As we entered, Tito came forward to meet us. I looked at him carefully, for here, it seemed to me, was one of the keys to our problem. ‘In war,’ Napoleon had said, ‘it is not men, but the man who counts.’
He was of medium height, clean-shaven, with tanned regular features and iron-grey hair. He had a very firm mouth and alert blue eyes. He was wearing a dark semi-military tunic and breeches, without any badges; a neat spotted tie added the only touch of colour. We shook hands and sat down.
How, I wondered, would he compare with the Communists I had encountered in Russia? From the members of the Politburo to the NKVD spies who followed me about, all had had one thing in common: their terror of responsibility, their reluctance to think for themselves, their blind unquestioning obedience to a Party line dictated by higher authority, the terrible atmosphere of fear and suspicion which pervaded their lives. Was Tito going to be that sort of Communist?
A sentry with a Schmeisser sub-machine gun slung across his back brought a bottle of plum brandy and poured it out. We emptied our glasses. There was a pause.
The first thing, clearly, was to find a common language. This, I found, presented no difficulty. Tito spoke fluent German and Russian, and was also very ready to help me out in my first attempts at Serbo-Croat. After a couple of rounds of plum brandy, we were deep in conversation.
One thing struck me immediately: Tito’s readiness to discuss any question on its merits and, if necessary, to take a decision there and then. He seemed perfectly sure of himself; a principal, not a subordinate. To find such assurance, such independence, in a Communist was for me a new experience.
I began by telling him the purpose of my mission. The British Government, I said, had received reports of Partisan resistance and were anxious to help. But they were still without accurate information as to the extent and nature of the Partisan movement. I had now been sent in with a team of military experts to make a full report and advise the Commander-in-Chief how help could best be given.
Tito replied that he was glad to hear this. The Partisans had now been fighting alone and unaided for two years against overwhelming odds. For supplies they had depended on what they captured from the enemy. The Italian capitulation had helped them enormously. But outside help was what they needed most of all. It was true that, from time to time during the past few weeks, an occasional parachute load had been dropped at random, but the small quantity of supplies that had reached them in this way, though gratefully received, was of little practical use when distributed among over 100 000 Partisans.
As the night wore on, our talk drifted away from the immediate military problems which we had been discussing, and Tito, whose initial shyness had long since worn off, told me something of his past. The gaps in his narrative I filled in later.
The son of a Croat peasant, he had fought in the First World War in the ranks of the Imperial Austro-Hungary Army. He had been sent to the Russian front, where he was wounded and taken prisoner by the armies of the Tsar. Thus in 1917, at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, he had found himself in Russia. All prisoners of war were set free, and he himself volunteered for the newly formed Red Army. He served in it throughout the Civil War. It was his first taste of the new ideas. He returned to his own country a convinced Communist.
The life which now began for Tito, or Josip Broz, to give him his true name, was that of a professional revolutionary, of a loyal servant of the Communist International. Of that he made no secret. In the new kingdom of Jugoslavia, of which he was now a citizen, the Communist Party was declared illegal almost as soon as it was formed, and severely repressive measures taken against its members. And so he spent the next twenty years in and out of prison; in hiding; in exile. Proudly, he showed me a photograph of himself which the Partisans had found in an old police register and which he kept as a memento of this period of his existence.
Then, in 1937, a new phase opened in his career. The Communist International were purging the foreign Communist Parties. In Jugoslavia they found that the Party had become badly disorganised and had fallen into grave heresies. A key point in south-eastern Europe was endangered. A reliable, determined man was needed to put matters right. Gorkić, the Secretary-General of the Jugoslav Communist Party, was liquidated, and Josip Broz appointed in his place.
He was a good organiser. In his underground army he made new appointments, allotted new tasks and established a new discipline. He would send for people and tell them what to do. ‘You,’ he said to them, ‘will do this; and you, that,’ in Serbo-Croat, ‘Ti, to; ti, to.’ He did this so often that his friends began to call him Tito. The name stuck. It grew to be more than a nickname. It became a call to action, a rallying point.