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The Mihailovitch-Tito Duel

At Close Quarters

While General Drazha Mihailovitch is being tried for his life in Belgrade this week, a little book is being widely read in Britain which will probably satisfy more people on the question of how far the Chctnik leader collaborated with the enemy than any evidence presented by Marshal

Tito's Government.

COLIN BINGHAM,

Our Staff Correspondent

in London,

reviews a book by a member of the British military mission to General Mihailovitch in 1943-44.

'"PHE author is Major Jasper Rootham,

who was a member of the British Military Mission to Mihailovitch in

1943-1944.

In "Miss Fire" (Chatto and Windus, London) he writes quietly but convincingly of his experiences in a zone of eastern Serbia commanded by one of Mihailo

vitch's lieutenants.

Major Rootham makes some depressing references to the British Government's failure or inability to give Mihailovitch concrete support at a time when the B.B.C. was successfully building him up as a great hero of the Allied cause, and part of the explanation of the Chetnik leader's later tragic policy is to be found in the doubt and disillusion that replaced his initial enthusiasm for the British.

None of the British liaison officers with the Chetniks say straight out that Mihailo- vitch himself openly "collaborated," but undoubtedly some of his commanders did, and thus the full responsibility has fallen upon the Commander-in-Chief, although his hold on many of his subordinates was quite tenuous.

By the middle of 1943 the" Chetniks and Tito's Partisans were involved in a struggle for power in Yugoslavia, but the Partisans nevertheless threw themselves whole-heartedly into the task of killing Germans not only because they hated the Germans, but because they wanted to convince the Allies that theirs was the horse to back, thus securing for themselves the power necessary to dominate the in- ternal situation in Yugoslavia when the Germans were defeated.

Mihailovitch had the same opportunity as the Partisans to demonstrate that killing Germans and also the militiamen of the collaborationist, General Nedich, was his overwhelming concern, and thus hold the

favour of the Allies-or at least share it with Tito. But more and more the dominating consideration of the Chetnik movement became the avoidance of whole- sale slaughter and the destruction of property among those Yugoslavs who supported the cause for which Mihailovitch

stood.

Consequently, the Chctniks' purpose was to do as little as possible in the way of action likely to lead to German reprisals without actually sacrificing Allied support -and in the meantime to prepare for a hypothetical D-Day in the Balkans, so that the punch, when it came, would be a knock-out.

With Mihailovitch holding to such a policy-Rootham gives a number of in- stances of the Chetniks failing to seize opportunities to inflict losses and damage upon the Germans-it was only a question of time before the Allies switched their support to Tito's Partisans, who with amazing skill and toughness eventually absorbed the attention of fifteen German divisions.

One of the most significant differences between the policy of the Chetniks and that of the Partisans was in their attitude to General Nedich's militia.

The Partisans regarded Nedich's men as enemies without qualification. On the contrary, Rootham points out, Mihailo vitch's men and Nedich's men regarded one another as essentially on the same side-the side ¿f King Peter against both the German occupiers and the Partisans.

Officers and men of Nedich's militia were actually on Mihailovitch's strength for mobilisation and would report for duty when called up.

It was understood that when Mihailo-

vitch-on the hypothetical D-Day-gave the order for the "great rising," Nedich's troops, with the exception of a few high

officers who were compromised by personal attachment to Ncdich, should go over en bloc to the Chetniks.

Meanwhile, the Partisans, without wait- ing for the hypothetical D-Day, went on killing Germans-and Chetniks.

Major Rootham is satisfied: (1) That the Germans in 1943-1944 did not inter- fere with the movements of Mihailovitch's troops and wounded. (2) That the Chet- niks were not under the direction of the German command, but Nedich's troops were, and they made a part of their German aims and ammunition available to Mihailovitch's troops. (3) Some of Mihailovitch's commanders through their contacts with Nedich's forces had a good idea of the Germans' tactical plans.

From the German viewpoint, the Chet- niks were doing useful work.

The German game was this:

They themselves garrisoned the towns r and communication centres and covered important road and river crossings with artillery and mortars. Meanwhile, they kept mobile patrols circulating on the roads. '.'They thus shepherded the Par- tisans into mountainous country, and by allowing the Chetniks much freer move- ment they permitted the Yugoslavs, in savage fighting with no quarter, to kill one another in comparatively large numbers."

The Chetniks believed they were de- fending their traditions, homes, and liberties against the Communist menace.

The Partisans believed when engaging the Chetniks that they were fighting a gang of Fascist reactionaries.

And the Germans laughed themselves sick.

Tired, Worried Man

Major Rootham first met Mihailovitch in a peasant cottage. "A slight, somewhat stooping figure, wearing British battledress without badges of rank of any kind, a dark-blue shirt buttoned up at the collar with no tie, and thick peasant socks pulled over the ends of his trousers, .he stepped forward and greeted us in a curiously soft, pleasant, almost caressing, voice.

"The round head covered with a thatch of greyish hair was the head of a Serb peasant. The grizzled beard did not con- ceal the sharp lines of the face nor the hollows under the cheekbones.

"From behind strong glasses looked out a pair of deceptively mild pale-blue eyes."

.Mihailovitch, when he cared to use it, had extraordinary personal charm, but he was "a desperately tired and worried

man."

Every intelligent Chetnik knew what the . withdrawal of the British mission meant, but from Mihailovitch down to the humblest subordinate they tried to ensure that every British officer and man should depart in safety and without hard words.

Major Rodham's book contains many tributes to the qualities of the Serbs, but none more touching than his comment: "We, as representatives of a large nation, were given by the representatives of a small nation a lesson in manners and on how to conduct oneself with dignity in adversity."

Partisan guards outside Tito's camouflaged headquarters during Uie war.

Digitisation generously supported by
Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation
Digitisation generously supported by

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