The Chetniks in the Second World War

The Emergence of the Ravna Gora Chetnik movement / Yugoslav Army in the Homeland

Following the capitulation of Yugoslavia in April 1941, the Chetnik command and its battalions ceased to operate. However, a group of officers and soldiers of the Royal Yugoslav Army who refused to surrender and leave the country decided to continue fighting the occupiers. The main role in that group would be assumed by Colonel Dragoljub Draža Mihailović, who on the eve of the war served as deputy chief of staff of the Yugoslav Second Army. From northern Bosnia, where Mihailović found himself at the time of the capitulation, he set out toward Serbia, with a group of around 30 fighters. In late April, in the hills of Ravna gora in western Serbia, he set up his headquarters for planning further action against the enemy, initially referring to his guerrilla forces as the “Chetnik Detachments of the Yugoslav Army” (Четнички одреди југословенске војске / Četnički odredi jugoslovenske vojske) and then “Military-Chetnik Detachments” (Војно-четнички одреди / Vojno-četnički odredi). From early 1942 on, when the king and cabinet exiled in London made Mihailović the minister of the army, his Chetnik forces were officially called the “Yugoslav Army in the Homeland”. Referring to its geographical origin, the movement, which was meant to form the core of the resistance against the occupiers, would remain known as the “Ravna Gora movement” (Равногорски покрет / Ravnogorski pokret). From the very beginning of the war, the military strategy of the Chetnik command was to avoid direct armed conflict with German and Italian units, to grow the movement into a massive force, and engage in armed hostilities only once the Western Allies have landed in Yugoslavia.

Image 1 – Draža Mihailović

Image 2 – The Chetniks 01

The Structure of the Movement

Despite the central position of Draža Mihailović as their supreme military commander, the Chetniks never constituted a single monolithic movement. Unlike in Serbia and Montenegro, where the establishment of Chetnik units was initially motivated by the desire to fight the German and Italian occupying forces, in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which were at the time part of the Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska), Chetnik units were typically formed with the pretext of saving the lives of local ethnic Serb populations, i.e. fighting against the repressive policies of the Ustaše regime. Some vojvode (војводе), that is, Chetnik unit commanders, accepted Mihailović’s authority, while others continued to act independently. Among the former, one should mention Ilija Trifunović Birčanin, Pavle Đurišić (Павле Ђуришић), Jezdimir Dangić (Јездимир Дангић), Father Momčilo Đujić (поп Момчило Ђујић), Dobroslav Jevđević (Доброслав Јевђевић), and Nikola Kalabić (Никола Калабић), among others. The best known commander who rejected Mihailović’s authority was Kosta Milovanović Pećanac, the pre-war chairman of the Chetnik organisation. In the territory of Serbia, already in summer 1941, he and his units went into open collaboration with the quisling government of Milan Nedić (Милан Недић) and the German occupation authorities.

Chetnik formations were mostly filled on a voluntary basis, but as the war dragged on and support for the rival Partisan movement grew to mass proportions, the Chetniks also resorted to forced mobilisation in areas under their control. The Chetnik army operated on a territorial principle, like a local militia. Its units were rarely willing to fight in remote areas, far from their home region. They were marred by lax discipline, while arbitrariness was the biggest problem even within the commanding corps. The exact number of Chetniks in occupied Yugoslavia is difficult to determine. In late 1941, Draža Mihailović claimed there were around 200,000 Chetniks, whereas in summer 1944 German estimates calculated that there were around 50,000 Chetniks under Mihailović’s control.

Image 3 – Draža Mihailović with a group of Chetniks

The Chetnik Movement’s Political Aims

In the summer of 1941, alongside his military staff in Ravna gora, Draža Mihailović also established a Central National Committee (Централни национални комитет / Centralni nacionali komitet) as an advisory body for matters in domestic and foreign policy. Its members comprised individuals from Serbia’s pre-war political and intellectual life, with Dr Stevan Moljević (Стеван Мољевић) serving as a sort of chief ideologist. He wrote a memorandum about ‘homogeneous Serbia’, which was meant to occupy, in his view, 70% of future Yugoslavia’s territory. In addition to present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and most of Croatia, this “Greater Serbia” would also include parts of Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. Its ethnic homogeneity would be secured by forcibly expelling its non-ethnic Serb population, especially Croats and Muslims. The Chetnik leadership embraced Moljević’s ideas about a ‘Greater Serbia’ (within the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) and, especially, ethnic cleansing as a tool for ensuring ethnic and national homogeneity. As Serb nationalists, the Chetniks did not consider the Macedonians or Montenegrins as nations in their own right, but as integral parts of the Serb nation. The Chetniks were a monarchist movement and therefore viewed communism and the Communist Party of Yugoslavia in particular as its biggest enemy. The movement was extremely patriarchal, with no women in its political leadership or military ranks.

Image 4 – The Chetnik flag

Image 5 – A map of Moljević’s Greater Serbia

Relations with the Yugoslav Government in Exile and Western Allies

Initial contacts between the Chetniks and the Yugoslav government exiled in London were made in autumn 1941. The prime minister, Dušan Simović (Душан Симовић), issued a call to all those who had continued to fight in Yugoslavia to place themselves under the command of Draža Mihailović, who was promoted to general in late 1941 and appointed minister of the army, navy, and air force in early 1942, before finally being made, in mid 1942, the chief of staff of the Supreme Command. The Yugoslav government and King Peter himself played an important role in promoting and positing the Chetnik movement in the West as a liberating and anti-fascist force. Lacking concrete information from the ground, the British government, led by Winston Churchill, decided to accommodate the Yugoslav demands and support the Chetniks, who were portrayed to the public as a guerrilla movement determined to fight the Axis. However, as soon as the first reports began to arrive from Yugoslavia, the British realised there was a big problem. The weapons they were sending to the Chetniks were mostly used, in their judgement, against the Yugoslav communists (Partisans), not fighting the Germans or Italians. Not fully convinced by the information they were receiving from the Yugoslav government, as early as autumn 1941 the British began dispatching their own military-political missions to Yugoslavia, intended to establish the real facts on the ground. These British intelligence men were ordered to establish whether the Chetniks were really engaging in armed resistance against the Germans, Italians, and their allies, as well as to encourage them to offer more proactive and substantial resistance. During 1943, reports reaching London from the theatre of operations, as well as decoded correspondence between German military staffs made it increasingly clear that the Chetniks were not fighting against the Germans, Italians, or Ustaše, but instead with them, against the Partisans. All of this would come to inform the British decision of 1943 and 1944 to begin spurning Mihailović’s Chetniks as allies and instead support only Tito’s Partisans. Pressured by the British, the Yugoslav king and government would come to shift their position as well. In summer 1944 Mihailović was first sacked from his ministerial post, and then the Supreme Command in Yugoslavia was abolished by a royal decree. In a radio address broadcast on 12 September 1944, King Peter called on all Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes to join the National Liberation Army led by Marshal Tito. The king ended his message with these words: ‘All those who collaborate with the enemy against the interests of their own people and its future, and fail to heed this call, will never be able to shed the seal of treason, whether in the eyes of the people or history’.

Image 6 – Dušan Simović

Image 7 – King Peter II Karađorđević

Relations with the Partisans

Upon learning that a group of soldiers and officers of the royal army had refused to surrender, Josip Broz Tito and the leadership of the recently established Main Staff of the Partisan detachments decided to make contact with Draža Mihailović and his headquarters in Ravna gora. Although initial talks conducted during summer 1941 did produce a non-aggression and cooperation agreement, right from the start it was clear to both sides that their differences in terms of goals and tactics for resisting the enemy were just too great. The supreme commanders of the Partisan and Chetnik movements, Tito and Draža Mihailović, met in person on two occasions, on 19 September 1941 in the west Serbian village of Struganik and on 27 October 1941 in Brajići, a village near Ravna gora, but failed to agree about their future actions against the occupiers. One of the difficulties concerned the issue of who would have supreme command over their combined forces, but a much more significant obstacle was the question of whether to continue armed action against the Germans. The Chetnik position was that open armed conflict should be avoided until the Western Allies’ arrival in Yugoslavia. Their stance was additionally motivated by brutal German reprisals against Serbia’s civilian population for every German soldier wounded or killed in combat. By contrast, the Partisans had no qualms about continuing armed resistance against the occupiers, despite the sacrifices that would have to be sustained along the way. From the start, the Chetniks’ reluctance to cooperate with the Partisans was also fuelled by their insurmountable ideological differences. Draža Mihailović was a Serbian nationalist and devout Christian Orthodox who fought for the monarchy and king and, accordingly, viewed communism, insisting on the equality of all Yugoslav nations, republicanism, and atheism as the greatest threats to the values he espoused. For all those reasons, the Chetnik leader regarded the increasingly powerful and popular Partisan movement, led by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, as competition that had to be destroyed in order to prevent it from exerting an influence on the country’s circumstances after the war. The Chetniks’ relationship with the Partisans took little time to deteriorate from occasional cooperation and mutual tolerance to open armed conflict. In early November 1941, having first notified the German military command of their plans and having requested their armed assistance, the Chetniks of Draža Mihailović attacked the Partisans on the territory of the so-called Republic of Užice in western Serbia. The Partisans’ losses in the fighting itself were followed by mass shootings of captured Partisans at the hands of their Chetnik captors, and then also by the Germans, to whom the Chetniks surrendered close to 400 captured Partisans. Thus the short-lived cooperation between the Chetniks and Partisans came to a definite end and fierce fighting between them would continue for the duration of the war. In most cases the Chetniks would fight the Partisans in alliance with Italian and German units, which would especially come to the fore in large-scale military operations conducted in eastern Bosnia in late 1942 and early 1943. As part of negotiations between representatives of the National Liberation Movement and the government in exile about forming a government after the war, in late August 1944 Marshal Tito announced that all Chetniks who surrendered and joined the Partisan army would be pardoned. Several similar calls were issued until the end of the war. A large number of Chetniks, almost half of their entire army in the territory of Serbia, accepted the offer and joined the Partisans in late 1944 and early 1945.

Image 8 – Tito and Draža Mihailović

Collaboration with the Germans

Collaboration between the Germans and Chetniks in Yugoslavia occurred in a number of ways from the beginning to the end of the war. Sometimes, their collaboration was informal, with the Germans tolerating and refraining from attacking Chetnik units, but there are also numerous documents that attest to the existence of formally concluded agreements of cooperation and joint military activities between the German army and Chetnik formations. Under this informal type of collaboration one may also include various cooperation agreements that the Chetniks made with occupied Serbia’s quisling government headed by Milan Nedić, which was allied to and controlled by the Germans. There were two reasons why the Chetniks abandoned the notion of a mass insurgence against the German occupiers and armed resistance to the German army as early as autumn 1941. Cited as the first reason was saving Serbian civilians, who were regularly taken hostage by the Germans and murdered in reprisals for wounded and killed German troops. The second reason, which remained crucial for the duration of the war, was the assistance that the Chetniks were receiving from the Germans for fighting the Yugoslav Partisans, because settling the scores with the Partisan movement instead of fighting to liberate the country from its Nazi and Fascist invaders would become the paramount aim of the Chetnik movement. As early as summer 1941, the Chetnik units under the command of Kosta Milovanović Pećanac went into open collaboration with occupied Serbia’s quisling government and the German occupation authorities, whose assistance to Pećanac’s Chetniks extended to arms, clothing, food, and money. With the Partisan movement gaining strength in Serbia, starting in autumn 1941 Draža Mihailović likewise began sending signals to Milan Nedić and, via him, to the German military command, indicating his willingness to collaborate. This enabled a meeting between Mihailović and Rudolf Kogard, an intelligence officer and representative of the German commander for Serbia, to take place on 11 November 1941 in the village of Divci. In the meeting, the Germans declined the Chetniks’ offer to fight the Partisans together, instead demanding from Mihailović, as leader of an illegal military formation, an unconditional surrender. Although he rejected the demand, Draža Mihailović agreed to allow the legalisation of some of his Chetnik units by having them join Nedić’s quisling armed forces, thus placing them under direct German military command. Apart from Serbia, the Chetniks would come to collaborate with the Germans in the territories of Bosnia and Montenegro as well. This came to the fore especially during the German military operation codenamed Fall Weiß, also known as the Battle of the Neretva River. Their open collaboration would culminate during 1944 and 1945, when the Chetniks commanded by Draža Mihailović assisted the Germans in preventing the Partisans from pushing into Serbia and then also aided German units in their retreat from Yugoslavia. The same period also saw the Germans intensify their assistance in arms to the Chetniks.

Throughout the war, up until the summer of 1944, the Germans did not entirely trust the Chetniks. They knew that their alliance was based only on their shared need to defeat the Partisan movement and Yugoslav communists, as well as that in the case of an Allied landing in Yugoslavia their alliance would come to an end. Once it became clear that no such landing was forthcoming and that the London-based government in exile and Western Allies had abandoned the Chetniks, their military collaboration with the Germans became an important factor of survival for both sides. That does not mean that over the course of the war, especially in its opening months, there were no instances of armed conflict between the Germans and Chetniks, but most of these were initiated by the Germans. Occasional clashes between the Chetniks and Germans would also occur following the surrender of Italy in September 1943, but these were mostly motivated by fighting over the spoils of war. At no point during World War II in Yugoslavia did Draža Mihailović issue an explicit command ordering the Chetnik detachments, that is, the Yugoslav Army in the Homeland to rise against the German occupiers in a war of national liberation.

Image 9 – Chetniks and Germans in occupied Yugoslavia, 1943

Image 10 – Chetniks and Germans in occupied Yugoslavia, 1943

Image 11 – Chetniks and Germans in Serbia, 1944

Collaboration with the Italians

In those areas of Yugoslavia that after April 1941 ended up under Italian administration or in the Italian zone of influence, Chetnik units very quickly, by the end of 1941 at the latest, established active collaboration with the Italian political and military authorities. Their motives for allying themselves with the Italians varied from one region to the next. Whereas in the territory of the Independent State of Croatia the Chetniks regarded the Italians as a powerful ally in saving the ethnic Serb population from the repressive policies of the Ustaše regime, the Chetniks in Montenegro and Sandžak (in what is now southwest Serbia) collaborated with the Italians as an ally in fighting the increasingly powerful and popular Partisan (communist) movement. For the Italians, collaborating with the Chetniks was worthwhile for two main reasons. Firstly, in order to crush, with the Chetniks’ assistance, the Partisan anti-fascist movement and, secondly, to pacify the Chetniks themselves as a non-negligible military force and thereby avoid having to fight two guerrilla armies at the same time. Much like the Germans, the Italians did not entirely trust the Chetniks either. Knowing about their plans to join the Western Allies in the case of an Allied landing on the Adriatic coast, the Italians’ long-term plan was to defeat the Partisans first and then turn on the Chetniks as well. In July 1941, in Montenegro and Sandžak the Chetniks and Partisans joined forces in an insurgency against the Italian occupation. Following the collapse of the insurgency and faced with Italian reprisals against captured insurgents and the civilian population, the Partisans nonetheless decided to continue fighting, while the Chetniks briefly decided to lie low and then joined the Italians’ onslaught on the Partisans. As early as 1942, most of the Chetnik military formations that were active in the territory of the NDH were given the status of auxiliary Italian troops, organised into volunteer anti-communist militias – MVAC (Milizia Volontaria Anti Comunista). These units were led by men who were loyal to Draža Mihailović, such as Ilija Trifunović Birčanin, Father Momčilo Đujić, Dobroslav Jevđević, Petar Baćović (Петар Баћовић), Blažo Đukanović (Блажо Ђукановић), and others. These Chetnik commanders made a number of agreements with the commanding officers of Italian divisions stationed in Montenegro and Sandžak. In late July 1942, Blažo Đukanović, who in the meantime had been appointed the commander of all Chetnik formations in Montenegro, reached an agreement with General Pirzio Biroli, commander of the Italian troops in Montenegro. According to the agreement, the Chetniks committed to collaborate with the Italians in their fight against the communists, as well as to assist them in maintaining order and suppressing anti-Italian activities in the country. In return, the Italians promised to aid the Chetniks with arms, food, and other necessities, including financial assistance for their families. From June 1942 to April 1943 Draža Mihailović himself resided in Montenegro, with the knowledge of the Italian authorities, in the immediate vicinity of the Italian garrison stationed in Kolašin. One of the best examples of military collaboration between the Chetniks and the Italians was the Fall Weiß operation, i.e. the Battle of the Neretva River, which saw 15,000 Chetniks fighting the Partisans on the Axis side, as auxiliary units of the Italian army.

In a report from 1943, Germany’s military envoy to the NDH Edmund Glaise von Horstenau wrote that General Roatta, commander of the Italian Second Army, has under his command a total of 19,000 Chetniks, but also asserted that ‘these Chetniks won’t lift a finger without receiving simultaneous orders from Draža Mihailović’.

Image 12 – Chetniks and Italians, 1942

Image 13 – Chetniks and Italians in Montenegro

Collaboration with the Ustaše

During the course of World War II in Yugoslavia, the Ustaše and Chetniks, two nationalist movements responsible for mass atrocities against ethnic Serbs and Croats, spent much more time collaborating than fighting each other. Sometimes, this collaboration was forced upon them by the German or Italian military command, sometimes it was unofficial and went no further than tolerating each other’s presence in a given area, but there are also numerous examples of official cooperation agreements between them. The main reason for cooperating was fighting their common enemy – the Partisans. In addition, NDH authorities engaged in negotiations with Chetnik units in a bid to pacify in this way the resistance movement among the threatened ethnic Serb population, that is, those Serbs who collaborated with Chetniks rather than Partisans. The first negotiations between representatives of the NDH and Chetniks occurred in March 1942 in eastern Herzegovina, while the first concrete agreement between the two sides was signed on 27 April 1942 in the area around Mrkonjić Grad (Мркоњић Град). The local Chetnik commander Uroš Drenović (Урош Дреновић) undertook to assist in crushing the ‘communist bandits’, while the Ustaše major Emil Rataj promised in return that the Ustaše authorities would protect the area’s villages populated by ethnic Serbs from ‘attacks by the communists, the so-called partisans’ and provide financial support to the families of captured Chetniks and the widows of Chetniks killed in combat with Partisan units. In a separate written document, Drenović stated that he had ‘always recognised the Independent State of Croatia’. In mid May 1942, Chetnik commanders whose units were active between the rivers Sana and Vrbas, signed in Banja Luka a cessation of hostilities agreement with Ustaše and Home Guard units. During May and June 1942, in areas around Bosnia, Dalmatia, and Lika (a historic region in what is now Croatia) several more agreements on the cessation of hostilities and cooperation in fighting the Partisans together were signed, some of them even relinquishing the administration of certain areas to local Chetnik commanders who acknowledged the sovereignty of the NDH and asserted their loyalty to the state and its Poglavnik (‘leader’) Ante Pavelić. The Ustaše authorities continued supporting the Chetniks and their families with arms, food, and medicines, including treatment for wounded Chetniks in NDH healthcare facilities. In late 1942, the NDH Ministry of the Interior issued a directive stipulating that the NDH would conclude agreements only with those Chetnik commanders who were born on its territory and who recognised its military and civilian authorities. Nonetheless, that does not mean that the NDH did not collaborate in various ways even with those Chetnik commanders and units that took part in the war beyond the borders of the NDH. The best example of that may be the negotiations conducted between Draža Mihailović conducted and the government of the NDH shortly before the end of the war. In mid April 1945 Mihailović dispatched his envoy Ranko Brašić to Zagreb, to meet with Ante Pavelić, Vladko Maček, and Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac. Brašić was tasked with examining the possibility of further collaboration between the two sides in fighting the Partisans together. In late April, another delegation from Mihailović arrived in Zagreb, comprising General Svetomir Đukić, Lieutenant Neško Nedić, and Major Žika Andrić. In these talks, the NDH was represented, along with the Poglavnik Ante Pavelić, by high-ranking military and political officials: Andrija Artuković, Maks Luburić, Ante Moškov, and Juco Rukavina. These negotiations resulted in Pavelić’s decision to send the Chetniks assistance in arms, food, and medicines, as well as to allow them to retreat west across Croatian territory along with units of the German army. Pavelić rejected Draža Mihailović’s proposal of a joint Ustaše-Chetnik action against the Partisans.

Image 14 – Chetniks, Uroš Drenović… Ustaše

Image 15 . – The Chetniks and Ustaše

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