As the Allies fought the Axis powers inch by bloody inch over Fortress Europa—from Scandinavia down to Greece, and from France all the way to Russia—another war was waged by collections of rag-tag locals who refused to give in to their oppressors: the Resistance.
Their methods took many forms, from noncooperation to sabotage, espionage, and armed opposition. They fought with weapons, will, and a spirit that gave hope to both their countrymen and the impending liberating forces. Hitler’s Europe Ablaze offers a panoramic yet detailed view of the make-up, actions, and impact of the various resistance movements in World War II.
This authoritative and accessible survey, written by a group of the leading experts in the field, provides gripping, factual accounts of the resistance in each region, along with an assessment of its effectiveness and of the Axis reaction to it.
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About the Author
Ben H. Shepherd is an associate professor (reader) in history at Glasgow Caledonian University. He specializes in the military history of Germany and Austria during the first half of the twentieth century, with particular focus on the origins and conduct of counterinsurgency warfare. He is the author of War in the Wild East: The German Army and Soviet Partisans and Terror in the Balkans: German Armies and Partisan Warfare. He is also coeditor of the collection War in a Twilight World. He lives in Glasgow, Scotland.
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Fifth Column, Fourth Service, Third Task, Second Conflict?
The Major Allied Powers and European Resistance
The most obvious way to think about the European resistance is as a movement 'from below'. Across the Continent, in countries or regions overrun by the Axis powers (mainly, of course, by the Germans), individuals and groups undertook opposition activities. The resistance developed within the particular countries and regions — in France, in the Low Countries, in Scandinavia, in Italy, in east-central Europe, in the Balkans, in the western Soviet Union — in quite different ways. There is, however, another way of looking at the resistance, one that also takes into account the entire range of European experience. That way is to examine the movement 'from above', through the role that the major Allied governments (Britain, the USSR, and the United States) and their military establishments played in sustaining and exploiting it. The emphasis here is on the resistance and military operations, rather than use of the resistance to collect intelligence or to gain political influence. This chapter will discuss, in particular, how resistance featured in wartime grand strategy.
* * *
From the perspective of the Allied triumph in 1945 it is difficult to grasp how desperate the situation had seemed in London five years earlier, during the summer of 1940. France had collapsed; Italy had entered the war and now threatened the British position in the Mediterranean. Air bombardment of Britain seemed imminent, and even invasion. There was certainly little sense of how the war could ever be taken back to the Continent. Neither of the great neutrals — the United States and the Soviet Union — showed any enthusiasm for involvement on Britain's side. Meanwhile, those Europeans who had been brought under the control of the Third Reich could see no external force that might bring about their liberation. Many thought that Britain would soon go the same way as France, either invaded by the Wehrmacht or forced to make a humiliating peace, one that accepted Axis domination of Continental Europe. The 'realists' on the Continent often came to the conclusion that collaboration with the occupiers was the only rational policy.
And yet as the British government saw it, one way forward to victory was to nurture the tender shoots of resistance. This ambition actually dated back before the May 1940 catastrophe, and even before the outbreak of war; it had been assumed that the Germans would overrun at least parts of Eastern Europe and that guerrilla warfare might be organized there. A small mission had been rushed to Poland, but it achieved nothing before the quick German victory. As early as 19 May 1940, the Chiefs of Staff (COS) put forward a famous paper entitled 'British Strategy in a Certain Eventuality' — the 'eventuality' being the fall of France. In this paper they outlined three ways of continuing the war, including economic pressure through blockade, air bombing and 'the creation of widespread revolt in [German-]conquered territories'. Economic warfare was the essence of the strategy, but it was believed that internal revolt would become more likely as living conditions in the occupied territories deteriorated. In any event, the task of organizing a revolt was described as being 'of the very highest importance', requiring a special body.
In July 1940 the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was set up under the dynamic Minister of Economic Warfare, the Labour MP Hugh Dalton. Churchill — famously — instructed Dalton to 'set Europe ablaze'. Dalton, for his part, had great aspirations for SOE, and saw it as a force comparable to the conventional services, the army, navy and air force. 'Subversion,' Dalton declared, 'should be clearly recognized by all three Fighting Services as another and independent Service.' Among the professional military planners those of the British army, at least, attached high importance to the resistance, for eighteen months or so — until the end of 1941.
One of the more detailed outlines of this strategy was laid out by the British Joint Planning Staff (JPS) in a strategic review of June 1941, just before the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The extraordinary section on the role of the resistance and subversion was evidently prepared by SOE. As the official historian J.M.A. Gwyer pointed out, in the relevant Grand Strategy volume, what was intended was the 'antithesis' of a protracted guerrilla war, fought out in remote mountainous areas (i.e. along the lines of what would actually develop later in Yugoslavia and Greece). The model was not such a guerrilla war, but rather the German invasions of Norway, the Low Countries and France in 1940. Much of the success of those operations had been due — it was believed in London — to support for the Panzer spearheads by 'fifth columnists'. The JPS expected that the balance would be reversed for future British operations; rather than a handful of fifth columnists there would be a large number of enthusiastic and well-prepared 'patriots', who would support a relatively small attacking British force. These patriots would be able 'overnight' to reduce key occupied areas to anarchy. This 'Allied' version of May 1940 would involve a fairly small number of British divisions ('ten or more' divisions, mostly armoured), which would seize the ports and forward airfields and isolate the area in revolt from German intervention. Meanwhile, after the operation began '"free" allied contingents now in our territories' would be sent back to their home countries to work directly with the patriots and provide them with specialist capabilities — radios, engineers, anti-tank and air defence weapons. This concept, in which a British landing would be used to set off a prepared uprising on the Continent in the occupied territories, was known as the 'detonator strategy'.
As late as December 1941, immediately after the entry of the United States into the war, Churchill at least still conceived of the 'detonator strategy' playing a central part in future campaigns. He submitted to the first Washington Conference in December 1941 a memorandum in which he envisaged multiple British-American landings taking place in 1943, 'strong enough to enable the conquered populations to revolt'. 'If the incursion of the armoured formations is successful,' the Prime Minister predicted, 'the uprising of the local population, for whom weapons must be brought, will supply the corpus of the liberating offensive.'
The 'detonator strategy' was in reality military nonsense, and this should have been obvious to the British planners in mid1941. It was impossible secretly to construct, under the noses of the German garrisons, a well-equipped and unified 'patriot' force or 'secret army'. Even the task of dropping by parachute the required amount of small arms would have taken up, it was later estimated, the total resources of RAF Bomber Command for six months. The 'one-off' nature of the scheme meant that there could be no chance for practice or for assessing in advance how far the organization and training of the 'secret army' had progressed. The British official history later emphasized the paradox: 'Since it [the resistance uprising] could only take place once, it was necessary to ensure its success; but the only conditions which would make success certain [i.e. strong invading regular forces] were also those that would make the rising strategically unnecessary.'
William Deakin, the Oxford don who became famous for his work with Tito's Partisans, argued after the war that the British — supposedly in contrast to the Russians — had given no thought before 1939 to organizing irregular warfare on the Continent. That claim was not altogether true, in a literal sense, but in any event the 'detonator strategy' was quite in line with the 'British way of war' — employed over centuries — of enlisting armies on the Continent to fight for British interests. The 'secret armies' were simply an unusual variation on a theme.
In any event Britain had — and would have — few resources to commit to the detonator strategy. After Dunkirk, Britain had no capability even for raids on the Continent; as for an invasion, an operation in any strength — even ten divisions — was years away. In particular, long-range aircraft were in short supply and the Royal Air Force was reluctant to divert them from the bombing campaign. Mark Mazower is correct to state that Dalton had underestimated the possibilities for repression available to the authorities of the Third Reich in the occupied regions: 'Fortunately for all concerned, SOE's rhetoric was not matched by its funding, nor by its access to military resources.'
During the twelve months after the formation of SOE the position of Britain improved somewhat, thanks to the unflinching policy of the Churchill government and the morale-raising success of the Battle of Britain. Invasion of Britain by the Germans, or an unfavourable peace forced on Britain, now seemed less likely. The United States provided military and economic aid in increasing quantities. Even the success of Germany in the Balkans in the spring of 1941 could be interpreted in a positive sense, as it spread Axis resources more thinly. It was also at this time that the broadcasting of propaganda through the BBC and the covert transmitters of the Political Warfare Executive became a major, if intangible, element in influencing public opinion in occupied Europe. The Russians used Radio Moscow, and the United States was also involved from 1942, but their impact was probably less than that of the British.
And yet there was still little sign of effective resistance from below. The collaborationist government of Pétain in France still seemed in a strong position. De Gaulle's Free French were a very small force, even in French possessions overseas. The Danes, Norwegians and Dutch lived under collaborator regimes of a sort. There was a greater sense of resistance in parts of Eastern Europe — the former territory of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia — where German treatment was more brutal and traditions of revolt existed. But here there was no way of Britain providing support. The first parachute drop into Poland was made in February 1941, and it would be a year before there would be a second one. In the summer of 1941 SOE cut back aid to Czechoslovakia and Poland, as there was no prospect of British forces acting as 'detonators' for the resistance there. The military coup in Belgrade in March 1941 involved SOE, but it was 'political warfare' in a neutral country rather than support for 'resistance' in territory occupied by the forces of the Third Reich. In any event, the new Yugoslav government was swept away by the ensuing German invasion. The emphasis shifted, for a period, to France and Norway, where geography made delivery of weapons more straightforward. But overall the situation was disappointing. As the historian of SOE put it, describing the first eighteen months of the organization's activities, 'the twigs of early resistance were still too damp ... to do more than smoulder'.
* * *
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 — a year after the fall of France — a new stage began. Deakin, in his survey of the resistance, argued that 'the appearance of the Soviet Union as a major belligerent inevitably transformed the whole picture [of the European resistance]'. This was true in the broadest sense — from hindsight — because it meant that there was now a powerful conventional ground force on the mainland which would first preoccupy the German army and then destroy it. The 'patriots' of the occupied European countries would not have to liberate themselves — even with some help from the British army. But this potential for liberation was far from evident at the time. In London there was real doubt as to whether Stalin and the Russians would survive the onslaught. And the war with the communist Soviet Union also allowed the Germans to pose in the occupied regions as the defenders of Christian Europe against Bolshevism.
There were two ways in which the invasion of the Soviet Union did change the situation in the Allies' favour. First of all, the Soviet Union became the site of the largest resistance movement in Europe. The zone occupied by the Germans was inhabited by 60 million people (although certainly not all of them were enthusiastic about Soviet power). Secondly, in occupied western and southern Europe the local communists, hitherto restrained by the dictates of the August 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, now threw themselves into the resistance movement.
And yet there was little the Soviet government could do to develop the movement either on its own soil or abroad. The government in Moscow in the months after 22 June 1941 was in much the same position as that of the British in May/June 1940; they were confronted by an unexpected (and even worse) military defeat, and they had little immediate prospect of being able to right the situation by conventional military means. Neither Britain nor the Soviet Union had done much to prepare for the eventuality in which they found themselves. The difference was that, unlike the British, the Soviet government was for the most part attempting to build resistance in what could be called its 'own' territory (once the German army had passed through the belt of territory that until 1939 — 40 had been part of eastern Poland or the independent Baltic states).
Deakin argued that for the Russians (unlike the British), guerrilla warfare played a central part in policy. Like his claim about British pre-war policy (or non-policy), this is hard to sustain. Even during the Civil War of 1917 — 20 the advocates of partizanshchina ('guerrilla-ism') in the Soviet Union had been defeated by the advocates of a regular Red Army. The stress in Soviet interwar strategy had been placed on offensive warfare fought on enemy territory, using conventional forces. Any military theorist in the Soviet Union who before 1941 had advocated a defensive guerrilla strategy on Soviet territory would have been accused of treasonous defeatism. In addition, the Soviet retreat in 1941 was so quick and so deep that little had been done to prepare a resistance force. By the time the front stabilized at the beginning of December much of occupied Soviet territory (the Baltic republics, Belorussia, central and western Ukraine and Moldavia) were out of range of help from the 'mainland' (as the unoccupied territory was sometimes termed). Many of the 'partisans' were the stunned and starving survivors of conventional Soviet armies that had been destroyed during the battles of the summer and autumn. Meanwhile, the Red Army, in the desperate military situation of 1941 — 2, had very few personnel, and very little equipment and supplies, to send to the resistance fighters.
As for the organization of the resistance within the Soviet Union, the task was complicated by the fact that the Soviet Union was a 'dictatorship of the proletariat', a totalitarian state dominated by the Communist Party. Despite its revolutionary pedigree, the Party was not enthusiastic about simply encouraging a mass uprising from below, based on popular initiative. Moscow very much wanted to keep control of 'its' resistance; it had an image of the resistance, like the rest of the Soviet system, being run 'from above' by communist cadres. So the orientation (like that in the revolutionary Leninist Bolshevik Party before 1917) was 'top down', a mass movement guided by an elite. And the problem was complicated — as in Britain — by a failure to agree about who would organize the resistance. The Communist Party (central and regional), the Red Army and the secret police (NKVD/NKGB) argued about who would be in charge. It was not until eleven months after the beginning of the war, in May 1942, that Moscow created a central headquarters — the Central Staff of the Partisan Movement (TsShPD) — under the Stavka (Stalin's 'general headquarters'), and headed by the Belorussian partisan leader P.K. Ponomarenko.
Unlike London (and later Washington), Moscow was involved with resistance both on its own territory and in foreign occupied countries. Stalin, in his famous 'brothers and sisters' radio speech of 3 July 1941, stressed that what was going on was not just a 'fatherland war' of the Soviet Union, but also a war of 'help to all the peoples of Europe who were suffering under the yoke of German fascism'. Soviet propaganda, and some of Stalin's speeches, stressed the volatility of German-occupied territory, and indeed the volatility of the Reich itself. In his Revolution Day speech of November 1941 the Soviet leader remarked on the 'instability of the European rear of imperial Germany'. The 'new order', he declared (in a rather awkward extended metaphor), was 'a volcano which is ready to explode at any time and to bury the German imperialist house of cards'. In his memorable Red Army Day speech of February 1942, in which he brought out 'stability of the rear' as one of the 'permanently operating factors' in modern war, he noted that this stability was something that the Soviet Union possessed and Nazi Germany did not. (This was not so different from British thinking, although the planners in London argued that volatility would be increased by blockade and growing economic hardship.)(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hitler's Europe Ablaze"
Copyright © 2013 Philip Cooke and Ben H. Shepherd.
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Table of Contents
List of Plates vi
List of Contributors vii
Introduction Philip Cooke Ben H. Shepherd 1
1 Fifth Column, Fourth Service, Third Task, Second Conflict? Evan Mawdsley 14
2 Belgium Fabrice Maerten 33
3 The Czech Lands Christina Vella 52
4 France Juliette Pattinson 77
5 Greece Vangelis Tzoukas Ben H. Shepherd 96
6 Italy Massimo Storchi 113
7 The Netherlands Marjan Schwegman 134
8 Poland Paul Latawski 150
9 Scandinavia Chris Mann 171
10 The Soviet Union Alexander Statiev 188
11 Yugoslavia Vjeran Pavlakovic 213