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.

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