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ON Sunday evening, 13th June, 1943, we were in a tiny village many kilometres from Headquarters, when an automobile drew up at our gate and the familiar figure of Political Commissar Dr. Bakaric stepped out and approached the house.
In his quiet, pleasant, unassuming manner he told us that a meeting and entertainment were to take place that evening at a large town in Western Croatia, some distance away, and asked us if we would care to accompany him. It required no persuasion; our duties were not pressing and we were always glad of the chance of seeing more of the country and people. We polished our boots a daily habit of all Partisans, when polish was obtainable and joined the others in the car.
We were very happy to find that Dr. Bakaric had with him an old acquaintance whom we had often seen at Headquarters. He was at one time a Major serving in the forces of Pavelic, the German Quisling of Croatia, but because of the political trickery and dishonesty of his leaders, whom he found to be collaborating with the Germans and Italians, he deserted them and joined the Partisans. He was a man of strong character, and his happy disposition, deep rich voice and endless repertoire of song, made him friends wherever he went. He later became commander of a Partisan unit in Eastern Croatia.
For many miles we drove along a dusty road, through the most beautiful country. To the west the high Velebit Mountains reared their sentinel peaks above the Adriatic, forming a great rampart against the Huns who were on their other side. Other ranges to the north and east pointed their lofty, stubby fingers at the few aimless clouds drifting lazily across a blue sky.
We were still several kilometres from the town when we began to pass wagon-loads of people, and pedestrians: men and women and children, and among them groups of young boys and girls carrying flags and banners, and headed by a Partisan band the omnipresent accordion all going in the same direction as ourselves.
Still nearer to the town there were strong patrols of Partisan troops and sentries stationed at all intersecting roads, and despite the presence of Dr. Bakaric, who was so well known to everybody, we had to stop several times and show our passes to satisfy the sentries.
As the sun sank behind Velebit and plunged his pinnacles into sharp relief, the sight we saw that Sunday evening when we finally reached the town was very impressive. Thousands of men, women and children, gaily dressed, troops unusually smart, and wearing an added air of importance; flags and bunting streaming from every window; a brass band playing in the open square. Far off was the muffled thunder of guns, but here was friendliness, excitement and laughter.
We abandoned our car where it stood and were carried along with the crowd until we came to a private house, where we met the reception committee. Dr. Gregoric, a tall, stately gentleman, and secretary of the Anti-Fascist Committee (which was the Freedom Front organisation of Croatia), greeted us and introduced us to the other members of the committee. It was good to see him in such high spirits and completely recovered from his illness. Stanko Opacic, the secretary of the committee, who will be remembered as one of the heroes of Babina Gora, was delighted to see that all arrangements were running so smoothly; his energy and enthusiasm had served the Freedom Front movement well. In addition to the other committee members and Croatian officials, there were many visitors present from other parts of Jugoslavia, including Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Slovenia and Slavonia.
The crowd made it almost impossible to move, but we managed to edge our way to the stairs, and on the second floor we came to two large rooms filled with men and women eating amid talk and laughter, while others stood waiting for their turns at the tables. Served by members of the Women's Committee, we had a dinner consisting of soup, roast mutton, potatoes, carrots, onions and greens, and knew that only some event of the very greatest importance could possibly amass such food. It was good to be there.
The friendship of those people, the frequent outburst of joy as old friends would meet, the general air of optimism expressed so warmly in handshake and embrace, the constant reminding by the congenial women that time was short and many more were waiting to eat, made our repast fully enjoyable and the fellowship most agreeable.
When all had dined, we walked through cheering crowds to the central hall. This was a large two-storey building which in peace-time was probably used for moving pictures and other entertainment. We elbowed our way to the entrance and up the stairway to the large auditorium on the second floor. It was packed to the doors. Beams, window-sills and other architectural features were decorated with human forms. Not a semblance of an aisle was to be seen. We were conducted with great difficulty to the front seats, and there had a chance to conside'r fully what all this meant.
We were given a folder programme, artistically arranged, which announced on the cover "June 13-14, 1943. The First Session of the Anti-Fascist Committee for the Territorial Liberation of Croatia."
It was explained to us that elections had recently been held all over Croatia and the people in free areas had nominated and elected their representatives to attend that session. As we sat there the significance of that event dawned upon us. There in the very heart of Hitler's "European Fortress" freedom had exerted herself. The voice of the people of over half of that State, after two years of foreign suppression, was now to speak in free assembly. The booming guns which rattled the windows of that hall held no fear for those people.
The hall was decorated with evergreens, Jugoslavian and Croatian flags, streamers and coloured electric lamps. A long table with maroon cloth cover and banked with chairs occupied the stage. Extra large pictures of Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt and Tito were positioned between full-length flags of their countries, draped from the ceiling at the back of the stage. Loud-speaking apparatus was installed for the benefit of the crowds in the street. The brass band occupied the pit in front of the stage.
A middle-aged gentleman called the meeting to order. All stood, soldiers saluting, and, led by the band, sang the National Anthem. The same gentleman, on behalf of the citizens of the town, then briefly welcomed all delegates and visitors. He then called for nominations for the office of chairman.
With unanimous approval, expressed in a great ovation, Dr. Gregoric accepted the chair.
In turn each executive member was elected, and several honorary vice-presidents were appointed.
As visitors from Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Slavonia, Montenegro, Hercegovina, Dalmatia and other parts of Jugoslavia were announced, the meeting broke into wild cheering and excitement. Cheer after cheer went up for each as he bowed in acknowledgment.
Many congratulatory wireless and other messages were read. Among them messages from Tito, Churchill, Stalin and from many cities and districts which were still occupied by the enemy. These all excited tremendous applause. Spontaneous outbursts of names, repeated many times in their syllables "Ti-to"; "Ti-to"; "Sta-lin"; " Sta-lin "; and " Chur-chill "; and long cheers for Allied unity frequently interrupted all speakers. The slightest delay in proceedings was a chance for a song. And how they sang!
The meeting then settled down to business. Dr. Gregoric, in his deliberate, impressive manner, delivered an historic speech, in which he reviewed the progress of the Freedom Front Movement, stressing its national democratic character, unity and strength. He forecast the direction that things might be expected to take and suggested many recommendations which would be presented to the session for its consideration. He submitted a report of the work of the acting committee, which was enthusiastically endorsed by the meeting.
Dr. Bakaric, as Commissar of the Senior Army Command, reviewed the progress made by the National Freedom Army. He referred to the great increase in its strength, the formation of new units, its record of successful operations against the enemy and the magnificent unfailing support it was receiving from the people all over the country.
Speech after speech followed. Most of the executive members reported on different aspects of the Freedom Front Movement, indicatihg how extensive the movement had become and expressing great hopes in the final deliverance of their country. Visitors and delegates from all parts of Croatia, both free and occupied, brought encouraging reports of conditions in their districts. All speeches were sincere and impressive, and held the interest of all throughout the meeting.
Several girls and women, one a doctor, two peasants, a secretary and a school teacher, aroused deep feeling when they spoke. One peasant woman presented Dr. Gregoric with a beautiful Afghan rug on behalf of the women of her area, which was still occupied by the enemy, as a token of their faith in the Freedom Front. A young girl from the Kordun reported on the activities of a youth organisation. She told how the young boys and girls had organised themselves in every town and village and were working collectively that they might better assist in the war effort.
Many delegates and visitors had come from very long distances on foot. In two cases, as we learned, it had taken them over three weeks to complete the journey. They very narrowly escaped capture when passing through an occupied area at night. The cheering that greeted the visitor from Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, at that time in enemy hands, and the headquarters of Pavelic, was simply terrific. It almost defied the chairman's best efforts to restore order. One girl had travelled all the way from Slovenia to be able to carry back with her a first-hand report of the proceedings of the first Croatian Parliament. A very young man, a visitor from West Croatia, in his simple convincing manner, gave a vivid account of what young people were doing there. A middle-aged gentleman from the heart of Serbia encouraged all with his account of conditions in that State. He rejoiced to think how pleased his people would be when he would return with such glad tidings from other parts of Jugoslavia.
But while it is impossible to refer to all speeches that we heard at that memorable meeting, one more must be singled out. A young man who walked with great difficulty we were informed that he had lost the toes of both feet as a result of frostbite during the winter of 1941-42 made a strong plea for unity and still greater effort against the occupier. His speech was scholarly and able. The speaker was Tv. Edward Kardelj, who, notwithstanding the condition of his feet, had made the long journey from Slovenia.
Each speaker we heard that night had his or her own peculiar style of speaking. There were peasant folk who evidently had had little experience in public speaking. There were those who obviously had little more to learn in that respect. And between the two extremes were the great number of average speakers. But it was not the form of the speech that mattered, as it seldom does when truth is uttered. We were conscious only of hearing a united voice expressing a will to be free and a determination to live in unity and peace. But the names of the speakers and their speeches will one day be published.
The people of Jugoslavia, we observed, displayed the same qualities of endurance and tenacity whenever they attended public meetings as they showed in their struggle for national freedom. Speeches ran on until long past midnight. Anybody was privileged to speak. When it appeared that all who wished to do so had spoken, the people pressed for a few words from the British Liaison Officer. Dr. Gregoric, who spoke English fluently, interpreted for him.
A deep-rooted affection in the hearts of the people of Jugoslavia for the British people and their ideals of democracy and justice, which it afterwards became our pleasure to witness so often, was sensed by us on that occasion.
The meeting adjourned until the following day. But that was only a sign for good Partisan folk to make merry, which they did to rare degree. It was announced that a formal play would commence in twenty minutes. That interval was spent in visiting the ground floor.
The three large rooms on the main floor were attractively decorated with coloured paper and evergreens. The walls were hidden by scores of large interesting photographs of Partisan life and activity. In each room tables and forms were appropriately arranged to display the exhibits allotted to it.
One room contained an exhibit of Partisan historical records. Collections of photographs that were taken at various times since the earliest days of the Movement were particularly interesting. The keen interest which Partisans have always shown in cultural matters was reflected in many publications, including pamphlets of twenty and thirty pages, compiled by different units long since famous for their outstanding deeds in battle. Photographs of victims of enemy atrocity all carefully compiled, with their names, places and dates of the crimes, and in many cases bearing the statements of eyewitnesses; scenes of enemy ravishings, burned-out areas and homeless people attested to the brutality and ruthlessness of the occupier.
In a section of another room we saw a collection of art work, chiefly paintings, drawings and sketches. The subjects varied from war topics to domestic scenes. These were the work of young boys and girls, both Partisans and civilians. A library occupied the other section of that room. We were astonished at what we found there; booklets and pamphlets on such subjects as agriculture, military training, medicine, political questions, social problems covering almost the entire economic, political and social fields. Many of these contained forty-five and fifty pages; drawings and sketches appeared frequently in them. They were carefully and skilfully compiled. We were told that many of these publications were printed in quantities of twenty and thirty thousand. They were available without cost to anybody who wanted them. One book contained many songs, with music, which were the compositions of Partisans. There were many exhibits of verse, poems and essays. Newspapers, which were issued bi-weekly and monthly by each organisation of the Freedom Front Movement, were displayed on one of the stands. When one considers fully how difficult it was to obtaining printing equipment and supplies and the discouraging conditions under which these publications were produced, the results were indeed most creditable.
The other room contained exhibits of homecraft, knitted and woven articles from socks to beautiful mats and rugs. Shirts and hand-made boots, domestic soap and a great variety of other interesting things, all products of the home, were seen there. It was all so instructive and impressive that we had great difficulty in drawing ourselves away from it to attend the concert.
On our return to the auditorium we were passing an upper window when the music of an accordion caught our ear. From the window we beheld a most incredible sight. Up and down the street as far as we could see in the light of long strings of electric bulbs was a great mass of dancing humanity. Squares were formed by the spectators, and characteristic national dances in local colourful costume were seen here and there among the other dancers. It was a magnificent sight. We watched the dancers, young and old, perform their graceful movements until it was well past the hour for the concert to commence.
The short play, the recitations, songs, both solo and chorus, and a variety of instrumental numbers, were pleasing and entertaining. The band led in the National Anthem and the audience dispersed; many joined the street dancers, the others retired to their homes and billets.
The possibility of enemy bombers visiting that town had been foreseen, and arrangements were duly made to continue the session the following night at another place.
We arose early on the morning of June 14th and motored along a beautiful river valley until we came to a Partisan road-house, where we stopped for breakfast. An hour later we entered a large pine grove, and at a few minutes before eight o'clock we found ourselves overlooking a series of small lakes, seated on forms arranged before a long speaker's table among the tall trees. Familiar flags and pictures behind the table stopped our view in that direction.
In the few minutes at our disposal before the meeting was called to order we sauntered about the trees and stopped on the crest of the steep wooded bank which led down to the lakes. There we beheld one of the outstanding attractions of Croatia. At that hour of the day the ever-changing forms of shadow and light on the water, the unusual blue-green colour of the water itself due, perhaps, to the presence of copper the merry-making birds among the high branches, and the clear morning air, gave the scene a suggestion of Fairyland. The stage was perfect for scene two of the great act we were witnessing.
The President, Dr. Gregoric, and all members of the Executive, took their places at the speaker's table; delegates and visitors occupied the forms. The agenda provided for speeches until four o'clock: all delegates who had not spoken the night before were to speak that day; resolutions were to be presented at five o'clock.
The speeches continued to be as interesting as those we had heard the night before. The delegate from Slavonia reported on the prospect of the wheat crop. The farmers there used all surplus seed in the spring to sow extra acres, and, unless the enemy interfered, the yield was expected to be heavy.
A middle-aged woman from Dalmatia, with greying hair drawn in a knot at the back, and rather large in girth, with her two hands thrust in her breeches pockets, swaggered to the front, turned and supported herself comfortably against a tree. After clearing her throat and indulging in an honest democratic spit, to the delight of all, she held the interest of everyone for twenty minutes on conditions as they were ira Dalmatia. She knew her country and the will of her people.
In a section of Lika, where an epidemic of typhoid was threatening, the delegate gladdened all hearts when he reported the epidemic had proved not to be serious and the situation was well in hand.
A young farmer from North-West Croatia strongly recommended protection of breeding stock and advocated restrictions against the killing of young cattle.
A tall Partisan, from Istria, gave an encouraging account of re-cruiting and the formation of a new division in that area.
And so the speeches continued all day. Each speech was carefully taken down in shorthand, recorders relieving each other as they became tired. During short recesses, delegates would wander about the trees discussing points of mutual interest, all in earnest, contemplative mood.
The Women's Committee had worked all morning at the open fire a hundred yards away, and at twelve-thirty invited everybody over to a picnic spread. Roast lamb-on-spit, bread, green onions and a bottle of Partisan beer. It was a most enjoyable half-hour.
Sunset that evening brought to a close one of the busiest days of committee work we have ever witnessed. Debating was keen, to the point, and strong. Not until all matters were fully threshed out and unanimously acceptable were they voted on. It was an inspiring sight to see democracy in action under such conditions.
The hundred and twenty odd delegates, charged with their people's trust, had performed their duty well. They gave instructions to their executive to carry on, and took their departure for home. We, with the greatly broadened knowledge of the conditions and people of Jugoslavia, derived from the rich experience of those two historical days, returned to our Headquarters.
When we arrived at Headquarters, among the various reports awaiting our attention were the following accounts of Partisan activity:
A Partisan unit attacked Desinac Station, which they captured and held long enough to liquidate the garrison, wreck and burn three trains which were loaded with war supplies for Greece, destroy a hundred metres of track and burn the station. The enemy losses were heavy and all traffic on the main Zagreb-Belgrade line was stopped for sixty-eight hours.
The railway line Pozega-Nosice was so badly damaged by another unit, it was estimated it would be two months before the line could be used again.
An armoured train was destroyed between Djulanes and Suho Polje; and three hundred and fifty metres of track were removed on the Daruvar-Bijela line.
Operations such as these were typical of the way that Partisans inflicted daily loss on the enemy. So frequently did these attacks occur, it became necessary for the enemy, both Italian and German, to maintain strong garrisons at short intervak all along the few railways and main roads that' remained in his possession. These garrisons invariably contained a few Ustasi, Chetnik, Domobranci and Pavelic troops, who made no secret of their collaboration with the enemy.
As we had been in Croatia for almost six weeks, we were becoming more and more. familiar with the geographical character of the country, and our attention and interest were ever being drawn to the other States of Jugoslavia.
The enemy, fearing the consequences of a liberated Serbia, which would have prejudiced his hold on the Balkans most seriously, concentrated his strongest forces in that State, determined to suppress the Freedom Front movement at all costs. But visitors and delegates from that State assured us that the Serbian people were united and thoroughly organised underground, and at the first opportunity would break the enemy's hold.
Montenegro, that proud State which has not yet bowed to a conqueror, was almost entirely free, and the people were united in their struggle for freedom and peace.
Slovenia, the Northern State of Jugoslavia, was slowly but relentlessly recovering her freedom from the ruthless oppressor.
Bosnia, the Headquarters of the Freedom Front, which perhaps had suffered more than any other State, was defeating the enemy on all fronts under the competent leadership of Tito.
It was due to the co-operation of the delegates from Slovenia, whom we had met at the Croatian Parliament, that we learned of the possibilities of further military operations in that State. After due study of the situation there, we made plans to proceed to the Headquarters of the Slovenian Command.
The Journey to Slovenia, though hazardous, was quite possible via Partisan route and would require approximately ten days, unless the enemy should temporarily block the way.
It was decided that Captain Hunter, M.C., should remain at Croatian Headquarters with Sergeant Jephson as his wireless operator, and the other two proceed at once to Slovenia Sergeant Simitch as wireless operator and interpreter.
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