Major William Jones - Twelve Months With Tito’s Partisans
Table of ContentsPrevious ChapterNext Chapter


IN considering a guerilla army like the National Freedom Army and Partisan Detachments, there is perhaps a tendency to compare it with, if not to judge it by, the standards of mechanised forces which constitute a so-called regular army. Such a comparison would be quite wrong and achieve nothing. The two armies were designed to do different jobs of work; to achieve the same end to be sure but to fight in a different manner.

There are at least two ways to an end. For instance, two well-matched bullocks may contest their rights to a piece of pasture by rocking horns and pushing each other about; but a sheep may ultimately oust both bulls by nibbling the grass too short for them to feed upon.

In leadership, organisation and scientific application each army, because of its peculiar task, had to specialise and develop methods and equipment that would best serve the achievement of its purpose. While the mechanised forces developed in a spectacular manner in terms of things that whizz and fly, the Partisan forces of Jugoslavia developed the science of guerilla warfare no less spectacularly. To maintain an army of over three hundred thousand in active guerilla warfare, scattered widely over Jugoslavia, was an achievement of first magnitude. Of necessity decentralised as the army was in operational command and action, its unification of control, discipline and effort made the National Freedom Army the effective fighting force that it was.

With due regard to the authority of the people of each State which composed the confederation of Jugoslavia, the National Liberation Army was organised in such a way that the command of the forces in each State was supreme in its own State but responsible to the Commander-in-Chief of the National Freedom Army. Likewise, each State command delegated similar authority to the commands of all units in the State. This was necessary because of the lack of communication and the dispersal of the forces.

Each commander thus became wholly responsible for the maintenance of his forces, which made his task doubly great. He was left alone to a large extent to walk on his own feet. Should he fail it was his own misfortune. He could hope for little assistance from adjacent areas. Should he succeed his area became a contributory factor to the general strength of the Freedom Forces. It was not possible for a local commander always to await instructions from his commanding officer, with nothing but courier intercommunication, especially when the enemy was pressing him. He had to act alone to the best of his ability. Many, in fact most, local attacks were completed or enemy offensives were checked by the local commanders long before the supreme command of the State or army was even aware of such actions occurring. This responsibility which devolved upon local commanders developed in them leadership qualities of the highest order. In this way leaders and commanders evolved as the army grew. A free democratic people beget brave, worthy leaders.

By the delegation of such wide responsibility to all commanders it was assured that the loss of no one commander would seriously disturb the effectiveness or stability of the army, even though it be the Commander-in-Chief himself, which would indeed have been a great and sad loss, so capable and beloved was he. In fact the opposite was true. The army fought more fiercely to avenge the loss of its leaders.

The practice of naming their units after leaders who had made the supreme sacrifice, such, for instance, as the Tomsic Brigade, which carried the name of a fearless and popular leader, Tomsic, supports that fact.

That high quality of army leadership, symbolised in the Commander-in-Chief, himself a well-known hero and fighter, inspired and maintained in the minds of all who participated in the Freedom Movement the highest trust and confidence in the fighting quality and strength of their army.

Major attacks and operations were nevertheless planned centrally by the commands of States whenever means of communication would permit. The size of free areas and the extent to which it was possible to concentrate troops would determine the degree of central control applied. Major attacks and general offensives were always carefully planned. Conferences of commanders concerned took place beforehand to study the information which the Intelligence Section was able to supply. Plans would then be formulated and instructions issued to all. Weeks of careful study and preparation generally preceded such operations.

No effort was considered too great to obtain requrred information before final plans were made. An instance of this was seen when it was planned to attack an important military position which involved the destruction of heavy installations. The Intelligence section was asked for full plans and specifications of the "target." Within two weeks they furnished the original architect's plans and data not only of the object under immediate study but of all sections and installations within a very wide area of the objective. These important documents had been obtained from the municipal headquarters of a city over fifty kilometres away, which was at that time in German hands. The courier had succeeded in entering the city and secured the plans from a member of the municipal staff.

After full study of the operation had been made by the commanders and everybody understood it thoroughly, the execution of the plan became the responsibility of the local commanders. They would make their own arrangements and work out a time-table to conform to the time set for the general operation.

While the tendency was, as may well be understood, to increase central control, as free areas became larger and communications improved, the degree to which the command was centralised in the National Freedom Army, for operational purposes, was never comparable to that found in a regular army.

The administration of the National Liberation Army, in like manner to its operational command, was decentralised. Had anyone been so badly informed as to think of the Partisans as a mob of bushmen straggling about the country with a fierce, hungry look, long beards and longer daggers stuck in rope belts, he would certainly have had a rude awakening could he but have visited a Partisan headquarters for a day. The extensive organisation, the activity and routine of daily duties observed there, which were necessary to maintain that democratic army in the field, were amazing. The executive work was arduous, and only a well-organised and efficient staff could keep things running smoothly and prevent a hopeless muddle.

The time lag in getting information into the hands of all concerned threw great responsibility on the administrative sections of divisions, brigades, and even battalions. It was in this field that the commissar played a very important part. His principal role as a co-ordinator found him frequently in conference. He was able to direct the administration of the command to which he was attached in accordance with the general policies as laid down by the people's executive. Such spreading of authority relieved senior leaders of much personal responsibility and gave the whole army a maximum degree of flexibility and stability.

The privilege accorded us of living at Croatian and Slovenian headquarters afforded an excellent opportunity of seeing how smoothly Partisan organisation functioned. Reports and returns arrived with the regularity of a postman. Departments received and despatched their mail regularly to all parts of the country. The commandant was supplied with a daily picture of conditions throughout his command; maps and charts were kept as much up-to-date as couriers could keep them. It was astonishing how easily all this seemed to be done. The regularity of couriers, the prompt care and attention given to all matters, the lack of 'red tape' and the absence of confusion were things which never ceased to impress us.

The manner in which the individual, whether he be commissar, executive or clerk, officer or soldier, threw himself into his work, and the sense of responsibility which seemed to be so common to everyone, were outstanding characteristics among the staff of a Partisan headquarters. Without any of the usual incentives which are found in a regular army — rank, privilege and pay — personnel without exception worked long hours each day, endured discomfort and carried responsibility to a degree never beheld in any other organisation. Both commandant and commissar worked very long hours when at headquarters but their presence seemed to have little or no influence on the way that their staff worked. Whether they were away or not, the administration went on just the same. Very often one or other, or both, would be away from headquarters for days at a time. Where-ever they might happen to be they could "tap" the courier system which covered the country, and were always in receipt of important mail. It was this conscientious application to work, impelled by a desire to assist in the common purpose which characterised all its members, that gave the Partisan army its unity, cohesion and quality of endurance.

In order to promote uniformity of standards throughout all parts of the army, a constant liaison between army commands, units and branches, as well as with political executives and committees, was maintained. This liaison took the form chiefly of literature and conferences. Great quantities of literature, covering all points of experience, denning policy and giving direction in matters affecting the united freedom effort, were circulated throughout the entire army. Frequent and regular conferences of commanders and commissars, executive and committee meetings of staff members, contributed in making a strong, co-ordinated fighting force. In this way standards of efficiency and unity of purpose, as well as the democratic character of the army and the general outlook, were assured.

Their zeal for doing things well in orderly and efficient manner induced the Partisans to organise training centres very early in their experience. Schools were established to give instruction in all subjects of military importance. Training was based on regular army instruction, gleaned from textbooks of German, French, British and Italian origin, augmented by their own practical experience. Instructors comprised men who had fought in Spain, Partisan veterans and ex-regular army officers. They were hand-picked men whose records were outstanding. They were men of strong character and ability.

Schools naturally were not well equipped. They were situated in small burned-out villages in the hills, where they were less likely to be disturbed by the enemy. When areas became more or less consolidated many of the larger schools were moved to the towns.

We visited several of the training schools from time to time. On one occasion we paid a visit to an officers' training school. Examinations were being conducted on the day we were there. A class of forty-five young men, all of whom had served well over a year, and a few two years, in the Partisan ranks, were about to become officers. They had been selected for the course by the men in their own companies. They were keen, strong, clever-looking chaps, very much the same run of boys as we recalled having seen at the officers' school at Bexhill. Their uniforms were certainly "not uniform" and some were shabbily dressed, but they knew all the fine points of rifle and machine-gun fire, camouflage, the use of explosives and many other subjects. They could ambush an enemy to perfection. The only equipment we saw for instructional use at the school were German and Italian rifles and machine-guns, light mortars, an anti-tank rifle, various kinds of explosives, hand grenades and a few maps and compasses.

On the staff of that school were a few ex-Army officers who had made good with the Partisans. It was interesting to note that the commandant of the school and some of the instructors had had no military training before the war. Among the staff were a civil engineer, a banker, a college professor and an ex-naval officer. They were doing their best, and a creditable showing it was. The training syllabus reflected a full work day from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., and lectures in the evenings.

Such subjects as field tactics, mining, signalling and W/T, bombing and explosives, artillery, small arms, camouflage and security were taught at separate schools. They compiled their own instructional matter in the form of pamphlets, carefully arranged and illustrated by numerous sketches and mechanical drawings.

The organisation of the National Freedom Army, though very excellent and extremely efficient, was naturally much less complex than that of a regular army. The Partisan army in a sense lived from hand to mouth. It reduced its maintenance services to an absolute minimum. It could not afford to be encumbered with heavy equipment: stores and equipment which were not practical to move were secured in secret storage places, to be returned to when opportunity would permit. Transportation, engineer supplies, artillery, telephone equipment and many special services so necessary to a regular army were employed only on a very meagre scale' in the Partisan army. The ability to move quickly and to vanish completely was the greatest strategical advantage the Partisans possessed. Without it they would be readily rounded up and overpowered. Heavy equipment of any sort, except in the areas stabilised by strong defensive means, proved an encumbrance rather than an asset to the Partisans.

All surplus equipment and stocks of food were hidden in caves and underground dug-outs. The ever-present possibility of a hasty move necessitated the paring down of staff and equipment to a bare minimum. Only that which could be carried without hindrance to freedom of action was kept on hand. Comfort was sacrificed to mobility, which was ever the mainspring of Partisan life. The designation "phantom" army attributed by the enemy to the National Freedom Army was truly a compliment of the highest order.

One of the greatest difficulties, a difficulty almost tantamount to a real hardship in the control of a guerilla army, was the problem of communication. A commander or leader could only be in one place, and yet his command was frequently spread over miles of territory. Even small units were frequently widely dispersed. Information, as in any army, had to be passed quickly, and the rate at which it was passed might well determine the issue of a battle. In large consolidated areas the Partisans used telephones to a limited extent as trunk lines. But it was not the practice to disclose the whereabouts of headquarters and the positions of units by such an obvious indication as a telephone wire. However, great use was made of the few miles or lines which they had, and the lack of telephone equipment was a great handicap, and cost the Partisans dearly in loss of life. Such means as motor-cycles, bicycles and horses were employed to hasten the dispatch of information. But the greatest achievement in the matter of communication was the development of their courier system. The country was traversed by a most elaborate system of courier routes. Intersection points were arranged like a post office, where messages would be sorted and directed on their proper routes. Courier posts, where letters could be deposited, were maintained at convenient places. The whole system was somewhat similar to a telephone system, with its exchange and branch lines. Courier service was constant day and night, summer and winter. It mattered not how the army manoeuvred, it was always within the network of the courier service.

It was during one of the enemy's offensives that we had an excellent opportunity to observe how efficiently the courier system worked under unusually difficult circumstances. The enemy had overrun a large area of Slovenia, and it was necessary for the members of the people's executive and ourselves to take cover and hide for a while. We were ten days concealed in an underground cave. The army had to move about so rapidly that the different units were never in the same area for more than a few hours at a time. All administrative departments likewise either had to move about continuously or hide in previously-prepared caves and dug-outs similar to the one we were in. With the exception of the first day, there was not a day that President Vidmar and the other members of the executive failed to receive large quantities of letters from all parts of Jugoslavia, as well as from the different units of the Slovenian forces. The typewriters which each section of the executive had brought with them were worked to the limit in order to have all outgoing mail ready for the courier who would call at midnight. We knew each move the Hun made from day to day, and the approximate daily positions of our own forces throughout those ten days. The courier turned up without fail punctually at midnight.

On another occasion we were with a commander when he conducted an operation employing over six thousand troops in an area of almost a hundred square miles. The operation lasted for five days, and he had nothing but courier communication. Every movement was timed and calculated with astonishing accuracy. The feat required experience and skill of a very high order. The courier system was of necessity slow, and gaps — serious gaps — would occasionally occur, but it worked and served the Partisans well.

Lest the reader should gain the impression that Partisan life was a peaceful, tame affair, something should be understood of the nature of Partisan operations. Guerilla strategy was not to hold territory "at all costs" but to discomfort the enemy in his occupation of the country until his position would prove to be so costly that it would be more profitable for him to withdraw. The ceaseless activities of the Partisans against important military objects; the destruction of roads, railways and vehicles and the constant loss to the enemy of his stores and equipment, small though it appeared to be when mentioned item by item, proved, in the aggregate, to be extremely costly to the enemy.

The enemy's counter move to Partisan annoyance was to make frequent sweeps into their territory with his armoured columns, usually headed by tanks, followed by armoured cars and lorry-borne infantry. Usually these enemy thrusts necessitated prompt manoeuvring on the part of the Partisans. In fine weather it was their experience to move frequently, sometimes with due notice, often without notice.

Surplus kit, everything except the most essential articles of personal belongings, was either already buried in secret spots, or holes in the ground were made ready to receive such articles as would be in use up to the last minute. Plans to meet these emergencies were usually set out in standing orders. Organisation provided for the dismantling of machinery and the concealment of it and other workshop equipment in hide-outs. We have witnessed practice drill when heavy lathes and electric hammers were dismantled and taken to a dug-out, all in a matter of a few minutes, by a gang of men.

The "Hika," as it was called in Slovenia, or the "Pokret" elsewhere in Jugoslavia, was always an experience of interest, and sometimes excitement and danger. Simply stated, it was a move in a hurry, usually necessitated by reason of safety. The following account may serve to explain more fully.

The enemy had for some reason or other refrained from disturbing us for many weeks. We had gone on so long without an alarm of any kind that the thought of a possible sudden move was far from our minds. We were living at that time in palatial billets, literally so, as our quarters were on the second floor of a stately old castle on the bank of a beautiful, placid river. The highly polished floors, the interesting hangings, richly upholstered furniture, the chimes of Grandfather Somebody's clock in the corner, the excellent meals served in the great hall before the massive game-bedecked fireplace, had, with the subtle aid of wine from the choice stock in the cellar and the remnant of the Baron's cigars, made us feel very much at home and at rest. The only disturbing features were the softness of the beds and the difficulty of managing hob-nailed boots over the floors.

On a bright, sunny day, just one of a series, after our usual dip in the river, we sat round the cut-out table and partook of chicken, ham and vegetables, apple pie and cheese obtained from the remaining stocks in the pantry, amused somewhat over a certificate signed by one "Hitler," blessing the Baroness as a benefactress of the Fatherland on the arrival of her fifth child.

No, we had no thought of a move. But within an hour we were conscious of scurrying up the wooded hillside to yon distant retreat, dimly remembered but more recently scorned. We took nothing but rifle, light pack and the memory of a fickle dream. Jerry's tanks were never very considerate of the Partisans.

Table of ContentsPrevious ChapterNext Chapter