2. Liberators

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. 

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