Military history


Beacons in the Night

The American equivalent of SOE was OSS (Office of Strategic Services), the lineal forebear of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Franklin Lindsay was one of its early operatives, who in 1944 was attached to SOE for duty in Yugoslavia. A mining engineer by training, Frank Lindsay proved a natural special-forces agent, brave, intelligent and of independent mind. He was an aggressive leader of partisans, in so far as they allowed themselves to be led by a foreigner who was not a Communist. He, for his part, suffered all the frustration felt by SOE and OSS officers in their dealings with partisans who were generally more concerned to establish their political dominance over the regions in which they fought, than to engage with the occupying enemy.

In the action recounted in the following extract from his magnificent account of the partisan war, Beaconsin the Night, some of the partisans’ opponents were German, some local home guards enlisted to the German side. Theirs was the unhappier lot. After the war Lindsay became head of the CIA’s Eastern Mediterranean division, charged with mounting subversive operations against the Communist regimes which had succeeded to power in the aftermath of the partisan campaigns. He was unenthusiastic about his mission, having ‘seen firsthand what a resistance movement entails: horrifying loss of life, suffering which racks every level of society, wholesale destruction, the murder of hostages, starvation. No population that had gone through such an ordeal could attempt it again without a generation of forgetfulness.’ (Thomas Powers, The MenWho Kept theSecrets,New York, 1987.) A generation after Lindsay served in OSS, the population of what was formerly Yugoslavia had re-created the ordeal again.


Liberation of a Mountain Valley

Until August 1, 1944, no liberated territory existed in the Partisan Fourth Zone within the wartime German Reich, the area north of the Sava River. A few remote mountainous areas were called ‘liberated’ simply because of the absence of German troops. Until then the Partisans had operated only in the mountains. Every village had a German garrison and Partisan movements were primarily at night. The Partisans were dispersed in small units except when brought together for an attack on a German-held target. During June and July we remained with Fourth Zone headquarters and moved with them almost every night.

Our security lay not in secrecy, which was impossible to maintain, but in constant movement. We were dependent on an invisible screen of civilians — old men, women, and children — to warn us of approaching German patrols, or of ambushes laid for us on mountain trails. Although for seven months we were never further than five miles from the nearest German post, and often much closer, we were never caught in ambush, and were seldom surprised. In good part this was luck; many others were ambushed by SS troops or the White Guard [militia of the pro-German Croat State]. The plain fact was that we could not have survived for even a week if the civilian population had been hostile.

In late July the Fourth Zone headquarters launched a daring offensive of their own. The Partisans assembled their fighting brigades to attack the German garrisons in the Gornja Savinjska Dolina - the narrow valley of the upper Savinja River and its tributary, the Dreta. Descending from the upper slopes of the Karawanken Alps and curving to the east, the valley was surrounded by high mountains. The terrain spread and opened, downstream, only at its eastern junction with another valley descending from the north. There was a reasonable chance it could remain in Partisan hands, but only so long as the Germans did not move in reinforcements from outside Stajerska.

The operation was well planned. All five brigades in Stajerska were employed. The Sixth ‘Slander’ Brigade was ordered to attack the German garrisons at the villages of Luce and Ljubno. The Eleventh ‘Zidansek’ Brigade was to mount a diversionary attack on Gornji Grad, and to set up ambushes on the roads leading to the three villages from the German-held towns to the west, north, and east. The three brigades of the Fourteenth Division would form a second protective barrier further to the east by laying ambushes, blockading and mining roads, bridges, and railroad sections, and launching diversionary attacks on other garrisons that might come to the relief of those at Luce, Ljubno, and Gornji Grad. In addition, the Koroski Odred [partisan force] high in the Karawanken Alps would block any German approaches over the high passes to the north. And the odred on the Sava would launch still another diversionary attack on the Litija garrison twenty miles to the south.

The operations began on the night of July 30. Ljubno was attacked from the north by one battalion and from the south by the second battalion. The third was held in reserve. Twelve pillboxes around the perimeter were successively eliminated with grenades lobbed into them. Under covering fire explosive charges were placed against the walls of three strongpoints and detonated. Prisoners were taken in two while the third went up in flames, with no survivors. The remaining strongpoint held out through the night and into the next day.

Gordon Bush and I observed the fighting from a grassy slope on the flank of the mountain overlooking the village. It was a brilliant Alpine summer day. The grass was emerald green, and the panorama of the valley with its fields, drying racks, and houses was breath-takingly beautiful. German soldiers were in the Ljubno church steeple, and we were in plain view a couple of hundred yards away. Suddenly, they began firing on us. Quite irrationally, I felt outraged. We were not shooting at them! But we prudently moved a few yards away where we were out of their sight.

The attack continued as Partisans moved behind walls and houses toward the center of the village where the Germans were holed up in the remaining strongpoint — a heavy stone building. Soon an Italian 75-mm gun appeared on the road into the village. The gun had been dismantled in Dolenjska and man-packed piece by piece across the border, the Sava, and the mountains. It had been reassembled in the woods for the attack and brought to the battle not by a truck, or even by artillery horses, but by six strong Partisans. Together they lifted the trail of the gun, crouching behind the shield as best they could and pushing it into firing position. Not more than 200 yards from the garrison wall they stopped, rammed home a round, closed the breech, laid the gun on the wall by squinting along the barrel, and fired. The wall was breached and a second round fired, which exploded inside the building. The Partisans then stormed through the breach with Sten guns and grenades. There was not much fight left in the defenders. They filed out covered with dust, hands in the air. Several of the garrison had fled to nearby houses and continued to fight. Those houses were destroyed with explosive charges, or by setting them afire, to complete the capture of the village.

At the same time another battalion of the ‘Slander’ Brigade attacked the garrison at Luce, seven kilometers upstream. The main German force there was holed up in the church rectory. Because of heavy enemy fire the Partisans did not take the strongpoint, but kept it under fire into the next day. In the afternoon they demanded and got the surrender of the garrison.

While this was going on the ‘Zidansek’ Brigade maintained its attack on Gornji Grad. This was originally planned as only a feint. However, because the attacks against Luce and Ljubno were going well the brigade was ordered to complete the attack. The principal strongpoint was inside a medieval castle surrounded by a heavy stone wall. Rather than attacking it the Partisans demanded surrender, threatening to bring up their artillery — the one piece that had just been used at Ljubno to reduce the strongpoint there. The morning of the second day the remaining garrison surrendered.

Two attempts were made by the Germans to relieve the three garrisons, one from the west over the mountains, and one from the lower valley to the east. But the forces available to them were inadequate, both in number and fighting quality. Neither was able to break through the Partisan blockades.

At the end of the day at Ljubno, as I left the center of the village I suddenly came to an open field behind a peasant house. Several men, some in bedraggled German uniforms and some in civilian clothes, were lined up facing a group of Partisans. Two Partisans had raised their submachine-guns and at that instant both opened fire on the Germans, who crumpled to the ground. Afterwards I pressed Commissar Borstnar to tell me why these men had been executed. I didn’t get a straightforward answer. All he said was that they had been guilty of atrocities against the Partisans. Nor could I get an answer on whether there had been any proceedings beforehand. It turned out that of the burgermeisters of the three villages, two had been shot and one spared. The two had been ‘bad mayors’ and one had been a ‘good mayor’, he said. I suspected that he had earned his way by secretly aiding the Partisans in the months before.

Two years after the war I was watching a movie in New York when something on the screen reminded me of those executions. I nearly blacked out. Yet at the time in Ljubno I had not been particularly troubled by what I had seen. Psychological protective defenses were obviously at work within me at the time; two years later they had disappeared.

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