Setting Europe Ablaze

THE SPRING and summer of 1944 witnessed a flowering, albeit imperfect in the prime minister’s eyes, of one of his most cherished inspirations: resistance movements in occupied Europe and the Balkans. Back in 1940, Churchill famously ordered the minister of economic warfare, Hugh Dalton, to “set Europe ablaze.” This instruction prompted the creation of the Special Operations Executive, a secret organisation charged with promoting resistance—explicitly terrorism, armed action by nonuniformed civilians—everywhere that the Axis held sway. By submarine and small boat, plane and parachute, British-trained agents descended on Europe, and later Southeast Asia, to establish contact with those willing to raise the banner of opposition to tyranny, albeit by means unsanctioned in the Geneva Conventions. Events in France have received most attention from postwar chroniclers, though the partisans in Yugoslavia achieved much greater strategic significance, as Churchill perceived from 1943 onwards.

The men and women of the SOE helped to create one of the enduring legends of World War II. It seemed then, as it still does today, especially heroic to risk torture and death alone, far behind enemy lines. Support for domestic insurrection represented a personal act of faith by the prime minister, which ran contrary to the views of many of his service advisers. He treasured a belief that the peoples of Europe could play an important part in their own liberation, declaring on June 10, 1941: “We shall aid and stir the people of every conquered country to resistance and revolt. We shall break up and derange every effort which Hitler makes to systematize and consolidate his subjugation.” At the prime minister’s behest, a War Office planning document the same month addressed the promotion of resistance movements: “Subjugated peoples must be caused869 to rise against their oppressors, but not until the stage is set. The ‘attack from within’ is the basic concept of such operations—and we should be able to do it in a bigger way than did the Germans. They had but a few Quislings to help them, and we have whole populations. The Patriots must be secretly organised and armed with personal weapons to be delivered to them by air if necessary.”

Churchill anticipated that indigenous peoples would play a major part in their own liberation. If the United States entered the war, he wrote in a minute to Portal, the chief of the Air Staff, on October 7, 1941, there would be “simultaneous attacks by armoured forces870 in many of the conquered countries which were ripe for revolt.” In a paper of June 15, 1942, he cited “rousing the populations” among the first objectives of Allied landings on the Continent. The mission of the SOE was to hasten such ripening and “rousing.” In many books published even in the twenty-first century, accounts of what took place in the attempt to fulfil his vision are heavily coloured by romance. Reality was at least as interesting, but much more complex.

In June 1940, expressing to Canadian premier Mackenzie King his uncertainty about whether France would stay in the war, Churchill wrote: “I hope they will, even at the worst, maintain a gigantic guerrilla.”871 In the event, through the first years of occupation, France and the rest of western Europe remained passive. Acts of violent opposition were sporadic. It took time for the trauma of defeat to be overcome, for like-minded defiant spirits to meet and coalesce into groups. The British were in no condition to offer assistance. Most important, only a tiny minority of people were willing actively to oppose the Germans. In the matter of resistance, as in so much else, Churchill’s heroic enthusiasm struck little resonance with the mood of Europe’s citizens, preoccupied with more humdrum concerns. They needed to feed their families, earn wages, preserve roofs above their heads. All these simple human purposes were put at risk—mortal risk—by any defiance of the occupiers.

Violent demonstrations flew in the face of national consensuses. It was not that people liked the Germans, but that acquiescence in their hegemony appeared to represent the only rational course. Such prominent figures as the French writer André Gide, who utterly rejected collaboration with the occupiers, nonetheless dismissed the notion of violent opposition. Until the Soviet Union and United States entered the war, Hitler’s grasp upon his empire was beyond military challenge. Britain’s prime minister uttered stirring words, echoed by broadcasters speaking from London in many languages to oppressed peoples, but no British army was capable of reentering the Continent. This made most people in Hitler’s new dominions unwilling to threaten the welfare of their own communities by actions which promised retribution.

Even for those who wanted to fight, Churchill severely underestimated the difficulties of conducting guerrilla operations against an efficient and ruthless occupier in heavily urbanised regions of Europe. In Denmark, Holland, Belgium and large parts of France, there were few hiding places for armed bands. The Germans adopted policies designed to promote passivity. Any action against their forces brought down punishment upon entire communities. On May 27, 1941, Churchill sent872 a note to Lord Selborne, Dalton’s successor at the Ministry of Economic Warfare, suggesting providing oppressed people with simple weapons and sticks of dynamite. Yet the use of “simple weapons” by such “oppressed people” provoked determinedly disproportionate German responses. On October 20 that year, an Alsatian Communist shot dead the German military commandant of Nantes, and made good his escape. Historian Robert Gildea has written: “Far from welcoming873 this assassination as the first step towards their liberation, the population of Nantes was horrified,” not least because the dead German seemed to local bourgeois an unusually sympathetic personality though a ruthless anti-Semite. Ninety-eight civilian hostages were executed. This caused Maurice Schumann to broadcast from London on the BBC French Service, urging that such terrorist action should not be repeated. De Gaulle delivered the same message on October 23: “In war there are tactics. The war of the French must be carried out by those in charge, that is, by myself and the National Committee.”

Churchill, however, dissented. He believed that it was essential to impose maximum pain and inconvenience upon the enemy. He deemed the deaths of hostages a necessary sacrifice for enabling the French people to show that they would not bow to tyranny, as most had indeed bowed since June 1940. He once told a meeting of the Cabinet Defence Committee that while acts of resistance prompted bloody reprisals, “the blood of the Martyrs was the seed of the church.” The behaviour of Hitler’s minions in occupied Europe had made the Germans hated as no other race had been hated, he said, and this sentiment must be exploited. He deplored any attempt to stifle resistance in the interests of innocent bystanders. “Nothing must be done874 which would result in the falling off of this most valuable means of harassing the enemy.” This was an extension of the view he adopted when Britain was threatened with invasion. In 1940, Generals Paget and Auchinleck urged that the civil population should be told to stay at home, rather than risk their lives offering ineffectual resistance to the Germans with scythes and brickbats. The prime minister strongly disagreed. In war, he said, quarter is given not on grounds of compassion, but to deter the enemy from fighting to the end: “Here, we want every citizen to fight875desperately and they will do so the more if they know that the alternative is massacre.” What he expected from British civilians in 1940 he sought thereafter from those of occupied Europe.

Here was Churchill at his most ruthless. He was constantly fearful that, left to itself, Europe would lapse into subservience to Hitler’s hegemony. It provoked his chagrin that few French people rallied to de Gaulle’s standard not only in 1940, but through the years which followed. Usefully for Churchill’s aspirations, Germany adopted towards most of its European empire policies so shamelessly selfish, as well as brutal, that even the rulers of Vichy France came progressively to understand that they could forge no partnership with their occupiers. Berlin wanted only economic plunder876 for the benefit of the Reich’s citizens. Hitler’s policies thus assisted those of Churchill.

Yet, at least until after D-Day, in 1944, reprisals convinced most people in the occupied countries that the cost of violent acts outweighed their value. The Norwegians, though strongly anti-German, conducted resistance with notable prudence. Norwegian special forces dispatched from Britain occasionally attacked important targets, such as the Rjukan heavy water plant, but local people avoided open combat. In Czechoslovakia, the May 27, 1942, killing of Reinhard Heydrich, “Protector” of Bohemia and Moravia, by Czechs parachuted in from Britain, prompted shocking reprisals, most notoriously the slaughter of the 198 men of the village of Lidice, whose women were sent to concentration camps. Local resistance groups were smashed. Many Czechs believe to this day that the assassination was mistaken, because it was purchased so dearly in innocent lives.

In France, the detonation of a roadside bomb in Marseilles prompted the Germans to demolish the entire vieux quartier of the city, making forty thousand people homeless. Terrasson, a pretty little town in south-central France, suffered heavily both from resistance activism and German reprisals. “The cycle is simple,”877 its mayor, Georges Labarthe, wrote wretchedly to his mother in Paris in June 1944: “the maquis conduct an operation, the Germans arrive, the civil population pay the tariff, the Germans go away and the maquis reappear. Where there are casualties among the Germans, the retribution is terrible. I must confess that in these circumstances it is hard to be the representative and defender of the people.”

In western Europe resistance achieved its greatest strength in wildernesses which mattered least to Hitler strategically—those most remote from potential invasion coasts. An overwhelming majority of people with large possessions—the aristocracy and the business community—collaborated with the occupiers, because they had most to lose. Many SOE agents captured by the Germans were betrayed by local inhabitants. British officers relied for assistance and shelter chiefly upon the little people of their societies—schoolteachers, trades unionists, peasant farmers. Only 20 percent of letters opened by French censors even late in the war, in the first six months of 1944, expressed approval of “terrorism.” A typical comment was: “The maquis act in the name of patriotism, but fortunately the police are getting tough and I hope with all my heart that these youths are soon destroyed, for they commit all kinds of atrocities on innocent people.” One of the best historians of wartime France, Julian Jackson, writes: “Other evidence exists thatmaquis violence was widely condemned.”878 In the Jura, where terrible German acts of savagery took place in 1944, some local doctors refused to tend Resistance wounded. Many people refused fugitives shelter. Priests declined to say prayers for the dying. In Haute-Saône, the Vichyite prefect noted: “Less and less do the terrorists enjoy the complicity of the rural population.” Extreme repression and unbridled brutality fuelled hatred but also fear. German policy was notably effective in suppressing dissent.

Churchill envisaged the peoples of Europe causing such trouble for the Germans that occupation became costly, even unviable. Yet untrained and ill-organised civilians could never aspire to defeat regular troops. “What is an army without artillery, tanks and air force?” demanded Stalin contemptuously about the Polish resistance. “In modern warfare such an army is of little use.” He was by no means wrong. The objection of many decent and patriotic Europeans to resistance was that its sluggishly mounting tempo of violence sufficed to annoy the Germans, but imposed no crisis upon them. With brave and notable exceptions, it may be suggested that resistance was most enthusiastically supported by those, both British and people of the occupied nations, who had no personal stake in local communities vulnerable to reprisals.

Some senior British officers opposed the SOE’s mandate on both pragmatic and ethical grounds. They perceived the unlikelihood of stimulating successful mass revolt, such as Churchill wanted, and were uncomfortable about promoting terrorism by armed civilians. The chief of the Air Staff, Portal, in February 1941 attempted to insist that one of the first SOE parties parachuted into France should wear uniform: “I think the dropping of men879 dressed in civilian clothes for the purpose of attempting to kill members of the opposing forces is not an operation with which the Royal Air Force should be associated,” he told Gladwyn Jebb of the Foreign Office. “I think you will agree that there is a vast difference, in ethics, between the time-honoured operation of the dropping of a spy from the air, and this entirely new scheme for dropping what one can only call assassins.” Such fastidiousness may seem ironic when displayed by one of the architects of area bombing. But it illustrates the sentiments of many senior service officers. Others, such as Sir Arthur Harris of Bomber Command, became fanatical foes of the SOE, because they resented the diversion of aircraft to support its networks.

Sir Stewart Menzies and his subordinates in the Secret Intelligence Service hated their amateur rivals, first, on Whitehall territorial grounds, and, second, because in the field ambushes and acts of sabotage excited the Germans and made more difficult discreet intelligence gathering by the SIS’s agents. An early SOE hand in the Middle East, Bickham Sweet-Escott, wrote of his own introduction to cloak and daggery: “Nobody who did not experience it can possibly imagine880 the atmosphere of jealousy, suspicion, and intrigue which embittered relations between the various secret and semi-secret departments in Cairo during that summer of 1941.” Matters were not much better a year later, when Oliver Lyttelton was dispatched to the Mediterranean as minister resident. He recorded: “I was disturbed … by the lack of security881, waste and ineffectiveness of SOE.” The same strictures were often voiced in London.

Between 1940 and 1943, the highest achievement of the SOE in most occupied countries was to keep agents alive and wireless transmitters functioning, with most success in rural areas. The Soviet Union’s entry into the war prompted a dramatic accession of strength to resistance groups from Europe’s Communists. A second critical development in France was Germany’s 1943 introduction of massed forced labour, known as the Service du Travail Obligatoire (STO). Tens of thousands of young men fled into hiding in the countryside, to the maquis, to escape deportation to Germany. They formed bands under leaders of differing and often mutually hostile political hues. Most were preoccupied with feeding themselves through banditry which enraged its bourgeois victims, rather than with fighting the Germans. Many French people882 asserted bitterly after the war, in private at least, that the Germans behaved better than did Communist maquisards. There is a widespread delusion that resistance groups were commanded by SOE officers, but this was rarely so. Most British agents fulfilled a liaison role, exercising varying degrees of influence upon French group leaders through their control of cash and supply drops.

Above all, until the spring of 1944 resistance groups were poorly armed. Only then did the Allies possess sufficient aircraft and weapons to begin equipping maquisards wholesale. A whimsical November 1941 proposal883 from Lord Cherwell to drop containers of arms randomly across occupied Europe to encourage spontaneous acts of violence was rejected as a waste of scarce air resources. Until the last months before liberation, sabotage and guerrilla operations in most European countries—with the notable exception of Yugoslavia, of which more below—were on a relatively tiny scale. The so-called Armée Secrète, which recognised the authority of de Gaulle, generally respected instructions from London to remain passive until the approach of D-Day. Communist bands of the FTP—Franc-Tireurs et Partisans—adopted more activist tactics, with ruthless disregard for the interests of local people.

Churchill loved to meet British agents and Frenchmen, returned from their hazardous missions. He entertained at Downing Street Wing Commander Edward Yeo-Thomas—“the White Rabbit”—Jean Moulin and Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie. Such encounters invariably prompted him to urge the RAF to divert more aircraft to aid their struggle. His personal enthusiasm for resistance was critical in overcoming the scepticism of conventional warriors. It was sometimes said of the “Baker Street Irregulars” that Britain was tipped on its side, and everything loose fell into the SOE. Many of its personnel, unsurprisingly, were individualists and eccentrics. Their perspicacity often failed to match their enthusiasm. They cherished extravagant faith in their unseen protégés in occupied Europe. A sceptic remarked of Col. Maurice Buckmaster, chief of the SOE’s French Section: “He believed that all his geese884 were swans.”

The SOE’s most conspicuous security lapse was its failure, despite many warnings, to perceive that the Germans had so deeply penetrated its Dutch operations that almost every agent parachuted into Holland in 1942–43 landed into enemy hands. The revelation of this disaster, at the end of 1943, precipitated a crisis in the organisation’s affairs. Its Whitehall foes, of whom there were many, crowded forward to demand curtailment of its operations and calls on resources. Menzies and his colleagues at the SIS argued that the debacle reflected the chronic amateurishness and lack of tradecraft prevailing at SOE’s Baker Street headquarters and pervading its operations in the field. They were by no means wrong. The SOE since 1940 had indeed been learning on the job, at severe cost in lives and wasted effort. Meanwhile in September 1943, the army’s exasperation with the SOE’s Balkan operations, which it claimed were out of control, caused the C-in-C Middle East to demand that the organisation should be brought under his orders. This issue was still unresolved when the Dutch scandal broke.

On Churchill’s return from Marrakesh in January 1944, the row was appealed to him for decision. He renewed the SOE’s mandate (though rejecting its presumptuous demand for a seat on the Chiefs of Staff Committee), confirmed its independence, and ordered the RAF to release more aircraft for arms dropping. The organisation’s internal historian wrote later: “There is no doubt that, in this critical phase885 of its development, SOE and the Resistance movements which it led were sustained very largely by the personal influence of Mr. Churchill.” The prime minister took the view that the SOE’s enthusiasm and activism outweighed its deficiencies. It was too late in the war to undertake wholesale restructuring. Much of the criticism of the SOE, he believed, derived from Whitehall jealousies. It was impossible to conduct a secret war of such an unprecedented kind without misfortunes which cost lives, as do all mistakes in conflict.

Thus, in the last months before liberation, relatively large quantities of arms—though pathetically small quantities of ammunition—began to reach resisters. The British estimated that some 35,000 active maquisards were in the field, though de Gaulle claimed a strength of 175,000 for France’s secret army. The SOE believed that its parachutages provided weapons for 50,000. The intoxicating confidence thus created persuaded some groups to conduct disastrous pitched battles with the Germans. At Mont Mouchet on May 20, 1944, the regional Armée Secrète commander, Emile Coulaudon, ordered a mass concentration of his groups, six thousand strong. On June 10, the Germans attacked them. At least 350 maquisards perished, while the remainder dispersed and fled. Local communities suffered devastating reprisals.

Another act of folly, the brief liberation of the town of Tulle in the Corrèze by the Communist FTP for a few hours on June 9, caused SS panzergrenadiers to hang 99 innocent hostages from the lampposts in reprisal for the resistance massacre of the elderly Wehrmacht reservists who had garrisoned the town. At Oradour-sur-Glane the next day, 642 men, women and children were slaughtered, in reprisal for the abduction by maquisards of a popular SS battalion commander. That day, from London, Gen. Pierre Koenig, designated by de Gaulle as commander of the FFI—Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur—ordered a “maximum brake on guerrilla activities.” Such a demand was at odds both with the mood of the moment and all previous instructions. It created confusion in the ranks of the Resistance. On June 17, Koenig issued a new order: “Continue elusive guerrilla activity to the maximum,” while avoiding concentrations. This did not prevent the madness of the Vercors on July 21, where 640 maquisards and 201 local civilians were killed, as the Germans assaulted another ill-judged gathering of Resistance forces.

Around 24,000 FFI fighters died during the struggle for France. Thousands more, most of them civilians, perished in reprisals and executions of prisoners, for instance 11,000 in and around Paris; 3,673 in Lyons; 2,863 in the Limoges area; 1,113 in Lille; and similar proportions in lesser cities, together with thousands of others deported to German concentration camps, from which most never returned. It seems doubtful whether it was useful or prudent to arm the French Resistance on a large scale. Churchill’s enthusiasm caused the maquis to become dangerous enough to enrage the Germans, but insufficiently powerful to defend themselves or their communities. Most maquisards had only pistols or Sten submachine guns with two or three magazines apiece. They lacked heavy weapons, ammunition and radio communications for sustained or large-scale engagements.

The courage and sacrifice of those who supported resistance, or even merely withheld support from Vichy, deserve the profound respect of posterity. But the moral achievement must be detached from cool analysis of the military balance. Postwar claims for the damage inflicted on the enemy by the French Resistance and its SOE sponsors were grossly exaggerated, as German war diaries make plain. Resistance historians, for instance, have claimed that the maquis inflicted hundreds of casualties upon the 2nd SS Das Reich Armoured Division on its march from southern France to Normandy in June 1944. German records, by contrast, reveal only thirty-five killed886. The impact of maquis attacks on German communications that summer was infinitesimally smaller than that of Allied air attacks. Resistance fulfilled a striking moral function, especially important in resurrecting the postwar self-respect of occupied nations. Julian Jackson has written: “In the history of France887, Resistance is more important as a social and political phenomenon than a military one.”

The Balkans, however, were different. There, the terrain was much more favourable to guerrilla warfare. In Albania, Greece, Yugoslavia and also Italy, the prime minister perceived political circumstances and military opportunities which might yield dramatic benefits. New Zealand premier Peter Fraser urged caution, sensibly observing to Churchill that the Balkans was a region “of seething factions, who would turn to whoever would give them most support.”888 But the prime minister believed that local passions could be harnessed to Allied purposes. It was remarked by critics that the enthusiasm of the prime minister and of the SOE’s guiding lights reflected a “T. E. Lawrence complex,” wild delusions about the prospect that a few personable British officers might influence the behaviour of entire Balkan societies, in support of British foreign policy objectives. American suspicions that imperialistic motives underpinned the SOE caused Roosevelt in October 1943 to advance to Churchill a clumsy request, swiftly dismissed by the prime minister, for Colonel Donovan of the American OSS to assume authority for all Allied special operations in the Balkans.

From 1943 onwards, the SOE lavished much effort upon Mediterranean countries, with mixed results. Some of its most flamboyant officers, men such as Billy Maclean and David Smiley, were dropped into the mountains of Albania to work with local partisans. Almost without exception, they loathed the country and its people. They found the Albanians far more eager to accept weapons and to steal equipment and supplies than to fight the Germans. “How pleased I shall be to return to civilisation again,”889 one officer confided to his diary, “to be among people one can trust and not to be surrounded by dirt, filth and bad manners … It is not as if one was doing anything useful here or could do so. There is so little charity among these people that they cannot believe anyone would come all this way just to help them … They are boastful and vain with nothing to be boastful or vain about. They have no courage, no consistency and no sense of honour.”

Enver Hoxha, the Albanian Communist leader who dominated guerrilla operations, was chiefly concerned to secure his own power base for a postwar takeover. It is easy to see why the Albanians, mired in poverty and a struggle for existence, showed so little enthusiasm for supporting the activist purposes of British missions. Guerrilla operations provoked the Germans to reprisals which the SOE’s teams were quite incapable of deflecting. Young British officers in Albania hazarded their own lives with considerable insouciance. Local peasants, however, saw their homes, crops and families imperilled, for no discernible advantage save to pursue a misty vision of “freedom.” Beyond a few useful acts of sabotage, in Albania the military achievements of resistance groups were slight.

Throughout the Balkans, internal political rivalries dogged British efforts to mobilise societies against their occupiers. In Greece and Crete, the population was overwhelmingly hostile to the Germans. The country had a long tradition of opposition to authority. Unfortunately, however, Greek society was racked by dissentions, the ferocity of which bewildered British officers thrust into their midst. There was no love for the king, nor for the Greek exile government backed by Churchill. Each guerrilla band cherished its own loyalties. Col. Monty Woodhouse, one of the most celebrated SOE officers who served among the Greeks, reported to Cairo: “No one is ever free from the struggle for existence890; everything else is secondary to it. That is why no one outside Greece can speak for the Greeks.” The British, on instructions from Cairo and ultimately from Churchill, were predisposed to support royalists. When Napoleon Zervas, leader of the relatively small Republican group EDES, told the SOE in 1943 that he backed the restoration of King George, he was rewarded by receiving twice the arms drops provided to the Communists of EAM/ELAS, even though the Communists were six times more numerous, and were doing all the fighting. Zervas repaid British largesse by establishing a tacit truce with the Germans, and biding his time to pursue his own purposes. As so often in occupied Europe, political and military objectives891 pulled British policy in different directions.

In 1944, realities on the ground seemed to make it essential to provide arms to the Communists of ELAS, only some of which were employed against the Germans. Monty Woodhouse was recalled to Britain during the summer, and visited Churchill at Chequers to make the case for sustaining aid to ELAS. Woodhouse told the prime minister that if supplies to the Communists were cut off, “I very much doubt whether any of my officers will get out of Greece alive.” Churchill brooded for a moment, then took Woodhouse by the arm and said, “Yes, young man, I quite understand.” As the British officer left Chequers, the prime minister said at parting: “I am very impressed, and oppressed and depressed.”892 Albeit hesitantly, Churchill directed that aid to the Communists should be maintained. British agents strove to persuade the Greeks to make common cause, but mutual hatreds were too strong. Moreover, every resistance attack on the Germans provoked reprisals on a scale as dreadful as those in Russia and Yugoslavia, overlaid upon widespread starvation.

Resistance in Greece became a more widespread popular movement than in western Europe. Some spectacular acts of sabotage were carried out by SOE teams, notably the 1942 destruction of the Gorgopotamos bridge. But “pundits overestimated what guerrillas could achieve,”893 in the words of Noel Annan, who served on the Joint Intelligence Staff of the Cabinet Office. He asserts that such successes as the destruction of the Gorgopotamos came too late to be strategically useful, and made the planners in London overly optimistic. “It took months for our liaison officers to persuade ELAS to blow up the bridge. Had it been destroyed earlier it would have cut one of Rommel’s supply lines when he stood at El Alamein. But it was not … The difficulties with ELAS should have warned the Foreign Office that ELAS’s first objective was less to harass the Germans than to eliminate other guerrilla forces and their leaders.” Nick Hammond, a British officer with the Greeks, wrote afterwards: “Armed resistance in the open countryside894 is something rarely undertaken. Only men of extreme, even fanatical enthusiasm will undertake the initiation and leadership of such a resistance, because it invites terrible reprisals on one’s family, friends and fellow-countrymen.”

In Greece and other occupied countries, the Germans economised on their own manpower by recruiting local collaborators for security duties. In France there were several brutal Pétainist militias, which until the summer of 1944 were notably more numerous than the maquis. The Croat Ustashi in Yugoslavia became a byword for savagery. Cossacks in German uniform, later the objects of much sympathy in the West for their enforced repatriation to Russia, played a prominent role in suppressing resistance groups in northern Italy and Yugoslavia, where their brutality was notorious. The Athens puppet government deployed its own “security battalions” against the guerrillas. A million Greeks lost their homes in consequence of German repression, and a thousand villages were razed. More than 400,000 Greek civilians died in the war, albeit most by mere starvation.

Bloodshed became relentless. Hitler’s OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht) headquarters ordered that fifty to a hundred hostages should be killed to avenge each German victim. At the end of October 1943, guerrillas in the northern Peloponnese achieved a notable coup, capturing and then killing 78 men of the 117th Jaeger Division. In consequences, 696 Greeks were executed, twenty-five villages burned. On May 1, 1944, 200 hostages were shot in Athens after an attack on a German general. On the fifth, 216 villagers were massacred in Klisura. On the seventeenth, 100 more hostages were executed in Khalkis. The tempo of such atrocities rose until the last day of the German presence in Greece. As the Wehrmacht withdrew, British officers sought with limited success to persuade the rival armed factions to harass the retreat. “We didn’t inflict as much serious damage as we might have done,” wrote Monty Woodhouse of the SOE. “But by that time, certainly in the case of EAM and ELAS895, their sights were set on the future and not on the immediate future.” It can convincingly be argued that much of what did and did not take place reflected domestic strife between Greeks, together with spontaneous acts of opposition to the occupiers, over which the British could exercise negligible influence.

In Italy, partisan warfare began to gather momentum after the Rome government’s surrender of September 1943. Again, there were deep divisions between Communist and non-Communist bands. In June 1944, amid the euphoria of the breakthrough to Rome, broadcasts from Alexander’s headquarters urged guerrilla bands, by now reckoned to be over 100,000 strong, to attack the Germans in their rear. The consequence was a surge of local assaults, followed by ghastly reprisals. As the Allied offensive in Italy bogged down in the autumn rains, on November 13 a new broadcast was made in Alexander’s name, this time urging discretion. It was perceived at Allied headquarters that the call to arms had been delivered prematurely.

In the early spring of 1945, partisans resumed their harassment of the Germans, and played a noisy part in the last phase of the Italian campaign. They sabotaged bridges and power and phone lines, and attacked German lines of communications. Alexander nonetheless felt obliged to issue a directive on February 4, formally abandoning any aspiration to create a mass partisan army, and substituting a commitment to selective sabotage. The problem was that resistance groups proved chronically resistant to direction from SOE missions: “Self-organised bands … are already getting out of hand.”896 It was decreed that weapons should thereafter only be provided to those who could be trusted to use them against the Germans, rather than to promote their own local political ambitions. Headquarters of the 15th Army Group noted ruefully: “A Resistance movement may suddenly transfer itself897 from the credit to the debit side of the Allied ledger.” Here was the nemesis of Churchillian hopes, though in the last weeks of the war Italian partisans seized many towns and villages on their own initiative.

Russia and Yugoslavia were the only countries where partisan warfare significantly influenced Hitler’s deployments. In Russia, the Red Army sponsored large irregular forces to harass German lines of communication. Such Soviet operations were assisted by Stalin’s indifference to casualties or victims of reprisals. In Yugoslavia, almost from the moment of their conquest in April 1941 the Germans faced local opposition. Field Marshal von Weichs ordered that German troops should shoot male civilians in any area of armed resistance, regardless of whether there was evidence of individual complicity. That October, after suffering a dozen casualties in a clash with partisans, the Germans massacred the entire two-thousand-strong male population of the town of Kragujevac in Serbia. Men and boys were shot in batches of a hundred, through a single day. Even wholesale brutality failed to suppress the Communist guerrillas, however, which grew to a strength of some 200,000. Hitler was determined both to secure the right flank of his Eastern Front and to maintain his hold on Yugoslavia’s mineral resources. To achieve this, by 1944 twenty-one Axis divisions were deployed.

Michael Howard, a historian of British wartime strategic deception898, believes that this commitment was far more influenced by fears of an Allied amphibious landing in Greece or Yugoslavia than by partisan activity, which could have been contained by much smaller forces. He argues that the German high command was importantly misled by a deception operation, code-named Zeppelin, which suggested an Allied army group in Egypt poised to move against the Balkans. As late as the spring of 1944, OKW in Berlin estimated that there were fourteen Allied divisions in Egypt and Libya, instead of the real three. At the time, however, it was the guerrillas’ alleged successes which captured Churchill’s imagination. News of Tito’s doings, considerably exaggerated in the telling, excited him. Back in January 1943, when he was first briefed about Yugoslavia by his old researcher Bill Deakin, he had perceived possibilities which now seemed to be maturing. Here, at last, was the sort of popular revolt from which he hoped much.

In the autumn of 1943 the British, who had hitherto been supporting Gen. Draza Mihajlović’s royalist Cetnik forces, concluded that Tito’s partisans were conducting much more effective operations against the Germans, notably in Bosnia and Herzegovina. With persistent naïveté at best—and possibly deceit aforethought, since one of SOE’s Cairo officers, James Klugmann, was an NKVD agent and others held strongly left-wing views—they convinced themselves that Tito’s people were “not real communists.” At the Tehran conference, the “Big Three” agreed that maximum support would be given to the Yugoslav partisans. It suited Stalin’s interests to soft-pedal the ideological allegiance to Moscow of “the Jugs,” as British soldiers called Tito’s people. The Soviet warlord urged a partisan delegation—unsuccessfully—to forgo the red stars on their caps “to avoid frightening the English.”

Churchill, in Cairo on his way back from Tehran, reasserted his enthusiasm for the Yugoslav commitment. Ignoring protests that it was inconsistent to support royalists in Greece and “reds” in Yugoslavia, he embraced the simple view that Tito’s army would kill more Germans than Mihajlović’s, and in this he was surely right. The axis of British effort shifted ruthlessly and dramatically. Beyond air drops and cargo plane landings, in 1944 it became possible to ship arms by sea to the Dalmatian coast. Tito’s forces began to receive supplies in large quantities, which transformed their capabilities. Between 1943 and 1945, 16,470 tons of Allied arms were provided to Yugoslavia, against 5,907 tons dropped into Italy, and 2,878 tons sent to southern France.

A high-powered British mission, led by Brig. Fitzroy Maclean, MP, took over Bill Deakin’s liaison role at Tito’s headquarters in September 1943, and was soon joined by Maj. Randolph Churchill, MP. The partisans, while implacably ideologically hostile, recognised that the prime minister had sent his brightest and best to represent him in their camp. Partisan leader Milovan Djilas wrote: “Deakin was outstandingly intelligent899 … We found out that he was a secretary of a sort to Churchill and this impressed us, as much for the consideration shown to us as for the lack of favouritism among the British top circles when it came to the dangers of war.” As for the dissolute Major Churchill, “we of course felt honoured900, though it did occur to us that Randolph might be the greyeminence of the mission. But he himself convinced us by his behaviour that he was a secondary figure, and that his father had decided on this gesture out of his aristocratic sense of sacrifice and to lend his son stature. Randolph soon enchanted our commanders and commissars with his wit and unconventional manner, but he revealed through his drinking and lack of interest that he had inherited neither political imagination nor dynamism with his surname.”

Djilas’s perception of British behaviour, after almost three years in which the partisans had conducted an unaided struggle, was unsurprising and not unjust: “The British had no choice901 but either to carry out a landing in order to fight the Partisans, or else to come to an agreement with them on a rational, mutually profitable basis. They chose the latter, cautiously and without enthusiasm … Our own dogmatic ideological distrust kept us from understanding them, though it also preserved us from any hasty enthusiasm.” The Americans never shared British warmth towards Tito. In April 1944, they angered Churchill by dispatching a mission to Mihajlović, which he ordered to be delayed in transit for as long as possible: “The greatest courtesy being used to our friends and Allies in every case,” he wrote on April 6, “but no transportation.” The U.S. team eventually reached the Cetniks, but the British were successful in deflecting Washington from sending supplies to them.

Tito’s partisans never had the training, organisation or heavy weapons to defeat German forces in head-to-head combat. They were unable to evict the occupiers from any substantial towns. Nonetheless, they achieved control of large rural areas of Yugoslavia. Repeated German offensives, supported by the Luftwaffe, inflicted heavy casualties, above all on the civilian population, but failed to destroy Tito’s army. More British officers were dropped to local headquarters, so that there were soon eleven missions and wireless transmitters on the ground. The SOE teams found themselves frustrated, because the partisans were indifferent to their proposals and advice, save about the mechanics of supply. The SOE’s internal historian observed laconically: “It is a little doubtful whether the Missions902 served any purpose save to give adventurous occupation to a number of very tough young men … half a ton of ammunition and explosives would have been more effective than half a ton of British Liaison Officers.” The allegiance of Tito’s people was unequivocally to their own Communist movement. From 1942 to 1945, paralleling the struggle against the Germans, a bloody civil war was waged between partisans and Cetniks, in which the balance of atrocities was about even.

The British were unable to influence this, though Churchill made repeated efforts to reconcile Tito to the exiled King Peter. Even in June 1944, when the partisan leader had to flee from a German surprise attack and accept airborne evacuation to sanctuary at the Allied headquarters in Bari, Tito became no more biddable. The obliging British thereafter dispatched him to the offshore island of Vis, where he was secure from German assault and could prepare for a renewed partisan advance. Yet Tito’s forces were unable to deliver a decisive blow against their occupiers, and were obliged to enlist the aid of the Red Army to dispossess the Cetniks of Serbia late in 1944. Unlike any guerrilla movement in western Europe, Yugoslav resistance diverted from the war’s main battlefields significant enemy forces—though considerably less, if Michael Howard’s interpretation of OKW documents is correct, than legend has suggested.

The political complexities of aiding resistance movements prompted exasperation among British ministers and field officers charged with reaching local accommodations. Harold Macmillan wrote in May 1944 that it was all very well for the prime minister to urge support for anti-German factions of widely varying political hues, but in an age of rapid communications, “the difficulty is that with … the universal listening903 to the radio, it is difficult [for the British] to be a Communist in Yugoslavia and a Royalist in Greece.” Though the Greek Communists wanted British weapons they hated Churchill, because they knew that he wished to restore their king. Almost all the arms shipped to the Balkans in the course of the war, and likewise those provided to nationalists in Southeast Asia, were used later to advance anti-Western, anticapitalist interests. Churchill told Eden, “I have come to the conclusion904 that in Tito we have nursed a viper … he has started biting us.”

Sir William Deakin has written: “Paradoxically, British influence on Resistance in Europe905 was at its strongest at the lowest point of our military strength and resources, and during the period of our own isolation [1940–42].” As resistance groups gained in confidence and the Germans began to withdraw, any gratitude they felt towards the British for supplying them with arms was outweighed by alienation from perceived British political objectives. A French historian of the Resistance, Henri Michel, has written: “Great Britain promised to the Resistance the return to a prewar Europe, which the Resistance had rejected.” This was an overstated generalisation, but reflected widespread sentiment.

By May 1944, during the approach to D-Day, 120 British and American heavy aircraft were committed to dropping arms to European resistance movements. An entire Balkan Air Force had been created, to supply Yugoslavia. The SOE had grown into an organisation staffed by more than eleven thousand soldiers and civilians, operating a network of training schools in Britain, the Mediterranean and India, and communicating with agents in some twenty countries. Its postwar internal history argued that no other force of its size contributed so much to the Allied war effort. Its agents and activities have stimulated a flood of postwar books and films, historical and fictional, which continues to this day. The romance of the story is indisputable, though service with the SOE in the field—again, contrary to popular myth—was actuarially less hazardous than fighting with an infantry battalion, never mind flying with Bomber Command. For instance, of 215 SOE personnel dropped into Yugoslavia, only 25 died. “F” Section lost a quarter of the 400 agents dispatched to France, but even this percentage compares favourably with the casualties of rifle companies in many campaigns.

It was unquestionably vital for the Allies to sustain contact between the free world and the occupied countries. The BBC’s broadcasts in many languages kept alight candles of hope which played a moving and critical role in the lives of millions of people enduring tyranny. There remains no doubt of the merits of dispatching agents to gather intelligence, contact anti-German groups, establish networks and assist escaping Allied personnel. In 1944–45, partisans were often useful as guides and intelligence sources for the advancing Allied forces, but this was a marginal activity.

The important question about the SOE concerns the wisdom of its military policies. To the end of the war, while the Chiefs of Staff were eager for resistance groups to “make a mess,” as one SOE officer in occupied France interpreted his orders, no coherent strategy was promulgated, based on a realistic assessment of what guerrillas might hope to achieve. Though useful work was done in France after D-Day, attacks on communications and German garrisons almost invariably hurt local populations more than the enemy. What else could have been expected?

The British Chiefs of Staff in 1944 urged that local resisters should be warned against provoking pitched battles with the Germans. Maj. Gen. Colin Gubbins, military head of the SOE, was formally rebuked when a bloody uprising took place in Slovakia, because his organisation appeared to have defied its orders and promoted it.

But the high command was thus attempting belatedly to reverse the policy pursued by the SOE, strongly encouraged by the prime minister, since 1940. Nor did Churchill share the generals’ scruples. For instance, at a January 27, 1944, meeting with the Air Staff, the minister of economic warfare, Ismay and others, he expressed the desire to promote large-scale clashes between the French Resistance and the Germans. “He wished and believed it possible to bring about a situation906 in the whole area between the Rhone and the Italian frontier comparable to the situation in Yugoslavia. Brave and desperate men could cause the most acute embarrassment to the enemy and it was right that we should do all in our power to foster so valuable an aid to Allied strategy.” On April 22, Churchill was urging on the Chiefs of Staff Operation Caliph, a scheme to land some thousands of British troops on the coast near Bordeaux simultaneously with D-Day. There was, he wrote, “a chance of a surprise descent into a population eager to revolt.”

Though Caliph was never executed, Churchill was still eager to incite guerrillas to strike wholesale at the Germans. A million Yugoslavs died in strife which he explicitly, and surely wrongly, sought to replicate in southern France. Popular revolts, of which the last took place in Prague in May 1945, cost many lives to little useful purpose. Mark Mazower has written: “Only in the USSR did German counter-terror fail.”907 Churchill’s grand vision for revolt by the oppressed peoples of Europe was heroic, but could play no rightful part in industrialised war against a ruthless occupier. Deliverance relied upon great armies.

Any judgement on the resistance movement must weigh the balance between moral benefit and human cost, acknowledging that the military achievement was small. Col. Dick Barry, chief of staff to Gubbins, admitted afterwards: “It was only just worth it.”908The French people, for instance, took pride in the FFI’s flamboyant demonstration when they took to the streets of Paris as the Germans retreated in August 1944. But the German decision to quit the capital was quite uninfluenced by the Resistance. In Crete in July 1944, against the orders of the SOE, local guerrillas embarked upon open attacks which provoked the Germans to execute a thousand innocent civilians, and burn thirty villages. The SOE’s own historian wrote ruefully: “The game was not worth pursuing909 on these terms.”

The most disastrous resistance epic of all was, of course, the Warsaw rising, which began in August 1944. There, Churchill’s 1940 vision of an oppressed people breaking forth in revolt against their occupiers was dramatically fulfilled, though the SOE did not directly encourage the Polish initiative. But, in the absence of support from Allied regular forces, the Polish Home Army was comprehensively defeated. The British made much of their attempts, thwarted by Russian intransigence, to parachute arms to the Warsaw Poles. Gubbins was even rash enough910 to urge the Chiefs of Staff to accede to the urging of the Home Army’s leaders that a Polish parachute brigade then in Britain should be dropped to aid the rebels. Even beyond the practical difficulties, it reflected lamentably on Gubbins’s professional judgement that he endorsed such a romantic and futile notion. Parachute-dropped aid from Britain might have assuaged the frustration of Churchill and his people, but could not conceivably have altered the tragic outcome in Warsaw. Large-scale popular uprisings were doomed, unless conducted in concert with the advances of armies, which rendered them strategically irrelevant. The incitement of violent opposition in occupied countries made sense between 1940 and 1942, when every ruthless expedient had to be tried to avert Allied defeat. But it became irresponsible in 1944–45, when Allied victory was assured.

Among the occupied nations, postwar gratitude to Britain for the promotion of resistance was often equivocal. De Gaulle, with characteristic gracelessness, expelled SOE personnel from France as soon as he had power to do so. Georgios Papandreou, the Greek exile prime minister, told Harold Macmillan shortly before his country’s liberation that the British should not disguise from themselves the fact that their prestige in the Balkans had fallen, while that of the Russians had risen, despite Allied victories in France and Italy: “Moreover, in our desire to attack the Germans911 we had roused and armed most dangerous Communist forces in Greece itself.” Churchill’s wartime enthusiasm for resistance groups was soured in 1944 and thereafter by the triumphs of several Communist and nationalist movements in their own countries. They seized power, or in some cases merely attempted to do so, throwing themselves into domestic struggles with greater determination than they had displayed against the Germans.

Towards the end of the war, Jock Colville describes how the controller of BBC European Services, the former diplomat Ivone Kirkpatrick, “gave a damning account912 of the inefficacy of both SOE and PWE [Political Warfare Executive], both of which have been loud in self-advertisement.” Kirkpatrick observed that their failures confirmed his own beliefs in the importance of parliamentary scrutiny. Secret mandates rendered the SOE and PWE immune from the sceptical oversight their activities would otherwise have received. This is a criticism applicable to most secret intelligence organisations in war or peace, but Kirkpatrick knew enough of the SOE to render his view significant. “Special ops” recruited some remarkable men and women, and could claim useful sabotage achievements. But its essential purpose was misconceived. “The occupied nations believed with passion,”913 in the words of Sir William Deakin, “and fought to construct their secret armies in the interior and exterior Resistance which would play a leading part in the last stage of liberation of their countries. But this was an obsessive dream.”

The historian Thomas Arnold declared in 1842: “If war, carried out914 by regular armies under the strictest discipline, is yet a great evil, an irregular partisan warfare is an evil ten times as intolerable … letting loose a multitude of armed men, with none of the obedience and none of the honourable feelings of the soldier.” It may be argued that Arnold’s idealised view of warfare was rendered anachronistic by Hitler’s tyranny, and by the need to mobilise every possible means of undoing it. Arnold, indeed, qualified his own assertion by saying that, if an invader breached the laws of conflict, “a guerrilla war against such an invader becomes justifiable.” But nowhere, even in Yugoslavia, did resistance operations avert the need for regular forces to defeat those of the Nazis. France would not have been liberated one day later had the maquis never existed. The case for resistance, though by no means a negligible one, rests upon its contribution to the historic self-respect of occupied societies, to national legend.

The most baleful consequence of resistance was that it represented the legitimisation of violent civilian activity in opposition to local regimes, of a kind which has remained a focus of controversy throughout the world ever since. Not only the Germans, but also many citizens of occupied countries, endorsed the view that “one man’s freedom-fighter is another man’s terrorist.” It is useful to recall that such a man as Portal perceived the SOE’s personnel as terrorists. Though British agents were seldom directly concerned in the more ruthless actions of local groups, it was endemic to the nature of the struggle that partisans armed by London shot prisoners, sometimes wholesale; murdered real or supposed collaborators and members of rival factions; and often supported themselves through institutionalised banditry. A precedent was set by the wartime democracies’ support for irregular warfare which could never be undone.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the SOE enabled dissident elements of several societies to overthrow their traditional social orders. The collapse of the Balkan monarchies was inevitable, cause for lament only to a Victorian sentimentalist such as the prime minister. In western Europe anti-Communist governments, decisively assisted by the presence of Anglo-American armies, were able to prevail in 1944–45. But the impact of the SOE’s aid to resistance movements was significantly greater upon postwar societies than on military outcomes in the struggle against the Germans. Churchill came to recognise this. David Reynolds notes the remarkable fact that915, in the six volumes of Churchill’s war memoirs, the SOE is mentioned only once, in an appendix. “‘Setting Europe ablaze’ had proved a damp squib,”916 says the historian. It was fortunate for the peoples of many occupied countries that this was so.

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