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COURSE OF THE WAR
THE landings in Normandy were of inestimable moral value to the movement of Jugoslavia (as to similar movements elsewhere) in that they were a complete and final reassurance of the cooperation of Great Britain and the U.S.A. with the Soviet Union, as well as self-evident proof that the war was virtually won. For the partisans in Jugoslavia, weary as they were with three years of bitter and costly warfare, the landings held out a new hope that these sufferings might now soon be over.
In fact, the landings made little or no direct difference to the balance of military forces inside Jugoslavia. The Germans by this time had deployed a large army in the Balkans which they could in no circumstances draw upon except possibly for the Eastern Front or for Italy; and it seems unlikely that one single German soldier left Jugoslavia as a direct result of the Allies having landed in France. But the moral result was undoubtedly very great. In our own obscure corner of Jugoslavia, in the Voivodina, we knew in those days that the Germans were about to launch one more concerted offensive on the Frushka Gora in a last effort to clear it of partisans and thus safeguard (as they thought) their more than ever vital communications through Srem; but we also knew, with the opening of the Second Front, that this must be the enemy's last effort, and that when he had made it he would be spent.
Everywhere the balance of power was clearly in the hands of the Allies; and in Jugoslavia it now began to pass decisively into the keeping of the national liberation army. Except for the network of Odreds which still existed over the whole country, and, in half-liberated territory, still played a leading part in recruitment, supply, and actual combat, it was no longer possible to speak of "partisans." The partisan army had long since grown into a regular fighting formation comparable to the armies of other small States, and infinitely superior to most of them, and especially to the pre-war Jugoslav army, in tactical skill, fieldcraft, leadership, fighting spirit and fire-power. It was mature now, looking back on three years of warfare; the men of '42 and '43 were veterans even (though few of '41 were still alive, for although losses inflicted on the enemy were many times heavier than their own losses, the list of the fallen was a long one and included, sadly for the country which would need them in the coming peace, many of their best men). The army now was a people's army in the literal sense that it represented a numerical majority of the people of Jugoslavia; in the other sense, that of representing what the population itself wanted—which was resistance to the invaders, whose victory they bitterly resented, and social change at the same time—it had always been a people's army; the men who formed it and fought in it having been almost exclusively "of the people," peasants and workers.
Now the army had the active support and approval of most of the people; and of this there was abundant evidence in the great flow of recruits which was coming in from areas in which—like the Voivodina—recruits had hitherto tended to hold back, in the steady extension of the political organs of the movement in liberated and "half-liberated" territory, and in the growing tendency of the peasants to identify themselves with the movement rather than with neutrality.
There were other signs, too, that the army had reached maturity, and would stand now on its own national identity. The clenched fist salute they had always used was displaced by the traditional army salute (except for Odred formations, regarded still as partisan in character, not forming part of the army); and officers began to discard their "partisan names" for their true names. On our staff in the Frushka Gora, Kolya became Major Sreta Savitch; Lala, Major Jovan Bjelinsky; and formalities crept back into life again. There was no tightening of discipline for discipline had always been tight; but a growing impression of military organization was noticeable even in the predominantly "partisan" territory of the Voivodina.
The outward appearance of the army changed little. Formations still could show a fine selection of different uniforms taken as they were from the backs of every sort of enemy formation in the balkans as well now as a good sprinkling of British battle dress (American clothing was not available at that time); the men still went on their own feet, and their boots were stil broken; they stil had the usual leather belt and shoulder strap, ammunition pouches, two or three grenades; and their armament in the nature of things — seeing that they were infantry formations — changed little or not at all. Most of their weapons were still German (or Italian in sectors of Italian occupation) which they had taken in battle from the enemy; but by the end of summer they had fair numbers of Brens and also a proportion of Lee-Enfield rifles. The total number of arms sent in by Allies was never to be a finally decisive factor, or more than a small percentage of their armament; but by August we had delivered something like 7,000 Brens with ammunition, and a much larger number of rifles.
A start had even been made in the equipment of the army with aircraft and with armoured units. Partisan fighter crews were trained in North Africa in the middle of 1944 and were operating with Spitfires before the autumn: and in accordance with another agreement signed between the Theatre Commander and Marshal Tito in March, 1944, training of partisans in tank drills was begun, and a little later 50 "Honeys" were premised to them. These tanks were duly delivered but arrived a little late for the fighting of 1944.
All this was matter for substantial satisfaction; but it could not excuse the unfounded claims which irresponsible publicists in England and the U.S.A. were shortly afterwards to trumpet forth — that Allied support had "made" the partisan movement.
It was indeed all too clear to everyone of us who served with the partisans that they had existed in very concrete and combatant form before we had ever appeared upon the scene—and even, in the days when we were supplying the chetniks, in spite of our mistaken efforts—and that they would have existed, and probably have triumphed, whatever course we had chosen to take. It was true that we greatly helped them, first by withdrawing our support from the chetniks who had allied themselves against the partisans with the enemy, and secondly by our propaganda in favour of the partisans (in which respect the B.B.C. undoubtedly did magnificent work, and deserves high praise); thirdly, and lastly, by sending them arms, ammunition, clothing, medical supplies, explosive, and other warlike stores, and by evacuating their wounded. But the help we gave them was in that order; and there seemed small reason for us to sit back and be pleased with ourselves for helping people who were so obviously determined to help us. They were an army in their own right; and owed their origin to no-one but themselves, neither to the Western Allies for tardy moral and material help, nor to the Soviet Union for mere encouragement from afar.
This is no place in which to attempt an appreciation of the value of the military support which the partisan army gave to the Allies during the course of the war. The records, on our side as on theirs, are not yet fully available. As far as the British were concerned, final recognition was to be given of this in August when Mr. Churchill, ever loving a good fighter, invited Marshal Tito to meet him at Field-Marshal Alexander's headquarters in Caserta, near Naples, and assured him (as far as information of what passed at the meeting is available) of our continued support and approval for the way in which he was conducting the war in Jugoslavia.
Shortly after this, the newly-appointed Prime Minister of King Peter's exile Government in London, Dr. Ivan Shubashitch (who had been Ban, or Governor, of Croatia after the Prince Paul-Machek agreement of 1939) visited Marshal Tito and the Provisional Government in the island of Vis and prepared the way for an agreement whereby the obviously redundant London Government, stinking as it did of compromise with the enemy through the orders to Mihaylovitch to fight the partisans and not the Germans, could be dissolved without unconstitutional abrogation of the King's rights.
By the end of the seventh offensive, the greater part of Jugoslavia was securely in partisan hands. In Slovenia the army held the hill country round Ljubljana; its influence extended far across the old Italian-Jugoslav frontier into the province of Venezia Julia and the mountains of the Carso, and, to the north-east, across the now obsolete German-Italian demarcation line into the Pohorie Planina and the province of Carinthia. To the south its formations were predominant across the whole central massif of Western Croatia, Western and Central Bosnia, and much of Dalmatia. Eastern Bosnia, the Sanjak and Montenegro were almost exclusively in their hands, apart from certain centres of communication and the southern side of the Sava Valley.
The Dalmatian islands, which had changed hands several times, were now again for the most part in Jugoslav hands (helped in some cases by small British and American Commando units, and by rocket-carrying Spitfires from Vis; and a small partisan navy, consisting largely of motor-schooners of the type known as trabaccoli, had come into being under an organized partisan naval command for operations between the mainland and the islands. These little ships were used mainly for carrying men and stores to the islands and for evacuation operations, or occasional landings in force; on one occasion a division of some 5,000 men (the 26th) which had become encircled by superior German forces on the mainland at Podgora was evacuated in toto to the island of Hvar and its neighbours; on another occasion the long peninsular of the Pelieshats, cut off by the Germans at its base, was evacuated almost to the last man. The schooners also worked in co-operation with British light naval craft based on Vis.
In Serbia and Macedonia, too, the army had securely established itself in the central mountains, and the old Odreds, small and scattered as they necessarily were, had grown into brigades and divisions which were constantly reinforced by local recruits and the accretion of fresh units marching east from Bosnia and the Sanjak. Partisan 2 and 5 Divisions were in strong positions round Ivanvitsa so that they commanded the upper half of the Western Morava Valley, and no efforts of the enemy had sufficed to dislodge them. Their arrival had given fresh hope and encouragement to the cause of national resistance in Serbia itself. The people saw in these partisan units not the bloodthirsty bolshevist bandits the Germans had tried to paint them, but protection at long last from chetnik lawlessness and robbery and a means whereby Serbs could fight for their liberation. Headquarters for Serbia were established at that time on the Radan Planina to the west of Leskovats, and links were being forged with the Odreds to the north of the Morava Valley in the Northern Shumadija and the Kosmaj to the immediate south of Belgrade.
It was the same story in Macedonia. There the newly-formed command of Apostolski (who had been gazetted Major-General in the latest G.H.Q. bulletin) had by now organized itself into a strong tactical formation which, this summer, had gained control of most of Central Macedonia and spread its influence across the frontier into Bulgaria—the route, in fact, by which British liaison officers reached the Bulgarian partisans. They were in satisfactory touch with ELAS formations in the north of Greece and also with the small units of FNC—the Albanian liberation movement—in the hills beyond the Black Drin.
North of the Sava there were by this time strong units in the whole range of the Slavonian hills, with partisan odreds and small brigades active along the Hungarian frontier from the Mediemurie in the North to the Frushka Gora in the south. They liked to say that there was now no comer of Jugoslavia in which the crack of a partisan rifle could not be heard.
With all these principal formations and regional headquarters, partisan G.H.Q.—secure then on the island of Vis—had daily shortwave wireless contact. The integration of the movement had now become a complicated and close-woven network of command.
The mere occupation of mountainous territory by itself might have left the Germans little worried; so long as they could use the lines of communication which they needed so badly in Jugoslavia, move their troops into and out of Greece, have free access to and from Bulgaria, safeguard the Dalmatian coast with adequate garrisons and be sure of means with which to supply those garrisons, they might have cared little whether or not they could command the main mass of territory itself. Early in the war they had claimed to be able to do this, and supported the claim, as we have seen, with huge numbers of troops and weight of material, for it was then for them a matter of pride that they could afford to indulge, a question of prestige, and they needed also to bolster up the quisling governments they had installed with so much unforgettable bloodshed. They had failed to make good this claim, and gradually had to come to acknowledge the fact that they could not hold more than their essential lines of communication. But that, after all, might have well sufficed.
The partisans themselves were not blind to this point of view. They were not unnaturally proud of the wide areas of country they had brought under their control; and they deliberately extended their range of liberated territory; for in that way they could reintroduce decent standards of living, reopen the schools, re-establish local government, and practise their theory of social integration. Their aim was not simply the annihilation of the enemy; their programme included the post-war future as well as the mere winning of the war; they wanted positive rehabilitation in peace time as well as the negative triumph of military success. And, accordingly, they encouraged as much as they could the popular conception of "liberated territory," played in their speeches on its importance, underlined the civic role it should fulfil, dramatized its significance. That was a necessary gesture to the future. But they did not allow this policy to cloud their counsels on what was militarily needful. They saw that so long as the Germans could depend upon lines of communication across Jugoslavia, no matter how tenuous and long drawn out these might be, the partisan success was only half-success, and the lesser half at that.
While, therefore, they used their liberated territory for the benefit of social integration, establishing behind their held positions their organs of government, they used their liberated territory for another, parallel, but strictly military, purpose: as a base for operations against enemy lines of communication.
Their military policy in this was best shown by the unceasing operations which they carried on against the main-line which ran from Zagreb to Belgrade through the broad and open valley of the Sava. This line carried a very large weight of German traffic in both directions, and was indeed the principal route whereby the Germans communicated with Greece, Bulgaria, Albania and southern Jugoslavia. Its tributary lines led up the westerly river valleys into the central part of Jugoslavia, while to the east there were several main-lines connecting it with Hungary. As a single instance of what was done, this main-line was attacked night after night, month in and month out, for more than three years; an enormous volume of traffic was destroyed or diverted or held up, several hundred locomotives and several thousand wagons destroyed, bridges, viaducts, cuttings, embankments undermined, and the Germans obliged to maintain heavy line patrols and repair gangs. These demolition operations were conducted from the neighbouring hills which rise on either side of the plain of the Sava. The small teams of men whose job it was to blow up trains had to bring their stores to hidden dumps within a few hours' distance of their objective, and to operate thence until enemy reaction obliged them to move to another point of departure. And they depended for their supplies and shelter upon the liberated territory in the hills behind them.
Another direct benefit which the Allies reaped from partisan activities was the saving from imprisonment of many hundreds of British and American aircrews who were forced by enemy action to bale out over Jugoslavia and fell, more often than not, within reach of partisan protection; these men were duly taken out of liberated territory by sea and air and restored to circulation.
By the summer of 1944, then, the Germans had not only lost control of practically all the mountainous area of Jugoslavia, but were no longer able to protect their own essential lines of communication. Another general offensive on their front was unthinkable; and by September it was clear that Belgrade and the whole of Serbia must shortly be free of them. These summer months were the best the movement had ever seen; there were more recruits than could be armed or trained, desertions from the enemy reached high numbers; one by one the objectives of resistance were reached and taken.
Even in Srem, beyond the radius of the big formations, the partisans realized all their ambitions, improving their system of local government, recruitment, and supply, operating with brigades in the plain itself, receiving stores from Italy by parachute and landed aircraft, evacuating their wounded; and this in spite of increasing enemy activity against them as the front was driven nearer and nearer towards them by the Soviet pressure from the east.
In the Frushka Gora we caught the final tail-lash of the seventh offensive; it drove us out of the woods again, but the time was summer and the war was on our side, so that nothing the enemy did ould steal our initiative. The weeks of June and July witnessed a lassie of partisan tactics.
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