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RULES AND REASONS
IT was only after many months of living with them that I began to be able to assess the motives which underlay their association. Theirs was far more than a purely political cause. They saw the future as their own interpretation of Utopia, and this Utopia not a chromium-plated paradise or a surfeit of paternal benignity, but simply an affair of honest government and self-respect. It would be enough to remove the fascists and what they stood for, and men would live at peace. Meanwhile, there could be no compromise: total war meant everything that a man might know of or possess, and nothing and no one could be spared. Desperation was their mainspring; their beliefs and imperatives arose from the circumstances themselves.
They were a people bound up in themselves, knowing only themselves, unaware of their limitations. It seemed to me that they had restated the morality of faith and hope and charity; and yet they made no claim to dispel the metaphysical despair of western Europe, for they did not know of this despair. Seekers for the New Jerusalem that Europe wearied for would scarcely find it here. They thought in terms of political possibilities, and left philosophy to gnaw its own vitals. They knew that their cause was a moral one, the only cause in Europe as they thought that was worth fighting and dying for; but their formulation of this was paltry and undiscerning. Only their practice of it was superb.
For them it was enough to believe that the political federation and democracy they talked of would be accomplished, not by the hackneyed shibboleths of constitution-makers, but by the moral will and effort of every man and woman who could fight for it and vote for it. Their faith gave them complete justification. They were content to point the way of escape for a civilization whose basis they condemned, their evident logic being the wretchedness their rulers had heaped on them for untold centuries; and they were not troubled, in their eagerness and desperation, to examine their metaphysics or their morals.
Lawrence had said in a context that was useful in analogy however different the circumstances might be: "I wondered why Feisal wanted to fight the Turks and why the Arabs helped him, and saw that his aim was geographical, to exclude the Turks from all Arabic-speaking lands in Asia. Their peace ideal of liberty could exercise itself only so. In pursuit of the ideal condition we might kill Turks, because we disliked them very much; but the killing was a pure luxury. If they would go quietly the war would end..."
But in our war this cool definition had lost its value: there were no Turks any longer, there were only Fascists; the Fascists infested the land like filth, and the killing of them had achieved the status of a moral imperative. To gain this new world, this civilization that should arise from two and a half thousand years of urgent speculation, they proposed in their sublime self-confidence nothing more complicated than the overthrow of tyranny and the establishment of democracy. For the future they enacted no moral safeguards, proposed for the Christian sanctions of pity and restraint no effective substitute, and for the dangers of mental laziness and moral decay they provided no spur or guide more inspiring than a hierarchy of duties. They were a peasant people concerned with simple and immediate propositions of obvious good and evil. And as long as life was cheap and death a daily companion this might work. Others might say that afterwards, in peace, it would betray shallowness and run the gamut of narrow nationalism. But for them the equation was a simple one, and in destroying the apparatus of corruption and privilege and cruelty they understood by Fascism they saw the way to their millenium.
And in this work they held little of themselves back. Their sacrifices were not always equal; individuals failed to stand the test; there were occasional thieves and vagabonds and bandits. But the exceptions only threw into higher relief the truly admirable spirit of the many. There was a common denominator of faith and courage that characterized all their actions, a spirit of regeneration which the enemy in his narrow prejudice could never seem to understand, much less to respect.
The terms of warfare, at least in Jugoslavia, were incredibly exacting. The liberation movement was a peasant movement, fought out on rules that peasants understood. They set up no initial compulsion to fight, although later there was rigid discipline; they expected and arranged for no pay or compensation of any kind; they accorded no credit to a man for any but acts of outstanding physical courage and endurance; and the incidental comforts of fellowship and reminiscence, although they indulged heavily in both, could not withstand the logic of their hard and desolate peasant calculus. Upon that broke all that was sentimental or subjective; and if, later, when the Odreds grew into an army and their leaders became officers and their scarce-noticed badges of command were replaced by gold stripes and stars, it was with a secret knowledge of regret, of deflated self-esteem that they would not in their pride have admitted to, of return rather than of advance—still at the same time their sense of accumulated gain won for the new army their every loyalty.
The glories they had volunteered for had somehow become compulsions; yet the compulsions were now their own, and were on a level with the need which harnesses a man to his plough, and they could accept them gladly.
Meanwhile they were ready to fight to the limit of the super-humanly possible, and they would accept amongst themselves no palliation or excuse for failure. They assumed as an affair of natural right that all should start equal (although later they allowed exceptions to talented recruits) on the common ground of man to man, and that promotion could be a result only of proved capacity so that failure was a proof of irresponsibility and should be met with due punishment. The conditions upon which they accepted to fight the occupying armies were so frightful in the scale of reprisal on the civil population that weaknesses would have quickly undone their voluntary system and put paid to their movement. And it was clear that they accepted these conditions of reprisal by the enemy as the only alternative to compromise and eventual surrender, and as a necessary moral contribution to the winning of their war. The notion that they might be open to reproof for entailing their families and the families of their friends in reprisals by an infuriated enemy they emphatically rejected, and on the whole it did not occur to them; they suffered only in their self-respect in not being able to prevent reprisals by the strength of their own arms. This was a fundamental of their faith. The enemy they saw as a bloody murderer who must be destroyed in any guise he might adopt; it would not do to temporize with him as they had temporized with his forerunners in the past. He would never be harmless until he was dead, for if he did not reappear in one form he would do so in another. Thus they said Smrt Fasizmu! in their greetings to each other—Death to Fascism—and they understood this in the literal sense of killing men who were corrupted beyond redemption.
Those from outside who might counsel caution and moderation and the avoidance of action that would "lead to enemy reprisals" they regarded as soft-hearted fools or party-interested knaves. No doubt, perhaps, their old traditions of violence and feud did much to sanction disregard of reprisals and destruction; the background conditions were certainly not those of urban Europe.
This was the raw material of the movement; a peasant people of great physical pride and strength, with illimitable powers of endurance, recognizing only the hard results of courage, willing to contribute to the battle a moral fervour that was transcendental in its fighting quality.
The political agency which harnessed, and in some degree produced, this fighting combination was the communist party of Jugoslavia aided later in Slovenia by the other parties of the Osvoboditelni Front and in Croatia by the Peasant Party. But primarily it was the communists alone who showed themselves able to appreciate with constructive intelligence and match with self-denial the political possibilities of a people ready to offer, in defence of itself, everything that it possessed. They took the movement in all its crude early enthusiasm and made out of it the instrument with which to realize a most practical political ambition.
Without their harsh practicality and knowledge of affairs the movement would have degenerated quickly into sectional strife or become the tool of individuals or small-group interests. They converted the unskilled peasant bands which the enemy terror had driven up into the woods into conscious soldiers in the cause of the common good. They stood by with their tried realism and gradually stamped out of the milling chaos of independent command and individual tactics a pattern that satisfied their ambitions without stultifying their ideals. For the South Slav communists were profoundly idealist; they believed in the self-healing properties of society, in the basic regeneration of mankind by works—and in proposing the death of Fascism and the birth of federal democracy with all its concomitants of citizenship and education they saw sufficient stimulus of what they held to be the natural virtues of man. A just society would be its own reward. They followed Plato in holding that good examples were enough, provided the conditions of society be dignified and honourable.
They saw no need to propound a moral system: the peasants whom they led would be justified by works. Rather they regarded metaphysics as a sickly middle-class illusion which could have no place in the desperate urgency of their lives. The problems they knew and recognized were clearcut: they were concerned to build schools and to teach reading and writing and arithmetic to everyone, and that would take a generation or two; and after that to build universities and exploit the sciences, and that would take several more; and to abolish obscurantism and illiteracy and blindness and beastliness, and to put in drains and irrigation and electric power, and modern means of transport and steel ploughs, and better breeding stock and more efficient methods of production and of distribution, and a million advantages which the old politics had not afforded them.
They offered enthusiasm and untiring energy, patience beyond words, self-sacrifice that must be unlimited if it were to mean anything to peasants whose lives were lived on the narrowest margins of poverty; and they set up standards of every-day probity and decency so revolutionary and so compelling in their appeal as to make it seem to many, in those days, that a thick black line had ruled off for ever the unregenerate past, and a new life was possible now, fuller and kinder and richer in root and branch.
And in their intransigence they were unfailingly provoked by the hostility and prejudice of all those forces inside and outside their own country which might have mollified their sufferings and encouraged their self-confidence and generosity. They were damned from the beginning by the established order in Jugoslavia and by the governments of the Western Allies. Only their military successes could later overcome the distrust towards them of those forces which ought to have been on their side from the very first. Their marxist interpretation of political motive worked out with appalling accuracy. Point by point they were pushed into a position in which they found that only their own unaided efforts and intelligence could win the war in Jugoslavia and prevent their own elimination; and later, when Allied help finally came, they accepted it as a tribute which was no more than their due and called for no gratitude on their part, as a proof that their philosophy was right and Western Europe's wrong, and as a crowning stone in the structure of their politics.
They watched the Allies warily, their thoughts inevitably bound up with Europe and European examples, determined that the dubious motives of the West should not be allowed to filter into their enthusiasm and corrupt it with doubts and temptation to private interest. They were vastly ignorant of England and America, and thought them capable of the meanest subterfuge in their own advantage. Recent history, after all, had offered plenty of occasion for this belief. The combination of their achievement and their ignorance gradually produced in them a sense of superiority which, when allied to the gross personal vanity of their Balkan tradition, could make of them the most difficult of allies, persistent in error, impervious to suggestion, incapable of progress. They were to suffer in the future from this social unbalance.
This was a derogation really of the Western Allies, not of them. They had performed miracles of faith and courage, and all they had heard from the West was the crudest howl of anti-communism at a time when they asked only for warlike stores but when they might well have expected (as the wide masses of the people undoubtedly did expect) a word of comradeship and praise. By the time that word was given the damage had been done; and they saw in it not the generous fellowship of a great people as they believed the British (or the Americans) to be but the narrow calculation of a reactionary governing clique which remained secretly hostile.
Other observers have confirmed that this was the same in other countries, too: time after time the governments of the Western Allies showed towards liberation movements their suspicion and contempt in a thousand little ways, of which the net result was always to discredit and deflate the motives of resistance. In the case of country after country the policies of London and Washington strove to put back in control men they believed would answer their special interests, not the interest of the countries concerned. The insult might have been less if the men they favoured had not been so patently incompetent. But habits of resistance encouraged clear thinking. And it was abundantly clear that the one thing the leaders of resistance could not tolerate was discredit of their motives. That would mean early demoralization of their rank-and-file and, eventually, their own spiritual frustration. England and America could fight for slogans their leaders might sneer at in private; they could afford to pay their soldiers and distract their boredom, or excite their courage, with a rich variety of tricks and bribes. But the pay of partisans was moral credit, and the only inducement their leaders could offer was example. Condemn that example and you had effectively finished off the whole movement. There was a danger to them in frustration far more real than the birking of a few metaphysical difficulties which two milleniums had not sufficed to resolve.
The leaders of the movement in Jugoslavia, whether communist or non-communist, drew their inspiration from the resistance of the Russian people. Those who came early on the scene were either fired to action by the opportunity they saw or had learnt their trade in fighting Fascism in Spain. Nothing shows more clearly the historical importance of the international brigades than the part played in European resistance by men who had fought in Spain. In Spain they learnt that the technique of modern warfare included a sound political line and propaganda as well as tanks and aeroplanes; and they applied their lessons in every corner of the invaded Continent. Their problem was to make war precisely where it was most difficult, in the target area of an intricate system of internal communications which the enemy would and could defend with incomparably superior means. It would not do to stay hidden in the mountains, mouthing ferocities and killing an occasional patrol. They had to attack the enemy where it would really hurt him, not merely annoy him. Their early efforts ended often in disaster. Local commanders would forget that partisan warfare was not regular warfare, and let the enemy's tanks and lorried infantry roll over their stiff defences.
But the leaders of real talent, Kosta and Peko Dabchevitch and Kocha P'opovich, and othars, were already learning their new technique, applying in their own way what Lawrence had foreseen:
"Suppose we were (as we might be) an influence, an idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? Armies were like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. We might be a vapour, blowing where we listed. Our kingdoms lay in each man's mind; and as we wanted nothing material to live on, so we might offer nothing material to the killing...."
Their problem was the physical elimination of the enemy: it was not enough to demonstrate against him, for they knew that sooner or later he would be defeated; they had to participate to the limit of their scope in his defeat. Of railway destruction Lawrence had laid down: "In railway cutting it would usually be an empty stretch of rail; and the more empty the greater the tactical success." But they differed with him here. They were determined to kill the enemy by direct action. Apart from that, the denseness of his occupation meant that simple line-breaks could be repaired in a few hours no matter where they were made. Their aim was to blow up his rolling-stock, pare down his garrisons, wipe out his outposts, drain from him a constant flow of blood and materials, demoralize him and destroy him.
Their tactics could be summarized in a few general principles. The early Odreds lived and grew by eliminating police posts, capturing a few rifles here and a few there, gradually becoming bolder and more practised, seldom standing to fight, always on the move. From these early experiences there grew up a fairly general understanding of the only conditions that could offer hope of success: to maintain the highest possible degree of surprise, to attack the enemy in rear or in flank, to refuse battle on the enemy's terms, to avoid reprisals wherever possible but never to allow threat of them to excuse inaction.
As the units grew and Odreds became brigades and brigades became divisions it was possible to elaborate detailed rules for recruitment and supply. In the end there was a body of doctrine on irregular warfare that made the Allies' handbooks on the subject look what in fact they were, patently silly. The rules were never foolproof but they were a good general guide to successful survival. They were the product of a great deal of trial and error, and they could not be leamt in two minutes. They dealt with every situation of importance, including march discipline, security, the crossing of main lines of communications and their destruction, with supply, with every sort and kind of ambush, with the limits and responsibilities of command, with hospitals and the care of the sick, with political education and propaganda, with intelligence and counter-espionage, with everything, in short, from the importance of having beards shaved every third day and boots cleaned every second, to the sighting of machine guns and the placing of explosives.
In relative degree these principles applied to all formations of the partisan army, no matter how large, for very seldom was any partisan commander, at least until 1944, endowed with means that could justify a return to the habits of regular warfare. It simply meant that the same tactics would be applied on an ever-increasing scale. Towns were attacked in 1942 where villages had been raided in 1941; and in 1943 provincial capitals were beseiged and sometimes taken; yet the basic methods of infiltration and surprise were not discarded.
Kosta had a special name for taking towns, partly because it was he who had taken Bihatch in 1942. His invariable technique, as I watched it for myself, was to feint elsewhere whilst moving his assault units stage by stage into position under cover of darkness; and then to precede the final night assault by the infiltration of a picked unit whose job it was to get into the centre of the town without firing a shot and to occupy one or two prominent buildings; as soon as the general assault began this panic unit would open rapid fire in all directions, and create conditions in the rear of the defenders which enabled those outside »to open a breach, and then by street-fighting to link up and isolate the enemy for piecemeal destruction.
The enemy had learnt better by the middle of 1942 than to be careless of his defences; and had grown wise to partisan methods of ambush and infiltration. His usual reply was to build a bunker, or series of bunkers, earth or brick or reinforced concrete defence posts similar to our pill-boxes. Later on, the first thing a small garrison thought of in moving into a new post was to build a strong bunker in the middle of their village upon which they could base their system of defence. These bunkers were difficult to destroy. The Piat or Bazooka turned out to be the ideal weapon, but was not available to us until 1944, and before that the usual practice was to employ bombashi, hand grenade men, who had to achieve the outer wall of the bunker in question, huddling close under the gun-slits, and sneak grenades over the top of the wall or through the slits. The best bombashi were boys of twelve or fourteen, little chaps who could nip quickly over the hundred yards or so that might separate the bunker from the nearest cover and throw their bombs before the enemy knew what was happening. Many of them were killed in the course of this hazardous but necessary operation.
They were enormously popular with the men, feted as heroes, competed for as mascots, cared for with paternal jealousy and pride, and endlessly teased. They would stride along in uniforms too big for them, half a dozen bombs jostling at their waist, singing fearfully out of tune, the subject of comment on all sides. Sometimes girls would volunteer for this work.
The destruction of trains became a science. Sabotage teams were formed after special courses by diversanti. In small quantities they could obtain most of the normal demolition gadgets, and what they were unable to capture they learnt to devise for themselves; explosives at least of quarry origin were usually available, so that by the summer of 1943 the destruction of rolling-stock on all the main lines of Jugoslavia west of Belgrade had become a violent headache to the enemy; and later, when we could drop them regular supplies of plastic and accessories, the results became phenomenal.
This slowing-up of trains remained a primary activity of all formations and damaged the enemy perhaps more than anything else. No matter what skill and supply he put into his patrols and repair gangs there was never any guarantee that trains would run. Afterwards in the plain of Srem I was to see how impossible it was for the enemy to stop our diversanti, short of lining the railway at intervals of ten paces by day and night. For weeks on end the trains would not run at all by night, or else in whistling trepidation at ten miles an hour with gravel wagons ahead of the engine; and by day they would run with an intimate apprehension of impending disaster too often justified by events.
Ambush became an affair of accepted routine. Drills were laid down for all stages of the action, the approach in secrecy, the attack in due sequence of delay, the exploitation by rapid encirclement, the withdrawal under cover of a blind. Those who took part were expected to understand exactly what was happening in each stage of the action and to be capable of coming to an individual decision on what to do if orders were temporarily lacking.
A whole vocabulary of new words came into use to describe situations and duties which were a product of the war. Many of these words were scarcely translatable. Pokret meant march as well as movement. Tishina hissed down the line, meant silence. Those were obvious. But how translate baza, which meant so much more than base, being everything from a hole in the ground to a first-class billet; or veza, which meant link, but also liaison, clandestine channel, relationship, the contact of columns on the march? And the astonishing thing was that these specialized concepts for abnormal military or conspiratorial activities penetrated right down into the language and the understanding of the peasants, so that it was no unusual thing to find some old woman whose previous observations had been limited to the usages of agriculture discoursing to you on the luck of this or that veza, and the advantages of so-and-so's baza over somebody else's, and the niceties of konspiratsia. There was a famous verb, konspirati, which meant far more than "to conspire"; it meant security in all its aspects. "We'll have to conspire your being here," they would say, meaning conceal you without knowledge of the neighbours. Konspiratsia covered everything that it might be dangerous to know, or for other people to know.
This well-learned experience was to bring in golden returns to the whole Allied cause when the march of events and the improvement of liaison made large-scale co-operation possible. In September, 1944, there was a famous operation, planned by Brigadier Maclean, then commanding Allied liaison in Jugoslavia, in conjunction with Balkan Air Forces under Air Vice Marshal Elliott, and carried out by the Jugoslav Army, that aimed at disrupting all enemy lines of communication to coincide with certain operations in Italy. It was called "Ratweek"; and for the target duration of one week it was possible by action in all areas to paralyse all movement of enemy men and supplies on practically every length of line in Jugoslavia, whether in Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, or elsewhere. Another aspect of this co-operation was the help which I Corps was able to give the Russians in the taking of Belgrade.
By the time this tale begins, in August, 1943, the technique of partisan warfare had been well-learned by the veterans of the movement, and enough of these had remained alive to form adequate cadres for the fairly rapid expansion of units and the intake of volunteers. Losses on the partisan side diminished progressively as more and more men, and sometimes women, became capable of tactical leadership, and it was rare now for the ratio against the enemy to fall below ten to one. The general area of Central and Eastern Bosnia in which I was now to work was under the command of Kosta Nadj, one of Tito's best commanders; at that time he had three well-found divisions, the eleventh to the west of the Bosna, and the seventeenth and sixteenth to the east, as well as a large number of Odreds and mobile brigades scattered about the terrain in a state of constant recruitment. Each of these divisions had up to about three thousand men on its strength, and was well supplied with small arms and light mortars, though they had next to no artillery. The men travelled on their feet, and what they could not carry they put on pack-ponies or in ox-carts...
Kosta's special problem was to enter and re-occupy the central massif of Eastern Bosnia, leaving the eleventh division (then besieging Banya Luka) to hold the hills that run down the left bank of the Bosna. This task was part of the general plan for the establishment of an area of "liberated territory" in Central and Western Bosnia comparable to the Bihatch Republic. For Bosnia was the geographical mother of the partisan movement, providing ample space amongst its mountains for training and development. The partisans celebrated Bosnia in more songs than have ever been collected together:
Drug nam Staljin iz Moskve
Salje nove vjesti:
Crvena je armija
Vec premi Odesi.
Drug nam Tito iz Bosne
Svoju zemlju brane.
(Stalin sends news that the Red Army is moving on Odessa; Tito reports from Bosnia that the partisans are fighting for their native soil like heroes....)
A strong partisan force active in Eastern Bosnia meant that any strong enemy push from the north or north-east (across the Drina or the Sava below Brod) could be met with delaying actions .which would make time for stronger defences further into the mountains, or possibly could be held and turned back. That was a primary motive. Second in order of importance was activity in an area that was contiguous to Serbia, so that news of partisan progress might be carried across the Drina to the scattered Odreds of Shumadija (the "Forest Land" which is the heart of Serbia). Thirdly, and no less important, was the refusal to allow the occupiers rest and peace in any sector of the "front." A fourth motive was the desire to encourage the promising young movement in the plain of Srem, and to draw off recruits from the rich villages across the Sava and, eventually, from across the Danube. Eastern Bosnia was therefore at the same time an advanced defence area; and also an operational base for the extension of the movement across the Drina into Serbia and across the Sava into the Vojvodina.
The main objective in the new campaign was to throw the enemy out of the valleys of the Sprecha and the Drinjatcha which, with the interconnecting mountains, would draw a line across Eastern Bosnia from east to west, thus dividing the enemy to the north and south of that line respectively for separate attack. In general, the sixteenth division would deal with the northern part, the Majevitsa Planina and the lowland of Semberija, and the other two divisions would operate to the south.
To achieve this objective it would be necessary to take Tuzla, a strongly-held town of some 20,000 inhabitants in the upper valley of the Sprecha. Tuzla was the capital town of Eastern Bosnia and would be the biggest target yet tackled in this province.
But for the moment all hinged on a successful crossing of the Bosna in force. Running down as it did from Sarayevo to the Sava at Brod, the River Bosna was of primary importance to enemy lines of communication, and as such was heavily garrisoned. In the sector which would affect our crossing there were garrisons, each several hundred strong, at Zenitsa, Zavidovichi, Maglaj, Doboj, Modritch, and elsewhere, and easy reinforcement could be had from Brod. The enemy kept several armoured trains patrolling up and down the line. Mobile patrols, train guards, Sicherheitsmaenner, and chetniks who spied for them, were thick on the ground. Getting a force of more than a thousand men across the river would be a game of complicated hide and seek. In the end it would depend upon seventeenth division's success in forming a bridgehead on the other side. A failure might be costly since there was bound to be a period, even if only for a few hours, when we should be bunched together at or near the crossing, and without proper cover. It would be a matter of nice calculation and rapid movement.
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