Yapou: Governments in Exile, 1939-1945

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Chapter 8 – YUGOSLAVIA

Between Četniks and Partisans

A Multinational Concept SurvivesSimović is EliminatedThe Officers PurgedThe Communications BattleNinčić is DroppedJovanović’s Government of DisagreementBritain and the Yugoslav GuerrillasCivil WarThe Četniks and Partisans RetreatMihailović’s Inactivity is ConfirmedMihailović is RecalcitrantA British Ultimatum to Mihailović–Contacts with TitoThe Partisans and the Wehrmacht MeetDeakin and Maclean Meet TitoThe Jajce BombshellChurchill Enters the SceneThe Big Three DivergeTito and StalinRoosevelt between Mihailović and TitoThe Big Three CooperateKing Peter and His British GuardiansThrough Foreign Office EyesKing Peter’s Cairo InterludeChurchill "Presumes" King Peter’s AssentThe Subašić-Tito Deal

 
The fall of France in June 1940 meant the final collapse of the Petite Entente, the nearly twenty-year-old defence agreement between France, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Romania, which had provided a security umbrella for these countries. Before complying with German demands that Yugoslavia align itself with the Axis, Yugoslavia’s Regent Prince Paul adopted delaying tactics to gain time, hoping to receive British assurances of support. His country had been torn between various prospects held out by the great powers: Germany offered access to the Aegean through Greek Salonika, Britain the Italian-held Istrian peninsula, and Soviet Russia a non-aggression pact. Suddenly it found itself engulfed by the war after Paul’s government, led by Cvetković, was forced to join the Axis Pact. When the British-inspired Belgrade coup of March 27, 1941, brought the young King Peter II and General Dusan Simović to power, Hitler decided “to smash Yugoslavia militarily and as a State.”[1] Yugoslavia lost the campaign even before the mobilization of its army was completed, and Britain, which had first supported Yugoslavia’s neutrality and later its resistance to the invader, suffered a severe reverse when this last foothold in the Balkans had to be abandoned. King Peter’s government went into exile, moving first to Jerusalem and then to London, where it faced an unpredictable future.

A Multinational Concept Survives  [top]

The mosaic of nationalities and religions that had made up the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes since the end of the First World War collapsed under the Nazi onslaught on April 6, 1941.

Two events marked Yugoslavia’s last efforts at survival: the abortive signature of the Axis Pact, and the successful coup. The coup was instigated by London when it became obvious that stirring up public opinion against surrender to German demands was insufficient to prevent compliance with the German demand; and this could be achieved only through "a military movement" and a change of regime. The coup, however, failed in its objective, as the Yugoslav army did not hold out against the German invasion as expected.

The collapse and the flight of the King and government six days after the German attack caused considerable disillusionment in Britain. This was expressed as follows in Winston Churchill’s last-minute telegram to the British Minister in Belgrade on April 13, 1941: "We do not see why the King or Government should leave the country, which is vast, mountainous, and full of armed men. German tanks can no doubt move along the roads and tracks, but to conquer the Serbian armies they must bring up infantry. Then will be the chance to kill them. Surely the young King and the Ministers should play their part in this."[2]

In the minds of London policy-makers the Balkans remained a crucial potential collision ground between Germany and the Soviet Union, and the Molotov-Ribbentrop honeymoon was regarded as so completely unnatural that it could not last. A clash between Russia and Germany in the Balkans was seen as an alternative to eventual intervention by the United States as a way of putting an end to Britain’s isolation. The assumption that the USSR could not afford German domination in the peripheral territories of the Balkans that form the natural defence barrier to the Black Sea and the Bosphorus was largely guesswork at the time, but it proved correct. We now know that during Molotov’s fateful visit to Berlin in November 1940, Hitler and Ribbentrop made a last effort to keep the USSR out of the Balkans and failed.[3]

With the British evacuation from Greece that followed the Yugoslav military collapse, Churchill’s grand design of a Balkan front lay in ruins. Britain’s imperative need to involve the German armies in fighting in the East was met only two months later, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.

In exile in Jerusalem, King Peter’s government announced that Yugoslavia would pursue the fight against Germany and Italy. Thanks to the laurels of the Belgrade coup, the Simović government was welcomed into the family of the exiled governments in London in June. Its internationally recognized status was the only weapon left to it in the subsequent struggle for the restoration of the independence and freedom of the "kingdom of nationalities."

Simović is Eliminated  [top]

When King Peter and Simović arrived in London, Britain was no longer standing alone against the enemy. The Yugoslav government in exile had participated on an equal footing in the inter-Allied meeting held at St. James’s Palace, and its representative, Subbotić, who was Minister in London, proclaimed Yugoslavia’s solidarity with the Allies and her confidence in victory, condemning German and Italian oppression and the part played by Hungary and Bulgaria in dismembering Yugoslav territory.

In the following years the Yugoslav drama unfolded in a number of theatres: militarily in the homeland, in the inaccessible mountains, the heartland of the Balkan peninsula; politically and diplomatically primarily in London and Cairo but also, at a later stage, in Washington and Moscow. The term in office of each of the five Prime Ministers who during the next four years presided over governments under King Peter corresponded to a particular phase in the existence of the Yugoslav establishment in exile and its pursuit of attainable and unattainable goals. Simović carried the flag of “March 27” (the coup) to London, joined the grand alliance, and established the first links with Draž a Mihailović’s resistance movement at home. Professor Slobodan Jovanović, a distinguished historian, included Mihailović in his government, bypassing the partisans led by Josip Broz, later known as Tito; he failed to overcome internal dissension and restore confidence in relations with the British government.

Misa Trifunović, a Serbian politician of the old guard, formed what amounted to a transitional government. Within six weeks he had paved the way for a government of officials, eliminating the quarrelling politicians, and inducing King Peter to refer, in a broadcast to Yugoslavia, to all "national fighters" without regard "to what temporary name they may be fighting under". At the time this was seen as an opening towards the partisans.

Trifunović was followed by Dr. Božidar Purić, formerly Yugoslav Minister to France, who moved the government’s seat to Cairo; he failed in his last stand for Mihailović, in the return of the monarchy and in stemming the advance to power of Tito and his partisans. The fifth and last Prime Minister of the government in exile was the former Ban (governor) of Croatia, Dr. Ivan Subašić, who embarked on so-called “indirect negotiations” between King Peter and Tito which resulted in the liquidation of the government in exile and the establishment of a Tito government in Belgrade under a transitional Regency.

Simović’s six months of premiership in Britain, until January 9, 1942, were marked by the emergence of all the problems that were to poison the Yugoslav government’s existence throughout the war years. Soon after the government’s arrival in London, bitter controversies broke out among its members who had mounted and executed the Belgrade coup. A group of ministers insisted that Simović was only a figurehead for the operation, which had been conducted by young officers without the participation of any politicians. Simović was accused of sharing responsibility for the almost immediate collapse of the Yugoslav army’s resistance. He was further reproached with monopolizing contacts with the small Yugoslav army that had been established in the Middle East and with emerging resistance groups inside Yugoslavia.

The first onslaught on Simović’s position was halted by the personal intervention of King George VI and Foreign Minister Eden. They urged King Peter, who had complained of Simović’s “incompetence,” to retain him as the symbol of Yugoslav resistance.

During the autumn months the Yugoslav Prime Minister had to face problems of far greater importance and gravity than the wrangles of his compatriots in London. Foremost among these were circumstantial reports, received through Church channels, of the massacres of Serbs by the Croatian Ustashis in areas controlled by the so-called Independent Croat State. While Dr. Juraj Krnjević, the leading Croat member of the government, in a broadcast from London to his countrymen, denounced the "chain of crimes of the worst type" perpetrated by “Pavelić and his gangs,"[4] the Serbian Ministers reacted violently against the Croats. Some of them – who had opposed, or never wholeheartedly accepted, the Serbo-Croat cooperation agreement on wider autonomy for Croatia, the Sporazum, reached in 1939 between Regent Paul and Vladko Mačekthe, leader of the Croatian Peasant Party – now openly advocated Serbian supremacy and "heroism in adversity." They felt encouraged by King Peter’s New Year’s broadcast, which included a reference to the historic symbol of Serbian resistance, the battle of Kosovo against the Turks in 1389.

This Serbian nationalist trend was further strengthened by the appearance on the Yugoslav and international scene of the Serbian general Mihailović, widely publicized as the leader of the Četnik underground resistance in Serbia and Bosnia. The scant information then available about his activities was sufficient to indicate the predominantly Serbian character of his movement. It also indicated that, while adopting a hostile attitude to the German and Italian invaders, his fighting was increasingly assuming the nature of a civil and ethnic war.

It was Simović – without British objections at the time – who urged Mihailović to avoid any action that would result in mass enemy reprisals before the time came for a general uprising planned to coincide with an expected Allied landing of expeditionary forces in Yugoslavia. He also called on the leader of the Četniks to avoid fighting other resistance movements (the word “Partisans” was not yet in use) and to do his utmost to bring them under his command. These were to remain policy guidelines for Mihailović for many months to come.

In his last weeks in office Simović endeavoured, with British support, to enlist Soviet help in reconciling Četnik and Communist guerilla movements.[5] Moscow appeared reluctant to intervene and remained aloof, declining, it stated, to get involved in internal Yugoslav disputes. Realizing that his grand design of an Allied expeditionary force to liberate the Balkans was very remote, Simović with his Foreign Minister, Momčilo Ninčić, embarked on the negotiation of the ill-fated Greco-Yugoslav Federal Union treaty.

Simović’s downfall came as no surprise. He seems to have antagonized both the politicians, who had brought their pre-war feuds to London, and the group of officers close to the Court. The plot to oust him from the premiership seems to have been very well organized. The operation started on December 30, 1941, when Foreign Minister Ninčić took the unusual step of revealing to Sir Orme Sargent that a Yugoslav government crisis was imminent and expressed the hope that, contrary to what had occurred in the previous crisis, the British government would not intervene in the choice of a Yugoslav Premier.[6] Ten days later Jovanović, Krnjević and Krek, representing the three ethnic groups in the government – Serb, Croat and Slovene – informed the British Minister, Sir George Rendel, that they had asked the King to dismiss Simović. The neat formula adopted was that the government had unanimously decided it was unable to work with the Prime Minister.[7]

Eden’s first reaction was to try to reinstate Simović, whom he considered “the only one of the gang who is not a Balkan politician."[8] He was dissuaded from intervening by Sir Alexander Cadogan, who stressed that “it was evidently the wish of the majority of [Simović’s] colleagues that he should go.” Rendel considered the development a “rather nasty mess,” while Douglas Howard, head of the Southern Department, received it as "a typically Balkan tale of tangle and intrigue."

The Officers Purged  [top]

The “downfall of the Generals” eliminated Simović from the premiership and General Ilić as Minister of Defence. However, the Jovanović government that followed was dominated to an even greater extent by the action – and inaction – of the absent General Mihailović, newly-appointed Defence Minister, and by groups of influential lower ranking officers who clung to the person of King Peter.

The appointment of Mihailović as Defence Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Home Army fighting in the occupied territory met with general approval in both Yugoslav and British government circles. Eden told the Cabinet that he saw Mihailović’s appointment as a “crumb of comfort.” Nobody at the time seemed aware that there were other underground forces fighting the enemy in the mountains of Yugoslavia, forces which in October 1941 had refused to be placed under Mihailović’s supreme command. Furthermore, it was not realized at the time that in the prevailing circumstances Mihailović would be outside the control of the government and cut off from any communication with it for a long time.

No sooner was Jovanović’s government in existence than it embarked on a purge of its Middle-East army command in Egypt, a measure which in fact presented no urgency. This led to an unsavoury clash with the British authorities in Cairo and complicated relations with the Foreign Office in London. The purge was initiated by those circles which had just succeeded in ousting Simović and now proceeded to eliminate the officers they considered as his men in the Middle-East command. In the early months of 1942 the agitation this caused in the army had not yet assumed the ideological character which, a year later, marked the outbreaks of disobedience among the Yugoslav and Greek units in Egypt, as news spread among them of the Communist partisans’ successes in the Balkan peninsula. For the time being the young officers in Jovanović’s military secretariat in London had imposed their will. But it soon became clear that most of the troops preferred General Borivoje Mirković, Simović’s friend and the secret organizer of the Belgrade coup, to the Lieutenant Colonel appointed by the London-based government to take over command. Mirković was supported both by General Auchinleck, British Commander-in-Chief in the Middle-East, and by the British Minister of State in Cairo, Oliver Lyttleton. They feared a mutiny and a fratricidal struggle among the Yugoslav forces in the event of Mirković’s elimination. The Yugoslav government appealed to Britain for help in the matter. It explained that appointment of a lieutenant colonel was motivated by a desire to simplify the command. Finally, a British general was appointed to take over the command and 300 Yugoslav troops were interned before a solution acceptable to all concerned could be found.

The Yugoslav units consisted largely of air force personnel who had managed to escape from Yugoslavia, and of Slovenes serving in the retreating Italian army in North Africa who had been taken prisoner. Their military importance was symbolic rather than operational.

The Communications Battle  [top]

Another problem that poisoned Anglo-Yugoslav relations throughout Jovanović’s premiership was the Yugoslav government’s request for free and uncontrolled clandestine radio communications with Mihailović and his friends inside Axis-controlled territory, a demand consistently rejected by the British government. The problem would not have arisen had it not been for the fear in British circles of contacts with certain elements inside Yugoslavia that might result in policies contrary to those of Britain and exacerbate hostile attitudes towards the Croats and non-Četnik organizations, particularly the Partisan fighting groups. Furthermore, suspicion increased that groups in Mihailović’s camp were collaborating either with units loyal to General Nedić, the Serbian Quisling, or with the Italians and later even with the Germans.

The problem that had thus arisen, seemingly a technical one, soon assumed political proportions. While Eden and Rendel were inclined in principle to grant the Yugoslav request, various security services remained opposed to it. As was revealed after the war, these misgivings arose following the first joint British-Royal Yugoslav mission that landed in Montenegro after the popular uprising had been crushed by the Italians in mid-October 1941[9]

This mission was headed by Colonel D. T. Hudson, Britain’s first emissary to Yugoslavia after its occupation by Axis forces, whose instructions were to establish contacts and report on resistance groups without distinction. Hudson was accompanied by Major Ostojić of the Royal Yugoslav Army’s General Staff and by Major Lalatović of its Air Force. It soon appeared that Hudson and his Yugoslav colleagues were not acting on the same lines. According to secret instructions they had received from the Yugoslav Minister of Defence, General Ilić, the two Yugoslavs concentrated exclusively on contacting former army officers who shared the views of King Peter’s regime. Their interpretation of their instructions went even further, as indicated in a message they sent to Malta on October 13 without Hudson’s knowledge, but which reached the British authorities.[10] It read as follows: “Instructions have been delivered to our group which is operating in Montenegro not to cooperate with those leaders of Četnik units (odreds) who do not recognize the Yugoslav government.”

There was also the discovery that certain Yugoslav broadcasts from London contained mysterious instructions from the Prime Minister’s military secretariat which mentioned 75 messages ending with the letter “Z.” This further increased the suspicions of the British authorities, as “Z” could be interpreted as to kill certain men whose names were mentioned in the broadcast. (The Partisans claimed that “Z” meant zaklati – to slaughter in Serbo-Croat – whereas Jovanović later maintained that it signified zaplasiti – to frighten.)

All this was taking place at the very moment that British instructions were to bring together all resistance groups inside Yugoslavia under the leadership of Mihailović.

A deepening distrust between the British and Royal Yugoslav governments lay behind the communications crisis. The suspicion that the British were withholding messages to Mihailović created an attitude of resistance in Yugoslav circles to what was seen as the denial by the British of one of the basic rights of a sovereign government. On the British side, there was not only a concern for security but also the desire to halt the activities of the extremist groups and prevent reports of tension with Yugoslav political émigrés in London from reaching the centres of resistance in occupied Yugoslavia. There were indications, however, that Mihailović and even Tito had been receiving information from London that increased their distrust of the British. Such reports to Četnik and Partisan leaders adversely influenced their attitude towards the British liaison officers sent at great risk to help them.

Later a Yugoslav request was made to De Gaulle in Algiers asking him to enable the Yugoslav government to establish direct communications with Mihailović without the knowledge of the British. De Gaulle granted this demand during a meeting with the Yugoslav government’s emissary Jovan Djonović in Algiers on April 26, 1944. The first message, transmitted on April 28, warned Mihailović that he would be excluded from the new government that was being formed by Ivan Subašić. Three days later, on June 1, this became a fact.[11]

Ninčić is Dropped   [top]

This atmosphere was further exacerbated by the animosity of British security circles towards the Yugoslav Foreign Minister, Momčilo Ninčić, which eventually brought about his dismissal in December 1942. While Eden denied that the British government had anything to do with Ninčić’s departure, both King Peter and Jovanović declared that the British considered Ninčić persona non grata. In fact, on November 5, 1942, Douglas Howard, head of the Foreign Office’s Southern Department, had written in a minute: “Our own security services have been pressing us for some time to get rid of Ninčić because of his previous pro-German sympathies and his present unhelpful and obstructive attitude – I am afraid we shall have to try and unstick him.”[12]

Ninčić’s daughter Olga was a well-known London-educated Communist who had escaped from Nazi captivity in Zagreb and became an English interpreter at Tito’s mountain headquarters. It was she who would interpret for Tito at the Caserta meeting with Churchill. This, however, was not sufficient reason for discrediting Ninčić. Other political issues were at stake, though probably not the general assertion that he was pro-German or pro-Italian; the policy of co-existence with these neighbours of Yugoslavia, which he had pursued in the past, was no different, according to Ninčić’s friends, from that of Sir Austin Chamberlain or later Sir John Simon, who had sought peaceful co-existence with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. On the other hand the British leaders had a number of other grudges against Ninčić dating from the time when he had become Foreign Minister after the Belgrade coup. These included his refusal to receive Eden in Belgrade immediately after the coup, and a plan made by the Simović government in extremis after the Nazi-Fascist invasion to dispatch Ninčić to meet Hitler and Ribbentrop and attempt to obtain their acceptance of a formula whereby the Axis Pact would neither be renounced nor ratified by the government. Furthermore, during the nine short days between the coup and the invasion, the Yugoslav government had failed to comply with the British request to help Greece by attacking the Italian-held lines in Albania.

In London there was one ephemeral achievement in foreign policy which had the support of both Eden and Ninčić – the Yugoslav-Greek Union Agreement. At the time, before the development of Soviet opposition to such schemes, Britain supported confederations of the smaller countries of Europe. Ninčić, unlike the leaders of the other governments in exile, was opposed to Britain’s exercising a predominant influence in post-war Europe. He was against a “polarized Europe” in which each country would have to choose between Great Britain and the Soviet Union and would thus become an instrument of the power they had chosen. He therefore considered it vital to build a Europe independent of the two great powers that would be concentrated around a resurgent France. In effect this meant the exclusion of Britain from the continent.[13]

British mistrust of Ninčić was further aroused by the suspicion that he favoured a Slav bloc, an idea they had always rejected. Later the British were puzzled by the Soviet decision to dispatch a Red Army mission to Mihailović at the very moment when they were withdrawing their support from the general. When relations with King Peter’s regime deteriorated to a point where its continued recognition by Britain became doubtful, the Soviets offered to raise their diplomatic representation with the Royal Yugoslav government to the rank of an embassy. Ninčić apparently hoped that the Soviets would use their influence to help Mihailović and to achieve some kind of compromise between the Partisans and King Peter.

Ninčić on his part was embittered by the British objection to a renewal – while the war lasted – of the friendship treaty between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union concluded a few hours before Hitler’s bombardment of Belgrade, and to its transformation into a mutual assistance agreement. He and several other Yugoslav ministers began to feel the need to free themselves from British control. The unrealistic ideas circulating at that time in Yugoslav circles in London, such as transferring the government to America, were an expression of this state of mind. It so happened that King Peter’s visit to Roosevelt in June 1942 coincided with Churchill’s visit to Washington. An improvised Yugoslav-American-British summit was held at the White House, and the British Prime Minister, in the presence of the American President and Yugoslavia’s King, castigated the Yugoslav Foreign Minister, stating bluntly: “You are beginning to tire out your friends.”[14] There remained little for Ninčić to do but resign.

Jovanović’s Government of Disagreement   [top]

Jovanović’s government considered that its primary task was to formulate basic principles for a post-war united and democratic Yugoslavia, accepted by all sections of Yugoslav opinion at home and abroad. It failed because of the deepening rift between Serbian and Croatian politicians assembled in London who were still intent on their pre-war feuds, while the flames of civil war were spreading in Yugoslavia. Britain’s reluctant attempts at mediation were embarrassing for both sides.

However, Jovanović’s reshuffled government was constituted on the understanding that all its factions would give full support to Mihailović, “more particularly in his conflict with the Partisans.”[15] It was the first time that the government in exile had adopted a clearly anti-Partisan stand and come out openly on the Četniks’ side. Krnjević, the Croatian Vice-Premier, even endorsed an appeal to his fellow Croats to support Mihailović, this despite their suspicions that the Serbs’ ultimate aim was domination. The Croats could never forget that two Serbian prime ministers of the government in exile – Jovanović and his successor Misa Trifunović – had both been well-known opponents of the Sporazum, the Serbo-Croat cooperation agreement concluded on the eve of the war.

The Sporazum, which provided for the creation of the Banovina, an autonomous Croatian administrative unit, was considered a great achievement by moderate Croats. However, some of the Serbian party leaders in London, including friends of Jovanović and Trifunović, still hoped to undo or amend the agreement after the liberation of Yugoslavia, thus leaving the door open for other settlements. Their argument was that no one could predict what the choice of the Croat population would be after experiencing the cruelties of “Ustashi independence,” a reference to the Croatian Fascist militias.

The massacre of Serbs by Ustashis in mixed areas and accusations that the defeat of the Yugoslav army had been partly due to the desertion of Croatian soldiers increased doubts as to the Croats’ loyalty to the concept of a united Yugoslavia. Some Serbs, like Ambassador Fotić in Washington, favoured a return to an independent Serbia and were encouraged in this by Roosevelt’s repeated slips of the tongue. In London some observers, bewildered by Yugoslav discord, speculated whether the proposed Balkan Union might not include Serbia and Croatia as separate entities in a possible Balkan Federation.

In its first meeting in exile, held in Jerusalem on May 4, 1941, the government had drafted a “Declaration on the Yugoslav Government’s War Aims and the General Aims of State Policy” which referred to the Sporazum as “one of the cornerstones of State policy.” However, after two years of negotiations the limits of the centralized regime and the territorial boundaries of the Banovina still remained open questions.

The draft declaration laid down principles for the liberation and reunification of Yugoslavia, its federal reorganization and the democratization of its institutions. However, each group in the government put forward its own conditions for the implementation of such an accord. Consequently, both the Jovanović and Trifunović governments fell without the “Declaration of Aims” being adopted.

This spelled doom for all Yugoslav political parties represented in London, with the Communist Party alone offering a clear-cut ideology.

Britain and the Yugoslav Guerrillas  [top]

The eventual fate of the Yugoslav government in exile was to be decided not in London, Washington or Moscow, but inside Yugoslavia, by the outcome of a struggle which involved ethnic, religious and civil strife, a clash between centralism and separatism, social revolution, national liberation, and resistance to foreign occupation. Of the two main players in the Yugoslav tragedy, Dra÷‘a Mihailović was to decline to sabotage certain bridges when imperatively asked to do so by the British government as a test of loyalty, while Josip Broz Tito later refused to hand over to the British the Italian arms he had seized when Italy collapsed. When Tito established his Committee of National Liberation at Bihać in 1941, Moscow told him: “Do not look upon the Committee as a sort of a government, and do not put it in opposition to the Yugoslav government in London.”[16] Tito ignored this request, and ultimately his regime was established, while the government in exile was eliminated.

The two leaders differed in origin, in outlook, in their pre-war activities, allegiances and strategies, and in their vision of the future Yugoslavia. At the same time their followers generally belonged to the same class of peasants and workers. Mihailović’s Četniks were headed by professional soldiers who devoted themselves to the preservation of the monarchy and tradition. Tito’s Partisans were headed by a professional Communist revolutionary with the clear political aim of changing the regime in their liberated country. Resistance to the occupying forces was their common goal, but their differences often resulted in terrible fratricidal battles which were mercilessly exploited by the common enemies, Germany and Italy. After an initial burst of resistance, the Četniks, appalled by the enemy’s savage reprisals, preferred to lie low and wait until they could join up with Western forces landing in Yugoslavia and restore their King and the former regime. The Partisans practised tactics of continual fighting, whatever the cost, and were determined to oppose an Allied landing as well as any future enemy invasion directed at what they considered the “back door” of the USSR.

Britain’s interest in the guerrillas operating inside Yugoslavia dates to August 28, 1941, two weeks before the first message from Mihailović was picked up by chance by a British ship lying off Malta. On that day Churchill wrote to Hugh Dalton, the Minister in charge of the SOE: “I understand from General Simović that there is widespread guerrilla activity in Yugoslavia. It needs cohesion, support and direction from outside. Please report briefly what contacts you have with these bands and what you can do to help them.”[17]

Dalton answered as follows: “The Yugoslavs [the government in exile], the War Office and we are all agreed that the guerrilla and sabotage bands now active in Yugoslavia should show sufficient active resistance to cause constant embarrassment to the occupying forces_ˇ_. But they should keep their main organization underground and avoid any attempt at large-scale uprisings or ambitious military operations, which could only result at present in severe repression and the loss of key men. They should now do all they can to prepare a widespread underground organization ready to strike hard later on, when we give the signal.”[18]

Dalton informed Churchill that a British-Yugoslav mission, consisting of Colonel Hudson and Majors Ostojić and Lalatović, had indeed landed near Petrovać, in Montenegro, from a British submarine, on September 30, 1941. Hudson’s instructions were to report on guerrilla activities in general, initially without establishing special links with one or the other organization. Following various adventures soon after their arrival, Hudson met first Tito and later Mihailović at a time when the two leaders were discussing how to cooperate. Hudson reached them at the right moment. However, the fact that Hudson happened to meet Tito first at his Uziče headquarters aroused Mihailović’s suspicions, and as Ostojić and Lalatović informed Mihailović of the atmosphere prevailing in Yugoslav  government circles in London and their reservations concerning British policies, Mihailović’s early contacts with the British were adversely affected. This, together with the fact that Britain was not in a position prior to 1943 to supply the arms badly needed by the Četniks led to Mihailović’s permanent distrust of the British.

Civil War – The Četniks and Partisans Retreat    [top]

The Yugoslav government had named Mihailović Commander-in-Chief of the Home Army responsible for all forces fighting the Axis inside Yugoslavia. This appointment was tacitly accepted by the British government, which assumed that all fighting forces would come under his command automatically, and that there was no need to conduct prior consultations between the parties concerned. However, two meetings between Tito and Mihailović – at Struganik on September 19, and in Brajiči on October 27 – seem to have been initiated by the resistance movements. A partial agreement was reached between the guerrilla leaders whereby Mihailović would receive half the rifles and munitions produced by the Partisan-controlled factory at Uziče, while Mihailović would share with Tito parachute-drops expected from Britain; complete disagreement persisted, however, over Mihailović’s demand to head a joint Partisan-Četnik command. Tito was prepared to accept a common operational staff, but he refused to place himself under Mihailović’s command. He insisted on maintaining the independent identity of his movement and objected to the Četnik leader’s policy of delaying operations against the Wehrmacht until the general situation changed.[19]

Though these contacts continued in late November, hostilities between the Četnik and Partisan forces had broken out in October, almost immediately after the Mihailović-Tito meeting. This was the beginning of the civil war waged with considerable hatred by Četniks and Partisans up to the very end of the occupation. Reports on the first clashes remain contradictory. Četnik sources claimed that on October 28 partisan units attacked the Zajača smelting works which they held. Colonel Hudson, on the other hand, reported to Cairo that on the night of November 1-2 the Četniks, “grossly underestimating the Partisans’ hold on their followers, unsuccessfully attacked Uziče.” This version gains credibility in the light of a message which Mihailović sent to Simović in London shortly before these developments, announcing that a reconciliation had been achieved with the Partisans; he added, however, that the peace would not last, since the Communists refused to relinquish Čačak and Uziče.[20]

The following two years witnessed a civil war of unprecedented intensity, cruel enemy punitive expeditions against both Četniks and Partisans, and the failure of British efforts to bring about a reconciliation or a truce between the two camps. Added to this was the inability of the British and the Russians to cooperate in supplying the resistance movements with adequate arms. In fact there was growing fear on the British side that such arms would be used for fratricidal fighting by the Četniks and Partisans alike.

The decline in Mihailović’s fortunes – which was ultimately to end in his trial and execution after the war – started when he decided early in the struggle to interrupt his guerrilla activities pending a hypothetical Allied landing in Yugoslavia. The shrinking number of his followers and later accusations of cooperation with the collaborator General Nedić and the Italians further weakened his position. Conversely, Tito’s movement was joined by an increasing number of uprooted peasants and workers, victims of German reprisals, whose extraordinary mobility enabled them to move from one end of the country to the other, again and again escaping the rings closed around them by the Wehrmacht. Tito’s call for political and social reforms, and equality for the different nationalities and religious groups appealed to vast sections of the population. These factors would weigh heavily in favour of the Partisans in the final outcome of the civil war.

The British government’s position was made clear at an early stage in the following message sent on November 16, 1941, to Hudson, its emissary with the resistance groups in the Yugoslav maquis: “His Majesty’s Government now consider the fight should be Yugoslavs for Yugoslavia, and not revolt led by Communists for Russia, if it is to prosper. His Majesty’s Government therefore asking Soviet government to urge Communist elements to rally Mihailović, collaborating with him against Germans, putting themselves unreservedly at disposal of Mihailović as national leader. Simović will also instruct Mihailović to refrain from retaliatory action.”[21]

This message conveyed by Hudson to Četniks and Partisans at the Čačak meeting on November 20 did not change the attitude of either side. Hudson, in his report to Cairo the following day, expressed his own opinion: “My attitude to Mihailović has been that he has all qualifications except strength. At present the Partisans are stronger and he must first liquidate them with British arms before turning seriously to the Germans.” Hudson reported the Partisans’ anger at Simović’s lack of reference to their achievements in the Prime Minister’s BBC broadcast on November 15. He stressed their belief that it was the people’s loss of confidence in the officers that had led to the military collapse of the previous April and noted their insistence on fighting Mihailović “unless he combines on their terms.” For the first time Hudson noted that the Partisans suspected Mihailović of contacts with Nedić and other elements fighting the Communists.

In retrospect, 1942 appears to have been a crucial turning point for Yugoslavia in the war. Two urgent initiatives were needed at this juncture, and both failed to materialize. The British government failed to announce, as suggested by Hudson, that it would cease its arms deliveries to both sides if civil strife continued between the resistance movements. Nor was there any suggestion of appointing a neutral commander-in-chief, as neither Mihailović nor Tito were acceptable to both movements.

Both Četniks and Partisans were increasingly harassed by the Germans and their associates. In the course of 1942 German punitive expeditions pushed them back from the mountainous heart of the country and the main communications arteries to remote areas, Mihailović ending up at Lipová and Tito at Bihać in South-West Croatia. This did not prevent the fratricidal struggle between Četniks and Partisans from continuing. For each the priority was to achieve control of the Yugoslav State when liberation came, and this meant the elimination of the other. The lack of cohesion among Mihailović’s commanders, his failure to act against the enemy and the accusations of collaboration with local Quislings that were leveled against him caused his popularity to wane. On Tito’s side, 1942 witnessed a massive increase in the number of his followers, recruited primarily from among peasants uprooted by enemy reprisals.

The political measures adopted at the Partisans’ Assembly at Bihać on November 26, 1942, which launched the slogan of “Unity and Equality” with the aim of establishing a new order in liberated Yugoslavia, provided the impetus that led to their final victory.

Mihailović’s Inactivity is Confirmed   [top]

Up to the end of 1942 the British government had no liaison officers with the Partisans, and when during the following year it was decided to establish contact with them, so little was known about their whereabouts and activities that agents had to be dropped blind. Only sporadic contacts existed with Mihailović’s movement. When, later in the year, doubts surfaced as to the veracity of Mihailović’s reports and about his relations with certain elements in the enemy’s galaxy of collaborators, the Foreign Office felt the time had come to be outspoken. In a conversation with the Yugoslav Deputy Foreign Minister, Vladimir Milanović, on December 22, Sir Orme Sargent remarked that Mihailović had fought neither the Germans nor the Italians since October 1941 and that the Partisans appeared to be more active than the Četniks.[22] A week later, a broad hint in the same vein – later described as “indiscreet and unauthorized” – was dropped by Major Peter Boughby of the SOE to the Military Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Office, Major Živan Knežević. He said he had been told that Mihailović was cooperating with the Italians, that he was a Quisling like Nedić who collaborated with the Germans; and that no arms should be sent to him.[23]

These statements caused consternation in the Yugoslav government, which was then in the midst of a reshuffle. Prime Minister Jovanović summoned British Ambassador Rendel on December 31 and asked whether there was a change in the British attitude to Mihailović. The following day the Ambassador was in a position to assure the Prime Minister that there was no change in Britain’s attitude, and he revealed to him that a new, high-ranking British officer had arrived at Mihailović’s headquarters on Christmas Day, in order to ensure better liaison. The decision to send him to Yugoslavia had been taken on December 17, 1942, when Eden in a minute to Churchill had concluded against a break with Mihailović – despite the latter’s inactivity – because of the need to avoid “anarchy and Communist chaos after the war.”

The expected German offensive launched in the early weeks of 1943 resulted in the Partisans’ retreating to the southeast, where they forcefully pushed the Četniks back towards Western Serbia. The civil war had now reached an unprecedented level of intensity, and Tito’s units undoubtedly had the upper hand. Moreover, the overall picture of the war had been completely transformed by the Anglo-American landings in North Africa in November 1942 and the prospect of Italy suing for an armistice. There was an urgent need to sabotage rail communications in Yugoslavia used to transport Axis war materials destined for North Africa to the Aegean ports. It soon became clear that this problem could not be tackled by Mihailović alone, since he was gradually being forced to retreat under Partisan pressure. Bailey and Hudson, the two British observers with Mihailović, now informed Cairo and London that at this stage there was no prospect of a reconciliation between the resistance movements, and that the idea of a united movement must be left in abeyance. Mihailović, as Bailey put it, was still “determined to eliminate all rivals before attacking the armies of occupation.” This objective was obviously beyond his power to achieve while in retreat before the Partisans. At this point Tito moved some of his forces into the hinterland of the Adriatic coast in order to eliminate large Četnik forces concentrated in the area. The idea was that Allied troops landing in this part of the country would be met by Partisans and not by Mihailović’s followers. The two movements were committed to mutual annihilation.

Mihailović is Recalcitrant   [top]

While these events were being assessed at British headquarters in Cairo, an outburst by Mihailović in an impromptu speech at a family reception on February 28, 1943, caused consternation in London and threatened to jeopardize Britain’s relations with the leader of the Četniks. In this speech, which he delivered in Bailey’s presence, Mihailović declared that the Serbs were “completely friendless,” that the British were pressing them “to engage in operations without any intention of helping them,” and “were trying to sacrifice Serbian blood in exchange for a trivial supply of munitions.” He stated that King Peter and his government were not guests of the British but virtually their prisoners and that Britain had violated Yugoslavia’s sovereignty by discussing its internal problems directly with the Soviet Union. He described the Partisans’ activities as “hypocritical” and the Allied attitude towards them as a “fraud,” adding that nothing could divert the Serbs “from their sacred duty of annihilating the Partisans.” His enemies, he said, were the Ustashi, the Partisans, the Croats and the Moslems. Only when he had dealt with them would he turn against the Germans and the Italians. As long as the Italians constituted his only adequate source of arms, “nothing the Allies could do would force him to alter his attitude towards them.”[24]

On March 29, a note signed by Churchill, acting as Foreign Secretary in Eden’s absence, was delivered to the Yugoslav government. It stated that His Majesty’s Government “cannot ignore this outburst nor accept without explanation and without protest a policy so totally at variance with their own. We could never justify to the British people nor to their own Allies continued support of a movement, the leader of which does not scruple publicly to declare that their enemies are his Allies.” The note concluded: “Unless General Mihailović is prepared to change his policy both toward the Italian enemy and toward his Yugoslav compatriots who are resisting the enemy, it may well prove necessary for His Majesty’s Government to revise their present policy of favouring General Mihailović to the exclusion of the other resistance movements in Yugoslavia.”[25]

In a note to Sir Alexander Cadogan, Churchill adopted a somewhat more understanding attitude towards the Četnik leader, stating that it was not much use preaching to the “toad beneath the harrow,” and that Mihailović believed he was double-crossing the Italians. He added: “His position is terrible and we should not forget the very little help we can give.”[26]

The Yugoslav government could only share British concern and condemnation of Mihailović’s speech. In a series of messages to the General, they sought to impress on him the seriousness of the British warning, and urged him to comply with the British and Yugoslav governments’ instructions. Mihailović’s reply was summarized in a statement to both governments dated June 1, 1943: “It is not in the least necessary to emphasize continuously that my only enemy is the Axis. I avoid battle with the Communists in the country, and fight only when attacked.”[27]

A British Ultimatum to Mihailović – Contacts with Tito   [top]

In the spring of 1943 policy-makers in London and Cairo decided on two courses of action that would greatly influence the outcome of the war in Yugoslavia two years later. Both decisions aroused great opposition on the part of the Yugoslav government and of Mihailović. The first was the territorial division of the country in terms of British help between the two main resistance movements headed by Mihailović and Tito. The second was the dispatch of emissaries to the Partisans and the establishment of a military relationship with them without the advance knowledge of King Peter’s government.

The proposed separation of the two guerrilla movements along the Ibar River Line, which had been urged by Bailey and Hudson since the beginning of the year, was finally adopted by the authorities in London and Cairo on the basis of intelligence pieced together in May. It had become clear that the area held by the Partisans should be treated as a territorial whole. Between 1,000 and 2,000 men were retreating with Mihailović into central and eastern Serbia and it was ascertained that he did not have a fighting force of any consequence west of the Kopaonik range. On May 29, 1943, British GHQ Middle East therefore instructed Bailey to inform Mihailović, “as forcefully as may be necessary,” that as an Ally he must stop all cooperation with the Axis and move towards the East into Serbia.” There, he was to establish his full authority and use his personal influence in order to continue the attacks on enemy communication lines. And the instructions to Bailey continued; “You will advise Mihailović that he immediately go to Kopaonik with all his faithful officers and men; if necessary, he is to force his way through with armed forces. In the future British General Headquarters will consider the district under his command and influence, bordered on the west by the fighting elements already existing on the right bank of the Ibar river and towards the south to Skopje. To this territory British General Headquarters will send great aid by air.”[28]

Mihailović’s reaction to this communication was an explosion of anger. He declared that “he would go into exile on the Kopaonik.”

Though the ultimatum had been drafted in Cairo without London’s approval, it no doubt reflected the essence of the new British attitude towards Mihailović. London, however, deemed it necessary to attenuate its impact, and Mihailović was informed of the cancellation of the instructions after he had agreed to five principles enunciated by Eden on May 9, 1943, in a message dispatched through the Yugoslav government. These principles were as follows: (1) The primary aim of General Mihailović’s policy must be resistance to the Axis. (2). For this purpose it is essential that the closest cooperation be established through Colonel Bailey with the British military authorities in the Middle East. (3) All collaboration with the Italians must cease, and there must be no contact or collaboration with General Nedić. (4) Efforts must be made to cooperate with all other guerrilla groups in Croatia and Slovenia. (5) Efforts must also be made to reach agreement with the Partisans in Serbia, and no operations must be undertaken against them except in self-defence.[29]

These moves heralded the last phase of Mihailović’s struggle and sounded the alarm in Yugoslav government circles in London. But military considerations prevailed over political thinking.

The reversal of policy represented by the renewal of contacts with Tito had been preceded in London by a rethinking of the entire Yugoslav problem. In the situation prevailing in the spring of 1943 the Foreign Office saw a certain contradiction between the long- and short-term objectives of British policies, and this called for a crucial choice. In the long term, the continued existence of the Yugoslav State after the war was seen as essential to ensure the independence of all the states of the Balkan peninsula. Until then Mihailović’s movement had been considered capable of achieving this aim, and of preventing what was termed “anarchy and Communist control.” In the shorter term, Mihailović’s inactivity and retreat meant the abandonment of the greater part of former Yugoslav territory to other resistance movements which were more active against the enemy and if left unassisted by the Western powers would certainly be driven into the arms of the Soviet Union.

Intense guerrilla activity in Yugoslavia was considered vital in order to cut the enemy’s rail links over which Romanian oil was dispatched to Germany and Italy and Axis war materials conveyed to Greece. And so in March 1943 Churchill approved a plan to send British officers to contact the Partisans in Croatia and Slovenia. On the basis of their reports the government would decide whether to provide Tito’s forces with the material help needed in their struggle.

Within a month of this decision two groups of British officers were dropped on April 21, one in Bosnia, the other in Croatia. The latter, code named “Fungus,” came down in the Igulin area, near the Partisans’ headquarters in the village of Brinje. At first the members of the mission did not know exactly to whom the group of guerrillas belonged. For some days they were kept under observation, and it was only a week later, after it had been ascertained that they were genuine British servicemen and on instructions received from Tito from his headquarters in Montenegro, that they were authorized to use their wireless transmitter and inform Cairo of their safe arrival. They had come at a vital time. A punitive expedition mounted by the Germans and designed to eliminate the Partisans – it later came to be known as the Fifth Offensive – was expected at any minute. The Soviet mission eagerly awaited for several months had not materialized. Italy’s collapse had become a certainty, and repercussions were beginning to be felt among the Italian troops in the besieged garrisons of Yugoslavia. There was no time to lose. Once Tito became convinced that this time, in contrast to his previous encounters with Hudson and another envoy, Atherton, the British officers had been sent to establish liaison with him and not with Mihailović, he instructed his Croatia Command to supply them with information about the enemy and about what he called the “treachery” of the Četniks, but they were not to be provided with details about the strength of the Partisans until further notice.

When Cairo was informed of the presence of its officers at Partisan headquarters in Croatia, a message was sent on May 7 congratulating the guerrillas on their war effort and requesting their agreement to the immediate dispatch of a British mission to Partisan Central Command. The Croatian Partisans passed on this message to Tito in Montenegro. He replied on May 17 in a message that marks the beginning of his relations with British Middle East Headquarters. It read as follows: “Communicate to the British Mission in our name the following: ‘We consider cooperation with the Allies as logical. Let them send a liaison officer to our staff. He must land at once in Montenegro, near Durmitor. We ask the British Air Force to bomb Beran, Bijelopolje, Plevlja, Andrijevica, Mostar, Podgorica and Nikšić. Further details follow’.”[30]

On May 21 a second message for Middle East Headquarters, signed for the first time by Tito personally, requested the “Fungus” mission in Croatia to inform their base of great German troop concentrations in Sarajevo, supported by some three hundred planes. Enemy concentrations in a dozen other places were also listed, and the message added: “Our troops are engaged in heavy fighting and bloody clashes with the Germans who intend to clean up the region and organize their defence in Montenegro and Herzegovina against an Allied invasion. We request that the airfield at Sarajevo be bombed and the garrisons in the towns mentioned above. We consider this to be in the Allied interest. Send urgently representatives and explosives to destroy targets, railway trucks and tunnels. Call for this in our name. Tito.”[31]

Speculation had been rife as to the identity of the Partisans’ hitherto mysterious leader. Suddenly a Belgrade Quisling newspaper named him as Josip Broz. Earlier, Mihailović had spread the rumour that the leader of the Partisans was a Soviet agent, a diplomat by the name of Lebedev who traveled between the Balkan capitals. Amazed at the discovery of Tito’s real identity, the Četnik leader sent the following message to the Yugoslav government in London on March 27, 1943: “Can a convict like Josip Broz, who is listed with the Zagreb Police under No. 10434, alias leader of the Communists under the name of Tito, be compared with the Yugoslav army as a national fighter? – The plunderer of churches and convict Josip Broz, a locksmith’s assistant from the county of Klanjeć in Croatia _ˇ_ hiding internationally under the false and mysterious name of Tito.”[32]

A very different assessment of Tito, which would become known only after the war, was that of the ill-famed Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler. Addressing senior German officers on September 2, 1944, he declared: “I should like to give another example of steadfastness. I must say that this old Communist, Herr Josip Broz, is a consistent man. Unfortunately he is our opponent. He has really earned his title of Marshal. When we catch him we will kill him at once. He is our enemy. But I wish we had a dozen Titos in Germany, men who are leaders and have such resolution and good nerves that, even though they are for ever encircled, they never give in. He has never capitulated. A thousand vagabonds who have been together suddenly became a brigade. Divisions and corps are knocked to pieces by us, and the man forms them up again and again every time – a steadfast soldier, a steadfast commander.”

The Partisans and the Wehrmacht Meet   [top]

Though Hitler to the very end remained faithful to his principle “You don’t negotiate with _ˇ•rebels’, you shoot them,” some of his subordinates seem on occasion to have acted differently, even attempting in one instance to strike a deal with the Communist Partisans. Today, these negotiations, initiated in March 1943 between the Nazi authorities in Croatia and top members of the Partisan leadership, remain the subject of controversy both within the Yugoslav Communist Party and in Yugoslav émigré circles abroad. The crucial question asked is whether in this particular instance Tito himself can be accused of having collaborated with the enemy. This unique episode in the Partisans’ struggle against the German army was first revealed in detail many years after the war.[33]

For over six months, from August 1942 to March 1943, the partisans held eight German metal and timber experts who had been taken prisoner in the Livno area. They included an engineer, Hans Ott, who was also attached to the German intelligence service as a specialist in Partisan affairs. At his request Ott was taken to Partisan headquarters, where he suggested that his group be exchanged for Partisan supporters detained in German, Italian and Croatian camps in Zagreb. The Italians, as a regular policy, and the Germans, at local commander level, had exchanged prisoners with the Partisans on a number of occasions since 1941.

The Ott case, however, was not just another exchange of prisoners, for Ott appears to have been instructed to get in touch with the Partisans. Faced with a difficult position in the field during the autumn of 1942 and the ensuing winter, Tito must have thought it worthwhile to try to alleviate the Partisans’ situation through contacts with the Wehrmacht. No Soviet aid was forthcoming, and the British were still helping Mihailović. He therefore accepted to talk over Ott’s suggestion with the German command in Zagreb, and entrusted this mission to three senior members of his movement – Milovan Djilas, a member of the Politburo, General Koča Popović, and Vladimir Velebit, a Zagreb intellectual from whose house a radio link was maintained with the Comintern and who later became Tito’s first emissary to Cairo and London.

The negotiations took place only a few days after Ribbentrop had brought to Rome Hitler’s denunciation of the Italian policy of “playing off opposing factions against one another” in Yugoslavia. They also coincided with the beginning of a thaw in Britain’s attitude towards the Partisans.

The declared purpose of the talks between the Partisans and the Germans was to exchange prisoners and to secure combatant rights for the Partisans. But Tito’s negotiators seized the opportunity to declare that the Partisans “regarded the Četniks as their main enemy.” The German officers to whom they made this statement had begun to realize the hopelessness of the Wehrmacht’s position in the Balkans and were inclined to see in this attitude something new and promising. They interpreted it somewhat hastily as indicating a “possibility” that the Partisans, having finally decided to settle accounts with the Četniks in the district, would henceforth “cease” fighting with the German, Italian and Croatian forces, and would break with both Britain and Russia. In a leap of the imagination, Kasche, the German minister in Zagreb, in a message to Ribbentrop dated March 17, 1943, went so far as to picture the Partisans returning to their villages after having liquidated the Četniks. The German diplomat also told his chief in Wilhelmstrasse that the majority of the Partisans were not Communists and had not committed “extraordinary excesses” in battle or in the treatment of prisoners and the local population.[34]

Ribbentrop, fresh from his Rome discussions, soon put an end to this controversial exchange with Zagreb by declaring that it was not German policy to use “clever tactics” with the Četniks and the Partisans. What was required was to destroy them both. Ribbentrop concluded that Germany could not adopt action “similar to the Italian method of using Četniks against Partisans.”[35] The episode ended in the exchange of German prisoners for a dozen Partisans, including Herta Haas, the mother of Tito’s second son.

Deakin and Maclean Meet Tito [top]

Captain F.W. Deakin’s mission, code-named “Typical,” landed at Durmitor on the night of May 27-28, 1943. The party’s first message to Cairo, mentioning their “lucky drop in the dark,” reached London only on June 1. Though it was an exploratory mission, it represented in effect a U-turn in British policy on Yugoslavia, the implications of which were not fully recognized at the time. Deakin’s brief was to report on the Partisans’ value as an active anti-enemy force, on their needs, and on possible help and supplies to be provided by the Allies. His encouraging reports paved the way for the British cooperation with Tito, which ultimately ensured the latter’s triumph. In the early stages of his contacts, however, certain delicate questions had to be glossed over. The first was the relations of the British with Mihailović. Deakin explained that, once it became clear that some of the Četnik leaders were collaborating with the enemy, the British government had expressed its disapproval and had declined to maintain relations with their groups.[36] At the same time the British intention was to continue supporting Mihailović’s men in eastern and southern Serbia where they might be in a position to disrupt enemy communications. Deakin stated that he had been asked to formulate recommendations on the basis of the evidence he was gathering. Tito was obviously pleased that Deakin’s mission was under the direct control of the British Middle East Command, and no longer dependent on the British mission to Mihailović. However, trained as he was in the Stalinist Comintern school of suspicion, he immediately voiced doubts about Britain’s true intentions. The fact that the “Fungus” group had landed in Croatia made him wonder whether there was a British plan to separate Croatia from Yugoslavia in cooperation with Maček’s Croatian Peasant Party, or to intervene in the Partisan movement’s internal affairs by driving a wedge between the Croatian Communists and Communists in other areas under the centralized command. British intentions concerning a royalist restoration and the Royal government’s plans were also scrutinized. On two points Deakin obviously preferred to remain vague: the possibility of Allied landings in the Balkans and whether his mission had been agreed upon in consultation with Moscow.[37] Tito seemed to suspect a secret Anglo-Soviet agreement on the future of Yugoslavia – perhaps an early expression of his mistrust of Soviet intentions, which would be highlighted a few years later during the Stalin-Tito confrontation.

Deakin paved the way for the appointment of Brigadier Fitzroy Maclean to head the British liai-son mission which launched the political and diplomatic phase in the relation-ship between Britain and Tito’s Yugoslavia. Maclean arrived at Tito’s headquarters at the end of September. One month later he was able to inform London, in an eagerly awaited report, that the Partisan forces, amounting to 20,000 men, were dominant in Yugoslavia, except in Old Serbia and Montenegro. These forces had established effective political organization in the liberated areas.[38] Although some latitude was allowed to members of former political parties, and the equality of all races and religions was ensured, Maclean reported that the Partisan organization was overwhelmingly Communist. The Partisans excluded any collaboration with Mihailović whom they accused of treachery and were non-committal on the future of the monarchy. They possessed a larger force than previously believed, and would be a decisive factor in post-war Yugoslavia. Only armed intervention on a large scale could prevent them from taking power after the liberation. Maclean’s recommendation was to discontinue aid to Mihailović and increase support to the Partisans. Curiously, breaking a long-standing Balkan tradition, Tito told Maclean from the very start that he would not accept any British money and would insist that the British services should not “spend sovereigns” in Yugoslavia.[39]

The Jajce Bombshell    [top]

Meanwhile, during the autumn of 1943, three developments greatly influenced the course of events. On the military side, Mihailović was asked by British Middle East Command to carry out certain “test operations” within a stated time. These were acts of sabotage against enemy communications. These operations were never carried out, Mihailović adhering to his policy of inactivity. On the political side, Churchill, during a visit to Cairo, revealed to King Peter and Prime Minister Purić British thinking on the situation and suggested the possibility of removing Mihailović from his post of Commander-in-Chief should he not comply by the end of the year with the request for “test operations.” The third development, which came from the Partisan camp, was the Proclamation adopted at Jajce, in Bosnia, on November 29, 1943. It announced the establishment of the AVNOJ (the Anti-Fascist National Liberation Council of Yugoslavia), and far-reaching decisions affecting Yugoslavia’s political future and regime.

Two bodies were created by AVNOJ: a Supreme Legislative Committee, presided over by a Croatian democrat, Dr. Ivan Ribar, formerly speaker of the Yugoslav Parliament, and a National Executive Committee for the Liberation of Yugoslavia, presided over by Tito, who assumed the title of “Marshal of Yugoslavia.” The National Executive Committee was to perform the duties of a provisional government and its members, including some non-Communists, the functions of ministers in a government administration. For the future, the Jajce Proclamation envisaged a Federal Constitution leaving the post-war regime to be decided upon freely by the Yugoslav people after the expulsion of the German invaders. However, on December 17, the “Free Yugoslavia” radio station, which had not initially been definitely identified as a Partisan organ, broadcast a statement calling for recognition of the Executive Committee as the sole and supreme government of Yugoslavia for the duration of the war, and demanding withdrawal of recognition from the government in exile. It condemned Mihailović as a traitor, and King Peter for supporting him.

However, a narrow margin of doubt persisted as to whether the demands put forward in the broadcast corresponded to the views expressed by Tito in his conversations with Maclean. And this British diplomacy sought to exploit in an effort to obtain some kind of arrangement between Tito and King Peter, pending a decision by the Yugoslav people after the war. To a direct question from Maclean, who was then in Cairo, as to the meaning of the December 17 broadcast, Tito replied in a message received on December 27 that the future of the monarchy and the King would be decided after the war. The Partisans, Tito stated, were not asking for immediate formal recognition of the National Committee, but hoped for such recognition as soon as possible as a contribution to their struggle. Propaganda against the King was “not important” if he ceased to support “reactionary forces working with the enemy against the people” at home and abroad. However, Tito confirmed the Jajce resolution that the King should not return to Yugoslavia before the nation had made clear its decision regarding the future Constitution of the country.[40]

In the series of exchanges that followed between Ambassador Stevenson and Maclean in Cairo and the Foreign Office and the Cabinet in London, safeguarding the King’s position became a central issue. There could no longer be any question of stopping aid to the Partisans, but cessation of aid to Mihailović, which was already practically decided, became a trump card in bargaining with Tito to secure some moderation on his part regarding the King’s status. The idea was that if Tito were promised the cessation of aid to Mihailović he might, in return, adopt a temporary accommodation with the King.

A different opinion was expressed by Sir Alexander Cadogan, who maintained that Britain should not ask the King to disown Mihailović before obtaining the guarantee of an arrangement with the Partisans.[41] The proposed plan meant the postponement of all political issues until the war was over, a guarantee that the Yugoslav people would be able freely to decide their future without foreign interference, and that the Allied powers would not pre-judge the outcome of the Yugoslav people’s decision and would not impose on them any government from outside. While doubts were expressed as to whether the Monarchy was still a unifying factor in Yugoslavia, there was unanimity on the dual aim of Britain’s policy: not to repudiate the relationship with King Peter and the government while avoiding a civil war and a Communist regime in post-war Yugoslavia.

Churchill Enters the Scene    [top]

It was with these objectives in mind that Churchill entered into personal correspondence with Tito. The Prime Minister seized upon the occasion of a message of speedy recovery that Tito sent him while he was convalescing in North Africa in January 1944 to write to him. As he told Eden, he saw in this “a good opportunity of my establishing a personal relationship with this important man.”[42] Churchill’s first letter, dated January 8, 1944, referred to Tito’s “valiant efforts” against the enemy, of which he had heard from his friends Deakin and Maclean, and announced the impending arrival of his son Randolph at Maclean’s headquarters. Stating that the British had “no desire to dictate the future government of Yugoslavia,” he expressed the hope that “all will pull together as much as possible for the defeat of the common foe, and afterwards settle the form of government in accordance with the will of the people.”

In a most significant and frank passage, Churchill referred to the two burning problems: support to Mihailović and relations with King Peter. “I am resolved,” the Prime Minister wrote, “that the British government shall give no further military support to Mihailović and will only give help to you, and we should be glad if the Royal Yugoslavian Government would dismiss him from their councils. King Peter the Second, however, escaped as a boy from the treacherous clutches of the Regent Prince Paul, and came to us as the representative of Yugoslavia and as a young prince in distress. It would not be chivalrous or honourable for Great Britain to cast him aside. Nor can we ask him to cut all his existing contacts with his country. I hope, therefore, that you will understand we shall in any case remain in official relations with him, while at the same time giving you all possible military support. I hope also that there may be an end to polemics on either side, for these only help the Germans.”[43]

Tito’s answer, received on February 3, 1944, contained the following assurance with reference to Churchill’s observations about the Yugoslav regime in exile: “I quite understand your engagements towards King Peter II and his government and I will contrive, as far as the interests of our people permit, to avoid unnecessary politics [believed to mean polemics] and not to cause inconvenience to our Allies in this matter.” He outlined the aims of his movement: first, to assemble “all patriotic and honourable” elements of the people in the struggle; secondly, to foster the “union and brotherhood of the Yugoslav nations”; thirdly, to create a “federative Yugoslavia” in which all its peoples would feel happy.[44]

Churchill, who throughout this phase of the discussions on Yugoslavia was far ahead of the Foreign Office in his determination to get a “working arrangement” between King Peter and Tito, decided to pin down the Partisan Marshal on a direct and explicit question. In his second letter to Tito, dated February 5, 1944, he included the following request: “I should be obliged if you would let me know whether [the King’s] dismissal of Mihailović would pave the way for friendly relations with you and your Movement, and, later on, for his joining you in the field, it being understood that the future question of the Monarchy is reserved until Yugoslavia has been entirely liberated.”[45]

Four days later Tito stated his conditions for cooperation with the King. Quoting the Jajce resolution on the union of the Yugoslav nations, he added, “... as long as there are two governments, one in Yugoslavia and the other in Cairo, there can be no complete union. Therefore, the government in Cairo must be suppressed, and with them Draža Mihailović.... The National Committee for the Liberation of Yugoslavia should be acknowledged by the Allies as the only government of Yugoslavia, and King Peter II in support should submit to the laws of the Anti-Fascist Council of National Liberation.... If King Peter accepts all these conditions, the Anti-Fascist Council of National Liberation will not refuse to cooperate with him, on condition that the question of the Monarchy in Yugoslavia be decided after the liberation by the free will of the people.... King Peter II should issue a declaration to the effect that he has only the interests of his Fatherland at heart” and “will support the arduous struggle of the peoples of Yugoslavia.”[46]

In his reply of February 25, 1944, Churchill informed Tito that orders had been issued for the withdrawal of British officers from Mihailović’s headquarters, and that Peter II had been invited to come to London from Cairo for discussions. But the important point in this message, besides the operational decisions, was the Prime Minister’s insistence on assurances to King Peter that, if he “frees himself from Mihailović and other bad advisers, he will be invited by you [Tito] to join his countrymen in the field.” And later, “I hope therefore that you will on reflection be ready to modify your demands, and thus enable us both to work for the unification of Yugoslavia against the common enemy.”

In the same message Churchill asked Tito to understand that “I cannot press [King Peter] to dismiss Mihailović, throw over his government, and cut off all contact with Serbia before knowing whether he can count on your support and cooperation.”[47] This echoed the Foreign Office’s argument in the spring of 1944 that, whatever Mihailović’s fate, Britain must not become a partner in imposing a Communist regime on Serbia. For the Foreign Office, Tito’s conditions for cooperation with the King meant just that. The British counterproposal which emerged in the discussions was that the King should return to Yugoslavia to establish a Provisional government under Marshal Tito, in which all elements resisting the enemy would be represented and which would be recognized as the sole government of the country until the nation decided on its future regime.[48]

This plan was not included formally in the next exchange of messages between Churchill and Tito, but it was entrusted to Brigadier Maclean to handle. The Foreign Office provided him with further clarifications to the effect that the new government should be acceptable both to the King and to Tito, that it should be composed mainly of members of the National Liberation Council, as well as of representatives of other anti-German groups which, in the prevailing circumstances, meant certain Yugoslav personalities abroad – all this provided that Tito agreed to the return of the King to Yugoslavia pending the future consultation of the Yugoslav people.

The so-called Subašić experiment, the future installation of a new Royal Government under his leadership, was thus set in motion. The story of its outcome eventually concludes this chapter.

The Big Three Diverge     [top]

In his first letter to Tito, Churchill had included the following sentence: “You may be sure I shall work in the closest contact with my friends Marshal Stalin and President Roosevelt.”[49] Yet at the time when Churchill broke with Mihailović and offered provisional recognition to Tito, Stalin had raised the Royal Yugoslav Legation in Moscow to the rank of Embassy and was contemplating sending a mission to Mihailović. As to Roosevelt, we have the testimony of Robert Murphy, then the President’s personal representative in the Mediterranean theatre. He recalls that while accompanying Roosevelt to the Cairo Conference, he “attempted to explain to the President the situation existing between Tito and Mihailović in the hope of getting some definite policy directive.” According to Murphy, Roosevelt replied, not altogether in jest: “We should build a wall around these fellows and let them fight it out; then we could do business with the winner.” Murphy concludes: “Neither then nor later did Roosevelt have any consistent policy towards Yugoslavia.”[50]

Churchill at this stage seemed determined to impress upon King Peter the need to dissociate himself from Mihailović and to get rid of the Purić government as a prelude to an agreement with Tito. Two of his immediate advisers tried to restrain his zeal in this respect. It is now known that, prior to Churchill’s statement in Parliament on February 22, 1944, Eden suggested that he should be less strong in his praise of Marshal Tito, “since we did not wish to give the latter the impression that we are already so much pleased with him, that he need make no concessions in regard to cooperation with King Peter.”[51] Moreover, once Subašić entered the scene, Harold Macmillan (then the Prime Minister’s personal representative in the Mediterranean) noted in his journal on July 7, 1944: “The Prime Minister is trying to go too fast and not leaving enough to the Ban [Subašić] and Tito themselves. I learnt with De Gaulle-Giraud not to interfere too much and not to appear too interested.”[52]

“Not to appear too interested” was actually the line followed by the Soviet government during most of the war as far as the Yugoslav resistance movements were concerned. This attitude constantly nourished British suspicion and the belief that Tito was a Soviet agent bound by Comintern discipline. This may explain the lack of any British contact with Tito between the autumn of 1941 and the spring of 1943. The true state of relations between Tito and Stalin, their divergent interpretations of policy, and the lack of concrete assistance accorded by Russia to the Partisans, which would be partly revealed in 1948 during the sensational rift between the two men, were completely unknown to the British and American governments. Late in 1941, talks with Maisky, the Soviet Ambassador in London, on Yugoslav resistance elicited verbal agreement on the need to help the insurgents against the invaders and to “coordinate” the policies of the British and Soviet governments to that end. This was to remain a pious wish. Meanwhile the civil war raging between Partisans and Četniks had rendered all efforts at reconciliation hopeless.

The British Foreign Office, however, remained determined to support Mihailović, in order to ensure the emergence of a non-Communist, western-oriented Yugoslavia after the war. Eden, in a letter to Maisky on August 20, 1942, wrote that he could not consider that the charges against Mihailović were based on objective information, as they seemed to him to originate from Partisan propaganda. He hoped that in view of the dangerous situation in Yugoslavia, the Soviet government would act to prevent allegations from being published, such as those which had appeared in London in the Soviet War News of August 12, that the Partisans were alone in resisting the Axis forces and that General Mihailović was taking no part in the resistance. He requested a “full and frank” discussion of the matter.[53] No reaction came from the Russian side. This created the feeling in London that it would be advisable for Britain to have direct military relations with the Partisans. The first step in this direction came two months later, in October 1942, when the Foreign Office authorized the BBC, despite protests from the Yugoslav government and Mihailović, to report Partisan activities in broadcasts to Yugoslavia. This move represented a signal from London to Tito and to the Soviet government that a new stage had been reached in British policy towards Yugoslavia.

Tito and Stalin    [top]

Except for the knowledge that no Soviet supplies were reaching the Partisans, London, as noted above, was then ignorant of the true state of relations between Tito and Stalin. In fact, documents now known reveal that there was considerable uneasiness between Moscow and Tito at the height of the Partisans' struggle and that Tito often deviated on major political issues from the line laid down by Stalin.

Tito had sent repeated requests for aid to Moscow. In a message to “Grandpapa” (Stalin) in 1943 he wrote: “I must once again ask you if it is quite impossible to send us some sort of help. Is it really impossible after twenty months of heroic, almost superhuman fighting, to find some way of helping us? For twenty months we have been fighting without the least material assistance from any quarter.... Typhus has now begun to rage here, yet we are without drugs. People are dying like flies of starvation.... Do your utmost to help us!” To which “Grandpapa” answered on February 11: “You must not for an instant doubt that, if there were the least possibility of giving you any material help in your wonderful, heroic struggle, we should long ago have done so.... Unfortunately hitherto we have not been able to find a satisfactory solution to the problems, on account of insurmountable technical difficulties.... Do not lose heart.”[54] We can find no record of a Soviet appeal to Britain, following this moving exchange, to send drugs to the Partisans out of humanitarian considerations.

At the political level, however, Moscow sought to provide Tito with guidance. In 1943, after the Jajce Proclamation, “Grandpapa” advised Tito as follows: “Do not fail to give your Committee an all-national Yugoslav and all-party anti-fascist character, both in its composition and its programme. Do not look upon the Committee as a sort of government, but as a political arm in the struggle for national liberation. Do not put it in opposition to the Yugoslav government in London. Do not at the present moment raise the question of the abolition of the monarchy. Do not make mention of the Republic.”[55]

One can add here Stalin’s significant remark to Milovan Djilas, during the latter’s first visit to Moscow in 1944. Referring to the red stars the Partisans wore on their hats, the Soviet leader remarked: “What do you need red stars for? You are only frightening the British.”[56] However, in the Jajce Proclamation Tito implicitly ignored Stalin’s guidelines. This aroused the Soviet leader’s anger when, returning from the Teheran Conference with Roosevelt and Churchill, he was shown the text of the Proclamation. “It is a stab in the back of the Soviet Union and the Teheran decisions,” he was reported as saying.[57] This was confirmed a little later by Djilas, who recorded in his diary that, during his stay in Moscow, he had found Stalin “most affable,” and he added: “The unpleasantness over the Jajce resolution has been forgotten.”[58] Indeed, on December 14, 1943, after Moscow had discovered that there had been no catastrophic change in the Anglo-American attitudes to Tito following the Jajce meeting, the Soviet government issued a communiqué noting the “sympathetic response” in England and the United States to the events of Yugoslavia, regarded by the government of the USSR as “favourable facts, which will facilitate the further successful struggle of the peoples of Yugoslavia against Hitlerite Germany.”[59]

This statement, which for the first time openly supported the Partisans, touched on a third area of bitterness between Tito and Moscow, namely the Soviet attitude to Mihailović. Already on August 26, Tito had complained bitterly to “Grandpapa,” stating that it was bad enough that the BBC should pretend the Partisans did not exist; but that Moscow should also ignore their heroic exploits “was the last straw.... Can nothing be done,” he asked, “so that the Soviet government is better informed concerning the treacherous role of the Yugoslav government and the superhuman suffering and difficulties of our people, who are fighting the invaders, the Četniks and the Ustasha.”[60] This series of complaints culminated in the now famous message from Tito to “Grandpapa,” which stated bluntly: “If you cannot help us, at least do not hinder us.”[61] This also put an end to Soviet attempts to send a mission to Mihailović through contacts with the Yugoslav government in London. Moscow to some extent shared the British concern to preserve and exploit Mihailović’s supposed influence in Serbia.

On October 9, 1943, during the visit of the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary to Moscow, Stalin accepted Churchill’s suggestion of a rough division in terms of “predominance” between Britain and the USSR in the Balkans. In regard to Yugoslavia the percentage was to be “fifty-fifty.” Churchill considered that this “numerical symbol” should be the foundation of joint action and an agreed policy between the two Powers for “a united Yugoslavia.”[62]

British suspicion and anger were revived during the summer of 1944, following Molotov’s disclosure of Tito’s secret visit to Moscow from the island of Vis. But things were straightened out after a note was presented to Eden by the Soviet Ambassador, F. T. Gusev, stating that the Soviet government agreed with Britain that the Partisans, the King and the government should all work together, and that Moscow would do everything possible to find a compromise between them.[63]

Roosevelt between Mihailović and Tito   [top]

In these negotiations between the great powers the United States played the role of second fiddle. The United States had no direct interests in Yugoslavia, and its military leaders were opposed to Churchill’s strategy of a return to continental Europe via the Balkans. Yet from the beginning the Yugoslav tragedy found a sympathetic echo in American public opinion, and President Roosevelt and other United States statesmen made friendly pronouncements and promised a favourable response to certain requests presented by Yugoslavia’s energetic Ambassador in Washington, Konstantin Fotić. King Peter paid an official visit to Washington in June 1944 during which he addressed a joint session of Congress and signed a Lend-Lease agreement with the United States. Twice he elicited the President’s praise for Mihailović – at a solemn dinner held in his honour, and in a White House statement, after his visit. This came when Britain was already having misgivings about Mihailović and after Churchill, in Roosevelt’s presence, had criticized the attitude of the government in exile.

When Eden visited Washington in March, 1943, Roosevelt expressed his personal view, recorded by Harry Hopkins, “that the Croats and Serbs have nothing in common, and that it is ridiculous to try to force two such antagonistic peoples to live together under one government.”[64] American diplomats, however, were more analytical. A State Department memorandum prepared in advance of the high level Anglo-American discussions in London in April 1944 stated that “the important factor in the Yugoslav situation today is not so much the Tito-Mihailović-Cairo conflict, as the interplay of Soviet and British policy in the question.” As to Soviet policy it noted: “The Russians profess that their policy is parallel to ours, – being designed to get on with the war, leaving politics to the Yugoslav people themselves.” Regarding British policy, the memorandum stated that Churchill brought into play his “immense personal prestige, particularly through personal correspondence with Tito, in order “to achieve by flattery a position at least parallel to what the Russians had gained by indoctrination.” “Tito,” it noted, “has refused to give the assurances of teamwork with King Peter” and the British are unhappy, “having already promised a great deal and got nothing in return.” The memorandum went on to stress the United States' commitment “to giving military aid where it will do the most good, thus helping Tito in the military sense without political relations with him.” Correct relations were maintained with the government in exile, “without illusions as to its weaknesses.” In conclusion the memorandum affirmed that the United States “could continue to deal with any Yugoslav government established by orderly processes.”[65]

At the London talks the Americans rejected the British conclusion that a Tito-Mihailović reconciliation was impossible and declined to exercise pressure on King Peter to change his government (the Subašić candidacy was already in the offing). As Secretary of State Cordell Hull told Ambassador Fotić after the talks, the U.S. did not wish to associate itself with British policy.[66]

Eight months later, in February and March 1944, the first independent American mission was sent to the Partisans. Marshal Tito used the occasion to convey a message to Roosevelt in which he described the “superhuman struggle” waged by the peoples of Yugoslavia against the enemy and the “traitors,” Nedić, Pavelić and Mihailović, and requested “full economic and political support” to heal the painful wounds sustained in the struggle for the creation of a new “truly democratic, federative Yugoslavia, in which all nations will have their national rights.”[67] In his report Richard (Bob) Weill, head of the United States mission, wrote: “In spite of his known affiliation with Russian Communism, most of the population regard him [Tito] as a patriot and the liberator of his country and secondarily as a Communist”; and later: “For whatever it may be worth, my own guess is that if he is convinced that there is a clear-cut choice between the two, on any issue, his country will come first.”[68]

By then thinking in Washington was gradually moving towards the British point of view. This found expression in Roosevelt’s reply to a letter from King Peter, who had appealed to him, “as a trusted friend,” for help against the rigours of British policy. The President reminded the young King, whom he said he always treated as “a sort of ward,” that the United States was pledged to the liberation of Yugoslavia and “to the union of its national elements under a common government, democratic in form and fact.” Referring to the King’s assertion that his government in exile was popular with “the people at home,” the President continued: “I wish I could say that our reports from within Yugoslavia confirm this. On the contrary, they indicate that the people of Yugoslavia have sought, and still are seeking, a leadership which would have vision for dealing with the new social forces at work in the world today, and energy for undertaking the vast tasks ahead.” The President added that he was pleased the King could now benefit from “the wise counsel of Ban Subašić.” He went on to tell the King that American evaluation of the situation inside Yugoslavia revealed that “the Partisan movement is stronger, and has far greater popular support, and sympathy for it extends into larger areas than your government has been willing to acknowledge.”[69]

The Big Three Cooperate  [top]

With the Subašić experiment of a united Yugoslav government in full swing in the autumn of 1944, it seemed that Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union were following parallel, though not always identical, policies with regard to Yugoslavia. This unified policy was consecrated in February 1945 at the Yalta Conference, where Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin recommended to Tito and Subašić “that the agreement between them be put into effect immediately.” The Yalta meeting adopted two further resolutions, submitted by Churchill and Eden, and reluctantly agreed to by Stalin. The first proposed that the composition of the AVNOJ be extended to include members of the last Yugoslav Parliament (Skupčina) not compromised by collaboration with the enemy, in order to establish a temporary Parliament; the second, that legislative acts passed by the AVNOJ be subsequently ratified by a Constituent Assembly. These recommendations were cabled to Tito and Subašić.

This was the last British effort at ensuring the principle of legal continuity in the transition from the old to the new Yugoslavia. However, in the following months Churchill seems to have had second thoughts on his Yugoslav policy. In two minutes he addressed to Eden on March 10 and 11, 1945, Churchill wrote that he had reached the conclusion that Britain’s role should be one of “increasing detachment” towards Yugoslavia and his inclination was to back the defeated Italy against Yugoslavia at the head of the Adriatic, thus reversing his position as explained to Prince Paul in 1941. Eden replied recalling that British policy was based on the “fifty-fifty” agreement, “the principle of which is in effect that Yugoslavia should be a sort of neutral area between the British and Russian zones of interest,” providing protection to the British position in Greece and, to a lesser extent, in Italy.[70]

King Peter and his British Guardians   [top]

Having had to assume suddenly, at the age of seventeen, national and international responsibilities for which he was ill prepared, the young King had soon found himself in the midst of intrigues and struggles between old-time politicians and generals, not to mention the great powers.

In the absence of a transitional parliamentary institution in exile, Peter could not depend on guidance from inside the Yugoslav camp. On the other hand he could count on friendly inspiration from the Western leaders and in the first instance King George VI, who noted in his diary a few days before King Peter reached England on June 24, 1941: “I am his 'koom' [godfather] and I held him at his christening. So I must look after him here. Perhaps it was destiny.”[71] Indeed, King George VI was later the best intimate channel of contact with King Peter. The “orphan” King aroused in him feelings beyond the loyalty to what Wheeler-Bennett in his book on George VI calls the “Guild of Sovereigns.”

Churchill had sentimental feelings at the beginning for “the spirited boy King.” For his part Peter felt great admiration for the Prime Minister, though later he would feel that Churchill had let him down. He knew of Churchill’s faith in the monarchy and this seemed to him a guarantee of his sincerity and support. And indeed Churchill went so far as to expound to Tito the merits of a constitutional monarchy when they met at Caserta on August 12, 1944. Discussing a possible meeting between Peter and Tito, Churchill told the leader of the Partisans “that democracy had flowered in England under constitutional monarchy,” and that Yugoslavia’s international position would be stronger under a King than as a republic.”[72] And when King Peter’s projected marriage to Princess Alexandra of Greece had become a political issue, Churchill sided with the King. “The whole tradition of military Europe has been in favour of #8216;les noces de guerre’,” he wrote to the Foreign Secretary: “Thus he [Peter] has a chance of perpetuating the dynasty.” And in conclusion: “My advice to the King ... will be to go to the nearest Registry Office and take a chance.”[73]

Through Foreign Office Eyes   [top]

King Peter, in his years in England, had to reign surrounded by what Churchill called a “bundle of Ministers that has been flung out of Yugoslavia.”[74] Hardly had he come of age when, rejecting reasoned recommendations from the British, he fell in with the request of his ministers and dismissed his prestigious Premier, General Simović, whose tutoring he seems to have disliked. Within weeks came the clash between the young officers around the King in London and their senior generals in the Middle East that proved so damaging to the government in exile. King Peter concurred with the fateful decision to appoint Dra÷‘a Mihailović Commander-in-Chief of the Home Army and Minister of Defence.

In the first half of 1942, King Peter’s personal life and conduct repeatedly came under scrutiny by the British authorities. Eden, in a minute dated February 2, 1942, noted: “I am troubled about King Peter. I wish we could do more to help him. Cambridge was not a good idea in the present circumstances.” Sir Orme Sargent wrote to Sir Ronald Campbell at the Washington Embassy that “since [King Peter] has been here he has not shown many statesmanlike qualities.” And at Buckingham Palace another impression, that of King George VI’s private secretary, was that King Peter’s service with the RAF had also proved disappointing.[75]

King Peter’s plan in 1942 to visit the United States gave rise to intense consultations at the Foreign Office. On May 30 Pearson Dixon was informed by Major Morton of 10 Downing Street that, according to the US Ambassador to the Yugoslav government, Biddle, King Peter “may land his government in the USA.”[76] This news received further confirmation a week later when Ambassador Rendel reported to Howard at the Foreign Office that, according to Vice-Premier Krek, King Peter’s scheme to visit the United States was supported by Foreign Minister Ninčić on the grounds that it was “unsatisfactory and dangerous for the Yugoslav government to become too dependent on the goodwill of one major ally only, i.e. Great Britain.” It was for the same reason that Ninčić was working for a new Soviet-Yugoslav treaty and favoured the gradual transfer of the government to the United States.[77]

Several months before, Sir Orme Sargent had agreed with Rendel that Peter’s visit to the United States should be discouraged and that it would be helpful if he could “nip it in the bud.” His reasons: “We did not feel that King Peter is cast for the role of appeaser” (between the Yugoslav communities in the United States). Sargent also doubted whether the Americans were anxious for his visit. John Winant, the United States Ambassador in London, was quoted as saying that it “would be a mistake for King Peter to go to the United States where the prestige of small European monarchs is low, and where a royal visit of this kind might tend to obscure the democratic character of Yugoslavia’s participation in the war.” Rendel was also concerned with what King Peter might say or do with regard to the Croats if he went to the United States.[78]

When the United States government finally accepted a royal visit at the end of June, Howard pointed to some possibly negative aspects should Peter’s stay in the United States become permanent. The Yugoslav government would be separated from the other Allied governments in exile and would moreover be out of touch with developments in Britain, the Middle East and inside Yugoslavia. Howard was doubtful as to whether the United States would relish the idea of having the King and his government with them permanently.[79] To this Sargent replied the same day: “The departure of the Yugoslav government to America would in many ways be a relief, and I do not see why we should make any particular effort to oppose it.” The following day Sir Alexander Cadogan added: “I have been wondering whether, if the U.S. Government are ready to receive them, it might not be rather a good thing.” Eden, however, put an end to these pipe dreams by noting: “I don't like this project.” A few days later, on June 15, Cadogan asked that the Palace (Hardinge) be approached in order that the King should have a word with King Peter “about his early return.”

King Peter reached Washington on June 22, 1942, accompanied only by Foreign Minister Ninčić, and returned to London about a month later. In retrospect, the highlight of his visit must have been the appearance of Churchill at his meeting with Roosevelt on June 24, which was thus transformed into a Three Power Summit. There is no record of this meeting, but Ninčić’s remarks to Assistant Secretary of State Adolf A. Berle reveal Churchill’s “impatience” with the Yugoslav government in exile. The coincidence of Churchill’s visit to Washington with that of King Peter was not expected by the Yugoslav leaders and probably unwelcome to them. Churchill’s opinions certainly contributed to Roosevelt’s ultimate rethinking of the Yugoslav problem.[80]

King Peter’s Cairo Interlude   [top]

In the year that followed his return to London and until he left for Cairo in September 1943, King Peter had to deal with three successive Prime Ministers – Jovanović, Trifunović and Purić – all wrangling and bargaining hopelessly about the proposed declaration of principles for liberated Yugoslavia. Trifunović gave in on the question of King Peter’s marriage to Princess Alexandra of Greece, and their engagement was officially announced. Two new ideas meanwhile gained ground in both Yugoslav and British political circles in London. The first was to appoint a Cabinet of officials or advisers in order to eliminate interference in government affairs by Yugoslav political émigrés in London. The second was to move the government and the King to Cairo, as their cohabitation in close “proximity” with the British in London was a far from happy one.

The idea of separating King Peter from the quarrelling politicians cropped up more than once among British officials. The sterile attitude of these politicians seemed to them to paralyse the progress in Yugoslav affairs. At a later stage Churchill even went as far as to say that, in the circumstances, there was no need for a Yugoslav government at all, and it would be enough for the King to have a few advisers – an idea which was actually put into effect during the premiership of Subašić. After further discussion, British officials reversed their earlier opposition to King Peter’s going to Cairo. Their main argument against this move, even a short visit, had been to avoid the King’s becoming embroiled in the Yugoslav army crisis. But the crisis was now under control, and, with Italy out of the war, the King and the Purić government were persuaded to move to Egypt, where they were told they would be nearer Yugoslavia. For Purić this was also a way of further postponing the royal marriage. The Yugoslav government reached Cairo safely on September 18, without “falling to pieces en route,” as one British diplomat put it.[81]

The six months that King Peter and Purić spent in Cairo, between September 1943 and March 1944, were crucial in the transformation of the Yugoslav scene. The British had gained the conviction that Tito would get the upper hand in the struggle inside Yugoslavia, and the withdrawal of all support from Mihailović had become a certainty. But while the British officers were preparing to leave Četnik headquarters, American officers had arrived there as part of Washington’s policy of having its own observers in both camps. And this gave rise to new illusions in the Purić entourage. The situation in the Balkans was reviewed at the Teheran summit meeting between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill in late November 1943, and the role and achievements of Tito’s partisans were the subject of sympathetic discussions. Moreover, the Jajce Proclamation, coming soon after the Teheran conference, further undermined the position of both King Peter and the exiled government.

Roosevelt, Churchill and their entourage passed through Cairo on their way to and from the Teheran conference. According to King Peter, his conversation with Roosevelt at the time brought the assurance of the latter’s “full support for my government ... in spite of the fact that we differed on several points.”[82] The President was hopeful of an agreement between Mihailović and Tito, in the light of his experience with Giraud and De Gaulle. This elicited the following remark by Purić: “It might be easier to reconcile two generals of one army than the heads of a national force and of a Communist revolution.” Roosevelt also appeared to sponsor the British idea that “Tito should control the West and Mihailović the East of Yugoslavia.” He was probably unaware that this plan had already been superseded by other developments. King Peter, for his part, recommended an Allied landing in Dalmatia. He was bitterly disappointed that Roosevelt declined to receive him again when he passed through Cairo on his way back from Teheran.[83]

However, he did have meetings in Cairo with the British leaders. King Peter and Purić first learned from Eden that Britain, while continuing to recognize the Yugoslav government, would support Tito militarily. Churchill met the King and Purić separately, after he had spent long hours listening to the reports of Deakin and Maclean who had just returned from Tito’s Yugoslavia, and he arranged for the Yugoslav leaders also to hear them. Churchill had been convinced by the two emissaries of the strength of Tito’s movement and of his determination. In his talk with Peter, Churchill also referred to an earlier British suggestion to remove Mihailović from the royal government, in view of the evidence that had been assembled of his collaboration with the enemy. To Purić Churchill repeated that the Allies intended to increase military aid to the Partisans. Both Peter and Purić argued against this new trend in British policy, but to no avail.

With its confidence in the British government shaken, the Purić government in extremis tried its luck with the two other great powers. Through the United States Ambassador, Lincoln MacVeagh, the Yugoslavs informed Washington that they now accepted the American position, namely that the royal government would continue to be recognized and that military support would be given to all elements engaged in fighting the enemy.[84] Another appeal, that revived an earlier initiative by Ninčić, was made to the Soviet government on December 10, through Ambassador Novikov; it urged the immediate conclusion of a Soviet-Yugoslav Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation.[85] Both the American and Soviet governments, however, were reluctant to intervene to change the course of the new policy which was already under way.

Churchill "Presumes" King Peter’s Assent   [top]

The deadlock faced by the Purić government after the Cairo meetings was broken in late February 1944, when King Peter and Purić were invited to come to London for consultations. By then the Purić government had decided on two main lines of action: to try to save Mihailović’s position, and to resume contact with the politicians remaining in London, in order to break the government’s isolation.

Churchill and Eden had already decided on a policy of compromise that would enable a link to be established between Tito and King Peter, and this entailed sacrificing both the Purić government and Mihailović. King Peter, Churchill wrote to Eden on April 1, 1944, “should be pressed to the utmost limit to get rid of his present fatal millstone advisers.” The Prime Minister added that unless Peter acted promptly, “his chances of regaining the throne will, in my opinion, be lost.”[86]

Leaving a lunch at which Churchill and Peter had exchanged their views on Mihailović’s inactivity – the Prime Minister insisting that Mihailović was conserving his forces to fight the Partisans, while the King dwelt on the Četniks' desire to prevent further reprisals on the civilian population – Peter observed to a Foreign Office official: “Mr. Churchill wants me to make Tito King of Yugoslavia.”[87]

Indeed, during these months the British Prime Minister took certain initiatives without Peter’s prior agreement. The first was to invite the Ban of Croatia, Dr. Ivan Subašić, to come to Britain from the United States. King Peter denied that he had invited Subašić. Yet on April 26, 1944, Churchill cabled Roosevelt: “King Peter is very anxious to have the Ban of Croatia over here as soon as possible.... Could you find the gentleman and put him on an aeroplane.”[88] He also mentioned Peter’s plan of forming “a broad-based administration not obnoxious to the Partisans.”

Similarly, Churchill announced in the House of Commons and cabled to Tito on May 17, 1944, that King Peter had dismissed the Purić government almost a week before Purić actually resigned and while the King was still refusing to dismiss him.[89]

On another occasion, Churchill publicly admitted that he might have to force King Peter’s hand. He told the House of Commons on January 18, 1945, that Peter had rejected the second Subašić-Tito agreement and the proposed Regency, and that, “if we are so unfortunate as not to obtain the consent” of King Peter, “that matter will have to go ahead, his assent being presumed.” In view of the King’s prolonged reluctance to acquiesce, which culminated in his dismissal of Subašić, very strong pressure was exercised upon him. Ambassador Stevenson was instructed to tell Peter that, unless he accepted at once the advice of the British government, the latter would ask Subašić and his government to proceed immediately to Belgrade, would recognize the Regency and would accredit an Ambassador to it. [90]

At a later stage, in March 1945, Churchill instructed Eden to inform King Peter that further “obstruction” on his part would result in a British request that he leave the country.[91]

Faced with this adamant British attitude, King Peter kept referring to the legal aspects of Yugoslavia’s pre-war constitutional position, while Churchill, Eden and senior British officials kept reminding him that, in the intervening years, Yugoslavia had undergone a successful revolution. The Subašić-Tito agreements were seen by them as the only way of ensuring the temporary recognition by Tito of the monarchic principle. Tempers ran high, as can be judged by Sir Alexander Cadogan’s angry remark to Eden and Stevenson, revealed years later in his memoirs, that the King “must be told he’s got to hold his nose and swallow the medicine.”[92]

Peter’s reign was to end in failure. Yugoslavia was to remain united and again became a federation of peoples, but under Tito’s rather than his rule. In his last proclamation dated September 6, 1945, Peter recorded for posterity his “faith in a Yugoslavia which will be based on principles of genuine democratic freedom, social justice and perfect equality for all her peoples.”[93] This followed an earlier proclamation dated August 8, 1945, in which he had disowned the Tito-Subašić agreement.[94] This, then, was the swan song of Yugoslavia’s last monarch, after four and a half tumultuous years spent in Britain and the Middle East, desperately striving to maintain a regime and policies that had grown increasingly unreal and hopeless.

The Subašić-Tito Deal   [top]

The three Subašić-Tito agreements concluded between June 1944 and March 1945, following arduous negotiations, pressures and counter-pressures, brought about the establishment of a united Yugoslav government and a Regency Council in Belgrade, and on April 14, 1945, the British Embassy was reopened in the Yugoslav capital immediately following the liberation.

The first Subašić-Tito agreement reached on June 16, 1944, on the island of Vis, laid down the main role of the Royal government: “The organization of Allied assistance to the National Liberation Army, and to all those who, in the future, will fight with the same determination against the common enemy.” It also stipulated that the Royal Government should include no elements hostile to the Movement of National Liberation; expressly recognized the Jajce resolutions of November 1943; appealed to the Yugoslav peoples to support the Partisans, and envisaged the early formation of a united government. It further stated that the National Liberation Committee did not consider the question of the monarchy an obstacle to collaboration between the Committee and the Royal Yugoslav Government, since both had accepted the principle that the peoples of Yugoslavia would decide on the organization of the State after the war.

Verbal assurances were also exchanged between Subašić and Tito. Tito gave a solemn assurance that it was not his intention to introduce a “demoralizing Communist system” or to impose a “party line.”[95] This was repeated during a visit to Tito by Ambassador Stevenson. Both he and Subašić thought that Tito was sincere. Subašić himself considered that the main immediate objective was mutual recognition and cooperation between Tito’s Committee and the Royal Government, and that the problem of the King could be discussed at a subsequent meeting. It was agreed that Tito would be Supreme Commander of all Yugoslav forces, and that Yugoslav soldiers fighting under Partisan leadership could, if they wished, wear the Yugoslav cockade and not the Red Star. Two members of the Partisan movement, a Serb from Bosnia and a Slovene, would join the Subašić government, and a Serbian officer appointed by Tito would ensure liaison with the RoyalGovernment.

In London, however, the Foreign Office was reluctant to accept these statements at their face value. The King, moreover, had not been mentioned in the agreement, and his proposed meeting with Tito was postponed until a vague “later” time.

In the British view reconciliation between the Serbian national movement and Tito’s movement through the Royal Government was still a long way off. There was also the suspicion that Tito was trying to renege on his undertakings to Subašić, and was preparing an attack against Serbian nationalists in Serbia. Great irritation was also felt when Tito declined a suggestion to meet with Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, General Wilson, and at one point Churchill considered telling Tito, then a refugee at Vis, “to go back to the mountains and get on with the fighting.”

The Churchill-Tito meeting at Caserta on August 12 and 13, 1944, regarded at the time as satisfactory, was followed soon afterwards by suspicions on the British side that Tito was using British-supplied arms and ammunition against his fellow countrymen, while Tito, apparently due to the presence of a few American officers who had remained with Mihailović, complained that the Allies were still supplying arms to Četniks engaged in fighting the Partisans. London’s immediate objective was to secure as soon as possible the establishment of a United Yugoslav Government as agreed at Caserta. Tito maintained that his National Committee already exercised full authority throughout the country and that the Royal Government should confine itself to representing Yugoslavia with the Allies, in agreement with the National Committee.[96]

Misgivings about Tito culminated when he vanished in September 1944 from the island of Vis, where he had been staying as a guest of the Royal Navy, without a word to his hosts. The British leadership was dumbfounded, and Churchill telegraphed to Wilson on November 20 that his confidence in Tito had been “destroyed by his levanting from Vis in all the circumstances which attended his departure.” Reports of reprisals by the Partisans when they entered Dubrovnik and other places further added to the prevailing feeling of gloom. But for London the creation of a United Yugoslav Government remained the first priority.[97]

Already in September Churchill had reached the conclusion that the opportunity to secure King Peter’s return to his homeland by agreement with Tito had been missed in 1943. Now Britain could only act in conjunction with Moscow. The Churchill-Eden visit to Moscow took place in October 1944, and on October 9 Churchill took the initiative of suggesting an overall “predominance” division in the Balkans between Britain and the Soviet Union which was agreed to by Stalin. In the case of Yugoslavia the “fifty-fifty” division in percentage terms represented, in Churchill’s view, a common policy for Britain and Russia “without any thought of special advantage to themselves.”[98] An invitation by Tito to Subašić to join him in Serbia in order to discuss the formation of a unified government followed within ten days, and was accompanied by the telegraphed blessings of both Eden and Molotov.

During the complicated negotiations, which took Subašić from Belgrade to Moscow and back again to Belgrade and London, the main consideration for Tito appears to have been ensuring recognition by the Allies of the government which he was to head. Otherwise, he indicated, the agreements would be of no interest to his movement. A new situation had arisen with the liberation of Belgrade by Tito’s troops in October 1944 which marked the end of the guerrilla phase of Tito’s struggle. The second Tito-Subašić agreement was completed on November 2, 1944. It laid down that Tito’s Anti-Fascist Council would remain the supreme legislative body when Tito’s Committee and Subašić’s government merged; in due course the united body would announce elections to decide on the future government of the country; meanwhile the existence of the monarchy would be maintained through the establishment of a Regency Council consisting of three Regents; but King Peter would remain abroad until a decision was taken on the country’s future regime. It was also agreed that Marshal Tito would be Prime Minister, Minister of Defence and Commander-in-Chief, while Subašić would merely be a member of the government.[99]

Back in London, Subašić had to defend himself both against Peter, who accused him of having exceeded his authority in reaching an agreement on the Regency without consulting him, and against critics who maintained he had been too “lenient” in the negotiations. Subašić’s reply was that, while insisting on the principle of the monarchy, he had to consider the realities of the situation in Yugoslavia. Peter insisted that the Regents be appointed by himself and be responsible to him. This elicited Churchill’s reply that a constitutional monarch must take the advice of his government in appointing Regents, and, in particular, that of Prime Minister Ivan Subašić. But Peter was obdurate and at one point went as far as to dismiss Subašić. The Foreign Office, however, decided to continue to recognize him as Prime Minister. King Peter sent a message to Tito requesting a meeting, but, as predicted, the leader of the Partisans declined to deal directly with the King. In the meantime the long-awaited approval by the United States of the Subašić-Tito agreement on the United Yugoslav Government deprived Peter’s position of any substance.

Finally, King Peter re-appointed Subašić as Prime Minister with a view to his joining the United Yugoslav Government. Wrangling over the composition of the Regency Council dragged on for weeks, until the question was finally settled by the Big Three’s decision at Yalta to recognize jointly the new united government of Yugoslavia. The life of the Royal Yugoslav Government in exile had come to an end. Tito’s troops liberated Belgrade on October 20, 1944, and a Tito-led regime took over.


Yapou: Governments in Exile, 1939-1945


Chapter 8:   YUGOSLAVIA – Between Cetniks and Partisans
[go to top]

A Multinational Concept SurvivesSimović is EliminatedThe Officers PurgedThe Communications BattleNinčić is DroppedJovanović’s Government of DisagreementBritain and the Yugoslav GuerrillasCivil War–The Četniks and Partisans RetreatMihailović’s Inactivity is ConfirmedMihailović is RecalcitrantA British Ultimatum to Mihailović–Contacts with TitoThe Partisans and the Wehrmacht MeetDeakin and Maclean Meet TitoThe Jajce BombshellChurchill Enters the SceneThe Big Three DivergeTito and StalinRoosevelt between Mihailović and TitoThe Big Three CooperateKing Peter and His British GuardiansThrough Foreign Office EyesKing Peter’s Cairo InterludeChurchill "Presumes" King Peter’s AssentThe Subašić-Tito Deal


  Preface & Introduction
  Chapter 1: CZECHOSLOVAKIA – From Putney to Prague
  Chapter 2: POLAND – The Polish Eagle
  Chapter 3: NORWAY – Neutral into Ally
  Chapter 4: BELGIUM – Disintegration and Resurrection
  Chapter 5: LUXEMBOURG – The Smallest Ally
  Chapter 6: THE NETHERLANDS – Under the Banner of the Queen of Orange
 Previous:  
Chapter 7: GREECE – From National Unity to Civil War
 Next:   SOME CONCLUDING REMARKS
  NOTES
  SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

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