Military history



Yugoslavia, 1941–1945, and the Limits of
Scorched-Earth Counterinsurgency

THE END OF the Chindits and Marauders did not mean the end of irregular warfare in Burma. In 1943 the OSS infiltrated a unit code-named Detachment 101 to train Kachin tribesmen to fight the Japanese. By 1945 the OSS had over ten thousand guerrillas under arms, while the SOE had succeeded in winning over to the Allied cause the Burma National Army, commanded by Aung San, father of the future Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi, who had initially been in the Japanese camp. By now both the SOE and the OSS, which had been plagued in the war’s early years by all the mistakes that characterize a hastily improvised start-up, had gained from experience a much more professional approach to training and tradecraft. They showed what they had learned in Burma, making it, in the judgment of one historian, among “the most successful irregular military operations of the war.”100

The experience of Burma was a microcosm of the rise and fall of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. While more-liberal European empires lasted centuries before they expired, the sun rose and set much more quickly on the more-brutish Japanese empire acquired in imitation of the European example. This was due, of course, mainly to the strength of the opposition arrayed against it by the Allies. But the heavy-handed methods employed by the soldiers of the Rising Sun did not help. Unlike the Nazis in Europe or the Middle East, the Japanese initially had some success harnessing nationalist sentiment with their slogan “Asia for the Asians.” They attracted collaborators such as Aung San, Sukarno in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), and Subhas Chandra Bose in India. But the “stupid and swinish conduct” of Japanese soldiers, who in China pursued a “three alls” strategy (“kill all, burn all, destroy all”), had alienated most of their subjects by war’s end. A 1947 CIA report about Indochina noted, “Japanese terrorism . . . roused the whole people to a general anti-imperialistic feeling.”101 That held true across Asia. There were significant resistance movements in Burma, China, Malaya, and the Philippines. In the Philippines alone there were around 225,000 guerrillas. By the time of MacArthur’s landing in 1944, the guerrillas claimed to control 800 of the country’s 1,000 municipalities. The guerrillas would not have prevailed without the help of Allied armies, but they did help to make life more difficult for the occupiers.102

The record of guerrilla resistance in Western Europe was less impressive. The continent smoldered but never saw an anti-Nazi blaze. The SOE pulled off occasional coups such as sending two Czech agents to assassinate the SS lieutenant general Reinhard Heydrich, the “blond beast,” outside Prague in 1942. But the price was fearful. In retaliation for Heydrich’s death, the Nazis eradicated two entire villages, Lidice and Lezaky, killing over five thousand people. Such overreaction sowed the seeds of hatred that would come back to haunt the Nazis in the future, but, as a historian of the SOE notes, “In the short run, terror worked, as it usually does.”103

At least it did in Western and Central Europe where the topography was hardly favorable for guerrilla operations. To avoid bringing an awful fate upon their innocent neighbors, most European resistance movements adopted the refrain of the clandestine Norwegian Milorg (Military Organization): “Lie low, go slow.”104 Accommodation with the Nazis was made easier in the west by the fact that the Nazis did not have the same kind of pathological antipathy for the Belgians or French that they had for Jews and Slavs, whom they labeled Untermenschen (“sub-humans”). The Danes, Dutch, and Norwegians were even considered to be fellow Aryans, although that did not save them from invasion. In the Nazi orders for retaliation against partisan attacks, a German soldier’s life was worth the lives of “only” five Danes compared with a hundred Poles.105 Because German occupation in the west was so much milder than in the east, it aroused less opposition.

It was a different story in Eastern Europe. There is always a temptation for any counterinsurgent force, especially one sent by an illiberal state, to resort to the most sanguinary methods imaginable to eradicate resistance from armed civilians. Whatever their short-term impact, such blunderbuss tactics usually fail in the end by arousing more opposition than they eliminate. That was a lesson learned by the Akkadians in ancient Mesopotamia and the French in 1790s Haiti. Such methods are even more counterproductive, as the Japanese, Italians, and Germans were to discover, if the victimized populace can find outside allies to help it fight back.

To their own detriment, the Nazis disregarded the lessons of the more liberal British Empire, which Hitler claimed to admire. The Führer did not seem to notice that the British, in spite of their own dogma of racial superiority, made many accommodations with local rulers and local customs and always held out the hope, however faint, that at some point in the future the empire’s subjects would be allowed to rule themselves. There could be no such hope for those enslaved within the Nazi ambit. “What made the Nazis’ approach not only unusual but completely counter-productive as a philosophy of rule,” notes the historian Mark Mazower, “was their insistence on defining nationalism in such completely narrow terms that it precluded most of the peoples they conquered from ever becoming citizens.”106 In so doing, Hitler disregarded the lessons not only of the British but also of the Romans, who extended citizenship across their domains.

Hard as it may be to believe in retrospect, there was nothing inevitable about the violent loathing that Nazi rule aroused. When the German armies rolled into the Soviet Union, many people, and not only minority nationalities, were ready to welcome them as liberators from Stalinist oppression. At least 650,000 Soviet citizens wound up wearing Wehrmacht uniforms, including many prisoners of war who volunteered to fight under Andrei Vlasov and other captured Red Army generals.107 There were also numerous volunteers for Waffen SS units from the Baltic states, Ukraine, Hungary, and other parts of Eastern Europe—nearly half a million men in all.108 But Hitler’s draconian decrees and indiscriminate violence alienated most Eastern Europeans and helped give rise to a large and effective partisan movement in the Soviet Union that numbered more than 180,000 fighters and received substantial assistance from the Soviet military and intelligence apparatus.109

Like the British army in the American Revolution, the Napoleonic army in the Peninsular War, the federal army in the post–Civil War South, or, for that matter, the Japanese army in China, the Nazis compounded their woes in the East by not deploying enough troops to police rear areas effectively, thereby violating the imperative to achieve a sufficient ratio of counterinsurgents to civilians. The proper ratio is a matter of debate, with estimates ranging from one counterinsurgent per 357 civilians in a relatively peaceful situation to one counterinsurgent per 40 civilians in a more contested environment, but there is little doubt that in the central part of the Soviet Union the counterinsurgent forces were badly understrength: there were an average of just 2 German soldiers per three square miles.110 After a partisan attack, German units might roll through a village and slaughter everyone in sight, but then they would move on, allowing the partisans to come back. Thus the Germans aroused much hatred but exercised little control: the worst of all worlds. As the power of the occupiers waned, guerrilla attacks increased in keeping with the plan outlined by one Polish resistance fighter in 1939, who had counseled that the underground should reveal itself only when Germany was on the verge of defeat “or at least when one leg buckles. Then we should be able to cut through veins and tendons in the other leg and bring down the German colossus.”111

In France the German hold began to buckle following the Allied invasion on June 6, 1944. The French Resistance, the maquis, which had been relatively quiescent until then, chose that moment to step up its activities. Cooperation between the Allied armies and the Resistance was facilitated by Jedburgh teams parachuted into France ahead of D-day, each one composed of an SOE or OSS officer, a Free French officer, and a radio operator. General Dwight Eisenhower later claimed, “probably overgenerously” in the estimation of the historian Julian Jackson, that the work of the Resistance had been worth fifteen divisions to him.112 After Mussolini’s overthrow in 1943, Italian guerrillas also proved a valuable adjunct to Allied armies advancing up the peninsula; the guerrillas themselves strung up Il Duce and his mistress.

Irregulars who were not able to work with conventional forces did not fare as well. Following the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the Nazis razed the entire ghetto. Following the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, they razed the rest of the city. Members of the Polish Home Army, which was behind the 1944 revolt, had mistakenly believed that the Red Army, which was within sight of Warsaw, would come to their aid. Stalin, however, cynically chose to hold back his troops while the Polish patriots, who might have resisted the imposition of Communist rule, were slaughtered. A similar fate was suffered by Naples in 1943 following a four-day uprising against the Nazis, proving once again what the Paris Commune and the Jewish Revolt had already demonstrated: that cities are death traps for large-scale rebellions.

OUTSIDE THE SOVIET UNION, guerrillas had the biggest impact in the Balkans. This should be no surprise because its rugged terrain, full of mountains and forests, had been home for centuries to irregular fighters who had battled Ottoman domination. Yugoslavia and its southern neighbors, Albania and Greece, all developed highly effective resistance movements that together tied down as many as 24 German divisions out of more than 270, and 31 more Italian divisions, along with Bulgarian, Hungarian, and locally recruited Axis forces—more than a million troops in all.113

Arguably the most illustrious resistance leader of the entire war, Josip Broz Tito, emerged out of this Balkan cauldron. An indifferently educated manual laborer with blue eyes, a handsome visage, and a taste for fancy clothes, he had been a labor organizer and operative of the Russian-run Communist International (Comintern) who had spent years in a Yugoslav prison for his subversive work. His original name was Josip Broz; “Tito” was a pseudonym that would cause the Allies much confusion in the early days of World War II—so little did the West know of him at first that some suspected it might not denote an individual at all but a Serbo-Croatian acronym for Secret International Terrorist Organization.

Tito was secretary-general of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia when the Germans invaded in 1941, his predecessor having been eliminated in a Stalinist purge. The Communists were as ill prepared as the rest of Yugoslavia to resist the Wehrmacht onslaught. But drawing on his World War I experience as a decorated sergeant major in the Austro-Hungarian army who had led a platoon that regularly penetrated Russian lines at night—the kind of foray that today would be dubbed “special operations”—Tito managed to organize his own resistance force, the Partisans, with scant outside support. He then outmaneuvered the other major guerrilla army in Yugoslavia, the royalist Chetniks, led by Dragoljub “Draža” Mihailović, a scholarly, long-bearded army colonel with a “mild manner,” an always-present pipe, and “gentle eyes that peered sadly from behind thick lenses.”114 A professional officer, he had the full backing of the Yugoslav government-in-exile and of its patrons in London. But Mihailović was also a political naïf and a Serbian chauvinist who had little appeal to Yugoslavia’s other nationalities.

Half Croatian, half Slovenian, and all politician, Tito was, by contrast, able to bridge his country’s deep sectarian differences and organize a truly national force that survived seven major offensives of “merciless annihilation,” in the words of an SOE adviser to the Partisans, mounted by the Germans between the fall of 1941 and the summer of 1944. In this war “with no front and no quarter” (to quote again from the SOE operative and Oxford don William Deakin), Tito’s headquarters was on the verge of being overrun on several occasions, but each time he managed to escape, sometimes with only seconds to spare. Having started with just 12,000 party members, Tito by the fall of 1943 commanded a force of over 300,000 fighters. And unlike the Chetniks, who were sometimes drawn into collaboration with the Germans and Italians, the Partisans had no compunctions about relentlessly attacking the occupation forces, notwithstanding the harsh reprisals inevitably suffered by nearby villagers. They knew that German atrocities would only drive more people into their camp—literally so because of the German habit of razing villages near the site of Partisan attacks, forcing villagers to take refuge with the guerrillas.

Acutely conscious of the need to wage political as well as kinetic warfare, Tito took care, noted an OSS operative, “to indoctrinate every group in the liberated areas, even the children,” who had to sing ditties such as “Tito Is My Mother and My Father.” Every major Partisan unit also had its own printing press to produce Communist propaganda, leading another OSS liaison officer to conclude that “the teaching of Communism has now become as much a part of their activities as fighting.” Much like Mao Zedong, Tito showed himself much more attuned to the demands of modern insurgency than the more narrowly military Mihailović or Chiang Kai-shek.

The turning point of the war came in 1944 when the British and American governments, despite their anticommunist leanings, decided to shift their support from the ineffectual Chetniks to the better-organized Partisans. Thereafter Tito’s men received copious supplies from the air—more, in fact, than either the French or the Italian resistance received. Tito even relocated his headquarters in 1944 to the Adriatic island of Vis, where, like some James Bond villain in his island lair, he spent the rest of the war under the protection of Anglo-American air and sea power. The Soviet contribution, by contrast, was negligible until the Red Army entered Yugoslavia in September 1944. Their troops were instrumental in the liberation of Belgrade but then moved on, leaving the final battles in Yugoslavia to be won by Tito’s forces, which by now had become a regular army.

“Yugoslavia,” notes Mark Mazower, “was the only place in Europe where a partisan movement seized control.” Tito did not relinquish that control until his death in 1980. He dealt harshly not only with his wartime rivals (Mihailović was captured and executed in 1946) but with all other contenders for power. Only his iron will kept alive the artificial nation of Yugoslavia, which was to expire in a blood-drenched cataclysm a decade after his demise.

Still, for all of Tito’s undoubted cunning, ruthlessness, and fortitude, if the Nazi high command had been free to concentrate its resources in Yugoslavia for a prolonged period of time, the Partisans in all likelihood would have been crushed. (The Arab Revolt in World War I would have suffered the same fate if the Ottomans had not been fighting General Allenby’s regulars at the same time.) As it was, the liberation struggle took a fearful toll on Yugoslavia: 1 million to 1.5 million people killed out of a prewar population of 16 million.115 Such are the wages of insurgency, successful or not.

Elsewhere, outside the Balkans, most resistance movements had little more than nuisance value. Admiration for these freedom fighters should not obscure the reality that their role in helping Allied armies was hardly decisive or indispensable.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!