Operation Uzice

(Yugoslav town)

'Uzice' was the Axis probable designation of the operation known to the Yugoslav partisan forces as the 'First Enemy Offensive', pitting German, Serb and Četnik forces on the one side against the partisan forces of Josip Broz Tito on the other in the western Serbia region of German-occupied Yugoslavia (27 September/29 November 1941).

The undertaking was the first major Germany anti-partisan operation in German-occupied Yugoslavia, and was aimed at the destruction of the so-called Uzice Republic, was was the first of several 'free territories' created by partisan liberation efforts. It was named after the town of Uzice, and became known as the 'First Enemy Offensive' by the Yugoslavs. The security forces of the German-installed puppet regime of General Milan Nedić in Serbia were also involved in the undertaking. After the start of the offensive, the partisans initially received assistance from local Četnik units in opposing the Germans, but after weeks of disagreement and low-level conflict between the two insurgent factions about how the resistance should proceed, the Četniks launched unsuccessful attacks on the partisans in the towns of Uzice and Pozega on 1 November. The partisans then counterattacked decisively, but by a time early in December had been driven from their liberated area by the German and Serb offensive.

On 7 July 1941, while Četnik forces were still inactive, Tito and his partisan movement began a major uprising in the region between Sabac and Uzice, in the Krupanj area of north-western Serbia: this marked the start of armed Yugoslav resistance in occupied Yugoslavia. The uprising was successful and secured a defensible, self-sustained, independent region, the so-called 'Uzice Republic' which was the first of several 'free territories' that were to be established by the partisans during the course of the war. Almost immediately the Germans sought to establish whether or not the Četnik (nationalist) movement supported the uprising, as they believed that only with nationalist support could the uprising develop genuine popular support. On 14 August the headquarters of General Ludwig von Schröder, the Befehlshaber 'Serbien', reported to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht that the partisan forces in fact enjoyed no support from the Četniks. Despite this, the German military strength in the region was believed to be insufficient to suppress the rising, which by August 27 had become more serious and was in fact spreading rapidly. As a result of this, and as the arrival of no reinforcements could be expected, the German authorities in Serbia decided to enlarge the Serb auxiliary forces so that the 'Serbs themselves [would be able] to crush the communist activity'.

By September 1941 the Četniks, seeing the success of the rising and coming to appreciate the rising’s wide, and indeed growing, support among the Serb population, decided that unless they committed themselves to the fight they would probably lose their position as the leaders of Serb resistance. On 12 September, German intelligence reported that Četnik units were beginning to move into position alongside partisan units. Reporting on the events to the Yugoslav government-in-exile, the politician Dr Milos Sekulić averred that the Četnik resistance possessed a defensive nature, while the partisans managed to unite elements of the Yugoslav people inclined toward active resistance.

In mid-September 1941, Tito and the partisan general staff relocated themselves from Belgrade to the Uzice Republic in which, by now, the partisans had created 25 new military detachments. Just a few days later, on 19 September, Tito met Mihailović to seek a negotiated alliance between their two factions, but this proved impossible as Tito favoured a joint large-scale offensive, and Mihailović considered a general uprising to be premature, dangerous and a trigger for German reprisals. Četnik support for the rebellion was partial: of their overall strength of between 5,000 and 10,000 men, the Četniks fielded only about 3,000 in the area, and of these some did not become involved in the fighting.

On 16 September Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, head of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, issued to all the German occupation forces in Europe an order that between 50 and 100 hostages were to be killed for every German soldier killed. General Franz Böhme, the Bevollmächtigter Kommandierender General und Befehlshaber 'Serbien', ordered this order to be implemented within Serbia in the most drastic manner and that with no exception 100 hostages were to be executed for every German killed, and 50 for every German wounded. Invested by Adolf Hitler with total authority and instructed to 'restore order for the longer term in the entire area by the most radical means', Böhme made it clear that he intended if necessary to wage war against the whole Serb population by considering all civilians as enemies. Böhme was also instructed to apply the directive’s punitive measures in retaliation to attacks not only on German military personnel, but also on ethnic Germans, Bulgarian military personnel, individuals in the service of the occupation authority, and eventually to members of the Serb administration. Each act of insurgency was to be considered of 'communist' origin, and Serbia was declared a war zone in which villages revealing any suspicion of insurgent tendencies was to be burned. After 10 German soldiers had been killed in a joint partisan and Četnik attack on Kraljevo, 1,700 hostages were shot on 20 October, and several thousand more hostages were killed during the following weeks in reprisal for insurgents attacks.

For 'Uzice' the Germans used Generalleutnant Friedrich Zickwolff’s 113th Division, Generalleutnant Dr Walter Hinghofer’s 342nd Division and elements of Generalmajor Heinrich Borowski’s 704th Division, Generalleutnant Friedrich Stahl’s 714th Division, Generalmajor Paul Hoffmann’s 717th Division and Generalleutnant Johann Fortner’s 718th Division. These primary forces were supported by Dimitrije Ljotić's Srpski Dobrovoljački Korpus (Serb Volunteer Corps), elements of Kosta Pećanac’s Četnik forces, as well as Ustase units.

As German forces entered the Uzice area they faced significant resistance, especially on Rudnik mountain and in Kraljevo. As retribution for a lost man, the Germans executed 7,000 people in Kragujevac between 21 and 23 September. It was on 29 that the offensive began as the 342nd Division attacked partisans along the road linking Sabac and Loznica. At the same time another offensive, 'Visegrad' was launched in Bosnia and Herzegovina, then annexed to the Independent State of Croatia, as the Croat army moved to destroy the partisan and Četnik positions in and around Rogatica and Visegrad. The Croat offensive continued for several weeks, but neither side achieved anything in the way of major gains.

By the start of October, several small Serb towns were in partisan or Četnik hands. While strongly distrustful of each other’s motives, the partisans and Četniks nonetheless collaborated sufficiently to began joint undertakings and attempts to take, or at least to isolate, larger towns held by the Germans and/or Serbs. The partisans and Četniks had their headquarters in Uzice and Pozega, a mere 9.25 miles (15 km) distant from each other. During October, however, all hope of continued co-operation evaporated in sporadic bickering and outright violation of agreements already reached. At the same time it also became clear that while the partisan command was unwavering in its commitment to a continued struggle, the Četnik command was uncertain and indeed searching for a way of ending its struggle against the Germans so that it could use all its strength against the partisans. This process lasted for several weeks, and the increasing polarisation of the two sides' positions resulted in a measure of changing loyalties: the Četnik detachments of Vlada Zećević and Ratko Martinović, for example, switched their allegiance to the partisans during this period.

Tito and Mihailović met again on 26 or 27 October in the town of Brajići near the Ravna mountain to make a last attempt at reconciling their interests, but managed to agree only on secondary issues. Mihailović rejected most of Tito’s principal aims, including the establishment of a joint headquarters, the launch of joint military actions against the Germans and collaborationist forces, the establishment of a joint staff for matters of supply, and the formation of national liberation committees.

Mihailović's presence at the meeting was not, in fact, undertaken in good faith, for the Četnik command had already despatched to Belgrade two of Mihailović's aides, namely Pukovnik Branislav Pantić and Kapetan Nenad Mitrović, to establish contact with the Germans, initially via an Abwehr (German intelligence) officer, Hauptmann Josef Matl, on 28 October. The two Četnik emissaries told their Abwehr contact that they have been empowered by Mihailović to establish contact with the Serb prime minister, Nedić, and the appropriate German headquarters to inform them that Mihailović was willing to 'place himself and his men at their disposal for fighting communism'. The two emissaries also offered Mihailović's guarantee for the 'definitive clearing of communist bands in Serb territory' and asked for material support in the form of some 5,000 rifles, 350 machine guns, and 20 heavy machine guns.

After more than a month of disagreements and minor encounters, events culminated on 1 November in a large Četnik attack in and around Uzice. Largely as a result of underestimating the partisan strength, Četniks were quickly driven off. Captain Duane Hudson, a British liaison officer in Yugoslavia, then advised the Allied command in Cairo to stop supplying the Četniks so the British arms would not be used in what was clearly about to become a Yugoslav civil war. The Četniks, who had already received one parachuted weapons delivery, were therefore not accorded a second delivery, though the British later resumed their aid. Tito and Mihailović were each still willing to reach a truce, although both were under pressure from lower down their chains of command to attack the other as soon as possible. Thus ceasefires alternated with ultimata as bloody reprisals between the two resistance movements affected both sides' morale and alienated civilians.

At one point Mihailović's forces, after a surprise attack on the partisans, found themselves surrounded. The partisans allowed the Četniks to go, a fact attributable to the belief of the partisan political leadership that this might persuade the Četniks to continue to attack the Germans, at least for a short time longer.

Mihailović eventually realised that his strength was insufficient to provide protection for the civilian population against German reprisals. Moreover, the attitude of some of his officers had accelerated the divide with the partisans. Suffering the increasing effects of indiscipline and lack of ammunition, the Četniks were soon being hard hit by conflict with both the Germans and the partisans. Another meeting between Pantić and Matl arranged a meeting between Mihailović and Abwehr representatives. The meeting took place in the village of Divci on 11 November, but its exact circumstances remain controversial. There are indications that Mihailović offered to end Četnik activities in towns and along major lines of communication, but in the end no agreement was reached, at least at this time, as a result of German demands for the complete surrender of the Četniks. After the negotiations the German made an unsuccessful attempt to seize Mihailović. Mihailović's negotiations with the Germans were kept secret from the partisan movement, the Yugoslav government-in-exile, and the British.

In 'Uzice', the German-led forces advanced from the north and east toward Uzice, and by the second half of November the partisans were in full retreat. On 25 November the Germans began the final phase of their offensive against both insurgent factions. I was at about this time that Tito and Mihailović had a final telephone conversation, in which Tito announced his intention that the partisans continued to defend their positions, and Mihailović revealed that he intended to disperse his Četniks. On 29 November the partisans abandoned Uzice.

On 10 December, a bounty was put on Mihailović's head, and he himself only narrowly escaped capture. Faced with the impact of the German offensive, Mihailović had already decided on a temporary disbandment of most of his strength except for a small staff. The Četnik remnants retreated to the hills of the Ravna mountain area, where they were under German attack throughout December.

Both Tito and Mihailović had suffered major reverses. Tito had been surprised by the scale of the rising he had instigated, and had therefore found himself managing inexperienced peasant fighters who were reluctant to move away from the area with which they were familiar, and also to accept authority and indoctrination. Mihailović had also been unable to impose discipline, and had not received significant material aid from the British.

Leaving Uzice, the partisans made for Sandzak in Italian-occupied territory. Some of the detachments failed to retreat on time, and as a result were either dispersed or destroyed. After the main partisan strength had departed for Sandzak, only parts of five partisan detachments were left in Serbia.

The undertaking known to the partisan forces as the Second Enemy Offensive was the next major effort by the Axis forces (mainly German but with some Ustase and Italian support) against the partisans. This offensive took place in eastern Bosnia on 14/23 January 1942, and was followed by the 'Third Enemy Offensive', otherwise known as 'Ozren' and including 'Trio'.