by Christie Lawrence
This absorbing book must rate as the greatest war story never heard of. It is the memoirs of British commando captain, Christie Lawrence who, having been taken prisoner at the Battle of Crete, has a series of adventures in and out of occupied Serbia commencing in June 1941. He escapes from the Germans at least twice, travelling across Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria by foot, train and truck. While on the run, he veers between starvation and abundance, in one day in a village of hospitable peasants south of Belgrade, consuming more food than I eat in a week and more alcohol than I drink in a month. The soil in Serbia must be very fertile and there seems to have been an inordinate number of plum trees, most of which were used to make slivovitz.
At one stage in his travels, Lawrence actually lays eyes on the very border of Turkey he is trying to reach before being recaptured and put on a train to Germany. After braining his guard with a wine bottle, he abandons the bread, cheese and salami in his backpack and leaps from the train, crossing two rivers, nearly drowning both times. Eventually he is rescued by yet another village of well-fed Serbs, and here he is nursed back to health in the home of a government forester.
‘[The forester] found you about half a mile from the river…He held you upside down and a lot of water ran out.’
Three other men present were Chetniks under the leadership of Kosta Pećanac, two from the Royal Yugoslav Army and the third was, ‘tall with aquiline features and a beard. He had gaily coloured peasant’s dress with elaborate embroidery. Round his waist and over one shoulder he wore a bandolier full of rifle cartridges, and from his belt hung three Mills bombs. A rife was slung over his back and at his side was a revolver in a big black holster. A large knife in a brass sheath completed his armament.’
Lawrence explains that there existed various Chetnik groups in rural Serbia at this time, each under the command of a local vojvoda, or warlord. They were a tradition left over from the days of the Ottomans, against whom they had waged guerrilla warfare.
After he has recovered, Lawrence meets Kosta Pećanac himself who formally enrolls him as one of his Chetniks. Pećanac sends him to meet a further Chetnik general, Ljubo Novaković and, once at the general's headquarters, a company of Partisans turns up.
'What do you think of Serbian soldiers?' [Novaković asked me.]
'I think they have very little discipline and are not well trained,' I replied.
'Why do you say that?' asked a Partisan leader.
'Because they take no precaution against being seen from the air...they leave their arms in the open and stand about as though they were at a fair.'
'Perhaps you are right,' said the Partisan. He went away and made his men move under the trees and take their arms with them. The Chetniks watched them scornfully.
'Only the Partisans are afraid of a bomb or two,' [they] said.
At this point, matters become disjointed, and the fragmentation is accompanied by Lawrence's philosophical treatise on why. Throughout the first half of the book, he takes a fiendish delight in portraying Chetniks as colourfully dressed relics of a glorious past, and Partisans as 'tough and sullen', silently 'watching everybody with...sharp black eyes.' I suspect that, as a representative of the British Empire, he felt justified in this deprecation, but I almost retorted that British interference in the Balkans had created resentment in Bosnia, started World War 1, orchestrated the coup d'état in Belgrade in World War 2 – and so on and so forth. Kosta Pećanac, 'always half Fascist', announces his intention of collaborating with the Germans and decamps along with the men loyal to him. The Germans pay them a salary. Lawrence marches off with Novaković and eventually arrives at the town of Kruševac in time to witness an assault against the Germans by two companies of Chetniks, a large company of Partisans, 'and the usual huge force of semi-armed peasants.' This is followed by dramatic observations of Chetniks and Partisans together fighting the Germans for the town of Alexandrevac. The first battle Lawence was actually involved in was a joint Partisan/Chetnik assault on Kaljevo in the second week of October, 1941, against the Germans and those of Pećanac's men already on their payroll. Lawrence eloquently captures the bewilderment of an occupied country before adequate resistance has been organized: the savage German reprisals, the power play between the various Serbian leaders, of whom there seems to be a revolving number, the infighting and arguments. Various peasant goups follow one leader blindly, while others just want to go home.
'These communists, what do they want? They want to attract recruits and be strong...so that when Yugoslavia is liberated they will be able to seize power. They are only working with [General] Draža Mihailović because he is too strong for them at the moment. And he is as bad. He wants a Serbian dictatorship over the rest of the country. He is not a Yugoslav, he’s a Serb.
‘Have you seen how these petty little local leaders squabble about a man and a gun? Novaković went away because he wanted to be a commander and Đurić let him go because he wanted to be commander. And Jakšić prefers Đurić to Novaković because he is the stronger man….Then you look out, [Lawrence]…They will fight for your support and try to murder you if they don’t get it.’
I was never entirely sure who was on whose side, what proportion of the many Mafia-like local warlords were accepting German money for personal gain, and which side the poor peasants caught in the middle might be persuaded to choose next. Draža Mihailović appears to have made a critical error in late 1941 following the battles at Kraljevo and Kragujevac. These battles resulted in terrible German reprisals against the civilian population.
'In order to save the lives of his men and preserve the skeleton of an organization, he was forced to disband most of his companies. [Some went home,] many others he sent to serve nominally under the Germans in the companies which Nedić (the quisling prime minister) was raising to fight against the Partisans and ...Draža himself. Draža did not intend [for them to serve under the Germans] His idea was to preserve himself and a certain number of his companies...He meant that they should serve with Nedić's militia long enough to get arms and clothing, and then escape to the woods and hills.'
'Are they still serving with Nedić? I asked.
'Far too many. It was a good idea when Draža thought of it, and provided it could have been carried out as he intended.
'How could it have been a good idea? I insisted.
'Because it provided Mihailović with groups of men whom he could use for his defence against the Partisans, if they attacked, and who also kept him informed about German intentions...They always use a screen of Nedić's men as advance guard. And more than half of the men they use are, in fact, Draža's own.'
Lawrence asked why it had ceased to be a good idea.
'Because hundreds of officers and men...have heard that some of Draža's officers have been sent into Nedić's militia and have, of their own accord, joined without orders. Draža has, in fact, no control over them, and yet, whatever they do, they do in his name, and often openly collaborate with the Germans.'
'Mihailović's order, after his defeat in the autumn [of 1941] to stop fighting the Germans seemed reasonable enough, for one cannot fight effectively until one's organization is powerful enough.'
Upon hearing that a British officer is staying with General Mihailović, Lawrence sets out once the winter snows have melted to locate his compatriot. After a southerly walk of a week and a half, he arrives at Milanovac, one of the Serbian towns destroyed by the Germans, and here learns from Mihailović's chief-of-staff the cost of revolting against them.
'The total result of our revolution was that we killed about seven or eight thousand Germans, and lost 125,000 men and women shot by them. Three towns and fifty-three villages ...were burned out, and our organization was virtually destroyed...we are now rebuilding it on different lines...Sabotage is our aim and it must be so arranged that subsequent reparations...will be kept small.'
If Lawrence's aim is to confuse me then, by the spring of 1942, he has succeeded. For example, as he proceeds south he is accompanied by two men whose names he has changed to Ivanović and Milenković. They inform him of their plans to organize guerrilla warfare in the Toplica province of southern Serbia and their personal reasons for doing so.
'I want you to understand,’ said Ivanović, 'that we owe no especial loyalty to Draža Mihailović.
'Are you,' I asked, 'in fact, a communist?'
'No,' said Ivanović. 'I have never been a communist. But I am an enemy of the present regime, though a personal friend of the King.'
He took out of his wallet some photos of himself and the young King bathing together on the Dalmatian coast.
'Tell me, I said, 'has Mihailović really a strong following all over the country?'
'Theoretically yes, practically no,' said Milenković.
'It is the British radio which has given him his reputation,' said Ivanović.
Lawrence asks them how they plan to proceed.
'We must make friends with [both Chetniks and Partisans,' replies Ivanović.] 'Subtlety...is the thing. We shall tell the Chetniks that there is no difference that matters between ourselves and them – that our one difference is that they co-operate with the Germans to fight the Partisans, and we fight them on our own. We shall offer to collaborate with them at every turn, whereas, in fact, we shall co-operate with them not at all. One day they will wake up to the fact that we are much too strong for them, and then we shall destroy them.'
'And the communists?'
'The communists will have nothing to fear from us. With them we can work, but we shall eventually be their masters.'
Here follows a spiel of convoluted reasoning involving England, Russia, Partisans and Chetniks which so frustrates Lawrence that he accuses his friends of 'running with the hare and with the hounds'. Yet, despite feeling that he is 'being used as a pawn in a semi-political intrigue' he likes them better than any leaders he had so far met because 'they were unquestioningly working against the Germans.' They then eat a meal together in a café in the town of Kuršumlija alongside enemy Bulgarian officers, Chetniks, officers of Kosta Pećanac working with the Germans, and four officers of Nedić's militia, none of whom take any notice of them. That night, they eat ghoulash at another café and exploit two drunken Germans to escort them safely home in case the occupying Bulgarians shoot them for being out after curfew. When at long last Lawrence meets Mihailović at the end of April 1942, and the general remarks 'you cannot understand the intricacies of Serbian politics,' I was inclined to agree with him.
Mihailović seems overtaken by matters generally.
'That morning I met Mihailović. I was shocked at his appearance, for he looked an old man...He was small and slight with grey hair, a thin, lined face and gold-rimmed spectacles. His voice was tired and he spoke with a worried preoccupied abstraction.'
Lawrence asks him why he has forbidden his generals to take action against the Germans.
'You have heard,' said Mihailović, “of the results of my revolution last autumn...I resolved that I would never again bring such misery on the country unless it could result in total liberation. We cannot, for the moment, maintain large illegal guerrilla companies. The misery which they cause to the peasants is too great....It is far better that my men should stay at home, work on the land, and look after their weapons if they have them. When the day comes for us to rise, we will rise.'
'Then, until Germany's final collapse, you intend to do nothing more active than organize?' I asked.
'I did not say that. I said, until the Germans are too weak to deploy sufficient forces against us to retake what we shall have taken from them. In future, I do not intend to capture a town until I know that I can protect its inhabitants.'
Lawrence's adventures come to a sticky end when he is betrayed to the Gestapo by a mad Serbian warlord dying of tuberculosis, and accused of being Jewish. The lives of the people he meets paint a picture of Serbia at this critical early stage of its occupation. Daniele, 'a very good machine gunnist', is a Slovene who had joined the Partisans 'partly from fear and partly from hate' after Belgrade was invaded and her husband left her because she was a Jew. A Serbian merchant accepts pay from the Germans in order to feed his village and fund resistance activities. The Orthodox priests of the monastery on Mount Rudnik regard 'it as their duty to offer aid to anyone who was willing to fight the invader...sometimes to the communists, sometimes to the Chetniks, and always to fugitives from German “justice"'. A peasant pulls out his flint box to light Lawrence's cigarette, and down in the valley we hear the sound of women batting linen. I have been unable to find Irregular Adventure for sale anywhere, but there are copies in university and state libraries.