Prof. Alex N. Dragnich reviews Michael Lees’ “The Rape of Serbia” and David Martin’s “The Web of Disinformation” – Why these two books cannot be ignored.
Michael Lees: The Rape of Serbia: The British Role in Tito’s Grab for Power, 1943-1944.
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990. 384 pages.
David Martin: The Web of Disinformation: Churchill’s Yugoslav Blunder.
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990. 425 pages.
A review of both books by Alex N. Dragnich
Mediterranean Quarterly, Winter 1991
In the middle of the Second World War, the Allies made a decision to abandon the man who raised the first banner of guerrilla resistance in Europe against the Axis, and threw their support to the man who was to introduce a Communist regime in Yugoslavia. Did the West – or more precisely, Winston Churchill – prefer a Communist victory in Yugoslavia? A number of historians have been raising some embarrassing questions about this decision.
Both of these books are concerned with the abandonment of Colonel Drazha Mihailovich and the support of his opponent, Communist Josip Broz (Tito). Lees concentrates on the British role, but both authors want to know why and how this was done, and who was responsible. Moreover, their previous research furnishes them with hypotheses to test. The frame of reference for Lees is that of a British liaison officer (BLO) with Mihailovich, while Martin’s is that of a dogged investigator who has never let up in his determination to get to the bottom of Mihailovich’s betrayal.
Lees is emotional and passionate, suffering the guilt of “perfidious Albion” who betrayed an honorable ally. Moreover, he is bitter, and senses that additional skulldoggery remains to be revealed in still-classified British intelligence documents, but he suspects that they will be “cleansed” before release. Martin, on the other hand, is cool and analytical, using the pen as a skilled surgeon wields his scalpel. He does not show bitterness, but he does demonstrate a mild satisfaction in having been right all along since he began to write about the subject nearly fifty years ago.
Both authors rely heavily on a substantial batch of files in the British Public Records Office dealing with Yugoslavia, which had somehow slipped through the classification net. Of particular value to them is the day-to-day “Operational Log,” involving British intelligence’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), whose Cairo office, in their opinion, is highly suspect. Their research has also benefited from their examination of other war records, as well as from the writings of and interviews with certain participants.
Lees, who was a BLO (British liaison officer) with Mihailovich in Serbia from June 1943 to May 1944, writes mainly from the point of view of a participant-observer who has seen how history was distorted by the victors in Yugoslavia and their sympathizers on the outside. He tells some “unpalatable, but irrefutable, truths that have been covered up for too long.” Martin’s is a penetrating scholarly study, full of citations. In addition, it is supplemented by five appendices of more than 100 pages, a useful addition for anyone who wishes to read the important reports from the field by Maclean, Armstrong-Bailey, Mansfield, Farish, and McDowell. Martin has been digging for the truth about Allied Yugoslav policy for nearly fifty years, as attested by his earlier works Ally Betrayed (1946) and Patriot or Traitor: The Case of General Mihailovich (1978).
Both books deal primarily with the late-1943 and early-1944 period, when the Allies deserted the man whom they had built up as a hero, and began assisting Communist Tito on a grand scale. It was this radical change in policy, and the copious armaments that accompanied it, the authors aver, that turned the tide in the civil war and assured a Communist regime in Yugoslavia. Both authors have assembled convincing evidence and arguments to deal with four basic subjects: (1) the role of James Klugmann and the SOE Cairo; (2) the official reasons for the Allied change in policy; (3) Churchill’s role; and (4) the consequences of the change in policy.
The Role of James Klugmann and SOE Cairo
The SOE in Cairo filtered intelligence from the BLOs in Yugoslavia and passed on to London only information favorable to Tito’s Partisans, even crediting them with anti-Nazi sabotage performed by Mihailovich’s men. BLOs working with Mihailovich protested, but there is no evidence that these were ever forwarded to London. Often the Foreign Office in London did not know what SOE Cairo was doing.
The key man in SOE Cairo was James Klugmann, an avowed Communist. He exercised important influence on Englishmen William Deakin and Fitzroy MacLean, who were personally known to Churchill and even had direct access to him. These men were sent to Tito and within weeks, even without visiting Serbia, recommended that Mihailovich be abandoned. Six critical incidents in the relationship between SOE Cairo and Mihailovich “were characterized by such apparent malevolence or inaccuracy that they simply could not have been the product of accident or error” (Martin), and during the May-December 1943 period the only officer attached to the Yugoslav section of SOE Cairo was Klugmann.
Official Reasons for the Allied Change in Policy
Two reasons were officially given for abandoning Mihailovich, his inactivity and collaboration with the enemy. Both charges were false. Although at one time Mihailovich was inactive because of the large-scale Nazi killing of hostages as retribution, at that time a lay-low policy was being urged by the West on all underground movements. In 1943, however, Mihailovich was very active. Martin has compiled a twenty-page chronological compendium of such actions, and concludes that “those responsible for the political decision to abandon Mihailovich in early December 1943 could not have had access to the essential facts detailed in the compendium.”
Moreover, postwar scholarship demonstrates that the information used by Churchill to defend his change in policy, that the Partisan forces were much larger and were killing more Germans, was fundamentally flawed. BLOs with Tito produced romanticized reports, while those with Mihailovich were not only better qualified by language and experience, their reports also included the good and the bad. In addition, crucial German communications were in Serbia, which was in Mihailovich’s and not Partisan territory. And the Nazis looked upon Mihailovich as fully as dangerous to them as Tito’s Partisans. Finally, Mihailovich was undertaking sabotage actions even when he knew that he would be abandoned. In December 1943, the British requested Mihailovich to destroy certain targets as a supposed final test of his loyalty, while at the same time telling BLOs with him to prepare to desert to the Partisans. Even so, Mihailovich agreed, but the promised arms, ammunition, and explosives were never sent, the British perhaps fearing that he might comply with what was really an ultimatum. In September 1944, his forces met the Soviet army when it entered Yugoslavia and cooperated with it until they were turned over to the mercy of Tito’s minions.
The charges of collaboration are patently false, and are contradicted by Lees and Martin as well as by other researchers. True, some of Mihailovich’s commanders made deals with the Italians, without Mihailovich’s knowledge, as a way of protecting Serbs from further massacres by the Nazi satellite Ustashe regime in the so-called “Independent State of Croatia,” as well as from Communist attacks. Also, the British had told Mihailovich to be in touch with the Italians in Montenegro in case of an Italian collapse or withdrawal.
Ironically, in September 1943 Mihailovich was in a position to disarm the Venezia Division, the most important Italian force on the Yugoslav mainland with equipment that would have given Mihailovich more arms than he got during the whole war, but was prevented from doing so by the head of the BLO mission with Mihailovich, Colonel Bailey, who proclaimed the Venezia Division an Allied force. Subsequently, the Partisans got the Italian arms. Bailey’s action remains a puzzle. The charge that Mihailovich was cooperating with Nedich’s occupation militia in Serbia, a government similar to Petain’s in France, was a deliberate tactic to penetrate the militia so that when the West signaled the time for a general uprising, Mihailovich would have significant additional forces at his disposal. It should also be noted that Mihailovich’s commanders never went as far as Tito’s top negotiators, who offered the Germans a truce so that the Partisans could concentrate their fire on the Mihailovich units.
Although it is clear that he was misled, in the final analysis Churchill was responsible for what happened in Yugoslavia. He was eager to accept the views of the amateurs, Maclean and Deakin, and later his son Randolph, that the Partisans were far more effective against the occupier than Mihailovich. This was in seemingly total disregard of the fate of an ally, shamelessly sold into Communist slavery for the sake of doubtful short-term goals. Churchill, however, assuaged his conscience by believing that the Communist Partisans could be tamed and brought under Allied control.
Moreover, Churchill demonstrated a fair amount of cynicism when he dismissed Maclean’s observation that Tito, with or without British help, would probably win the civil war and establish a Communist system. “Do you intend to make Yugoslavia your home after the war?” Churchill asked. In 1945, he admitted that his Yugoslav decision was one of the biggest mistakes in the war, one for which he had difficulty in obtaining U.S. support. The reports from members of American missions in Yugoslavia that got beyond Cairo could not in the end stem the tide. Subsequently, Tito was to boast that he had “outsmarted and deceived that old fox Churchill.” Some British leaders, notably Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, raised doubts about the wisdom of the change in policy, but to no avail.
Consequences of the Change in Policy
The British were aware that the decision to send aid to Tito ran the risk of worsening the civil war. Consequently, they instructed their BLOs in both camps to warn the respective leaders against attacking each other. The only difficulty was that Mihailovich was reminded frequently not to attack the Partisans unless attacked by them, while there is no evidence that BLOs with Tito ever issued such warnings. This worked in Tito’s favor, who used the considerable armaments sent to him by the British and the assistance of the Soviet Red Army to subdue Serbia. In the words of one of Tito’s generals, “In actual practice, more men fell on both sides [fighting each other] than in the struggle against the invaders and the Ustashe.”
Tito was also assisted by BBC broadcasts, beamed to Yugoslavia, that credited the Partisans with sabotage actually undertaken by Mihailovich’s Chetniks, and then went on to urge the general population to join Tito’s forces. References to Mihailovich became negative. Colonel Bailey and Brigadier Armstrong, who were with Mihailovich and heard the broadcasts, complained to SOE Cairo, but there is nothing in the record that any of their protests were ever forwarded to the BBC.
Both authors agree that the still secret SOE and other intelligence files may hold answers to several questions, one of them being the somewhat murky role of Colonel Bailey, BLO head with Mihailovich. Generally speaking, Martin is satisfied to present the evidence and to interpret it. Lees, on the other hand, is inclined to go a step further and to pass judgment. Mihailovich’s undoing, he observes, was his “respect and trust” in the British. The critical accusations against him, he says, are scurrilous, ungracious, and unworthy.” At the same time, Lees notes, the loyalist Chetnik forces led by Mihailovich “suffered it all in dignity and courtesy. History should register that.”
Future serious inquiries into the subject cannot ignore these books.
Dr. Alex N. Dragnich
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