Lionel Walsh • My Life and Times
Field security in Austria
Luxury conditions for national servicemen
There was an ablutions halt, at Traunstein in Bavaria. Our trainful of conscript soldiers was able to enjoy excellent meals in the restaurant car. It was a fascinating journey as the train wound its way through a maze of tunnels and mountain passes to come to the end of its jouney in Villach in Carinthia, Southern Austria.
We were lodged in a sprawling hutted camp for several days as we awaited assignment to our units. The camp was serviced by Russian refugees who had served in the German army, the Wehrmacht, and were resisting repatriation to Stalin’s Soviet Union, which would have probably meant death.
My first military assignment
Eventually I was assigned to 91/410 Section of the British Field Security Service, based in Klagenfurt. I soon found myself lodged at the Section’s headquarters, a pleasant villa in the middle of town, awaiting assignment.
After about a week, I was collected by a German ex-Wehrmacht driver and taken across the River Drau to my first assignment at Eisenkappel, a pleasant village nestling in the Karawanken mountains, close to the Jugoslav border.
The man in charge was Sergeant Leo Lyons. There was also a recently arrived Lance Corporal Dai Evans, who had an Austrian girlfriend. I have two abiding memories of Eisenkappel: my introduction to Austrian-style feather beds, which keep the sleeper wonderfully warm, even in the bitter cold of an Austrian winter, and the amusement I caused when at lunch I requested “ein anderes Bier” instead of “Noch ein Bier”. Leo quickly called me to order. I never made the same mistake again.
I do not recall doing any serious work at Eisenkappel, and it was with some relief that shortly before Christmas I learned that I was being transferred to FSS Bleiburg. I was collected by the Bleiburg driver, Emil Pschibilla, in his 15-hundredweight Bedford truck and taken to Bleiburg, a little town nestling at the foot of the Petzen mountain. Bleiburg was manned by four NCOs, with a German secretary, Anne, and a German-Slovene interpreter, Hans Mesaric, who had only one arm.
Two Austrian Gendarmes were also attached to our section, although it was never clear to me exactly what they did, apart from loafing around the office. Sergeant Davidson, an effete public schoolboy, was in command of the detachment when I arrived, a mantle of authority that was to fall to me after a few months, when Davidson was demobbed (demobilised). Our section was housed in comfortable quarters above the Bleiburg prison.
Illegal frontier crossers
A steady flow of refugees from Jugoslavia was housed in the prison, awaiting interrogation by our section, pending their transfer to an internment camp at Feistritz. In those days, British Intelligence urgently required information about the order of battle of the Jugoslav army on the other side of the Karawanken mountain chain. Our reports were sent directly to British army intelligence headquarters in Brussels.
The Jugoslav leader, Marshall Tito, had just broken with Stalin’s Soviet Union. The Americans had also started to send trainloads of military trucks and other equipment into Yugoslavia by rail through the Rosenbach Tunnel.
“Look chaps, Jug cavalry!”
I recall accompanying a patrol of the Dorsetshire Regiment athrough the mountainous frontier region. The lieutenant leading the patrol became very excited when we sighted a Jugoslav cavalryman leading his horse along a mountain path just on the other side of the frontier. “Look chaps, Jug cavalry,” the young officer yelled, bringing his binoculars to bear on the embarrassed Jugoslav soldier and his horse. I should add that the Jugoslavs were known to British soldiers as “Jugs.”
Questioning the Heimkehrer
Of much greater importance than questioning illegal frontier crossers, was the interrogation of former soldiers of Hitler’s armies who had been released by the Russians after being held captive as prisoners of war. They were known as “Heimkehrer” (homecomers). Most of them were only too glad to recount their experiences, regarding the Russians as still their enemies, and having endured inadequate food and rough and inhuman treatment.
Precious metal recovered
One man had worked in the carpenter’s workshop of a camp that served a mine where metal ore was excavated. He had made a cigarette lighter out of the bits of metal ore collected in the mine, and hid the lighter in his boot when the time came for repatriation. He had an uncomfortable journey home.
The Heimkehrer handed the lighter over to me when I called at his farm to question him. The lighter caused a sensation at Intelligence headquarters in Brussels. The intelligence authorities kept sending back questions to 91/410 FSS. I cannot recall how many return trips I made to that isolated farm to put more questions to the returned prisoner of war. It was, I suppose, my biggest success as a member of Britain’s military intelligence services.
The saga of the Italian bomb
One of many adventures featuring our driver Emil was getting rid of an Italian hand grenade that for many months had adorned our dining room sideboard. Emil, with me in the passenger seat of the Bedford truck, drove to the middle of the bridge over the Drau, which is a tributary of the Danube. There, he stopped the truck, plucked the bomb from my trembling hands, pulled the leather tongue, and hurled the bomb over the side of the bridge.
It exploded with a deafening blast just before hitting the water.
On another occasion, Emil pointed a German Walter PKK pistol at the windscreen and insisted that if he put on the safety catch and pulled the trigger nothing would happen. He was wrong. The gun went off, the bullet drilling a hole through the windscreen.
Getting away with it again
We were on our way into Klagenfurt, and after a few more miles, were stopped by the military police. We had no choice but to say we had been shot at. The Military Police corporal insisted on taking notes for a report before allowing us to continue our journey. Once in Klagrnfurt, Emil made good the damage by screwing a metal disk into the hole in the windscreen, which remained in place at least until I was demobbed a few months later. We had got away with it.
My biggest adventure during my time in Austria involved a trip to Klagenfurt in the Bedford truck to the Jaeger barracks, then British Army headquarters, where there was a stable full of magnificent horses, previously ridden by SS officers. I went riding on one of these superb mounts. On my return, I called in at Field Security headquaters, where one of my friends was duty NCO. The phone rang and my friend answered.
He put his hand over the mouthpiece and told me it was one of our friends, Ian Shand, pretending to be our commanding officer, Major Nigel McAllistair-Smith. “Just a minute, Sir,” he said. “I’ll pass you Corporal Walsh. He will brief you.”
He then told me that MacSinister, as we called him, wanted to know the latest information on the Guards Brigade, then on its way home by troopship from the Far East.
“Hi there Nigel!” I said, thinking I was talking to Ian Shand. “The Guards are going to be airlifted to the Jugslav frontier and dropped by parachute to expell the Jugs from the area.”
On hearing this, the caller exploded with rage and demanded to know who was answering the phone. “Drunk again Nigel!” I said, and put the receiver down.
I remarked that it was an excellent imitation of our commanding officer, and then prepared to spend the evening with a party of friends at the Adler Bar, a well known night spot in Klagenfurt.
On returning to meet up with driver Emil for the trip back to Bleiburg, I was accosted by Sergeant Major Bill Head, who told me I was under close arrest and had to appear before my Commanding Officer the next day.
“You must be kidding, Bill,” I said. But Bill Head was not joking!
I thereupon dispatched Emil back to Bleiburg to fetch my uniform. Emil returned the next morning with the uniform, which he had beautifully pressed, and my freshly blancoed belt and gaiters, all brass parts polished and shining.
By the time I was marched in to my commanding officer’s office to face the charge, I was an extremely smart soldier.
Marched in front of Macallister Smith, I was accused of “conduct predjudicial to good order and military discipline” in that I had given false information over a military telephone to my superior officer, and used insulting language. MacAllister Smith said “I remand this case to higher authority,” and I was marched out.
I was next marched in front of the Brigadier commanding the Klagenfurt Garrison. The whole story was repeated again, with MacAllister Smith giving evidence against me. As Macsinister gave his evidence of our telephone conversation, I noticed that the Brigadier was covering his mouth with his right hand to contain his laughter. “Five days pay docked,” was his verdict. I was marched out a free man.
Celebrating my release
Emil was waiting for me with the Bedford to take me home to Bleiburg. He drove the truck to a bar in one of the seedier parts of Klagenfurt, run by a friend of his who had served as a Chief Petty Officer on the Bismarck. There, we celebrated my release.
Then, in a somewhat drunken state, we set out for Bleiburg.
Brush with death
Entering Voelkermarkt, the truck brushed against a bus while overtaking. We then stopped at the FSS section based in the little town to down a few beers.
After a few minutes, an angry bus driver burst in and demanded that the driver of the truck that had hit his vehicle be punished. Sergeant Major Maxwell, commander of the Voelkermarkt section, then appeared in full uniform, took down the details and promised that the offending driver would be punished.
I had got away with it again.
Confession of love
It was while stationed in Bleiburg that I fell in love for the fist time.
One New Year’s Eve I went to the SylvesterBall in the Turnhalle behind our offices. There, with her grey-haired mother, was a most beautiful dark-haired girl called Agi. For me, it was love at first sight. I danced with Agi a couple of times, and later called on her in her mother’s flat.
In the last weeks of my service in Austria, I was sent to Vienna on a course, held at Schoenbrunn, former seat of the Hapsburgs, on the organization of the Soviet army. I felt a bit ou of place with my corporal’s stripes among a bevy of colonels and majors of the US and British armies. On Agi’s recommendation, I called on a charming old lady called Frau Thuele, at her Vienna flat. She took me to the Burg Theater to see a famous Viennese actor, Paul Hoerbiger, in the lead role in Des Teufels General ("The Devil’s General”) by Carl Zuckmeyer
Before being sent to England to be demobilised, I called on Agi at a little Kaffeehaus on the road out of Klagenfurt, where she was working temporarily. Bidding farewell, I confessed “Ich habe Dich geliebt.”
Back to civvy street
Soon, I drove past that Kaffehaus again in an army truck taking me to Villach, where the Medloc Express was waiting to take me back to England and Demob.
It was to be quite a number of years before I would see Agi again. Happily I can report that I found her, now a grandmother, living in Vienna, where she made her home.
To my great joy, we have regular telephone conversations.
Ed Macalister-Smith adds:
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Copyright © 2008 Lionel Walsh