Friday, May 14, 2021
75.0°F

HISTORY CORNER: World War II: The fighting Chetniks

by SYD ALBRIGHT
| March 14, 2021 1:00 AM

The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that FDR called “A date that will live in infamy” was also a day that drew a multi-cultural United States into World War II with a remarkable sense of national unity — the Americans of those times later called The Greatest Generation.

But when German tanks rolled into multi-cultural Yugoslavia’s city of Nish in southeastern Yugoslavia, that nation suddenly became a cauldron of political and ethnic turmoil.

The monarchy collapsed; the king fled the country and the Royal Serbian Army meekly surrendered to the Nazi juggernaut.

It was a time of ever-shifting alliances, tumultuous power struggles, sabotage and reprisal, great courage and resolve — and also horrendous genocide.

In the middle of it all was a rag-tag band of guerrilla militiamen led by a charismatic leader named Dragoljub Mihailovich.

They called him “Uncle Draza.”

Yugoslavia was formed after World War I, its ethnic composition mostly Serbians, Croats, Slovenians and Montenegrins, with a smattering of others. It was a kingdom ruled by a young monarch, King Peter II, who was made king at age 17, 11 years after his father King Alexander I was assassinated in France in 1934 while on a state visit.

Before Peter’s coronation, the Crown was run by a Regency of three headed by Prince Paul Karađorđevich, his cousin — who didn’t want the job.

War was looming in Europe, Serbs and Croats were engaged in ethnic conflict, the British and French wanted Yugoslavia to join their “peace pact” to counter Hitler; Mussolini had taken over Ethiopia in 1935 and annexed Albania four years later.

Yugoslavia didn’t trust the Italians, feared the Germans, knew the French were unwilling to fight anybody, and unsure if the British would help if Hitler got mad should the Slavs reject his overtures and join the “peace pact.”

On top of that, they’d paid the Germans for fighter aircraft that remained undelivered.

Prince Paul told everyone Yugoslavia would stay neutral in the event of war.

Wining and dining Paul’s emissary from Belgrade, Hitler made every effort to convince Yugoslavia to join his Axis of Steel pact that included Italy and Japan — later signed as the Tripartite Treaty.

Italy tried to take over Greece but failed. The Germans had a deal with Russia but broke it weeks after invading Poland in 1939 — pushing the Soviets into the Allied camp.

Fearing invasion by the Germans, who wanted Yugoslavia’s natural resources — especially bauxite and copper. Prince Paul caved and signed the Tripartite Pact in 1941, allowing Axis troops in, but on condition that Germany honor the nation’s sovereignty.

The country strongly opposed the signing, and within two days the Army denounced the pact, fired the Regency and placed 17-year-old Peter on the throne as King Peter II.

Hitler was furious and ordered the invasion of Yugoslavia.

On April 6, 1941, tanks and military units from Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary and Germany began trundling into the city of Nish in southeastern Yugoslavia.

The Royal Yugoslav Army was no match for them, and 11 days later, the country surrendered. King Peter and his government fled into exile in London for the rest of the war.

Meanwhile, at Ravna Gora in Serbia’s highlands, Mihailovich organized the Chetniks, while the Germans were assigning control zones to their puppet allies and Croatian collaborators.

Other conflicting Chetnik groups also emerged, paying only lip-service to Mihailovich.

At first, the Chetniks cooperated with communist Partisan guerrillas led by Josef Broz Tito in fighting the invaders, but because of different long-range goals and tactical objectives, they ended up mostly fighting each other.

Loyal to King Peter II, Mihailovich’s post-war goal was a united Serbia for Serbians, regretfully to the exclusion of other ethnic groups — particularly the Muslims.

Many bad things happened during those times — including destruction, terror, genocide and collaboration with the Axis enemy.

Collaboration in many instances however was necessary to save lives — especially after Hitler instituted a policy of executing 100 Yugoslavs for every German killed, and 50 for every German wounded.

The Chetniks were not saints in shining armor. Nor was anyone else.

During the war, Mihailovich’s Chetniks engaged in sabotage, blowing up trains, blocking river traffic and other hit-and-ran actions launched from forested mountain hideouts.

Because of negative reports about the Chetniks, Allied support for them dwindled as the war dragged on, while Tito’s communists gained power, influence and Allied support.

But the best of all Chetnik activities was rescuing downed Allied aircrew members.

Most notable was the Halyard Operation that took place between August and December 1944 — after the American bombing raid in Rumania on Aug. 1, 1943.

On that date, the U.S. 15th Air Force sent an armada of 177 B-24 Liberator four-engine bombers from southern Italy and Libya to smash the giant Ploesti oil refineries in Rumania — source of about 30 percent of Nazi Germany’s petroleum requirements.

The mission was called Operation Tidal Wave.

As the Liberators zoomed in on their targets just above tree-top level, the Germans were waiting for them with well-designed anti-aircraft defenses and Luftwaffe fighter support.

Hundreds of U.S. airmen had volunteered for the mission despite warnings that half might not come back.

This mission turned out to be the costliest Allied air raid of the war, with 53 aircraft and 660 air crewmen lost. It’s remembered as “Black Sunday.”

History books call the Ploesti raid an American defeat.

For the Americans, 310 air crewmen were killed, 108 were captured by the Axis, 78 were interned in Turkey after emergency landings there, and four were taken in by Tito’s Partisans.

Many aircraft crashed in Yugoslavia, costing lives — but others parachuted to safety and were rescued by Mihailovich’s Chetniks and locals who cared for the wounded, provided food, shelter and clothing, and hid them from German search parties.

As the number of downed airmen mounted, a plan was devised to get them back to Allied lines. That was Operation Halyard, a mission organized by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner of the CIA.

With help from local peasants, a crude airstrip was carved out on a mountain near Pranjane in central Serbia for Douglas C-47 transport planes to evacuate the downed airmen.

The Chetniks are credited with having saved 517 of the downed airmen.

Many accounts about the Chetniks claim they collaborated with the Nazis. Because Mihailovich was the leader, he was blamed and often called a Nazi collaborator. Most likely, Milan Nedich, Chetnik leader of one band was the main collaborator.

Today’s courts in Serbia have supported that viewpoint and also rejected attempts to rehabilitate him.

After the war, Tito’s communists had won the power struggle in Yugoslavia and established the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, with Tito as prime minister, president and marshal of the Yugoslav People's Army.

One of the first things he did was to catch Mihailovich who was in hiding.

He was found in March 1946, arrested, tried and convicted of high treason and executed by a firing squad in Belgrade.

None of the Americans who volunteered to be witnesses at the trial were allowed to testify.

In 2015, the Supreme Court of Cassation of Serbia invalidated Draza Mihailovich's 1946 conviction by Tito’s Communist court, stating that the trial and conviction were politically and ideologically motived.

After the war, French President Charles de Gaul awarded Mihailovich the Legion of Honor Medal posthumously.

In 1948, President Truman awarded him the Legion of Merit Medal, based on a recommendation by General Dwight Eisenhower. “General Mihailovich and his forces, although lacking adequate supplies, and fighting under extreme hardships, contributed materially to the Allied cause and were instrumental in obtaining a final Allied victory,” the citation said.

Likewise, President Reagan praised the Serbian leader in 1979, writing: “The tragedy of Draza Mihailovich cannot erase the memory of his heroic and often lonely struggle against the twin tyrannies that afflicted his people, Nazism and Communism.”

At the end of his trial and with the firing squad just ahead, Draza Mihailovich, revered leader of the Chetniks, said:

“I reminded the Court of Hitler’s message to Mussolini saying that I was the greatest enemy of the Axis, and was only waiting for the moment to attack…I strove for much, I undertook much, but the gales of the world have carried away both me and my work.”

• • •

Contact Syd Albright at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

• • •

Yugoslavia’s last king…

King Peter II Karadjordjevic, who had fled the country at the start of World War II and died in the U.S. in 1970 was Yugoslavia’s last king. He and his family spent the war in exile in London. Then after the Communists took over Yugoslavia after the war, the monarchy was abolished.

What happened to Regent Prince Paul?

For the remainder of the war, the British held Prince Paul and his family under house arrest in Kenya — then a British colony. Churchill turned down an appeal to let him take refuge in Britain — considering Paul a traitor and a war criminal. The post-war communist Yugoslav government banished him forever and confiscated his property. Prince Paul died in Paris in 1976 at age 83 and is now buried in Serbia after being rehabilitated by the courts in 2021.

Watch the Chetnik movie free online…

Watch "The Fighting Chetniks" on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wvU8_XOJNQ.

The black-and-white movie was released by 20th Century Fox in 1943 and received excellent reviews. The film is one hour and 10 minutes long.

Death of Josef Broz Tito…

World War II Communist Partisan guerrilla leader and post-war President of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Tito died in 1980, three days before his 88th birthday in Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, following circulation problems in his left leg that had to be amputated to avoid gangrene. His state funeral was attended by four kings, 31 presidents, six princes, 22 prime ministers and 47 ministers of foreign affairs.

Mihailovich bio…

Dragoljub (Draza) Mihailovich was born on April 27, 1893, in Ivanjica, Serbia, and educated at Saint-Cyr Military Academy. He served with distinction as an army officer in the Balkan Wars during World War I. During World War II, in support of Serbian King Peter II, he organized the loyalist Chetniks and was appointed general. After the war, he was captured by Tito, accused of high treason, tried, convicted by a Communist court and executed by a firing squad in Belgrade on July 17, 1946. He was married to Jelica Brankovich and they had three children.

photo

BRITANNICA

German tanks in Niš, Serbia, after the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941.

photo

WIKIPEDIA COMMONS

Josef Broz Tito was leader of the Yugoslav Communists guerrillas fighting the Germans — as well as the rival anti-Communist Chetniks who were also battling the Nazi occupation forces.

photo

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

U.S. 15th Air Force B-24 bombers flying from Libya and Southern Italy to bomb Nazi ally Rumania’s Ploesti oil fields lost many planes over Yugoslavia, shot down by the Germans, the surviving airmen rescued mostly by locals and Chetniks.

photo

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Monument honoring Chetnik leader Draza Mihailovich at Rava Gora, birthplace of the Chetniks in central Serbia, stands near the improvised airstrip built by locals in 1944 for rescue planes to evacuate downed Allied airmen.

photo

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Chetnik leader General Draza Mihailovich (1893-1946) was arrested, convicted in a sham trial in Belgrade and executed by Communist Partisan leader Josef Broz Tito, who took over Yugoslavia after the war.

photo

TIME MAGAZINE

Chetnik leader Draza Mihailovich was a hero to the Serbians, as well as Americans, having saved more than 500 downed Allied airmen in World War II, but a traitor according to Tito’s communists.

photo

GOOGLE IMAGES

Draza Mihailovich with Chetnik guerrillas in mountains of Yugoslavia (c. 1943).

photo

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Yugoslavia ultra-nationalist fascist Ustase leader Ante Pavelich collaborated with German occupiers during World War II.

photo

GOOGLE IMAGES

Adolf Hitler with Yugoslav Ustase collaborator Ante Pavelic at the Wolfschanze (1942).

photo

BRITANNICA

Downed Allied airmen in World War II among about 500 rescued by Chetniks and Serbian locals in Pranjane, Yugoslavia, in 1944 awaiting evacuation flights.

photo

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Map of Yugoslavia during World War II.

photo

GOOGLE IMAGES

Spanish artist Francisco Goya’s 1814 painting illustrates a common practice by virtually all Axis powers during World War II in Yugoslavia — summary execution — when victims are captured, accused, sentenced and executed in rapid succession without trial.

photo

GOOGLE IMAGES

After the end of World War II, exiled King Peter II of Yugoslavia was deposed when the wartime communist Partisan guerrilla leader Josef Broz Tito became the nation’s prime minister.