Germany’s Anti-Partisan Warfare during World War II
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Germany engaged in numerous anti-partisan operations during World War II. The brutality of these anti-partisan activities has been well documented by historians. British historian David Irving, for example, writes about photos taken in the Balkans by a German soldier:
A German soldier is found mutilated. The German troops take reprisals, stringing up the menfolk in the village, like washing on a line—one by one, a chair kicked away beneath each victim and then painful death by strangulation. For crimes like these, German generals are executed at Nuremberg.
This article discusses the nature and extent of Germany’s anti-partisan operations, and why Germany engaged in such vicious activities during the war.
The Soviet Union
On June 6, 1941, before the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler gave the Commissar Order to execute the political commissars captured with Soviet units. In the language of Hitler’s Commissar Order, the Soviet commissars were the “originators of the barbaric, Asiatic fighting methods” that the enemy practiced. Denied combat status by the terms of this order, the commissars were to either be shot by the troops or turned over to the SS to suffer the same fate. Thus, the commissars were ordered liquidated not because of any crime they had committed, but because of their function in the Soviet system.
The Germans used special mobile formations called the Einsatzgruppen designed to carry out the Commissar Order and to crush partisan activity in the Soviet Union. The Germans formed four Einsatzgruppen units each having between 500 to 800 men per unit. The Einsatzgruppen generally had a good working relationship with the German army since they freed up army security forces for front-line action. The exact number of people killed by the Einsatzgruppen will never be known, but there is no question the Einsatzgruppen murdered large numbers of Soviet commissars and partisans during the war.
Partisan warfare has traditionally been considered illegal, since it undermines the convention of uniformed armies directing violence against each other rather than against civilian populations. Soviet partisan warfare was extremely brutal and capable of severely disrupting German military planning. Because German forces were always limited and always in demand at the front, German military and civilian authorities were all the more fearful of the disruption partisans could bring. Consequently, German army officers were trained to take a severe line against partisan activity in the Soviet Union.
The combat of Soviet partisans in forests and swamps was regarded by German troops as the most dangerous of all types of warfare—favoring the hunted rather than the hunter. The partisans almost always killed captured German soldiers, frequently after inflicting brutal torture. The German anti-partisan forces operated in an extremely unpleasant environment that made the German units resent the partisans whose activities had caused them to be there. In summer huge swarms of flies and mosquitos made life miserable for German soldiers; in winter frostbite and trench foot were rampant.
Letters from German soldiers reveal the danger of partisan warfare. A letter from German Cpl. Hans Brüning illustrates how the wooded areas of the Soviet Union were especially effective locations for partisan warfare:
[The forests are teeming with danger.] Any snipers who fall into our hands are of course shot; their bodies lie everywhere. Sadly, though, many of our own comrades have been lost to their dirty methods. We’re losing more men to the bandits than in the fighting itself.
Hardly any sleep to be had. We’re awake and alert almost every night; you have to be in case they attack suddenly. If the sentry drops his guard just once it could be over for all of us. Traveling alone is out of the question.
German Cpl. Erich Stahl wrote: “These are dangerous swine, and no soldier is safe from them. The danger is there wherever you go and wherever you stay…and you only breathe out when you’ve come back from your post unhurt…If the moon’s not out, you stay awake at your post like an ox.”
German Pvt. Hans Schröder described how Soviet partisan activity killed two Germans on June 19, 1942: “Two of our comrades in first company tragically lost their lives…Though we kept watch, a partisan still was able to creep up to one of our houses. A grenade chucked in through the window, and it was done…We took revenge straight away, and rightly. I used to think one should act humanely, but this sub-humanity just isn’t worth it.”
The German High Command recognized both the importance and difficulty of combating partisans as the war progressed. Anti-partisan activity was originally handled by the army, but in October 1942 responsibility for anti-partisan activity was transferred to the SS. In January 1943 Hitler declared that the Geneva Convention and the traditional rules of chivalry did not apply in anti-partisan activity. Hitler also decreed German soldiers could not be brought to trial for atrocities committed during anti-partisan operations. The result was extraordinarily vicious fighting in which no quarter was given and none was expected in return.
Probably the most ruthless anti-partisan German unit was Sonderkommando Dirlewanger, which was named for and led by Oskar Dirlewanger. During anti-partisan operations, Dirlewanger frequently rounded up women and children left behind in partisan villages and marched them through minefields protecting guerrilla positions. This technique killed and maimed many innocent people. In another tactic, Dirlewanger would fly a light observation aircraft over suspected Russian villages. If he received gunfire, he would later return in a ground action, set fire to the entire hamlet, and kill all the inhabitants. Prisoners were not taken in these punitive operations. Dirlewanger would also sometimes publicly hang captured Soviet partisans to discourage partisan activity.
The Cossacks, a perennial enemy of the Bolsheviks, provided tens of thousands of their soldiers to the German army during World War II. The Cossacks also aided the Germans in hunting down Soviet partisans in the rear areas of their operations. Soviet partisans were ruthlessly killed in these anti-partisan activities.
Other German anti-partisan warfare in the Soviet Union was also extremely harsh and brutal. One of the hardest hit areas was Belorussia, which struck an American journalist as “the most devastated country in Europe.” In Belorussia, German figures indicate that the average ratio of Belorussians to Germans killed was 73 to 1. This statistic gives some indication of the scale of violence that the civilian population suffered. A total of 345,000 civilians in Belorussia are estimated to have died as a result of German anti-partisan operations, together with perhaps 30,000 partisans.
By late 1942 the Soviet partisan movement was growing increasingly active, dangerous and widespread. Virtually no civilian regardless of age or sex was beyond suspicion. Simultaneously, Germany’s need for foodstuffs and labor from occupied Soviet territories was increasingly desperate. Since the partisans themselves controlled ever-larger amounts of arable land, German anti-partisan activity often involved depriving the partisans of food and shelter. The German army used the captured partisan food and livestock for its benefit, while Soviet citizens were increasingly required to perform forced labor. The result was the uprooting and evacuation of many Soviet citizens.
The increasing likelihood of ultimate German defeat in 1943 caused Soviet partisan activity to mushroom. As Soviet partisan activity increased, the German anti-partisan warfare became even harsher and more desperate. Partisans and the local populations that supported them had to be hit hard and fast. The result in many cases was the wholesale destruction of villages, murder, and the effective enslavement of much of the civilian population.
Regardless of how destructive German sweeps were in a given area, Soviet partisan forces almost always reemerged. Most Soviet partisan units survived the attacks in some form, and the Germans could never keep sufficient troops in place to secure an area for any length of time. Often the methods employed to reduce Soviet partisan activity had the opposite effect because surviving peasants joined the partisans to avenge their family and friends. Also, some Soviet citizens felt they had no alternative except to join the partisans if they themselves wanted to stay alive.
Soviet partisan warfare against Germany became increasingly barbaric and murderous. In February 1943, 596 German prisoners were killed and many of them mutilated by Soviet partisans at Grischino. A German judge who interrogated witnesses and survivors of this atrocity remembers: “You have no idea how much trouble the commanders and company chiefs had…to restrain the German soldiers from killing every Russian prisoner of war of the Popov Army. The troop was very bitter and angry. You cannot imagine the vehemence of the soldiers after they had seen what had happened.”
German anti-partisan activity resulted in a horrific loss of civilian and partisan lives as well as the destruction of many Russian villages. However, the Soviet partisans’ sabotage operations effectively tied up increasing numbers of German troops and prevented the Germans from ever feeling secure on Russian soil. By the time the bulk of Russian territory had been liberated in early 1944, a large and effective Soviet guerilla movement had emerged. Stalin’s support had allowed the Soviet partisans to survive the German anti-partisan reprisals and grow into an effective fighting force that helped the Soviet Union win the war.
On May 27, 1942, two Czech partisans ambushed German SS-Gen. Reinhard Heydrich’s vehicle as he was traveling from Prague to Berlin. While Heydrich lay critically wounded in a hospital, National Socialist leaders became enraged and ethnic Germans had to be restrained from attacking Czech citizens and establishments. Heydrich’s death on June 4, 1942, ensured that reprisals would be forthcoming.
Immediately after Heydrich’s funeral on June 9, 1942, Hitler ordered the complete annihilation of the Bohemian village of Lidice. Lidice was targeted partly because Heydrich’s assassins had allegedly received support from the village’s inhabitants. Within hours German police units surrounded the village, and the male inhabitants were herded on to a farm and successively shot in groups of 10. A total of 172 men were murdered in Lidice on June 9, 1942, and all of the buildings were burned to the ground. The women of Lidice were deported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp while their children underwent racial screening to see if they were Germanizable. An additional 27 men from Lidice were later murdered, making a total of 199 men executed from Lidice.
The Lidice killings made the front page of newspapers around the world. Shortly after the destruction of the village, several communities in the United States, Mexico, Peru and Brazil renamed their towns and villages “Lidice” in honor of the murdered villagers. Books and movies were made to remember the dead at Lidice, and U.S. war posters called on Americans to “Remember Pearl Harbor and Lidice.” Of all the sites of German reprisals, Lidice became a household word and possessed the greatest propagandistic value to the Allies.
Heydrich’s two assassins were eventually surrounded and killed on June 18, 1942. With the help of local informants, Gestapo agents eventually rounded up most of the remaining Communist and Czech resistance members.
All 33 of the adults in the village of Ležáky were also murdered when Gestapo agents found in Ležáky the transmitter of the underground radio team that had been parachuted into the Protectorate alongside Heydrich’s two assassins. The children in Ležáky were handed over to German authorities, and the village’s buildings reduced to rubble. In addition to those killed in Lidice and Ležáky, 3,188 Czechs were arrested and 1,327 were sentenced to death during the reprisals that summer. Close to 4,000 people with relatives among the exiles were rounded up and placed in concentration camps or ordinary prisons.
The plot to assassinate Heydrich was launched by Allied intelligence agencies in London. Heydrich’s assassination was not a spontaneous act of resistance as claimed by Allied propaganda. In fact, leaders of the domestic Czech resistance had warned Edvard Beneŝ that killing Heydrich would be a catastrophe. The Czech resistance leaders stated:
The assassination would not be of least value to the Allies, and for our nation it would have unforeseeable consequences. It would threaten not only hostages and political prisoners, but also thousands of other lives. The nation would be the subject of unheard-of reprisals. At the same time, it would wipe out the last remainders of any resistance organization. It would then be impossible for resistance to be useful to the Allies. Therefore, we beg you to give the order through Silver A [parachute team] for the assassination not to take place. Danger in delay; give the order at once.
The Czech resistance leaders were prophetic in their warning. Beneŝ and the Allies had hoped that the anticipated brutal German reprisals would lead to a more general uprising of the Czech population against German rule in Czechoslovakia. However, the wave of terror that followed Heydrich’s assassination served as a powerful deterrent to resistance activity. The Czech partisan underground was almost completely wiped out in the weeks after Heydrich’s death, and was never to recover for the rest of the war.
Contrary to plans, the War Office in London noted a “dying enthusiasm” for further resistance within the Czech population. The Czech armaments industry remained one of the strongest and most reliable pillars of the German war effort. The brutal German reprisals had effectively ended Czech partisan activity until Germany’s unconditional surrender at the end of the war.
Both Germany and the Soviet Union were guilty of major atrocities against Polish citizens during and after their conquest of Poland. However, in the case of Germany, many of their atrocities were reprisals for crimes committed by the Polish government against ethnic Germans in Poland. Poland’s reign of terror had forced Germany to invade Poland to end atrocities against Poland’s ethnic Germans.
The Germans shot civilian hostages in Bydgoszcz, burned synagogues, and conducted operations similar to Lidice in numerous Polish villages and towns. German reprisals often included public executions and hangings of Polish citizens to discourage partisan activities. Germany also commenced resettlement schemes beginning in West Prussia, where 750,000 Polish citizens were expelled to make way for Germans transferred from the Baltic States. In 1942-1943, Germany cleared over 300 villages in central Poland as part of an additional resettlement scheme.
Germany also used brutal measures to quash two uprisings in Poland during the war. The first uprising, today commonly called the Ghetto Uprising, occurred in the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1943. The Ghetto Uprising had no realistic chance of success, and some 40,000 civilians were either killed on the spot or deported to German concentration camps.
The second uprising began in Warsaw on August 1, 1944, and was a much larger and bloodier insurrection. Commonly referred to as the Warsaw Rising, it was the biggest military action undertaken by any of the wartime resistance movements. Receiving reports that Soviet tanks were visible on the horizon and believing that liberation was imminent, Polish insurgent leader Gen. Bór-Komorowski used his 35,000-man Home Army to fight the Germans in Warsaw. The Home Army had expected to receive assistance from both the Red Army and the Western Allies; instead, it received almost no aid from either.
German SS units were assigned to end the uprising. The German plan was to recapture Warsaw district by district, killing or at least driving out Polish citizens from every block and every house. In this manner the insurgents would be compressed into an ever constricting perimeter, with no insurgents to the German rear once they took a district. The Luftwaffe also played a role in the fighting, with attacks by Stukas causing major damage.
Since the Red Army stayed on the sidelines and offered no help to the Home Army, by September 26, 1944, it was obvious to everyone that the Warsaw Rising had failed. Polish representatives signed a capitulation agreement on October 2, 1944. Some believe that Stalin refused to help the Polish Home Army because it was as adamantly anti-Communist as it was antifascist. It was advantageous for the Soviets to let the German and Polish forces kill each other off and then have the Red Army move in.
It is difficult to assess overall casualties for the Warsaw Rising. Probably 9,700 men of the Home Army were killed in action with an additional 6,000 missing and presumed dead. The largest number of casualties was among the Polish civilians, with over 150,000 civilians estimated to have been killed during the fighting. German losses were also high. An estimated 10,000 German troops were killed and 7,000 missing and presumed dead.
The German SS units had inspired fear and terror in the Polish population as a result of the slaughter of large numbers of civilians during the Warsaw Rising. The SS Dirlewanger unit appears to have been the worst culprit in the murder of innocent civilians. Even SS-Gen. Hermann Fegelein, speaking to Hitler about the Dirlewanger Regiment during the Warsaw Rising, said: “My Führer, they are real low-lifes.”
SS-Panzergrenadier Hans Schmidt expressed his view of Germany’s actions during the Warsaw Rising:
For the Poles to start the August 1944 uprising in their capital city at the very moment when the German soldiers of the Eastern front were in a desperate defensive battle with the Red Army proved a great miscalculation. It bears remembering that the numerous marshaling yards around Warsaw were the major railroad connections between the Reich and the Eastern front, and these connections had to be held at all costs. Consequently, the German reprisals against both the partisans as well as against the general population supporting the underground fighters were both swift and brutal. The inner city of Warsaw was largely destroyed during the ferocious battles that lasted for two months. To make a special issue, as the Poles seem to do even to this day, of the fact that the Germans leveled the inner city of Warsaw during the uprising is ludicrous. By that time most German inner cities had been destroyed, and the Allies had even attacked targets in Rome and Paris, something the German High Command had always avoided. Considering everything, there was no reason for the German High Command to go easy on the residents of the Polish capital.
Other European Countries
Numerous other anti-partisan activities were conducted by Germany during the war. Italian partisan activity assumed impressive proportions in the northern part of Italy after Mussolini’s collapse in 1943. However, the Italian partisan activity developed at a time and place where the Germans were well positioned to contest its growth. In March 1944, for example, a partisan attack on a German column marching through Rome caused many German casualties. The Germans shot 335 hostages in a nearby abandoned quarry—the so-called Fosse Ardeatine—in a massacre that still provokes heated debates today.
German anti-partisan reprisals continued in Italy through the summer of 1944. Between September 29 and October 5, 1944, the SS panzer division “Reichsführer-SS” perpetrated a massacre at the Italian village of Marzabotto. The reprisal at Marzabotto was several times the size of the one at Lidice, and was one of the worst German atrocities committed in Western Europe during the war. The Germans continued anti-partisan attacks in the winter months from 1944-1945 by employing three whole divisions to harry the Italian partisans and demolish their infrastructure. An estimated 40,000 partisans were killed in these anti-partisan operations.
French resistance activity began to increase toward the end of the war. Since Allied leaders planned to invade Europe on the coast of France, French partisans received substantial weaponry and supplies to aid the Allied invasion. By June 6, 1944, French partisans had received enough arms through airdrops to fully equip 20,000 resisters, and partially equip another 50,000. Large stocks of guns, ammunition and explosives were in the hands of the partisans for a do-or-die effort to assist the Allied invasion.
An alleged German anti-partisan activity at Oradour-sur-Glane in France killed 642 villagers on June 10, 1944. The SS Panzer Division “Das Reich” was held fully responsible for this atrocity. However, French revisionist Vincent Reynouard’s examination of the physical evidence at Oradour-sur-Glane throws into question the official narrative. Reynouard discovered that the corpses of the men were completely charred, and looked like typical victims of a fire. The corpses of the women and children, however, had been torn to pieces, and looked like victims of an explosion. The remnants of the church also clearly show that it was destroyed by one or more explosions.
Reynouard’s research documents that Oradour-sur-Glane was a center of French resistance. The SS had locked the men of this village in barns so that they could be easily guarded, while the women were taken to the church for security reasons. A large explosion occurred in the church which killed the women and children therein. Reynouard shows that the SS did not cause this explosion. The SS guards, thinking they were under attack, then opened fire on the men and later set fire to the barns.
Since the archives in Bordeaux remain closed to researchers until the year 2053, complete information about what happened at Oradour-sur-Glane remains hidden. It is likely, however, that the French have something to hide regarding this incident. SS-Panzergrenadier Hans Schmidt wrote: “To this day all German efforts to have access to these Bordeaux files have failed, and we can be certain that the French refusal to open the documents is not based upon the desire to spare the Germans from embarrassment.”
German reprisals against anti-partisan activity were brutal in Greece. Since the Germans in Greece did not have occupying forces large enough to take full control of all areas, terror against the civilian population was deemed necessary to discourage Greek partisan activities. In December 1943, German troops rounded up all of the men found in the mountain town of Kalavryta and shot them. This massacre of at least 500 men was a reprisal for the kidnapping and murder of German soldiers by Greek partisans. Waffen-SS soldiers did not even spare women and children in later anti-partisan reprisals the following spring in central Greece.
Other regions in the Balkans also experienced severe German anti-partisan reprisals. For example, a partisan attack on a German unit in Serbia prompted the Germans on October 20-21, 1941, to round up nearly 10,000 men in the town of Kragujevac and shoot 2,300 of them in batches. Another 1,736 men were executed in the town of Kraljevo. The shock of these German atrocities caused many Serbs to cease partisan operations to avoid inflicting further reprisals on the civilian population.
German anti-partisan reprisals were effective in reducing partisan activity in most places in Western Europe during the war. German reprisals against partisan activity frequently prevented opposition from surfacing over much of occupied Europe, and broke up opposition when it became visible. There were few places in Western Europe where the Germans were overwhelmed by partisan activities for very long. Only in the Soviet Union did German anti-partisan reprisals fail.
While German anti-partisan units committed numerous atrocities during the war, it should be noted that the partisan activities against Germany were also illegal, brutal and barbaric. Gen. Alfred Jodl summarized the German position regarding anti-partisan warfare in his closing address at the Nuremberg trial:
In a war like this, in which hundreds of thousands of women and children were killed by saturation bombing and in which partisans used every—and I mean every—means to their desired end, tough methods, however questionable under international law, do not amount to crimes of morality or conscience.
 Irving, David, Nuremberg: The Last Battle, London: Focal Point Publications, 1996, pp. 182f.
 Shepherd, Ben, War in the Wild East: The German Army and Soviet Partisans, Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 2004, p. 53.
 MacLean, French L., The Cruel Hunters: SS-Sonderkommando Dirlewanger Hitler’s Most Notorious Anti-Partisan Unit, Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Military History, 1998, pp. 85-87, 91.
 Snyder, Timothy, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, New York: Basic Books, 2010, pp. 233f.
 MacLean, French L., The Cruel Hunters: SS-Sonderkommando Dirlewanger Hitler’s Most Notorious Anti-Partisan Unit, Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Military History, 1998, pp. 69f.
 Shepherd, Ben, War in the Wild East: The German Army and Soviet Partisans, Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 2004, pp. 77f.
 Ibid., pp. 188f.
 Ibid., p. 189.
 MacLean, French L., The Cruel Hunters: SS-Sonderkommando Dirlewanger Hitler’s Most Notorious Anti-Partisan Unit, Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Military History, 1998, pp. 110, 153.
 Ibid., pp. 12, 73.
 Hitchcock, William I., The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe, New York: Free Press, 2008, p. 260.
 Mazower, Mark, Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe, New York: The Penguin Press, 2008, p. 487.
 Shepherd, Ben, War in the Wild East: The German Army and Soviet Partisans, Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 2004, pp. 126-128.
 Ibid., pp. 168, 174, 185f.
 Slepyan, Kenneth, Stalin’s Guerrillas: Soviet Partisans in World War II, Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 2006, p. 65.
 De Zayas, Alfred M., The Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, 1939-1945, Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1989, p. 106.
 Mazower, Mark, Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe, New York: The Penguin Press, 2008, pp. 490f.
 Gerwarth, Robert, Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011, pp. 10-13.
 Ibid., pp. 280f.
 Ibid., p. 282.
 Ibid., pp. 284f.
 Burleigh, Michael, Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011, pp. 305f.
 Gerwarth, Robert, Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011, pp. 4f., 285.
 Wear, John, “Why Germany Invaded Poland,” Inconvenient History, Vol. 11, No. 1, 2019.
 Davies, Norman, Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Present, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 57, 61f.
 Davies, Norman, No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945, New York: Viking Penguin, 2006, pp. 314f.
 Ibid., p. 119. See also MacLean, French L., The Cruel Hunters: SS-Sonderkommando Dirlewanger Hitler’s Most Notorious Anti-Partisan Unit, Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Military History, 1998, p. 175.
 MacLean, French L., The Cruel Hunters: SS-Sonderkommando Dirlewanger Hitler’s Most Notorious Anti-Partisan Unit, Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Military History, 1998, pp. 176, 181, 196.
 Lande, D. A., Resistance!: Occupied Europe and Its Defiance of Hitler, Osceola, Wis.: MBI Publishing Company, 2000, p. 50.
 MacLean, French L., The Cruel Hunters: SS-Sonderkommando Dirlewanger Hitler’s Most Notorious Anti-Partisan Unit, Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Military History, 1998, p. 196.
 Ibid., pp. 175, 196.
 Schmidt, Hans, SS Panzergrenadier: A true story of World War II, Pensacola, Fla.: Hans Schmidt Publications, 2001, p. 76.
 Mazower, Mark, Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe, New York: The Penguin Press, 2008, p. 500.
 Davies, Norman, No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945, New York: Viking Penguin, 2006, p. 318.
 Ibid., p. 315.
 Reynouard, Vincent, French Gestapo Trials and Other Articles, Upper Marlboro, Md.: The Barnes Review, 2018, pp. 211f.
 Schmidt, Hans, SS Panzergrenadier: A true story of World War II, Pensacola, Fla.: Hans Schmidt Publications, 2001, p. 376.
 Mazower, Mark, Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe, New York: The Penguin Press, 2008, p. 497.
 Ibid., pp. 483f.
 Ibid., pp. 485, 516.
 Irving, David, Nuremberg: The Last Battle, London: Focal Point Publications, 1996, p. 254.
Additional information about this document
|Title:||Germany’s Anti-Partisan Warfare during World War II|
|Sources:||Inconvenient History, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2021|
|First posted on CODOH:||June 28, 2021, 11:58 a.m.|