Incident at the Bridge ......... by Tom Norton
It must have been about 4am when I was half awakened by a screech of brakes followed by a
thunderous knocking on the front door.
"Bugger! What is it this time?" A flapping window-blind seen as a signal to enemy aircraft or an
escaped barrage balloon mistaken for an enemy parachutist? I'd been aroused by false alarms like that
for the past three years so I was in no hurry to lift my fuddled head from the pillow.
Then I heard another loud banging on the door followed by a scream. No. I wasn't dreaming. The war
in Europe had been over for six months and I was sleeping in the front bedroom of a small terraced
cottage in a Slovene village. The scream had come from Tanya, the teenage daughter of the household.
No wonder she'd yelled out; looming in the semi-darkness of the doorway was a huge, bearded Sikh.
"Major Khan say you come with me. Jaldi! Jaldi! I didn't know this Major Khan but I did know the
jaldi meant get a move on.
So had the balloon gone up. Had Tito decided to back his claims to Venezia Giulia by force? I'd
always half expected it and had made my own preparations. By the time the Sikh had turned the jeep
around I'd flung on some clothes, grabbed my fast-get-away bag and within minutes we were skidding
along frosty, moonlit tracks. Already the chilly night air and the Sikh's dreadful gear crashing had
dispelled the last traces of my hang-over.
We were heading along a track that followed the line of the river Vipacco.
"Where are you taking me?"
The bridge, a metal Bailey erected by our REs served as a check point between the two military zones.
The only other information the Sikh could offer was, "Plenty trouble, Sahib!"
Trouble! In the half light of the dawn, I could see the figures of Jugoslav soldiers splashing about in
the river. Then, as I raced onto the bridge I saw the undignified spectacle of a young British officer
being harangued by another group of Jugoslavs from their side of the barrier.
"And who the devil are you?"
"Sergeant Norton, Sir."
"Ah. You're the Intelligence Corps chap Battalion sent for. He was clearly less than impressed by my
appearance, unshaven chin and odd assortment of clothes. "From your appearance I thought you were one of that lot"
"What's going on?" I snapped. This wasn't a parade ground.
"We've had a spot of bother ... One of my Gurhkas has beheaded one of their chaps."
" One of my Gurkhas has beheaded one of their chaps. They've removed the fellow's body and
they're looking for his head now - in the river."
"It's all right, Sergeant. My chap did it in self-defence." He shrugged his shoulders. "You can ask him
yourself'. He pointed to a Gurkha soldier, crouching with his back to the sentry box, grim-faced and
"Tig hai, Johnny! I said. "Now try to tell me what happened."
Slowly, and hesitantly the story came out. A story only too familiar to anyone who has served in the Balkans - Jugoslavs, high on booze, behaving badly.
It had started friendly enough. A few Partisans on the way back from the bar to the bridge had offered our sentry a sip of Slivovich.
But Gurkha guards see things differently; they don't like being offered drink while on duty. They like
even less showing their famous kukris to strangers. The custom is that when that deadly, razor sharp
w.eapon is drawn from its sheath, blood has to flow .
So, when one of the partisans tried to remove it by force, blood did flow and, quite literally, he lost his
The lieutenant showed me a blood-soaked astrahan cap, still lying near the side of the bridge .. You
could also see a red line leading to a gap between two bridge supports.
"That's where-his head rolled ... unfortunate, eh."
Unfortunate! It was a bloody disaster!
There was then an almighty roar and one of the partisans came clambering up the river bank. holding
his comrade's severed head like some gruesome trophy.
The uproar increased and the mob surged over the barrier and began menacing and prodding the
lieutenant with their rifles.
As he stood facing them I saw the movement of Gurkha hands, towards the hilts of their kukris. Any
moment now there might be more heads rolling around on the bridge!
"Please God, don't let anyone of these Serbs do anything stupid."
As if in answer, a Volkswagen, emblazoned with a red star, drove on to the bridge and a thick-set man
in a blue suit jumped out. He walked straight over to me.
"Smrt Fascismu!" he said, raising a clenched fist.
I responded with the same Partisan salute, "Death to Fascism!"
With a wave of his hand he ordered the soldiers off the bridge and invited me to sit with him in the car.
By a stroke of luck, that unlikely answer to my prayer was a Political Commissar. More fortunate still
we were already acquainted.
We had met some weeks before, when the commissar had "dropped in" on me at the cottage.
Ostensibly he wanted to borrow a map of the area but he was obviously curious why I was living alone
in a remote Slovene village ahead of the advance of the allied forces.
I couldn't help with the map - chiefly because it was covered in red ink, marking the disposition of his
brigade but I could offer some of my "special issue" whisky.
His visits became more frequent. He either liked my-company or my whisky. We swapped stories of
our experiences with the Partisans and over more glasses of Scotch became old comrades. In fact, my
hangover had been the result a comradely session the night before.
But now, sitting in that VW, he was far from comradely.
"This is most serious," he said. "Our brigade has been ordered to take immediate action to avenge this
brutal murder of a brave anti-fascist fighter.
"Look comrade," I said. "It was just one of those drunken brawls that we know so well." I told him
what had happened and about the kukris-drawing incident. "A Gurkha soldier will not show his knife
even to one of us - and then only if we allow him to draw some of our blood."
He seemed impressed and even more impressed when I added, "Remember Princip's shot at Sarajevo in 1914! We don't want this minor incident to start another war. Do we comrade?"
"You will wait here .... soon I return." He ordered me out of the car and told his driver to reverse off the bridge.
"Who was that civvy type you were waffling to, sergeant?" asked the lieutenant
"That was the Political Commissar" of the 2nd Serbian Brigade Sir. And we weren't waffling. He's
threatening action to avenge what has happened."
"God knows but it's serious."
"No need to be alarmed Sergeant. While you were talking I got on to Div HQ. They've alerted 13
Corps at Duino and the Americans at Gorizia. No doubt the Yanks are already moving up."
No f*cking doubt they were!
I was furious with that brave, block-headed subaltern as the nightmare scenario dawned on me.
On one side, a victorious Allied Force in no mood to let Tito grab Venezia-Giulia and on the other side
the jubilant Partisan army who had just routed the Wermacht from their country. And, more worrying,
the supporting Red Army only a few hundred miles away.
Already the other side of the river was seething with activity; soldiers were spilling out of lorries, a
column of ramshackle armoured cars were approaching and an assortment of captured artillery was
being hauled into position.
Just one shot from a stupid gunner. A single shell. And World War Three here we come ..
At least no fatal shot would come from our side. Our Indians were superbly disciplined and, so far,
there was no sign our experienced campaigners being "supported" by eager young Texans from the
88th (Blue Devils) Division looking for a "p-i-e-c-e of the a-c-t-i-o-n."
Yet the there was menace on our side too. The Gurkhas were sitting quietly on a grassy bank quietly
sharpening their deadly knives, while, further upstream, a group of Sikhs had removed their turbans
and were combing their long, black locks like ancient Greeks preparing for battle.
Soon an eerie bugle call brought the whole company moving at the double into position. With
frightening efficiency, machine guns and mortars were being set up behind outcropping rocks.
After what seemed like an eternity, during which I paced up and down the bridge, the Commissar
returned, this time seated in an impressive looking staff car and accompanied by a three star general
and a brace of colonels.
What followed seemed more like a comedy routine than a deadly serious confrontation. The three
immaculately uniformed officers lined up and saluted stiffly whilst I (in my oid corduroys and scruffy
leather jacket) replied with a theatrical bow ..
As if to add to the stage effect, one ofthe colonels read out a statement in a comic sounding English
accent. It was the usual Marxist rhetoric; "One of our brave freedom fighters has been barbarically
butchered by the colonial lackeys of the pro-Italian, Allied forces."
Then came the gut-wrenching threat,"The news of this brutal murder has reached our allies the
glorious Red Army which is prepared to assist us in avenging ...."
At that point, he was interrupted by a distant rumbling. Was it the sound of the Shermans of OUR
allies the Americans coming to assist US?
The colonel paused so I took the opportunity to repeat our side of the story; a drunken brawl, a
misunderstanding, an unfortunate action by one of OUR valiant soldiers ..."
"Then you will apologise?" my friend the Commissar interjected.
I could sense what he was urging me to say and I needed no more prompting.
"I give you my solemn word that we sincerely regret this unfortunate incident and I can assure you that if you Comrade General withdraw your gallant partisan forces, I will guarantee that our forces will do the same.".
The absurdity of a twenty two year old sergeant making such a grandiose gesture on behalf of the
Anglo/American Command never occurred to me. But it seemed to impress the General. We solemnly
shook hands. The staff car drove off and I sprinted towards our Signals truck.
"URGENT GHQ 13 CORPS INCIDENT SETTLED. AGREED JUGS WITHDRAW ALL FORCES."
There followed another half hour of anxious bridge pacing; then I saw the first signs of the partisans
climbing back into their vehicles. Then, like the passing of a thunder storm, I heard the rumble of the
Shermans slowly fading away.
The Gurkhas were grinning again but their young officer sounded disappointed.
"Pity we didn't get the chance to teach those cocky b*stards a lesson."
I just stared at him without replying. He was probably about my own age but beside him I felt like a
As we made our bumpy way back in the jeep, the silent Sikh became positively chatty. Like most of
the poor devils in the Indian Division, he'd been campaigning since the early Wavell days. Now, he
said, he was looking forward to returning to the Punjab where a wife and child were waiting.
"Last night you did a very, very good job; Sahib," he shouted over the sound of the grinding gears.
"Maybe you stop another big war."
Perhaps, it's remotely possible I did.