Field Security Sections (FSS)
These were small groups of about 12-14 men, led by a captain or lieutenant, who were a part of British Military Intelligence. They were usually good linguists with a university education. After basic training they were given a couple of months intelligence training and sent to their postings which, in the immediate post-war period, included Austria or Germany.
The best account of FSS experience is by Norman Lewis, whose book Naples ’44: an intelligence officer in the Italian labyrinth (Carroll and Graf, NY) describes the city from the autumn of 1943, after the Germans were driven out, until the following autumn. Lewis spares nothing in his graphic descriptions of the appalling conditions in which the civilian population existed, and the sometimes bestial behaviour of the Allied occupation troops.
Louis Nicholson in Interrogating Ellie refers back to his time in Naples and early drafts of the book contained episodes in Naples in which Louis and his colleague Peter Dashwood are introduced, based partly on stories from Naples ’44. You can read these here.
Interrogating Ellie contains a scene where Louis Nicholson participates in receiving the surrender of German troops in Italy. The dramatic events that occurred at that point are taken from the real-life reminiscences of Andrew Gibson-Watt, who describes the scene in his An Undistinguished Life (The Book Guild, 1990, pp169-170)
In Austria, FSS units were set up in several centres of population within the British zone, including Graz, Villach and Klagenfurt in the centre of the region known as Carinthia (Kärnten in German). The situation faced by the occupying forces in southern Austria was at first chaotic.
The tasks of the occupation forces
Yugoslavs who had fought with Tito had long felt territorial claims over this part of Austria and in the early days of May attempted to assert their possession of various towns, including Klagenfurt itself, where they were faced down by British tanks. Bands of brigands terrorised farmers on the Austro-Yugoslav frontier and troops, including FSS men, were sent to hunt them down.
Refugees were pouring into Carinthia from all directions, fleeing from Russian forces. Russian Cossacks who had fought on the German side, Yugoslavs who had fought against Tito were amongst them, adding to the numbers of displaced people. Camps, sometimes using the locations of former concentration camps (outposts of Mauthausen) were set up to house and feed with them.
At the same time, a programme of denazification was set up, in which FSS played an important role, arresting known Nazis on ‘automatic arrest’ lists and questioning many others, sometimes as a result of denunciation by their fellow-citizens, sometimes using the controversial Fragebogen, a questionnaire requiring its respondents to record organisations they had belonged to under the Nazis.
Many Nazis were detected and sent to detention camps and made to labour in the reconstruction. A few were tried for war crimes and punished, occasionally with death sentences. But of course, it was often possible to find ways to hide one’s past, or for lies on the Fragebogen to remain undetected, and there is no doubt that some Nazis got away.
Over time, denazification became a lower priority as the problems of sorting, feeding, housing and rebuilding civilian life took over. The worsening of relations with the Russians and the experience of working alongside Austrian civilians to set up administrative and political structures meant that initial British suspicion of Austrians declined, as the Russians took over as chief bogeyman.
In May 1945 the Cossacks and the anti-Tito forces were, controversially, tricked into boarding trains which took them back respectively to awful fates in Russia and Yugoslavia. Andrew Gibson-Watt describes what happened to the anti-Titoists:
“Our officers and men were instructed to answer any requests for information from the Croats [who were being deported] by saying that they were going to Italy. This deception…made everyone feel angry and ashamed. These feelings were greatly magnified when one Croat escaped back over the mountains and told us that as soon as his train had got through the tunnel in Slovenia it had been stopped, and all the occupants taken out and shot down with machine guns.” (Gibson-Watt 1990, p. 180)
Initially, British troops (like the Americans) were told that fraternisation with Austrian civilians was not allowed. Gibson-Watt describes how this policy rapidly broke down.
“’No fraternization’ was the order of the day. Needless to say, it was not too long before this attitude, which does not come too easily to the British soldier, was significantly relaxed by common and unofficial consent. Apart from anything else, there was a huge surplus of young women in Austria, owing to the absence of men on war service.” (Gibson-Watt 1990, p. 172)
Gibson-Watt also reveals the chief source of frustration for soldiers caused by the policy: it restricted their access to women, many of whom were very interested in liaisons with them.
Austrian women had become more assertive during the war years, having to fend for themselves while their men were away. Many were left without men at the war’s end, and those men who eventually returned were defeated, physically debilitated and often demoralised, particularly so when they found that their women had been raped, or had had sexual relations with soldiers who were their former enemies. The divorce rate soared in the years following 1945 as a result.
The historians Ingrid Bauer and Renate Huber have described a spectrum of relationships Austrian women had with occupation soldiers, ranging from rape and coercive sexual encounters, through to more consensual relationships, including marriage. Not only were the soldiers themselves at an age and in a situation where they were starved of female company, they also had considerable advantages over Austrian men. Soldiers were physically healthy, clean, and with access to food and entertainment that Austrian men could not provide. In short, they fulfilled the ‘hunger for life’ which many women felt after the deprivations of the war.
Not all Austrian men accepted this situation, and fights sometimes broke out between local youths and soldiers going out with Austrian women. ‘Scissor clubs’ grew up in some towns, shearing the heads of women accused of being ‘occupation prostitutes’. Such women might be snubbed in shops or in the streets, or refused communion by priests.
But marriage to an Austrian civilian was frowned upon by the military authorities and those applying for such a licence were commonly vetted by Field Security personnel. If vetting shed light on a murky past then the soldier would be told, and the relationship would then often end.
Aside from sexual relations, a different kind of ‘fraternisation’ was noted by Hilde Spiel when she returned to Austria in 1946. The British had been relatively quick to allow Austrians to organise themselves politically, whereas the Russians had imposed their own chosen politicians, rejecting the requests of resistance leaders, for example, to be involved in the new governmental structures. She spoke about the laxity of the British with Ernst Fischer, a prominent communist post war politician in the Austrian government who had spent the war years in Moscow. He voiced criticisms:
“There is the ‘dominance of the baronesses’ in the British zone, where, according to him, reactionary aristocrats have won the confidence of leading officers in the occupying forces. “ (Spiel, p. 91)
Later, she visits Klagenfurt and concludes that Fischer is right. The officers running the press information centre are “sons of the British landed gentry, who know how to live in comfort.” She describes “bonds of friendship between people of the same class” forming between British officers and local gentry.
An FSS man, Robert Maxwell, has posted his reminiscences of his time in Austria on the web (Click here). He recalls going hunting with local Austrian men, providing one with a gun because as an ex-Nazi he had been unable to get a permit. He made friends with a number of Austrian men through this involvement in hunting, recalling that he confessed to one of them that, had he been an Austrian during the Nazi period, he had no doubt that he would have joined the Hitler Youth. After all, how different was that from joining the cadets, as he had done in Britain as a teenager?
Maxwell recalls one occasion when he and another FSS man were with a group of Austrian friends:
“We were … singing lustily some of the Nazi marching songs, amongst them the Horstwessellied, which was banned. Most of the other occupants, certainly the group we were with sang along as well. Both [my FSS colleague] and I were sitting by chance with our backs to the entrance; it slowly dawned on us that everybody but the pair of us had stopped singing and were beginning to look embarrassed. When we turned, standing right behind us was a member of the Stadt Polizei - grinning! Our turn to share the embarrassment.”