Partisan Warfare

Submitted by Django on June 19, 2011

The pressure that the decaying Axis system was putting on Europe provoked opposition, particularly the forced labour exacted by Nazi plenipotentiary-general for labour mobilization Fritz Saukel (Mazower, 1998: 159). It was not of course only that occupation was becoming more onerous, or that the Resistance was becoming more determined, Allied successes in the war encouraged more people to resist. The political form that the domination of capital took over the people of Europe was one of occupation, so naturally enough, their opposition to capital took the form of a struggle for national liberation. The different tempos and characters of the resistance (driven by organised labour in Holland, by the peasantry in Greece) arose in the first instance from the different roles these countries played in the division of labour in Nazi Europe, as sources of food, manufactured goods or workers. The way that these conflicts worked themselves out would be governed also by the pre-existing traditions, whether of reformist trade unionism or rural brigandage.

1. The allies' conservative influence

According to Henri Michel, Britain lost its early influence with the resistance as the war progressed: 'She proposed to the Resistance that Europe should revert to its pre-war shape, which the Resistance no longer wanted … it was waging a civil war as well as a war of liberation'. In Italy, and more so in Greece, Churchill 'emerged as an opponent of the Resistance … defending a political and social system which it had been their object to destroy' (Michel, 1975: 52). Britain's official war historian M.R.D. Foot is at pains to say that 'character not [social] class made people resisters, or collaborators, or would be neutrals', but on the contrary, it was by and large the ruling classes who collaborated, and the working classes who resisted (Foot, 1976: 11). In Holland, a German Military Decree of 29 April 1943 that former Dutch soldiers would be sent to the Reich as labourers provoked a wave of strikes centred on the industrial town of Hengelo, and rapidly spreading to the mining district of Limburg and the Philips works in Eindhoven. It took ten days, and summary executions, as happened at Philips, to restore order. Pointedly, the London-exiled Dutch Prime Minister Gerbrandy broadcast from the BBC on 19 May warning 'against revolt at too early a stage', and encouraging passive resistance (Hæstrup, 1978: 104-5). In 1944, the allies again proved less than enthusiastic about strikes planned by Central Dutch Resistance Council - this time to coincide with the invasion. In retrospect, British commander at Arnhem R.E. Urquhart admitted that an unwillingness to cooperate with the Resistance contributed to major setbacks in the winter of 1944-5 (Hæstrup, 1978: 107) From the perspective of the British military historian Foot, the resistance largely existed to serve the needs of the Allies: information gathering, aiding escaping officers, and, insofar as it engaged in the economic sphere, this was just 'sabotage', not insurrection (Foot, 1976). Frictions between the Resistance and the British were on show because of the extent of the Special Operations Executive's initial links. In fact all three of the allies clashed with the expectations that were raised in the Resistance and Partisan movement.

2. Italy

In the South, the Badoglio government's withdrawal from the war made the allied invasion relatively easy. With the agreement of Communist Party leader Palmiro Togliatti, who returned from Moscow in March 1944, Badoglio's government was recognised by the Committees of National Liberation, who were thereby sidelined. Dogmatically Togliatti held that the stage of democratic revolution must precede that of social revolution, and so counselled his supporters restrict their wider ambitions in favour of 'continuity of the state' (Ginsborg, 1990: 48). British representative Harold Macmillan was relieved: 'it would suit us much better not to be stimulators of a revolution, which we shall only have to suppress later' (Macmillan, 1984: 169).

Economically, the south had been bankrupted by the war, and only the Fascists' price and rationing system stopped runaway inflation, which manifested itself once the allies landed. Unable to get a reasonable price, farmers withheld their grain and the cities starved. To restore order, the allies recreated Mussolini's police state. On 19 October 1943, a demonstration against wage and price levels was fired on, leaving 14 dead. The 'collective contracts' between workers and employers that had been introduced by Mussolini were continued by Lt. Colonel Charles Poletti for AMGOT (Ellwood, 1985: 60, 66).

When the Armistice was signed with Badoglio, Nye Bevan told the House of Commons that it ought to have been signed with the striking workers and peasants of Milan (Ellwood, 1985: 40). But the allies had no intention of handing power to the militant partisans in the North. In the summer of 1944 partisans, by then 100 000 strong, succeeded in liberating at least 15 'partisan republics', like Carnia, Montefiorini, and Ossola, emboldened by the allied advance, and established Committees of National Liberation ('CLNs', Ellwood, 1985: 157; Ginsborg, 1990: 55). British General Alexander, the Allied Commander, told the Times that the partisans were holding down up to six of the 25 German divisions (Ellwood, 1985: 157). But the Allies closed down CLNs in Arezzo, Siena and Viareggio, only acquiescing to them where they were too strong to be challenged, as in Florence. 'Care will be taken', said US Captain Ellery Stone to prevent these committees setting themselves up as alternative government' (Ellwood, 1985: 160). British and American political advisors drew up a note warning that 'there is a real danger of extreme Communist elements taking control' (Ellwood, 1985: 163). Events would solve the Allies' problem for them.

On 6 June Alexander issued a proclamation to the partisans to prepare for an insurrection in the summer. But German resistance proved more difficult than was expected. On 10 November, Alexander announced on public radio that there would be no new allied advance until the spring, and that the partisans should go to ground until then (Ginsborg, 1990: 56). 'It was a grave setback for the resistance', remembered Roberto Battaglia, but to the Germans 'it was a tonic': 'they decided to make the most of the respite and deal the partisans a crushing blow' (Battaglia, 1957: 221-2). The SOE's Basil Davidson thought the fallback was a devious move designed to 'kill off any chance of a resurrection in the cities of the north' (Davidson, 1981: 240). Finally, the killing of Benito Mussolini on 28 April 1945, previously attributed to partisans, was in fact the work of Special Operations, Executive member Robert Maccarrone, working with Bruno Lonati according to American filmmaker Peter Tompkins. Mussolini was, it is alleged, killed on Churchill's orders, to stop him from using letters that incriminated the British Prime Minister (Independent, 29 August 2004).

3. Greece

Allied thinking on Italy was shaped by the problem of the Greek Resistance Army ELAS (Macmillan, 1984: 657). ELAS was initiated by Aris Velouchtis, in the face of scepticism from his fellow Communist Party (EAM) members, as a way of organising the Greek klephtic brigands who were busy raiding rural towns, as a force against the German occupation late in 1941 (Eudes, 1972: 10-14). ELAS's successes were rapid, and created liberated zones in the countryside, adding to the strikes against forced labour in the cities in 1943 (Eudes, 1972: 33-40). Britain sent a youthful Captain Chris Woodhouse into Greece in the hopes of building up alternative 'national' bands, but he found that ELAS' were in control, 'even motor roads were mended and used by EAM-ELAS' (Woodhouse, quoted in Tsoucalas, 1969: 61).

Arming ELAS, though, was a continuing problem for the SOE. Macmillan was warned by the nationalist politician George Papandreou, that 'in our desire to attack the Germans we had aroused and armed most dangerous Communist forces in Greece itself' (Macmillan, 1984: 546). By September 1943, the Italian army was surrendering its arms and supplies to an ELAS force of 50,000, giving it absolute advantage over its smaller rival liberation forces (Tsoucalas, 1969: 67). In April 1944 the Greek Army stationed in Cairo mutinied. They were accused by Churchill of harbouring 'an unworthy fear of being sent to the front', but in fact they were demanding to be sent into battle to help free their country. British hostility to the army's demands were made clear by Sir Reginald Leeper, British Ambassador to the Greek government in exile, who telegraphed the foreign office that 'what is happening here among the Greeks is nothing less than a revolution' (Eudes, 1972: 123). Churchill had the 20,000 men rounded up and held in concentration camps in Libya and Eritrea - 'let hunger play its part', he cabled Leeper (Tsoucalas, 1969: 73).

Eventually, Britain used the Soviet Union's influence to rein in ELAS. Following preparatory discussions between Eden and the Soviet Ambassador to London in May, Stalin and Churchill agreed that Greece would be a part of the British sphere of influence at a conference in Moscow in October 1944. Between the two discussions a Soviet mission to Greece under Colonel Popov, had contacted the partisans to tell them of their agreement in July (Tsoucalas, 1969: 76-7). At Caserta, EAM, Papandreou and the Allies agreed that all guerrilla bands would be disarmed, before the formation of a new Greek Army, with only Serafis dissenting. Meanwhile, the Allies recruited national Bands from the rapidly disintegrating collaborationist Greek forces to take on ELAS.

The conditions were prepared for the British Expeditionary Force under General Scobie to enter Greece. 'Do not hesitate to act as if you were in a conquered city where a local rebellion is in progress', read Churchill's orders of 5 December 1944 (Tsoucalas, 1969: 85). Three days later, he added 'the clear objective is the defeat of the E.A.M.' - not the German or Italian armies, which had already been defeated. And making clear his desire to inflict a physical defeat, Churchill added 'the ending of the fighting is subsidiary to this'. (Tsoucalas, 1969: 88). On the same day, in the House of Commons, an opposition amendment regretted that the King’s speech of 29 November 'contains no assurance that H.M. Forces will not be used to disarm the friends of democracy in Greece and other parts of Europe, or to suppress popular movements which have variously assisted in the defeat of the enemy and upon whose success we must rely for future friendly cooperation in Europe' Churchill replied that valorous action against the Germans did not entitle the popular movements to become masters of their countries, adding, guiltily: 'Democracy is no harlot to be picked up in the street by a man with a tommy-gun.' (Macmillan, 1984: 599). The British held Athens, bombing working class districts from the air and freeing pro-Nazi collaborators to fire on demonstrators, only because the ELAS fighters were kept out of the city by the Communist Party leadership. Field Marshall Alexander complained of a 'stubborn core of resistance', Athenians held up banners reading 'the Germans are back' (Eudes, 1972: 214, 190).

4. Yugoslavia

The division of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia between Germany and Italy, left a rump Serbia ruled over by the quisling General Nedic and the pro-German Croat regime of Ante Pavelic with its Ustashe militia. The Ustashe slaughtered Serbs and Jews, killing 500 000. Two groups of Yugoslav partisans vied for leadership, the royalist 'Chetniks' under Draza Mihailovic, and the Communist-led group under Josip Broz Tito. Initially the British SOE favoured Mihailovic, with the King in exile in London, and the novelist Evelyn Waugh acting as contact officer. Waugh's high Tory prejudices (he reported back that Tito was in fact a woman, and even insisted on calling him 'Madam' when they met) helped to blind the SOE to the real conditions in Yugoslavia. On the ground, though, it was Tito who was fighting the war, while Mihailovic gave the struggle against Communism the priority over that with Germany. At Uzice, the Chetniks joined in a German attack on the partisans. In 1943, the SOE sent nine missions to the Chetniks, trying to persuade them to fight the Germans, but without success (Davidson, 1981: 127).

Tito's forces were the most remarkable of all the partisan armies, a quarter of a million in 1943, who inflicted extensive casualties on the German military. British ambitions in the Balkans were damaged by their support for Mihailovic. The pressure for change built up in the SOE, and eventually, Churchill intervened sending the aristocratic Tory MP Fitzroy Maclean to Yugoslavia to support Tito. Maclean objected that Tito would turn Yugoslavia communist, to which Churchill asked 'Are you going to live there?' 'No.' 'Neither am I.' (Davidson, 1981: 132). Tito's patriots proved to be a law unto themselves, not just for the British, but for the Soviets, too. Only in Yugoslavia did the partisans wholly succeed in freeing themselves, and Tito's post-war Communist regime proved to be a headache for Stalin. German hostility towards Yugoslavia, as the one country in Eastern Europe that defeated them persisted beyond the downfall of Nazism.

5. The Red Army

Not truly a partisan army, the Soviet army did draw on popular nationalism, fighting to free its own country. Both the initial collapse of the Soviet Union and its subsequent regroupment tell us a lot about the failure to develop Russian society. Russian collapse in the face of the onslaught indicated the failure of the Union to secure the loyalty of their western nationalities, the Ukrainians, Balts and Estonians. But German control was simply parasitic, singularly failing to win the support of any section of the community, except on the most barbaric basis of collaborating in racial oppression and extermination.

There is no doubt that the Soviet defence of Leningrad and Stalingrad drew upon great heroism. But Soviet warfare was labour intensive, its armies numerous but under supplied, putting men into the field against tanks, creating terrible casualties. In material terms, it was the successful relocation of war industries in the east that turned the tide of warfare. All the same, the moral impact of defeating Germany gave a direction to a society that was running out of steam. Georg Lukacs, exiled in Moscow, described being taken by KGB officers for what he assumed was his interrogation, only to find himself thrust instead into a room full of Wehrmacht Officers, led by Friedrich von Paulus, and told that he was to lecture them on German civilisation. After imprisonment in the USSR, von Paulus settled in East Berlin, where he worked as a police inspector.

The Red Army's progression across Eastern Europe and into Berlin is often mystified. For the German leadership the need to talk up the inner vitality of the Soviets, if only to explain away their own defeats, became pressing. So, too, for the Allies, hanging back in North Africa and southern Italy, it was necessary to talk up the heroism of the Red Army. The truth is more mundane, and well captured by the chemist, and later author, Primo Levi who escaped from the Buna concentration camp into a chaotic Eastern Europe: 'The soviets had gasoline'. German occupation, and withdrawal (the 'scorched earth' policy) left the supply lines of the Soviet Army, the only functioning system of distribution in the region. 'I do not believe that there is much that we can do but stand in the pavilion and cheer the Russians innings,’ wrote Harold Macmillan on 30 March 44 (Macmillan, 1984: 401)

6. Poland

Polish nationalism suffered terrible defeats in the war. On the Soviet side, 12000 Polish Officers were murdered at Katyn. German rule was equally ruthless. When the Warsaw Ghetto rose up against the relocation to concentration camps, in 1942 they were armed by the Polish resistance, and had the sympathy of many Poles. But the destruction of the Ghetto had a salutary effect on the Polish people, just as the anti-Jewish policy was intended to do. In 1944, with the Red Army on the outskirts of Warsaw, the Poles rose against the Germans. But instead of coming to their assistance, the Soviets hung back, letting the Wehrmacht clean up the Polish nationalists before they resumed the offensive and took Warsaw.

Juan Conatz

10 years 11 months ago

In reply to by

Finally, the killing of Benito Mussolini on 28 April 1945, previously attributed to partisans, was in fact the work of Special Operations, Executive member Robert Maccarrone, working with Bruno Lonati according to American filmmaker Peter Tompkins. Mussolini was, it is alleged, killed on Churchill's orders, to stop him from using letters that incriminated the British Prime Minister (Independent, 29 August 2004).

Is that in any way true?