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The Rise of Tito

The Allies switch sides in Yugoslavia

Yugoslavia (“Land of the South Slavs”) was an artificial nation carved out of the former Astro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 that united disparate groups of ethnic Slavs of different religions. When Germany conquered the country in 1941, the young Yugoslav monarch King Peter II escaped and established his government-in-exile in London. Col. Dragoljub “Draža” Mihailović of the Yugoslav army and a cadre of fellow officers remained behind to form a resistance force, the Chetniks, who had King Peter’s backing. It was this group that initially received supplies from the British and Americans, with Mihailović being referred to in the press as “the Serbian de Gaulle.” But another guerrilla force was at work in Yugoslavia, the communist Partisans led by Josef Broz, whose nom de guerre was Tito.

“It was agreed at the EUREKA conference that our support of the Partisans in Yugoslavia . . . should be intensified in order to increase their effectiveness. . . . We consider that this mission is of such importance that it would best be controlled on a regular basis by a special commander and joint staff.”

—Combined Chiefs of Staff directive, Dec. 4, 1943

For the longest of time the British and the Americans paid little or no attention to the Partisans – to a point where for a while they believed “Tito” represented the initials for the ineffectual Secret International Terrorist Organization. Tito was anything but an obscure acronym. Described by Max Boot in his book Invisible Armies:  An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present as “Half Croatian, half Slovenian, and all politician, Tito was . . . able to bridge his country’s deep sectarian differences and organize a truly national force.” What was remarkable was that for about two years he and his Partisans fought the Germans (and everyone else) essentially on their own. Starting with 12,000 party members in 1941, by the fall of 1943 Tito commanded a guerrilla army of more than 300,000 fighters holding down more than 14 German divisions.

Marshal Tito

Prime Minister Winston Churchill shakes hands with Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito. Churchill, through his personal relationship with Capt. William Deakin, became convinced that Tito and the Partisans were the faction to back in Yugoslavia. Imperial War Museum photo

Thanks to ULTRA intercepts and other sources, the British and Americans had become increasingly suspicious of the contribution of Mihailović and his Chetniks. They were also aware of the vicious civil war between the Chetniks and the Partisans. In May 1943 SOE, which was responsible for all resistance movements in the continent, dispatched Capt. William Deakin, and later in September Brig. Gen. Fitzroy MacLean, to Tito’s headquarters to discover the truth.

In the 1930s, Deakin had been Winston Churchill’s research assistant on Marlborough: His Life and Times, a biography of Churchill’s ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough. That personal relationship allowed Deakin to circumvent SOE bureaucracy to gain the ear of the prime minister. Thus it was that Churchill authorized him to lead “Operation Typical” a six-man SOE mission to Tito’s headquarters.

Response was swift. Military aid began flowing to the Partisans from the port of Bari, Italy and the British and American governments began distancing themselves from the Yugoslav government-in-exile.

Deakin arrived just when the Germans were launching their fifth offensive against Tito’s Partisans. Deakin’s stamina and courage during the battle and retreat, which included Deakin saving Tito’s life during an air raid, earned the respect of the Partisans. Deakin and MacLean’s reports were scathing indictments of the Chetniks and concluded with the recommendation that the British and Americans drop the Chetniks and give all-out support to Tito’s Partisans.

During the Sextant I conference at Cairo, the Combined Chiefs of Staff formally made that recommendation to President Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill, who endorsed it. Response was swift. Military aid began flowing to the Partisans from the port of Bari, Italy and the British and American governments began distancing themselves from the Yugoslav government-in-exile.

AEC Armored Car

Once the decision was made to support Tito, Allied assistance started to flow to the Partisans. Military aid such as these AEC armored cards were sent to Yugoslavia. Imperial War Museum photo

The general public was introduced to Tito in a feature article in the Dec. 5, 1943, edition of the New York Times Magazine written by C. L. Sulzberger, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and nephew of its publisher. Titled “Mystery Man of the Balkans” it began: “He calls himself Tito, he leads Yugoslavia’s Partisans, but who is he? That’s one of the war’s best-kept secrets.” It was the first of what would prove to be a month-long collection of news and feature articles that propelled Tito out of obscurity and onto the world stage.

To add to his legitimacy, Tito drafted a document for a new government within Yugoslavia with himself at its head. A conference containing 142 delegates representing various factions gathered in one of the liberated regions to vote on it. On Dec. 20, newly promoted Field Marshal Tito announced: “The supreme anti-Fascist council of Yugoslavia has set up a National Committee of Liberation that now becomes the supreme legislative body of Yugoslavia, with all powers of the national government, through which the anti-Fascist council will discharge its executive functions.” He added that the government would now be the only official voice for Yugoslavia. Tito had usurped the king and his government-in-exile.

King Peter II was furious, but, aside from claiming he had been betrayed by the Allies, there was nothing he could do. Tito was now in charge and would remain the leader of Yugoslavia for the rest of his life.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...