The black Halifax from RAF Bomber Command thundered across the Albanian mountains toward Yugoslavia. Inside its belly were three tons of ammunition, small arms, radios and a single passenger. All were fitted and rigged for a parachute drop.
"Zdravo, Purvi Americanec"
Flying at 8,000 feet, the pilot and crew members scanned the sea of darkness below looking for a prearranged signal: five fires in the shape of a cross. It was nearly midnight, 19 August 1943.
Suddenly a red light glowed within the aircraft. Ahead and slightly to the left were five dancing fires. Nearby a sixth light blinked in rhythmic Morse. As the port side gunner answered with his Aldus lamp, the passenger checked his chute and removed a rectangular section from the floor of the bomber. COld air streamed into the plane. Gingerly, the man balanced his body with one foot on either side of the makeshift exit. Above his head the red glow flashed to green. An instant later he was gone.
The chute blossomed, and the man found himself swinging gently in a silent world. Captain Walter R. Mansfield, USMCR, was only seconds from becoming the first American to set foot in Yugoslavia since the Belgrade Consulate had locked its doors more than two years ago.1
Captain Mansfield's canopy caught a gust of wind. He drifted away from the signal fires. Then the ground rushed up and he tumbled to earth in a pile of boulders.
I got out of my harness, hid my chute, drew my .45 and waited in the cold. Within ten minutes I heard voices, yelling out in Serbian, "Zdravo! Zdravo! Piatelj! (Greetings! Greetings! Friend!" I answered and was soon surrounded by a small group of weird ragged-looking men, most of whom had black beards and hats bearing a skull and bones emblem. I told Lt. Perich, their leader, that I was an American, whereupon they all began to whoop, holler, and kiss me (black beards and all) shouting "Zdravo, Purvi Americanec" (Greetings, first American). I mustered up my Serbian to reply, "Zdravo Chetnic!" The first American had landed.2
The drop zone a few hundred yards up the mountain was bustling with activity. Several dozen guerillas were busy tending the fires while others formed a rough perimeter defense or waited for the supply drop. Moments after Mansfield reached this scene, the Halifax roared over again spewing 15 bundles in its wake. These were quickly gathered up and the "first American" met his British counterparts: Colonel Bailey and Major Greenless, both members of the SOE mission which had parachuted into Montenegro on Christmas Day, 1942. Bailey, a former mining engineer, had worked in Serbia before the war and spoke the language fluently.3
After several hours of hiking, the guerillas reached their base camp. There Mansfield was introduced to the man to whom his mission was directed,General Draga Mihailovic, the "Robin Hood of Serbia."
Yugoslavia has been called a country with seven frontiers, six Republics, four languages, three religions, and two alphabets, all in search of one boss. Its name literally means "the land of the Southern Slavs," and as late as 1918, it was not a country at all. When Germany attacked Yugoslavia in April 1941, the national army was quickly subdued and the reigning monarch, 18 year old King Peter,
fled into exile. But within the rugged mountains and deep forests, resistance to the Nazi's and their puppet troops, the Ustase, grew. Two men would lead the fighting. One of these was Mihailovic, the other was Josip Broz, better known by his nom de guerre, Tito.
Mihailovic commanded the loyalty of the largely Serbian Chetniks.* The Chetnik organization had its origins in veterans groups and was pro-royalist. "It had a central command with a chief and local organizations in a large number of places throughout the country but principally in Serbia. For many members, Chetnik work was a full-time activity, even in peacetime."4
When the order for surrender of Yugoslav forces became official on 16 April 1941, Mihailovic refused to obey it. He told his commanding officer, "You may lay down your arms, but I am going to continue the struggle in the Chetnik way, together with those who are brave enough to follow me."5
Three weeks later, Mihailovic reached his intended headquarters site, the high plateau of Ravna Gora in Western Serbia. With him were seven officers and 24 soldiers. Around these he planned to mold a guerilla army.
Mihailovic was in his late forties. Of medium build, his most impressive feature was a wildly tangled black beard streaked with gray. His face was broad, and behind a pair of round steel-rimmed glasses lurked dark, wild eyes. He was every inch a soldier. By the time Mansfield arrived near the Mountain of Cemerno, thousands of Serbians had rallied to the Chetnik banner.6
* The term Chetnik is derived from the Serbian word ceta meaning armed company.
While Mihailovic was building his army, another Yugoslav of very different character was waiting in history's wings. Josip Broz, General Secretary of the Yugoslav Communist Party, was a Croatian. Born in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Broz served in the Carpathian campaigns of early World War I. WOunded and captured by the Tsarist Russians, he escaped from his POW camp just in time for the Bolshevik Revolution. "The stayed on in Russia and became a Communist Party member in 1919, returned to Yugoslavia with a Russian wife in 1920,l and in 1924 was elected to a local post in the illegal CPY."7 During the next fifteen years, he would adopt the name "Tito" and see the inside of more than a few jails. And he would rise in the Party, for his allegiance to Moscow never wavered. On the eve of the war, Tito became General Secretary.
The German invasion posed a significant dilemma for Tito and the communists. On one hand, the reactionary monarchy against which they had struggled was cast aside, but since Germany and the Soviet Union were still allies, nothing could be done to openly antagonize the new regime. This problem did not long persist. When Hitler attacked Russia, open warfare seemed in order. Yet, in calling for aid to the Mecca of Marxism, the Comintern issued a statement which may have begun Tito's disaffection with Moscow:
Take into consideration that at this stage your task is the liberation from Fascist oppression and not Socialist revolution.8
On July 4th, the Yugoslav Politburo met secretly in a nondescript house on the outskirts of Belgrade. The members, all veterans of clandestine political conflict, called for the raising of a national
community army. At the time, the party probably numbered about 10,000 and included many members who had fought with the Republican forces in Spain.* So the call went out and the "Partisan" movement began.
Initially the partisans were amazingly successful. Within a few weeks, Tito made mince meat of two fully-equipped but abysmally-led Italian divisions in Montenegro. Large quantities of arms and ammunition fell into Partisan hands. On September 18th, Tito himself took control of all military operations, making his field headquarters near Valjevo in the Serbian hills.
Throughout the war, Communist party members formed a minority of the partisan movement, but Tito ensured that from the very outset his supporters were inmost command positions. Thus it is not surprising that when he met Mihailovic on neutral ground half-way between his headquarters and the Ravna Gora both sides were suspicious.
Their first parlay ended inconclusively, but a second was agreed upon. This took place on 27 October 1941 at Brajici. By this time, Mihailovic had been designated Minister of War by King Peter's Government-in-Exile, and the first Allied liaison officer, British Captain D.T. Hudson, had already arrived to coordinate SOE assistance to the Chetniks.**
"This second conference ended with some measure of agreement. Mihailovic was to obtain half of the production of the Partisan-held Uzice ammunition and rifle factory. In return, Mihailovic promised
* The 4th of July is now a major Yugoslavian holiday known as Dan Borca--the day of the fighter.
** Hudson was another mining engineer who had worked in Yugoslavia before the war. He was landed by submarine on the Montenegro coast along with 3 Yugoslavs on 20 September 1941.9
Tito a share of whatever parachute drops he might obtain from the British."10 This deal did not last a fortnight.
Mihailovic rightly believed that Tito would never accept a return of the monarchy. Grossly underestimating the organizational skill and numbers of the Partisan movement, he decided to occupy Uzice himself. On the night of 2 November, Chetnik forces attached Uzice and were soundly trounced by Tito's men. After that, Yugoslavia was a three-way war: Chetniks, Partisans, and Germans.11
The break could not have come at a worse time. The Germans were in the midst of an all-out drive to "pacify" those areas under guerilla control and, one by one, the "liberated" population centers fell back under Axis control.
Almost nothing of this internecine feuding revealed itself to the outside world. In both London and Washington, the issue of aid to Yugoslavia was split along ethnic lines. Both capitals attracted lobbyists from the various nationalities who championed their own causes at the expense of the others. Serbians pointed to Mihailovic and Peter as legitimate symbols of Yugoslav resistance. Croatians and communists championed the Partisans without mentioning their leadership . . . if indeed they knew who was in charge. Tito's name did not surface in the West for several more months. Meanwhile, both the British and American governments dealt with Peter and his Ambassador in Washington, Constantin Frotic.
The Partisans and Chetniks disagreed as much in strategy as they did in politics. German retaliation fell most heavily upon the more numerous Serbs and threatened to weaken Mihailovic's recruiting base. Consequently, he adopted a "hide in the hills and develop the army" philosophy, which saved casualties, but failed to hurt the enemy.
Tito, on the other hand, exerted every ounce of his energy to attacking German lines of communication whatever the cost.
The Partisans were revolutionaries, the Chetniks were for restoration of the status quo. The Partisans appealed to the broad masses of Yugoslavia, the Chetniks . . . with minor exceptions to the Serbs. The Partisan movement was an organization of young people. . . . They were clean shaven--Tito never missed a day shaving even during the most difficult battles. While the Chetniks were an older group, they looked more so because they let their beards grow in the old Serbian tradition. The Partisans were a highly disciplined centrally directed organization, the Chetniks much less so. Women played an important role in the Partisan movement, none among the Chetniks.12
These then were fundamentally different organizations. In fact, their only two points of similarity were a desire to free Yugoslavia of foreign rule and a continuing search for outside support.
As news of the fighting in Yugoslavia's mountains trickled out, it gradually became apparent that Mihailovic was not the only guerilla leader. Hudson's reports of a far greater level of activity by the Partisans (he never mentioned Tito by name) spurred the British to send new emissaries in search of more information.13 Colonel Bailey was the first of these. In addition to his liaison and fact-finding role, it was hoped that Bailey could induce greater levels of violence against the Germans since the war in North Africa was then reaching a critical stage.*
In April 1943, SOE dropped two all-Yugoslav teams (codenames: HOATLEY I and FUNGUS) into Croatia and Bosnia.** These were the vanguard.
* Bailey jumped into Mihailovic's area on the same day Captain Ortiz left for Morocco.
** Both of these teams flew from a captured Italian air base at Derna, Libya--the site of Presley O'Bannon's exploits in the Barbary Wars. Mansfield also left from Derna, but was unaware of the historical connection with the Marine Corps.14
Both went in "blind,"since no one seemed to know where Partisan headquarters might be. Luckily, FUNGUS landed close to Tito's subordinate headquarters at Brinje and was hospitably received. Soon, SOE's Cairo base was preparing to send in its first British officers. A three-man mission commanded by Major William D.Jones was infiltrated by sea, "slowly and comfortably drifting to the moonlight turfs of Croatia."15 This team immediately determined that the chief Partisan stronghold was not in Brinje, but they did arrange for a direct para-drop to Tito's command post on Mount Durmitor near Zablijak.
On 28 May 1948, SOE launched the TYPICAL mission which consisted of british Captain F.W. Deakin,* Canadian Captain William F. Stuart, and four NCOs. All were parachuted into the Montenegran mountains, and soon were established at Tito's secret headquarters. SOE now had direct liaison teams with both major Yugoslav resistance organizations and OSS was anxious to get in on the act.
This was easier to contemplate than to accomplish. "Plans to land OSS men on the Yugoslav coast were consistently blocked by the Royal Navy, which at SOE instigation, "requisitioned" every small personal intervention in London to clear the way for OSS Yugoslav missions."16
S number of officers were initially primed for the first Yugoslav insertions. Among these were Army Captains M.O. Benson
* Deakin was a personal friend of Winston Churchill, having served as primary research assistant during the writing of Churchill's biography of his famous forebear, the Duke of Marlborough.
and George Selvig. Two additional officers were sent from Washington and confusion reigned as to exactly which officers should be dropped and to which group. In the midst of several cancellations imposed by bad weather, Major Huot,* head of Special Operations branch for OSS Cairo, visited London. There he met Captain Mansfield for the first time.
Walter R.Mansfield had just celebrated his 32nd birthday. Born in Boston he was educated at Roxbury Latin School and Harvard, receiving his AB in 1932 and a law degree in 1935. Before the war, Mansfield was a practicing member of Donovan's law firm and later served as Assistant U.S. Attorney for South New York. p> After joining OSS as a civilian, Mansfield applied for a commission in the Marine Corps Reserve. He attended the Reserve Officer Candidate Class in 1942, and was subsequently ordered to the Marine Parachute Training School at New River on Donovan's personal request.17 In June 1943, Mansfield flew to London to serve as a staff member at OSS's own parachute training center, which was then beginning to prepare agents for clandestine entry into Europe. He had been in England only a few weeks when he met and favorably impressed Huot.
As soon as Mansfield arrived in Chetnik territory he began receiving briefings from Mihailovic and his principal staff officers. Since the General spoke no English and the Captain little Serbian, conversations were carried on in French.18 Mansfield kept in touch with OSS Cairo by coded radio messages. From the outset, "the first American" was impressed.
* Huot was a business associate of Frank Knox and had been a newspaperman in France before the war.
For two years they (Chetniks) had been living off the land and sleeping in the mountains. They received no pay and little clothing, relying on the generosity of the peasants for food. Despite this, each guerilla followed orders without question, cheerfully carrying out long marches over the steepest mountains, always ready to risk his life for his commander.19
One morning, the Germans launched a battalion-size surprise attack on the headquarters. Aided by a thick fog, they succeeded in slipping past the outposts and were nearly into the camp before being spotted. A sharp fight followed with each side losing about 20 killed. Mansfield saw his first action that morning. He also witnessed the character of Yugoslav guerilla warfare when Mihailovic's men rounded up 5 prisoners. After a short period of interrogation, all were shot on the spot.
Their position totally compromised, the Chetniks promptly moved deeper into the hills. For 15 straight hours more than 500 men and pack animals force marched through a driving rain storm. It was not until well past midnight that Mihailovic deemed it safe to re-establish his camp.
Mansfield was amazed at the conditioning of the ragged troops, but he had still to see them in offensive action. This situation was remedied when he and Hudson were allowed to accompany a mission to disrupt the main railway from Belgrade to Dubrovnik.
The site chosen for interdiction was a bridge and tunnel complex. Mansfield and Hudson decided to wreck a train inside the tunnel and then blow the bridge to block any repair crews from the nearest town. Three hundred Chetniks would be involved in the operation.
Hudson's experience as an engineer fitted this task to perfection. He took the bridge.Captain Mansfield, who had also been trained to use
demolitions, got the tunnel. Since the evening train normally passed the selected area at about 1730, it was decided to lay the charges one hour before. This would diminish the likelihood of their discovery by enemy patrols.
After our reconnaissance party reported that the coast was clear, I entered the tunnel with five men, leaving one group at either end. The track rested on very short ties, supported by rock and cinders. Walked about 200 feet before my eyes became accustomed to the darkness and i could see the other entrance about 300 feet away. I put two half-pound blocks of TNT under the rail, connected up the primacord and snapped the fog signal detonator on the track--a simple job.20
Then the unexpected occurred: the 1730 train came chugging around a bend. Mansfield and his men ran for their lives,barely clearing one end of the tunnel as the engine steamed in the other. A muffled bang followed, then a squealing of brakes. out puffed the engine.
A thunderous crash reverberated through the hills. Hudson had laid 100 pounds of ring-main charges at each end of the bridge. When his sentries heard the train, he yanked both igniters and headed for the forest. Two minutes later, 100 feet of bridge and large chunks of concrete piling dropped into the river below.
Mansfield's TNT had taken out 6 feet of track,but somehow failed to derail the train. Nevertheless, it was not stuck. The Chetniks swarmed out of the hills, captured the passengers and did what damage they could to the engine without further explosives. As the first German patrols arrived, the raiding party withdrew behind a screen of ambushes.
During the following months, Mansfield and Hudson would see more action. In September, Army Lieutenant Colonel Albert Seitz* had been parachuted to Mihailovic's camp becoming the senior OSS representative to the Chetniks. Meanwhile, both the British and Americans had dropped liaison teams to Tito. Major Huot led the U.S. contingent, while the SOE group was headed by Brigadier Fitzroy Maclean.** Clearly, the Partisans were beginning to be viewed as the predominant active guerilla army. British aid to the Chetniks slowed to a trickle.21
Seitz had arrived in Chetnik territory as part of an SOE mission commanded by British Brigadier C.D. Armstrong. Unlike MacLean, Armstrong was blatantly anti-OSS. Seitz would later describe him as "the rare type of Englishman who sneers at anything American and dislikes having Americans close to him."22 It was certainly far from an ideal situation and one which could only worsen in the days to come.
In early October, Mihailovic decided to give the Allies another example of what his forces could do if properly supplied. He chose as his target the railway complex at Visegrad and the bridge spanning the Drina River. If successful, this operation could cut German lines of communication between Bosnia and Serbia.
* Seitz was a West Point drop-out who had served in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. After the war he was involved in the disastrous attempts to infiltrate CIA teams into Albania (these were betrayed by Kim Philby, the KGB agent operating inside British Intelligence.)
** Maclean was another personal friend of Churchill and veteran SOE operative. He had served as a Conservative MP and also as an intelligence officer in Moscow.
On the night of 2 October 1943, Chetnik forces began moving into position and at dawn, two days later, they struck. More than 2,000 bearded Serbs threw everything they had at the 800-man Nazi garrison. After fierce fighting, the Chetniks captured the town; destroyed the bridge; and continued to harass the Germans as they withdrew. This pursuit carried Mihailovic's men into Partisan territory.23
Immediately, a worthwhile anti-German operation was converted into civil war. Rather than supporting the Chetmiks, Tito attacked them. His forces allowed the Nazi's to escape and concentrated on driving Mihailovic's guerillas back into the hills. Partisans occupied Visegrad, and their Radio Free Yugoslavia announced to the world that the entire operation had been Tito's. The BBC parroted this claim.24
Mihailovic was enraged at London's niggardly support and resentful of BBC Serbian-language broadcasts which portrayed Tito as a heroic figure. Ignoring further advice from Armstrong, he invited Sietz and Mansfield to conduct a tour of all Chetnik-held territory in order that they might draw their own conclusions. On 6 November, they set out on horseback to do just that.
It was an extremely enlightening trip. The Chetniks virtually controlled large sections of Serbia, and the party moved easily on many areas. Only when it became necessary to cross major rivers did problems arise. In one case, Mansfield, disguised as a Serb, walked straight through a German checkpoint and across the Drina River Bridge at Gorazde.25 Eventually, the two men split up. But wherever they went, support for Mihailovic seemed overwhelming.
Of course, this passage did not totally escape notice by the German intelligence system. Soon, there were more and more brushes with security troops. Finally, the way back to Mihailovic barred by increased counter-guerilla operations, it was decided to attempt an escape to Allied territory in Italy. Mansfield, Bailey, and Yugoslav Captain Tudorovic were able to establish radio contact with OSS, Cairo. Arrangements were made for a seaborne exfiltration by the Royal Navy. On 15 February 1944, the "first American" and his companions were picked up near Cavtat on the Dalmatian coast. Seitz and his party crossed into Partisan-held territory and were flown out the next month.26
Based on the reports of Mansfield and Seitz, Donovan tried to continue American support to both the Chetniks and Partisans. "Under Donovan's arrangement, Yugoslavia would be broken into two separate zones. Tito would control the western sector and Mihailovic the eastern region. Both guerilla armies would be responsible to the Allied command in Italy."27 President Roosevelt accepted this idea, but Churchill was vehemently opposed to splitting Anglo-British efforts. Donovan, with characteristic flair, offered to personally parachute into Yugoslavia to negotiate an end to the rivalry.28
At the Tehran Conference, Roosevelt was gradually won over to the British position. Aid to Mihailovic dwindled to nothing. Desperately, the Chetniks negotiated a modus vivendi with local German commanders, but Mihailovic himself remained firmly pro-American. Mansfield, Seitz and other OSS operatives who had direct contact with the Chetniks were bitterly disillusioned by this stance. But when Roosevelt proposed new OSS missions to Serbia, the British violently opposed them and the idea was withdrawn.29
Certificate to Accompany Award of the Order of the White Eagle with Swords to Captain Walter R. Mansfield, USMCR for service in Yugoslavia
After Tehran, Churchill told Kin Peter that all aid would go to Tito. In the end, the Royal Government disavowed Mihailovic in a vain hope that the Partisans might accept Peter as a postwar figurehead monarch.
When the Russians entered Yugoslavia in late 1944, Mihailovic offered to cooperate with them. This idea was accepted long enough for the Red Army to disarm the Chetniks and being turning them over to the Partisans. By December 1944, "naked, barefoot, and hungry remanents of Mihailovic's forces were retreating through the Bosnian mountains . . . appealing for entry into any Allied Army."30
"Mihailovic did in East Europe what the Gaullist organization was ordered to do in West Europe: It lay low to keep an army in being for the day of an allied landing . . . The only Allied troops to arrive were the Russians. Tito's forces hunted down Mihailovic and captured him in the Spring of 1946, months after World War II had ended."31
In July 1946, Mihailovic fought his last battle. When he entered the courtroom in Belgrade, he was old, tired and defeated. Greeted by jeers, hisses, and cries of "hang him," Mihailovic listened impassively as the charges against him were read. They took eight hours.
Not only was Mihailovic on trial, but every Allied liaison officer who had been with him was also denounced. In his address to the court, Mihailovic said, "I wanted nothing for myself."32
The verdict was a foregone conclusion. At dawn on 17 July, the "Robin Hood of Serbia" was shot to death on the golf course at Topcider, once a favorite resort of the DIplomatic Corps.
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