The Intelligence Corps in Venezia Giulia 1945 - 1954
Venezia Giulia, comprises Italy’s Easternmost provinces, Trieste Gorizia and Udine. The race for Venezia Giulia in 1945 was between the British Eigth army, fighting its way up Italy, and Tito’s partisans.
In March 1945 General Morgan and Tito had agreed that each side’s “zones of interest” would be defined so that the city of Trieste as well as area around it would be occupied by the Allies so that the facilities of the port of Trieste could be used to supply their advance into Austria. The partisans, however, reached the city first and entered on 1 May 1945. Meanwhile the advance forces of the Eighth Army were held up only 20 miles West of the city at a bridge over the Isonzo having received information that the bridge was booby trapped and prepared for demolition. This piece of disinformation was provided by a group of partisans based on Monfalcone, an area with a large proportion of pro-Tito Communist sympathisers. This particular cell of partisans was, for the next two years, to be a pain in the arse for 35 Field Security Section.
The New Zealanders entered the city of Trieste on 2 May and laid claim to the city and the surrounding province. The partisans, however, refused to leave and there were verified reports of reprisals against Fascist sympathisers and collaborators which amounted to atrocities. A common form of punishment used the “foibe”, the deep holes in the limestone on the surrounding karst (the Carso). Victims were thrown alive down these holes, their hands and feet bound with wire. There were also attempts at ethnic cleansing, with Italians being evicted and the areas being repopulated with Jugoslav nationals in an attempt to claim a right to the city on “ethnic” grounds.
Allied troops had no power to intervene but, in many cases, they did. Even so, to this day, this period is known as the “forty days of terror”.
In the background attempts were being made at the highest level to resolve the impasse. On 19th May Field-Marshall Alexander, in a message to his troops, said, “We are waiting to hear whether Marshal Tito is prepared to cooperate with us in accepting a peaceful settlement…. or whether he will attempt to establish his claims by force”. Belgrade Radio responded to the effect that Jugoslav forces were ready to cooperate but would not accept, as an allied country any solution that would amount to insult or humiliation.
This was followed up by a parade of Russian-built tanks through the city centre, intended to demonstrate the links with the Soviet Union and implying that help would be likely to come from that quarter. It became clear, however, that any hope along those lines was ill-founded.
On 9 June an official statement was issued from London, Washington and Belgrade concerning the “temporary military administration” of the area. The agreed deadline was 8am on 12th June.
Xlll Corps HQ assumed military control of the Allied occupied area of the province of Venezia Giulia which became known as Zone A. The area on the other side of the dividing line, known as “The Morgan Line”, was known as Zone B. This included Istria, the peninsula to the South of Trieste.
Douglas Lyle, of 21 Port Security Section, arrived in Trieste in the second week of May. The Eighth Army Field Security Section (412 FSS) was already in the city.
Lyle has some interesting tales of encounters with “the Jugs”, as they were known.
21 Port Section took over a bank in the city centre as its HQ. Almost immediately as they took possession, the telephone rang and Lyle answered it. A voice, speaking English with obvious difficulty said, “We know all about you” and continued with a warning that they should be careful. This was taken to be a prank – until, looking out of the window of the bank, he saw a Jugoslav machine gun mounted in the first floor window of the building opposite and trained on the section’s sleeping quarters.
The Jugoslavs were well organised and highly disciplined. They quickly took measures to establish a civil administration which they placed in the hands of Italian communists. The Allies had little alternative but to accept this as a ‘fait accompli’.
The Jugoslav state security police OZNA conducted a reign of terror over the Italian population arresting suspected collaborators and exacting summary punishment. 412 FSS to whom Lyle was attached realised the need for the complete security in dealing with local people in order to protect them from reprisals. OZNA was clearly aware of the function of FSS.
Apart from intelligence tasks related to OZNA there were other matters needing attention. A high ranking stay-behind German agent was known to be in the city as well as three generals of Mussolini’s fascist army. All three were found and arrested. This may well have been a relief for them since the alternative – capture by the Jugoslavs - was a good deal less attractive.
One task of FSS was to monitor the activities of political parties, particularly those on the extremes of the spectrum. There were, of course, still many people with fascist sympathies and many with communist beliefs. At this stage the, the two communist factions , those who supported Stalinist communism and those who supported Tito maintained an uneasy truce. Later they would split and become implacable enemies.
Although the political situation was potentially explosive, there were few signs of tension between individual members of the two sides. Lyle describes the relations between the Jugoslav and Allied soldiers. “The Jugoslav soldiers, women as well as men (there seemed to be mixed platoons) sometimes garlanded with bandoliers of ammunition, were almost invariably extremely friendly towards Allied soldiers, saluting them punctilliously , NCOs and officers alike.The men went in for impromptu dance circles, often holding up the traffic. There was a Sunday football match between British and Jugoslav teams in the Trieste stadium. It was a good tempered game won by the Jugoslavs………Between the Western Allies and the partisans there was an undoubted measure of good will and respect. Looking back it seems likely that Jugoslavia was less than totally committed to its claim on the city although solid in its determination to regain neighbouring parts of their country which had fallen under Italian rule.”
On one occasion, however, there was confrontation. A number of members of 412 FSS were having lunch at a restaurant frequented by them when an armed detachment of Jugoslavs marched up and tried to arrest a young man, a civilian, who was eating with the British. The CSM of 412 demanded of their officer how they dared to behave towards their allies in such a fashion. The officer in charge apologised and withdrew his men.
One sergeant of 412 disappeared for twenty four hours and seemed to have been abducted. What is certain is that he was the involuntary guest of the Jugoslavs but when he did turn up he had an enormous hangover. This soldier was not the only one to be “invited” for a short holiday.
When the Jugoslavs withdrew to Zone B they did so in good order. Their flag over the Town Hall was replaced by the Union flag and the Stars and Stripes.
Lyle ends his account, “It may seem a trivial notion but, looking back I am sorry we did not approach the machine gunners opposite and ask them civilly to point their weapon in another direction. I think there is a fair chance they would have done so.”
When Lt. General Sir john Harding, Commander of lllX Corps became Military Governor of Venezia Giulia a civilian police force the VGPF was set up, originally officered by the British. Intelligence Corps personnel, however, did the work of Special branch as well as their normal FFS duties. Port Security involved searching ships for arms intended for Jewish groups in Palestine. In an attempt to cool the tense political situation, there were restrictions on demonstrations, public assembly and the publishing of unauthorised newspapers.
FSS searched vehicles, homes and factories for arms, explosives and propaganda. There was also the need to counter the activities of the Jugoslav secret police who operated a network of stay behind agents and others infiltrated as businessmen or refugees. So refugee screening and travel teams were set up.
Trieste had long been a haven for non-communist Jugoslavs and one group of these were in the habit of slipping over the border back into Jugoslavia kill soldiers or distribute propaganda. The group was infiltrated, however, by an agent of 46 FSS leading to the arrest of the whole gang.
One of TSO’s activities was always kept under wraps. Behind an unremarkable door labelled “Cabinet Office Historical Section” in HQ BETFOR was “A Liaison” where there was all the equipment necessary for extensive telephone tapping, maintaiined by Royal Signals personnel. It was accepted in TSO that telephones were not secure so no sensitive matters were dealt with by telephone. Any information gained in this way was always ascribed to the source, “A liaison”.
In 1945 to 1946 there were eleven intelligence units operating in the area. In the city of Trieste there was 21 Port Security Section, 412 FSS doing general counter intelligence duties and 414 FSS employed in vettings for the AMG. In the wider province of Trieste 35 FSS was stationed in Monfalcone. 12 FSS were in Gorizia, 419 in Udine and 411 FSS near the Austrian border. There were also, in the city, 5Special Counter-Intelligence Unit, the Censorship Group and the CSDIC Detachment. There were four others sections to the North.
When the Italian peace treaty was signed in 1948 the G(I) staff of the new HQ, now called BETFOR, amalgamated with the American intelligence staff to form G2GSI. All the British intelligence sections amalgamated to form a District Security Office which later became Trieste Secirity Office, about sixty strong. Although there was a joint headquarters, G2 GSI, the operational arms, TSO and the American CIC, remained separate. They did, however, cooperate and all reports were shared. In G2GSI each office was staffed jointly by British and Americans and all papers were passed to both desks.
Robert Andrew was in TSO from 1948 to 1949 and remembers the methods of the VGPF when they were called on to act as TSO’s executive arm in arresting civilians.” ………the three o’clock knock on the door was the accepted practice. Sometimes one of us went along to observe. For these and other occasions we were issued with an FSS pass, entitling the holder to ‘be at any place at any time, to wear civilian clothes and to carry a weapon’. It also required anyone to give all help possible, without question, to the holder.
Andrew goes on, “The VGPF were not very gentle in their methods and to see them arresting a man in the middle of the night and ransacking his apartment while his wife and children stood by in their night clothes crying was a distasteful sight. (Wasn’t this one of the features of the Nazi police state we had just fought a war against?)”
As Sir Robert Andrew, in charge of the Police Department at the Home Office, he drew on these experiences to shape his thinking about police methods.
He also remembers the effects of Tito’s breaking from the Cominform in 1948. When the news came through no-one knew what the implications would be and “there was much speculation and excitement in TSO. Would the Red Army move into Jugoslavia to restore Moscow’s authority? How would the local communist party in Trieste react? We were despatched in our jeeps to the border checkpoints, not knowing whether to expect to see Soviet tanks or a flow of refugees. In fact, at my particular checkpoint nothing appeared all day, except for an old woman in black with a donkey and some goats.”
This was not the only occasion when the promise of big thingsresulted in anti-climax.. There was a tip-off from a well placed and highly rated informant that the para military wing of the MSI (neo Fascist party) would be holding armed exercises in a remote part of the Carso. A joint operation with CIC was planned. Arms were issued and a spotter plane organised, the OC bagging a seat in the plane. We enjoyed joint operations with CIC because we got to ride in Buicks rather than jeeps. When the day came we all took up alotted stations in strategic spots and waited for some sighting of armed groups, the sound of small arms or a sighting from the plane. The day passed slowly; nothing happened and we all went home. It couldn’t be that they caught sight of the Buicks. Could it?
At he heart of TSO’s work was the room where very few wanted to work. It was, however, vital because it housed the Card Index. Every report, in or out, went through Card Index and someone had the job of cross referencing every name, address and happening mentioned in the report on separate cards, each about A5 in size. So the first step was to search for all the cards containing any previous mention of, say, the people involved. Each of their cards was withdrawn and the new information added. You can imagine how tedious this could be if there was a meeting involving several people where a number of events were discussed. Sometimes the information was important and very interesting but it was – more often – routine. Every new arrival in TSO had a spell in Card Index and this was a valuable insight into the need for accurate records but it was not exciting and most prayed for an early rescue. Anyone who could type with more than one finger was well advised to conceal the fact.
The initials FSS stand for “Field Security Section” and security was, and still is, the first responsibility of the Intelligence Corps. For TSO, counter Intelligence or IB as it was known, was the main task but sometimes IA , the active gathering of intelligence, was required and that was the job of two sections of TSO.(There was also a detachment of MI6 in Trieste known as "The Chinese Laundry" and TSO was sometimes asked to lend a hand.) Port Section gained information about Russian ports by briefing and debriefing officers of British ships visiting Trieste on their way to Black Sea ports. Gathering political intelligence and some military intelligence was the job of Ops Section, TSO. They developed a number of informants, known as agents, who were members of the various political parties.
They also used IFCs (Illegal Frontier Crossers), often refugees who went back into Jugoslavia, usually as “beesneessmen”, smuggling goods. Jugoslavia’s economy had been shot to pieces during the war; there was virtually no manufacturing and almost everything had a value because of the shortage of everyday things. Small “luxury” items, even simple things like hair grips, razor blades and cosmetics were sought after. Currency was also smuggled. Inside Jugoslavia the lira and the dinar were at parity; in Trieste you could get two dinars to the lira.
As a goodwill gesture, the Americans had given the Jugoslavs a number of ancient and clapped out fighter planes and then became concerned that they had no idea where they were and whether they might be used against them. TSO was able to find where they were based.
Some TSO members were detached to work at theDisplaced Persons Camps. I hope to include an account of their work.
William Shortland, a member of Ops Section, tell of one incident, "In late 1953, a lot of young men were going AWOL from the camps. At the time I was very friendly with an Armenian girl in San Sabba. She subsequently went to the USA. With her help I was able to bust a recruiting unit from the French Foreign Legion. At that time the French were losing their war in French Indo-China, now Vietnam. The uncovering of the recruiting unit led to the French being expelled from Trieste. I've often wondered how many young men from our camps died in places like Dien Bien Phu."
Being an agent brought few rewards. On offer there were only small amounts of money - and cigarettes - invariably Players in those round tins with fifty fags in each. And being an agent had its dangers.
In January of 1953 one of TSO’s most prolific (and well respected and well liked) agents code named C*** disappeared. He usually contacted TSO at least once a week but a month passed without anyone hearing from him. He was an Istrian exile, a member of CLN d’Istria (Committee for the National Liberation of Istria) and worked in Trieste as a free-lance journalist with a wide range of contacts. A few weeeks after he disappeared it was made known – and reported in the Giornale di Trieste - that a group of fishermen based on Capodistria had come across a half submerged body near the site of a wrecked ship in the bay. Eye-witnesses, including the fishermen, reported that the hands and feet had been bound with wire in the manner of the victims of the “foibe” atrocities. Almost as soon as the body was landed on the dockside it was seized and taken away by the UDBa, the Jugoslav security police, and it was they who put a name to the victimAs usual, however, although the report was stark, it was not as straightforward as it seemed. There is no doubt that a body was found by the fishermen and no doubt that C had disappeared but there were so many anomalies in the tale that it was impossible to accept that it was the whole story. A year later a completely different account of what had happened to C was leaked by the Jugoslavs to the Trieste press. It still did not correspond with the facts as we knew them but the outcome for the victim was no happier.
TSO’s “greatest coup”, as one senior officer described it, involved “the secret smuggling in and later the secret smuggling out of a very senior officer of a foreign intelligence organisation together with his wife and child.” For debriefing “we would bring him into our office ( from the safe house) during the hours of darkness, in some disguise or other.”
The way other people remember it gives a rather less dramatic and conspiratorial account. It began with a telephone call from RMP to say that they had a Jugoslav deserter who had reported in to them. The FSS sergeant tajking the call – it was a weekend and he had caught the duty of attending the office and keeping shop – advised that the deserter should be taken up to the glass-house at San Giusto. This was normal practice so that when he was interrogated by someone from TSO’s Pool Section, the deserter would be anxious to please in the hope of not being sent back there.
It emerged that the deserter was a senior officer and it was decided that he should be brought to the Security Office. It seemed at one stage that he was to be housed in a room on the same floor as the corporals’ mess at 21 Via Coroneo but the defector, as he now came to be regarded, revealed that he was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Jugoslav UDBa (modelled on the Soviet KGB) and there were further thoughts. The immediate fear was that, since he would have so much sensitive information, there might be an attempt to snatch him back. So 21 Via Coroneo might be an obvious target.
Revelations now came thick and fast. He had not, as we first thought, just come over the border; he had been in Trieste for some days. And, he said, his wife and child were with him. They had been staying in a hotel. The danger of a snatch back seemed to recede but it still seemed wise to find somewhere safe.
As a temporary measure, the head of Ops Section, who was married and lived out, offered to take the whole family. I was to go too as some sort of guard/escort. I was advised to take a camp bed. It was one of those with a metal frame in a canvas bag. Our guest seemed very amused by the whole thing; he seemed to have a far more relaxed attitude than we did. When I got in the car with the bag he laughed and said there was no need for the “mitragliatrice” (machine gun”.
He and his family were placed in a safe house where they were to stay for some months because his debriefing was to be a lengthy one.
He was extremely cooperative. As somebody once said, “There are some things you don’t know you don’t know”, so you cannot possibly ask about them. He devised a series of proformae which he diligently completed each day together with narratives where necessary. He was interviewed by members of several intelligence services.
His defection was reported in the Giornale di Trieste. They had been informed about it by Jugoslav sources wanting to discredit him by claiming that he was wanted in connection with certain crimes and cases of fraud in Jugoslavia. There was never any way of knowing where the truth lay. There were other areas of doubt and ambivalence, just another example of how things were rarely straightforward and certain.
However, the whole family were pleasant, friendly and helpful and came to be well liked. It was good that they were finally settled safely somewhere in the New World.
In November 1954 Trieste was evacuated. Trieste Security Office had comprised the largest field grouping of Intelligence Corps personnel ever assembled.
On 26 November 1954 the GOC, Major General Sir John Winterton left the city for the last time with his Intelligence Corps personal security party of Major R M Richards and three sergeants.