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Ben Cumming's War - Chapter 4: Venezia Guilia, meeting Sofia and farewells

by Torbay Libraries

Contributed by 
Torbay Libraries
People in story: 
Ben Cumming, Sofia Sognia Solagoi
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
04 March 2005

This story was submitted to the People's War site by Paul Trainer of Torbay Library Services on behalf of Benita Cumming, daughter of Ben Cumming and has been added to the site with her permission. Ms Cumming fully understands the site's Terms and Conditions.

The area A.M.G., under the command of the American 91 st Division, now took control of what was known as Venezia Guila, a very volatile region with a mixture of Italian, Austrian and Slavonic races; before the 1914 War it was part of the Emperor Hapalburgs Austria-Hungarian Empire and possession of the territory was disputed by the Italians (backed by the Allies) and the
Yugo-Slavs under the Communist Dictator Marshal Tito. We were there to make sure that Tito was kept out and so were reluctantly involved in national rivalries and ideological conflict as Communism and Democracy fought to win the area over to their own side of the Iron Curtain.

Although the War was officially over, the local Partisans, who were all Communists (wearing red scarves), refused to lay down their arms and hand them in, and were entrenched in the mountains. Their aim was to assist Marshal Tito in his aim to take over the region, which included the Ports of Trieste and Pola, and incorporate it into Yugo-Slavia; all in all it was a very difficult situation. My Unit moved into a strategic town in the centre of the region, Gorizia or Goric as the Slavs called it. It was there that a whole new meaning to my life came about. I was to meet someone who, for the first time in my life, I fell in love with. On arrival at Gorizia we were taken to a Chateau, Parco Coronini, which was situated on the outskirts of the town. It was an impressive structure of some grandeur, with magnificent grounds which included a marble swimming pool with water gushing from the mouth of a lion, which was also made of marble. The estate belonged to a Count who was being held because of his connections with the Facist Regime. The main buildings were occupied by the Officers and the rank and file were housed in the stables and outbuildings, which to me was still more luxurious than a council house at home!

The estate was surrounded by a high stone wall, and at the rear where we were billeted, there was a small wooden gate which gave access to a rough unmade road. On the opposite side of this road was a Tratoria (wine bar); outside the Tratoria was a stretch of open ground with trestles and benches thereon and on the other side of this open space were a few cottages. It was an ideal place right on our doorstep, and my pals and I soon found our way over there when we were not on any duties, sitting outside in a balmy Italian twilight with a 'flasce di vino bianco', and it was on one such evening when I spotted a Bella Donna (pretty woman) emerge from the end cottage. When she went to the Tratoria and returned to her house with a bottle of wine, she smiled in passing and we exchanged a few words like "bouno siera, come state?" (Good evening, how are you?)and from that moment I knew I had to get to know her.

A few evenings later I went to the Tratoria on my own and saw the signorina at her door. I strolled over and invited her to join me and share a bottle of wine. Later that evening we got together for the first time, I was aware then how beautiful she was; not very tall, she reached up to my shoulder, and she had long raven black hair, large eyes that were violet and high cheek bones. We managed to converse, me in my broken Italian, she with a few English words she had picked up; by the time I had to leave Gorizia she had a good grasp of the English language. She even picked up a song she heard on the Forces Radio, which was popular at the time - "You are my Sunshine" - and used to sing it to me. She used to call me 'Her Sunshine'.

Sofia was very intellectual, she could speak two or three other languages in spite of the fact that she was financially very poor,(there is no Social Security in Italy). I made up for it during the time we spent together. Anyway, to recap on that first evening we met, she told me her name, it was Sofia Sognia Solagoi, and that she was a Yugoslav. When it came to my name she insisted that she would call me Gordon, Sofia is the only person ever to use that name and I feel privileged that she was that one and only person. I asked her how was it that such a lovely woman was living on her own, and it transpired that she was married and that her marito (husband) was a Capo (a kind of leader) in the Partisans, and that he was away it he mountains somewhere. It was obvious on that first evening that Sofia felt the same way about me as I felt for here and from then on we were going to be together whenever possible. When I could get away I would stay with Sofia at her cottage, which was fairly humble, but to me it was Paradise. At other times Sofia would slip into the grounds of the chateau and meet up with me in the shrubbery, where we would spend many happy hours. I did not take me long to discover what a wonderful woman Sofia was, apart from being so beautiful; she a1ways wore 10ng sleeves, and the first time I accompanied her to her home, I noticed bullet holes around the lock of the door, and when we went inside and I saw her bare arms for the first time, I was horrified at the sight of a number branded on her left arm, and at that point she told me her story. When the Germans occupied the Region, their headquarters were in the same Chateau as the Allied Military Government (the Unit I belonged to) where we were now staying. Sofia was working there as a domestic, and as she understood the German language she was able to glean information which she passed on to the partagagni. She got found out, and one night the Gestapo came to her home, shot the lock off the door, and she was taken to a Concentration Camp, where the number was branded on to her arm with a hot iron. She would probably have been shot, but fortunately the war was coming to an end, and Sofia was released from the camp by the advancing Americans before that could take place.

The six months I spent with Sofia in Gorizia was the happiest time of my life, but tinged with sadness with the realization that a day would come when we would have to part; sometimes she said that she was like "Madam Butterfly" as in the Opera of that name. An unpleasant incident happened during that time; one day a group of Partagagni threw grenades over the wall which surrounded the grounds of the Chateau; they were thrown at a party of soldiers (including me) who were in that particular part. Luckily they landed off target, and by the time we rushed outside the Partisans had vanished. Sofia thought her husband may have been behind what happened. One of the local inhabitants who were employed by the Military at the Chateau may have told him his wife was having an affair with a British soldier. On the other hand, the Partisans objected to us being there and were trying to exact vengeance upon us.

The general situation in Venezia Guilia was beginning to calm down. I believe the Allied Command ceded the Port of Pola on the Adriatic to Yugo-Slavia, and every now and again there was a bit of sabre rattling by the Allies, troops marching through the streets of Trieste and other places accompanied by tanks and artillery, and aircraft roaring overhead, to warn Marshal Tito off. The Partisans were offered an amnesty if they disbanded and handed in their weapons. The great majority did this and were granted the amnesty, which greatly reduced the tension in the area, and shortly after Marshal Tito gave up his demands and Italy retained sovereignty over Venezia Guilia. This meant the Allied Military presence would be withdrawn and our unit were given the promise that we would be home for Christmas. This was good news for the rest of the lads, but not for me. I dreaded the thought of having to leave Sofia, I loved her so much, and there was nothing I could do about it, I volunteered to stay on but was told that all Military Personnel would be leaving except for a few Officers. I applied to be taken on by U.N.R.R.A. but without success; all I was offered was a transfer to the Palestine Police, which I turned down as I did not fancy being shot at by both Jews and Arabs! In the interim Sofia and I spent every moment we could together. Once a week there was an Army truck which ran the troops to the city of Trieste, and I used to smuggle her aboard to accompany me. In Trieste there was a magnificent club for Service Personnel run by the American Red Cross, and I saw to it that Sofia had the very best that the place had to offer. It was another world to her, and she loved it.

Up to the time when I had to make my departure, Sofia and I were unable to find out what had happened to her husband. He did not take advantage of the amnesty, he simply seemed to have disappeared. The last few weeks were bittersweet. The Officers gave many farewell parties in the Chateau and Sofia was an honoured guest at them, she was so popular. Whilst stationed in Gorizia one of my duties was, once a week, going to both American and British supply depots, called 'ration dumps' to collect rations for the Unit and I made sure that before I left, Sofia's larder was well and truly full. And so it came to our last night together. Neither of us had any sleep, I could not stay in Italy and it was impossible for me to bring Sofia to England, so it had to be goodbye. We were both devastated. It is said that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, and I have never forgotten Sofia even after all these years.

The following morning I went to my billets and collected my equipment and kit bag and boarded one of the waiting Army trucks and we set off in convoy, our destination being Klangenfurt in Austria. As we departed from the Chateau and passed through the gateway I saw Sofia standing there; it was the last I saw of her and it was the most awful and saddest moment of my entire life, knowing I could never see her again.

When we arrived at Klagenfurt we stayed in a Transit Camp for a few days, then boarded a train and travelled through Austria, Germany and France, eventually reaching Calais, where we went aboard a ferry which would take us across the English Channel to Blighty. Whilst crossing, I threw an automatic revolver which I possessed into the sea. It was my final gesture as a soldier. Arriving at Southampton we entrained for the Garrison Town of Aldershot and there and then I received my discharge papers, along with a demob suit (navy blue chalk stripe), a mac, and a pair of shoes along with a gratuity of three to four hundred pounds and a railway warrant to Torquay.

And so ended six years of service in His Majesty's Forces.

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Message 1 - Re: Ben Cumming's War - Chapter 4: Venezia Gi

Posted on: 05 March 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

I read this portion of your story with great interest.

You say that "Although the War was officially over, the local Partisans, who were all Communists (wearing red scarves), refused to lay down their arms and hand them in, and were entrenched in the mountains. Their aim was to assist Marshal Tito in his aim to take over the region, which included the Ports of Trieste and Pola, and incorporate it into Yugo-Slavia" and further you say that "The Partisans were offered an amnesty if they disbanded and handed in their weapons. The great majority did this and were granted the amnesty"

I was surprised to see that you believe that the Allies offered Italian partisans an amnesty, an amnesty for what? Amnesties were constantly being falsely offered by the Germans to Italian anti-fascist patriots, but an amnesty offer from the Allies would have been a gross insult.

You say that all the partisans were communists, but that was not the case. The Italian partisan movement embraced all parties. The movement was formed on 9 September 1943 in Rome under the control of the CLN (Comitato di liberazione - Liberation Committee) by representatives of the Communist, Action, Christian Democrat, Work Democracy, Liberal, and Socialist parties; all these parties across the entire political spectrum, from Marxist Communists to staunchly Catholic Christian Democrats, formed a coalition to fight the common enemy. The CLN remained in Rome and executive and co-ordinating direction was given to the CLNAI (Comitato di liberazion nazionale per l'alta Italia - The North Italian Committee for National Liberation). The CLNAI agreement was signed in Rome on 7 December 1944 with the CLN and the Allied occupation authorities, although the CLNAI maintained that its legitimacy derived from the Italian people and not from the Allies. All parties were on the CLNAI plus Jewish representatives and it was mainly based in Milan. The CLNAI directed the Resistance movement and all partisan activities. The Resistance took many forms and the partisans were the active wing of it.

The position in Venezia Giulia in 1945 was extremely complex and made even worse by General Bernard Freyburg who, whatever his soldierly qualities were, was completely out of his depth politically. Both Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed that there was to be no revision of Italy's north-east frontier with Yugoslavia until a post-war Peace Conference, but Tito, with Stalin's full support, simply ignored this and occupied Fiume, Istria, Pola, Trieste, and much of Istria. The historian Richard Lamb says of this "The Yugoslavs behaved more brutally than even the Nazis, confiscating much property, deporting and executing countless harmless Italians. Citizens of Trieste still recall with horror the forty days of Tito's occupation. ... Churchill and Truman ordered the Allied generals to prevent Yugoslav brutality but Alexander, Harding and Freyberg were supine, despite prodding from Churchill".

Tito, who was wide awake, slipped some of his troops into Trieste past the Germans, before the 8th Army arrived. They took over the radio station and the local papers, which immediately began clamouring for annexation to Yugoslavia. The Bishop of Trieste contacted the CLNAI leaders, who agreed to keep the city calm and not to attack while the German garrison defended itself against the Yugoslavs until the 8th Army arrived. The Germans, through the Bishop, said that they would offer no resistance to the 8th Army. The decision for the Germans was a matter of life (as POWs) or death (at the hands of the communist Yugoslavs); for the CLNAI it was a matter of preventing the loss of a substantial portion of Italy to Yugoslavia.

The 8th Army's New Zealanders arrived on the scene on 1 May and initially (despite Churchill's efforts) initially regarded Tito's partisans as allies, never even questioning their right to be there. The New Zealanders, under General Freyberg, now allowed Tito's forces to enter Trieste in force reporting to Alexander that "the situation was unclear" and that "the Yugoslavs have set up an administration and regard it as their commitment".

Quoting Lamb again:

"A few days later Alexander ordered the 91st US Division into Gorizia and sent one battalion into Trieste itself 'to show the flag' and make it clear that the occupation was a combined Anglo-American affair. Tito refused to permit AMG to operate in Trieste and the area he occupied, but allowed Alexander to use the port of Trieste. Trieste was thus both occupied by both Yugoslavs and New Zealanders, who faced each other coldly but without major incident. Trieste and parts of Venezia Giulia now became subject to 'double administration and occupation' by British and Yugoslav troops - a situation which was disastrous for the Italians."

That's quite an understatement. On 3 May Tito's troops took over the town hall in Trieste and refused to recognise the CLNAI or to allow them to have anything to do with the administration of the city. The next evening all the walls of Trieste were covered in large posters in Italian and English declaring that the entire population demanded annexation to Yugoslavia with others declaring that Trieste was now part of Yugoslavia. From that moment the Yugoslavs were in complete control of Trieste and effectively in charge of the city, with no obstacles placed in the way by Freyberg. The inhabitants were dumbfounded, On 5 May there were riots in the city expressing opposition to Tito's rule, but these were gunned down with a number of civilians killed. On 9 May Tito's General Keuder announced from the balcony of the city hall that Trieste was annexed to Yugoslavia. As Lamb assets: "The people of Trieste were perplexed by the 'incomprehensible inactivity of the Allies'.

Now the terror began in earnest with hundreds at a time summarily executed after briefly appearing before 'ad hoc' Yugoslav tribunals trying women and men on the flimsiest evidence of being 'pro-fascist'. Those executed were mostly professors, teachers, lawyers, priests, and even protesting workers, several hundred were either put to death or marched off to concentration camps in Yugoslavia; none has ever returned. Lamb again: "The New Zealanders were horrified by the wholesale arrest of Italians by Tito's troops; they saw 150 being marched off in one batch on 9 May, and on 22 May reported many arrests, 'mostly professors'.

The official British history now skips over this, denying the atrocities, but Field Marshall Alexander was well aware of these atrocities. He reported on 6 May to Churchill:

"All Italians of any standing, except Yugoslav sympathisers, are being arrested. Complete control of activities being taken over by Yugoslavs. Banks are being forced to hand over their securities today. All manpower between sixteen and sixty being conscripted; Italians for forced labour, sympathisers of military age being armed. ... Priests being arrested ... impossible to set up AMG ..."

Churchill replied "Am much concerned about all this. Please let me know whether any lack of authority is hampering you." But here Alexander, way down near Naples, sent back a misleading reply claiming that he was acting as if he had 'full powers'. As Lamb says, he was "standing aside while Freyberg allowed the Yugoslavs to behave how they liked in Trieste, although it was supposed to be jointly occupied by the British and Yugoslav forces." Then Alexander compounded this by sending a telegram to both Washington (without Foreign Office approval) and London expressing his doubts about the morale of British troops if asked to resist the Yugoslavs "They have profound admiration for for Tito's partisans and a great sympathy with them ... We must be very careful before we ask them to turn away from the common enemy to fight an ally." This angered Churchill resulting in a scathing telegram to Alexander and a dressing down, but it was too late to recall the copy to Washington. In fact he was mistaken about the attitude of British troops, all the evidence shows that they were furious about the brutalities they had witnessed.

Compounding this mess, the area also contained some 12,000 Četniks, 20,000 of Mihailović's army, and some 1,500 Cossaks with their families, the latter having being promised settlement in Italy by Hitler (a further 20,000 Cossaks surrendered to XIII Corps, and thus escaped the dreadful fate of the others and the Četniks who crossed the Plöken Pass into Austria.

As for the partisans, there were two groups operating in Venezia Giulia: the Garibaldi brigade and the Osoppo brigade. The Garibaldi brigade was communist, the Osoppo brigade mainly from non-communist parties. Part of the Garibaldi brigade sided with Tito's communists, the non-political element either going home or joining up with the Osoppo brigade. A delegation from CLNAI went to see the Yugoslavs regarding the portion of the Garibaldi brigade that had gone over to Tito, the CLNAI delegation, having survived the war were all arrested and shot. The Osoppo brigade then took up arms against the Garibaldi rump. But it was too late, by 9 June all territory east of Trieste was absorbed into communist Yugoslavia under totalitarian communist rule. Since the fall of communism it has remained in Croatia.

There never was any question of an amnesty for Italian partisans. They have a honoured position in Italian history and the legitimacy of the modern democratic Italian state derives directly from them.

Kind regards.



Message 2 - Re: Ben Cumming's War - Chapter 4: Venezia Gi

Posted on: 05 March 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

If you are puzzled by "12,000 Četniks, 20,000 of Mihailović's ... and the Četniks who crossed the Plöken Pass into Austria".

Č is code for a special character, the Serbian C with ' above it, pronounced "Ch" as in "cheese" This site is apparently not able to 'read' these characters correctly. ć is the lower case letter. So 'Chetniks' and 'Mihailovich' will have to do.

And a typo: As Lamb assets: "The people of Trieste were perplexed by the 'incomprehensible inactivity of the Allies'." should be 'Lamb asserts ...'

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