Allied fighters and bombers flew over the area each day in great numbers, and warships stood off Trieste. Wasps from the battalion demonstrated their powers on the banks of the Isonzo before an interested audience of Yugoslav troops. Wherever they went the troops carried arms.

It was not surprising that VE Day went by without any big celebrations. Nevertheless, during the week spent at Ronchi page 529 bathing parties visited the coast and various forms of entertainment filled in the evenings. It was difficult to maintain strict impartiality for the Italians in the area were very friendly and were obviously short of food. The majority of the soldiers could speak broken Italian and they learned that many New Zealand prisoners of war had worked in the locality. In any case, the work of the partisans during the advance from the Senio— their casualties numbered thousands—had been sufficient to dispel much of the distrust felt by many New Zealanders towards their former enemies.

On 11 May 43 Gurkha Brigade took over the Ronchi area and 6 Brigade moved into positions in the hills twelve miles east of Trieste. The brigade deployed tactically and the troops dug in. The battalion sector was centred around the small backward village of Samatorza, with Yugoslav troops not far away. The same day A Coy returned to the battalion. While the battalion had been at Gorizia and Ronchi, this company had been stationed with Divisional HQ in the beautiful Castelle Miramare, formerly the home of the Duke of Aosta. With beaches and swimming pools close at hand, Trieste within easy walking distance, and Danish butter, cognac, and Flemish wine left behind by the Germans, the troops had thoroughly enjoyed their stay. Some of them had acquired boats and had fitted motors to them so that they could coast around the harbour. C Coy took A Coy's place and remained with Divisional HQ until 6 Brigade moved into Trieste at the end of the month.

The 26th Battalion spent nearly three weeks in the hills. It was a period of watchfulness combined with recreational activities. Except for one day fine weather prevailed, and the daily visits to the beaches continued. Very few Italians lived in the area and the Slavs were not on the whole friendly. But they did sell fresh fruit and vegetables at low cost and the QM's task was made much easier. Open-air picture shows and visits by concert parties filled in the evenings. On the 22nd 6 Brigade moved about a mile eastward and took up positions near the village of Sales, in accordance with an Eighth Army directive to assume good tactical positions. Three days later the 6th Reinforcements left the battalion to return to New Zealand. Their departure and that of the 7th Reinforcements about a month page 530 later gave rise to much conjecture on the future role of the Division, in which the later reinforcements were vitally interested. The days went by and no official announcement was made. On 30 May 6 Brigade began to relieve 9 Brigade of its duties in Trieste. All ranks were looking forward to this change of duty, not only for the added comforts it would bring but because the citizens of Trieste had already come to be recognised as the most likeable and friendly encountered in Italy.

The changeover was completed during 1 June, 26 Battalion relieving the 27th in the eastern end of the city. Battalion HQ and A Coy occupied the Castello san Giusto. This fine old castle, built on a hill, contained comfortable billets and also commanded a view over the greater part of the city. The Support Group occupied some buildings nearby and the other three companies moved into similar quarters on the flat. A detachment of tanks was with each company. For the next six weeks the unit remained in the city, and despite early difficulties with the Yugoslavs, the stay was thoroughly enjoyed by everyone. Trieste, a city of about half a million inhabitants, is set in pleasant surroundings with hills around it, much resembling Wellington. Although the population is predominantly Italian, inter-marriage and the city's geographical position as a large port serving more than one country have produced a people far different in outlook from those of other Italian cities. Most of the population not only regarded the New Zealanders as their deliverers from the Germans but also as a bulwark against the type of Communism being forced on them by the Slav minority. They were also desperately short of food, and the New Zealanders were a good source of supply. The Yugoslavs and their supporters, on the other hand, displayed almost complete indifference towards the troops.

For the first twelve days the troops went everywhere armed. The guard and picket duties were not onerous, and otherwise the troops were to a great degree left to their own devices. Almost every day there were parades and demonstrations in the city square or through the streets. Tension was often high and there were many rumours of large-scale looting, forcible abductions and robberies. Often the company headquarters were besieged by distracted Italians seeking protection. Some of these page 531 people were found to be Fascists and were handed over to the civic authorities. C Coy, which was living in a suburb, found itself handling all manner of domestic problems. The climax came on the 8th when massed demonstrations were held in the city. All troops were ordered to remain in their billets and one company stood by to act as a flying squad should the necessity for its use arise. Fortunately the Yugoslav demonstrators, who numbered about 20,000, having sung and shouted themselves into a state of apathy, dispersed quietly. On the following day Tito's troops were noticed moving out of the city and within three days they had all gone.

Although this meant more guard and picket duties for the battalion, the absence of the Yugoslavs more than made up for the extra work. Only one disrupting element remained. This was the Guardia del Populo, which contained about two thousand armed and uniformed men and women. During the war it had assisted the partisans, but at the cessation of hostilities it had come under communist influence. Not only was it pursuing a course of subversive action but it had been concerned in a number of armed robberies. The Allied Command decided the force should be disbanded and its members offered the choice of joining the local police or returning to Yugoslavia. In case it showed fight plans were to be made to disarm it forcibly. However, when an appeal was made to the force to surrender its arms it did so, and life in the city settled down to something like normal.

This for the battalion meant a whirl of social activities, plenty of leave, race meetings, and swimming. There were plenty of dance floors and plenty of girls, the latter encouraged by the certainty of a free supper. The Venice Club had been opened and a 6 Brigade rest area established along the beaches at Grado. Other leave parties toured Northern Italy, visiting Turin, Genoa, Milan and Lago di Como. Men from the unit took part in regattas, swimming carnivals and athletic meetings. At the divisional trotting meeting 26 Battalion provided two drivers; one of them, Cpl M. D. Chapman, won an event.

On 8 July 21 Battalion took over the guard duties in Trieste and the unit moved out to its new camp site on a plateau in the hills north of the city. Here the troops settled down to a page 532 quieter life under canvas. Conditions were pleasant and oak trees gave plenty of shade from the hot sun which beat down each day. The unit showers were brought back into use and swimming parties were taken each day to the Barcola beaches on the outskirts of the city. A light training programme was held in the mornings and trainee NCOs were given a special course of instruction. Brigadier Parkinson, who had been with 6 Brigade for most of the time since the early stages of the battle for Enfidaville, left on 26 June to become Commander NZ Troops in Egypt, and Brig I. L. Bonifant took his place.

Despite the social life of Trieste and the liberal leave scheme, the thoughts of nearly everyone centred on when they would be able to return home. Although no definite statement had been made, it was generally expected that 2 NZ Division would take its place in the war against the Japanese. This view was strengthened when pamphlets dealing with Japanese tactics were issued. It was also expected that many of the long-service personnel still with the battalion would return home. To all, whether destined for the Pacific or New Zealand, the burning question was—when?

On 21 July an advanced party left for a divisional concentration area south of Lake Trasimene, and the rest of the battalion began to think, not without regret, of saying goodbye to Triestini friends. Five days later the brigade convoy moved out through the outskirts of the city and headed south. So ended one of the most pleasant periods spent by the battalion overseas.

The long journey south was broken into three stages, overnight stops being made at Mestre, Bologna and Fabriano. The convoy reached Mestre about midday, and although Venice was officially out of bounds, few continued the journey without having another stroll around the city. No such restriction existed at Bologna, and during the late afternoon and evening nearly everyone was wandering through the streets of the city which for so many months had been an objective of the Fifth and Eighth Armies. The third day of the journey was by far the longest and most tiring and it was 5 p.m. before the convoy reached Fabriano, about 20 miles from San Severino. That night, while the troops were asleep, thieves entered the camp and, eluding the sentries, stole clothing and personnel gear from page 533 Headquarters personnel. They even entered tents and took articles from under beds and pillows while the owners slept. A search for the thieves was unsuccessful and the journey was continued.

The battalion area in the south-east corner of Lake Trasimene looked very uninviting when the convoy arrived about 1 p.m. on 29 July. A long spell of dry weather had dried up the lake considerably. The roads were very dusty and the whole area looked barren. However, amenities were soon improved and the troops settled down in anticipation of a stay of some length. Light training was continued for the first fortnight of August with battalion parades before breakfast. The afternoons were devoted to sport, and each day swimming parties were taken to the lake. Leave parties left for Rome and Florence each week and touring parties continued to visit Northern Italy. A divisional rest camp was established at Mondolfo, on the coast, and two companies spent a week there.

On 5 August the 8th Reinforcements left to return to New Zealand. Except for a few members of the 9ths, they were the last of the ‘Desert rats’ to go home and their farewell will long be remembered, although some of those leaving and some who remained behind can recollect very little of the night's activities. On the 14th came the electrifying news of the Japanese surrender. This news caused tremendous excitement in the camp for now everyone could think of going home. Training was relaxed and a long spell of generous leave and sports all day long followed. Everything possible was done so that all ranks could visit all towns of interest near the area. The war was truly over.

The first signs of the break-up of the battalion came early in September when the CO left on appointment as Commandant of the Advanced Base camp at Bari. Colonel Fairbrother, who had left New Zealand with the First Echelon, had won a well-deserved DSO in the recent campaign and had proved a worthy successor to Col Fountaine. He was succeeded by Maj Pearce.1 On the night of 25 September the 9th Reinforcements were farewelled. A bitterly cold wind made conditions unpleasant, page 534 but this did not hamper the celebrations. Some time after midnight it was found that the QM store truck was on fire. Within a few minutes two three-tonners were in flames, and those sleeping inside them escaped only in what they stood up in. One soldier, with great presence of mind, drove one of the blazing trucks, which he knew carried ammunition, away from the others and eventually the fire was brought under control.

The move to Florence on 9 October saw the final break-up of the battalion as a fighting unit. Carriers, portées, six- pounders, equipment and ammunition were handed in on the eve of departure. At Florence the greater part of the transport went to a disposal area at Assisi. Within two months those left in the unit had gone on leave to the United Kingdom, had joined J Force, or had left for Advanced Base in readiness to return to New Zealand.

After five years' service with the Division 26 Battalion had ceased to exist. But it will always be remembered with pride by those who served in it and who helped to build up and maintain its reputation; to these men the battalion had become part of their lives. In five years the 26th had been engaged in many important actions, had often seen hard fighting and had suffered grievous losses, but always a core remained around which a rejuvenated fighting unit could be built. The spirit which carried the battalion through these strenuous years still exists. Nobody could fail to be proud of the fact that he had served in the 2nd New Zealand Division with ‘the Twenty-sixth’.

1 Maj L. A. Pearce; Wellington; born Auckland, 22 Jan 1918; Regular soldier.