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WINTER BATTLES: BOSNIA 1941

December 1941: Fleeing the German destruction of Užice in Serbia, Tito and the Partisans crossed the River Drina in winter,



climbed the mountains of Bosnia on the other side,


and walked through the forests.



Bosnia Herzegovina is a very mountainous country. In winter it is snow bound.



As someone who has driven through Bosnia in the snow, I have difficulty understanding why the Nazis thought that they could successfully invade the country. Even today, the roads seem to be a collection of mule tracks up and down the formidable Dinaric Alps with the addition of a few optimistic motorways. In Eastern Approaches (Jonathon Cape pub. 1949) Fitzroy Maclean writes, 'the Germans, with an elusive enemy, with unreliable allies, and without enough troops of their own to occupy the country effectively, could do little more than garrison the large towns and try to guard the lines of communication between them.’


However, during the war they needed bauxite from the mines near Mostar, the mediaeval capital of Herzegovina, for use in the construction of aeroplanes. Bosnia Herzegovina is also rich in coal, iron ore, zinc and lead. There were two ways to transport coal and ore to Germany. One was along the system of Bosnian narrow-gauge railways built by the Austrians which was extended between the wars to connect the coast to Belgrade, and the other was by sea to Trieste. The railways ran the gauntlet of demolition by the Partisans, and ships in the Adriatic risked being sunk by the Allies.

The Partisans needed Bosnia to connect with their operational zones in Croatia, Dalmatia, Slovenia and Montenegro. The Nazis waged a series of offensives against them. In this they were assisted by the Italians, the Croatian Ustasha and the Chetniks. The Partisans held up to twenty-eight German divisions in Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia and Montenegro which, as the Allied Invasion of Sicily approached, drew Churchill’s attention to the importance of their effort.


To understand the creation of these Partisans from a motley collection of local fighters engaged over the centuries in battling Turks, we must visit Bosnia in December 1941. 'Tito and his staff had formed a conception of Partisan warfare which deviated from past Soviet practice...where a Partisan unit was an auxiliary weapon of a regular army...To the Yugoslavs the Partisan units were the army, organized in mobile formations and in territorial defense units.' from The Embattled Mountain, FWD Deakin, Oxford University Press, 1971.


Between December 1941 and May 1942 Tito formed five Proletarian Brigades of up to 1000 fighters each, as a military striking force under his direct command. By November this had increased to 28.

Deakin continues, 'The immediate task of the First Proletarian Brigade [in December 1941] was in ensuring the hold of the Partisans over the key strategic areas of East Bosnia.' The chief difference between these forces and the old local fighters was their mobility. They no longer defended only their home territories.


'Long before the Allies, the Germans and Italians came to realize that the Partisans constituted a military factor of first rate importance against which a modern army was in many respects powerless.,,During each of [their seven] offensives, the extensive troop movements involved exposed [them] more than ever to the attacks and ambushes of the Partisans.'

from Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy Maclean.

The contrast between the Partisans and the Germans was striking. The Germans in Bosnia were an efficient modern army, often using Alpine troops, with field kitchens and heavy artillery, 'lumbering, snail-like'. The Partisans were organized into small, mobile, lightly armed units who were familiar with the terrain. Much of the reason for the failure of the Germans to subdue the Partisans was their inability to embrace change. Tito told Deakin that the Germans 'had missed the lesson of creating mobile units with special anti-Partisan training. German forward units were always pressing behind the Yugoslavs and could never move with speed in self-contained columns to attack the Partisan forces from the rear. By not winning every grim race for each mountain crest, the German operation failed in its central purpose of annihilating the Yugoslav main operational group.'


Yet the Germans were supported from the air, as we read in the poem The Bombed Forest by Josip Cazi, a Partisan Political Commissar. Papuk is a mountain in Slavonija in Croatia.


This morning over Papuk a reconnaissance plane is searching, an ominous buzzard in that dreary first light...Death comes from the air, seeking with fiery claws the heart of the Partisans.


The forest burns all day. Frightened animals run from the wildfire.


But at sunset Partisan songs sweep through it like an inexhaustible fountain. Along the slopes the column of soldiers moves out into the lowlands. They will go into action at night – the cycle of history is still turning. Above Papuk the fires die in the evening.


The typical enemy tactic was encirclement, and getting out of the ring was the Partisan aim, as we read in A Partisan Letter by Josip Cazi,


Yesterday, with a fiery partisan sledgehammer, we fought the fascist regiment on Mt Psunj, so hurriedly that I didn’t send you the letter I had written. We penetrated the ring by a stormy impact, blasting the fiery chain in a bloody assault. And while to you, my orphan, I write this letter, our columns on the September roads are singing of victory in the morning sun.


'The ring' is a constant observation in British eyewitness accounts. For example, from Partisan Picture' by Basil Davison (Bedford Books, 1946) at the Battle of the Neretva River, from January to March 1943, 'To hold the ring the German Command then made an arrangement with 12,000 of Mihaylovitch's chetniks, commanded by Col. Stanisitch and General Djukanovitch and others, by which the latter would attempt to seal off any further partisan retreat by taking up positions along the left bank of the River Neretva.' [The fourth offensive.]



The fifth offensive ended with the breaking of the ring in Montenegro and the escape of Tito and the main formations into Eastern Bosnia. That was in mid-June 1943 [the Battle of the Sutjeska].

An account of the same battle from The Heretic by Fitzroy Maclean (Harper and Brother, NY, 1957),

'"Now that the ring is completely closed," ran a captured German operation order, "the communists will try to break through. You will ensure that no able-bodied man leaves the ring alive."'


'If guerillas are to survive in conditions comparable to those in which the Partisans were fighting,' wrote Fitzroy Maclean in Eastern Approaches, 'they must...deny the enemy a target.' The Partisans did this by 'extricating themselves, fading away, reappearing elsewhere and attacking the enemy where he least expected it.' They did not stand and fight to the last man. We see this 'escape in defeat' in the poem The Battle at Twenty Below Zero. Having sown the seeds of dissent among the local population, they returned later to the same area from which the enemy had driven them out. No author is given, but it was evidently written by one of the brigades in 1945. Gradina is in northwest Bosnia.


The sun itself is flaming on these clouds, and on their serene heights, a grey aspect, but on the people and villages, snows are falling. The hoarfrost is silent, the chirp of the birds dies. Until the middle of November its sting has dug in. But the heart of the people beats like a burning spark. The column of soldiers steps into the blizzard, the angry ice, on callused feet, by swift, firm steps. The bold ones focus on the view in the distance where autumns produce bloody fruits. In their hearts they carry spring blossoms and their deadly rifles are loaded with freedom. Hurry! It will be an onslaught in Gradina, Because Tito’s heart has won the battle of the cold, An irresistible heart for freedom. Shh! The soldiers creep on, still on track, What leads to the bunker? The stone tower? The shots…the cheers… and the escape in defeat? Five dead Nazis and three frozen traitors, Because the stiffs in uniform have no heart. The thermometer says: twenty below zero.


In a further post, I will comment on the poems written by and about female Yugoslav Partisans. To close, here is a small sample.


From A Woman Under Arms by Franjo Mraz


Oh my rifle, I will never part with you! You will be with me at the end of my wrist until the last day To protect the paths of freedom along which the conquered are moving. Tremble, look, listen to the woman warrior, the woman Partisan!

(Images M Walker 2023. The first three images were taken driving from Belgrade over the Drina to Sarajevo and the last two travelling from Sarajevo towards the Neretva River and Mostar.)



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