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Chapter 4
"An Unjustly Lost War"

In Belgrade, the morning of Sunday, April 6, 1941, had dawned with perfect weather. Many of the city's inhabitants were already filing into church or crowding the local markets when, just before 6:00 a.m., "the sirens started their ghastly wailing" and the enemy planes began to appear overhead.
    They came in waves, darkening the sky — first the Messerschmitt-109s and - 110s at 3,600 metres; then the Dornier 17s and Heinkels at 3,000 metres; and finally the dreaded Stukas at 600 metres and lower. Within minutes incendiary and thousand-kilogram bombs rained down on "the white city."
    The Royal Palace, the War Ministry, and the National Library — which reportedly contained more than 1,300 medieval manuscripts — were destroyed in the initial wave. Hospitals, churches, schools, and apartment buildings followed. "The air was saturated with explosions," recalled one government official. "Bombs began to fall near the quarter where I lived, rattling windows and causing houses to rock and tremble as if they were about to collapse. The diabolic drone of the aircraft, the deafening thunder of unremitting explosions, the whistle of falling bombs, the cries for help of the wounded, and the shrieks of the terrified sounded to many like the Last Trumpet."
    Statistics vary, but it is likely that as many as 20,000 people died in the city that morning. And while Belgrade had been devastated some thirty-seven times in its 2,000-year history, never before had such brutal efficiency been applied. The capital lay in ruins. Yet this was merely the beginning of Hitler s "Operation Punishment" — a systematic taking of revenge on Yugoslavia.
    For years, the country had been under siege by the Axis powers. With the collapse of Poland and the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Yugoslav officials had struggled vainly to preserve neutrality. Great Britain and the United States sought assurances from Yugoslavia that it would not align itself with the Axis — or better still, that it would join the Allied front. But with the fall of France, a traditional ally, Yugoslavia's position worsened.
    In July 1940, Hitler had begun a year of planning for the attack on the Soviet Union, and for this he demanded stability in the Balkans. Moreover, a steady flow of raw materials was needed to fuel his Luftwaffe and Panzer divisions and to supply his munitions factories. Yugoslavia buckled under continuing pressure and in March 1941 signed the Tripartite Pact, formally aligning the tiny backwater nation of eleven million people with Germany, Italy, and Japan.
    For weeks, demonstrators in Belgrade had urged resistance to Hitler s demands. Now they filled the streets again, waving placards and shouting angrily, "Bolje rat nego pakt! Bolje grob nego rob!" — "Better war than the pact! Better death than slavery!" Angry citizens smashed the windows of the German Tourist Bureau and attacked a limousine carrying a German official. Forty-eight hours later, a group of anti-German Yugoslav Army and Air Force officers successfully staged a coup d'état and sent the regent, Prince Paul, into exile. King Peter, at age seventeen, assumed the throne.
    Word of the coup shot across Europe and raised morale in occupied Poland and France. The Allied reaction was equally swift. Winston Churchill proclaimed that Yugoslavia had "found its soul." Having found it, many wondered aloud, "what next?"
    The answer was not long in coming. Early on the morning of March 27, 1941 Hitler was greeted by a senior adjutant with a telegram from "Vera," the Nazis intelligence service in Belgrade. He flew into a rage on learning of the coup and promptly summoned his war council to meet in the Reich Chancellery. There he ordered his General Staff to plan an attack that would crush Yugoslavia with "unmerciful harshness."
    The operation was set up with astonishing speed, but almost threatened at the last minute by a security leak that tipped a Yugoslav military attaché in Berlin. He sent a warning to Belgrade, but the new prime minister, General Dugan Simovic, dismissed it as a trick. As a result, Yugoslavia lay virtually defenceless that morning in April.
    As Belgrade crumbled under the Luftwaffe's fierce aerial bombardment, Germany launched ground attacks from Bulgaria, Austria, Romania, and Hungary. Italy attacked from the west and south. With Panzer divisions rolling unchecked through the countryside, the strategy was to slice Yugoslavia into segments.
    Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, was captured by the 14th Panzer division after its tanks had raced almost a hundred kilometres in a single day. They entered the city to the cheers of pro-Fascist, nationalist Croats — an early indication of the troubles ahead.
    On April 17, the Yugoslav General Staff met General von Weichs in Belgrade and signed Yugoslavia s capitulation. King Peter and his Cabinet had already fled by air and were in Cairo, en route to London.
    According to one source, only 151 German soldiers were killed in the eleven days of fighting required to defeat Yugoslavia. This prompted Hitler to declare that the country was finished, his confidence such that he left only four weak divisions to carry out the occupation. Yugoslavia's territory was divided and dealt to neighbouring allies or quisling governments. And with this, the real nightmare began, for by the war's end, more Yugoslavs had been killed at the hands of fellow countrymen than by all of the occupying forces combined. This was Yugoslavia's bratoubilacki rat, or "war between brothers."
    When the Independent State of Croatia was declared that April, Ante Pavelic was installed as its puppet poglavnik, or leader. Pavelic, at forty, was an experienced terrorist who had gone into political exile in Italy before the war. There he had observed closely Mussolini's methods. His own murderous and pro-Fascist organization, the Ustasi, had been responsible for the assassination of Yugoslavia's King Alexander in Marseilles in 1934.
    The reign of terror initiated by Pavelic was unprecedented at the time and gave impetus to Byron's definition of warfare as a "brain-splattering, windpipe slitting art," or "the feast of vultures." He and the Ustasi exterminated some 60,000 Jews, 26,000 gypsies, and 750,000 Orthodox Serbs who would not convert to Catholicism. The Ustasi plundered, raped, tortured, and murdered in an unbridled campaign to eradicate "alien elements" in Croatia. They revelled in cutting off the noses, ears, breasts, and limbs of their victims. "We Ustasi are more practical than you Germans," declared one, during a moment's respite from the bloodbath. "You shoot, but we use hammers, clubs, rope, fire, and quicklime. It's less expensive."
    Tragically, the nightmare did not end with Pavelic. In Serbia, General Milan Nedic — a distinguished military hero during the First World War and an ardent anti-Communist who had become chief of the army General Staff prior to the most recent hostilities — was appointed prime minister in a quisling government established to effect "law and order" amid the open anarchy and bloodshed which had erupted following the occupation. The extent to which Nedic actively collaborated with the Germans remains the subject of debate. It has been suggested he accepted the position reluctantly and then only in an attempt — which ultimately proved unsuccessful — to limit the appalling acts of barbarism perpetrated by the Germans. Indeed, some historians argue that only Dimitrije Ljotic, the Serbian leader of a Fascist party known as "Zbor," remained truly loyal to the occupation forces throughout the war.
    In Croatia, an estimated 300,000 Serbs were subsequently rounded up and deported to work camps outside Yugoslavia, while hundreds more were arbitrarily executed, tortured, or otherwise abused by the Pavelic regime.
    Meanwhile, in Montenegro the arrival of Italian troops revived an old internal argument dating back to 1918 between the Zelenasi, or Greens, who had voted on green electoral tickets in favour of Montenegrin independence, and those who had voted on white cards for unification with the new Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The Zelenasi hailed the Italians as liberators and were to join in the occupation.
    Sometimes the Zelenasi were confused with the Zeleni Kadar. The latter were Moslem and Serbian draft dodgers during the First World War who were derisively referred to as the "Green Cadre" when they fled into the woods at the first sign of hostilities, emerging as bandits and mercenaries to harass the local population. They appeared again during the Second World War and were regarded with similar disdain despite their sometimes nettlesome hit-and-run operations directed against the Partisans.
    The ethnic divisions existing in Yugoslavia, combined with the new military and ideological alliances resulting from the occupation, represented a destructive force capable of rending the nation irreparably. It was not long before the Ustasi in Croatia, the Nedicists and Ljoticists in Serbia, the Zelenasi in Montenegro, and the Zeleni Kadar — along with the Axis forces — had combined to unleash an epidemic insanity throughout a country awash in blood in its "unjustly lost but unfinished war."

Yugoslavia was — and still is — ideally suited to the character and demands of guerrilla warfare. The country is mostly mountainous, with rugged landscapes and lush, rolling valleys that fill out the rest of the terrain. Enemy supply routes depended on a few major arterial roads and railway bridges spanning spectacular rivers and gorges. All were vulnerable to sabotage and attack.
    For the most part, the civilian population was sympathetic to the idea of resistance, despite the risk of severe reprisals. From the outset, Yugoslavs attacked guards, ambushed patrols and convoys, and destroyed railway junctions, aided to an extent by the loyal army officers who had fled to the woods when the country was overrun. But the early forays remained haphazard and ill-coordinated at best.
    Among the earliest to organize were the Cetniks. The word was a traditional name for militia guerrilla troops which were loosely maintained during the pre-war years. The Cetniks at this point were under the command of Kosta Pecanac, a Serbian hero of the First World War who had organized and led an uprising against the Austrians in 1917. They wore tall sheepskin hats adorned with a white eagle — symbol of the Royal Yugoslav Army — and cultivated long hair and beards.
    The Cetnik force included Serbs fighting of their own volition and Bosnians, the latter mainly peasants chased into the woods by the Ustasi. They had no ideology and some eventually joined the Partisans. Only a few weeks before the outbreak of war, Colonel Dragoljub — or Draza — Mihailovic came to lead the Cetniks, replacing Pecanac who (it is said) had been suspected of being untrustworthy and tending to support the Germans.
    With his grizzled grey beard and steel-rimmed spectacles, Mihailovic seemed to observers to be a mild, soft-spoken man. But this much-decorated veteran had been a young lieutenant during the Serbian army's breakthrough into its home territory from Salonika during the First World War. Later he had served as the Yugoslav military attaché in Sofia and Prague, and in the years immediately prior to the Second World War had become widely regarded as an expert on guerrilla-warfare tactics.
    Mihailovic proceeded slowly, directing the resistance from his HQ established at Ravna Gora, a great plateau atop Mount Suvobor in Serbia. The Yugoslav Government-in-Exile, then in London, had urged all Yugoslavs to wait until Allied aid arrived. Nevertheless, the Cetniks soon attracted attention outside the country. An American journalist in Istanbul wrote an article in which Mihailovic and the Cetniks were (correctly) described as the only legitimate and effective resistance front in Yugoslavia. Official recognition followed and Mihailovic was eventually named Commander of the Yugoslav Army in the Homeland.
    Yet, the downfall of the Cetniks as a credible resistance movement started early — the result of an effective propaganda campaign waged against them combined with Mihailovic's inability to maintain control over his widely scattered troops, many of whom were growing increasingly fearful of reprisals.
    Meanwhile, vague rumours concerning the organization of guerrilla bands with opposed and clashing political views began to reach Cairo and London. The Cetniks had rivals — newcomers who took their name from the Spanish partidas which had harassed Napoleon. These modern partisans in Yugoslavia were led by a shadowy forty-nine-year-old figure known only as "Tito."
    Tito was thought at one point to be an acronym for Tajn Internacionalna Teroristicki Organizacija, or "Secret International Terrorist Organization." It was also suggested that the name represented an office, and that a new "Tito" was elected at unknown intervals. In fact, the origin of the name has never been adequately explained — though Vladimir Dedijer, a Partisan veteran and later Tito's biographer, has offered a seemingly reliable account. "In 1934," wrote Dedijer, "Josip Broz, after serving a prison term, decided to change his name. First it was Rudi, but a friend was called Rudi, so he changed it to Tito. This was a common name in his native district [of Croatia]. By 1937 he used it exclusively and signed articles with it. Later, in Moscow, working in the Comintern, he was called Walter." Another widely accepted explanation comes from his propensity at meetings to order (in Serbo-Croat): "Ti, to!" which means "You do that!"
    Josip Broz "Tito," the son of a Croat peasant, was born May 25, 1892 in Kumrovec, Croatia — a tiny hamlet within the realm of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a youth, Josip Broz had apprenticed briefly with an iron worker in his village, then worked as a locksmith in factories in Yugoslavia and elsewhere in Europe until the outbreak of the First World War. Inducted into the Austrian Army as an NCO, he was sent to the Russian Front in the spring of 1915. There he was run through by a lance before being captured by soldiers of the Tsar's army in the Carpathians. So it was that he remained in the Soviet Union until 1917 when, after the Bolshevik Revolution, all prisoners were released. Broz had used the time in various hospitals and POW camps to his advantage, learning to speak Russian as well as becoming acquainted with the workers' movement. He promptly volunteered for the newly created Red Army and served in it throughout the civil war.
    Back in Zagreb in 1920, he began casting about confidently as a professional revolutionary — a loyal member of the Communist International. But in the new Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the Communist Party (CPY) was declared illegal and severe measures were taken against its members. Consequently, the 1920s were a period of relative inactivity for the CPY. Tito, who assumed leadership of the organization in 1927, spent much of his subsequent time in and out of jails, in hiding or in exile.
    Tito became regarded as an expert at konspiracija — the art of working and moving about illegally. In 1938 he arrived in Copenhagen with a forged Canadian passport in the name of Spiridon Mekas, which he had obtained in Moscow. He used the false document again when he travelled to France that same year. In 1939, Tito, again as Spiridon Mekas, sailed from Odessa to Istanbul, and then journeyed by train to Zagreb. It is said he was chairing a meeting of the Central Committee of the CPY in Zagreb when word came of the attack on Yugoslavia in April 1941.
    Tito's Partisans were recruited with ingenuity, and unlike the Cetniks, accepted the reprisals inflicted upon the civilian population as an unavoidable cost of the resistance. For a short while the Partisans and Cetniks even joined in sorties against the occupying armies. Tito and Mihailovic met in September 1941 to discuss further operations. "He struck me as a nice, pleasant-mannered sort of man — a typical regular officer," Tito would remark of him. On October 20 of that year, a joint Partisan-Cetnik raid was launched against the enemy stationed in Kraljevo, a small town in Serbia, and some thirty German troops were killed. The reprisal was both swift and violent: every fourth inhabitant of the village — or as many as 7,000 men, women, and children — was rounded up and summarily executed. Mihailovic was horrified, and, it was said, lost much of his courage for resistance at this point.
    Later that month in Brajici, not far from the Cetnik HQ, a large Cetnik force attacked the Partisans in Ulice. The Partisans rallied behind a spirited counterattack and, after two weeks of fighting, succeeded in surrounding the Cetnik HQ. Tito's army was poised to strike the final blow when he heard a radio broadcast from Moscow echo the British view that Mihailovic was the main resistance leader in Yugoslavia. "Tito stood still, aghast. I had never seen him so surprised," wrote Vladimir Dedijer. The order to attack was withheld. It would not be the last of Tito's troubles with the Soviet Union — or, for that matter, the Cetniks of Draza Mihailovic.
    Nevertheless, Tito and his Communist guerrillas were soon perceived as the sole legitimate resistance movement within the country. With their captured German and Italian uniforms stripped of insignia and their wedge-caps adorned with a red cloth star, their distinctive salute — initially the knuckles pressed to the temple, and later with the flat of the thumb and curled index finger or ball of the fist pressed to the head — their ideology and zeal, their tenacity and unflinching determination to obtain national liberation, the Partisans were some 80,000 strong towards the end of 1941. Hitler was advised: "The positions of the Partisans in the woods are such that it is almost impossible to come to grips with them. Nor does it help to step up the propaganda about how badly the Bolsheviks are doing on the Eastern Front. We get the impression that even the news of the Soviet Union's capitulation would not bring about the surrender of these bandits, who are as tough as the devil. Besides, their organization is excellent." Hitler reluctantly agreed that Yugoslavia, instead of serving as a secure flank in the Balkans and an uninterrupted source of strategic raw materials, had developed into a new theatre of war. Clearly, reinforcements would have to put down the insurrection.
    The German Command in Yugoslavia launched a major offensive in November 1941. Throughout the war, there would be seven such operations, usually conducted in the spring and autumn.
    Meanwhile, the British were about to take some significant action in the Balkans. At the war's outset, Winston Churchill had called the situation in Yugoslavia "a tragedy within a tragedy." Now, using a secret wartime organization as the conduit for support to the developing resistance, Britain would attempt to undermine the occupation.

Copyright © Brian Jeffrey Street 1987,1998. All rights reserved.