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1941: Chetnik Guerrilla Resistance

The Yugolsav Chetnik flag reads, “With Faith in God; Liberty or Death”.  Although the Chetnik guerrilla fighters were active before the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia, this article focuses on their activities during World War II.  Their story is an inspiring tale of guerrilla warfare, albeit at times marred with the blood and pain of innocents, with many teachable lessons.


Initial Revolt and Organization

In the first week of April 1941, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler ordered his Nazi forces to invade Yugoslavia.  Just 11 days later, Yugoslav King Peter II had fled into exile from the Nazi invasion and his military leaders had capitulated to the Wermacht — except for numerous groups of Serbian nationalist fighters who escaped into the mountains.  And no sooner had Hitler turned his focus to Operation Barbarossa – the invasion of the Soviet Union – did sporadic acts of violence break out from the Yugoslav guerrillas in absolute revolt.  Oftentimes poorly armed, ones, twos, and small groups of Serbian guerrillas began ambushing Nazi guards and patrols, and stealing their weapons for additional brazen attacks.  During this time, some 200,000 Serbians were rounded up and deported — due in no small part to Nazi retribution for guerrilla attacks — and while thousands were being executed, thousands more were waking up to the reality of Liberty or Death.

Yugoslav guerrillas understood the need to better organize to effect greater and more critical damage to their occupiers.  They moved past simply destroying bridges and raiding convoys and into a sustained, organized resistance movement.  By late Spring of ’41, Colonel Drazha Mihailovic had formed the 30-man Chetnik resistance group, named after the 19th century guerrilla groups called chetas, who plagued and later drove out Turkish invaders.  The Chetniks, most of whom were Christian Serbs, grew their hair and beards long for 40 days as a period of mourning following the loss of of their nation and freedom.


Successful Guerrilla Action

Mihailovic had fought in the mountains of western Serbia in World War I and knew it to be the perfect location to launch guerrilla attacks, not only due to its rough terrain but also because of its proximity to vital rail lines used to fuel the Nazi Wermacht.  There he trained his guerrilla fighting force, which included Serbian civilian peasants.  They’re generally considered to be the first organized guerrilla fighting group in Europe.

Because large scale attacks would garner the attention of the Nazis and result in large scale retribution upon the populace, Mihailovic wisely opted to undertake smaller and quicker attacks that harassed the occupation until the Nazis were weakened to the point that Serbs could rise en mass and liberate themselves.  The Chetniks were immensely successful at sabotaging Nazi supply and communication lines.

While Chetniks carried out attacks, by September ’41, five months after Nazi invasion, Mihailovic had made contact with Allied Forces by using 500 flashlight batteries to power a radio transmitter.  Mihailovic immediately became recognized as the leader of resistance forces within Yugoslavia as Chetniks numbered 5,000 strong.


Nazi Reprisal

By the fall of 1941, Hitler had ordered that 100 Yugoslavians be killed for every one Nazi soldier who died by the hands of guerrillas.  Hitler’s strategy was to not only deter future guerrilla attacks but also deny guerrillas the support of food and intelligence they needed from the populace.  On 20 October 1941, Nazi forces marched on the town of Kraljevo and slayed between 1,700 and 6,000 Yugoslavians for retribution of a guerrilla attack that had killed around 30 Nazi soldiers.  The next day, the same Nazi force descended on Kragujevac and murdered between 2,300 and 7,000 for retribution of the previous deaths of 10 Nazi troops.  The Nazis spared around 600 people to ensure the dead were buried and that the tale of the massacre spread to the Yugoslavian guerrilla fighters.

Mihailovic quickly grew reluctant to continue his guerrilla campaign at the expense of his innocent countrymen.

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 time comes for us to rise, we will rise. – Drazha Mihailovic

Due to continuing guerrilla attacks, the Nazis began a full-scale, 50,000 strong invasion of the countryside and routed both major guerrilla forces; including the Communist Partisans, who were at times peers, though often rivals, of the Chetniks.  By the end of the year, the guerrilla campaigns had ceased, both forces crushed, and although flushed out, neither Mihailovic nor Tito, the Partisan leader, were captured; to which Hitler responded with a $40,000 bounty on each leader.

When it was over and, with God’s help, I was preserved to continue the struggle, I resolved that I would never again bring such misery on the country unless it could result in total liberation.  When the day comes for us to rise, we will rise. – Drazha Mihailovic

Mihailovic sent most of his men home, except for a small detachment which he led back into the mountains.  Some of his fighters had joined the militia of General Milan Nedich, the German-supported Prime Minister who was appointed to bring peace back to Serbia.  Mihailovic tallied this to a small victory, as a strategy called “uses of the enemy” – which is predicated on a trade of temporary cooperation for strategic and long term gain – that would allow him to not only collect intelligence on Nazi movement but also resume civil war with the communists of Yugoslavia, whom he began to see as the real enemy after the war.  He expected for the Allies to eventually take up the mantle of repelling the Nazis, at which point he would begin his full scale war to rid Yugoslavia of communists.

Ironically, Mihailovic was lauded by the Allies – and was even put on the cover of New York Times Magazine – for being solely responsible for the resistance in Yugoslavia, at a time when his Chetniks largely were not even fighting.


Civil War and Defeat

As the war waged on, the Partisans retook the lead in fighting the occupation.  Slowly, Mihailovic’s strategy of “uses of the enemy” became collaboration with the occupation to defeat the communists.  Due to Chetnik inaction and timidity, the Allied powers began supporting solely the communist Partisans.  At one point, Mihailovic flat-out told a British officer that fighting the communists was his chief duty, followed by fighting a long list of other groups that ended with the Nazis and Italian occupiers.

By 1944, the Chetniks were back fighting the Nazis but they also continually fell under communist Partisan attacks after the Soviet Red Army was en route to Yugoslavia.  Due to the hundreds of thousands of Serbs that were killed, Mihailovic was at a loss after calling for a national mobilization against the communists, and was also unable to garner support from non-Serbs.  Now, under attack from both the communist Partisans and their Soviet backers – while still fighting retreating Nazis – Mihailovic had no choice but to flee Chetnik territory as the Partisans invaded, and hope for a Western Allied landing.  It never came.

On 13 March 1946, Drazha Mihailovic was arrested by the Soviet-backed Yugoslavian communist government, was convicted of high treason and war crimes committed by Chetniks, and was executed by July.  As a mere side note in the annals of history, Mihailovic and the Chetniks were responsible for saving hundreds of Allied pilots, for which Mihailovic was posthumously awarded the Legion of Merit by President Harry S. Truman.


Lessons Learned

– The Yugoslavian military fell to Nazi invasion in about a week and then guerrilla action was initiated.  From Yugoslavia to Iraq, don’t stand against the brunt of an invasion.  Slow the advance, pester them, and attempt to break their initiative.  But don’t fight them head to head in order to stop them.  In Iraq, we invaded quickly, we fired the Iraqi Army, and then the SHTF.

– Mihailovic organized the Chetniks and conducted small unit warfare from the mountains.  He identified and used his support zones.  Where organizations are popular, they seek refuge  These areas where guerrilla organizations receive benefits from the populace are their support zones.  The guerrilla fighter’s area of oeprations is going to be near his support zone but rarely in his support zone.  Don’t s**t where you eat, so to speak.

– Chetniks and their Partisan guerrilla peers fought in cooperation, which drew the focused attention of Nazi leadership and sparked a large Nazi invasion of guerrilla support zones to break popular support there.  When the enemy denies the use of support zones, transition to new ones and allow auxiliary resistance to sabotage the adversary’s efforts.  From a new support zone, guerrilla organizations engage the adversary.  Though they may be chased, it’s critical for these organizations to keep the initiative in battle.  When the area of operations becomes too saturated with enemy forces to become effective, shift fire to another location.  The life of the guerrilla is difficult but that’s his only recourse.

– Mihailovic favored small, quick, and decisive guerrilla action that plagued a much larger and stronger adversary.  Forget the conventional force paradigm.  Get small and light and then get smaller and lighter.  Guerrilla fighters should make their adversary chase and fight hundreds or thousands of small units, each one at the same time.

– Mihailovic attacked combat support elements and degraded Nazi fighting capability.  A series of well-aimed assaults on critical nodes will annoy and degrade a much larger force.  Look at how IEDs have slowed military convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Were it not for IEDs, then U.S., Coalition, and NATO forces would have had much greater ease of movement, quickening their operational tempo.  A hundred dollars or less of materials effected mobility kills on million dollar vehicles.  That’s an extremely disparate return on investment.

– The Chetnik strategy was to wear on the occupation until weak enough to be fought conventionally and forced into retreat.  Any popular resistance movement needs determination of ability, commitment to cause, and perseverance in action.  The guerrilla forces and auxiliary support must outlast the occupation.

– Mihailovic failed to grow as a political figure, was ineffective at recruiting non-Serbs, and as a result was slowly defeated by communist Partisans who won their ideological battle.  Mihailovic had several fatal flaws.  As campaigns wage on, guerrilla leadership must work with current or potential political leaders to form or foster good governance.  Continual recruitment is enabled by brutality of the occupation.  Exploit these events, grow popular support, and turn the tide against an occupation.

Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.


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