PEACE ON A DARK NIGHT
The war ended. Treaty makers blustered and squabbled over terms. Then peace came to Italy across a barbed-wire fence
L. S. B. SHAPIRO
Maclean's European Correspondent
TRIESTE It was Monday, Sept. 15, 1947. A great day. The first peace treaty to arise out of the war was about to take effect. The combined wisdom of the world’s leaders was to be set in motion. They had argued the Italian peace treaty for so long in Paris. They had blustered over definitions, squabbled about a few soldiers more or less, grumbled endlessly over a few square yards of God’s green earth. But. they had signed, finally, in neatly bound little volumes done up with red ribbon and sealing wax. That was months ago. And today the peace treaty was to become reality in terms of fences and frontiers and men and women. And children, lots of them, growing up. The early morning plane from Rome, flying
northeast, had to climb 8,000 feet to get over the A|>ennines with a margin ot safety. Then it let down gradually and swung along the Adriatic shore line. Beneath t he port wing Venice looked like a delicate doll town floating on the water. One expected to see it billow on the waves. Straight ahead the Austrian Alps were etched against the faultless blue of the morning sky. The plane circled wide over the Hat farmlands at the foot of the mountains and bounced roughly on the landing st rip of Udine airport.
It was here that a British officer, wearing khaki shorts and shirt but not forgetting his Sam Browne, crisply informed me that the moment of peace had been put off slightly. It would take effect, on the next morning, the 16th, at 9 a.m. The reason: “Well, you see, old man, the ratification instruments are l>eing deposited in Paris sometime today. We don’t know exactly when. The Jugs—ah, er, the Yugoslavs—the Americans and ourselves have agreed that the operation had better lx? completed in daylight. It’s a tricky business, you know, moving the troops of four nations around in a con-
stricted space. Much safer in daylight. Less complications likely, you know. So we’ve agreed no matter when the word arrives from Paris, we’ll do t he job beginning at nine tomorrow morning. Seems reasonable enough, what?”
It did seem reasonable enough. Indeed, it was almost too good to be true that we (the British and the Americans) could arrive at a sensible and practical agreement with the Yugoslavs. We were holding the Morgan line, which marked the position of our troops in relation to the Yugoslavs when the war ended in May, 1945. This line ran about 80 miles roughly north-south between Trieste and the Austrian border. On the morrow we would retire from the Morgan line and the Yugoslav troops would advance on our heels to the new frontierknown as the French line—which was laid down in the treaty. The Yugoslavs would occupy the new territory ceded to them by the treaty. When we reached the French line, we would establish the new outposts marking the Italo-Yugoslav border, and we would then hand over to the Italian army.T After that we would
army. Continued on page 36
Peace on a Dark Night
Continued from page 20
depart from Italy, leaving peace behind us.
It would certainly be a tricky business - American, British, Yugoslav and Italian troops moving about in the long narrow corridor—and just as well that it was to be done in daylight. Curious,
I thought, how delightfully surprised one is when nations agree on anything sensible, even when it is so simple a matter that, children would naturally make the same arrangement.
I spent the day sight-seeing. In Gorizia, the last Italian town before Yugoslavia is reached (the French line actually cuts the southeast suburb of San Pietro from Gorizia and places it in Yugoslavia) I had lunch. The businesslike woman who ran the trattoria (while her husband dozed at the cash register) served me salami, dilled peppers, Gorgonzola and delicious white bread. It was a satisfying meal, although it left me with a breath somewhat lacking in daintiness. As I paid the bill the husband grumbled, “Ecco, signore, what will we do tomorrow? The Americans are leaving. Tomorrow they will be gone. Then what?”
I said, “Then you will have your own Italian army here.”
“Ecco,” he protested, heaving his shoulders around his ears. “Our army has only grey flour. For two years we have been buying white flour from my good friend an American sergeant. Everyone in Gorizia knows this place for its white bread. Now they will stop coming because there will be no more white bread. It is a calamity, signore."
Leaving the custodian of the cash, I drove to Trieste. The Adriatic shore is lieautiful at almost every point, but this 26-mile route from Gorizia to Trieste is more than beautiful; it is breathtaking. The road on the edge of a high escarpment affords a magnificent view of the whole area—of the great shipyards of Monfalcone, of storied Duino Castle, and of the romantic water front of Trieste itself.
Death and Freedom
I descended into the Free City. It seemed that nobody was working on this day. Thousands of persons lolled on the narrow strip of beach just off the Viale del Mare which runs along the water front, while other thousands marched in noisy, makeshift parades through the principal streets. There were all sorts of parades—Italian, Yugoslav, and parades of no apparent significance. Now and then a flurry of gunfire was heard in the distance. I learned later that a bomb had been hurled into one of the Communist parades, killing one person and injuring 24. No one in the city seemed concerned; it was as though one should expect violence on a day like this. After all, it isn’t every day that a city whose nationality has been passed around like a basketball finally becomes a Free City.
Thus passed the day.
It was a little after 10 at night. I had filed a dispatch at the central cable office and was wandering back to the Grande Albergo. Near the hotel an American major named Shannon ran toward me. He panted, “Better come with me. Something’s up. You’ll get a story guarantee it,” and hustled me inio his jeep. We raced through the city, mostly on two wheels, until we reached temporary Allied headquarters.
Here was as sharp a picture of official pandemonium as 1 ever hope to see. Staff officers, British and American, and newsmen of a dozen nations were racinga^ound,shouting into telephones,
asking questions of one another and getting an impatient shrug for an answer. The calmest man in the room was an agency correspondent who had been trying to get Rome on the telephone. He finally dropped the phone on the floor and kept murmuring, “There must be an easier way of making a living.”
Stringing together an assortment of staccato shouts, and eliminating the curse words, I deciphered what had happened: At about 8.30 p.m., a Yugoslav staff officer arrived at AngloAmerican headquarters in Trieste and announced that since the peace treaty was to take effect at midnight, Yugoslavia proposed to take possession of her new territory on the stroke of 12.
What had happened to the firm and sensible agreement to make the changeover in daylight? No one knew and the Yugoslavs offered no explanation. They simply wanted their territory the minute it was due them.
Staff officers were still shouting into telephones. Dispatch riders stumbled in and raced out. There were a lot of women about—wives. Officers had been rounded up inrestaurants,cinemas and dancing places; they hadn’t time to take their wives home and the wives were too nervous to go home alone.
I cornered an officer who seemed a little less flustered than the others. “What’s happening?” he yelled. “This is what’s happening. General Airey has ordered American and British troops to fall back from the Morgan line—now! They started a few minutes ago. The movement is on. We’re not going to get caught between the lines in a snarl with the Jugs. Maybe that’s what they want—but they won’t get it. We’re falling back now! If you want to see it, you’d better get going!”
I got going. My jeep spun out of Trieste along the Viale del Mare. The night was dark. There was no moon; only stars glinting on the roofs of the Monfalcone factories.
At the first fork in the road I was flagged down by a lantern. An American captain shouted, “Where are you going?” I said Gorizia. “Okay,” he shouted louder than before, “better take the shore road. The upper road is dangerous. The Jugs are coming up to it and they’re trigger-happy. They threw six slugs at one of our jeeps not 10 minutes ago.”
I swung sharp left and racedalongthe shore road. Above the hum of my tires on the pavement I could hear the sound of rifle fire coming from the escarpment. It was a familiar sound; too recently familiar. I didn’t like it then and I liked it a lot less now.
So this is peace, I thought.
Less than 30 months ago peace had come to Europe. I remembered the moment so well, so vividly, so happily. I was in Holland with that part of the Canadian Army which was laying siege to “The Hook.” The war was all but over; Kesselring had surrendered in Italy and Jodi had visited Luneberg Heath to beg Montgomery to take his armies prisoner. In the little Dutch town of Wageningen General von Blaskewitz had arranged with the Canadians the surrender of his troops in the Rotterdam-Amsterdam-Utrecht area. We were to enter the German positions on the morning of May 7.
At first light on that morning our columns lined up on a lonely road outside Wageningen. The German road blocks were to be opened at 0700 hours, but we were ready long before that hour. My jeep was parked well forward in the column (it was easy to be brave then) just behind a British armored car.
We watched the dawn illumine the
grey overcast and we wondered on this first morning of silence. It seemed almost religious, the silence. No distant thump of artillery, no flurry of machine-gun fire, not even the labored rumble of a V-l roaring low on its way to Antwerp.
Officers at the head of the column were checking their watches. It was almost time to start. Suddenly from the armored car ahead of me a British sergeant hopped out, his tawny face beaming. He came over, doing a little jig, and said in a thick Yorshire accent, “By God, sir, it’s V-E day. Official. It came over the radio—just this minute. Today’s V-E day—V-E day!”
Excitedly he dashed to his armored car and returned promptly withabottle of beer. Hooking off the cap with a jackknife, he handed me the bottle. “We got to drink to it, sir. It’s V-E .day.”
On that greying morning the fighting ended. And on this dark night peace was about to begin. Officially. It wasn’t the sort of peace I envisioned as I took a pull at the sergeant’s bottle ’way back on the Wageningen road.
As I entered Gorizia I saw a huge fire burning on a side street off the Via Roosevelt. There seemed to be a great many people watching the fire and no one attempting to put it out. “Ooffah,” a resident snorted in reply to my question, “some Slovene porco tried to move his furniture over to San Pietro, on the Yugoslav side, and we put fire to it. Let him walk over the frontier without his furniture.”
At Outpost 109
I had picked my point of observation well in advance that afternoon, so it was not necessary to wander about the frontier area in the dark. I drove to the southeast outskirts of Gorizia, where the new frontier cuts San Pietro from Gorizia itself. At outpost No. 109 I found the squad I was looking for.
It was now nearly midnight. Lieut. Neil Fritts, a rangy 21-year-old youth from Ontario, Ore., and his squad of 12 men were already at their new post. In the last hour they had fallen back from their Morgan Line outpost, six miles east, and were now established at the permanent frontier. They were tired and jumpy.
“The order came through about quarter to 10,” Fritts said in a low voice, trying hard to cut the excitement which tended to make it quaver. “We started back to this position immediately—and we were plenty glad to go. The Jugs on the other side were all excited. Started shooting at us— but ’way over our heads. Figured they’d frighten us.”
“What’s your program now?”
“Nothing much. We just man this outpostand wait for the Jug soldiers to arrive. When they come up—figure they’ll do that in about an hour—I’ll show ’em this here paper. It’s written in Jug. It says that this is the new boundary and if they’ve got any objections to make ’em through official channels. When that’s over and everything’s quiet I’ll hand over this post to theltaliansandget the deviloutof here. This is our last job in Italy, thank God.”
Outpost No. 109 was marked by barbed wire strung across the Via San Pietro where it was intersected by a narrow lane. The wire was strung on the far side of the intersection, which placed the lane in Italian territory. On the left-hand corner, just inside Italy, a burned-out dwelling stood. On the right-hand corner, also inside Italy, stood the grounds and buildings of the Gorizia insane asylum. On the Yugoslav side the road was skirted by trees. The suburban centre of San Pietro was
about 200 yards inside Yugoslavia, around a bend.
We stood in the dark, straining our eyes on the road ahead, nervously watching for the Yugoslav troops. Nervously. It was strange to be watching nervously on this night of the peace. The troops were nervous too. I could see it in the proprietory grip with which they held their rifles.
Fritts’ sergeant, a veteran of the Bataan death march named Wade Dumont, cccked his ears at the distant sound of rifle fire. He muttered, “I’ll be glad to get out of here. This is my last hitch. Seven years in the Army’s I enough. Good old Corona, California, for me. I’ve had mine.” i We waited at the barbed wire for about an hour. Nothing happened The night was dark and quiet, except for occasional gunfire deep within Yugoslavia.
Fritts said, “Sarge, you and six better get some sleep. Couple of hours ; anyway. There’s no telling when they’ll come.”
j At about two o’clock we heard sounds j of vibrant singing from around the bend I in San Pietro. It was getting louder. Now we could hear the tramp of boots as well as the singing. We stood at the barbed wire. The sergeant came running up. Fritts waved his hand negatively and reassuringly.
Fourteen men, civilians, their arms locked, were marching toward us. They were singing a militant song I’d never heard before. “That’s the Jug revolu: tionary song,” Fritts said. The men were swaying to the rhythm of their ¡ song as they came nearer. They were I either drunk or fired with patriotism;
I couldn’t tell. It was too dark. Fritts I stepped ahead and strained his lank figure over the barrier.
The visitors marched up within two feet of the lieutenant and ended their song with a flourish. Their leader I looked us over, then jerked his chin : contemptuously in my direction.“Fool” he shouted. (He obviously took me for j un Italian civilian.) “Reactionary fool! j There’s freedom on this side. Tonight i there’s freedom. Tonight we sing! Hail Tito!”
They struck up their song once more and turning about marched back into San Pietro.
At about three o’clock the Italian detachment which was to take over the post came up on foot. There were six of them including a sergeant. Their uniforms were brand-new. The sergeant spoke briefly to Fritts, then retired about 20 yards behind the post and waited with his men. They looked a diffident group, not at all sure of themselves.
Fritts glanced at his watch. “I wish they’d come. I’m going off home from here, back to Oregon State. Got an engineering course to finish. Only had a year of it when I went into the Army. There’s plenty I’ve got to catch up on.”
At four the Bataan sergeant took over and Fritts went back to the guardhouse for a sleep. He didn’t have much, because at 4.18 a pair of auto lights appeared around the bend of San Pietro approaching our way. The sergeant woke up Fritts.
A car of ancient and mysterious vintage rolled to the barrier and out of it appeared two Yugoslav lieutenants. They were ridiculously young, perhaps 18. Fritts leaned over the barrier and stuck out his right hand. The Yugoslavs smiled sheepishly and shook it in turn. They glanced enquiringly at the barbed wire and traced it with their eyes, as though noting that the lane was not included in Yugoslav territory. Fritts rustled his paper and showed it
to them. They read it without comment, then climbed back into their automobile and disappeared into San Pietro.
A few minutes later a burst of cheering and singing was heard from San I ietro and a detachment of 20 Yugoslav soldiers marched toward the barrier. When they came close I could see a crowd of civilians trailing behind them, including the 14 singers. The soldiers halted about 10 yards from the barrier. Sixteen of them deployed into the fields, eight in each direction, leaving four to stand guard at the barrier.
Nov/ the civilians crowded up to the barrier. They caught sight of the Italians back of us and they howled and shouted and shook their fists. The Italians shrugged their shoulders and looked away. After a few minutes the Yugoslav soldiers pushed the civilians away from the barrierto a point 20 yards back.
Touch and Go
It was a little after six o’clock—first light was appearing in the sky—when two Yugoslav captains rode up on horseback. When they dismounted Fritts stuck out his hand but they appeared not to notice. These officers were older, between 40 and 45. Their faces wore a set scowl as they examined the position of the barrier. One of them said in English, “This is not the correct line.” Fritts wearily unfolded his paper and held his flashlight on it.
One of the officers said, “The frontier must be moved back—much farther back. This lane belongs to us, also this house and that hospital.”
Fritts said, “You will have to take it up on a higher level. This is the boundary I was instructed to hand over.”
The officer said, “We are going to move forward.”
Fritts said, “I have my orders. You cannot move forward.”
“We will see.” The officers mounted and rode away.
Fritts called his sergeant. “Set up a perimeter defense.”
At seven o’clock the Yugoslav troops moved two heavy machine guns up the road and installed them onrisingground on either side. Their muzzles were trained on us. The Bataan sergeant snorted.
It was quite light now and very quiet. The Yugoslav civilians had disappeared from the scene and only four soldiers stood wearily 10 yards from the barrier on their side of the road. The others were hidden behind bushes in the fields, somewhere near their machine guns.
“It’s nothing,” Fritts said. “The Russians did the same thing on the Elbe. Even when they’re drinking and singing with us, they love to have machine guns pointing at us.”
At 10 that morning Fritts received orders to retire. He motioned to the Italian soldiers who straggled toward the barrier without enthusiasm. The Yugoslav soldiers eyed them emptily, then looked away.
Fritts saluted the Italian sergeant. Then he said, “All right, men. Get your things together and let’s get going. We’re through.”
Europe’s first peace had come into being. ★
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