- Contributed by
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- Peter Pearson
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- 02 January 2004
At 4pm on saturday 28th of April 1945, two German officers in civilian clothes arrived by plane at the Allied Forces Headquarters at Caserta. They were a Lieutenant Colonel representing General Von Vietinghoff, and a Major representing SS General Karl Wolff.
The next day the surrender agreement was signed. All German troops in Italy and the Austrain Provinces of Vorarlburg, Tyrol, Saltzburg and parts of Carinthia and Styria - some 230,000 men were to put their arms down on the second or May 1945.
This announcement was made public by field Marshall Alexander at 6.30pm on the evening of May 2nd 1945. So ended the fighting in Italy.
The news of this announcement found me along with the rest of the Signal Platoon of "HQ" Company 5th Battalion Sherwood Foresters at a small village in the Forli area of north eastern Italy called Bertinoro. (I am not likely to ever forget the name!!) There were wild celebrations that evening. Our small 'bivvies' were bedecked with flags, there was much singing, and much vino drank.
This did not last long, possibly until the following day but we were soon on the move. No more marching, this time it was long convoys of vehicles full of men and equipment.
Left the Signals Platoon celebrating victory at last!
We moved rapidly north-east through the mountain passes and across the frontier into Austria. Here was a very green and pleasent countryside. The roads were littered with abandoned German vehicles of all descriptions. This first day was a beautiful sunny day.
I would think that the Foresters were the first British soldiers to enter Austria. During a short half for some food in a very green meadow, I could not help but think, what a beautiful place this is. At times it reminded me of Scotland with its endless pine-forests.
Moving on again we passed by the lakes at Villach, and a little further on alongside the well known Worther see near Klagenfurt, there we seemed to move off the main road and we went into the real Austrian countryside. I well remember seeing some of the road signs for St Veit, Freisach, Neumark, and Judenburg.
Somewhere in the area between St Viet and Neumark we eventually came to a stop in an idyllic picturesque village called Eberstein. It was the sort of place you see on Austrian postcards with a clear sparkling river (complete with trout) and green meadows full of wild flowers, and cows with tinkling bells round their necks. There was a castle here known as Schloss Eberstein.
We were billeted in the village school which had an open air swimming pool. Here we were to remain for some time, - at last we had found the promised land, - it was paradise, at least in my eyes. The ban on fraternisation hadn't a "cat in hell's" chance here, there was a complete adsence of any men of military age. The Werhmacht had had them all.
Here in Eberstein for me in particular began another story.
THE COSSACKS AUSTRIA 1945
Not very long after occupying Eberstein, perhaps it was the following morning, I was instructed to run a cable out of Eberstein for about a mile or so in the direction of the next small village called Klein St Paul, which was approximately 5 Kilometers away. I was to connect a telephone up and I was to stay there and report any movement along the road.
Once again it was a glorious May morning, the road was not properly surfaced, and was the tyre that threw up a lot of white dust should anything travel along on it, there I was leaning on a fence I recall, looking around, hearing the birds singing, and feeling generally at peace with the world.
Presenting, from the direction of Klein St Paul I could see a cloud of white dust in the distance that was approaching rapidly, Picking up my rifle I stepped into the roadway and made it plain to the occupants that this vehicle was to halt! It stopped somewhat quickly. This was no farm vehicle, it looked to me something like an American jeep, but appeared to stand higher from the road, it was a dark grey colour under the white dust. In the front next to was a dark grey colour under the white dust. In the front next to the driver a man stood up, he was obviously an officer of high rank. He had a red stripe down the side of his uniform trousers, and wore a flat peaked cap with a red band round it. He pointed towards Eberstein, and made utterances to indicate that he wanted to proceed. There were four armed men, all wearing light brown fur caps standing in the back of the vehicle, I couldn't understand a word of what they were saying, what a blessing that I had the telephone at hand!!
Whilst cranking the handle to call the switchboard at HQ, I well remember saying to this officer in English, "I don't care a bugger, who you are, you're not going any further", the expression on my face was meant to convince them that I meant it!
My words to the switchboard were, "I think that you had better get Colonel Welchman up here and bring Boyd with him". I should explain that Tony Boyd was a member of the signals, he was also our interpreter. I understand that in civilian life he had worked as a high class gents hairdresser in London, and consequently through his work he spoke French, German, and Italian very well, also some Greek and Spanish. He was of the Jewish faith and many times proved invaluable.
Colonel Roger Welchman came up quickly, along with Boyd, and there was another officer with him who I think was Major Armitage, accompanied by an armed escort of Foresters. Standing near to them I was able to hear some of the conversation that followed. Boyd spoke to them in what I thought was German.
The CO told Boyd to ask the officer who he was, and what was he doing here? The reply that followed will remain with me for ever. Translated they meant, "I command the II Kossack Korps I am falling back before the Red Army. I was to surrender to the British Commander in this area".
Colonel Welchman asked then what his strength was the reply was almost unbelievable. "Approximately 26,000 men, 36,000 horses, and all the Korps remaining equipment".
The CO then asked him where his men were, and he replied "some kilometres behind me". I did not hear any more of this conversation. At the end of this meeting the CO saluted him and his salute was returned.
In the following weeks we were all to witness the results of this conversation. All along the roadsides every bit of grass and meadow was full of what remained of this sad and somewhat be-raggled army. They had many of the German type field kitchens with a metal stove pipe chimney and boiler. There were surprisingly enough a lot of women with them, - some odd vehicles, but not many , this army depended on horses. They didn't appear to have a regular uniform, they were dressed anyhow. Their footwear was appallingly bad and worn out. It didn't take long for the higher echelons of command to realise that feeding such a large amount of men was going to be an enormous problem. I remember seeing food being supplied by air-drops.
The other problem was horses. I have never seen so many horses in all my life. There were horses about everywhere. I'm sure that 90% of the Foresters thought that they were real cowboys, they would turn up the cookhouse and tie their horses to a rail outside, have a meal and ride off again. The whole scene was reminiscent of a western saloon bar in a cowboy film.
Most of the officers had a horse, including of course the CO who was a keen horseman. Race meetings were organised, and soon the race meetings were advertised and commented on in our own 46th Divisional Newspaper "The Oak", which was eagerly awaited and read by all ranks.
The Cossack story had a somewhat unhappy end if what was rumoured was the truth. Many of the Cossacks were Ukrainians and had been fighting alongside the Germans against the Red Army. Many were allegedly forcibly repatriated back to the Russians and were shot.
For a while we were stationed in Judenburg, and the bridge across the river here was a crossing point into Russian occupied Austria, it was here that some of the Cossacks/Ukrainians were handed over to the Russians. Some of our companies would certainly have had men stationed on this bridge, and confirm whether or not these Ukrainians were driven across this bridge against their will.
NOTE; Judenburg was the limit of the Russian advance into Austria, and at this time they also occupied Graz. When I was in Judenburg I was billeted in a class room of some sort. This room had been the office of the HQ of Military District 8 (Wehrkreis 8) Judenburg. On his desk was a black and white marble paper-weight and some letter-heads embossed with the swastika and eagle, the paper weight is holding down this letter that I am now writing to you. Sorry that I havent got any of the papers left.
I could frequently hear bursts of machine-gun fire from the Russian side, but am not able to say definitely that men were being executed. But I and others certainly thought this to be the case, and hopefully others writers in this book may have more to say on this.
After the war I was a painter and decorator some time in the late 50's I was working in a house some 400 yards from my present home. The man was obviously a foreigner, married to an English woman, the name was something like Merkiewkz, quite casually I asked him if he was polish, he said no, he was a Ukrainian.
Out of the blue I asked him if he had been a prisoner of war in Austria, Yes, he had surrendered at a place called Eberstein in Austria. I showed him a map, he pointed to an area below Judenburg. He was very reluctant to talk any further, and seemed frightened of something, or somebody asking questions. He died some years ago. Its a small world.
I did not know at this time that the Red army had freed my brother from a P.O.W camp at Cheminitz near Leipzig. The Russians were demanding the return of these Kossacks in return for the British P.O.W's. My mother and father prayers were eventually answered with my brother and his safe return home to be re-united again for many years.
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