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ARMY OF THE PEOPLE
THE late summer of 1943 was indeed a brief interval of rest between two phases in the war.
The main body of the partisan army had recuperated its strength after the furies of the last two enemy offensives. The overall balance of power had not yet changed in favour of the United Nations; the Germans were still embattled in the steppes of the Donbas, fighting hard to keep their grip after the disaster of Stalingrad, and in the West they still held the whole of Europe. Only Sicily had fallen. Within the walls of Festung Europa their rule was disputed only by the slow-growing resistance of the occupied peoples, and by the partisan movements of national liberation in the Balkans, and here and there by little hidden sabotage groups in the countries of the West. That winter we got wind of resistance in the Haute Savoie and the Bouches du Rhone; and the Germans heard for the first time the name of Maquis.
That was the year when resistance in the urban countries of the West would begin to threaten a real danger to the Germans, and to lay a pointed shadow across the security of their occupation. Everyone in Europe who hated the Germans knew that their failure to take Stalingrad at one end of the world and to hold North Africa at the other meant that the Western Allies could soon invade the Continent; and what before to all except heroes and fanatics had seemed a useless gesture of personal resistance began to take shape as an organized movement of peoples.
The subterranean clamour of all this echoed faintly in the hills of Bosnia.
In the Balkans the story of resistance was a different one. There it had never ceased. In this wide tangle of mountains, scored deep with torrential rivers, overlaid with deep snow in winter and green pasture in summer, whipped in three seasons with sudden storms of rain and wind, inhabited by a peasantry that is amongst the hardest and most primitive in Europe, the cause of resistance could draw for inspiration upon age-old myths of bloodshed and feud. They were mountains that made an ideal territory for resistance; and the people who lived in them judged by physical strength and daring whether a man were worthy of his salt. Passive acceptance of an invader whom their most ancient and revered traditions had taught them to hate was unthinkable; the victories of the Reichswehr over their outlandish military machine were simply the signal for every individual who valued his self-respect more than his comfort to conceal his rifle and then himself; and then to get his rifle and make for the nearest patch of forest.
A friend of mine, commanding a battalion in the fighting for Scutari in April, 1941, tells a story that is typical of those days. His division had more than held the front against the Italians coming north from Albania; it had counter-attacked and made some headway. Later, without the divisional commander's being informed, the capitulation was signed by King Peter's government, and my friend and all his men were made prisoner in due course by the Italians.
He was standing by the side of the road, watching his men file by with their heads down for the shame of it, when an Italian officer came up to him and said sarcastically: "A terrible sight, thedefeat of an army, isn't it?"
Hribar is a Dalmatian, and speaks Italian. I daresay he waved his arms pretty wildly at that Italian; but what he said to him was:
"That, my friend, that you see now, that isn't the defeat of an army. That is the beginning of our war against you. They're recruits, those men." And six months later Hribar, ex-officer of King Peter's body-guard, was sitting in the mountains above Split with five hundred men, one of those famed brigades which later formed the First Proletarian Corps and was in at the kill in Belgrade. Hribar himself ended the war as a divisional commander somewhere in Dalmatia.
From the first day of the war the Germans knew very well that the peoples of the Balkans would not willingly accept their alloted place in the New Order. For this reason more than any other, they were anxious if possible to avoid an open clash, especially with Greece and Jugoslavia, where British influence was strong and British armed intervention might eventually be looked for. There is strong reason to think that Hitler was firmly against the Italian invasion of Greece; he knew that the Greek regime, like the other royal regimes of the Balkans would never declare war on Germany unless Germany were on her knees, and so long as the Balkans were militarily a neutral zone the British would be excluded from a foothold there, and the experience of Salonica could not be repeated. But once Mussolini had gone into Greece that protective neutrality no longer existed and the British, if they had the troops, were free to land whenever they liked, to the vivid acclamation of the natives, on Greek soil. And Wavell's masterly sparing of men actually made this possible. What went for Greece was even truer of Jugoslavia, a country with over twice the population of Greece, stronger and more resistant in every way.
The Germans knew that once they invaded Jugoslavia they would have to use every skill and artifice they had, as well as their whole mechanism of brutality, to maintain a semblance of order. Their subsequent conduct showed that they had put much thought into the matter.
When the British invasion of Greece, coupled with the anti-German coup d'etat of March 27th, 1941, in Belgrade, made their military intervention a strategical necessity to the completion of their plans for the invasion of the U.S.S.R., the German High Command saw to it that their action should be overwhelming and decisive. They invaded Jugoslavia in great strength from north, north-east, and east, bringing in the Italians from the west and south, swept the unprepared and outmoded Jugoslav army into oblivion in ten days, and pushed on immediately into Greece.
The hopeless inefficiency of the Jugoslav General Staff, worsened as it was by treachery and lukewarmness on the part of Jugoslav politicians, and by weakness and indecision or worse on the part of the Regent, Prince Paul, cost the British army in Greece a rearguard campaign that might well have been spared.
The Balkan campaign of spring, 1941, was over in next to no time, and on the face of it the Germans could reasonably claim a cheap and decisive victory, one more faultless instance of first-class military technique. That is what it looked like; but the truth was otherwise, and the more intelligent of their leaders must have known it. The Balkans developed quickly into a running sore that was to cost the Germans endless preoccupation and tens of thousands of lives. Their engagement in the war was no mean factor in Germany's final defeat.
The Germans' first care was to set up the most rigorous conceivable system of military occupation. The death penalty was exacted for the smallest offence against their laws; and thousands of men and women were taken off at once, almost before firing had ceased, into mammoth concentration camps where, for the most part, they were left to die. All the officers of the Jugoslav Army that they could lay hands on they packed off to prison in Germany (where at least they got British Red Cross parcels); and another huge contingent of the rank-and-file were impressed for labour in German armament factories. This regular draining-off of labour power was an integral part of their occupational policy, and they reckoned on it not only for increased production but also as a means of keeping the peace.
They looked for trouble from the very first moment.
The Italians, in their coastal sector, were less vigorous and paid a consequent price in greater initial resistance; later on they learnt German methods and were no better than the Germans. Having depopulated the country to the maximum possible in the short time at their disposal, the Germans applied what turned out to be a calculated policy of divide et impera; they had studied and were now familiar with the raw material of Balkan politics and succeeded very quickly in setting up a whole series of rival factions which could be relied on to spend their energy against each other rather than against the occupying authorities. There was nothing very subtle in their methods; they used money and fear and false information so blatantly that only a people in comparatively primitive stages of development could have been taken in by them. What was sinister about their methods was the great cynicism and inhumanity with which they were applied. They worked on self-destructive passions that were never far below the surface, and then let those passions loose; and whenever the internecine fighting seemed likely to die down a little they added fresh provocation to it by some calculated act of favouritism on one side or the other.
These tactics varied with the scene of operations but the principles which underlaid them never varied. They demanded of the puppet regimes that they set up after invasion complete subservience in their policy of bloodshed; and it was their invariable procedure so to compromise these puppet regimes with methods of horror and slaughter that, once launched on them, they could not possibly look back.
In Croatia the Germans agreed with the Italians to' set up an "independent" State, the Nezavisna Drzhava Hrvatska, although it was independent in nothing but name; and to achieve this they used Pavelitch and his Ustashe, the successors of the old terrorist Frankovtsi, men of criminal type whom they could rely on to form a terrorist core round which the facade of state administration could be erected. The ideology of the Ustashe, in so far as it was distinct from simple loot and personal advantage, was anti-Serb; and their function, as far as the Germans were concerned, was to kill Serbs and those Croats who were not "conscious of their national heritage" — in other words, Croats who would not play the German game. To keep an eye on these quislings, who although Ustashe were still not Germans, they imported into the administration a large number of Germans from the native minority in Croatia, ensuring in this way that councils within the regime would be conveniently divided.
To round-off the picture, they offered special privileges to the Moslems of "independent" Croatia, they appealed in private to the Catholic dignitaries to help them contain the "excesses" of the Ustashe, they painted as vividly as possible the beastliness of the Bolshevism they were claiming to destroy, and they set the Croats of the German-occupied zone at odds with those of the Italian-occupied zone. On the top of all this they directed on Croatia a stream of propaganda designed to appeal to the cheapest loyalties and prejudices, playing up the traditional claim of the Croats to be a "westward-looking" rather than an "eastward-looking" people who were culturally superior to the wild men of the Balkans.
Their consistent aim was to debase the level of public and political morality to a uniformly cut-throat rule; and they succeeded terribly well. Everyday conditions of existence went back to those of the jungle; nobody was safe from one day to the next, and life became cheaper than it had ever been. It was no rare thing in those days for people taking coffee in the principal streets of Zagreb to be broken in upon by two or three Ustashe with sub-machine guns and shot down where they sat, without reason or excuse, simply for the fun of it.
In Slovenia, educationally the most developed part of Jugoslavia, the Germans practised a straightforward policy of annexation and extermination. That larger part of Slovenia which they annexed, leaving the rest to the uneasy occupation of the Italians, they called a province of Austria, installed a suitable Gauleiter, and initiated measures which made more than miniature resistance impossible until long into the war that followed. Here the undertones of political strife were limited at first to the Italian zone, where the bogey of Bolshevism could be used to weaken the morale of the Slovene nationalists who claimed Istria and Trieste. Later on the occupiers could also look for help to a Slovene vesion of the Serbian General Mihaylovitch; and Colonel Rupnik, with his White Guard, was for long a thorn in the side of the Slovene Liberation Front which developed in 1942/43 and became paramount in Slovenia in 1944.
But the Serbs presented the most formidable problem of all. For the Serbs, unlike the Croats and the Slovenes, who had been part of the Dual Empire in 1914, possessed a long and treasured tradition of resistance to the Central Powers in general, and to the Germans in particular. The Serbs had freed themselves from the Turks, beaten off the Austrians in 1914, clung tenaciously to their links with France and England, regarded themselves as a special child of Mother Russia's favour. They had retreated across Albania in 1915 rather than surrender to the Germans, returned on their tracks with Allied support in 1917, taken the lion's share in the fighting for Jugoslav independence.
With the Serbs the Germans knew there would be trouble whatever they did. They approached the question with typical rigidness of purpose and flexibility of method. Serbia should be independent. Large pieces of Serbian territory might be given to the Croats and Bulgars and Albanians, and some (the Banat) reserved for the native German minority; but on top of all that Serbia should be independent. The intrigues of the Allies and the machinations of the Bolsheviks should be brought to nothing. They accordingly set up the acquiescent General Neditch in Belgrade at the head of a government of "national salvation."
It was not at first clear what there was for General Neditch to save; later it transpired that he might be able to buy off with suitable internal concessions at least a small proportion of the vast numbers of Serbs who were led out before firing parties in the winter of 1941/42, or sent to near death in concentration camps, where they starved and froze and died of typhus or T.B. General Neditch's job was to "bring Serbia back to realities," to insert the round peg of Serbian independence into the square hole provided for it by the New Order. A few individuals of Fascist views, men like Ljotich, commanded a small following which they brought into line behind Neditch. The vast majority of Serbs locked on him at first largely as a joke, and later as a disgrace. The Germans were aware of this and bided their time. They had calculated that the mock national quality of Neditch's government and its comparative moderation (compared with the absolute terror which reigned across the River Drina in Croatia) would provide the necessary lever they needed with which to keep Serbian resistance within bounds and perhaps control it altogether. They knew also that they were about to invade the U.S.S.R. in their "crusade against Bolshevism"; and that this in iself would be sufficient to put a further strain upon already divided loyalties. To the Serbian middle-class, including the bulk of the army's officers and the regime's officials, the U.S.S.R. had come in the previous twenty years to stand for everything they most feared; and they saw in it a persistent threat to their interests and ambitions. The Jugoslav communist party had been outlawed in 1921, and the forces needed to keep the lid on what would otherwise have developed into a vigorous underground movement had produced by a natural process a solid mass of communist haters. On them the Germans reckoned, too, for their quota of diversionary support.
They did not reckon in vain. By the autumn of 1941 General Mihaylovitch had betrayed his agreement with Tito for a common front against the Germans and had attacked the partisans holding Uzhitse in the rear at the very moment when the Germans, probing westwards up the Morava, attacked them in front. Relying on the old chauvinist traditions of the chetniks (the name derives from the Serbian word "cheta," or company, and was applied originally to the guerrillas who fought the Turks and later the Austrians), General Mihaylovitch saw his contribution to the common cause in turning anti-German feeling into anti-partisan feeling. Only on the most Jesuitical grounds can his action be represented as anything but damaging to the cause of the Allies; and no excuse at all can be found for the bulk of his advisers and commanders. Some later went over to the liberation movement and made good; usually they were men who had joined the chetniks in the first place because they thought Mihaylovitch had meant business. Some refused to treat with the occupying armies on more than unspoken terms; others, and notably the chetnik leaders in Montenegro and Dalmatia, were in open collaboration with the Germans and Italians, took arms, money, food, and military directives from them, and were in no way distinguishable from the armed forces of the enemy except that usually they did not fight so well.
Everyone who has played at guerilla warfare knows the difference between the toleration that the enemy accords to those whom he cannot easily destroy but who do not attack him, and those whom he must destroy because they always attack him and refuse to come to any sort of terms. General Mihaylovitch represented the first of these except that he also took part, and encouraged his commanders to take part, in German and Italian operations against the partisans. In this he was largely encouraged by the belief common in Serbia that the Western Allies secretly hoped for a defeat of the U.S.S.R. and would be well pleased if Mihaylovitch and his friends, no matter how, could manage to survive until the end of the war when they could set up a specifically pro-West and anti-East regime.
He was a poor politician and seems not to have understood that this was a quite unreal interpretation of the balance of probabilities. He played consistently into the hands of the Germans by letting his commanders collaborate with the Neditch government and serve in the Neditch militia; and to the last he remained convinced that this was a proper state of affairs and an advantage to the Allies. From time to time he was instructed by various British and American wireless spokesmen to bold his fire, not to risk his formations before the great last day came, and in general to prepare for the time when he would be told to "rise and throw out the occupiers." These mistaken exhortations further weakened his grip on an already rocky situation; and by the time that fighting became general in Jugoslavia, in 1943. his formations were either active on the German-Italian side against the partisans or passive in the fastnesses of Central Serbia. The Germans could be well pleased with the success they were making of their policy of "moderation" towards General Nediich and the chetniks.
Apologists for Mihaylovitch and his commanders have tried to whitewash the treachery of these by pointing to the gallant way in which they fought the enemy from April until June, when the partisans, who were "waiting for Russia to come into the war," began their rising.
This view bears little or no relation to the known facts. In the first place, the coup d'etat of March 27th, when Paul and Tsvetkovitch were thrown out for having signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany, was a popular rising in which those who were later to become the partisans played a leading and decisive part. It would have been unthinkable for General Simovitch and his friends to have made their coup unless the people of Serbia, and especially of Belgrade itself, had been strongly for them and against the Government which had sided with Germany. King Peter himself, needless to say, had nothing to do with the sequence of events, for his uncle, the Prince Regent, had seen to it that he was kept away from any possibility of political meddling. He merely accepted the fait accompli.
It appears that Mihaylovitch, then a colonel on the staff, was caught by the collapse on April 16th at a place in the valley of the Neretva, but managed to escape arrest by the Germans and make his way back into Serbia. There he played with some others a leading role in organizing chetnik bands; and these bands had become by the end of the summer considerable enough to be fairly effective, with the partisan odreds to which they were then allied, against the Germans. Common partisan-chetnik commands were formed: chetnik and partisan commissars were appointed; and for a time all went well.
But there is little or no evidence to suggest that any kind of chetnik resistance existed in Serbia until the summer—that is, until July or August. The chetniks, like the partisans, needed a certain period of preparation in which men could recover from the shock of defeat and make their way to areas in which nuclei of resistance could be formed.
The partisans, equally, were unable to come into action against the enemy until the summer. The evidence suggests that they would have come into action then whether Hitler had attacked Russia or not — it is clear, on the narrowest political calculation, that the communists would not have left leadership and organization of resistance exclusively to people like Mihaylovitch, no matter what had or had not happened on the great war fronts.
Vladimir Dediyer, formerly correspondent of the Belgrade Politika, and a leading partisan figure, has lately published in Belgrade a day-to-day diary of the early days of the revolt. He relates how he arrived in Sarayevo on April 11th, trying still to join up (eye-witnesses of the confusion in Jugoslavia during the German attack—of which I was one—agree that it was unequalled in their experience), and how, on the 12th—the seventh day of the war— he was sitting in the Europa coffee house when copies of the communist party's first wartime leaflet were handed round—"and in it was written that the communist party appealed to all its best sons to defend their country against Hitler...."
Dediyer returned to Belgrade, and on April 27th received directives to "organize shock sections and look into the possibilities of sabotage." By that time Tito was active in Belgrade on the organization of the first Odreds, having come from Zagreb where he, like other communists, had been in hiding from the police of Prince Paul and his successive governments. Men were sent out of the city to selected destinations in the woods of Shumadiya. Dediyer himself left for the woods at the end of July. He describes how these Odreds, or small fighting groups, were formed, and what action they took against the enemy. "We had the core of five Odreds ready even before June 22nd."
Even during the brief period of their common front the partisans did far more of the fighting than the chetniks. From the earliest days the chetnik leaders showed an unwillingness to engage with the enemy, and a preference for "methods of negotiation"—that is, private agreement with Neditch and with the Germans and later also with the Bulgarians.
Those few chetnik leaders who really wanted to fight the Germans were betrayed in their turn; of these instances one of the best known is that of Simo Sholaya, a peasant of Western Bosnia, whom the partisans, although he was a chetnik, later and posthumously declared a National Hero (the highest decoration for valour that they had). Sholaya achieved a name for remarkable prowess and personal courage against the Germans and Ustashe, and was killed during an attack on the town of Kupres. This attack should have been a joint: affair between the chetnik commander Drenovitch, whose troops were to attack from one direction, and Sholaya attacking from another. At the last moment, but without warning, Drenovitch held back from the attack. Sholaya's men failed to take the town, and Sholaya himself was killed.
There is no lack of evidence of the completeness with which the chetnik leaders worked with the Germans, Italians, Neditchites and Ustashe against the partisans. The partisans captured, and showed to us and sent out to Italy, thick files of original correspondence between the occupying forces and chetnik leaders such as Yevdyevitch in Dalmatia, Djurisitch and Stanisitch in Montenego, Drenovitch in Central Bosnia, Dangitch and Raditch in Eastern Bosnia, Keserovitch in Shumadija, and others.
Many of our liaison officers had ample opportunity for seeing with their own eyes how utterly the chetniks had sold out to the enemy. One, and possibly two, of our liaison officers was murdered by chetnik elements. (Major Neil Selby was murdered in the valley of the Ibar after betrayal to the enemy; it is also probable that Major Terence Atherton, who landed by submarine early in 1942 in Montenegro, was murdered by chetniks, although the actual culprit could never be found.) Confessions of Keserovitch and others at their trial in Belgrade in 1945 provide further corroboration, if any were needed.
A principal witness against the chetniks is probably Colonel Hudson, the earliest British liaison officer in Jugoslavia, who made a gallant landing from a submarine on the coast of Montenegro and walked upwards into Shumadiya. It is to be hoped that he will one day tell his story. Dediyer describes the efforts which the partisan leaders made to seal the alliance with the chetniks, and of several meetings between Tito and Mihajlovitch.
"On October 26th, Tito, Sreten Zuyovitch and Mitar Bakitch, with eight guards went (from Uzhitse) to Brayitse to the staff headquarters of Drazhe Mihajlovitch, where they reached an agreement over several questions. At this meeting Mihaylovitch refused our request that the British Captain Hudson should be present at the conversation...." (Tito told me of this meeting himself when we were together on Petrovo Polje in August, 1943, adding that he had even offered Mihaylovitch joint military command of partisan-chetnik units provided that he would maintain the unity of their front against the enemy, and that Hudson was at the time in an adjoining room.)
During the autumn, Dediyer writes, "the situation with the chetniks gets worse and worse. On October 26th there was the agreement with Drazha Mihaylovitch Brayitse (described above). On the next day we began to carry out our side of the agreement, sending the chetniks 500 rifles and 25,000 rounds (from the partisan-controlled factory then working in Uzhitse) and they, on the very same day, killed Blagoyevitch (a partisan leader). At the same time they began to prepare their attack on Uzhitse. And this attack wasn't by chance. The British Captain Hudson had landed from a submarine on the coast of Montenegro, together with Major Zarija Ostoyitch and Major Mirko Lalatovitch. With them they had the wireless-operator Velyko Dragichevitch, who asked immediately to be allowed to go over to the partisans. Right up as far as Serbia they had not seen one single chetnik, but only partisans. They came to us at Uzhitse, and then went on to Ravna Gora (Mihaylovitch's headquarters).
"It was clear to us that the arrival of Zarija Ostoyitch speeded-up the open and general chetnik attack on our forces."* (See page 39. There is abundant evidence to suggest that the partisans were right in this.)
* There is every reason to believe, although it is difficult to prove, that the Croat-Serb military clique in London, of which Major Knezeviteh was a leading member, did its best to convey to Mihaylovitch by secret instructions that he should do his utmost to eliminate the partisans by whatever method he could find. It is certain that he acted in this sense; and that he believed he was thereby in accordance with the wishes of the King and exile government, and also of the British and American governments.
As for the open instructions to Mihaylovitch broadcast by the B.B.C. in the Serbo-Croat transmissions in the name of the Jugoslav Government-in-exile, they were consistent in dissuading him from taking any hand in the fight against the occupiers. A typical instance of this was a broadcast by Dr. Slobodan Yovanovitch, then Prime Minister of the govemment-in-exile, in November, 1942. He said: "As President of the Jugoslav Government, I appeal to you that you do not yet undertake armed struggle against the occupiers, because thereby you would incur heavy sacrifices and reprisals, and such struggle would not yet be of value to our Allies. When the decisive moment for battle comes, you may be convinced that we shall appeal to you to levolt through the supreme commander in our country, the chief -of -staff of our High Command, Draga Mihaylovitch, who will show you the road to freedom and victory." It goes without saying that such an appeal was never launched.
Indeed, it could have had little effect. Documentation of the almost universal collaboration between chetniks and the occupying forces is now public and complete (with the Italians first and then with the Germans in Dalmatia, Montenegro and Sanjak; with the Germans and Ustashe in Bosnia;
with the Germans, Bulgarians and Neditch Militia in Serbia); proof that the aim in every case was elimination of the partisans and an end to armed resistance is now ample and unanswerable.
This book went to press daring the early part of the trial in Belgrade of General Mihaylovitch and some of his more notorious collaborators; when all the evidence is available the story of the chetnik struggle against the partisans, and the true role played by Mihaylovitch will be clear. It is possible here to include only a few extracts.
An earlier trial of leading chetniks held in Belgrade in July and August, 1945, had thrown much light on the complicated relationship of the chetnik movement with the various armies of the enemy. Mihaylovitch was then still in hiding. He had tried to slip out of Jugoslavia with the retreating enemy, but was known to have failed in this and was believed to be somewhere in Bosnia. In the spring of 1946 he was finally run to earth in a cave on the borders of Eastern Bosnia and the Sanjak; with him were eleven men.
His trial opened in Belgrade on June 10th in the presence of about 60 foreign journalists. In six days of questioning by the public prosecutor, Mihaylovitch admitted to guilt on practically all counts, although he appears to have done his best to shield behind a plea that he was a victim of circumstance and of the disobedience of his own commanders in the field. He gave evidence to show that three British officers, who were named, had at different times instructed him to carry on warfare against the partisans; this was later denied formally by the British Government. The truth behind such accusations lies in the secret files; the least that can be said is that it would be difficult for the British services concerned to prove that they were desirous, at any rate before the middle of 1943, of ensuring partisan survival.
The ignominious part played by Jugoslav exiles was brought out most strikingly in a deposition by Dr. Milan Grol, a leader of the opposition parties which refused to take part in the General Election of November, 1945. According to the special correspondent of The Times in Belgrade (June 24th), "the judge read from a previous deposition by Dr. Grol, in which he said that the 'campaign for Mihaylovitch in America was horrible. Its promoter there was the Jugoslav Ambassador, Fotitch, and in London they were the people in contact with the Court and the people who brought about the Government of Puritch (now in London), which was openly anti-partisan and caused strained relations with the Soviet Union. These people included Slobodan Jovanoviteh, another former prime minister in London, Zivan Knezeviteh, chief of King Peter's war cabinet, and Petar Zivkovic, war minister in London.'"
The message continues: "Dr. Grol agreed that this statement was correct and not obtained from him under any pressure. He said that the London Government had a radio link through the Allies with Mihaylovitch, and that in his opinion all the financing of Mihaylovitch was done by the Allies ... Only the Jugoslav war department and King Peter received messages from Mihaylovitch ..."
The elderly Serbian politicians who had gone with King Peter into exile were indeed in a wretched case. They found themselves in the hands of a military clique directed by Knezeviteh and two others—the so-called "Kensington Musketeers"—who had their agents in Cairo and Istanbul and did everything they could to forward the cause of Mihaylovitch as the best means of securing power for themselves and their like in post-war Jugoslavia. This, of course, in no way exonerates the politicians in exile; they were willing enough tools.
An authoritative account of the baneful influence of this small but powerful military clique was given during the trial of General Dushan Simovitch, one of the principle promoters of the coup d'etat of March 27th, 1941, against the pro-German government of Prince Paul and Tsvetkovitch which had signed the three-power pact at Vienna. General Simovitch is in opposition to the present regime in Jugoslavia, and cannot be suspected of giving evidence which would favour its cause. He said that he agreed (report of The Times) that he considered Zivan Knezevitch, chief of the war cabinet in the exile government, was the chief culprit in bringing dissension into the ranks of the army abroad.
General Simovitch described how various senior officers in the Jugoslav Command in Cairo (attached to GHQ, Middle East) were removed and juniors put in their places at the instigation of a small and ambitious clique gathered round Knezevitch. He mentioned as being connected with this clique Milan Grol (see above).
It goes without saying that the "Kensington Musketeers" could not have done the harm they did without the consent of the British Government. It would be foolish to accuse the British Government—or more exactly, in this case, the Foreign Office—of having shared the views of these Serbian exiles; the fact remains that the decision to send liaison officers and military stores to the partisans was one which the Foreign Office manifestly disliked; and it is common knowledge that this decision was obtained only after the military authorities (then in Cairo) had demonstrated, from information which could not be denied or ignored, that the partisan war effort was overwhelmingly greater than that of the chetniks. To evidence that the chetniks were collaborating with the enemy against the partisans, and were—as our liaison officers informed us—of practically no value to the Allies, the Foreign Office remained obstinately and sublimely impervious. Only the pressure of events was to get the better of this blind anti-communism.
An account of the initial treachery of Mihaylovitch towards the partisans was given during the trial of Colonel Radoslav Juritch one of Mihaylovitch's commanders in Southern Serbia who later went over to the partisans. Again according to The Times: "Juritch ... said that in October, 1941, he was in command of chetnik units working together with the partisans. They had jointly surrounded the town of Raiovo, in Serbia, when an order came to him personally from Mihaylovitch that he should stop fighting the Germans and attack the partisans. He showed the order to the partisan commander and returned to Ravna Gora, Mihaylovitch's headquarters, to find out what it meant."
"The Chief of Staff told him by telephone that the order was correct, and when he returned to the front a message had been sent from headquarters telling other officers to carry out the order if he would not ..." (Compare this with Dediyer's account, page 84.)
On Mihaylovitch's bearing at the trial, the special correspondent of The Times makes this comment:
"One of the strangest things about the trial is the way in which Mihaylovitch repeatedly launches into arguments about quite trivial points, during which he finds himself drawn into admitting something far more damning. One girl gave evidence of a chetnik attack on a house where partisans were sleeping, and said that Mihaylovitch looked on while the chetniks brutally beat and wounded her and others with her. She described Mihaylovitch as standing under a tree wearing spectacles and a beard and a black coat. Mihaylovitch confronted her, and an altercation took place with the microphone between them, the girl fiercely accusing him and Mihaylovitch merely saying freely that he was not wearing spectacles and had not a beard then, but not denying his presence. He has not given anyone yet the impression of being a leader, and it seems hard to believe that this is the figure about whom such legends were spread abroad."
For those in the Western World who had hoped, from whatever motive, that Mihaylovitch would comport himself at the trial as the hero and martyr they professed to see in him—as the man whose brave and honest stand for Good (read the interests of Western capitalism) had been sacrificed on the altar of the Bad (read the interests of communism), the trial must have been a sad disillusion. He turned out after all to be a rogue, and a rather stupid rogue at that.
Successive witnesses unfolded the sordid tale of treachery. "Asked by the president of the Court"—text of Ihe official report—"whether he had taken any part in the third offensive carried out by the forces of occupation against the National Liberation Army, the defendant Mihaylovitch admitted that upon his arrival in Montenegro, after June 1st, 1942, he personally conducted the operations in the Third Offensive against the partisans and issued orders for continuation of the operations.
"Mihaylovitch also admitted that he issued an order to his commander, Petar Bachevitch, to the effect that he should carry out an attack against a partisan hospital with all the chetnik forces at his command, which were supplied with ammunition, food, and arms by the Italians ..."
Admission followed admission. Attempts to deny accusations were confronted with documentary evidence, or the evidence of eye-witnesses who had survived.
"... The defendant did not attempt to deny the fact that one of his well-known commanders in Montenegro, Pavle Jurisitch by name, who at Mihaylovitch's recommendation was several times promoted and awarded the highest decorations, had also openly collaborated with the Italian forces of occupation, and by an agreement with the Italians had his headquarters established in the Italian-occupied town of Kolashin ..."
Of the chetnik operations against the partisans during the fourth German offensive, in the course of which the crucial battle of the Neretva Defile took place, Mihaylovitch had this to say. "... (he) at first began by denying charges on this count. However, when faced with numerous documents, letters in his own handwriting, and copies of messages between himself and his commanders, Mihaylovitch had to admit this. He then declared that on January 2nd, 1943, he issued his first Directive for operations against the National Liberation Army during the Fourth Offensive. These operations were directed by Major Ostoyitch, chief of the Operations Division of Mihaylovitch's command. Mihaylovitch admitted that Ostoyitch kept him fully informed of the course of the operations. When asked by the president of the court how many of his chetniks took part in this offensive, defendant said about 15,000. He said further that the units of his commander Bachevitch were transported in Italian ships, while those of Stanisitch were taken by rail through Italian-occupied towns and districts."
On the situation in Konyits (see page 100), "Mihaylovitch declared that Lukachevitch, one of his leading commanders, resided in Konyits, where there was an Italian garrison and where subsequently the Germans arrived. Lukachevitch was never in conflict either with the Germans or with the Italians ..."
"The public prosecutor asked defendant to state whether his commander, Lukachevitch, fought together with the Germans and Italians against the National Liberation Army. The defendant answered in the affirmative, but tried to prove that Lukachevitch and others at that time collaborated with the enemy without his (Mihaylovitch's) knowledge. The prosecution then produced in evidence telegrams and letters received by the defendant from his commanders and sent to them by him. Mihaylovitch accepted these letters as his own and admitted that on the letters received from his commanders he made notes in his own handwriting." (see page 101.)
Mihaylovitch had been told by the Western Allies to "keep his forces in reserve until the signal was given". This, it seems, was always his reply when urged by British liaison officers to undertake operations against the enemy—this and the fear of reprisals. This was the theme of his telegrams to the Govemment-in-Exile, passed through British intelligence channels. What "keeping his forces in reserve" really meant, however, was shown by documentary evidence of Mihaylovitch's operational orders during the fourth enemy offensive against the partisans. The prosecutor produced a letter written by Major Ostoyitch, chief of Mihaylovitch's operational staff, in which it was stated that Yevdyevitah (Mihaylovitch's chief commander in Dalmatia and a notorious collaborator, as much evidence at the trial showed) should prevail upon the Italians to give chetnik units training in the handling of artillery and automatic weapons. The Italians were also to organize supplies of food and ammunition to the chetniks. Ostoyitch further demanded in this letter that Yevdyeviteh ensure that the Germans should occupy and defend the right bank of the Neretva River from Konyits to Kartitch. The Germans were to keep the positions taken by the National Liberation Army under constant artillery bombardment.
"Was this full collaboration between Ostoyitch and the forces of occupation?" the prosecutor then asked Mihaylovitch. Defendant replied that it was. "And was Ostoyitch at that time head of the Advanced Section of your Supreme Command, and did he not carry out your plan of operations called Directive No. 1?" Defendant admitted this was so, stating further that this plan was carried out completely. (From official reports.)
After further evidence of the long-standing collaboration between Pavle Jurisitch, one of Mihaylovitch's commanders in Montenegro, and the Italians and Germans, the prosecutor asked Mihaylovitch "whether there is a single commander of yours who did not collaborate with the Germans?" to which the defendant could only reply: "I cannot exactly say, but I believe that there is."
For eye-witness evidence from British sources of Chetnik collaboration with the enemy see Jasper Rootham's book "Miss Fire". Major Rootham dropped to chetnik groups in the Homolye Planina to the east of Belgrade in the early summer of 1943 and remained there for about a year.
"The attack on Uzhitse ought to have begun between the ist and 2nd of November; but we managed to discover it in time. The leaders of the coming attack were arrested; from the direction of Bioska—an officer of the reserve, a Croat schoolmaster, but the organizer was Cheda Zaharitch, who had been one of Stoyadinovitch's deputies; from the direction of Chayetina—a lieutenant-colonel of the reserve called Andrija Yevremovitch; from the northerly direction Karan-Kosyeritch—Lieutenant Staya Filipovitch. They behaved very poorly upon arrest. They thought we should shoot them at once. (Actually we let them all go—Yevremovitch and Filipovitch are in hiding to-day.) Some of them were obvious tools in Mihajlovitch's hands. A lot of peasant-chetniks were arrested at the same time. We gave them a lecture and let them go.
"The attack failed on every side from the moment it began. Only Captains Vutchko Ignyatovitch, Marinkovitch, and Milosh Glisitch, the worst of Mihaylovitch's commanders and open agents of Neditch, with a bunch of gendarmes, police and finance-police agents, succeeded in reaching Treshniyitse from the direction of Pozhega—but three kilometres from Uzhitse our own chaps scattered them." (In a footnote, Dediyer adds; "Captain Vutchko Ignyatovitch, who killed Milan Blagoyevitch, went over to the Italians in the sector of Nova Varosh at the beginning of 1942, and collaborated with them and with Neditch and Moslem units in their attack on Nova Varosh.... Marinkovitch is somewhere in hiding. Milosh Glisitch, it seems, is now somewhere in Germany.")
"Bozha Yavorski (another chetnik leader who took part in this general attack on the partisans) pushed into Ivanyitsa and killed one of our best people in Serbia—Stevo Cholovitch.
"After this unsuccessful attack from Pozhega, there was a new attack, this time from the north, from the Kosyeritch hills. The attack was carried out by Captain Dragoslav Rachitch, who took Karan, but we repulsed him. After that we liberated Pozhega, only with heavy losses...."
The chetnik attack failed miserably. Unfortunately, it was not the last. Not only had the chetniks broken the common front which had hitherto existed against the Germans and fifth columnists in Serbia; they had also given the Germans time to call up necessary forces.
Shortly after this Draza Mihaylovitch asked for a meeting with partisan representatives, Dediyer comments: "We accepted this. After all, we'd always been for a united fight against the occupiers. But Draza asked for this meeting because he'd been routed and was without an army. And we'd had losses: about 300 wounded. Alexander Marko-Rankovitch, Lola Riber and Pera Stambolitch went to the meeting. They reached a conclusive agreement. But the chetniks had already realized some of their aims.... They'd disorganized some of our units, given the Germans and Neditch people time to prepare, and, most important, taken from us the initiative we had held against the Germans. If Draza hadn't attacked us, we'd have liberated Kralyevo and held all the road leading to Belgrade, made it impossible for the enemy to concentrate and thereby saved the territory we'd liberated."
As it was, the Germans by now were fully alive to their danger. They began bringing up troops and completing preparations for an extensive attack up the western Morava.
Still another meeting with Mihaylovitch's representatives was held in Chachak on November 27th, this time in the presence of Captain Hudson, with Stambolitch, Dediyer, and one other representing the partisans, and Majors Radoslav Juritch and Mirko Lalatovitch for the chetniks. Dediyer writes: "We told the chetniks that the Germans were attacking liberated territory from all sides, and that it was most urgent that measures be taken to defend it. They pretended that they didn't know of these attacks. The Old Man (Tito) instructed me by telephone that I ask them to hold the sector of Ravna Gora and that there be an urgent meeting of commands. The chetniks refused this. They would defend nothing...."
The Germans duly launched the attack for which the chetniks had created such favourable conditions, and by November 29th they were on the outskirts of Uzhitse. Treachery had done its work. The partisans began their march into the Sanjak; the chetniks remained where they had been before.
Driven from its base at Uzhitse in the valley of the Western Morava, the main body of the Serbian partisan forces, small and ragged and inexperienced as they were in those early days of 1942, moved southwestwards into the Sanjak and Montenegro. Here resistance had begun six months before—in July, 1941 with a popular rising that shook the whole country, so sudden and so furious that the local Italian garrisons had lost most of the territory they were supposed to cover and had herded together in a few strong points along the coast. Reinforcements were brought in and "order" restored. Much new publicity was given to the Montenegrin separatist movement, the "Zelenashi," and some success was had in turning this movement's energy into anti-partisan channels. By the end of the year Montenegro was again firmly in Italian hands. With the arrival of seasoned partisans driven by the Germans out of Serbia the rising flared up again; and once more the Italians were obliged to bring in reinforcements, including a substantial number of chetniks, with which to regain their positions.
Late in that winter of 1941/42, the central partisan directorate moved its headquarters to the small Moslem town of Focha, which they had freed from Ustashe and chetniks. They had first intended to go back into Serbia, where they thought they could most hurt the enemy.
All through May they hesitated, their reports showing that the enemy was strengthening his garrisons in Serbia and would fight to keep the partisans out. Finally, on June 2nd, as Vladimir Dediyer relates in his diary: "the decision was taken; our main forces would go not back into Serbia but into Western Bosnia, northwards. If we'd been nearer, we'd have risked it. As it was, we decided for the imperial highways...." There, and there only, would they find the warlike stores they needed. This had always been Tito's point of view. He was against mere territorial gains, the useless capture of towns; he wanted action on the roads and railways which the enemy used.
"Those 1,800 fighters oughtn't to be used for the capture of empty towns," Dediyer records him as saying when a second attack on the enemy stronghold of Kolashin was proposed that winter, "but for action on the occupier's main lines of communication; that's where we shall find arms and ammunition."
The chetniks of Stanisitch and Djukanovitch were once more on the offensive against them; furthermore, they could do no good where they were. "Moscow Radio tells us to blow up railways, not to let the Italians go to the Eastern Front, and here are we still on the Piva," writes Dediyer on June 3rd, marking a contrast with current British propaganda which (in leaflets dropped the previous March) "talks about 'Mother Russia,' grumbles against Neditch, but says nothing at all about battles and appeals to battle."
What could it mean, this complete absence of trumpet-calls, when from Belgrade to Zagreb there were reports of powerful concentrations of German troops on the move towards the south, "when we here are at the enemy's back," when they could seriously impede the enemy's communications with the Near East? Dediyer did not know, or if he did, he preferred not to say.
There were more practical problems to think over. The chetniks had attacked in three columns, two of 500 strong, and one of 800 strong; they were held, but the partisans decided against wasting their strength in senseless internecine battles in the mountains. Tito ordered part of one of their brigades to turn eastwards, by-pass the attacking chetniks, and penetrate back into Serbia. The remainder of the partisan forces retreated towards the north, slowly, hampered by the wounded whom they could not leave behind. On June 9th, 1942, the headquarters staff itself began its long march into the mountains of the north. It would be a full year before they would see the waters of the Piva again.
The march from Hertsegovina into Western Bosnia, comparable on a smaller scale with the famous march of the Chinese Eighth Route Army, took the headquarters staff and its three covering brigades (about seven thousand seasoned fighters) one hundred and fifteen days. They fought as they went, opening a road through enemy-held territory in front of them, not caring that the road closed up again at their backs. They crossed the main railway line between Sarayevo and the coast on a front of 30 miles, ripping up miles of permanent way, blowing bridges and viaducts on a mountainous sector which would be unusually difficult to repair, destroying twenty-five locomotives and possessing themselves for a moment of the town of Konyits.
Later on they would do this again and again, on other and yet more important railways.
Their march raised morale wherever they went. They took Prozor and Livno by storm. By the end of September they had crossed Western Bosnia into the southern part of Croatia. On the 17th of October they reached the headquarters of Ivo Rukavina, then commanding Croat partisan formations. With their arrival a new phase of the movement began.
The development of fighting units in Croatia, as in other parts of Jugoslavia, was not a mere matter of chance but the product of a concerted plan. This plan was the work of the Central Military Committee which had come together in Belgrade very soon after the collapse of April, 1941, established sub-committees in Croatia and Slovenia—at Zagreb and Ljubljana respectively—and issued general directives upon which all agents of the movement could work. This Central Military Committee should not be confused with the Central Committee of the Communist Party, for it included non-communists like Dr. Ribar (later to be President of the Temporary Parliament), and some of its earliest agents and leaders in the field were also non-communists. The more important communist members of the Central Military Committee were Tito (now Marshal Broz), Marko (Alexander Rankovitch), and Bevts (Edward Kardelj)—a Croat, a Serb and a Slovene. The work in Serbia was left to the general direction of Ribar and Tito; the more important communist emissaries were Kardelj, Bebler, and Kidritch, in Slovenia; Rukavina and Lolo Ribar in Croatia. We have seen how the chetniks helped to frustrate partisan plans in Serbia. In Croatia and Slovenia the movement developed more rapidly and successfully; and by the time that Tito and the general staff reached Croatia in October, 1942, Croat and Slovene partisans had already liberated a large part of the mountainous country in their respective territories.
Even as early as the summer of 1941 there existed an odred or fighting group (each of some 600 to 800 men) in each of the three provinces of Croatia, Baniya, and the Lika with Kordun. These had been formed by emissaries of the military committee in Zagreb, who had left the town in July and August, 1941, three months after the German invasion. The enemy had been more successful in disarming the defeated Jugoslav army than in Serbia; and these small odreds had great difficulty in obtaining weapons and ammunition. Enemy garrisons were numerous. The official army of the "Independent State of Croatia," the Domobranstvo, which Pavelitch, the Croat dictator set up by Hitler and Mussolini, had formed that summer, was still strong and willing to fight; and Pavelitch's own brand of SS formation, the Ustashe, was the terror of the whole countryside.
But there was another and even more serious difficulty in Croatia, the national antagonism of Croats and Serbs in the Lika (a province with an old-established Serbian settlement, the liquidation of which was one of the primary aims of the new "Independent State's" policy). It was in the interest of the enemy to stimulate in the Lika the same murderous civil war which was even then raging in Bosnia between Serbs and Moslems. It was not difficult to see that the more that Jugoslavs could be got to fight among themselves, the less they would trouble the Germans and Italians. Fortunately for the partisans, the Germans and Italians could never sink their differences, and to the end did their best to frustrate each other's plans.
The original rising in Croatia was a more or less simple gesture of self-defence on the part of the Serbian minority. (The same thing was to happen a little later in the Voivodina.) But it was significant of a new state of affairs that the Serbian peasants who turned out to defend their homes found Croat leaders—Rukavina, Kosta Nadj, Snagitch, Manola, Holyvats, and others. One of their first big successes was the capture of a large quantity of small arms and ammunition at Voinitch, in January, 1942; and the success of their efforts to bring Serbs and Croats together for common action may be measured by the fact that more than six thousand Serbian peasants came to a mass meeting in Voinitch, where no Croats lived, carrying with them Serbian and Croatian national flags.
At about that time the partisans of Croatia were strong enough to form a central staff organization, one for Baniya and the Kordun, and one for the Lika, uniting all formations; and before the end of 1941 these two staff organizations had been themselves united in a general headquarters for Croatia. Their original plans had come to fruition; the men who had left Zagreb the summer before, one by one, had carried out their instructions and linked together the fighting units they had formed. Much the same thing was happening in Slovenia.
Early in the year these Croat formations, which had stood up to an enemy attempt at their annihilation during the snow and hunger of the previous winter, began considering operations against the railways of their area. They were spurred on to this by orders from partisan general staff, and by information they had from the B.B.C.'s broadcasts in Serbo-Croat of the big battles pending or in progress in North Africa.
In April, 1942, five Croatian battalions moved on the mainline between Zagreb and the coast and destroyed it over a length of ten miles; at the same time, other units were attacking the important secondary line which links Zagreb with Ogulin and Sushak.
In June, 1942, they split their operational area into five zones (Kordun-Baniya-Lika; Zagorye; Slavonia; Zadar; and Gorski Kotor-Primorje—the Croatian literal); by this time the first zone, which consisted of the main area of Croatia, had some 11,000 partisans, the Croatian literal had three odreds with a total of more than 4,000 partisans; and the numbers were everywhere rising. The following month they transformed the majority of these odreds, then too unwieldy for centralized command, into brigades: the general staff arrived from the south, Bihatch was taken by Kosta Nadj with three Bosnian brigades and one Croat brigade; and during the winter the first Croatian divisions were formed, the sixth (commanded by Manola), the seventh (commanded by Yakshitch), and the eighth (commanded by Chetkovitch), thus still further easing the application of central command.
These three divisions were placed under the command of Goshnyak, later gazetted as lieutenant-general, and formed the First Croatian Corps of the army of national liberation.
Such was the general position when Tito arrived in Croatia. The difficulties of the terrain made effective liaison between the main centres of resistance difficult and even impossible until 1943; and the Slovene Liberation Front, to mention the most outstanding case, remained largely out of touch with the movement in Croatia throughout the formative year of 1942. The main scene of action moved into the mountains of Bosnia, and it was in Western Bosnia, Bosanska Kraina, during 1942, that Tito and his General Staff were able to find the comparative security and stability they needed in order to develop plans for co-ordinated resistance in all parts of Jugoslavia.
This period, the second half of 1942, was probably decisive for the whole movement. The partisan leaders made their headquarters in the small hill town of Bihatch; they called together as representative a body of politicians as they could find and formed, for the purposes of temporary administration, the so-called Republic of Bihatch. The territory of the Republic was everything they could take and hold from the enemy. This meant in practice the mountains of Central and Western Bosnia, with the exception of certain central points such as Sarajevo and Banja Luka that lay on main lines of communication which they could attack but not permanently hold.
At Bihatch they set up schools for teaching military tactics and the use of weapons. They formed a theatre group and a ballet group which counted several leading artistes from Zagreb. They had public discussions on the future of the Jugoslav State. Through their wireless transmitter (situated in Russia, and in daily morse contact with Tito's H.Q.) they reached out to the rest of the country and to the Allies. They spoke of that period afterwards almost in idyllic terms.; it was their first realization of what they might achieve in the future — and the fruits of liberty which cost as much as it cost them are very sweet.
The idyll was not to last for long. By the winter of 1942 the Germans were provoked by their failures in Africa and the Eastern Ukraine to give a little more attention to the possible dangers nearer home. The partisans in Jugoslavia were a danger to them from many points of view; they might one day suggest to the Allies a landing along the Adriatic coast, another push northwards from Salonica, a general Mediterranean diversion. It became necessary to the Germans to exert themselves to eliminate the core of resistance in the Balkans; and that core was at Bihatch. And apart from considerations of a strategical character, they could not afford to ignore their constant loss of men and material in transit or in situ. They consulted with their Italian allies, called up all the Croat and chetnik units they could find, and opened up what became known to the partisans as the fourth offensive.
It found the partisans better prepared to meet attack than ever before. From an unwieldy collection of fighting units under various commands they had grown into an organized movement; the first congress of A.V.N.O.J. (Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Jugoslavia), later to become a national parliament, had been held in Bihatch on November 26th, 1942, and had passed a six-point programme providing for a broad and democratic political front which all parties of genuinely anti-Fascist views might conscientiously join.* Regional and lesser committees of national liberation were set up in other areas liberated or half-liberated by partisan formations; links with the main towns were forged and used in the chain of anti-Fascist resistance; and recruits were coming in as fast as they could be coped with.
A few months before, in the autumn, the National Army of Liberation had been formally proclaimed as the successor of all local formations (called Odreds) and regional units. Partisans from then onwards looked on themselves as members of an army. Until then the normal course of resistance had been for a small group of men to form an Odred in some fairly small area of mountain or forest;
this Odred would be named after the largest mountain or the thickest forest or the most important town in the neighbourhood; and its activities were specifically local. Only superior enemy force would drive it out of its own particular area of operations, and once it was driven out it must try to get back again as soon as possible. This-ensured the essentially popular character of resistance. Men began by defending their homes and localities. Hundreds of these Odreds came into existence during late 1941 and 1942; and right up until the end of the war they were regarded as a main source of recruits for the mobile formations. It was clear, however, that no nationwide movement of resistance could be built up from an infinity of local groups who were tied to their own backyards. Alongside these Odreds, therefore, the partisan leaders formed mobile brigades, which later became divisions and corps (always on a miniature scale, when compared with regular troops, to allow of high tactical mobility and ease of command). It then became the practice to recruit from local Odreds in areas through which the divisions passed all the younger volunteers, leaving the seasoned men to carry on the work of local organization, recmitment and resistance. In this way they could ensure a regular flow of the right type of young men and women into military formations that were tied to no particular part of the country, and one of whose special aims was to break down the narrow provincial loyalties which are so strong in backward countries.
Their links with the outside world at this time were hopelessly one-sided. They had wireless contact with the U.S.S.R., and profited by this in their gain of a wireless transmitter, "Free Jugoslavia";
but all contact with Britain and America appeared to them to be precluded by the unqualified support which the Western Allies gave to Mihaylovitch and their chetnik enemies. They saw in this support the expression of traditional conservatism; and the bitterness which this produced in them accounted in large measure for the enormous prestige of the Soviet Union. They had to listen to the B.B.C. quoting claims by Mihaylovitch to have carried out operations against the occupiers which they knew perfectly well had been accomplished by partisans. They were accused of being the slaves and tools of Russia; and this went so far that there was a time when it was widely believed in London and Washington that partisan resistance had been organized by a former Counsellor of the Soviet Legation in Belgrade called Lebedev. It was even said that Lebedev was Tito; that Tito was a woman; that Tito did not exist; that he was a cover name for a whole series of sinister persons.
And although there is no doubt that Tito and the central command were members of the Jugoslav communist party, and that this party had played a key role in shaping resistance, it is also true that many of their leaders and most of their rank-and-file were not communists, and looked to Britain and America for help and inspiration. Colonel Sava Orovitch, a Montenegrin officer of the pre-war Jugoslav army who had commanded a regiment of infantry during the fighting of 1941, had to hear himself branded by the B.B.C., speaking in the name of the exiled Royal Jugoslav Government in London, as a German traitor and an enemy. When this unusually fine example of misinformation was broadcast, this gallant old gentleman was-commanding the Officers' School at Bihatch.
The fourth offensive was an indirect result of the Germans' fear that the Western Allies might land in the Balkans; and yet when it began in January, 1943, no links existed between the Allies and the partisans, and the partisans themselves were convinced that we had abandoned them and hoped for their defeat.
This fourth offensive (December, 1942, to March, 1943) was a concerted effort by the occupying and quisling forces, using for it a large number of troops, to eliminate the liberation movement in Bosnia. They rightly regarded Bosnia as the key to the situation. Once the partisans were smashed in Bosnia, they could be dealt with elsewhere piecemeal. They prepared a plan whereby strong columns would converge on the "Republic" from the east, north, and west. For the fourth side of their box they relied upon the deep valley of the River Neretva, which they thought the partisans, if driven that way, would not be able to cross.
In the course of the operations, which lasted without a break from January to March, the main partisan formations (First Bosnian Corps and First Croatian Corps), retreating before vastly superior forces and equipment, broke south-eastwards into Hertsegovina. To hold the ring the German Command then made an arrangement with 12,000 of Mihaylovitch's chetniks, commanded by Col. Stanisitch and General Djukanovitch and others, by which the latter would attempt to seal off any further partisan retreat by taking up positions along the left bank of the River Neretva. This river runs down to the sea from Central Hertsegovina to a point on the coast near Dubrovnik through a series of magnificent rocky gorges, ideal holding positions in the hands of determined troops.
The battle which decided whether the partisans or the chetniks would prevail in post-war Jugoslavia was fought out near the town of Konyits at a point where the Neretva, blue and cold, runs at its deepest and the cliffs on either side climb most sheerly upwards. It was a battle decisive in its way for the future political structure of the Balkans, for it left the partisans virtually undisputed masters of the day and hurried Mihaylovitch and his chetniks back into Serbia in a retreat from which their prestige never recovered. It was one of those many battles that were fought in occupied Europe before Allied invasion lifted the veil, about which the outside world knew next to nothing; and yet, for sheer drama, there can have been few that equalled it.
I spent a holiday in Konyits once before the war. It was a Moslem town, a pleasant, white-walled place with lime trees lining the streets, and shops like those of Sarajevo and Mostar, where cross-legged men squatted in small booths and beat copper into great jugs with long and slender spouts. Here and there were dusty coffee shops where one could drink Turkish coffee, brown and sweet and capped with bubbles, out of handleless cups, and one's neighbours, drinking their coffee, had faces like ripe walnuts and wore turbans and long white gowns girdled with broad red and green and yellow sashes. Beyond the shops were three or four modest-seeming mosques, white-washed like the houses of the town, each with one or two slim minarets. Beside the mosques were Moslem graveyards, the grey headstones mouldering in rank weeds and grass and leaning sideways with the weight of years; and beyond these the narrow pale green pastures ran upwards into the mountains. From the barren height of the nearby hills Konyits gleamed like a green pool set with white stones.
The Germans held Konyits in force during the war because it commanded the only feasible crossing of the Neretva for troops with artillery and wheeled transport.
The first and third Proletarian Divisions had smashed through the occupying garrisons to the west of the river and cleared a path for the artillery and the baggage train. Everything hung by that. For with the baggage train there were four thousand sick and wounded, most of whom were unable to walk and had to be carried on ox-cart or on horse-back. To leave them behind was to condemn them to certain death; the occupying forces were accustomed to shoot all partisans who fell into their hands, not excluding the wounded. The only substantial distinction they made was that they normally refrained from torturing the wounded. It was therefore a first principle of partisan war that these should never be abandoned.
This baggage train, with the wounded in their ox-carts and the few dozen field pieces the partisans had taken in the course of previous months of fighting, came lumbering along behind the fighting-formations. The latter, left to themselves, could have gone where they liked. As it was, they had to hold open a corridor between German and Italian units whose air reconnaissance told them exactly what was happening. The weather was mid-winter, snow was still deep on the high passes and the nights were intensely cold.
Units of the First and Third Divisions got into the defile of the Neretva and across the river after stiff fighting. They were engaged with the German garrison around the town itself when large chetnik forces under direct command of General Mihaylovitch came into action against them from an easterly direction. The chetniks had been brought up in enemy transport, and were fighting largely with arms and ammunition given to them by the enemy.
The baggage train with the wounded came winding down the hairpin bends into the gorge with the battle in full swing, and for days it hung in the balance whether the bridgeheads could be kept firm. Meanwhile, the enemy was able to bring up fresh reinforcements, a total force of more than three divisions, including some Italians. Painfully, the baggage train got finally across. The chetniks were beaten back and scattered into the mountains of Montenegro, and from there they were driven out into Serbia. It was the end of the chetnik war effort.
In the interests of historical accuracy, it is worth noting that the British liaison officers then at General Mihaylovitch's headquarters on the Sinyayevina Planina, north-west of Kolashin, headed by Colonel Bailey, reported that they were aware of these chetnik moves, had protested against them, and had been refused permission to accompany Mihaylovitch to Focha and Kalinovik. They were fully informed of the closeness of liaison between the Montenegrin chetnik commander, Djurisitch, and the Italian military authorities; and affirmed on several occasions that the chetniks in Montenegro existed on sufferance of the Italians. On his journey eastwards into Serbia with Mihaylovitch, Colonel Bailey had plenty of occasion to perceive the care with which chetniks and Italians avoided interference with each other.
It was abundantly clear that Mihaylovitch could not be dissuaded from attacking the partisans wherever he dared; he saw in them a principal opponent to his "Great Serbia" policy and was still determined to discredit them and if possible destroy them by any means that came to hand. He was egged on by the politicians who had gathered round him, typical of whom was Dragisha Vasitch, whose avowed wish was to burn Zagreb. The Germans were well aware of all this, of course, and used it consistently to their own advantage.
These operations were followed by a brief pause in the fighting to allow time for the occupying forces to regroup their units, bring up reinforcements, and try again to eliminate Tito and the main core of his army.
A month later they had completed these preparations; and the fifth offensive opened. This, for the partisan cause, was by far the most dangerous of all. It lasted from the end of April, 1943, to the middle of June. The partisan situation, even if left for the moment in peace, was far from good. Their main forces were now confined within a relatively small space in the centre of Montenegro; the country was the most mountainous and the least hospitable of all in Jugoslavia. During the weeks that followed, ringed round with strong enemy forces, strengthened now by the German First Mountain Division and several Bulgarian units, the partisans consumed their last reserves of food and began to eat their horses. More and more of them fell sick with typhus; the column of wounded got longer and longer. The steepness of the mountains obliged them to bury their artillery or throw it over the nearest cliff. There came a time when the ox-carts could scarcely pass. Pack animals lost their footing and slipped hundreds of feet into the valley bottoms. Hundreds of men and women died.
The mental pictures men carried away with them from that dreadful time were of the sick who could no longer drag themselves over the goat-paths they had to use, of columns of weary men straggling pace by pace upwards until they were lost in swirling mist, of endless ranges of mountains, of the last extremities of privation. Medical supplies there were none; bandages were taken from the half-healed and applied to the newly wounded; amputations were carried out with bayonets and razor-blades and without anaesthetics; one man would carry another until he could walk no further himself.
In the middle of this fearfulness a British liaison mission (following arrangements made by the initial missions dropped in Croatia earlier in the month) came parachuting down against a forty-mile-an-hour wind, landing safely by some miracle to signal fires that the pilots who were there described later as "the biggest we've ever seen on this job." Their landing was in every way fortunate; a day later and the attempt to break out of the circle would have begun and landing impossible; furthermore, their coming in the very moment when the partisans were at rock-bottom did more than a little to make up for the long months of previous neglect. So keen was the partisan command to have contact with the Western Allies that they held up their attempt to break out of the German cordon for a day and a night and thereby greatly risked their chances of survival. Two days afterwards the regular dive-bombing carried out by the Germans happened on the hillside where Tito and the staff and the British mission were standing. One British officer, Captain William Stuart was killed outright, the other (Captain, later Lt.-Col. F. W. Deakin) was wounded in the foot, and Tito himself received a splinter in the arm.
The attempt to break out was successful. The First, Second and Seventh Divisions opened a passage as far as the road which runs between Focha and Kalinovik, and once they were across this road the main formations could break northwards into Eastern Bosnia.
In the end it was possible for all of them, including the sick and wounded, to pass through this corridor into Eastern Bosnia, except for selected units which were left behind to take the offensive again in Montenegro once the main enemy forces had gone elsewhere. From Eastern Bosnia the big formations, aided now by other units commanded by Kosta, which had come marching across from Central Bosnia to meet them, swept all the small outposts the enemy had left in places like Kladanj before them; and after a short pause in Eastern Bosnia (during which time the first few supplies from the British began to dribble in by parachute), Tito and the main formations crossed the Bosna into Central Bosnia. Kosta and several picked units went with him as escort.
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