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LANDINGS are always bathos. The men at the bottom are disappointingly ordinary human beings with two legs and troubles of their own. They ought to be supermen, but after all they are not. You see them first when you are swaying to the ground, small grey shadows in a grey world legging it over the grass to the point you are going to hit; and once you are on the ground they push up at you and shake your hand and thump you on the back and pull your ridiculous jumping gear off you. They are flesh and blood, of this world and not the next. You look into their welcoming faces and feel very happy; but at the same time there is a feeling of cdeflation. You kriow that the real business is only just beginning.
On the ground when I landed myself there was Bill, who was our first liaison officer with Tito's general staff. We shook hands sand peered hard at each other; last time we had met, eleven weeks before, there had been a thousand questions to which neither of us, and no one in the Middle East, had known the all-too-necessary answers; now at least Bill would know the answer to some of them.
Partisans gathered round us, compact figures in the darkness—with silhouettes that showed slung rifles, bombs at their belts, a few—with blankets across their shoulders.
"You're probably hungry," Bill said. "The boys are hotting-up asome M & V. About a mile away. They're practically starving, the people here. Did you bring any mail for us?
"We walked in the moonlight towards his camp. Later I would learn that summer nights were perfect for partisans, but too short.
The mountains were no longer crumpled silver cloth, as they had sseemed from the aircraft, but high shadowed peaks that ranged away on every side; from the summit of Petrovo Polje upon which we had dropped, a short-grassed plateau some three thousand feet above the sea, the cliffs fell away steeply into a ravine along which, far below, there glistened in the moonlight a narrow thread of silver water. One of our party had landed unpleasantly near the edge of this ravine. We stood for a while on the edge of it, looking down at the river in the bottom.
There was the smell of clean mountain air, of Europe again after the heat and stench of Africa. Bosnian peasants that we passed stretched out their hands and felt our clothes to make sure that we were flesh and blood. If men came dropping out of the skies it might be well to expect anything; and they were desperately in need of everything. They watched us go by, gently restrained by the others from falling on our necks. "Ah, the pretty man," they murmured, straining to see us in the darkness.
Beside the barn that Bill was using for his wireless station we found the rest of his party, his guards, and his pack-ponies. The light of a fire showed us all this little by little, fitting one feature grotesquely into the next.
"Pure Robin Hood, you see," Bill said.
We shook hands all round, immensely pleased. It was August 16th, 1943.
Bill and I parted ten days later on our several missions. But for a little while we were together, and could exchange much information. Later Vlatko came, making a third in our conversation. He was Tito's liaison officer with Bill's mission. In the following year he was to be Tito's envoy in London. The son of a Serbian general, Vlatko Velebit was a lawyer who had formerly practised in Zagreb. His path to partisan leadership had been no easy one. "It's not so simple for the son of a general, a bourgois intellectual, to prove his sincerity to the party," he said during those first days. He had had to prove himself first by illegal work in Zagreb in '41 and '42, and illegal work in towns was the hardest discipline of all. He had spent long months in tortuous conspiracy, had waited for appointments in Zagreb parks with the snow up to his knees, sometimes all night, lived on a razor's edge between detection and success.
We used to sit in the grass on Bill's knoll above Petrovo Polje. Vlatko was thin and pale, the natural hardness of his face accentuated by the starvation of past weeks, for they had had nothing to eat but roots and horse-meat and occasional loaves of bread in their trek from Montenegro.
He was unshaven because there were no razor blades. He wore a heavy jacket of black cloth and black corduroy trousers, very baggy, and he had no shirt. On his head he had a dirty black Titovka (the pattern of military side-cap adopted by the partisans, a variation of the old Serbian shaykatcha); his boots were patched and down at heel. He was intensely embarrassed about this appearance of neglect and poverty, and kept explaining that for the time being there was no possible means of improving it. "And you know" —he kicked one dilapidated boot against the other—"we've spared nothing. Bill has seen what we did in Montenegro, what we suffered. We've fought the Fascists wherever we could find them."
Vlatko is a powerful man, and he was then in spite of his hunger. He sat there hunched up on the grass, the collar of his filthy jacket half turned up around his close-laid ears, and let himself talk at last to the outside world.
In those early days of our arrival they were brimming over to talk of themselves, of what they had done and meant to do, suffered and would suffer again, fought and were willing to fight. For two years there had been nobody to talk to but their own kind. They talked now with boundless enthusiasm, with curious childlike dignity, with snatches of anger or dismay, with a mixture of complete assurance and utter uncertainty. They assumed that we would believe nothing of what they said—for were we not reactionaries who had come, likely as not, to speculate on their military ability?—and laid proof upon proof. They were determined that we should take nothing for granted.
Vlatko would come wearily over to Petrovo Polje from the copse three miles away where Tito had his headquarters: we would go down to the river at the bottom of the ravine and sit naked in the sun looking at dreary documents captured from chetnik commanders which proved their complicity with the occupiers, and when we were tired of doing that we would swim in a pool, and afterwards begin again with Vlatko's evidence of what the partisans had done to help the United Nations. And in this he was typical of all the good partisans that I have known; he gave us this evidence of their military value with an indifferent pride that defied us to disbelieve him. We could take it or leave it; they were fighting for a new world and needed our help, but if we would not give it, or give it grudingly, then they would do without us.
They would not consider themselves—and this attitude never really varied—as being under obligation or debt to us, nor us as their benefactors; the arms and ammunition and medical supplies and boots and clothing that they had needed hitherto they had taken in battle from the enemy, and their right to a share in our production seemed to them now self-evident and beyond discussion. To this they added an awkwardness of bearing that arose from pre-war inexperience and the two intervening years of isolation. Vlatko was easier to talk to than most of the others. His origins were not humble, and he had seen a little of the world. By comparison with the remainder of the Staff he was a polished diplomat, and as such they were accustomed to regard him.
This awkwardness applied to all of them except to Tito. It seemed to me that under any dispensation Tito would have made his mark. The legend of the simple metal-worker was a silly one. The "Engineer Tomanek" who was biding his time in Zagreb while Prince Paul was arranging what any sane man could see must turn into inevitable disaster was no elementary political schemer. General secretary of the profoundly illegal Jugoslav communist party since 1937, he had served a long apprenticeship in the assessment of human nature and knew as much as most men, I imagine, about its capacity for good and evil. In those free-living days before the pomp and paraphernalia or marshaldom descended upon him, Tito was very good to talk to, many-sided, exactingly humorous, quick to take your point and chuck it back at you.
In that brief interval at Petrovo Polje he lived with the Staff in the middle of a dry pine wood, carpeted with pine-needles; his council table was an affair of rough-hewn planks, and his counsellors sat on logs ranged on both sides of this. There was a tarpaulin on a ridge-pole to cover all, and a rickety system of electric lighting that gave a dim but welcome light. This was the reality which we had imagined and worked to find so long. It seemed impossible.
Round this table in the evenings we would try to get over our mutual embarrassment. At that time the English of us could not speak Serbian and had to make do in a hotch-potch of German and French. There was Arso Jovanovitch, the Chief of Staff, a tall, thin Montenegrin whose life was bounded by his own narrow interests; he managed when he liked to cast an air of gloom over the jolliest assembly. There was Marko-Alexander Rankovitch—after Tito the main organizing brain of the movement, short and stubbly haired and full of humour, a broad peasant figure in shabby German uniform. There was Veljko—Pavle Ilitch—a special friend of Bill's who later commanded 8 Corps and whose wife had been killed in the recent fighting. It would be hard not to like him. One evening there was also Kosta—Kosta Nadj—who was responsible for military operations in this immediate area in his capacity of commander of i Corps; small, compact, sharp-faced, a man who said less than anyone else, whose mind was obviously made up on what he would do in principle in any situation, hard and unlikeable until one discovered a sense of humour that hid behind his natural shyness; of all the partisan generals, I was to know him and like him the best.
The partisan movement was in a crucial period of development.
It had fought its way into major recognition by the Germans, who had already diverted large numbers of men and great quantities of material to its destruction, and were to be made to divert more and more until in the end the movement overwhelmed them; and into minor recognition by the Western Allies, and especially by the British, who had sent half a dozen officers with wireless operators to report on their position. Time was therefore on Tito's side. He knew that the facts would speak for themselves, that the diversion which the partisans were causing in Jugoslavia must seem to the Allied Command worthy of support. The only thing he did not know was whether the Allied Command would be overruled by those reactionary forces in Britain and America which he, with the majority of the partisan leaders, was convinced were working and hoping for the return of an old-style reactionary dictatorship in Jugoslavia, headed by King Peter Karageorgevitch, that would be subservient to the British and Americans and hostile to the Russians. If this were so then the danger existed that, in spite of the facts of resistance, military support would be withheld.
The facts of resistance were splendid enough, those of the last few months miraculous even. Not only had the main core of the army, with all its wounded, evaded destruction in the Montenegrin gorges of the Piva and the Tara at the hands of a vastly superior German-Bulgarian-Italian-Ushtashe-Chetnik force; not only had other units not involved in this particular battle continued to fight the enemy without pause; but they had now cleared a large part of East Bosnia and were in process of clearing Central Bosnia and a part of Bosanska Krajna.
Before long, at this rate, they would again control a large expanse of "liberated territory," and the movement could resume its development along centralizing lines. In Slovenia the Osvoboditeini Front was gaining strength; in Croatia there was a strong movement and Magovats, one of the leading figures in the powerful Croat Peasants' Party, had just declared for the partisans, and with him many party members. The chetniks in Dalmatia were discredited by the openness with which Yevdyevitch, Mihaylovitch's representative, consorted with the Italians; things were beginning to move at last in Slavonia and the Vojvodina; and in Macedonia a special delegate, the famous Tempo (Svetozar Vukmanovitch, now Major-General) reported that the first Odreds had been formed. Only in Serbia was the picture blank. But even in Serbia serious leaders were beginning to realize the fool that Mihaylovitch was making of them. News reached Petrovo Polje during those days of our arrival that Vladislav Ribnikar, owner and editor of the pre-war Belgrade daily Politika (to go to press again in November, 1944, after the fall of Belgrade), had left the city on his way through Srem to join Tito's headquarters.
The central problem was to link up these various parts of the movement into one coherent whole under a closely united direction, and to stimulate resistance wherever it was weakest, and particularly in Serbia.
In that August of my arrival there were over 30 enemy divisions on the territory of Jugoslavia, as well as a large number of satellite and police formations of Ustashe and Domobrani (military formations of the puppet Croat State), German Sicherheitsdienst, chetniks, Neditch militia, Ljotitch militia, and others. The partisan movement may have counted up to 150,000 fighting men and women (perhaps five per cent women) in close and inextricable co-operation with several million peasants, the people of the country. Partisan numbers were liable to increase rapidly. The prospect had never been better.
My own first impression was one of contrast, a contrast between the utter discrepancy of means available and the end to be achieved. The only source of supply was the enemy; for it was not until 1944 that British supplies began to arrive in appreciable quantities. This meant that the real issue was a moral one. The top-hamper of western civilization had to go by the board; only courage and self-sacrifice could be recognized as virtues. Standards were stepped up until conditions of service in the partisan army bore no kind of relationship with those of regular armies fighting on the front. Men could be asked to march barefoot in the snow, or over the stones of summer, without regular food or drink or the bare necessities of equipment, if necessary for weeks and months; and they were thought contemptible if they complained. And they would do it because for them the war had refined itself into a simple personal equation in which self-respect and survival balanced their pains and wretchedness. Moral comfort had become more to them than feather beds. Nothing like this had ever been heard of in the history of the Balkans. Small wonder that they saw a new world opening before them.
This discipline of courage and self-sacrifice, for which in the first place the communists were responsible, gradually raised the partisan movement to a quite special level of moral probity. Man in the mass is not naturally honest; place him in the middle of a fratricidal war, in which all normal values are swept away in a torrent of bloodshed and violence, and he is liable to be extremely dishonest. Let the man be of Balkan origin, and the scene the Balkans, and you have a combination of explosive recklessness with ruthless cunning that is hard to match. The quislings and many of the chetniks were to show us to what depths the human organism could sink.
The partisan leaders knew they could not hope to build a movement with enough moral strength to outlast the fearful handicaps they laboured under unless they could inculcate in it a character of moral self-respect. It goes without saying they did not always succeed; and every now and then their nominees would let them down, and these, when the case was stinking, they would eliminate by death or internment, but usually by death. To this end of moral discipline they introduced a system whereby each unit, from company upwards to corps, elected a commissar (the higher units had their commissars nominated by the General Staff with the approval of the men concerned) whose duty first and always was to ensure that his unit remained in every sense of the word a popular unit: that is, of the people and for the people.
Apart from the maxims of marxist ideology, it was clear to them that a movement which must begin from nothing could achieve success only by gaining the active support and affection of the mass of the people. Since the movement must live and fight over open country, often at the expense in lives and livestock of the peasants, it was equally clear that every action they undertook, every ambush they laid, every train they blew up, every tactical move they made, must have a political as well as a military significance. It was the commissar's duty to decide, and to advise his unit commander accordingly, whether any proposed action would or would not react unfavourably on the credit of the movement. Similarly, as this was a people's army in which no limits were placed on personal hardship and risk, it was the commissar's duty to represent the interests of the men against those of their commander. And, lastly, it was the commissar's duty to know the answer to all questions, to lurn his hand to everything, to laugh at defeat and be modest in success, and to give an example of personal bravery.
Anyone who thinks that it was easy to be a commissar can try his hand at a few of these duties. The commissars in Tito's army, or those who were up to their job, had the superhuman duty of acting as a brake on the unlimited and suicidal vanity of the species: a species, indeed, all on its own.
During those first ten days we sat a great deal round Tito's table. He wanted to know what the British would do to help him, what they were doing in Greece, what they thought of the Jugoslav movement. We answered as well as we could. He would sit with elbows on the table, holding to his mouth a cigarette holder shaped as a miniature pipe so that the cigarette smoked upright like a candle, There were two brilliant rings on the hand that held the cigarette, the fingers fleshy and well cared for, the nails perfectly clean. We noticed an element in him, strangely discordant in those surroundings, that was exotic, almost exquisite. The rings were very fine and their diamonds twinkled in the dim electric light. Every now and then, listening to us, he would smooth down his grey hair, brushed straight back over a wide prominent forehead and a broad brow, and the light as his head swayed back would catch the channelled lines that shaped his face and throw into relief the slightly aquiline nose. His mouth was wide and mobile and could smile pleasantly; I never saw him anything but well shaven. His eyes, if anything, suggested the unusual; they were blue-grey and weak with over-strain, and yet hard as pieces of crystal. The high cheekbones and the deep lines that formed his cheeks, the hard grey eyes and the well-made forehead; these were the marks of a face that could be pitiless, hardbitten, acid. But his smile could be charming.
His conversation showed a wide-ranging mind that could also be humorous. He talked with charm, and was clearly ready to struggle for his audience if that were necessary. It seemed to me that he had a genius for the sensitivities of personality, for he would study those he talked to, remembering their names and special interests, their strength and weakness; and this in a movement which numbered tens of thousands had given him a reputation for infallibility that was almost paternal.
It is likely that his greatest strength was the unerring judgment of character and capacity that he had of others; and the success of the movement was due in large part to his unfailing ability to pick the right man for the right job, and then to delegate responsibility. He was, I thought then and have since confirmed, a genuinely popular leader in the sense not only that he came from the people himself, being born of humble parentage in the Croatian Zagoria, but that he was liked and respected also, even revered, by those who had accepted his leadership.
He was greatly practical, having none of that custom of hand-waving woolly-mindedness which is traditional with the Slavs. There is a story, apocryphal perhaps, but genuinely illustrative of the kind of man he was, relating to the earliest days of conspiracy in Belgrade, only a few weeks after the Germans had completed their invasion in the late spring of 1941. Tito was then in Belgrade, having come there from the illegality of Zagreb at the last moment, tardily invited by a frightened government that was faced with imminent invasion from all sides; but he immediately went to ground and it is probable that the Germans then were unaware of his existence. The story mns that two or three delegates of a Belgrade youth movement were due to meet Tito in a public park one day— the Kalemegdan, for the sake of argument—and had prepared for this occasion a magnificent speech on the political evils of the day, ending with an impassioned appeal for leadership towards the truth. This they duly read to Tito, page after page; and when they had finished they awaited his reply, their minds in the seventh heaven of expectation. But Tito seemed to miss the point. He turned to them and talked for half an hour on the technique of derailing trains; and after that he wished them good luck and went away.
And in his own surroundings, which he had created and understood better than any man, before the later days of full success when he had to hob-nob with field-marshals and prime ministers in social antics which were new and strange to him, he was supremely confident of himself. He had naturally good manners and disliked ostentation. He knew the value of the movement, of his friends and advisers, of the soldiers he had chosen to command the newly-formed corps. And these would sit round him in stolid admiration, Arso and Kosta and Veljko and the others, a little uneasy themselves away from their customary routine but conscious of their worth, looking at us sideways to see what kind of men we might turn out to be in times of lesser comfort, interested professionally in our uniforms and side-arms and similar details.
They had none of the social graces, and ours, even if we pretended to any, would have seemed effeminate in these surroundings. But they were determined to do us the honours; and they listened to Tito's translations from our German with careful politeness. Arso Jovanovitch, lath-like and gaunt, awkward and over-emphatic in his speech, had served as a regular staff captain in the pre-1941 army, and then had fought with Tito from the earliest days of the rising in Serbia. He was famed for a machinelike exactness that some people mistook for pure and simple tedium. Kosta, too, had served in the regular army, but in the ranks; and then, volunteering for the war in Spain, had risen to be captain by virtue of gallantry in action, being constantly at the front except when recovering from three separate major wounds. His native name was Nagy, for his parents had been Hungarians of Petrovaradin; but he had changed this spelling for convenience's sake to Nadj, which is the nearest that Serbs can get to this peculiar Hungarian sound. Veljko was by origin a Belgrade intellectual; his part in the rising had been to command the Odred which operated in the Kosmay hills to the immediate south of Belgrade.
None of them had had experience of Anglo-Saxon manners of indifference; small wonder they often found us incomprehensible, took our affectation for indecision, suspected funk in our reluctance, feared sarcasm in our understatement, saw weakness in our admiration, under-rated our intelligence. Only their own patent courage and disinterest won them our forgiveness.
At first they were nervous, and did not know what it would be tactful to say. They were clearly conscious of the need to rein in their feelings on the subject of the chetniks—from whom they had suffered so much damage in flesh-and-blood as well as reputation. Now that we had come—at last—they were glad; but they would wait for the proofs of our support before giving us their confidence. Who could blame them? And the only proofs they would care for would be support in propaganda and in warlike stores. Above all in warlike stores.
Stores were urgently needed, they said. When would they come? Would they come to-morrow, this week, next week? Would they ever come? We listened as they talked, their faces eager yet suspicious; they wanted not to be disappointed, and in this they had our sympathy. As a rule they were marvellously tactful in those early days, considering how very late we were in coming on the scene. We listened to their needs and thought of poor old W for Willy and his three limping fellows, X, Y, and Z, and the few Halifaxes which had just been added to our strength (thanks to the stout-hearted foresight of Mr. Churchill). The comparison was a sad one.
But that they did not know—or, if they guessed it, they did not say. They took our warnings of the small air-lift available as mere diplomatic prudence, so that later, if we wished, we could the more easily revert to previous British policy and refuse them our support. It was strange to realize that they thought of us as possible, perhaps even probable, enemies. For us it was all too easy to forget that we had armed their enemies and fought a word-war against them; but it was not so easy for them to forget it. In fact, they never did forget it, not even later when our propaganda support was of daily and hourly value to them, and our air-lift of food, arms and clothing a really substantial contribution to their needs. Until the very end they would conserve against us the feelings of a man who has been betrayed by those who should have been his best friends. This was as bad for them as for us: for it unbalanced their view of things and it made it hard for many of us to see in their goodwill more than the shallowest speculation. They want our help, we were tempted to think, they do not want our friendship.
This might easily become a vicious circle. Kosta said to me one day that he hoped our coming would be a genuine thing, and not "just a speculation." This question of sincerity was to remain a shadow over friendship: it was so easy for either of us to see a purely selfish motive in the other's conduct.
On the issue of supplies they thought in terms of our huge bomber strength and saw our delay in political, not military, terms. If we could bomb Germany with five hundred Liberators we could drop them as many tons of machine-guns and mortars and boots and battle-dress—and, if not, then where was the proof of our sincerity? The war that they were fighting in the hills of Bosnia was not a private side-show, masked anyway from public knowledge in the outside world by the shutter of military security; it wasn't a rather fiddling little effort to keep the Boche busy in the Balkans while our armies crossed the Mediterranean and plodded interminably northwards over the Appenines; it wasn't an affair of squeezing airlift from the hard-pressed allotment the R.A.F. could make, and supplies from stony-eyed DADOS the length and breadth of Africa, and personnel from anywhere at all they could be got.
They were unenlightened on the play of forces within the Mediterranean Command; and they had never heard of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the condition was no doubt mutual). The war that they, were fighting was for them the only war in the world. They saw the operations of their fighting units as part of a front in every way comparable with the giant strides of the Red Army and the battles in Italy. None better than they could understand the superhuman effort and endurance which had gone to make their army. For them—and it could scarcely have been otherwise—the war of liberation in Jugoslavia was a microcosm of the world-wide war, the core and centre of the business. Anything which might suggest that it was not was hostile, insincere, unprogressive. Arms, arms, arms; that is what they needed; and no diversion of heavy-bomber strength to the war against U-boats in the Western Approaches, the softening-up of the front in Italy, the smashing of German war potential, could properly explain or allow for the amazing absence of supply. In their eyes only political hostility, could explain, that.
After these suppers together Bill and I would trail homewards through the pinewoods down into our ravine where the wounded lay and sunned themselves during the day and the river ran silver at night; and with the passing of the days those of us who were new to it would gradually feel the special atmosphere of this woodland life grow upon them. We had all the handicaps. We were townsmen, not specially tough or resistant, picked for quite other than physical qualifications. We could not see in the dark although our movements must nearly always be at night. We rode horses uneasily where life itself might depend on riding them well. We had grown used to sleeping in comfort—indeed, we had never done anything else—and were now in circumstances which shut out privacy or any sort of comfort. We had to unlearn our daily habits and acquire new ones;
in doing so at least we made our spectators laugh. And afterwards we were proud of our capacity to learn.
Some days later the time came for me to move on. We said goodbye all round: it was to be long before we met again. Tito said:
"We'll be in Belgrade next time." And, sixteen months later, we were.