GENERAL MIHAILOVIC AND THE RAVNA GORA MOVEMENT
In seeking to most clearly illustrate the history of the Chetnik movement, no source is perhaps as useful and as historically indicative as are the wartime records of General Mihailovic (1893-1946). Though the future will present many more opportunities to explore the history of General Mihailovic and the history of his movement in World War II, it is crucial to highlight his prophetic understanding of what he saw would happen to the Serbian people in the event of a Communist victory. This vision he presented to his people in September of 1944, a “momento mori” for himself, his movement, and for the future of Serbia. His declaration, in essence, provides us with the most impacting and also, most sobering witness of the experiences of Serbs (as is commonly said “on both sides of the Drina”) during World War II.
In the Post World War II years, the wartime enemies of Mihailovic’s movement created an overly simplistic picture of preceding events. Participants in wartime dramas were clearly labeled either victors or traitors, with Yugoslav dictator Tito’s Communist regime not only dominating socio-economic and politic events, but through such control, also distorting proceeding historical records of the events of 1941-1945. At the end of the war, General Mihailovic was declared an “enemy of the people,” sentenced, and consequently, vanished three days after his trial. The fact that the regime of the time found it necessary to undertake such an action provides one of the most trying testaments to the moral sway he and his movement carried with his people.
Today and more than fifty years later, new investigations into the wartime drama within Yugoslavia-based on the publications and declarations of the Ravna Gora Movement-provide us with a clearer picture of past events not only within the Movement itself, but also within World War II Yugoslavia. This picture, which was always clearer to those in the Serbian Diaspora, has finally begun to enter into official history and into the land of our forefathers.
Arrival at Ravna Gora-May, 1941
Dragoljub (Draza) Mihailovic entered the battle proceeding the April German invasion of Yugoslavia as head of the Operational Division of the Yugoslav Second Army, a unit which had seen heavy combat in the mountains of central Bosnia. In the region around Doboj, the then Colonel Mihailovic saw his last service in regular combat, ending a campaign which had begun with his country’s invasion by the Third Reich and with its first battles around Kiseljak in Bosnia. Yet, that last day of the campaign was a turning point in the career of Colonel Mihailovic. It was on that somber day that he decided to split from the column of the Second Army and head for the Drina River. He recorded the events of that day like this: “I did not want to capitulate and refused orders to negotiate with the Germans. I came to the idea to head for the Drina because I was convinced that it was there that I could find a front.”
Mihailovic was then engulfed by frustration and regret, feelings which arose from previous years’ misunderstandings and the fact that through those years, he was in the right. Coincidentally, Mihailovic had, in the pre-war years, pushed for a military re-organization within the Royal Military, one which focused on creating mobile military units based on the fighting methods of Serbia’s traditional guerrilla fighters-the Chetniks. At this point in the war (at the end of the German campaign), his own unit, in conjunction with the 41st infantry brigade, had become just that sort of force. On the mountain Ravna Gora, Mihailovic set up his first headquarters and as a result, created what would become a symbol for the Chetnik Movement in World War II and what would give the Movement its name. In fact, the common people were already calling these fighters “the chetniks of Draza Mihailovic.”
So, upon his arrival on Ravna Gora in May of 1941, Mihailovic had decided to create a movement of resistance. Immediately, this decision proved itself momentous. With his proclamation, Mihailovic had lifted the banner of freedom in defiance of the enemies of the Serbian people. Soon after, the Reich’s commander in Southeastern Europe, Field Marshal List, requested reinforcements in the number of numerous divisions and special expeditions moved to begin reprisals against the uprising, that is to say, against Draza’s Chetniks.
The Formation of An Organized Resistance
In the coming weeks, Colonel Dragoljub “Draza” Mihailovic’s headquarters saw the constant arrival of new recruits. The vast majority of the newcomers were disillusioned yet patriotic officers who had heard of the new resistance and who had been unable to make peace with the tragedy of the April invasion and subsequent attempts at subjugation. In addition, a large number of these men who were now flocking to Ravna Gora had been pupils of Mihailovic’s while he taught as a Military Academy instructor and also had fought at his side in the previous world war. However, Mihailovic decided to only hold onto a small number of these new recruits, mainly because he wanted the majority of them to spread word of the uprising to their own hometowns and villages and organize their own Chetnik units. Soon after, the villages around Ravna Gora became an organizational zone in which Mihailovic’s men could organize themselves and solidify the foundations of future resistance.
In this initial phase, a basis was created for future military formations: first operational squads, then battalions, and eventually, brigades and corps. As in all standard guerilla campaigns, those who were sent to certain operational zones were given basic instructions and organized the common people. Yet, that same year also saw the creation of the political wing of the Movement, the Central National Committee. The goal of this committee was to organize the Serbs’ intellectuals and political cadre, as well as their experienced public officials. There were also regional committees, such as those in Montenegro, Herzegovina, and the Committee of Serbian Dalmatia, which was organized in Split by Ilija Trifunovic-Bircanin.
It is vital to point out that throughout this process, however, General Mihailovic remained steadfast in his belief that he was a soldier of his people and that he had no right to conduct any political actions that ran contrary to their will.
From Conflict to Civil War
In order to combat the growing Communist threat, Army General Milan Nedic organized the “Serbian Government of Salvation” on August 29, 1941. Nedic was well aware of how Mihailovic, Major Misic, and others viewed this threat, that is to say as a divisive danger to the Serbian people that the Germans were all too eager to take advantage of. General Nedic, in fact, explicitly underlined these aspects of the civil crisis and they formed the foundation of his acceptance of political power. In essence, the danger of the Communist threat in Serbia revolved around the fact that it had less to do with the liberation of Yugoslavia (even less with the liberation of the Serbian people) and more to do with the imposition of Soviet Communism upon the two. From the beginning of the uprising and with the eventual arrival of Nedic, Communist forces took advantage of the situation and began reprisals against Draza’s Chetniks in Serbia, with these operations eventually being extended to other areas where uprisings had taken place against the Germans and their fascist collaborators, the Ustashe.
Once Mihailovic’s Chetniks had swept these Communist partisans out of Serbia, these exiles proceeded to extend their operations into Montenegro, Herzegovina, and Eastern Bosnia, involving their Communist brethren in these regions in their methods and destroying the last unified units of resistance fighters. In this fashion, Yugoslavia’s Communists squashed the last opportunity for all Serbian fighting elements to fight under a unified banner and helped create the civil war that emerged from these crises.
Yet, despite Communist reprisals, Draza’s rebel Chetniks managed to organize a front against German forces. After heavy fighting, they forced the Germans out of Cacak and its surrounding villages, while a day earlier, units from Takovo (under the command of Captain Vukovic) attacked the German garrison in Gornji Milanovac and forced the surrender of the several units from the 920th battalion. Strategically, it is important to point out that these actions were undertaken at a time when the German war machine was at its zenith and was rolling through Russia and North Africa. Nonetheless, Chetnik forces proceeded to liberate Valjevo and Kraljevo, with the latter battle seeing the first use of artillery captured from the Germans.
The Germans Against Mihailovic
At a conference with his highest-ranking commanders on the 1st of December, 1941, Colonel Mihailovic gave his newest orders for further attacks against the Germans and Communists. However, a few days after this conference, nearby German units began a heavy, concerted assault on Ravna Gora. “Operation Mihailovic” was meant to destroy all guerilla units within a radius of 120 kilometers of the mountain and to begin a general dismantling of all Chetnik units in the region. Many of his closest associates, among them Major Aleksandar Misic, were captured and subsequently shot. Nevertheless, the offensive did not accomplish its goal and Draza’s movement essentially remained intact.
In New Surroundings
After the German Ravna Gora offensive, Mihailovic’s forces continued with their declared desire for anti-fascist resistance. The winter of 1941-42 proved a difficult one though, and the survival of the resistance was put to its strongest test yet. During that winter, German squads carried out constant reprisals against Chetnik forces and the Serbian population that had supported them. After the failure of the German offensive on Ravna Gora, Mihailovic and his associates were often on the move. Due to constant German attack, Mihailovic was forced to move from village to village and from mountain to mountain on a regular basis.
One of the more important assemblies of the Ravna Gora Movement during the war was the Saint Sava’s Day assembly that took place from January 25 to January 28, 1944. The movement’s program for the internal organization of Yugoslavia was accepted at this assembly. The assembly was a reaction to the recent events in London, including events in the government in exile and conversations with Churchill and other British officials. These conversations all led to one issue: Eliminating Mihailovic and appeasing the Soviets, who had already penetrated west with the Red Army. The British Premier explicitly requested that Puric’s government be replaced, which would take Mihailovic out of the picture for Britain and Yugoslavia. That is eventually what took place. Puric’s government was dismissed on June 1, 1944 and Dr. Ivan Subasic was named the new leader. This meant that Mihailovic was finally removed from his ministerial position. Ironically, the main protagonist of the anti-communist resistance was now out of the picture. The Central National Committee, which met in July, judged this form of government to be untrustworthy and demanded that free influence over the area be upheld. All of these judgments were to no avail.
While the attacks continued, Mihailovic was on Durmitor, which was free at the time, moving to Kalinovik so that by the end of summer 1942, he had created his own general staff headquarters near Kolasin. With the arrival of Mihailovic on Sinjajevin, the western and eastern sections of Crna Gora become the center from which the Ravna Gora Movement continued its actions in the fight for freedom. During the largest German action against Mihailovic, the government in London gave him the rank of Brigadier General on December 7, 1942. One month later, he was pronounced General and soon after, he became Lieutenant General.
As the most difficult battles with the Partisans were occurring, Mihailovic gave an order on September 1, 1944 whose main objective was to deal with the Communists because “they were preparing to impose their own slavery and bloody tyranny on us.” Mihailovic realized that the repeated infiltration of Communism in Serbia was led by the idea of the destruction of the Serbian people. This was confirmed by his words: “the million that they killed with the Ustashas were not enough.”
As the most dramatic events were unfolding, Mihailovic’s Chetniks received another blow from an unexpected source. The blow came from those for whom they were dying for, the same people that were mentioned in songs and placed on flags. On September 12, 1944, the King gave in to Churchill’s demands, unaware of the horrible consequences this decision would have on Mihailovic, the army, and on himself. Mihailovic removed his hat when the stenograph of the speech from the BBC was read to him. It was not until midnight that he once again took his hat, took one long look at it, and kissed it before retiring for the night.
Although Mihailovic was very shaken by the King’s speech, he felt that “one shouldn’t succumb to the influences of one act, whose objectives lie in the war plans of our great allies.” His dedication to the monarchy and his country was greater than that of the King’s. Mihailovic adamantly insisted on discipline since “the Ravna Gora revolution must not be a revolution of disorder and killing, rather a revolution of justice and freedom.”
Allied Pilots Rescued in 1944
In a large air assault inflicted by the allied air forces from Italy, large bombing raids took place on fuel installations in Romania and on other strategic targets. At the request of Tito and his Yugoslav communists, towns and other targets in Serbia were also attacked. The sky above Serbia was covered with traces of smoke from American quad-engine bombers. Even though they were bombing Serbian towns, the Serbian Chetniks still revered them as allies. A number of planes were downed by German and Romanian anti-aircraft artillery installations. The allied pilots were parachuting from their damaged or destroyed aircraft over Serbia. Thankfully, over 500 of these pilots fell into the hands of Mihailovic’s Chetniks, avoiding German internment or certain death. This took place at the expense of the lives of many Chetniks and civilians who took part in the rescue. After both short and long stays in the free Ravna Gora territory, the pilots were returned to their original units in Italy from the Pranjani Airport near Cacak.
The End of the War
Mihailovic’s radio station, the only contact with the outside world, was forever silenced on May 5th. At 11 o’clock on Easter, May 6, 1945, everyone stopped in his or her tracks. After a short service, the last order given by Mihailovic was read: “Today, we will continue with the goals that we have set for ourselves. Our resistance and our suffering is a given right, given by the Lord. We could lose our lives in this struggle, but our victory is guaranteed, a victory and a blessing for those who survive and for the last of us. Assured by your steadfastness to endure to the end, I direct my attention to you, my dearest fellow soldiers, and greet you with Christ is risen!”
One week later, after being tracked by communist troops and by the air force of the former allies, the main portion of Mihailovic’s forces were destroyed on Zelengora. Hidden from international view, the communists didn’t take prisoners amongst the Ravna Gora fighters, who were abandoned by the West. They didn’t even have the need for such formalities. At least 9300 Mihailovic fighters were liquidated, either before or after their capture. It is ironic that the first individual who appeared armed with guerilla formations in the fight against the Germans in the spring of 1941 was now the last and only one remaining in the forests of Serbia in 1945. Just as he was once the first to rise in protest against the German occupation in Europe, at the conclusion of the war, he was also the first to protest the tyrannical establishment of the Communist regime in Yugoslavia.
A Few Words About Mihailovic and His Family
General Mihailovic was a deeply religious individual. He prayed regularly, fasted, took communion, and celebrated his patron saint day of Saint Nikola. Mihailovic’s son Vojo was at his father’s side from 1941 to the end. He was killed in 1945 at the conclusion of the Bosnian Golgotha. Mihailovic’s wife, their older son Branko, and their daughter Gordana were repeatedly imprisoned by the Germans, interrogated, and held as hostages. General Mihailovic lived and perished in accord with his beliefs: With the people until the very end.
During World War II, General Mihailovic was a soldier, a commander, and leader of his people who resisted the mightiest military power ever known to man up until that time. Slobodan Jovanovic wrote: “General Mihailovic fulfilled his responsibilities as the son of the Serbian people. This is already evident by the fact that he has not only become a historical figure, but has become a national tradition. He was persecuted, slandered, tortured, and fatigued during his entire lifetime. His body was strewn into pieces and he has no marked grave, but he continues to live in the souls of the Serbian people, where he will remain as long as the Serbian people exist.”
With the implementation of the Communist regime, the weakening of the Serbian National Dynasty took place in the early phases of the system. They slowly began the destruction of spirituality and transformed the vast territories of the Serbian people to a “smaller” Serbia.
Legion of Merit awarded to General Mihailovic by President Truman with the following dedication:
General Dragoljub Mihailovich distinguished himself in an outstanding manner as Commander-in-Chief of the Yugoslavian Army Forces and later as Minister of War by organizing and leading important resistance forces against the enemy which occupied Yugoslavia, from December 1941 to December 1944. Through the undaunted efforts of his troops, many United States airmen were rescued and returned safely to friendly control. 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.
March 29, 1948
HARRY S. TRUMAN