From Eastern Approaches
by Fitzroy Maclean
[Editor’s note: The following observations concerning guerrilla operations in Jugoslavia during the Second World War are reminiscent of the guerrilla phase of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). In Commando – Of Horses and Men, Deneys Reitz says the following: ‘My father said that guerrilla war was better suited to the genius of the Boer people than regular field operations. He spoke of George Washington and Valley Forge, and of other seemingly lost causes that had triumphed in the end, and although we did not altogether share his optimism (for we had the memory of demoralised men and flying columns fresh in our minds), yet his faith cheered us tremendously.’
Think of the heroic guerrilla-war achievements of De la Rey and De Wet, and of Smuts during his incursion into the Cape Colony; think of the intensity of the resistance of the civilian Boer population in the face of the enemy’s ‘methods of barbarism’; and the similarities with what follows will be readily apparent.]
Strategically the situation was well suited to irregular operations. Everything in Jugoslavia favoured the guerrilla: the enemy’s long drawn-out lines of communication, his isolated garrisons and installations. The terrain, too, was well-suited to the purpose. In the hills and woods the Partisans had a background for their operations which could be made to serve at will as a base, as a jumping-off point, as space in which to manoeuvre, as a place in which to hide. It was an element as essential to their kind of warfare as the sea to naval warfare. By emerging unexpectedly from it they were able to achieve the surprise which is the essence of irregular operations. By fading back into it, once their immediate task was completed, they could deny the enemy any solid target at which to strike back. They enjoyed, too, the support of a civilian population deeply imbued with the tradition of resistance to the foreign invader, Teuton or Latin, Magyar or Turk.
But it was perhaps in the character of their leaders that resided the ultimate reason for the Partisans’ success. These leaders were Communists. In guerrilla war, ideas matter more than material reserves. Few ideas equal Communism in strength, in persistence, in insidiousness, in its power over the individual. Their Communist leaders furnished the Partisans with the singleness of purpose, the ruthless determination, the merciless discipline, without which they could not have survived, still less succeeded, in their object. They possessed themselves and inspired in those about them a spirit of absolute devotion which led them to count as nothing either their own lives or the lives of others; they neither gave nor expected quarter. They endowed the Movement with an oracle: the Party line. They brought it a ready-made intelligence system, a well-tried, widespread, old-established underground network. To what had started as a war they gave the character of a revolution. Finally – and this was perhaps their most notable achievement – they succeeded in influencing their followers to forget the old internecine feuds and hatreds and, by throwing together Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Montenegrins and the rest in the fight against the common enemy, produced within their own ranks a new sense of national unity.
By 1943, the Partisans numbered, so far as it was possible to ascertain, about 150 000, perhaps more. This force, composed of formations of varying strength, was distributed over the whole of Jugoslavia, being based for the most part in the mountains and forests. Each Partisan formation had its own Headquarters, and these subordinate headquarters were directly or indirectly responsible to Tito’s General Headquarters, which thus exercised effective operational control over the whole force. Communications were by wireless, use being made of captured enemy sets, or by couriers who travelled precariously from one part of the country to another across the intervening enemy lines.
The war waged by the Partisans was a strange one. There was no fixed front. Fighting for the most part with small arms only and limited stocks of ammunition, against a well-trained, well-armed, well-equipped, well-supplied and motorised enemy, supported by armour, artillery and aircraft, it was necessary for them to avoid pitched battles in which they would invariably have come off worst. If they were to succeed, it was essential that they should retain the initiative themselves, and not allow it to pass into the hands of their opponents. Their aim must be to attack the enemy where he presented the richest target, where he was weakest, and, above all, where he least expected it. It was equally important that, having attained their purpose, they should not linger but should fade once again into the background of hills and woods, where pursuit could not reach them. This necessitated a high degree of mobility. Their human resources, like their material resources, were precious. Any engagement in which enemy losses did not outnumber their own losses by at least five to one the Partisans reckoned a defeat.
If guerrillas are to survive in conditions comparable to those in which the Partisans were fighting, they must at all costs deny the enemy a target at which he can strike back. As their numbers and the scale of their activities increased, this became harder. They had to resist the temptation to follow up and consolidate their successes. All gains had to be regarded as temporary. Villages and small towns captured by sudden attacks had to be abandoned again when the enemy counter-attacked in force. For the Partisans to allow themselves to be forced into the role of a beleaguered garrison would have been a fatal mistake, as individual Commanders were to learn on occasion by bitter experience. And so towns and villages changed hands time after time with their inhabitants, and each time became more battered and lost more inhabitants in the process.
For the support which they gave the Partisans the population suffered atrociously. In addition to famine and want, which swept the ravaged country, the Germans, the Italians, the Bulgars and the various local Quislings inflicted savage reprisals on the people of the country in revenge for the damage done by the Partisans. But neither the Partisans nor their civilian supporters allowed anything to deter them from resistance to the enemy. And, in fact, the enemy, by their barbarity, defeated their own object, for such were the hatred and bitterness that it engendered, that the violence and intensity of the national resistance were redoubled.