The Web of Disinformation: Churchill's Yugoslav Blunder

Book Review
Published: 1991-10-01

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The Web of Disinformation: Churchill's Yugoslav Blunder, by David Martin. San Diego and New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1990. Hb., 425 pp., $29.95; ISBN 0-15-18074-3.

In the weeks preceding Hitler's pre-emptive attack on Stalin, events in the Balkans took a turn for the worse. On March 25, 1941, Yugoslav Prime Minister Cvetkovic went to Vienna, where he signed the Tripartite Pact. Germany agreed to respect Yugoslav sovereignty and not demand right of passage for Axis troops. Two days later, a British and American engineered coup overthrew the Council of Regency and deposed Prince Paul. Seventeen-year-old King Peter became the figurehead for a government headed by Yugoslav Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Simovic. While the anti-Axis shift was popular among Serbian segments of the population, it was markedly less so among the Croats.

Hitler's response to the change of government in Belgrade was to issue Directive 25, which ordered immediate planning for the invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece. The German leader here acknowledged that he might be forced to delay Operation Barbarossa – the invasion of the USSR – to allow these new operations to take place, thus securing his southern flank.

German forces invaded Yugoslavia and Greece on April 6. On the 10th Zagreb radio announced the establishment of an independent Croatian republic under their nationalist leader Ante Pavelic. On the 11th Italian and Hungarian Army divisions launched cautious attacks on Yugoslav positions. Belgrade surrendered to Gen. von Kleist on the 12th; on the 14th King Peter fled the country; and on the 17th, former Foreign Minister Cincar-Markovic signed an armistace with the Germans, who lost fewer than 200 dead in the Yugoslavian campaign. Ten days later, Athens fell to the Wehrmacht.

Despite the armistice, a Yugoslav government-in-exile was recognized and operated out of London throughout the rest of the war. It called upon all Yugoslavs to take up arms. This challenge was most effectively supported by the Serbian royalist Gen. Draza Mihailovic, who at the time of the Axis invasion was in charge of the Operations Bureau of the General Staff. Mihailovic quickly established his Home Army resistance movement in Serbia and in January 1942 was appointed commander-in-chief of the armed forces and war minister by the government-in-exile.

Throughout most of 1942, Mihailovic enjoyed the unqualified support of the Western Allies, who lionized him in their press as the greatest resistance leader in Axis-occupied Europe. Early in 1943, the mood in London began to shift toward support for Joseph Broz Tito, head of a small Communist-led movement. By the end of the year a dramatic switch in policy occurred, with the anti-Communist Mihailovic being cut off from further support. London, Washington, and Moscow were now unanimous in their backing of Tito's Red "Partisans."

Even after the government-in-exile stripped him of his official duties, Mihailovic fought on against the Germans. But at war's end, he was accused of treason against the new Tito-led government. On March 25, 1946, seventeen months after the Soviet Army captured Belgrade, the still defiant Mihailovic was captured and, on July 17, executed by a Red firing squad. Tito imposed a Communist regime that reigned for 45 years. As we go to press, the Yugoslavia he ruled is in the process of disintegration.

How it came to pass that the West turned their backs on Mihailovic is a question that has troubled David Martin for over four decades. His first book on the topic, Ally Betrayed, was published in 1946. The Hoover Institution issued his 1978 study, Patriot or Traitor: The Case of General Mihailovich. This third volume represents the culmination of Martin's efforts to defend and rehabilitate Mihailovic. It is not a mere reiteration of previously explored material, but is based on research conducted in Mihailovic's own archives, those of the Yugoslav government-in-exile, British state papers for the period 1941-1945, and interviews with over one hundred people directly involved.

Martin concludes that the fateful change in British policy was due to a remarkably successful campaign of disinformation and sabotage launched some six to eight months before Winston Churchill terminated further support for Mihailovic and proceeded to provide enthusiastic backing to Tito. British intelligence agencies, especially the Yugoslav Section of Special Operations Executive (SOE), headquartered first in Cairo and later in Bari, Italy, was the locus of the anti-Mihailovic elements. It was the Yugoslav Section that was responsible for relaying intelligence about resistance activities to SOE-London and the British Foreign Office. The Cairo office, Martin shows, engaged in large-scale falsifications, by failing to acknowledge Mihailovic's efforts directed against Axis occupation forces, and by grossly inflating the scale of Tito's activities and the level of support his Partisans enjoyed throughout the area.

After sifting through thousands of pages of previously classified records, the author concluded that one man was primarily responsible for engineering this history-making campaign: James Klugman, deputy chief of SOE Yugoslavia Section. Klugman, it emerges, was, with Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, and Donald Maclean, another member of the nest of Cambridge Communists who moled their way into strategic positions in British intelligence during and after World War II.

Klugman, the son of a prosperous Jewish merchant, was born in London in 1912. He attended Trinity College, Cambridge and became a leader in the European Communist youth movement in the 1930s. After his wartime service as an intelligence and coordinating officer, reaching the rank of Major, in the Yugoslav Section of SOE, he became a member of the executive committee of the British Communist Party and editor of Marxism Today. Michael Straight described Klugman, who died in 1977, as "a warm-hearted and compassionate intellectual whose commitment to Communism left him no time for such minor preoccupations as taking a bath or cleaning his fingernails."

In February 1942 Klugman was posted to the Yugoslav Section of SOE. There, according to Martin, Klugman was able to orchestrate the campaign against Mihailovic. He was the first to receive messages from the field. He wrote the situation reports, briefed his superiors, and drafted position papers. Through the doctored reports he passed along, Klugman portrayed the Home Army as inactive and ineffective; charged that members of Mihailovic's staff were collaborators who concentrated their military operations against the heroic Partisans; and claimed that Mihailovic had lost most of his popular following.

Klugman's reports in turn influenced the line taken by the Political Warfare Executive, Secret Intelligence Service (M16), the Foreign Office, and BBC. Klugman possessed almost unlimited possibilities for misinforming those who ultimately set policy.

Martin strips away the layers of myth surrounding Tito's wartime efforts. It turns out that Mihailovic's Home Army vastly outnumbered the Partisans, who, with a view toward post-war politics, fought most of their battles against Mihailovic, not the Axis occupation forces. The Partisans deliberately provoked retaliatory strikes on peaceful villages, by slipping into areas, killing a few Axis soldiers, and then stealing away. Villages "liberated" by Tito's thugs often endured a reign of terror. Many Yugoslavs felt better off under Axis control.

Churchill, who reveled in the dramatic, eagerly boosted Tito's reputation as a resistance leader. Based on Klugman's reports, the Prime Minister claimed that the Partisans were tying down 24 crack German divisions. In fact, only eight understrength divisions, along with some Bulgarian and Croatian Ustase units, were deployed in Yugoslavia during 1943 to the fall of 1944. According to Martin, it is doubtful if Tito's forces killed as many as 5,000 Germans before the Red Army stormed into the country in October 1944.

The author discloses that in March 1943 Tito sent a delegation to German headquarters at Sarajevo proposing a truce so that they could both concentrate against the Home Army. Additionally, Tito promised to fight against the British should they land troops in Yugoslavia. For unknown reasons, this offer was turned down by Reich Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop.

It is noteworthy that the OSS (Officeof Strategic Services) was less impressed with Tito. Based on a 40-page field report filed by Capt. Walter Mansfield at the end of March 1944, the U. S. offered to continue supplying Mihailovic. OSS's founder and chief, "Wild Bill" Donovan, argued that the Western Allies needed to keep their options open in the Balkans. This proposal was flatly rejected by Churchill. Col. S.W. Bailey, of British intelligence, actually called for Mihailovic's assassination.

The OSS retained its contacts with the Home Army. On November 9, 1944, after the Red Army invaded the area, Donovan received a field report from Lt. Col. Robert McDowell, a Balkan specialist from the University of Michigan who was considered to be the most qualified intelligence officer, British or American, on matters pertaining to Yugoslavia. McDowell's report flatly contradicted the stance taken by British intelligence. It was his "considered judgement" that during the months preceeding the Soviet assault on Belgrade, Mihailovic's ill-equipped forces did far more than the Partisans to kill, capture, and disrupt the Wehrmacht. McDowell further disclosed that Tito's units engaged in wholesale acts of terrorism against Yugoslav peasants. Copies of his report were forwarded to President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill.

Martin's account is not without significant defects. The author glosses over the strident Serbian chauvinsim of General Mihailovic and his followers, which led the Chetniks to commit many atrocities in the savage warfare which raged between Serb and Croat in the ruins of Yugoslavia. It is fair to point out, as has former IHR editorial advisor Ivo Omrcanin in his Enigma Tito, that Britain's traditional divide and rule policies in the Balkans impelled them to back both antiGerman guerrilla movements, particularly since Mihailovic's Serbian Chetniks had no drawing power whatsoever among Croats, Slovenes, and other of Yugoslavia's national and ethnic groups.

In his efforts to fix blame on the comparatively low-ranking Klugman, Martin scants the responsibility of Klugman's superiors, above all Winston Churchill, who after all was firmly allied with Stalin and his Soviet Union, next to whom Tito and his Partisans were small fry indeed. Martin's mistake is one which has been made and repeatedly by writers whose anti-communism was a Cold War Sp├Ątlese, and who exonerate the Roosevelts and the Churchills in their search for Soviet agents who were more often carrying out than subverting their governments' policies.

Nevertheless, Martin's study, which culminated a lifetime of devotion to Mihailovic and his cause, is a timely reminder that the leaders of Britain, like those of America, could be as faithless to their friends as they were ruthless to their enemies: the fate of Poles, Yugoslavs, Czechs, and other central and east Europeans unwise enough to be anti-communist as well as anti-German is a standing rebuke to the self-congratulatory fustian with which keepers of the Churchill flame customarily celebrate his role in the Second World War.

Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Robert Clive
Title: The Web of Disinformation: Churchill's Yugoslav Blunder, Book Review
Sources: The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 11, no. 3 (fall 1991), pp. 348-352
Published: 1991-10-01
First posted on CODOH: Nov. 15, 2012, 6 p.m.
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