Colonel Fabijan Trgo

Survey of the People's Liberation War


From the very beginning of the occupation, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, although outlawed, began making preparations for an armed war of liberation.1 At a session held on April 10, 1941, in Zagreb, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia took a decision to continue offering resistance to the aggressors and, in case of the complete breakdown of the army and state (which was apparently imminent, judging from developments), to start organizational and political preparations to wage war. At the same session, a Military Committee was formed, with Josip Broz Tito at the head, to direct the military preparations. In a Proclamation of April 15, 1941, the Central Committee stressed that the Communists and working class of Yugoslavia should "be in the front ranks of the struggle against the invaders"; explained the social and political significance of that struggle in which "a new world would be born" and a free fraternal community created on the basis of the genuine independence of all the peoples of Yugoslavia.

The consultation of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, held at the beginning of May 1941, in Zagreb was of exceptional importance in paving the way for the uprising. The principal task of the Party in that period was laid down: to organize the peoples of Yugoslavia to wage war for "national and social liberation". The broadest masses of the people, irrespective of political, national, religious or other differences, had to be gathered together into a united front of struggle against the occupiers and domestic traitors. The political line adopted by the Communist Party at this consultation resulted from the assessment it had made of the objective political mood of the people after the occupation. The profound national consciousness, and the explicitly anti-fascist mood (as reflected in the events of March 27) — made the people ready to resist and to fight.

In May and June, a network of military committees attached to branch Party organizations was set up to make immediate military preparations: to collect arms and ammunition; to form shock groups in towns and villages and to train them for diversions and sabotage; to get men ready for the Partisan Detachments. Even during the period of preparations, armed clashes with the invaders were frequent. Although operating under the most difficult conditions, the Communist Party succeeded in increasing its membership during this preparatory period from 8,000 to 12,000. By the end of June, the Communist Youth League of Yugoslavia numbered 30,000 members.

Fascist Germany's attack on the Soviet Union, on June 22, 1941, was a turning point in the international political and military situation. The entry of the U.S.S.R. into the war against the fascist states was an event of world-wide historical significance. Germany threw its main force at the Eastern Front. Favourable international conditions were created for a liberation war by the enslaved peoples of Europe.

On the day Germany attacked the Soviet Union, June 22, the Political Bureau of the Yugoslav Communist Party's Central Committee held a meeting to consider the situation, followed by a proclamation calling upon the peoples of Yugoslavia to revolt against the forces of occupation.

On June 27, 1941, the General HQ of the People's Liberation and Partisan Detachments of Yugoslavia was formed. Josip Broz Tito, Secretary-General of the Communist Party and Head of the Military Committee, was named Commander-in-Chief.

At the session held on July, 1941, in Belgrade, the Political Bureau of the Communist Party's Central Committee passed the historic decision to start the uprising without delay. The Partisan method of warfare was adopted as the basic form of combatting the enemy; it was considered the most suitable way to operate in view of the occupation and the unfavourable balance of forces.

Strong enemy forces were massed on Yugoslav territory at the time: 4 German, 12 Italian, 2 Bulgarian and 5 quisling (Home Guard) divisions, 12 Hungarian and Bulgarian brigades, about 20 independent regiments and over 100 police battalions of various sorts. All in all, 400,000 soldiers. In July 1941, Partisan actions were launched in virtually all parts of Yugoslavia. The fighting rapidly acquired the character of a mass people's uprising.

The invaders and quislings suffered heavy losses in men and war material. On liberated territory (in Serbia, Montenegro, Western Bosnia) occupation and quisling administration was liquidated and organs of people's government were set up, the latter organizing an even more telling resistance in their respective areas with the result that forty towns were liberated. On occupied territory, the Partisans destroyed mines and other industrial installations to prevent the invaders from utilizing them.

As the fighting spread and intensified, the Partisan Detachments emerged into military units which were several hundred strong, and in some areas, several thousand strong.

Even in the occupied towns, the Party organized actions against the invaders who were never for a moment able to feel secure. Hand grenades and revolver bullets caught up with the enemy soldiers and traitors wherever they went. Particularly significant were actions of this sort in Belgrade, Ljubljana, Zagreb, Split, Mostar, Sarajevo, Kragujevac, Zemun, Niš, Cetinje and other localities.

In the summer and autumn of 1941, the armed struggle flared up throughout Yugoslavia, finally evolving into a nation-wide war for the liberation of the country. The scope of the insurrection in Yugoslavia, its military and political victories, took the enemy by surprise. This was a new phenomenon in occupied Europe, one that dealt a serous blow to the occupiers and quislings. Important lines of communication were exposed to ceaseless attacks by Partisan Detachments. Exploitation of Yugoslavia's economy by the occupiers for war purposes and mobilization of manpower for the German and quisling formations were hampered.

Up to the middle of September 1941, the General HQ, and Tito as the Commander, directed the People's Liberation War from Belgrade, after which they shifted to liberated territory in Western Serbia.

The powerful development of the war against the occupiers and local traitors at that time made it incumbent on the leadership of the insurrection to sum up the results achieved, and to work out measures for the promotion of the People's Liberation Movement. Toward that end, on September 26, 1941, a consultation was held at Stolice (Western Serbia) under the chairmanship of Josip Broz Tito; participating were members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia and the General HQ of the People's Liberation Partisan Detachments of Yugoslavia and representatives of regional leaderships. The following decisions were adopted at this meeting: to establish a single type of Partisan detachment (with companies and battalions) throughout Yugoslavia; to rename the General HQ of the People's Liberation Partisan Detachments of Yugoslavia — the Supreme HQ of the People's Liberation Detachments of Yugoslavia: to form general HQs in those regions and districts where there were none as yet; to have large-scale and reinforced Partisan forces undertake broader operations; to liberate new areas and expand the existing free territory; to elect People's Liberation Committees which were to mobilize all forces for the war; to persevere in forging political unity among the people and towards that end to continue negotiations with Draža Mihailović.

With these conceptions as a basis, Party and military leaderships in all parts of the country directed their efforts toward promoting the People's Liberation Struggle. After the consultation at Stolice, liberated Užice became the seat of the Supreme HQ and the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. It was in Užice that the Central Committee started issuing the newspaper "Borba" (meaning "Struggle"). It was there, too, that the Partisan munitions factory turned out 16,500 rifles and 2,500,000 rounds of ammunition, a fact of major significance for arming the Partisans in Serbia and Eastern Bosnia.

The scope of the struggle caused the occupiers serious concern about their positions in Yugoslavia. Furthermore, the achievements of the Yugoslav Partisans echoed beyond the country's borders and could be expected to influence ether subjugated nations. In the summer and autumn of 1941, the German and Italian invaders, supported by the quislings, undertook widespread military actions calculated to quell the insurrection in all areas; for this purpose they also moved into Yugoslavia reinforcements from other occupied European countries.

By orders of the Italian Supreme Command, six reinforced divisions participated in the operations against the insurgents in Montenegro in July and August. On September 16, 1941, Hitler issued instructions for measures to put down the uprising in Yugoslavia.

Pursuant to this directive, on that same day, the German Chief of Staff, Fieldmarshal Keitel, gave orders to the effect that the uprising in Yugoslavia was to be crushed "in the shortest possible time" and that "exceptional cruelty" was warranted in view of the fact that "human life frequently means nothing in these countries… the rule should be 50—100 Communists executed in retaliation for the life of each German soldier".

The German invaders directed the main force of their attack at the insurgents in Serbia. After reinforcing their troops by bringing in the 342nd Division from France, the 11 3rd Division from the Eastern Front and some units from Greece (equivalent to about one division), they launched a big offensive in Western Serbia and Šumadija in September. Five German divisions and numerous quisling units participated in that operation, which lasted, with interruptions, until December 1941. The principal Partisan forces, fighting all the while, were compelled to withdraw to Sandžak.

By February 1942, the forces of occupation and quislings had undertaken a number of offensive operations in all parts of Yugoslavia. However, all their efforts to "pacify the occupied regions" proved futile. It goes without saying that the fighting men of the People's Liberation Army suffered temporary setbacks in combat; retreats and losses of free territory were not unknown. But the spirit of offensive never flagged in that Army. In all its actions it was governed by the operational and tactical principles formulated by the Supreme Commander: the loss of one territory had to mean the acquisition of another territory, as a rule even more extensive.

For the purpose of mobilizing and unifying reactionary forces within the country, the invaders set up quisling governments and armed forces. On August 29, 1941, in Serbia, the German occupation forces formed what was known as the "Government of Serbian Salvation", headed by a general in the former Yugoslav Army, Milan Nedić. With Pavelić in Croatia, and Natlačen in Slovenia, this made one more faithful henchman for the occupiers. They were joined by Draža Mihailović, enemy in disguise and exponent of the Yugoslav Government-in-exile, who had created Chetnik formations under its general guidance. Taking advantage of the German offensive in Serbia, Draža Mihailović also started attacking the Partisan units. The Government-in-exile had grown fearful of the power and dimensions of the People's Liberation Movement, considering it a threat to the former social and political system. However, owing to mass participation by the people in the liberation struggle, it did not dare come out in the open with its plans but resorted to propaganda to the effect that the insurrection was premature, that it was an "adventure" and so on. Under the influence of such propaganda, the forces of the old regime began to rally and reactivate themselves in certain regions.

Through their armed struggle, the Yugoslav peoples made a momentous contribution to the general effort of the anti-Hitler coalition fighting the fascist forces. Against this background, a number of unfavourable factors operating against the development of the resistance movement in 1941 should be kept in mind. Owing to the tremendous distances between the fronts of the anti-Hitler coalition, the Partisans could not expect to receive direct assistance. The march of events on the principal battlefields did not hold out hope of an early victory over fascism. Furthermore, internationally-speaking the political position of the Yugoslav People's Liberation Movement was hardly favourable. The governments of the anti-Hitler coalition countries had recognized the Yugoslav Government-in-exile as a legitimate and allied government and maintained diplomatic relations with it. This Government was, however, most active in its attempts to crush the armed insurrection indirectly by a variety of political maneuvers and directly through operations undertaken by the Chetniks under Mihailović. On the other hand, it kept the world public deceived by portraying the Partisan struggle against the occupying forces as the work of Mihailović's Chetniks.

The idea of the Communist Party's Central Committee that the armed struggle should gradually emerge into a nation-wide war thus became reality. A large number of Partisan detachments, numbering approximately 80,000 fighting men, had been formed in Yugoslavia by the end of 1941. Extensive areas had been liberated in Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia and Montenegro. By 1941, Yugoslavia had become another theatre of operations in subjugated Europe. The peoples of Yugoslavia, headed by the Communist Party, forced the Axis powers to fight a war in Yugoslavia that was to continue until final victory.

In fighting the Partisan units in Yugoslavia, the Germans and Italians were forced to use considerable forces badly needed on other fronts. By the end of 1941, there were pinned down in Yugoslavia 6 German, 16 Italian, 5 Bulgarian, about 2 Hungarian and 8 quisling divisions — all in all, over half a million enemy officers and men.

Obtaining weapons, food and clothing was one of the knottiest problems faced by the Partisans. The chief source of arms for the units were captured enemy weapons, while the population supplied the men with food, clothing and footwear despite the hardships resulting from the enemy's plundering and burning of entire settlements.

The year 1941 was the most difficult period in the liberation struggle in view of the tough and intricate conditions under which it had to be waged. Despite this, however, within six months, the People's Liberation Movement had achieved notable military and political victories.


1.  Perceiving the danger of fascism, even before the war, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia had pursued a policy of forming a broad-based, all-people's anti-fascist front. It moved masses of the people to support Ethiopia, it sent volunteers to Spain, condemned the Anschluss of Austria, organized the registration of tens of thousands of volunteers to defend Chechoslovakia as it stood threatened. As the danger of fascist aggression drew nearer, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia grew even more determined in its struggle against the Government's leanings towards capitulation, demanding the consolidation of the country's defences and democratization of political life.

Part Three  |  Contents

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