The Resistance Movement in Yugoslavia

The Resistance Movement in Yugoslavia

The resistance movement of Yugoslavia played an important role in World War Two. Yugoslavia fell to Nazi Germany on April 17th 1941. After this date, two resistance movements developed in Yugoslavia. The first and most successful was led by Josef Tito. His communist ‘Partisan Army’ caused the Germans all manner of problems. The other resistance movement was Mihailovic’s Cetniks, who were royalists and in direct opposition to Tito’s ‘Partisan Army’.



Tito, fourth from left, inspects his troops

Tito was already a wanted man in 1941 – by the authorities in Yugoslavia itself. He was living under an alias – Babić – in what is now Croatia. His ‘crime’ was that he was a communist leader in Yugoslavia. Ironically, in one sense, the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia suited Tito. The country was in chaos and he was less likely to be arrested while the country was in chaos. However, the German occupiers had divided Yugoslavia into nine regions and Tito had to find a way to keep all of the Communist Party organised across the new nine borders imposed by the Germans.

Tito also had another problem. As of April 1941, Germany and Russia were still in theory allies. Tito took his orders via secret transmitter from Moscow. Therefore, he could not undertake any action against the invaders without the say-so of Moscow. However, Tito did undertake planning for sabotage and the training of people to work in this secret army. He moved from Zagreb to Belgrade where he believed that he would be safer. His first orders went out on April 27th, just 10 days after Yugoslavia’s surrender.

On June 22nd, 1941, Germany attacked Russia in ‘Operation Barbarossa’. Apparently, Tito had been forewarned of the attack when a German army officer boasted about the attack to a lady in Belgrade. However, the troop movements in Yugoslavia would have indicated that a massive attack was going to take place as after the initial German invasion, many German troops were withdrawn for Barbarossa and replaced with Italian, Bulgarian and Hungarian troops.

On June 22nd, Tito, via a secretly printed newspaper, called on the people of Yugoslavia to rise up to help the Russians.  On June 27th, the Partisan Army was officially created under the leadership of Tito. The official call to the people of Yugoslavia came on July 4th:

“Peoples of Yugoslavia: Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Montenegrins, Macedonians and others! Now is the time, the hour has struck to rise like one man, in the battle against the invaders and hirelings, killers of our peoples. Do not falter in the face of any enemy terror. Answer terror with savage blows at the most vital points of the Fascist occupation bandits. Destroy everything – everything that is of use to the Fascist invaders. Do not let our railways carry equipment and other things that serve the Fascist hordes in their struggle against the Soviet Union. Workers, Peasants, Citizens, and Youth of Yugoslavia……to battle against the Fascist occupation hordes who are striving to dominate the whole world.”

  This call led to an intensive campaign against the Germans. Tito sent out his best men to the regions – they were usually born in the region they were sent to. Tito himself took charge of Serbia. The response to Tito’s call to arms was huge. Tito could rally his troops via a radio station called ‘Free Yugoslavia’ set up in the Soviet Union.

By September 1941, it is estimated that there were about 70,000 resistance fighters in Yugoslavia. Tito organised them as they were a bona fide army with local commanders who were under a Supreme GHQ led by himself. Tito ordered that the resistance fighters should not attack the Germans when it was clear that the Germans had superior numbers. Therefore, the Partisan Army engaged in classic hit-and-run tactics and when the Germans launched a major offensive against the Yugoslav guerrillas, they simply retreated into the mountain ranges of Yugoslavia. The Germans frequently responded with punitive action against local civilians, but such a tactic only hardened the determination of the guerrillas. General Keital wrote: 

“In order to nip disorders in the bud the sternest measures must be applied at the first sign of insurrection. It should also be taken into consideration that in the countries in question a human life is often valueless. In a reprisal for the life of a German soldier, the general rule should be capital punishment for 50-100 Communists. The manner of execution must have a frightening effect.”

In Serbia, Keital’s order was taken very literally where 6,000 were shot in Macva, 7,000 shot in Kraljevo and 2,300 at Kragujevac. All this did was to drive even more people into the Partisan Army.

In Montenegro, the Italian Army was driven to the Adriatic Sea by what was essentially a popular uprising that was inspired by Tito’s call to arms. 4,000 Italian troops were captured. Their weapons were taken and the prisoners were released.

Tito had also ordered that the energy of the uprising had to be directed against the occupying armies only. He had specifically ordered that the resistance units loyal to him should not use their local power to enforce communist ideology onto the people who lived in that area.

In mid-September 1941, Tito met Mihailovic, leader of the Cetniks, for the first time. A united front against the Germans and other occupying forces was an obvious desire. However, Tito had communist aspirations while Mihailovic wanted a return to a royalist state – the two were not compatible. At their second meeting in November, the two sides fell out. Both men essentially failed to agree on any major point. However, the Cetniks were already helping the German and Italian troops, receiving money and equipment for their services. By the end of 1941, the Partisan Army was fighting the Cetniks as well as the occupying forces. Some senior Cetniks leaders did cross over to Tito’s side but others saw Tito as a bigger threat than the Germans.

Tito was seen as such a threat by the Germans that they put a reward of 100,000 Reichmarks on his head – dead or alive.

The first major German attack against Tito took place in September 1941 and continued throughout the winter. The Partisan Army was pushed out of Serbia and in to Bosnia. In this retreat, Tito lost 20 high-ranking officers and 3,000 fighters. By the end of January 1942, Tito realised that he needed to greatly reform the Partisan Army into a more modern fighting force. The vast bulk of his force had been men and women who had a loyalty to a small geographic area where they lived. When the Partisan Army retreated, Tito used this opportunity to create a professional army that was mobile and not mentally tied to one area of Yugoslavia. He also insisted that even while the Partisan Army retreated, they should attempt to get some victories against the Germans as he knew the importance of keeping up morale. He appointed to the highest posts in his new army men who were skilled in guerrilla warfare, especially those who had fought in the recent Spanish Civil War. By November 1942, Tito’s army stood at about 100,000 soldiers and was known as the People’s Liberation Army. It had its own college for training officers, women’s and youth organisations and even a naval section that operated along the coast of the Adriatic Sea.

1942 was mostly spent evading German forces. Tito maintained his belief in avoiding an all-out frontal fight against the enemy.

Discipline in the People’s Liberation Army was very strict. All food acquired in the regions had to be paid for, either in cash or in promissory notes that were to be honoured at the end of the occupation. Behaviour amongst his soldiers had to be exemplary when they were based within a local community. Looters from the army were shot as an example to others. Special Operations Executive officers who were later attached to Tito’s army were highly impressed with the disciplinary standards of the PLA. 

When the Allies started to plan an attack on mainland Italy, the Balkans became a vital part of their strategy. It was now that Tito got any real interest from the Allies. Up to 1943, the Allies had supported Mihailovic as the Yugoslav royal family had based itself in London. Also the Cetniks had sent grossly inflated reports of their successes against the occupiers to London. They had also sent reports about the failings of Tito’s army. It was only when SOE sent back more detailed reports about the Cetniks collaboration and the success of Tito, that the Allies decided that supporting Tito was their best bet. A drive up Italy into the ‘soft underbelly of Europe’ required that as many Germans were tied up outside of Italy as was possible. Tito’s PLA was tying up as many as 500,000 Axis forces in Yugoslavia. A SOE officer attached to Tito’s headquarters, Captain Frank Deakin, reported directly to London about the skill and bravery of the PLA. This bravery was especially seen in the summer of 1943 when the Germans launched their fifth attack against the PLA. Trapped in the mountains of Montenegro, the PLA had to fight its way out to safety against overwhelming odds – 20,000 PLA soldiers against 120,000 Germans, Italians and Bulgarians. That they managed it is a testament to the leadership of Tito and the standards he had instilled into the PLA.

With the attack on Italy, and in 1944 the invasion of Normandy, the German time in Yugoslavia was limited. By the time German troops withdrew from Yugoslavia, Tito was the undisputed leader. He was a communist – but by 1945, he was independent from Moscow. He felt deeply let down that the Russians had failed to support the PLA despite the pleas from its leadership. In 1942, the Russians had promised all manner of supplies but after waiting 37 days for them, they failed to materialise and no explanation was given. It was a general belief in the PLA that Moscow, and especially Stalin, should not be criticised. But this one incident left a deep scar. When the war ended, Tito led Yugoslavia but he was not willing to let Stalin rule his country. Having rid Yugoslavia of one invader, he was not prepared for another foreign nation to control his country.






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