1. Operation Styria

In agreement with the Red Army authorities in Graz, “Operation Styria” was set for Tuesday, 24th July 1945. Regiments and formations of 46th Infantry Division, British Eighth Army, and support groups including units of our Field Security Service (FSS) were put on standby for the drive into Styria Province on that day. At Wolfsberg, where we were stationed, and in rear echelon HQs in Villach and Klagenfurt preparations for the occupation of the Green Province were completed.

For the past ten weeks following the German surrender, and contrary to the terms of the Yalta Agreement, our Russian allies had been in occupation of Styria (Land Steiermark), thus barring the road for the western allies to Vienna. It was not until 31st July that the first allied troops were to be allowed to take up their positions in the capital city. Partly for this reason the West had steadfastly refused to recognize the post-war Austrian “Anti-Fascist Government” under acting State Chancellor Dr Karl Renner, which had been installed by the Soviet Occupying Power in Vienna. This consisted largely of repatriated Austrian communists exiled in Russia, and thus not democratically elected. Graz, too, the next largest city in Austria, had been occupied by Red Army troops since 9th May. It meant, amongst other things, that the vast bulk of the British Army pouring in from Northern Italy was confined to a relatively tiny area of the country surrounded on three sides by Russian and Yugoslav forces.

There had been two main reasons for the delay which followed in taking over the whole of the Zone allotted us at Yalta: firstly, there had been sporadic fighting between advancing British soldiers and armed groups of Yugoslav partisans inside Austria after the official end of the war, at which point the Yugoslavs had entered the southern province unopposed and taken control of Klagenfurt. So the situation was extremely tense in that area. Secondly, it had angered the Russians that British array commanders in the disputed area had not taken steps to disarm some 45,000 Cossacks in German Wehrmacht uniform who had surrendered to the British but still considered themselves to be free agents. There was also the, as yet, unresolved question of handing these Russian nationals in German uniform back to the Soviets. Thus, very soon after the fighting had stopped relations between the two allied powers had reached an impasse regarding the partition of occupied Austria. Since the middle of May, British troops had stood facing the Russians on the borders between the two adjacent provinces of Carinthia and Styria on the Pack mountain pass. This was the gateway to Graz: the city of the four graces, as Napoleon had dubbed it.

Since the end of June, our FSS section had been stationed in the little town of Wolfsberg where we were in charge of a Lager (camp) for political prisoners and captured Waffen-SS men. On leaving Northern Italy, section strength had been brought up to about ten non-commissioned officers (NCOS) of senior rank, plus the commanding officer (CO) and his British driver. We had all been specially selected for our command of German. Transport allocation was four medium-sized trucks and the CO’s command jeep, as well as three or four BSA 5008 motorbikes. Unofficially, we had two German POWs, Hans and Anton, on the roll who saw to the domestic chores, laundry, rations, cooking and so forth. By that time our prize possession was a gramophone of German make with some records of music from Austrian operettas. 

At last, it was zero hour! Troops under orders for “Operation Styria” numbered some ten to 12 thousand men, together with a long convoy of transport, trucks and bren carriers and the guns of 70 Field (Artillery) Regiment, stretching back some two miles or more on the pass and all travelling to Graz. British motorized units of 46 Inf Div entered Graz very early on 26th July 1945 within mere hours of the Russian forces pulling out.

Our field assignment was to drive through the Styrian capital and make for Eastern Styria. Once there, we would establish a fixed base at a place marked Gleisdorf on the map. As we got to this village, however, local police pointed out that the “capital” or administrative center of Eastern Styria was located at another smallish town, Weiz, eight kilometres to the north. Apparently, the Russians were still in charge there. At Gleisdorf the section split up into three detachments, bound for each of the three eastern administrative districts, Feldbach, Furstenfeld and Hartberg. HQ party set out for Weiz, with no real idea about what they would find there. By this time other British units had reached the Styrian border with the Province of Burgenland and stayed put. This was to be the new demarcation line for the next ten years.

I was perched next to the CO, Captain Teddy Nolan, in the lead vehicle when our small party of Field Police chose to ignore the Weiz Russian Kommandant and his adjutant on the Casino steps and make for the Village Square instead. We suspected the Rathaus (town hall) might be there. This meant us crossing the river and literally turning our back on the Russian officers. Colonel Weinukov and his aide were, however, suitably greeted by British troops and their officers when our occupation force arrived. 

Ronald Walker in Weiz
Ronald Walker as a young intelligence officer in Weiz

That hot, first postwar summer found us arriving and settling on what was a completely deserted square – the civic reception committee was waiting elsewhere. First, contact was made with townsfolk as our small force sat down on the green and our POWs made tea. Numbers of Austrians appeared as if from nowhere, eager to put their knowledge of the English language to the test. Not too long after, the Burgermeister, Siegfried Esterl and Herr Alfred Mitterdorfer, Parish Clerk, put in appearance and shook hands with each of us and the CO. before guiding us into the Rathaus. Also present, as I recall, on that first day were your National Assembly Member, Deputy Sepp Wendl, the Weiz Regional Commissioner, Oberst Becher, and the parish priest.

The CO addressed these civic dignitaries inside on the theme of mutual cooperation and trust, told them that life would return to normal soon under the new occupation authorities (although a curfew was imposed from dusk till dawn, this being standard security procedure) and that the British authorities would be issuing their own identity cards to civilians in due course. The town would also be required, for an indefinite period, to put up the men and officers of not less than one company of occupation soldiers. 

The Burgermeister, too, had his problems, not the least of which was the presence of several hundred refugees who needed feeding and housing. 

From our point of view, refugees formed a perpetual security risk. Wanted persons could so easily become anonymous in crowds. For us, it meant checking the story of each displaced person, as they became known officially, individually. In the event of our personnel not finding suitable billets that same day, various members of the council generously offered to put us up in their homes. And so it was that I came to spend my first night in Weiz with the family of the Burgermeister on the town square, where I was regaled with stories of the terror and violence against men and women which had marked the days of the Russian occupation. 

The garrison was soon ensconced in the Elin Kasino, with their officers in the Schloss, north of Weiz, and one or two in Gasthouses, the “Golden Ox” for instance. I would put the number of British soldiers at around one hundred and fifty.

Unfortunately, there was a non-fraternisation order in force in the early days and practically everywhere in town was out of bounds to our servicemen. This affected the troops as well as the local families who would have liked to have had the British as guests in their homes. All ranks in the Field Security Service were exempt from this order. That afternoon I went with Sgt Blanchflower and Sgt Matthews to inspect accommodation recommended by Burgermeister Esterl. In my experience this was invariably an exercise that involved intruding upon the privacy of some former Nazi family or other. 

The people we visited in a magnificent house on Weiz’s other Platz, the Südtirolerplatz, was such a family; but I was disinclined to use coercion on a number of Austrian civilians who were obviously very frightened to start with. Anyway, I had my own moral reservations about our demanding quarters and catering for the three of us, and we left Sudtirolerplatz to look at a second house belonging to the Pichler family nearby. The occupants of this house seemed to be three attractive young ladies in dirndl dress, daughters of Franz Pichler and his brother, Ernst. Little did I know that in that moment I had come face to face with my future bride. 

Though we did not choose to take this accommodation, the local civilian quartering officer very quickly evicted its young occupants and posted a requisitioning order on the door; in the event, the dwelling stayed empty all that year.

Amongst the other options offered us by Burgermeister Esterl was accommodation (since demolished) north of the village, the so-called Elin Villa, formerly the home of the Director of the Welz Elin-Works, Ing. Hafergut, a prominent national socialist who had fled from the Russians on the German capitulation. The villa was ideal but the furniture, except for a very imposing grand piano which had evidently proved too heavy, had been looted. However, once furnished it was to become our mess, shared with the CO for the duration. The family seat on the Kosdorfer Estate, also vacated by the owners, was given to the acting Military Governor of Weiz, Major Basil G Carew Hunt, the Queen’s Royal Regiment, the archetypal English gentleman complete with a “Neville Chamberlain” moustache, as the locals were quick to christen it.

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