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.
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.
The local population were overjoyed at the replacement of the Russian troops, who had occupied the village for ten weeks, by the British army. Burgermeister Esterl welcomed the Section as “liberators”, and Austrian officials in offices of administration were visibly relieved to be now dealing with an occupying power that respected rights and property and could speak German too. At first we all had trouble with the unaccustomed Styrian dialect and the fact that everybody seemed determined to shake us by the hand immediately we ventured onto the streets. I think we were all concerned about where that first night in Weiz was to be spent, if not in the back of the trucks. As it transpired we parted company then to board with individual families. The following day, Herr Franz Glier, a councillor and trade union leader, found us an office in a rather ancient house on the Platz where he had his own premises, a building dating from the late 17th century, now beautifully restored. The Weiz communists had imprisoned some 200 men and women as Nazis in a camp in the Marburgerstrasse. The Kommandant was a man named Supper, a convicted felon himself, with no authority except that of the gun and the protection of former Red Army commanders in Weiz: an unsavoury character, which anyone who knew him at that time will confirm!
The regular police force in the township, the men of the Gendarmerie, was powerless to enforce law and order (a time that Amtsrat Alfred Bohar fully documented in his published series “Die Stadt Weiz im Zweiten Weltkrieg”) and the town had been run exclusively by the local communist party chiefs and occupying Russian troops.
On the CO’s orders, the communist “auxiliaries” guarding the lager were disarmed by the intervention of all the NCOs we had on the scene at that time – Sgt Major Small, Sgt Blanchflower, Sgt Reynolds, Sgt Matthews and myself – and sent packing. Their duties were then taken over by Gendarmerie and the men of the Town Watch. It was an action clearly welcome to all – the inmates of the camp, the Burgermeister and most of the population.
I cannot leave this subject without making the following acknowledgement about one of the inmates of the lager. This prisoner I came to know very well, fortunately under more auspicious circumstances in her own home, at a later date. She was a very respected, intelligent, attractive woman, still in her grey Red Cross uniform, whose courageous attitude towards the British on that day in speaking out against the communists on behalf of the whole camp, impressed us all. Her name, which she later told me she was happy for me to reveal here, was Frau Doktor Helene Kaar.
Her captors had Imprisoned her with her small children, mainly because she wore a uniform. I personally interrogated Dr Kaar the following day and released her. None of the Section had seen women (and definitely not children) held in camps before; we found it to be an extremely reprehensible way of treating people we were supposed to have “liberated”.
During the weeks of the Soviet occupation the women prisoners in the lager were made to locate unexploded land-mines. They then had to remove them and heavy metal boxes of live ammunition and grenades from what had been battle areas, together with their menfolk, and many prisoners lost their lives this way. As a gesture, the CO freed all the women immediately, although many whose husbands were interned too would not leave them.
Most of the internees hoped we would release them that day but we could not do that.
The Pichler family on Südtirolerplatz whomI had visited earlier was no ordinary family and the situation it was now facing, partly of their own making, was a traumatic one. It had been a very politically involved family in the pre-war years, dedicated to the concept of a German, national socialist Austria, now called to account for its loyalties to the Hitler regime between 1938 – 45.
I suppose I should not have shown them any sympathy on that first day of the British occupation when I went to make demands on their home and possessions for our military. However, I could not ignore the difficult and precarious situation the womenfolk of this family – and the many other families in Weiz in the same position – found themselves in as a result of the defeat of the German Reich, with their rights and property forfeit to the state, at the mercy of the new Austrian authorities and with their menfolk imprisoned, I felt obliged to do what I could to help them. This I was able to do, up to a point, as a British soldier and a member of the Field Security Service.
Soon, I was devoting all my off-duty periods to this family and being drawn more and more into their home life. By the end of that first year after the war, as my relationship with the daughter of the house, Ingrid, deepened, I realised that my future had become inexorably bound up with the fate of this resolute, indomitable Austrian family; but I could not guess to what extent this circumstance was going to influence the whole course of my life.
During the coming weeks in the village, Major Carew Hunt, as resident British Military Governor, was at work restoring the District of Weiz to some semblance of normality after six years of war. I got on well with Major Hunt and for a short time I moved my detachment office next to his in the Pichler building so that we could work closer together. We had a daily situation conference first thing every morning in which the major always asked my opinion on local officials and personalities as he knew we were better informed through our agents, informers and the like.
FSS was soon busy purging local government/administration of national socialists as an integral part of an overall denazification program. There were daily dismissals and arrests as a matter of course which touched all facets of public life. Suspects were not able to conceal their histories since we had local Nazi files intact in our office thanks to the prompt action of a local communist, Sepp Tauss, who had saved them from destruction by persuading the Nazi HQ staff to hand them over.
I knew Sepp Tauss as a colleague and friend, a true Styrian and a patriotic Austrian whose chief interest outside his work for us was the national sport of deer-hunting. It was from him that I acquired my first Rosseger literature – an anthology of the much-loved Styrian poet’s peasant tales, as well as a book of Styrian folk songs.
Apart from the Nazi files we held in our office, there were still considerable quantities of documents, correspondence, and so on, scattered about in the attic of the former Nazi Fuhrer HQ in Weiz. During the unusually hot weather of that first post-war summer I would spend hours at a time in the stifling atmosphere immediately beneath the roof, sifting through what remained for information on persons we were interested in. Every day brought another quota of political prisoners, former Nazis and members of affiliated organizations such as the SS, the Brownshirts and the Hitler Youth to FSS Headquarters on the Platz. Many were local folk; others, people from surrounding villages escorted by Austrian Gendarms. The British authorities in Graz had prepared a holding cage at Wetzelsdorf where the sum total of prisoners from all our sections were assembled before being forwarded on to one of two British-run internment camps at Wolfsberg or Weißensteln in Carinthia province.
3. Life in Weiz
Part of my duties was to see to the transportation of our arrestees by truck and under armed guard to Graz. I recollect on one occasion at a spot ten kilometres outside Weiz where our transport had to cross the swift—flowing River Raab through the water to reach the far side — the wooden bridge which had normally stood there having been blown by the German Army — a prisoner leapt from a truck into the river. Disregarding a warning shot from me, he reached the safety of the forest. I calculated that he would lie low during the daytime and that night I was able to pick him up during a night patrol at the “Felsenkeller” Gasthaus on the Passail road.
One amusing anecdote concerning the then Clerk to the Parish Council, Herr Alfred Mitterdorfer, has its place in this narrative. I had been engaged, namely, in posting wooden FSS signposts throughout the village and had – unbeknowing – nailed one of them to one of those tall, majestic chestnut trees on the Platz. Herr Mitterdorfer immediately removed it and brought it to me in the office, and asked me whether I was aware that all these trees, planted to commemorate the village’s deliverance from the Turkish invasion of 1683, were protected by law. How could I have known that?
Sunday in Weiz was invariably a day of rest on which nothing happened.
After mass in the morning the Square would be empty of people until the evening when one went to the pictures and met one’s friends and generally made a social event of it. At that time a large hall at the rear of the “Black Eagle” Gasthaus owned by the Hofler Family served as the local cinema. When I was married the whole Pichler Family would go to see the movie from a reserved box at the far end of the hall, and it was here that I watched whatever films the local audience was watching. The British Forces had two garrison theatres in Graz – the Opernkino and the Annenhofkino – but here, of course, one only got to see British or American films and this was something I was not particularly interested in.
The fare offered by Herr Hofler in his establishment, on the other hand, consisted mainly of old Austrian films and the occasional German film which had been passed by British censorship in Austria as having no political content. Outside our makeshift cinema one had to stand and wait in a miniature garden of vines for someone belonging to the family to open the doors, and wine was served from huge bottles on the trestle tables to the patrons. This was a romantic atmosphere that I am sure was not available in British Army cinemas.
It was on one of these customary peaceful Sundays in the village that the Square suddenly became the centre of excitement. Quite out of the blue, a Red Army truck with its Russian driver and escort appeared. The CO was away that day, and I made my way to the Platz myself to see what was going on. I got hold of Herr Fritz, an overseer at the Elin-Works, who I knew spoke Russian and with the aid of this interpreter I was able to find out what was happening.
The truck had been dispatched from Neukirchen in the neighbouring Russian Zone to collect some item of machinery from the Elin factory which the departing Russian forces had forgotten (sic) to take with them as they had pulled out of Weiz some few weeks previously. I was aware that the Soviet authorities had filled some forty freight trucks with Elin machines at that time and transported them to Russia. This was claimed, of course, as reparations after the war; but it did not stop the Austrians from feeling intensely bitter about such measures. To a large extent the township depended on the Elin for its economic well-being.
A crowd had now gathered and was making threatening gestures towards the truck’s occupants. I felt it time to give our Russian friends their marching orders through our interpreter and shortly after the vehicle disappeared in the direction of Birkfeld and the demarcation line to the north. This was typical of the kind of situations our NCOs had to deal with using their own initiative, as more often than not we were operating in areas of the Zone where British troops were few and far between.
The wording of our security brief was quite explicit, and as well as referring to the security of our own military against sabotage and espionage, it encompassed what was termed the “internal protection of the new Austrian republic against reactionary elements”.
The two clandestine movements known to me at this time were the Werewolf Group Sud, which fell within this category, and Odessa, an escape route by which ex-Nazis and SS were able to escape from Europe to South America via the northern Italian port of Genoa.
Odessa operated from the POW and the political internment camps in the British and American zones. The Group Werewolf had a ringleader in Weiz, whose name was given to me and against whom, unfortunately, at a later stage, Christmas 1947, I was compelled to take action. This is a matter which I prefer not to enlarge upon in this narrative. Details of these FSS operations were classified top secret and not even the Austrian authorities were permitted to know about them.
4. Hunting down Nazis
On a much more overt level were our measures against local National Socialists. Here the task was to eradicate all Nazi elements from public offices, government departments, local administration within the town halls, police and schools, and also within some selective private undertakings.
Persons who had been members of the Nazi party in Austria, or of its many affiliated organisations, of which the most obvious were the SS and the SA (brownshirts), and anyone who may have been sympathisers of the system and denounced to the British were dismissed from office and, in certain cases where the individual had held rank or office within the party (NSDAP), arrest was mandatory. All such categories were subject to interrogation at FSS Headquarters. House searches (for weapons or documents) were instigated and often charges of making false declarations in their statements were brought against former National Socialists.
In the latter case, since I was largely in charge of captured documents at HQ, I would make out a charge sheet against the individual and appear in the British Military Government court as both prosecution, and official interpreter in Graz. Because we were in close proximity to the border with Hungary at one point, we were responsible for controlling the section of the railway line Fehring-Gleisdorf-Graz. This entailed boarding the west-bound train with Austrian officials on the demarcation line to inspect passengers’ identity papers enroute. Invariably this produced a daily quota of IFCs (Illegal Frontier Crossers), who were ordered off the train and taken under military escort to the nearest refugee camp, usually under the jurisdiction of 313 FSS Section which was a frontier section. Any FSS official who was frequently detailed for IFC control would very soon acquire a basic Hungarian vocabulary in this way.
Personally, I found train checks one of the most interesting aspects of security work and it was the only time we had, at least, visual contact with Russian troops.
The search for fugitive Nazis and suspected war criminals in hiding on and around farms on the alpine pastures went on constantly; there was a steady flow of information and complaints from farmers reaching our office.
On one investigation I made in spring, 1947. accompanied by my friend, Gendarm Sepp Kurzraann, we surprised two Red Army deserters in civilian attire in a hut at Point 417, elevation 1372m, where we shared a ten-kilometre stretch of the demarcation-line in dense forests with our Russian allies, who were only too glad to give themselves up to someone in British uniform.
Early in 1946 our top-ranking Nazi party Fuhrer in Weiz, Hans Brandner, was captured by our security people in Upper Styria. This fanatic had left his post in Weiz after the German surrender and been hiding in the Upper Styrian alps.
It was common knowledge that Frau Brandner had poisoned herself and the children on his orders. Kreisleiter (District Leader) Brandner was a known war criminal who was sentenced by a British Military Tribunal in Graz and hanged in May of that year.
The most senior Nazi officer in Steiermark Province, however, Gauleiter Dr Siegfried Uiberreither, made good his escape to Argentina. About the same time, another of our local wanted men, Ing. Hafergut — whose home we had commandeered for ourselves – surrendered to us in Weiz. Following my interrogation report on him, he travelled under escort to Joint Intelligence (Technical Div) in London for further questioning.
The following year I was sent to Joint Intelligence, in London, with two other experienced FSS interrogators on a two-day liaison exercise to see how such information as was contained in the stream of reports from Austria was being studied, collated and assessed. It was an exceedingly interesting experience and at the end of it I was allowed 48 hours to see my parents before returning to my unit.
In our own prison lager which we had “inherited” from the local communists in July, 1945, we were able by October to screen all the political prisoners and close the camp down. According to my figures, some 37 were then re-arrested by the Austrian authorities and held for trial in the People’s Courts. Under recent Austrian state legislation embodied in the State Proscribing Laws former National Socialists were subject to far more stringent restrictions regarding their civil rights and so on as the Austrians were now at pains to prove to the Allies that they were able to put their own house in order!
For instance, no-one was allowed to employ an ex-Nazi; neither were the professions, the lawyers and doctors, for example, permitted to practise. Thus, although the majority of these individuals had officially been classed as “minor national socialists”, as opposed to the Nazi leaders, life for them was at that time after the war still a very bleak prospect. FSS itself had probably several hundred former party members throughout the area under our control reporting daily to their local Gendarmerie posts, or personally to our HQ on the Platz. In retrospect, that feels like an unnecessary bureaucratic harassment.
Austrians have a great sense of humour and were notorious for their political jokes at the expense of the establishment of the day. The Nazi authorities had not been able to stop it during the war despite the death penalty it could incur. A peasant woman in Hettenegg, in the District, had been beheaded as late as November, 1944, for refusing to take back a remark she had made about Hitler. Now, jokes about the British and their (sometimes rather eccentric) behaviour abounded. One concerned Col Alex Wilkinson, Senior British Officer, Graz, who while making a speech over Graz radio in German had tried to use a very colloquial Austrian expression, unsuccessfully. This officer was under the impression he had asked his listeners in Styria to be “like the British soldiers and whistle while they worked”. In fact, he had asked everyone to whistle every time they passed a British soldier and that, Austrians being what they are, was what often happened in Graz afterwards, to everybody’s amusement…
Many educated Austrians among my friends were reluctant to talk politics. I have always been interested in the subject, however, and the best way to learn about what was happening to Austria between the world wars was to join the elders of the village at their “Stammtisch” – provided one was invited to, and had some familiarity with the dialect of the East Styrians. In those days, the Stammtisch was an established tradition in Austrian inns: it was a special table set aside for the elders at which they sat and ate, talked, drank or played cards or dominoes, or read the daily newspapers. I should love to think that is what still happens today.
Once the men had discovered that I spoke German, even Austrian-German, in Frau Zohrer’s Gasthaus, next door to our office, they were extremely polite to me and invariably invited me to join them at their Stammtisch. Our motor-cycles were always parked in the courtyard of Zöhrer’s Gasthaus in the hot summer months where they were protected from the scorching mid-summer sun. The owner, Frau Gretl, who was herself a young lady in her twenties at that time, still worked there when I returned on a visit in 1981 and was able to bear witness to the truth of my reminiscences.
On quiet days in the office I could look out of the window and watch the citizens of Weiz as they went about their daily business. The street leading from our corner of the Square, now named Dr Karl-Kenner-StraBe after the first post-war president, was then the Herrengasse (High Street). In December 1946 my friends invited me to come to their Nikolaus party there. This pre-Christmas festival for the children is not an English custom and it left a lasting impression on my mind: just to be at a typical Austrian evening’s entertainment devoted entirely to the children of the family and not to be made to feel that I was a foreigner in a strange uniform. I recount this episode here in order to thank this family once again for the years of hospitality I enjoyed in their home.
Herr Deutsch was in those days the proprietor of the only Kaffeehaus Weiz possessed. I made a point of visiting his establishment as often as I could as here was something quintessentially Austrian. In the evening there was a small orchestra playing Viennese melodies and couples dancing.
Herr Deutsch’s greeting to me was always the same: “Good evening, Herr Sergeant, you do me an honour!”
In May 1946 a group of former Nazis carried out a bomb attack on the church in Gutenberg, and I took Sgt Rogers and arrested three youths in the village. It was the first example of violence we had had to deal with amongst an otherwise peaceful community. Shortly after this incident there was a second alert and this time Sgt Rogers and myself had to make our way up the mountainside to the quarry, north-east of Anger.
Here, a quantity of dynamite and detonators was missing from the works store. Illegal possession of arms, ammunition or explosives was not normally a matter for the Austrian police. We discovered the missing items buried in the garden of one of the workmen. Again, the suspects were apparently men with Nazi political affiliations in the past and Sgt Rogers and I had to make some arrests. On my return to HQ I was confronted with a deputation from leaders of all three political parties protesting at this upsurge of national socialist activity, as they saw it, and it was left to me to quell their fears as best I could.
On 20th April, 1946, the following scene was being enacted in the Schulpark alongside the school in Weiz: several prisoners from the town jail were busy with pick and shovel, digging up a tree under the watchful eyes of two English FSS sergeants. Some of my older readers will recognize this date as being, in a long-forgotten era, an occasion for parades and speeches…
At last,the British authorities were about the business of removing the so-called Adolf-Hitler-Oak which had been planted in the park exactly eight years ago to celebrate the Führer’s birthday. The communists insisted that flowers had been laid there only that morning and thus the matter of this relic of the former regime had been brought to a head.
Underneath the tree, Sgt Rogers and I discovered a sealed leaden casket which the local smithy forced for me and which contained a parchment of dedication signed by all, I should think, the prominent Nazis of the day, many whose names were well known to me.
Members of the KPO (Austrian communist party) who had watched the proceedings made a bonfire of the tree, watched in turn by a somewhat silent ring of spectators.
Interestingly, one of the aforementioned prisoners was the remarkable case of a townsman who was serving a 48hr restraint order for accosting me with “Heil Hitler” publicly on the street. I had done this on the advice of the Gendarmerie Post Kommandant who assured me our friend deserved it if only for being drunk and disorderly that evening.
In August that year I met with an accident on the motor-cycle and I was taken to Weiz Infirmary by Dr Katzer in his car, where he kept me under observation that night. Nobody at HQ had any idea what had happened to me until the next day, by which time ingrid’s family had collected me and assumed responsibility for my care at their home on Südtirolerplatz. When my CO came to see me, I thought it a good opportunity to ask whether I might be allowed to move permanently from the sergeants’ mess; so that from then on I became virtually one of the family, expecting to be married soon.
In those days there were no buses and very few trains. Consequently, if they had business to see to outside their villages or in the city, civilians were forced to cover long distances in sometimes mountainous countryside, either by bicycle or on foot. Knowing this, I would always pull up in the jeep or stop the motor-cycle to give civilians a lift. On one particular occasion at the railroad-halt at Birkfeld, a peasant girl asked me to take her and her two very heavy sacks of flour to Weiz. I strapped them to my rear panniers and the young lady rode pillion. Crossing the bridge over the Fiver Feistritz I ran into the iron trellis superstructure as my machine was overloaded and we were both thrown off, the flour going all over us. I had to push the machine as far as the nearest hamlet, Koglhof, and ring for my driver, Hans Walcher, to bring the Dodge out to us.
There were times when the Gendarmerie preferred to have a British soldier with them in case of trouble. Moreover, we were armed while in the early days Austrian police were not. All the Weiz post had in the way of transportation was a BMW and sidecar with petrol which I supplied them. I often travelled with Gendarmerie officials this way and I assure my reader it could be unpleasant in the open sidecar, dusty and bumpy.
Nevertheless, it helped enormously to foster a camaraderie between us and I wish here to refer to my lasting friendship with a former Weiz Gendarm, Herr Sepp Kurzmann, later of Strallegg bei Birkfeld. This Gendarm guarded the main entrance to our HQ on the platz with great good humour, his rifle slung over his shoulder, his main duty. By the year 1946 the Weiz post had acquired an ex-German Wehrmacht Kubelwagen – the equivalent of the famous allied Jeep – known affectionately to everybody as the “tin-lizzie”. It was this tin-lizzie that my friend Distrikt-Inspektor Stern sent to Graz one winter’s night in deep snow in order to pick me up late that Christmas Eve so that I might spend the rest of that night with the family in Weiz.
I had set out from Pörtschach/Wörthersee in Carinthia, where I had been investigating the death of a Jugoslav secret agent in British custody, and was returning to my FSS unit in town, a journey of some 250km. In Klagenfurt the jeep broke down and I was obliged to continue the remainder of the journey to the capital on an Austrian motor-bus, already packed to capacity with civilians making their way home for Christmas.
The snow was already two metres deep on the Pack Pass and it was with great difficulty we eventually reached Graz at about midnight. At the motor-coach terminal there I was unable to raise my people in Weiz by phone and, in desperation, I rang the Gendarmerie post and spoke to Inspektor Stern. Without a moment’s hesitation he dispatched the duty car and driver to pick me up. At that late hour, and having to cross the Schokel in those wintery conditions… I was very impressed.
5. A Marriage and a Death
To mark the completion of our first twelve months’ duty in the township, the CO and I were presented with an original pen-and-ink drawing by the well-known Weiz artist, Hans Kienreich, of the old building on the Square which housed our HQ. There was also an informal reception given for his British guests by the Burgermeister in the Rathaus.
Alas, shortly after, we had to bid farewell to our popular Commander, Captain Edward Nolan, who had been comrade and chief to us since June of the preceding year.
Capt Nolan had been posted to Intelligence HQ, City of Vienna, to take charge of three FSS sections in the British sector. In the summer of 1947 this officer returned to Weiz at my invitation in order to attend my wedding to Ingrid Pichler as my best man in the Parish Church on Weizberg in June, 1947. Following an earlier register office marriage in the Rathaus, the Roman Catholic padre, Graz Area, graciously consented to conduct the ceremony in this marvellous, centuries old church overlooking the township.
My marriage to Ingrid and the fact that I had now become part of a proud and distinguished Austrian family for whom honour, tradition and the provincial way of life meant everything made me think seriously of what we were going to do after the end of my service with the British Army. Our decision to stay in our home in Austria was not really a very difficult one, and I began to make preparations for a future life with my bride in the land that had adopted me.
I was presented to the Federal Chancellor, Ing. Figl, when he came to visit Weiz in September. The following year Lt. Gen. Galloway, GOC British Troops in Austria, came to inspect the unit. In 1948 FSS HQ Eastern Styria was transferred to Furstenfeld but I kept our office, Hauptplatz No.16, as Detachment Commander, FSS Weiz, retained whatever rooms were adequate for my use, and handed back the Villa Mosdorfer, formerly the Military Governor’s quarters, to the owner and our own former billet in the Villa Hafergut to the local authorities. A nostalgic visit to this house later, however, for our comrades of the FSS would, I fear, have been in vain. The neighbouring Elin-Works, Weiz, purchased this beautiful house for demolition and extended their factory premises over the site. The National Trust house in which I had my office is now restored to its former glory by the present owners, the Weber Family.
As a military posting Weiz had now become a peaceful assignment. Major Carew Hunt, after two years in the township, married Elisabeth, Countess Meran, in Graz and returned to England. This officer had been Chairman of the Weiz Branch of the Anglo-Austrian Society which had been formed by prominent citizens of the village in the latter days of his stay in Weiz, partly at his instigation and partly due to my own humble efforts, and upon his departure I was asked to take over as Major Carew Hunt’s replacement. This I did, gladly, and my membership of this organization dates back, therefore, to these far-off days.
The events outlined above spelt virtually the end of the British occupation of Weiz, except for the fact that I was still to serve the Army and the local community for several happy months.
Details of my security duties, which for reasons of confidentiality I may not disclose in this narrative, continued, however, to involve routine visits to Area Gendarmerie posts and general liaison with civil authorities in towns and villages and this was an aspect of my work that I am sure I enjoyed most.
During this period I was blessed with the remainder of a profoundly blissful marriage to Ingrid, during which I spent more and more time with her family and in the social life of the community. In the library of the home we shared, rows and rows of books of classical German literature belonging to my father-in-law lined the walls and in these wonderful books I would immerse myself whenever I was able.
Franz-Johann Pichler was a man of considerable culture and tradition whose ancestors’ names were recorded for posterity along the walls of the entrance hall. There was no question about Austria or the Austro-Hungarian Empire – its history and its culture – that he did not delight in answering.
With one stroke the death of my beloved Frau Ingrid at the early age of twenty-five years put an end to the life I had looked forward to in Austria. It was the lasting memory of a beloved Styrian maid and the kindness of her family and friends there that drew me back after my release from the British Army that year (1949) to try to pick up the threads of a new life in Weiz without Ingrid. How strange it was this time not to be in uniform… Ingrid’s family supported me in my decision to return to Austria and enroll as a student at the Karl-Franz-University, Graz, where I immersed myself in my language studies, dedicating everything I did to the memory of that marvellous Austrian girl and to honour the country she loved so dearly.
6. A Sequel – Written in 1987 (not included in the book)
After my return to Austria that year, with no immediate prospect of the military occupation of the country ever ending, and the continued hardening of the cold war between East and West, it was not at all unexpected that I should receive a visit from someone representing British Intelligence to discuss the possibility of how my new situation in Austria might best be put to some useful purpose.
All the same, I was rather taken aback that my visitors – Major Brian Merritt and a Flt/Lt J A Kraemer RAF from Graz – should have chosen New Year’s Day (1950), of all days, to come and see me. Consequently, to the mystification of the family, I was called away from the dinner-table to attend to two British officers from the city who wished to speak to me.
They were accompanied by a woman who was introduced to me as the wife of Lt Kraemer.
I knew Major Merritt, of course, an Intelligence Corps officer who had been the next in the chain of command after my C.O. and was Head of Styria Area Security Office in Graz. If the RAF officer had not come in the company of the major I should have been very wary of him indeed. Lt Kraemer had a private address on the Freiheitsplatz, an old biedermeier (bourgeois) quarter of the town, according to his visiting-card. His wife was a native Austrian, as far as I could see.
They knew what I was doing in Weiz and that I was enrolled at the university in Graz as a full-time student. This did not surprise me as this information was easily acquired from anybody at my old Section at their Furstenfeld location who knew me, though it was true that I had parted company from the Section immediately following Ingrid’s death in May.
Lt Kraemer wanted me to form a “cell” inside the student community at the university and gather information on the extent of communist activity and infiltration amongst fellow-students. “Cell” was a rather odd word to use in this connection and one that we had only applied to describe a Soviet-communist group itself inside an organization or community.
I was not impressed by this faux pas and it really did nothing but confirm my overall impression that Lt Kraemer’s approach to the subject lacked a certain professionalism. I do not recall the major making very much contribution to the conversation; it was this that really clinched the matter for me. I was not at that time enthusiastic about the prospect of an involvement, as a civilian, in any form of espionage, and had many other things on my mind, much more important. I knew that this officer had made the journey on that particular day with every hope of recruiting a very useful ally; however, Kraemer had sadly overrated my usefulness in this respect as an intelligence source since I did not live in the city itself, for one thing, and therefore had no such thing as a social life amongst the students to fall back on. Additionally, the periods I spent in Graz were extremely limited and confined entirely to attending lectures or tutorials with Prof Koziol at the English Seminar, which were not conducive to making friends.
Without committing myself, therefore, I promised him I would contact him, or come to see him, if I had anything at all to report – I would certainly not put anything in writing however. I felt he had also made another faux pas when he said that, if he were not available, I could tell his wife about it. The last thing I was likely to do! It would have been reasonable to have expected Major Merritt to approach me, now that I was a civilian, and ask me to continue in an informal way to report to Graz HQ anything I thought to be worthwhile to Intelligence, which is basically what we had been doing as a matter of routine in our secret weekly situation reports.
There was no such request forthcoming, however, from the quarter I had most expected it. It was the fact of this, coupled with the “cloak-and-dagger” approach of Lt Kraemer himself that put me off the whole idea. So that apart from one solitary visit I had to his flat on Freiheitsplatz several weeks later to draw his attention to something about the university and the KPO in Austria in the provincial press I had no contact with the Kraemer’s whatsoever. In any case, if I remember correctly, on that occasion he told me he was leaving Austria for good. Today – nearly forty years after – the only tangible reminder of the events described here is Kraemer’s visiting-card with his Graz address and telephone numbers on it, which I still have in my files.
Nobody approached me to enlist my services in this way during the next twelve months: after initial visits from people who were my friends from my army days, including Captain David Stanley, latterly CO of my old Security Section, and his Austrian-born wife, Paula, in my home in Weiz to welcome me back from England, the Intelligence Corps stayed clear of me.
My two closest friends from my own Intelligence Corps days in Austria, Sgt.Major Ken Putter and Sgt Jimmy Seagrave, had meanwhile left to join 263 FSS Section in Graz anyway. And although I ran into them once or twice in the city, and on one occasion spent a whole afternoon at 263 Section’s new location in Andritz District trying to get the feel of what Field Security work had been like, I was never called upon to work for Intelligence in Austria.
Having therefore gotten used to having my private life as a British civilian living in Austria respected, I was very surprised this time, after so many months, to be contacted by Major Merritt of Styria Area Security, Graz, and asked to come and see him at the paulustor HQ. It was now April, 1951, and in the intervening period my own life had taken on a new dimension.
It is necessary at this point, by way of explanation, to give some technical details regarding the background factors which led to this unexpected call from Major Merritt. Namely, the US Counter Intelligence Corps was the military arm of the United States Army in the American Zone in Austria whose duties and responsibilities closely approximated those of our own Intelligence Corps in the British Zone.
Apparently, there was a US Army CIC Detachment currently operating in Graz — with the blessing of the British authorities, needless to say – attached to a US Refugee Mission based in the Burg in the city center. Was I pre-pared to work fall-time for the Americans on a civilian basis? Qualifications were an Intelligence background, local knowledge and fluent German. I could see that the major had already recommended me for the post and that was mainly why I accepted what I supposed was an assignment, wrongly as it transpired, from our own army Intelligence.
I reported that same day to a Major J.J. MacQuillan, a CIC officer, in the Burg who tested my German and sat me down at the typewriter to write a fictional intelligence report. After coming to a compromise regarding time I should require off in order to keep abreast of my university course/studies so that my semesters would be not be lost, Major MacQuillan had me put on the official payroll under the classification “special investigator-agent”, unlike the civilian Austrian staff in the office I was paid in US “script” (army) dollars and put on a per diem basis as well in view of the field (outside) duties I would be required to perform.
Both the organization and methods the Americans employed were completely different to anything I had experienced in the British Intelligence Corps: on top of which, the American personnel made up of two officers and two non-commissioned officers, always in civilian clothes, had an entirely different approach to the requirements and objectives of an intelligence service. Having been five years in our own intelligence with a non commissioned army rank and coming, as I did, highly recommended by Major Merritt, it would appear my credentials were impeccable. In spite of that, I was vetted by US security in Salzburg after having filled in a very comprehensive application form with particulars, inter alia, of my politics and grandparents — and heard no more about it. However, I was sufficiently au fait with the American mind to know that Salzburg were only interested to know whether I was a communist or not.
As to my standing within the small group in the Burg, American and civilian Austrians, that made up Graz Branch, 430th CIC, it was quite impossible to define it. I was treated with a great deal of deference from both sides and I believe that the American staff believed me to be seconded from British Army Intelligence in Graz – and that was the only way they could explain the presence of a mysterious Englishman in their midst!
They were all on assignment, special duties, from Salzburg, Us Army Headquarters in Austria, always referred to as the City of Salzburg (only one of the special peculiarities of terminology favoured by our American allies that I had to get used to.’). Although I left the unit a year later with two documents as tangible evidence of time with them – which I shall deal with at a later point in this narrative – I must admit that neither of them throw too much light onto the specific duties I performed with the Americans. The Americans categorized all their field operatives as “agents” and as I often had a jeep and driver at my disposal I was able to roam far and wide from our Graz base in the course of my duties. However, having said that, I must say that I never thought of myself as an agent in its accepted espionage connotation; and I believe Major Rice, my later Chief, Graz Branch, summed it up best when he used the expression “delicate investigations” in his reference.
The US was very concerned about certain of the refugees (we were attached to a refugee mission, after all) wanting to emigrate to the USA, largely because some were of dubious political backgrounds and the US authorities had an almost pathological dread of allowing Soviet agents, or Nazi war criminals for that matter, to slip through the immigration net on the other side.
It became necessary to investigate applicants resident in the British Zone in Austria in situ, as it were, hence the presence of the American security officers in Graz. How one went about it, as field operatives, was quite an arbitrary affair. At the end of the day I had to do what I had so often been used to doing in our own Field Security Service: making a decision one way or the other that would ultimately affect the life of individuals I had not even met.
The end of my twelve months with the detachment coincided with their being withdrawn on the completion of their assignment in Graz at the end of the following April, 1952, to rejoin their parent unit in Salzburg. Major John J Rice, who had meanwhile taken over from the original Head of Graz operations, Major MacQuillan, offered me the option of either returning to Salzburg with the American personnel to join 430th CIC on unspecified intelligence duties or, because I believe he was genuinely interested in retaining my services within a US organization, of going to Munich to work for the OS Intelligence-run transmitter “Die Stimme Amerikas”. This radio station in Germany beamed the Voice of America literally twenty-four hours a day across the Iron Curtain, interspersed with anti-communist propaganda disseminated in this way to the countries of Eastern Europe with the aid of a huge staff of multilingual employees. Naturally, most of the propaganda material used in their programmes was fed to the authorities by uS Intelligence services in Europe and I presume that it was this intelligence material that I would have been concerned with.
I was not able at that time to give Major Rice an answer one way or the other; however, he supplied me for the eventuality with a reference which would help me on my way into any future liS agency, if that were my final decision. Another “souvenir” of my association over this period in Austria is a second document which I also have on file here. This is my Identity document in both languages signed by the then Chief, Graz Branch, Major MacQuillan. In retrospect, I guess only he knew why he had asked British Intelligence in Graz to recruit an Englishman of known background for his organization. Had I had no other options open to me at that time it is quite conceivable that I would have fallen in with one or the other of Major Rice’s suggestions for a continued association with US Intelligence. However, anticipating the run-down of the American office in Graz, I was already negotiating a post with a language school in Bremen, North Germany, where I hoped to be able to satisfy my apparent need to find a permanent niche for myself, and a home for the family, in Europe, as obviously I was as yet not psychologically prepared to come back to England.
In the event, it was twelve years before I did so – five of those having been spent in Germany where it had been impossible to disguise my acquired Austrian accent!
7. Postscript – Thoughts on the subject several years after: on Ingrid and the world she belonged to
“My marriage to Ingrid and the fact that I had now become part of a well-to-do, distinguished Austrian family for whom the concepts of honour, tradition and duty were everything, and the provincial way of life in a small rural community the only one they knew at that time after the war made me think seriously about what we were going to do with our lives after the end of my military service with the British Army. I knew I could not remove Ingrid from her beloved family, friends and homeland, Austria, without breaking her heart and so I did what I myself wanted too – I began to prepare myself for a future life with my Austrian bride in the land of my adoption. We made a home and made plans for me to study at the university after I had quit the British Army.
“Ingrid died suddenly in her mother’s arms shortly before midnight on Saturday, 30th April 1949, two years later. She was 25 and our married life had barely begun. By that time Ingrid knew that our future home would not mean her having to part from family and friends: so, thankfully, she had died without what she herself in a letter to my parents in England had called ‘this shadow across her life’ with me. The whole of the township of Weiz mourned her, as we did.
“Ingrid’s death marked the finish of the happy relationship I had enjoyed with my father-in-law for reasons that today seem trivial and irrelevant, the more so since he had always attached the greatest regard to having a son-in-law who was both an Englishman and a soldier. Austria has changed with the times since those days. Austria was still bound then by pre-war traditions like the importance of one’s origins and service to one’s country: these were things which were important to middle-class and upper-class families in the Province. They mattered even more in those scattered, isolated rural communities which lay, historically, at the furthest edge of a German-speaking empire facing the east in the green hills and mountains of Austria’s eastern province beyond Graz. Here, life was still essentially parochial and conservative and the standards of common, civilized behaviour set by local aristocratic families or the new patriarchal families from the ranks of the bourgeoisie, like Ingrid’s, whose responsibilities had been very much akin to those of, say, the landed gentry in an English shire. It was part of an older Europe where, for instance, people outside the city were still referred to as “peasants”. At the beginning, then, for me and for my English friends too in the army this was a world utterly alien to us.
“Indeed, it wasn’t just a clash of cultures: for nothing in Ingrid’s childhood in a manorial home staffed with servants, in her class background or her expectations from life as a young lady from a wealthy background bore the remotest resemblance to my own; I know now that it was largely because I was English and wore an army uniform with some small degree of authority that my rank in the intelligence service gave me, coupled with the fact that I spoke a High German, or educated German, that I had had any access to her world at all… Had I not been so young and arrogant myself, because of this background I would have realized that I was hopelessly out of my depth. In particular, the admiration for England and things English amongst the upper echelons of provincial Austrian society never ceased to amaze me.
“Why, then, my father-in-law’s attitude changed afterwards has never been clear to me. I was aware that he had reservations about my duties as a responsible member of British counter intelligence in a country under military rule; neither did we see eye to eye, as people who had fought on opposite sides in the recent war of ideologies, about the merits of the National Socialist system to which my father-in-law had subscribed from the very early days in Austria.
“Thankfully, such considerations had never ever clouded my marriage with Ingrid; nor did they now affect my relationship with Ingrid’s mother which, in our shared grief, became much closer. The reason I requested permission to return to England to quit the regular army prematurely and came back to live in our home in Austria was largely out of my affection for her, and because she had asked me to.”
8. Biographical – Written in 1986 as a postscript to Ronald Walker’s chapter in Chronik der Stadt Weiz und Beiträge zu ihrer Geschichte
Ronald Walker was studying German at the University of London during World War II when he was drafted for war service into the British Army in the year 1944.
He was posted to British Counterintelligence (Field Security Service) and served with the rank of Sergeant (0berfeldwebel) in Italy in 1945. At the end of the war in Europe, Walker was attached for field duties to 409 FSS Section, then stationed in the Carinthian township of Wolfsberg. He and his comrades were the first British soldiers to enter Weiz when the Russians withdrew from our province on that memorable Tuesday, 24th July 1945.
Non-commissioned officers – of whom Sgt Walker was one – were specialists in security procedures and picked for their command of German. The unit took over part of the old house on the Hauptplatz, No.16 as their Headquarters, Security, Eastern Styria and requisitioned the villa of a former national socialist as living quarters. This unit’s immediate assignment was the implementation of a denazification programme. After the departure of the Commander, Capt Teddy Nolan, to other duties in summer, 1946, Sgt Walker took charge of No.3 Security Detachment Weiz and became responsible for the township and villages in the Region.
The British Military Governor, Major Carew Hunt, also left us the following year, leaving Sgt Walker the sole representative of the Occupying Power in the territory. In May, 1949, No.3 Detachment was withdrawn to Fiirstenfeld and Sgt Walker ordered back to England. The tragic events which led to this sudden decision on the part of the military are mentioned elsewhere in Mr Walker’s narrative. After a period of absence in England Mr Walker returned to his home in Weiz to become a student at the University of Graz, and after five semesters there took his Interpreter Diploma. He re-married in this period and left Austria to take up a teaching post in Cologne in 1952.
Ronald Walker can justly claim to have known Weiz for seven years, both as a soldier and civilian. It was whilst serving in the British Army of Occupation that he met and married Ingrid, only daughter of the family of Dipl. Ing. Franz Johann Pichler and a well-liked young lady of our community, in the Parish Church on the Weizberg in June, 1947.
Ingrid’s tragic death two years later did not affect Mr Walker’s decision to make Austria and Weiz his permanent home. His feelings for the country and its people arise from the influence of this sensitive woman and her own profound attachment to our province.
Ronald Walker now lives in retirement. His last post was as principal German master at a High School in the north of England where he resides with his second wife, who comes from Graz, and their family. Of the three children from this marriage his daughter, Karen, studied German at the University of Liverpool.
In the year 1964 Mr Walker was awarded the Silver Medal for German of the Institute of Linguists, London, and for almost forty years he has been a member of the Anglo-Austrian Society and connected with the OKISTA-Program. He had still maintained his academic interests whilst a serving soldier, and in 1949 the English-language newspaper of Vienna, the “Morning News” , awarded him the first prize in an open competition for his English interpretation of a set passage from one of the German classics.
Ronald Walker is our conception of an Englishman; but his Austrian accent and many of the Austrian characteristics he has acquired from his long stay here could easily lead one to believe he is not a foreigner at all. The nostalgic and sentimental attachment towards Weiz which comes to the surface in any conversation with Mr Walker goes back to a time that not many of our citizens can recall. He arrived here as a soldier of a victorious army, little knowing that he was to spend the next seven years as a member of our little community. It was with intense relief that we of our generation watched the Russians go and the British, whose reputation had preceded them, arrive in Weiz to replace them.
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