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IN the course of the next week or two we had ample opportunity of seeing something of the unity, thoroughness, spirit and strength of the Freedom Front movement in Jugoslavia. Every experience — they were many and followed in quick succession during our first days in that remarkable country — impressed us just as the revelation of a new theory or principle might quicken the matter-of-fact, deliberate interest of one who accidentally chances upon it. It was indeed most difficult to "keep both feet firmly on the ground" (a cautionary response we received occasionally to some of our wireless reports), and to digest calmly and coolly the amazing things we would see from day to day. May we be forgiven, since we were in no way responsible, if the food appeared to be too excellent and the flavour too rich for sluggish digestion. We endeavoured to report fact only.
We immediately organised ourselves as a proper Military Mission, that we might the more efficiently liaise with the various members of the Partisan Staff. Captain A. Hunter, M.C., became our Chief of Staff. Sjt. Alexander Simitch, M.M., Staff Sergeant, in charge of the Orderly Room, Sjt. Paul Pavelic official interpreter, Cpl. Ronald Jepson wireless operator, and Sjt. Peter Erdeljac was held frec for special duty. Each member of our staff made daily contact with corresponding members of the Partisan Staff.
It very early became evident to us that nothing went on in any part of Free Jugoslavia without the knowledge of, and, if the matter was of sufficient importance, without the consent of Tito. Tito the Leader, whose picture we observed so often during our visiting. Tito the man, of whom we still more often heard familiar and affectionate reference. Tito the soldier, whose courage and qualities of endurance inspired his comrades to like spirit, as stories were told and retold of his daring deeds. A son of a Slovenian mother and Croatian father, an iron worker by trade, he had become the symbol and embodiment of the unity and effort of the people of Jugoslavia.
It was not until many months had passed, however, that we had the privilege of meeting Marshal Tito personally. An account of that meeting will follow. It is sufficient to say at this time that it was the word of this most remarkable leader, from his Bosnian lair, transmitted over a Partisan wireless station to Croatian Headquarters, that opened the door of Jugoslavia to our Mission. This we learned on the morning of our arrival.
It was decided at one of our early conferences that a reconnaissance, which was necessary for certain military purposes, be made of one of the large liberated areas, and we were informed to be ready, as the horses would be at the door at eight o'clock in the morning.
The usual air of activity aroused us shortly after sunrise. The hurrying footsteps, loud, persistent calling on the telephone, a rap on the door, in case we should oversleep; Drugarica with our water and basin, not to mention the cheery "Dobro Jutro" and accompanying smile, soon brought us to our senses, and within a few minutes we had joined Druga Manola at breakfast. Punctually the horses arrived, saddles were adjusted, and we were soon on our way down the ravine, on the familiar trail to the transport section.
We were able to see now what a beautiful country we were in. The high, bold, rocky outcrops at every bend of the ravine, the rough, narrow road, steep and seemingly impassable for vehicles of any sort (yet the peasants of that country, hardy folk that they were, drove their horses, hitched to strong, iron-bound wagons, up and down these hills, drawing lumber, logs, hay and produce, as a part of the daily routine of life), the dense trees, pine, hemlock, fir, birch, beech, with a sprinkling of silver birch, the blue sky, bright sunshine and spring air, all added something to make our journey pleasant and enjoyable.
The activity at the transport depot was scarcely noticeable until we were actually dismounted. Vehicles were concealed under trees and screened with young saplings until they were wholly unrecognisable. The few old houses and barns left standing were used as workshops, office, stables and store rooms. Material lying about in the open was carefully and ingeniously camouflaged beyond any possibility of detection by aircraft.
A telephone call had just come in from Drug Manola, and we were soon comfortably seated in his two-seater Fiat, speeding down the road to the destination he had quietly whispered to the chauffeur. We crossed polje (fields enclosed by hills) corkscrewed our way up and down hills, passed through towns and villages, frequently with a trail of limestone dust a mile long.
If we stopped at a town or village, we were usually surrounded by a group of people almost immediately. Partisans clad in parts of Italian, Jugoslav and German uniforms, men, women and children all eager to meet the occupant of an automobile, knowing full well the possibility of that occupant being an official of some sort. Friendly, cheery people, interested to a degree of infectious enthusiasm, were seen everywhere we went.
Frequently along the road we passed small units of individual Partisans. For the most part they were armed with rifles, here and there a light machine-gun. Others carried ammunition and food. Through a rural district the peasants, chiefly older men, women, boys and girls, a few in uniform, would always look up and signal the unfailing and reassuring greeting of the crooked arm. Invariably rifles were carried or carefully placed near by where the person was working.
<>Quite often a young girl was seen clad in ski trousers, equipped as a man, and apparently in all respects leading the same life as a man. We saw them carrying rifles and packs. Others were seen with the familiar red cross badge on their arm, and what we surmised to be a first-aid kit on their back. They were invariably fresh and neat in their appearance, and always as independent of manner and carriage as a man. We saw them alone on lonely roads, we saw them with a man, we saw them in groups of men. They were essentially a part of the Freedom Front movement, and, as we got to know later, a very strong, honourable and highly respected part of that movement.
Village after village was passed, with not a house or building to be seen standing. Yet the fields were being ploughed by these people living among the ruins of their former houses, determined that the crops should not fail. Very few animals were left \o them after the ravishings of the foe.
One of our stops, a larger town than the usual we had seen, and perhaps not quite so badly destroyed, happened to be a Partisan Training Centre. We were invited to visit the school where young Partisans were being taught the secrets of wireless telegraphy. We entered a large, two-storied building and found ourselves in a class-room with twelve or fifteen young boys busily engaged with buzzers, flash-lamps or interested in what an instructor was explaining on the blackboard. On the floor above, a more advanced group were working over a German wireless set under the supervision of a demonstrator. Fully trained wireless operators were being passed out of this school in the hope that sets would some day become available for Partisan use. They had but very few sets in use at that time. The need for many more was pressing.
We had dinner that day in quite a large and exceptionally well preserved town. Few buildings were completely destroyed, though many were slightly damaged. It was here that we met several members of the Anti-Fascist Committee of Liberation for Croatia.
This Committee was a provisional body composed of representatives of all political parties, appointed by the people to coriduct the political affairs of Croatia until such a time as the people of the State should become free. It was the Croatian Executive of the Freedom Front Movement.
It was a delightful two hours that we spent with these committee-men. Dr. Gregoric, of whom we had heard so much, was at that particular time confined to his bed, and we were unable to see him. The Vice-President and others were present, and the conversation was most interesting. The B.B.C. broadcasts of the Beveridge Report had been followed by these gentlemen with deep interest, and the small additional light that we were able to throw on the subject seemed to impress them still more. They liked the democratic way, and thought there was hope for England. After hearing many first-hand accounts of their experiences, we proceeded on our way.
One of the men we had met at dinner was one of the eight men who left Karlovac just two years before and made a stand in Babina Gora, situated south of that city, against the occupier. The full story will appear in a subsequerit chapter.
We arrived at our destination at about two-thirty in the afternoon. There we completed our reconnaissance, and returned to the transport depot at dusk. <>We had travelled by automobile over a hundred and twenty kilometres that day in free territory, secured by Partisan Forces, in the very heart of Hitler's European stronghold.
On our way to camp, up the long trail on horse back, we discussed plans for certain work to follow up what we had done that day. It was decided that a few hundred people employed for eight or ten days would complete the task, and that, if possible, the work should be done without delay.
<>The wonderment, the amazement that virtually overcame us the following day when Drug Manola informed us at dinner in his usual quiet manner that over four hundred people with horses and carts had been working at that job since ten o'clock that morning, can well be imagined.
This was how it happened. Every town, village and district in free territory was organised locally by the people themselves. Everything in the area, be it a town, village or district, was assessed, recorded and regulated by a people's committee appointed by the people of that area. Everybody in the area voluntarily co-operated through their committee. The chairman of the committee, probably called the commissar, town commandant, or just plain chairman, worked through the committee and organised any labour, supplies and vehicles that forces of the National Freedom Army stationed in the area might require from time to time.
That morning, when Drug Manola wanted workers and teams to do the job in mind, he informed the chairman of the committees of a few villages in that area. They did the rest.
Over four hundred people, with horses and carts, voluntarily came out to work on a job. They were not told what it was they were doing — they asked no questions, as they believed it to be of a military nature and such things were never discussed by people in free areas of Jugoslavia. Their own security depended on silence.
We joined these workers on the second day, and it was a pleasure to mix with them during the next few days. Men, women, young boys and girls all worked like Trojans for eight days. They came early. They brought their luncheon. They worked late. They sang. They completed the task.
One of our earliest observations concerning the conduct of affairs in our new land was that nothing "just happens." Everything that we saw in the nature of human activity, or in the material evidence of such, bore the indication of careful planning and organised effort. Even in the routine of life, camp duties, courier service, office routine, all seemed to follow with a high degree of regularity and astonishing punctuality. Meals, for instance, were served on time in this organisation and nobody got more than the next fellow; it mattered not if he were the Commandant or the sentry on duty outside the door.
We recall an incident of a very senior commander, notwithstanding the respect and affection held for him, being refused a second cup of coffee at breakfast before everyone had been served. He accepted a very curt negative reply to his request from a loyal young Drugarica, and this he did with genuine understanding and apology. A knowing wink and a mischievous jerk of his head indicated his deep pride and satisfaction.
Whenever matters of military or geographical interest were discussed with the Staff, invariably maps, plans, sketches, graphs, and often charts were produced if such would make the matter clearer and more exactly understood. These documents were generally the work of the Partisans themselves, though naturally they had succeeded in capturing many from the enemy. Others, again, came with marked regularity from a loyal fellow-countryman or friend entrusted with the custody of such by a non-suspecting foe. It would have, very likely, added greatly to Hitler's uneasiness had he really known to what extent his secret archives were penetrated by Partisan fingers.
But the results of Partisan efforts in compiling and making their own maps, plans, sketches, etc., were no less amazing. As in all armies, the Intelligence and Engineering sections in the Partisan Army were responsible for such work. These sections were developed and organised most thoroughly. Fully trained and qualified experts, graduates in very many cases, of well-known Universities in Austria, Germany, France and England, had organised and directed intelligence channels straight into the heart of enemy countries. Their agents operated in the very capitals of these countries.
Information — the substance of all maps — was methodically and systematically compiled as it arrived. Reports of couriers and secret agents, confirmed as they frequently were by accompanying plans of cities, factories, aerodromes, bridges, railway centres and fortifica-tions, in a few cases even the architect's original plan, arrived at the intelligence headquarters in steady flow. Little or nothing, it seemed, could escape the knowledge of the Partisans. Few enemy secrets were beyond their reach. Given time enough to send a courier to the source of the information, that courier would invariably return with the prize.
With such a well-organised intelligence section, it was only to be expected that Partisan maps and plans should be of a very high quality. This we found to be so not only in point of information, which was most reliable, but also in the skilful manner of arrangement and the excellent artistic workmanship employed in the actual production of them. When we visited the map section of one of the Commands, far into the woods, we saw printing presses, photographic equipment, instruments, stencils, material and practically everything that artists, draughtsmen and cartographers use in map production. The results spoke for themselves.
It was our privilege from day to day, when in conference and consultations, to see several plans, maps and sketches which the Partisans had prepared in the normal course of events for the benefit of their own Staff and organisation. As we were anxious to know as much as possible of the People's Liberation Army and Partisan Detachments, the Freedom Front movement and of conditions generally throughout Jugoslavia, almost every question proffered by us was answered and fully explained to our entire satisfaction by the aid of some map or sketch.
These were always sent for and obtained from the intelligence branch as they were required, and promptly returned when we had finished with them. Formal requests and receipts were issued and obtained meticulously in all transactions of such documents. Such things as maps were rarely, if ever, displayed on walls or left carelessly about. The Partisans were most expert in all security measures. It would have been impossible for them to have succeeded had they not been so.
From these sketches and maps it was possible to see at a glance the exact conditions of affairs in Jugoslavia. Different colours were used to indicate those areas occupied by the German and Italian forces and those which were held by the Partisans. Throughout all parts of Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Dalmatia and Slovenia, which are the various States of Jugoslavia, one could see the widespread and national character of the Freedom Front movement.
In those tinted patches one could see locally organised units of citizens carrying on the struggle, very often completely isolated from similar neighbouring units, though each and all a part of the one National Freedom Army and Partisan Detachments, led by a tried people's man, Tito. A united, composite force with common aim and single purpose, spontaneously organised and disciplined, struggling for the right to live in freedom and peace. This indomitable force, born in the hearts of a determined, united people, inspired and stimulated by the love, honesty and courage of their own convictions, was seen to be not only holding at bay but slowly and relentlessly evicting from their country a wicked, ruthless occupier.
The maps showed it all only too clearly. There were red stars that marked the headquarters of corps, divisions, brigades, battalions, and of detached companies and cetta (platoons); the large, free, consolidated areas, in some cases permitting the use of motor vehicles for well over a hundred kilometres in a given direction; the smaller areas still subject to the brutal raids of a barbarous foe; the burned-out areas, where nothing but a lone chimney or gable stood to indicate what had once been a peaceful village or town; the stretches of railway, line after line, the bridges, roads, tunnels that had been destroyed by the Partisans in the bloody years of lone struggle, that the enemy might not use them; the headquarters and garrisons of the twenty or more enemy divisions that were still trying to retain half of Jugoslavia, as the only prize left to them of their "victory" of April, 1941. All this, and still more, was vividly and definitely indicated by the maps we saw and studied from day to day.
<>There's always the danger of a man, no less than a woman, though perhaps less quickly, reacting to new experiences in direct relation to the manner that his emotions are appealed to. This weakness, if it be such, no doubt is sometimes responsible for error in human judgment. Ever conscious of this, we endeavoured always to view things calmly, to seek fact, and to determine things only in terms of simple truth. We were greatly assisted in this respect by the fact that the many astonishing and almost unbelievable things we saw were not themselves of an emotional nature.
The people with whom we were living, and all whom we had the opportunity of meeting from time to time, were the most friendly, frank, unpretentious, matter-of-fact, simple-in-taste, modest folk imaginable. Not only were they incapable of pretence, but their fine qualities of honesty and understanding made them scorn all semblance of such. Whether we met them in council, at headquarters, in detached units, in towns, villages and rural areas, in groups or individually, in office, workshop, in the fields, or in the army, we found these qualities to be characteristic of all. Their earnest application to the task in hand; their firm conviction of the righteousness of the cause for which they were fighting; their confidence and trust in their leaders; their mutual interest and concern in one another's welfare; their unity in effort and purpose; their readiness to endure hardship; their lack of self-pity in the face of hideous, brutal torture and death of loved ones; their songs that never failed to emanate from a crude, lean-to shelter, all that was left from the ruins of a former home; in all these expressions the same true, honest qualities of a virtuous people were observed.
<>Such was the quality of the people who had organised themselves into a solid unity that by working together they might better succeed in freeing their country. The great achievements which have marked the efforts of the people of Jugoslavia are directly attributable to the quality of the people themselves.
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