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IN August, 1943, developments in Italy which had brought about the downfall of Mussolini and his Fascist Party and opened the door of escape to the Italian people, who were already tired of the war," had an important influence on the affairs in Jugoslavia. A very large proportion of the Axis forces occupying that country were Italians. It had long been a moot question what would happen to the Italian divisions in Jugoslavia in the event of their Government suing for peace. Would they hand over to their German ally, for whom they had little respect, or would they co-operate and surrender all arms to the Partisans? Whereas the Government which led its people into the war had resigned, it appeared to be only a question of time before the Italians would cease fighting. The Partisans were fully aware of the possibilities and watched every move closely.
It was during the months of July and August that the Partisans intensified their efforts to prepare the ground for what was expected to follow. They used their chief weapon, propaganda, with remarkable skill, and were rewarded by almost incredible success. As a result, many Italians, realising the futility of continuing the fight, crossed over, complete with arms, and gave themselves up to the Partisans.
The success which accrued to the Partisans as a result of their propaganda was climaxed by the effect which it had on an Italian divisional commander. Early in the month of August he was prompted to request a meeting with the Partisan leaders and the British Liaison Officer.
The meeting took place well within occupied territory, at a quiet spot alongside a country road, about seven kilometres from the Italian headquarters. All parties arrived punctually, and the conference lasted for almost an hour. Those present were the Italian divisional commander, two of his staff, a commissar, a Partisan interpreter who spoke Italian and English fluently, and the British liaison officer. The Italian general declared himself to be a friend of Britain, as he was the proud possessor of the Military Cross, a British decoration which was awarded him in the First World War. After several minutes of verbal sparring, it was very apparent that the Italian commander had no faith in his Fascist leaders and was looking for a chance to retrieve his division from the possibility of falling prey to the Germans, whom he feared even more than he hated. When he was asked, however, to hand over his arms and equipment to the Partisans and to place his command in their protection, because he did fear the Germans, his vanity overcame him and he terminated the conference somewhat abruptly when he hastily arose from the ground where we were seated, smote his breast in proper Italian fashion and declared he would die first for his "dear Italia." We shook hands and parted. The following week he requested another meeting, but by that time his duties were too pressing elsewhere for him to keep his appointment. Two or three weeks later we visited his headquarters and ordered him to disarm his troops and give everything over to the Partisans.
Early in September the Italians had asked for an armistice and had accepted the Allied terms of surrender of all arms. At that time there were approximately three Italian divisions in Slovenia, and, with the exception of the general headquarters, which was stationed in the city of Ljubljana, all were free of German control. The Germans, anticipating that their ally would soon quit the war, had stationed a force in Ljubljana to secure the vast quantity of Italian supplies and arms which was known to be there. But elsewhere throughout Slovenia the Germans had left the Italians to themselves. It was because of this fact that the Partisans had contemplated taking over their stocks of arms and equipment, which they believed could be done without German interference if the Italians would co-operate.
It would be difficult to describe adequately the intense feeling of relief on the one hand and the deep sense of responsibility on the other that filled the minds of all when, on September 8, just before midnight, word was received at Slovenia headquarters to disarm all Italians in their area. The great test for the Partisan command and organisation had come. That they would measure up to the magnitude of the task we had no doubt. We had become so familiar with their efficiency and capacity for doing things we knew they would not be caught unprepared but would be able to manage everything in their own way.
Immediately the members of the Izvrsni Odbor (the people's executive) assembled, and sat in continuous session until daylight. Instructions were sent out to all parts of Slovenia directing local authorities to act promptly and seize all Italian arms and equipment, and to resort to force if necessary. Arrangements were made for us to meet the local Italian divisional commander at nine o'clock in the morning, at his headquarters, thirty kilometres away.
We left our headquarters in the morning and cantered to the nearest main road, where we were met by an Italian automobile in charge of a Partisan driver. In our party were General Ausic, who, in July, 1941, joined the Partisans; tv. Kidric, secretary of the Izvrsni Odbor; tv. Albin, a Partisan interpreter; a commissar and the British liaison officer.
Along the way we met different units of Partisans, and passed several Italian garrisons; the latter, we noticed, had left their defence positions and were standing about more or less bewildered, wondering what the outcome of things would be. None of them appeared to possess any fighting spirit. In some cases we saw Partisans standing among them engaged in friendly conversation.
We were stopped at the entrance of a very picturesque but small city by a guard who, having examined our credentials, opened the gate and directed us to the Italian commander.
We met the general and his staff in a very large building, which had been used for general offices in peace-time, but which he occupied as his headquarters. Seated around a table, we informed the general that he should immediately disarm his troops and direct them to proceed at once to the coast. He announced that he had instructions from his commander which were not in agreement with our orders. He then tried to stall for time, pleading it was his intention to retain his division intact and fight the Germans in co-operation with the Partisans. When it was realised that the Italian commander might not act on our orders, General Ausic, by previous arrangement, sent out word to the Partisan commanders to proceed at once and disarm all Italian troops wherever found.
We kept the general in conference all day, much to his annoyance, not permitting him to leave. About five o'clock we received word that many Italians were handing over their arms, though several units had concentrated in the headquarters city and others were on their way to join them. They were coming into the city from all directions — this we could see from our window. As everything appeared to be going along satisfactorily, we took our leave and drove away to prepare for the next move.
In a small wayside inn a few kilometres from the city we met Commandant Stanei (General Rozman), Matija and other Partisan leaders. Reports were coming in from every quarter that the Italians were giving up their arms and offering little resistance. Two long columns, however, bound for Ljubljana to join the Germans, attempted to show fight. But the arrival of a few of their own tanks manned by Partisans caused them to change their minds. They meekly surrendered, left their vehicles, which were loaded with arms and equipment, where they stood, and made off towards the coast. Information received from various sources indicated that about fifty per cent of the Italians were disarmed but that most of the tanks, armoured cars and other vehicles, as well as many units of infantry, were still at large or were concentrating in the headquarters city. It remained now to disarm these.
Instructions were issued immediately for Matija to take command of the city and to place it under military guard, forbidding anyone to leave bearing arms. By midnight everything was secure. Word had been circulated among the Italian soldiers that they would be privileged to proceed home unmolested if they turned their arms over to the Partisans. This they did, and were allowed to leave the city. The Italian general, realising the hopelessness of his position, gathered his staff about him and just before sunrise attempted to make a dash to Trst (Trieste), in their automobiles. They were permitted to leave the city, but when forty or fifty kilometres along the road they were stopped and relieved of their cars. From there on they walked to the coast.
A Partisan commander kept in touch with the general for the next few days, supplying him with food from day to day. It is believed he joined the Partisans before he reached the coast and became a commander of one of their pioneer corps.
The Italians were wholly disarmed by noon of September 10th. They were seen in thousands wending their way to the coast, carrying nothing but what they stood in. It was interesting to note how generous the Partisans were toward them after they had experienced such wicked treatment at their hands. At first they were inclined to let the Italians take their mules and carts and ride to the coast. On second thoughts, however, they considered it to be more consistent with justice to make them walk. Not only were the Italians unmolested but they were fed along the way by the very people whose homes and villages, and, in thousands of cases, loved ones, they themselves had ruthlessly destroyed during the preceding three years.
The speedy manner in which the Partisans had taken over the arms, equipment and positions of three Italian divisions in Slovenia was a great tribute to their capability and foresight. Almost overnight the Partisan forces appeared in new uniforms, equipped with arms and vehicles to a degree never before experienced. They were seen running about in Italian vehicles of all sorts. Had it not been for the familiar red stars on their caps and vehicles one would have thought the Italians were still in possession. Even tanks and armoured cars were put to immediate use to guard the roads and approaches against the Huns. The Partisans were in full possession of the country as far north as the Sava River.
To sort everything and to put it to use; to absorb the thousands and thousands of volunteers, who flocked in not only from newly liberated areas but from many large cities still in German hands, were problems that weighed heavily on executives and required immediate action. Organisations had to be extended and facilities vastly increased to meet the situation. New army services were created.
A director was appointed to control transportation. Automobiles, trucks and motorcycles were distributed and organised to perform maximum duty. Drivers and mechanics were made responsible for the care and maintenance of vehicles, which were subject to regular inspection at established maintenance and repair centres. Buses were provided to ply regularly between the larger towns and centres. Petrol was brought under control and rationed. In a few days the transportation field was rendering a first-rate service to the army.
The army quartermaster took over what had been the Italian headquarters, and within a matter of hours had a staff of sixty to a hundred men and women employed in listing all stores, including food, clothing, arms and general equipment.
The artillery section, finding itself suddenly armed with mortars and field guns of various types, proceeded at once to form new units and train personnel.
Police were detailed to duty in towns and to patrol the roads with motor-cycles or horses.
Engineer sections were busy destroying railways, bridges and erecting tank blocks.
The civil staff was given the job of repairing the telephone system and extending it as far as material available would permit. Wireless links were established between the different commands throughout Jugoslavia. It was almost miraculous how these services came into being and gave order and direction to everything.
One of the most astonishing experiences was to see the way the Partisans assimilated so many thousands of new recruits. Over five thousand arrived from one city alone, the city at that time lightly held by the Germans, within three days of the Italian capitulation. Training centres were provided in each division. Recruits were equipped, trained and posted to units. Ex-army officers joined up by the hundreds. New units were formed by mixing new and experienced men in equal numbers. It was a common experience during those days to hear rifle fire, and even artillery fire, as troops were being trained on the ranges.
The National Freedom Army had become a formidable fighting force, and one to be reckoned with. It stood as a bold challenge to the enemy on his very doorstep, and a most serious threat to his hold on the Balkan States.
It was obvious that there was no time to lose. The Germans would not be content to remain inactive for very long. They could not afford to let such a threatening force as the Partisans hold over half of Jugoslavia in undisputed possession. When would the German offensive start? was the question in the minds of all. Would the Partisans have time enough to consolidate their positions?
Many important and fateful decisions had to be made during those days by the Partisan leaders. Among them not the least was whether they should change their tactics from guerilla warfare to that of a regular army. The great quantity of armament, some of it most tempting to be sure, the tanks and armoured cars, for instance, caused many to think the time had come to make the great change and to hope for greater things by meeting the enemy in the open. But, promising as it appeared to be, there was the question of continued supplies, shells and petrol and the imperative need of aircraft for protection if such a change should be made. To indulge in pitched battle and endeavour to hold positions at all costs was an expensive matter and necessitated large quantities of supplies. There was no encouragement from any source that the necessary supplies would be forthcoming. It was quite obvious to all that to venture into the open with only limited armament would ultimately prove disastrous.
In the light of all facts it was wisely decided to make no change in tactics but to carry on with well-proven and successful methods of guerilla warfare. This decision meant the discarding of all equipment that would impede the mobility of the troops. Consequently it became necessary to conceal all tanks, vehicles and heavy armament, as well as all surplus clothing and food. This work was performed in a systematic and orderly way, and within a very few weeks the great bulk of things had been drawn to the hills and carefully hidden.
Many strange and eventful things happened during the few weeks which followed the Italian defeat. The Partisans, who were cautious in their moves, accepted the situation with remarkable composure and calm. Their well-balanced sense of proportion enabled them to foresee what might be expected should the Germans decide to attack them in force. They would, temporarily at least, find themselves again in the woods. They always kept one foot, as it were, established there, just in case they should have to return quickly, and moved only half of their stuff to billets in open towns.
For a while our billet was an ancient castle, rather attractively situated on a small river near a beautiful wooded hill. To find ourselves suddenly lifted from a woodsman's shack and dropped into that luxurious environment, with staff cars, swimming pools and beautiful fields, to say nothing of the comfort of our living quarters or the rare quality of food and drink, was indeed strange. And the humour of it all was thoroughly appreciated.
One of the many eventful things that happened was the arrival of an aeroplane one day brazenly displaying two large red stars, one on each wing. It was an Italian five-seater which the Partisans had captured on Gorizia aerodrome. (Gorizia is in West Slovenia). A few Partisan officials, including tv. Bebler, a promiment member of the people's executive, who had been long absent in the Primorska area, found it expedient to visit headquarters. They put the 'plane to use and landed in an open field near our billet.
Busy as they were with the work entailed in taking over from the Italians, the Partisans never ceased fighting during those crowded weeks. Battle followed battle in quick succession. Almost each day had its thrill of a victory won over a German patrol or the destruction of a prominent railway object. The enemy was given no respite, nor could he penetrate very deep into Partisan territory. Tank battles were fought and place after place fell to Partisan arms.
A few White Guardists who had been recruited locally and armed and officered by the Italians, notwithstanding the fact that they had been officially disbanded by their masters, saw fit to transfer their allegiance to the Germans when the Italians ceased fighting, though the majority of them either returned to their homes or joined the Partisans. A few remnants of these Guardists, led by priests, made a stand at Tupjak, a small town south of Ljubljana, and there held out for two or three days. They were completely surrounded, and fighting was bitter while it lasted, but when they realised their predicament they soon surrendered. Between six and seven hundred prisoners were taken by the Partisans.
Jugoslavia, from the Adriatic Sea to the Hungarian frontier, and from Serbia to the Sava River, was temporarily free territory. It was possible to drive about freely in automobiles anywhere within those limits. Visitors arrived almost daily from different parts of Jugoslavia: from Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and as far away as Montenegro. Reports from all parts of Jugoslavia were most encouraging. Huge quantities of arms and supplies were obtained from the Italians by the Partisans in each State. Recruits had swelled the ranks of the National Freedom Army beyond all expectations. The people of Jugoslavia were united as never before in the Freedom Movement. Confidence, encouragement and enthusiasm were shared by everyone. However, everyone realised full well that it would not be long before the Germans must do something to enhance their prestige in the Balkans, and an offensive by them could not be long delayed. Defence plans were made and training was speeded up to the limit. The Partisans used every minute to improve their positions and to make ready to meet the Germans.
They never ceased to carry the battle to the enemy, and maintained their operations against the railways daily. For periods of many days at a time traffic was greatly reduced or stopped altogether on all lines that passed through Slovenia.
To deny the enemy the use of railways the Partisans stationed several brigades of their forces along them with express instructions to destroy them to the best of their ability. Main lines east and west were of chief importance to the enemy. Bridge blowing, train wrecking and the actual removal of miles and miles of track were typical of the methods employed by the Partisans to stop enemy traffic.
Men fought bravely without exception. The acquisition of arms and means to fight with were as a spur to a horse. Commandant Dagi, later to become a colonel, only one of many leaders, but typical, led his brigade into operation after operation. Because of his outstanding bravery, the highest award, that of National Hero, was conferred upon him by the Provisional Parliament of Jugoslavia.
It was during those days that we saw much of Frank, who had been wounded in one of these operations. Frank was Corporal John Denvir, a New Zealander, who had escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany in December of 1941, and joined the Partisans in Jugoslavia. The Partisans, who recognised his strong character and qualities as a fighter, promoted Frank to the command of a battalion. He was wounded three times during his two years' service with them and was later promoted to the command of a brigade, though his wound prevented him from acting in that capacity. The memory of Corporal John Denvir's services as a comrade of goodwill among the Partisans will long live in Jugoslavia. The Distinguished Conduct Medal was awarded to Corporal Denvir in recognition of his outstanding service.
The Partisans, in taking over so successfully from the Italians and building their own forces so rapidly, and at the same time holding the enemy at bay, had performed nothing short of a gargantuan task. They had measured up admirably. Their spirit and determination to be free had brought them through those difficult days more thoroughly committed to the task of liberating their country than ever. They were happy to be playing such a great part in the Allied effort to destroy the Axis forces. Their organisation stood the test and confirmed the faith of the leaders, who believed that "by organisation they could beat the enemy." Their leaders had vindicated the trust and confidence placed in them by their people in proving themselves to be the worthy men that they were.
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