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THE SIXTH OFFENSIVE
WHILE our tiny units were striving to make headway in the plain of Srem, and we were camping in the Woods of Bosut, the Germans in the mountains beyond the Sava were in fact completing the last desperate throw of the four months' campaign which made up their sixth offensive. In all, during those three years of enemy superiority, there were seven major offensives against partisan territory. These seven campaigns were distinct from the day-to-day warfare that went on in every part of the country, a never-ending series of minor clashes, sometimes from German-Italian-Ustashe initiative, sometimes from partisan initiative; and they were distinct, too, from planned operations involving large numbers of troops against isolated regions such as the central Slovenian hills, or the Papuk Planina in Slavonia.
The seven offensives were seven different attempts by carefully-planned, co-ordinated, and extensive manoeuvres to annihilate the main core of partisan resistance. The scene of their operations was laid against the tragic background of the central mountains of Jugoslavia. The partisan command justified the title of "offensive" in that upon each of these occasions the Germans (and, in the beginning, also the Italians) showed clearly that they had brought together a large number of assault troops for the attainment of a series of well-defined objectives; and the campaigns followed a phase-plan, with a recognizable beginning, middle, and conclusion. Subsequent capture of enemy documents has shown how determined the Germans were that they should eliminate, by major operations if necessary, the back-bone formations of the partisan army.
The way in which these major operations were executed, and the results they achieved (or failed to achieve) provide the best possible evidence of the fighting efficiency of the partisans; and some understanding of them is a necessary background to an appreciation of the resistance movement as a whole. From the very first the Germans gave ample proof that they were well aware of the danger to them in allowing resistance in Jugoslavia to develop undisturbed. They made a close and expert study of partisan tactics, devoting to this an overall outlay in men and material that was very large, and included a minute network of para-military police posts as well as large and continuous subventions to every kind of fifth column.
It is clear from the way in which they carried out their operations that for the first two years they remained sure of their capacity to encircle and annihilate the core of resistance; the first five offensives conformed to a plan whereby the partisan command (and its political organs) would be surrounded together with its principal formations, and then systematically wiped out. The first four attempts at this failed completely, succeeding only in dislodging the command and its main units from the areas in which they had set up their centre of authority—in Central Serbia, Western Bosnia, Montenegro, then again in Western Bosnia—and disorganizing temporarily the growth of the movement. On their fifth attempt, using the best troops they could bring into action—the Germans all but succeeded, and the command with its protective divisions escaped from Montenegro into Eastern Bosnia only by the narrowest margin. The Germans failed just short of their objective, but the balance of forces in the war was already changing and they could not again muster what must clearly be an overwhelming force; the fifth offensive was the last occasion upon which they tried at one throw to eliminate the army and to crush resistance. After that they were obliged to realize that the best they could do was to contain the army within certain boundaries necessary to German strategy in the Balkans, and possibly to eliminate sections of it.
The fifth offensive ended with the breaking of the ring in Montenegro and the escape of Tito and the main formations into Eastern Bosnia. That was in mid-June, 1943. British missions had just arrived on the ground. It appears that the German command, for a short time after that, assumed the partisans to be crippled so badly that they would lie quiet for the remainder of the year. Events were to prove this wrong. Local partisan operations were already in swing again by the middle of August—in Slovenia, and in other areas not affected by the fourth and fifth offensives, these operations had never ceased—and in September the Italians capitulated with greatly beneficial results to the partisan cause. The balance of forces inside Jugoslavia was at once tipped markedly against the Germans. The danger now presented itself that the Allies might risk a landing, even if only of limited and diversionary scope, at Split on the Dalmatian Coast, seized and held by partisan forces on a narrow margin of time against German forces hastening down to the coast to take it. Over two-thirds of Jugoslavia was now under partisan control. Unless they undertook extensive operations without further delay, the Germans risked losing their main lines of communication with Greece and Bulgaria.
The tactical position the Germans then faced was by far the least favourable they had met since their initial attack on Jugoslavia in April, 1941. In some ways, since they had now to deal with a tried and desperate army under an efficient command, better armed than the pre-war Jugoslav army had ever been, the position was less favourable even than in 1941. They might talk of Banditen in their propaganda, but they knew well enough that the time had passed when their military planning staff could treat the Jugoslav resistance as a police problem. The only real partisans left now were the Odreds on the periphery of "liberated territory"—in Macedonia, parts of Serbia, the Voivodina—that were extending the movement into areas which previously had been comparatively quiet; and even these the occupiers could no longer afford to leave outside their main calculations. Only Donausender and the Axis press could be allowed now to pour contempt on the partisan claim to have formed an army; and for the Germans it must have been a matter of profound satisfaction that the Allies seemed to remain so obstinately unaware of this significant change. The Jugoslav army, as it had now the right to call itself, had occupied the whole mountainous area from the hills above Trieste to the Greek frontier excepting only certain central strongpoints of the enemy, like Sarayevo, Skoplje, Nish, and parts of Serbia and Macedonia, and even these principal garrisons ran serious risk of being cut off and annihilated one by one. The Jugoslavs held long stretches of the Dalmatian coastline including the modern harbour and port of Split, most of the Dalmatian islands, an ample bridgehead for the Allies across the Adriatic if landing operations were in view. They had strong dependent formations across the Sava in the Bilo Gora and in Slavonia; their operations extended to within riffe-shot of Zagreb, Ljubljana, and Belgrade.
The German sixth offensive began in mid-October, four months after the conclusion of their fifth. It was planned and executed under the orders of the German Supreme Commander in Jugoslavia, Field-Marshal von Weichs; and on Jugoslav reckoning a total of twenty-five German divisions, not all of them complete, however, took part in it. These troops were drawn from the mechanized army group under von Weichs' command, reinforced by elements from Kesselring's command in Italy as well as by formations of Ustashe, chetniks, and local militia provided by Pavelitch, Neditch, Rupnik, and other quisling leaders. The operations were carried out in two principal phases of which the first phase was preliminary and consisted of a six weeks' campaign in the two outlying areas of Slovenia and Macedonia, at either end of Jugoslavia, and the second phase one of main operations in the central mountains. As usual, the partisan command were well informed of impending action by the enemy; Lt.-General Jovanovitch, its Chief of Staff, writing afterwards in the review, "Nova Jugoslavia," has pointed out that they were faced with two alternatives. Either they could accept battle on static positions in the hope that the Allies might land at Split, thus risking heavy losses to themselves but probable disaster, in the event of failure of the Allies to land, from penetration by enemy armour; or alternatively they could revert to liquid tactics by the formation of strong mobile groups which would act more or less independently within roughly-defined tactical areas. In the nature of things they were bound to resist the temptation to concentrate their main forces in defence of Split; accordingly they adopted the second alternative.
After preliminary action involved in the concentration of their forces, the Germans opened the offensive—which was to be a series of attacks on limited objectives in different parts of Jugoslavia—in Macedonia, aiming at the elimination of "liberated territory" freshly gained by the partisans between the valleys of the Vardar, the southern Drina, and the Black River. These partisan groups had recently made contact with the national liberation movement in Albania. In choosing this as the site of their first attack, the Germans revealed once more the fear which constantly hag-rode them—that the movement in Jugoslavia would develop into the base and focal point for a whole series of similar movements throughout southeastern Europe.
According to partisan sources the Germans used in these operations in Macedonia 100 Infantry Division and 1 Mountain Division (a famous anti-partisan division which had been for long busy against the partisans in Greece). This division had been for some time in Albania and included a large proportion of non-German elements such as Kazaks taken from the Red Army and a few Albanian Moslems; later on 100 Division was to be smashed in a vain attempt to hold up the Russian advance in Galicia in the later spring of '44. This meant they had greatly superior forces. The Macedonian units narrowly escaped annihilation by effecting a last-moment crossing into the Vardar Valley, where they blew the line as thoroughly as they could, and then moved on again into the tangle of mountains to the east. The net German gain was to sever contact with Albanian formations for a time.
Simultaneous operations in Slovenia, at the other end of the country, were less successful and concluded after six weeks' fighting with the initiative in partisan hands. Von Weichs opened up with elements of 71, 99 and "Hermann Goering" Divisions, most of which had come up from Italy for the occasion, and engaged Jugoslav 9 Corps in the hill country south and west of Ljubljana. He then brought in 162 and 367 Divisions on a line Zagreb-Novo Mesto-Ljubljana, engaging partisan 7 Corps and later also part of 4 Corps. The operations were inconclusive, but were characterized on the German side by a systematic policy of burning and plundering, so that whole areas lay charred and deserted after their troops had passed on.
The second phase was opened at the end of November, and affected the two main theatres of action, the first in Lika, Banya, and the Kordun, and the second to the south, in the Sanjak and Eastern Bosnia. Once again the main object of these operations was to isolate partisan formations from each other so as to eliminate them one by one. For about two months 4 and 11 Corps (and from time to time with the help of elements of 5 and 9 Corps) were in continuous action with strong German forces attempting to cut across the ranges that linked Western Bosnia with Lika and the mountains of the coast. The Germans brought in all or elements of 371, 392, 199 and 1 Cavalry Divisions on a line extending from Sushak on the coast inland along the Kupa valley, and all or elements of 373 and 114 Divisions on a line extending from Knin along the valley of the Una, attacking north and south respectively. Four Corps suffered badly in the initial phase and was thrown back from the Una as far as a line Slunj-Dragutin, counter-attacking then with success against 371 Division and 1 Cavalry Regiment, and taking Glin; this corps then turned back on the Una valley and considerably reduced the area held by 373 Division, whose communications were threatened at the same time by elements of 5 Corps.
Nine Corps had meanwhile been attacking from three sides, respectively from bases at Sushak, Ogulin and Gospitch, and was fighting hard to prevent these spearheads from linking up across the Gorski Kotar. Eighteen Division of 7 Corps and 19 Division of 8 Corps were able to ease a dangerous situation by attacking rear communications, but the effect of this was felt only after the enemy had in fact succeeded in linking up, from Gospitch and Ogulin, at the small Dalmatian port of Senj. Heavy fighting was going on at the same time in the Croatian Zagorje.
In the second theatre of this phase, in the Sanjak and Eastern Bosnia, the Germans pursued the same tactic of multi-pronged attacks designed to isolate partisan formations in well-contained mountain areas. They attacked from four directions; 1 Mountain Division (brought up from Macedonia), 92 Grenadier Regiment and 181 Division from the Drina and the Ibar defiles; 1 Volunteer Division (a Serbo-Croat-Moslem unit under German officers and N.C.O.s) and 187 Division from the Sava valley; 5 and 369 Divisions from the Bosna Valley; and elements of "Prinz Eugen" S.S. Division (also consisting of a mixture of Croat and German minority rank-and-file with German officers and N.C.O.s) from the direction of Sarayevo and Focha. By far the most serious of these from the Jugoslav point of view was the first, for it threatened to destroy once more their chances of getting back into Serbia, and of linking up with the movement there and in Macedonia. Their emphasis on this attack made it clear that the Germans knew perfectly well where their greatest danger lay. Their aim was primarily to contain the partisans in Bosnia; the contact with Serbia was to be prevented at all costs. The Germans feared that once strong partisan units could break through into Serbia the country would rise in welcome of them; and the German command put forth a considerable effort to prevent this from happening. Although 2 Corps held out on the north-south line of the Lim river for many days, the Germans eventually got across the river on an undestroyed bridge at Prijepolje, and penetrated deeply into the Sanjak, finally reaching Gorazhde and Vishegrad in two thrusts over Plevlje and Priboj respectively.
They failed to press home their advantage, however, and within a few days 2 Corps, taking advantage of enemy preoccupation with 5 Division which executed a remarkable diversionary march northwestwards over the Drina at this point, went over to the counter-attack; its northern wing cleared remnants of the enemy out of the lower Lim Valley and pushed on into Western Serbia, taking Nova Varosh and Ivanyitsa, and bringing to the scattered Odreds of that area an encouragement far beyond their best hopes. Hitherto, Serbia had remained for the main partisan army almost a closed territory; the enemy had stood firm on the Drina and the Lim, and the prestige of Mihaylovitch, backed heavily until then by the propaganda of the Allies, had rendered the political atmosphere unfavourable for the extension of resistance. Small partisan groups had come into being soon after the first German offensive had driven Tito and the army as it then existed from Uzhitse; but they had suffered appalling hardships in their struggle to remain alive in a country which was infested with chetnik spies whose information was always readily available to the enemy. With the arrival of part of 2 Corps at Ivanyitsa—contemporary as it was with the formation of the Provisional Government at Yaytse and the withdrawal of British backing from Mihaylovitch in favour of the partisans—the whole situation in Serbia radically changed. Enemy operations had succeeded only in producing the very situation they most wished to avoid. The southern wing of 2 Corps meanwhile swung southwards into the high country of Montenegro and Hertsegovina, advancing towards the coast and liberating Ljubinje. In doing so 29 Division of 2 Corps was able to link up with the remnants deliberately left behind in Montenegro when Tito and the main army ascaped from it during the fifth offensive. The movement in Montenegro could once more begin full development again.
By December the fighting had switched again to Eastern Bosnia, where 3 Corps, aided by 5 Division in the south and 16 Division (Lekitch) in the Mayevitsa, were engaged with considerable enemy forces brought in from surrounding areas. This was the fighting in which Steve and Stanley had become involved, and which cost the loss of the party under Captain Jeffries. 3 Corps had a particularly hard time; they were fighting in the bare uplands of the Javor and Konjuh hills, under deep snow, with little or nothing to eat and only occasional shelter. Kosta was obliged to fight one of the hardest campaigns of the war. The men suffered fearfully; clothing was at a premium, and it is probable that one man in ten failed to achieve any boots at all. Death from starvation was not unknown. 5 Division once more performed miracles; crossing the high Zvijezda and Konjuh hills in appalling weather, it fell unexpectedly on the enemy in the valley of the upper Drina, blew the main rail and road bridges on the important secondary line that linked Vishegrad with Pale and Sarayevo, and continued south-eastwards to liberate Gorazhde, Focha, and Kalinovik. (Some appreciation of the term "liberated" in this respect may be had from the calculation made after the war that the East Bosnian town of Vlasenitsa changed hands no less than 49 times). About the same time Lekitch attacked northwards over the Mayevitsa and pushed the enemy back into his Sava bridgehead of Brtchko. The enemy had gained nothing from these efforts.
In December, too, there was continual fighting in Central and Western Bosnia, the enemy attacking towards Bugoyno and Glamotch with all or elements of 118 and 264 Divisions from bases at Knin and Imotski. Jugoslav 5 Corps was engaged for twenty days with these troops. And, finally, there was a last flare-up in Central Bosnia early in January, when the Germans reacted with great violence to their loss of the key supply town of Banya Luka to a brilliantly executed surprise attack by Jugoslav 1 and 11 Divisions.
Such in general outline was the sixth offensive on liberated territory in Jugoslavia. The fact that British observers were by this time plentiful on the ground meant that the fighting was adequately reported abroad—as it had never been before—and the conclusion of the campaign coincided with a great wave of publicity for the partisans in England and the United States. Referring to this offensive in a speech in the House of Commons on January i8th, 1944, Sir James Grigg, then Secretary of State for War, gave an account of the fighting, and of the attempt the Allies had made to bring help to the Jugoslavs, concluding with the statement that the "Partisan army has at one time or another during this period (of the sixth offensive) engaged up to fifteen German divisions, which might otherwise have been profitably employed elsewhere. Large areas of Jugoslavia are entirely under partisan control. Further, by their interruption of German sea, road, and rail communications the partisans have inflicted a heavy burden on the German organization of supplies."
It seemed at last that the war in Jugoslavia had been given its proper place in the pattern of world strategy. It was time that during the concluding months of 1943 Allied aircraft operating from bases in southern Italy had begun to take an active part in the harassing of German communications along the Dalmatian coast and also inland, and that a useful volume of warlike stores and food was being landed on the islands and at several points along the coastline. Unfortunately for the development of good relations between the partisans and the Allies this material assistance dwindled almost to nothing at the end of the year, and was practically nil during the crucial months of the sixth offensive. There were doubtless good reasons for this, as there were also for the refusal to carry out a landing through the partisan-held port of Split in September and October; but the partisans were lost to the difficulties that the Allied Command in Italy might be facing, and too impressed with their own, not to feel intense bitterness at this apparent neglect.
Tito gave expression to this feeling, very general at the time, in a review of the offensive on January l5th, when he said that: "I must ... emphasize that our People's Army of Liberation has not received any help from any side during the whole course of the offensive," and again that "I also emphasize that it was not necessary for us to be so abandoned ... had there existed the least desire to give us the help for which we had long been asking ..." A few days after Sir James Grigg's speech in the House of Commons the partisan broadcasting station, "Free Jugoslavia," commented that "our people hear all these praises from our friends with much attention and satisfaction; but they rightly expect these sympathies to be expressed in direct and material aid," pointing out that "many of our fighters are compelled, even to-day, to fight barefoot and without clothes in the severe winter weather, although there was ample opportunity to furnish all our units with the clothing and shoes and medical supplies that they needed." They saw then, as regretfully they are still inclined to see to-day, some dark plot to undermine their political achievement. While they listened to the massive exploits of Allied air forces over German-controlled Europe, they would not believe that aircraft could not be made available to bring supplies in ample quantities, let alone the great opportunity that existed in the landing of stores along the Dalmatian coast, if the Allies had really wished to help them.
There is little reason, however, to believe that the Allied theatre commander was moved at that advanced date by political considerations; and his subsequent willingness to send large quantities of stores by any means available, to create a special air force for bombing and strafing and supply-dropping in the Balkans, and to allow facilities for the evacuation and treatment of many thousands of wounded partisan and civilian evacuees, were sufficient proof of Allied appreciation of the value of the Jugoslav contribution. With the new year supply-dropping did in fact considerably increase; and this improvement was acknowledged in a special communique put out at Tito's headquarters on February 2nd. It was the more pity that the evil legacy of a reactionary past should persist in ruining partisan trust in the good intentions of the Allies.
It was the nature of partisan resistance that operations against it must either eliminate it altogether or leave it potentially stronger than before. This had been shown by the sequel to each of the previous five offensives from which, one after another, the partisan brigades and divisions had emerged stronger in experience and armament than they had been before, with the backing of a population which had come to see no alternative to resistance but death, imprisonment, or starvation. There could be no half-measures; the Germans left nothing behind them but a trail of ruin. What in other circumstances might possibly have remained the purely ideological war that reactionaries abroad said it was (and German propaganda did their utmost to support them) became a war for national preservation. So clear was this that no room was left for provincialism; Serbs and Croats and Slovenes, Macedonians, Bosnians, Christian and Moslem, Orthdox and Catholic, sank their differences in the sheer desperation of striving to remain alive. The Germans achieved with their iron pressure a union of Balkan nationalities that previous wars, however multiplied and occasionally dreadful, bad failed to achieve. A process of secular dimensions was telescoped into three frightful years.
For the Germans their sixth offensive was entirely inconclusive. They had failed to do more than merely interrupt the free development of the resistance movement, and although they burnt large numbers of villages and killed whomever they laid hands on they scarcely reduced the numbers of those who were fighting, and they laid the basis, indeed, for a great increase in those numbers. No reliable estimates of partisan casualties are available; and similarly it is impossible to do more than guess at German casualties. The only statement that can be made without fear of contradiction is that the ratio was heavily in favour of the partisans. Not only was the sixth offensive inconclusive; it was also clear from the general movement of events outside the Balkans, on the main war fronts, that it must be followed soon by another. Jugoslavia was coming perilusly near the main theatres of action. In the middle of January the Allies landed at Anzio, just south of Rome, held their bridgehead against the most furious attempts to throw them off it, and elbowed their way inland to within artillery range of Rome. The Ukranian front had broken long ago, and on January 3oth the Red Army crowded into Vinitsa, the springboard for the Carpathians: the next bound would take them over the Dniester into the Bukovina and Galicia. The air offensive on Germany's centres of war production was reaching its first peak of intensity after the worst of winter weather; and it was furthermore clear that the Allies would shortly operate upon targets in southern Europe with heavy bombers from the spacious airfields they now possessed in southern Italy. Time pressed.
The seventh offensive was their last attempt at wiping out the main core of the Jugoslav army. In general lines it was closely comparable with the sixth. Field-Marshal von Weichs was again in command with a highly mechanized army group, having reinforcements provided by Kesselring from the Italian front, several Bulgarian divisions in occupation of their part of Serbia-Macedonia, as well as every man that Pavelitch, Neditch, and other collaborators could make available, at his disposal. According to Jugoslav estimates (an article by Lt.-Gen. Jovanovitch, Chief of Staff at Jugoslav G.H.Q., in "Nova Jugoslavia" for June-July, 1944) von Weichs used a total of 18 German and Bulgar divisions, apart from other local formations; but it may be that this is an over-estimate, and it seems at least likely that some of these German divisions were in part strength only. They attacked in strong mobile columns, each with light armour and some aircraft support, the object being to eliminate resistance area by area, attacking each area with greatly superior strength. The partisans replied once more with their usual weaving tactics, careful as ever to avoid big defensive concentrations except on ground previously selected by themselves.
It was the preliminary movement of enemy units into position that was to affect our little party in the woods of Bosut in the middle of March, and to roll back our front along the Sava far into the Mayevitsa, holding up virtually until the end of the war the free movement over the Sava between Srem and Bosnia that meant so much to the development of resistance in the Voivodina.
The offensive may be reckoned to have lasted from early April until the end of June. It was accomplished in three principal phases each of which ramified into a multitude of minor actions too complicated for brief description. Once again, provoked by the encouragement of resistance in neighbouring Bulgaria and Albania afforded by the success of partisans in Serbia-Macedonia, the Germans opened their campaign in that area. Their main objective appears to have been the driving of partisan formations out of the Bulgarian, Albanian, and Greek frontier areas up into the mountains of the southern Morava, there to annihilate them. To this end they effected a number of big concentrations based on their principal garrisons and lines of communication, that is, in the main and the western valleys of the Morava, in the defile of the Ibar, at Pozharevats, Skoplje, and Chustendil on the old Bulgarian frontier, and elsewhere. They were partly successful in this; and the independent odreds and brigades which had been operating along the Bulgarian frontier, both Macedonian and Bulgarian in composition, were pushed, partly by weight of numbers, partly by weakness arising from their inferior experience and loose organization, into the upper reaches of the southern Morava and the Vlashina rivers, where they ran a substantial risk of being wiped out. According to partisan sources the enemy had 1 Mountain (a very knowing division by this time), a division of para-military police specially trained in anti-partisan warfare, 3 and 4 Grenadier Regiments, part of 13 S.S. (a new division formed largely of Bosnian Moslems and German minority settlers with German officers and mainly German N.C.O.s), a part of the "Skender Beg" S.S. (another mixed division, German command and largely Albanian Moslem rank and file), nine Bulgarian divisions (7, 15, 16, 17, 22, 24, 25, 27, and 122) as well as two regiments of Bulgarian cavalry, apart from various troops provided by Neditch and the chetnik commanders.
The situation could be saved for the partisans only by the most nimble tactics, for an attacking force of that weight and number would clearly annihilate anything upon which it could really fasten a grip. As many independent units as could be reached by orders from G.H.Q., therefore, were told to unite themselves in divisional formations strong enough to enable them to withstand minor assault; these divisions were to behave with great mobility and achieve if possible concentration for offensive purposes in the enemy's rear. At the same time partisan 2 and 5 Divisions, then back in the Sanjak, were formed into an independent striking force and told to move forthwith across the River Lim into Serbia and then to march northeastwards into the Shumadija. This they did, crossing the Western Morava with a riot of surprised chetnik formations flying before them—Mihaylovitch himself was then situated somewhere to the east of Ivanyitsa, his formations, such as they were, in close agreement if not open collaboration with the occupying enemy. Then, swinging on an axis Chacak-Uzhitse—back once more in the valley they had been driven out of nearly three years before—these two veteran divisions still further disconcerted the enemy's plans by pushing northwards across the Maljen hills in the direction of Valjevo. The enemy was already tired with days of marching in the hills; he had had several unpleasant shocks and unfavourable encounters; and he was now obliged to divide his formations in order to detach a force for the protection of Valjevo and the valley of the Western Morava.
After severe fighting for another week or two across the famous battlefield of Maljen and Suvubor where the Serbs in 1914, in one of the greatest battles of their history, had held the armies of the Central Powers in check, the pressure in that area was lifted and the offensive petered out. It left resistance in Serbia-Macedonia once more expanding: units of the army redoubled their aggressiveness along the Morava, laying a firm foundation for the assault on Belgrade northwards through Serbia later in the year. In South Serbia, Western Bulgaria and Macedonia, partisans pushed back towards Chustendil and Sofia, fought down the Timok river, and extended their influence along the Vardar. In Central Serbia four newly-formed Serbian partisan divisions, linking up with odreds and brigades from Kosovo and Metohija, cleared opposition from the mountains of Kapaonik, Jablanitsa, and Toplitsa, and pushed south-westwards towards the old Jugoslav-Albanian frontier.
The first phase was completed by simultaneous operations in Slovenia and Istria with a similar object of confining partisan activity to the high mountains, and of breaking contact between contiguous mountain areas and partisan groups. The Germans were doubtless impelled to this by the growing collaboration they saw between Jugoslav and Italian partisan formations, and by the very great damage they were suffering at that time from demolition of their lines of communication between Austria and Italy. The greater part of 171, 178, 188, and 236 Divisions were used, as well as elements of three S.S. police regiments and various local collaborationist forces such as those raised by the "White Guard" leader Rupnik. Heavy fighting led to little positive conclusion. The Germans had considerable losses.
Similar motives appear to have inspired the next phase in this offensive: an attempt to narrow down the area controlled by the Jugoslavs in Eastern Bosnia, Sanjak and Montenegro, regions from which resistance could be extended at will into Western and Central Serbia. Elements of three divisions, 13 S.S., 100 Infantry, and S.S. "Prinz Eugen," as well as a large number of White Russian, Ustashe, chetnik, and other formations invaded Eastern Bosnia from all sides, and engaged 3 Corps in very severe fighting. At the same time 2 Corps in the Sanjak was attacked from the direction of Petch, Prijepolje, and Plevlje, the enemy concentrations in the valleys of the Neretva and Zeta rivers including elements of 181, 169, 369 Divisions, 3 and 4 Grenadier Regiments, police troops, Neditch militia and Mihaylovitch chetniks. Peko Dabchevitch, commanding 2 Corps, decided against trying to defend the whole of his liberated territory, and withdrew the main bulk of his forces southwards into strong positions in Montenegro. These he succeeded in holding, fighting a decisive action at Mojkovats and later passing to the counter-offensive.
During this second phase of the offensive there was also continuous fighting in the hills to either side of the valleys of the Sava and the Kupa, including a particularly sharp clash in Slavonia, where 42 (Panzergrenadier) Division failed to liquidate partisan 6 Corps. The aim, as before, was to push the Jugoslavs away from German lines of communication, in the case of Slavonia between Hungary and Croatia, in the Gorski Kotar and Zagorje between Croatia and Italy, in Slovenia between Austria and Italy, and so on. Jugoslav sources give enemy units engaged in this fighting as including 5 (motorized), 42 (Panzergrenadier), 173 (Ersatz), 230 Infantry, 373 Infantry, 392 Infantry, 230 Infantry, 96 (Jaeger) Divisions, 1 (Cavalry) Regiment, 1 Cossack (White Russian) Division, 28 S.S. Police Regiment, 121 Mountain Regiment, and other units of lesser value. Some or all of these units were in continuous offensive action until the end of June.
The third distinct phase in this welter of fighting consisted in a determined effort on the part of the Germans to wipe out the brains of the army, and leave it without that central control which had built it up from a mass of irregular and independent groups into a coherent whole. The Germans departed from their usual method, and paid Tito and his staff the compliment of allocating highly-specialized airborne troops to the operation. They concentrated considerable forces, including 92 Grenadier Regiment, 1 and 2 (Brandenburg) Grenadier Regiments, all of which were motorized, 5 and 15 S.S. Mountain Groups, and an armoured battalion of the Second Panzer-Armee, as well as all the fifth columnists they could find, in a wide circle based on Mostar-Sarayevo-Banya Luka-Bihatch-Knin-Imotski. This would enable them to converge simultaneously on the hills of Srnetitsa and Klekovatcha where, in the town of Drvar, partisan army G.H.Q., with all the foreign missions and most of the members of A.V.N.O.J., the provisional parliament, were established. Apart from these forces they also committed paratroops from the "Der Fuehrer" Group and part of 11 Glider Division. It was established afterwards from prisoners that many of the paratroopers were army criminals who were being given a chance to regain ranks from which they had been degraded; each of them carried on him a photograph of Tito and had received orders to take the Marshal alive, if possible, and to kill all other individuals they could reach.
They were dropped at five in the morning of May 25th after a heavy air bombardment of Drvar. On the ground there was practically nothing with which to oppose them; and it appears that only the swift action of the escort battalion of G.H.Q., reinforced by every able-bodied man who could find a weapon, from the oldest to the youngest, as well as the pupils and staff of the officers' school, saved a majority of the staff, foreign missions, and political personnel from being taken. As it was they managed to fend off the attackers until help arrived from nearby units; and motorized reinforcements of the enemy reached Drvar two days later, in the face of fierce opposition, to find three-quarters of their airborne troops dead or out of the fight. Agile manoeuvring completed the frustration of this last attempt.
By the middle of June the whole situation was clearly easing in Jugoslav favour. One after another the enemy's mobile groups, strong though they were, had been baulked of their objectives; and a continuance of the offensive would have meant at least a pause for the troops to regain freshness, or possibly even the employment of new troops. In the event the Germans preferred to call off the offensive. The long-awaited Second Front had opened at last with a landing in France of what seemed to us in Jugoslavia of incredible ease and brilliance; in the East the Red Army was on the frontiers of Roumania and soon would threaten Galatz and Bucharest; and in Italy the Allies had opened up a fresh offensive, passed through Rome after an enemy in rapid retreat, and by June iith—when the bridgehead in France was already 50 miles broad_Fifth Army had reached a point 60 miles north of Rome and was still advancing, while Eighth Army on the Adriatic side had taken Pescara and Chieti and was threatening Ancona. In Jugoslavia the Germans were ready to cut their losses and call off any continuation of the offensive.
As always, in such bitter frontless fighting, it was hard to know how great their losses had really been. Figures quoted by Jugoslav G.H.Q. shortly after the offensive had ended put enemy dead—that is, all nationalities—at 20,500, captured 6,500, wounded 16,000, with the loss of material captured by the Jugoslavs including 96 artillery pieces, 19 tanks, 80 lorries, 110 motor-cycles, 3 aircraft, 500 light automatics, 16,000 rifles, and much else; as well as destroyed in battle or after capture 175 artillery pieces, 230 mortars, 108 tanks, 37 aircraft, 1,400 lories, 900 automatics, 94 locomotives and 700 wagons, and much else. These figures are certainly optimistic, but not perhaps unduly so; according to German casualty lists quoted by The Times for July 30th, 1945, from documents found amongst the personal effects of General Reinecke, head of the Public Relations Department of the German High Command, total German casualties in the Balkans amounted to 24,000 killed and 12,000 missing, no figure being mentioned for wounded; and the Jugoslav estimates quoted above were for Bulgars, Croats, Neditch militia, and other fifth columnist formations, as well as Germans. (Comparative figures were given in these lists for Africa: 12,000 dead, 90,000 missing—prisoners again not mentioned; and for Italy 48,000 dead and 97,000 missing.) A majority of these casualties suffered in the Balkans were inflicted in Jugoslavia.
On this occasion, in happy contrast with the previous offensive, the Allies were able to deliver a powerful volume of supplies by sea and air, and to aid as well with increased air bombardment and strafing, as with the evacuation of a majority of the seriously wounded from the main areas of fighting. Balkan Air Force had by this time got well into its stride and from its bases at Bari, Brindisi, and other air grounds along the south Italian coast performed remarkable feats in the evacuation of wounded, the dropping of supplies, and the provision of air transport. During the course of a single day a total of nearly 900 casualties of 2 Corps were evacuated from an emergency landing-ground in the Sanjak by about thirty C.27 (Dakota) transport aircraft, coming in one after another under the protection of an umbrella of B.A.F. Spitfires. From another landing ground on the Konjuh plateau of East Bosnia, 3 Corps sent away over 300 casualties in two successive nights. No part of Jugoslavia was closed to these admirable air crews. In Srem itself we established a landing-ground less than twenty-five miles from Belgrade and sent about one hundred casualties to southern Italy; and at one stage we were operating in a similar way from the Woods of Bosut. All told, some tens of thousands of casualties and civilian evacuees were taken out of Jugoslavia by sea and air in those months.
Another instance of decisive collaboration, too, was provided by the move of Tito and the Staff, with the foreign missions and A.V.N.O.J., to the Adriatic island of Vis after the paratroop assault on them at Drvar. It had for long been clear that immunity of the Staff from daily fear of interference or attack would yield great advantages; stability would enable a more efficient central organization to be built up, including greatly extended short-wave wireless arrangements, the only means by which contact with the main formations in the field could be secured, as well as an extension of all the manifold staff departments which by that time were highly necessary to effective command of the army. Vis had many advantages. It was the most seaward of the Dalmatian islands, small enough to be defendable by a comparatively modest garrison and yet not too small to house all for whom places had to be found. B.A.F. completed its advantages by declaring that it was possible to make a landing-ground on the island. The Allied Theatre Commander detached a commando force to ensure the island's defence, B.A.F. based a squadron of rocket-carrying Spitfires there for defence and for harassing of enemy coastal shipping, and ack-ack detachments were also added. Jugoslav G.H.Q. was established shortly afterwards, and remained there until the fall of Belgrade in the following October.
Not only did the seventh offensive fail in its objective of wiping out a significant part of the Jugoslav army, but its conclusion in June marked a decisive change in the balance of forces; almost immediately afterwards the enemy found himself on the defensive from the Karavankens in the north to the Rhodope Mountains in the south, and in a position that was rapidly becoming disastrous. With the fall of Belgrade to the Red Army (with the aid of 1 Corps) in October it was no longer a question of the Germans hitting back; they were concerned now only with the perilous issue of their own evacuation back to Germany. The end of the war was in signt.
But for us in the Woods of Bosut the spring would bring particular tribulations, and life for a time would become harsh and difficult even beyond the limits of partisan expectation. The pleasant rhythm of our plans would be upset, and for a time it would seem as if the whole movement in the Voivodina had been dealt a mortal blow; only much later, in the summer, could we regard the situation as made good and the movement in full spate again.
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