Military Wiki
National Liberation Army and
Partisan Detachments of Yugoslavia
Participant in the National Liberation War
Flag of Yugoslavia (1943–1946).svg
Flag of the Democratic Federal Yugoslavia
(used by the Partisans)
Active 1941–1945
Ideology Communism,[1][2][3][4][5]
Leaders Josip Broz Tito
Headquarters mobile, attached to the Main Operational Group
Area of
Axis-occupied Yugoslavia
Strength 80,000–800,000 (see below)
Became Yugoslav People's Army
Allies Allied powers
Opponents Axis powers, Germany, Italy, NDH, Bulgaria, Chetniks, Balli Kombëtar
Battles/wars Battle of the Neretva, Battle of the Sutjeska, Raid on Drvar, Battle of Belgrade, Syrmian Front (most notable)

"To arms, everyone!", a Partisan propaganda poster.

The Partisans[Note 1][6] or the National Liberation Army,[Note 2] officially the National Liberation Army and Partisan Detachments of Yugoslavia,[Note 3][7] was Europe's most effective anti-Nazi resistance movement.[8][9] It was led by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia[10] during World War II. Its commander was Marshal Josip Broz Tito.


One of two objectives of the movement, which was the military arm of the Unitary National Liberation Front (JNOF) coalition, led by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (KPJ)[1] and represented by the AVNOJ (Anti-Fascist Council of National Liberation of Yugoslavia), the Yugoslav wartime deliberative assembly, was fight against the occupying forces. The only source of supply was the enemy; for it was not until 1944 that British supplies began to arrive in appreciable quantities.[11]

The other objective was to create a federal multi-ethnic communist state in Yugoslavia.[12] To this end, the KPJ attempted to appeal to all the various ethnic groups within Yugoslavia, by preserving the rights of each group.

The objectives of the rival resistance movement which emerged some weeks earlier, the Chetniks, were the retention of the Yugoslav monarchy, ensuring the safety of ethnic Serbian populations,[13][14] and the establishment of a Greater Serbia[15] through the ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs from territories they considered rightfully and historically Serbian.[16][17][18][19] Relations between the two movements were uneasy from the start, but from October 1941 they degenerated into full-scale conflict. To the Chetniks, Tito's pan-ethnic policies seemed anti-Serbian, whereas the Chetniks' Royalism was anathema to the communists.[20] In early period Partisan forces were predominantly composed of Serbs and suspectible to the persecution of Muslims (i.e. slaughter of Muslim women and children in April 1942 in Herzegovina). In that period names of Muslim and Croat commanders of Partisan forces had to be hidden from their predominantly Serb members.[21]

By late 1944, the total forces of the Partisans numbered 650,000 men and women organized in four field armies and 52 divisions, which engaged in conventional warfare.[22] By April 1945, the Partisans numbered over 800,000.


The movement was consistently referred to as the "Partisans" throughout the war. However, due to frequent changes in size and structural reorganizations, the Partisans throughout their history held four full official names:

  • National Liberation Partisan Detachments of Yugoslavia[Note 4] (June 1941 - January 1942)
  • National Liberation Partisan and Volunteer Army of Yugoslavia[Note 5] (January 1942 - November 1942)
  • National Liberation Army and Partisan Detachments of Yugoslavia (November 1942 - February 1945). Increasingly from November 1942, the Partisan military as a whole was often referred to simply as the National Liberation Army (Narodnooslobodilačka vojska, NOV), whereas the term "Partisans" acquired a wider sense in referring to the entire resistance faction (including, for example, the AVNOJ).
  • Yugoslav Army [Note 6] - on 1 March 1945, the National Liberation Army was transformed into the regular armed forces of Yugoslavia and renamed accordingly.

The movement was originally named National Liberation Partisan Detachments of Yugoslavia (Narodnooslobodilački partizanski odredi Jugoslavije, NOPOJ) and held that name from June 1941 to January 1942. Because of this, their short name became simply the "Partisans" (capitalized), and stuck henceforward (the adjective "Yugoslav" is used sometimes in exclusively non-Yugoslav sources to distinguish them from other partisan movements). Despite the fact that the name "Partisans" (used throughout) suggests they employed guerrilla tactics, this was only the case until late 1944.

Between January 1942 and November 1942, the movement's full official name was briefly National Liberation Partisan and Volunteer Army of Yugoslavia (Narodnooslobodilačka partizanska i dobrovoljačka vojska Jugoslavije, NOP i DVJ). The changes were meant to reflect the movement's character as a "volunteer army".

In November 1942 the movement was renamed into the National Liberation Army and Partisan Detachments of Yugoslavia (Narodnooslobodilačka vojska i partizanski odredi Jugoslavije, NOV i POJ), a name which it held until the end of the war. This last official name is the full name most associated with the Partisans, and reflects the fact that the proletarian brigades and other mobile units were organized into the National Liberation Army (Narodnooslobodilačka vojska). The name change also reflects the fact that the latter superseded in importance the partisan detachments themselves.

Shortly before the end of the war, in March 1945, all resistance forces were reorganized into the regular armed force of Yugoslavia and renamed Yugoslav Army. It would keep this name until 1951, when it was renamed Yugoslav People's Army.

Background and origins[]

Partisan fighter Stjepan "Stevo" Filipović shouting "Death to fascism, freedom to the People!" seconds before his execution by a Serbian State Guard (local collaborator) unit in Valjevo, occupied Yugoslavia. These words became the Partisan slogan afterwards.

On 6 April 1941, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was invaded from all sides by the Axis powers, primarily by German forces but including Italian, Hungarian and Bulgarian formations as well. During the invasion, Belgrade was bombed by the Luftwaffe. The invasion lasted little more than ten days, ending with the unconditional surrender of the Royal Yugoslav Army on 17 April. Besides being hopelessly ill-equipped when compared to the Wehrmacht, the Army attempted to defend all borders but only managed to thinly spread the limited resources available.[23]

The terms of the capitulation were extremely severe, as the Axis proceeded to dismember Yugoslavia. Germany occupied northern Slovenia, while retaining direct occupation over a rump Serbian state and considerable influence over its newly created puppet state,[24] the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), which extended over much of today's Croatia and contained all of modern Bosnia and Herzegovina and Syrmia region of modern day Serbia. Mussolini's Italy occupied the remainder of Slovenia (annexed and renamed Province of Ljubljana), Kosovo, and large chunks of the coastal Dalmatia region (along with nearly all its Adriatic islands). It also gained control over the newly created Montenegrin puppet state, and was granted the kingship in the Independent State of Croatia, though wielding little real power within it. Hungary dispatched the Hungarian Third Army to occupy part of Serbian Vojvodina, including Baranja and Bačka, and annexed the Croatian area of Međimurje and the Slovene area of Prekmurje. Bulgaria, meanwhile, annexed nearly all of Macedonia, and small areas of eastern Serbia and Kosovo.[25] The dissolution of Yugoslavia, the creation of the NDH, Independent State of Montenegro and Nedic's Serbia and the annexations of Yugoslav territory by the various Axis countries were incompatible with international law in force at that time.[26]

Josip Broz Tito in Bihać, 1942.

The occupying forces instituted such severe burdens on the local populace that the Partisans came not only to enjoy widespread support but for many were the only option for survival. Early in the occupation, German forces would hang or shoot indiscriminately, including women, children and the elderly, up to 100 local inhabitants for every one German soldier killed. Furthermore, the country experienced a breakdown of law and order, with collaborationist militias roaming the countryside terrorizing the population. The government of the puppet Independent State of Croatia found itself unable to control its territory in the early stages of the occupation, resulting in a severe crackdown by the Ustaše militias and the German army.[citation needed]

Amid the relative chaos that ensued, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia moved to organize and unite anti-fascist factions and political forces into a nation-wide uprising. The party, led by Josip Broz Tito, was banned after its significant success in the post-World War I Yugoslav elections and operated underground since. Tito, however, could not act openly without the backing of the USSR, and as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was still in force, he was compelled to wait.[citation needed]

Formation and early rebellion[]

Uprising in Yugoslavia 1941.

Operation Barbarossa, the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union, began on 22 June 1941.[27]

The first communist military unit, the Sisak Brigade, was established on 22 June 1941, the day Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. This was ignored in official Yugoslav Historiography as it was not related to the Partisan movement.[citation needed] The first uprising, led by Tito, occurred two weeks later, in Serbia.[28]

The Communist Party of Yugoslavia formally decided to launch an armed uprising on 4 July, a date which was later marked as Fighter's Day – a public holiday in the SFR Yugoslavia. One Žikica Jovanović Španac shot the first bullet of the campaign on 7 July, later the Uprising Day of the Socialist Republic of Serbia (part of SFR Yugoslavia).

Sixteen blindfolded Partisan youth await execution by German forces in Smederevska Palanka, 20 August 1941.

On 10 August in Stanulović, a mountain village, the Partisans formed the Kopaonik Partisan Detachment Headquarters. Their liberated area, consisting of nearby villages, was called the "Miners Republic" and lasted 42 days. The resistance fighters formally joined the ranks of the Partisans later on.

On 21 December 1941 Partisans formed the 1st Proletarian Assault Brigade (1. Proleterska Udarna Brigada) – the first regular Partisan military unit, capable of operating outside its local area. In 1942 Partisan detachments officially merged into the People's Liberation Army and Partisan Detachments of Yugoslavia (NOV i POJ) with an estimated 236,000 soldiers in December 1942.[29]

The extent of support for the Partisan movement varied according to region and nationality, reflecting the existential concerns of the local population and authorities. The first Partisan uprising occurred in Croatia on 22 June 1941, when forty Croatian Communists staged an uprising in the Brezovica woods between Sisak and Zagreb.[28] An uprising occurred in Serbia two weeks later led by Tito (Uzice Republic), but it was quickly defeated by the Axis forces and support for the Partisans in Serbia thereafter dropped. Partisan numbers from Serbia would be diminished until 1943 when the Partisan movement gained upswing by spreading the fight against the axis.[30] Increase of number of Partisans in Serbia, similarly to other republics, came partly in response to Tito's offer of amnesty to all collaborators on 17 August 1944. At that point tens of thousands of Chetniks switched sides to the Partisans.[citation needed] The amnesty would be offered again after German withdrawal from Belgrade on 21 November 1944 and 15 January 1945.[31]

It was a different story for Serbs in Axis occupied Croatia who turned to the multi-ethnic Partisans, or the Serb Royalist Chetniks whose brutality mirrored that of the Ustashi.[32] Historian Tim Judah notes that in the early stage of the war the initial preponderance of Serbs in the Partisans meant in effect a Serbian civil war had broken out.[33] A similar civil war existed within the Croatian national corpus with the competing national narratives provided by the Ustashi and Partisans.


Liberated territory in Yugoslavia, May 1943.

By the middle of 1943 partisan resistance to the Germans and their allies had grown from the dimensions of a mere nuisance to those of a major factor in the general situation. In many parts of occupied Europe the enemy was suffering losses at the hands of partisans that he could ill afford. Nowhere were these losses heavier than in Jugoslavia.[34]

Resistance and retaliation[]

Yugoslav Partisans engaging in various activities.

The Partisans staged a guerrilla campaign which enjoyed gradually increased levels of success and support of the general populace, and succeeded in controlling large chunks of Yugoslav territory. These were managed via the People's committees, which were organized to act as civilian governments in liberated areas of the country, even limited arms industries were set up.[citation needed]

At the very beginning, though, Partisan forces were relatively small, poorly armed and without any infrastructure. But they had two major advantages over other military and paramilitary formations in former Yugoslavia: the first and most immediate was a small but valuable cadre of Spanish Civil War veterans who, unlike anyone else at the time, had experience with modern war fought in circumstances quite similar to those of World War II Yugoslavia. Another advantage, which became apparent in later stages of war, was in Partisans being founded on ideology rather than ethnicity, which meant the Partisans could expect at least some levels of support in any corner of the country, unlike other paramilitary formations whose support was limited to territories with Croat or Serb majorities. This allowed their units to be more mobile and fill their ranks with a larger pool of potential recruits.

Occupying and quisling forces, however, were quite aware of the Partisan threat, and attempted to destroy the resistance in what Yugoslav historiographers defined as seven major enemy offensives. These are:

  • The First Enemy Offensive, the attack conducted by the Axis in autumn of 1941 against the "Republic of Užice", a liberated territory the Partisans established in western Serbia.[35] In November 1941, German troops attacked and reoccupied this territory, with the majority of Partisan forces escaping towards Bosnia.[36] It was during this offensive that tenuous collaboration between the Partisans and the royalist Chetnik movement broke down and turned into open hostility.[37]
  • The Second Enemy Offensive, the coordinated Axis attack conducted in January 1942 against Partisan forces in eastern Bosnia.[35] The Partisan troops once again avoided encirclement and were forced to retreat over Igman mountain near Sarajevo.[38]
  • The Third Enemy Offensive, an offensive against Partisan forces in eastern Bosnia, Montenegro, Sandžak and Herzegovina which took place in the spring of 1942.[35] It was known as Operation TRIO by the Germans, and again ended with a timely Partisan escape.[39] This attack is mistakenly identified by some sources as the Battle of Kozara, which took place in the summer of 1942.[citation needed]
  • The Fourth Enemy Offensive, against "Republic of Bihać", also known as the Battle of the Neretva or Fall Weiss (Case White), a conflict spanning the area between western Bosnia and northern Herzegovina, and culminating in the Partisan retreat over the Neretva river. It took place from January to April 1943.[40]
  • The Fifth Enemy Offensive, also known as the Battle of the Sutjeska or Fall Schwarz (Case Black).[35] The operation immediately followed the Fourth Offensive and included a complete encirclement of Partisan forces in southeastern Bosnia and northern Montenegro in May and June 1943.[citation needed]
  • The Sixth Enemy Offensive, a series of operations undertaken by the Wehrmacht and the Ustaše after the capitulation of Italy in an attempt to secure the Adriatic coast. It took place in late 1943 and early 1944.[35]
  • The Seventh Enemy Offensive, the final attack in western Bosnia in the second quarter of 1944, which included Operation Rösselsprung (Knight's Leap), an unsuccessful attempt to eliminate Josip Broz Tito personally and annihilate the leadership of the Partisan movement.[35]

The largest of these were combined by Wehrmacht, the SS, fascist Italy, Ustaše, Chetniks, and Bulgarian forces.[citation needed]

It was the nature of partisan resistance that operations against it must either eliminate it altogether or leave it potentially stronger than before. This had been shown by the sequel to each of the previous five offensives from which, one after another, the partisan brigades and divisions had emerged stronger in experience and armament than they had been before, with the backing of a population which had come to see no alternative to resistance but death, imprisonment, or starvation. There could be no half-measures; the Germans left nothing behind them but a trail of ruin. What in other circumstances might possibly have remained the purely ideological war that reactionaries abroad said it was (and German propaganda did their utmost to support them) became a war for national preservation. So clear was this that no room was left for provincialism; Serbs and Croats and Slovenes, Macedonians, Bosnians, Christian and Moslem, Orthdox and Catholic, sank their differences in the sheer desperation of striving to remain alive.[41]

Allied support[]

Capitulation of Italy and uprising in occupied Yugoslavia 1943.

A Royal Air Force Halifax bomber of 148 Squadron, loaded with parachute canisters containing supplies for the Yugoslav Partisans (1944–1945)

Later in the conflict the Partisans were able to win the moral, as well as limited material support of the western Allies, who until then had supported General Draža Mihailović's Chetnik Forces, but were finally convinced of their collaboration fighting by many military missions dispatched to both sides during the course of the war.[42]

To gather intelligence, agents of the western Allies were infiltrated into both the Partisans and the Chetniks. The intelligence gathered by liaisons to the resistance groups was crucial to the success of supply missions and was the primary influence on Allied strategy in Yugoslavia. The search for intelligence ultimately resulted in the demise of the Chetniks and their eclipse by Tito’s Partisans. In 1942, though supplies were limited, token support was sent equally to each. The new year would bring a change. The Germans were executing Operation Schwarz (the Fifth anti-Partisan offensive), one of a series of offensives aimed at the resistance fighters, when F.W.D. Deakin was sent by the British to gather information.[citation needed]

His reports contained two important observations. The first was that the Partisans were courageous and aggressive in battling the German 1st Mountain and 104th Light Division, had suffered significant casualties, and required support. The second observation was that the entire German 1st Mountain Division had traveled from Russia by railway through Chetnik-controlled territory. British intercepts (ULTRA) of German message traffic confirmed Chetnik timidity. All in all, intelligence reports resulted in increased Allied interest in Yugoslavia air operations and shifted policy. In September 1943, at Churchill’s request, Brigadier General Fitzroy Maclean was parachuted to Tito’s headquarters near Drvar to serve as a permanent, formal liaison to the Partisans. While the Chetniks were still occasionally supplied, the Partisans received the bulk of all future support.[43]

Thus, after the Tehran Conference the Partisans received official recognition as the legitimate national liberation force by the Allies, who subsequently set-up the RAF Balkan Air Force (under the influence and suggestion of Brigadier-General Fitzroy Maclean) with the aim to provide increased supplies and tactical air support for Marshal Tito's Partisan forces. During a meeting with Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Combined Chiefs of Staff of 24 November 1943, Winston Churchill pointed out that:

It was a lamentable fact that virtually no supplies had been conveyed by sea to the 222,000 followers of Tito. (...) These stalwarts were holding as many Germans in Yugoslavia as the combined Anglo-American forces were holding in Italy south of Rome. The Germans had been thrown into some confusion after the collapse of Italy and the Patriots had gained control of large stretches of the coast. We had not, however, seized the opportunity. The Germans had recovered and were driving the Partisans out bit by bit. The main reason for this was the artificial line of responsibility which ran through the Balkans. (...) Considering that the Partisans had given us such a generous measure of assistance at almost no cost to ourselves, it was of high importance to ensure that their resistance was maintained and not allowed to flag.

Winston Churchill, 24 November 1943[44]

Activities increase 1943–45[]

The partisan army had long since grown into a regular fighting formation comparable to the armies of other small States, and infinitely superior to most of them, and especially to the pre-war Jugoslav army, in tactical skill, fieldcraft, leadership, fighting spirit and fire-power.[45]

With Allied air support (Operation Flotsam) and assistance from the Red Army, in the second half of 1944 the Partisans turned their attention to Serbia, which had seen relatively little fighting since the fall of the Republic of Užice in 1941. On 20 October, the Red Army and the Partisans liberated Belgrade in a joint operation known as the Belgrade Offensive. At the onset of winter, the Partisans effectively controlled the entire eastern half of Yugoslavia – Serbia, Vardar Macedonia and Montenegro, as well as the Dalmatian coast.[citation needed]

In 1945, the Partisans, numbering over 800,000 strong[22] defeated the Armed Forces of the Independent State of Croatia and the Wehrmacht, achieving a hard-fought breakthrough in the Syrmian front in late winter, taking Sarajevo in early April, and the rest of the NDH and Slovenia through mid-May. After taking Rijeka and Istria, which were part of Italy before the war, they beat the Allies to Trieste by two days.[46]

The "last battle of World War Two in Europe", the Battle of Poljana, was fought between the Partisans and retreating Wehrmacht and quisling forces at Poljana, near Prevalje in Carinthia, on 14–15 May 1945.[citation needed]


File:BAF Vis Reviw.jpg

Aircraft and men of the Balkan Air Force during a review by Marshal Josip Broz Tito.

Aside from ground forces, the Yugoslav Partisans were the only resistance movement in occupied Europe to employ significant air and naval forces.[citation needed]

Partisan Navy[]

Naval forces of the resistance were formed as early as 19 September 1942, when Partisans in Dalmatia formed their first naval unit made of fishing boats, which gradually evolved into a force able to engage the Italian Navy and Kriegsmarine and conduct complex amphibious operations. This event is considered to be the foundation of the Yugoslav Navy.[citation needed]

At its peak during World War II, the Yugoslav Partisans' Navy commanded 9 or 10 armed ships, 30 patrol boats, close to 200 support ships, six coastal batteries, and several Partisan detachments on the islands, around 3,000 men.[citation needed] On 26 October 1943, it was organized first into four, and later into six, Maritime Coastal Sectors (Pomorsko Obalni Sektor, POS). The task of the naval forces was to secure supremacy at sea, organize defense of coast and islands, and attack enemy sea traffic and forces on the islands and along the coasts.[47]

Partisan Air Force[]

The Partisans gained an effective air force in May 1942, when the pilots of two aircraft belonging to the Air Force of the Independent State of Croatia (French-designed and Yugoslav-built Potez 25, and Breguet 19 biplanes, themselves formerly of the Royal Yugoslav Air Force), Franjo Kluz and Rudi Čajavec, defected to the Partisans in Bosnia.[48] Later, these pilots used their aircraft against Axis forces in limited operations. Although short-lived due to a lack of infrastructure, this was the first instance of a resistance movement having its own air force. Later, the air force would be re-established and destroyed several times until its permanent institution.[49] The Partisans later established a permanent air force by obtaining aircraft, equipment, and training from captured Axis aircraft, the British Royal Air Force (see BAF), and later the Soviet Air Force.[citation needed]


Soldiers of the 4th Montenegrin Proletarian Brigade

According to Tito, the national composition of the Partisan army in May 1944 was 44% Serb, 30% Croat, 10% Slovene, 5% Montenegrin, 2.5% Macedonian, and 2.5% Bosnian Muslim.[50] According to the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,

"In partitioned Yugoslavia, partisan resistance developed among the Slovenes in German-annexed Slovenia, engaging mostly in small-scale sabotage. In Serbia, a cetnik resistance organization developed under a former Yugoslav Army Colonel, Draža Mihailovic. After a disastrous defeat in an uprising in June 1941, this organization tended to withdraw from confrontation with the Axis occupying forces. The Communist-dominated Partisan organization under the leadership of Josef Tito was a multi-ethnic resistance force – including Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Jews, and Slovenes. Based primarily in Bosnia and northwestern Serbia, Tito's Partisans fought the Germans and Italians most consistently and played a major role in driving the German forces out of Yugoslavia in 1945."[51]

By April 1945, there were some 800,000 soldiers in the Partisan army. Composition by region from late 1941 to late 1944 was as follows:[52]

Late 1941 Late 1942 Sept. 1943 Late 1943 Late 1944 1978 Veteran membership[53]
Bosnia and Herzegovina 20,000 60,000 89,000 108,000 100,000 2.83
Croatia 7,000 48,000 78,000 122,000 150,000 5.77
Kosovo 5,000 6,000 6,000 7,000 20,000 2.88
Macedonia 1,000 2,000 10,000 7,000 66,000 3.65
Montenegro 22,000 6,000 10,000 24,000 30,000 6.01
Serbia (proper) 23,000 8,000 13,000 22,000 204,000 5.64
Slovenia[54][55][56] 2,000 4000 6000 34,000 38,000 6.84
Vojvodina 1,000 1,000 3,000 5,000 40,000 4.85
Total 81,000 135,000 215,000 329,000 648,000

The Chetniks, were a mainly Serb oriented group and their Serb nationalism resulted in an inability to recruit or appeal to many non-Serbs. The Partisans, on the other hand, learned to play down Communism in favour of a Popular Front approach which appealed to all Yugoslavs. In Bosnia, for example, the Partisan rallying cry was for a country which was to be neither Serbian nor Croatian nor Muslim, but instead to be free and brotherly in which full equality of all groups would be ensured.[57] Nevertheless, Serbs remained the dominant ethnic group in the Yugoslav Partisans throughout the war.[58][59] Chetnik ethnic cleansing policies against the Muslims in Eastern Bosnia, and Dalmatia alienated Croats and Muslims from joining the Chetniks.[60] Italian repression and ambitions of taking Dalmatia did not appeal to the Croats. Italian collaboration with Chetniks in Northern Dalmatia resulting in atrocities which further galvanizing support for the Partisans among Dalmatian Croats. For example, Chetnik attacks on Gala, near Split, resulted in the slaughter of 200 Croatian civilians.[61] In particular, Mussolini's policy of forced Italianization ensured the first significant number of Croats joining the Partisans in late 1941.

In other areas, recruitment of Croats was hindered by some Serbian Partisans tendency to view the organisation as exclusively Serb, rejecting non-Serb members and raiding the villages of their Croat neighbours.[32] A group of Jewish youths from Sarajevo attempted to join a Partisan detachment in Kalinovnik, but the Serbian Partisans turned them back to Sarajevo, where many were captured by the Axis forces and perished.[62] Attacks from Croatian Ustaše on the Serbian population was considered to be one of the important reasons for the rise of guerrilla activities, thus aiding an ever growing Partisan resistance.[63]

As an allied victory became increasingly apparent, non-Serb communities opted for the Partisans as providing a more palatable future than the Serbianization policies of the royalist government in the first Yugoslavia. By contrast, the dynamic in Serbia was influenced by the allies' support of the Partisan governmental institutions over that of the royal government and the need to be part of the Partisans to have a say in the future structure of a Socialist Yugoslavia.[citation needed]

Bosnia and Herzegovina[]

Flag of the Federal State of Bosnia and Herzegovina, used by Partisans in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Until early 1942, the almost exclusively Serb Partisans in Bosnia and Herzegovina cooperated closely with the Chetniks, and some Partisans in eastern Herzegovina and western Bosnia refused to accept Muslims into their ranks. For many Muslims, the behavior of these Serb Partisans towards them meant that there was little difference for them between the Partisans and Chetniks. However, in some areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina the Partisans were successful in attracting both Muslims and Croats from the beginning, notably in the Kozara Mountain area in north-west Bosnia and the Romanija Mountain area near Sarajevo. In the Kozara area, Muslims and Croats made up 25 percent of Partisan strength by the end of 1941.[64]

According to Hoare, by late 1943, 70 percent of the Partisans in Bosnia and Herzegovina were Serb and 30 percent were Croat and Muslim.[65] In the entirety of the war the Bosnian Partisans were 64.1 percent Serb, 23 percent Muslim, and 8.8 percent Croat.[65]


Flag of the Federal State of Croatia, used by Partisans in Croatia

Propaganda poster of Croatian Partisans: "Everybody fight for the freedom of Croatia!"

As the Partisan movement penetrated the Croatian mainstream and reached critical mass, by 1943 the majority of Partisans from Croatia were Croats. In late 1944, statistics show that the Croats represented 61% of the Partisan troops in Croatia, thus while the Serbian contribution of 28% represented above their proportion of the local population, the majority were Croat.[32][66][67][68] This process was facilitated by the amnesty offered to all collaborators if they switch sides and join Partisans by 15 September 1944.

Croatian Partisans were integral to overall Yugoslav Partisans; by the end of 1943 Croatia proper, with 24% of the Yugoslav population, provided more Partisans than Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Macedonia combined which collectively accounted for 59% of the Yugoslav population.[32] The Croatian partisans were unique in that they had the highest numbers of local Jews in their ranks of any other European resistance, and in early 1943 they took steps to establish ZAVNOH (National Anti-Fascist Council of the People's Liberation of Croatia) to act as a parliamentary body for all of Croatia – the only one of its kind in occupied Europe. ZAVNOH held three plenary sessions during the War in areas which remained surrounded by Axis troops. At its fourth and last session, held on 24–25 July 1945 in Zagreb, ZAVNOH proclaimed itself as the Croatian Parliament or Sabor.[69]

In 1941 and 1942, the majority of Partisans in Croatia were Serbs, but by October 1943 the majority were Croats. This change was partly due to the decision of a key Croatian Peasant Party member, Božidar Magovac, to join the Partisans in June 1943, and partly due to the surrender of Italy.[70]

According to Goldstein, among Croatian partisans at the end of 1941 there were approximately 77% Serbs and 21.5% Croats and others as well as unknown nationalities. The percentage of Croats in the partisan troops had increased to 32% by August 1942, which rose to 34% by September 1943. After the capitulation of Italy, it continued to increase rapidly and at the end of 1944 there were 60.4% Croats, 28.6% Serbs and 11% of other unknown nationalities in Croatian partisan units.[71]

By 1944, the Partisans in Croatia were 60.4% Croat, 28.6% Serb, 2.8% Muslim and 8.2% other.[50] Overall, from 1941 to 1945, the Partisans in Croatia were 61% Croat, 28% Serb, and rest composed of Slovenes, Muslims, Montenegrins, Italians, Hungarians, Czechs, Jews and Volksdeutsche.[32]


Flag of the Liberation Front of the Slovene Nation, used by Partisans in Slovenia

The Triglavka cap

Slovenia was during WWII in a unique situation in Europe, only Greece shared its experience of being trisected, however, Slovenia was the only one that experienced a further step — absorption and annexation into neighboring Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Hungary.[72] As the very existence of the Slovene nation was threatened, the Slovene support for the Partisan movement was much more solid than in Croatia or Serbia.[73] An emphasis on the defence of ethnic identity was shown by naming the troops after important Slovene poets and writers, following the example of the Ivan Cankar battalion.[74] At the very beginning the Partisan forces were small, poorly armed and without any infrastructure, but Spanish Civil War veterans amongst them had some experience with guerrilla warfare. The Partisan movement in Slovenia functioned as the military arm of the Liberation Front of the Slovene Nation, an Anti-Fascist resistance platform established in the Province of Ljubljana on April 26, 1941, which originally consisted of multiple groups of left wing orientation, most notable being Communist Party and Christian Socialists. During the course of the war, the influence of the Communist Party of Slovenia started to grow, until its supremacy was officially sanctioned in the Dolomiti Declaration of 1 March 1943.[75] Some of the members of Liberation Front and partisans were ex-members of the TIGR resistance movement.

Representatives of all political groups in Liberation Front participated in Supreme Plenum of Liberation Front, which led the resistance efforts in Slovenia. Supreme Plenum was active until 3 October 1943 when, at the Assembly of the Slovenian Nation’s Delegates in Kočevje, the 120-member Liberation Front Plenum was elected as the supreme body of the Slovenian Liberation Front. The plenum also functioned as Slovenian National Liberation Committee, the supreme authority in Slovenia. Some historians consider the Kočevje Assembly to be the first Slovene elected parliament and Slovene Partisans as its representatives also participated on 2nd session of the AVNOJ and were instrumental in adding the self-determination clause to the resolution on the establishment of a new federal Yugoslavia. The Liberation Front Plenum was renamed the Slovenian National Liberation Council at the conference in Črnomelj on 19 February 1944 and transformed into the Slovenian parliament.

The Slovene Partisans retained their specific organizational structure and Slovene language as the commanding language until the last months of World War II, when their language was removed as the commanding language. From 1942 till after 1944, they wore the Triglavka cap, which was then gradually replaced with the Titovka cap as part of their uniform.[76] In March 1945, the Slovene Partisan Units were officially merged with the Yugoslav Army and thus ceased to exist as a separate formation.

The partisan activities in Slovenia started in 1941 and were independent of Tito's partisans in the south. In autumn 1942, Tito attempted for the first time to control the Slovene resistance movement. Arsa Jovanović, a leading Yugoslav communist who was sent from Tito's Supreme Command of Yugoslav partisan resistance, ended his mission to establish central control over the Slovene partisans unsuccessfully in April 1943. The merger of the Slovene Partisans with Tito's forces happened in 1944.[77][78]

In December 1943, the Franja Partisan Hospital was built in difficult and rugged terrain, only a few hours from Austria and the central parts of Germany. The partisans broadcast their own radio program called Radio Kričač the location of which never became known to occupying forces, even though the receiver antennas from the local population were confiscated.


Despite their success, the Partisans suffered heavy casualties throughout the war. The table depicts Partisan losses, 7 July 1941 – 16 May 1945:[66][67][68]

1941 1942 1943 1944 1945 Total
Killed in action 18,896 24,700 48,378 80,650 72,925 245,549
Wounded in action 29,300 31,200 61,730 147,650 130,000 399,880
Died from wounds 3,127 4,194 7,923 8,066 7,800 31,200
Missing in action 3,800 6,300 5,423 5,600 7,800 28,925

Rescue operations[]

The Partisans were responsible for the successful and sustained evacuation of downed Allied airmen from the Balkans. For example, between 1 January and 15 October 1944, according to statistics compiled by the US Air Force Air Crew Rescue Unit, 1,152 American airmen were airlifted from Yugoslavia, 795 with Partisan assistance and 356 with the help of the Chetniks.[79] Yugoslav Partisans in Slovene territory rescued 303 American airmen, 389 British airmen and prisoners of war, and 120 French and other prisoners of war and slave laborers.[80]

The Partisans also assisted hundreds of Allied soldiers who succeeded in escaping from German POW camps (mostly in southern Austria) throughout the war, but especially from 1943–45. These were transported across Slovenia, from where many were airlifted from Semič, while others made the longer overland trek down through Croatia for a boat passage to Bari in Italy. In the spring of 1944, the British military mission in Slovenia reported that there was a "steady, slow trickle" of escapes from these camps. They were being assisted by local civilians, and on contacting Partisans on the general line of the River Drava, they were able to make their way to safety with Partisan guides.

Raid at Ožbalt[]

A total of 132 Allied prisoners of war were rescued from the Germans by the Partisans in a single operation in August 1944 in what is known as the Raid at Ožbalt.

In June 1944, the Allied escape organization began to take an active interest in assisting prisoners from camps in southern Austria and evacuating them through Yugoslavia. A post of the Allied mission in northern Slovenia had found that at Ožbalt, just on the Austrian side of the border, about 50 km (31 mi) from Maribor, there was a poorly guarded working camp from which a raid by Slovene Partisans could free all the prisoners. Over 100 POWs were transported from Stalag XVIII-D at Maribor to Ožbalt each morning to do railway maintenance work, and returned to their quarters in the evening. Contact was made between Partisans and the prisoners with the result that at the end of August a group of seven slipped away past a sleeping guard at 15:00, and at 21:00 the men were celebrating with the Partisans in a village, 8 km (5.0 mi) away on the Yugoslav side of the border.[81]

The seven escapees arranged with the Partisans for the rest of the camp to be freed the following day. Next morning, the seven returned with about a hundred Partisans to await the arrival of the work-party by the usual train. As soon as work had begun the Partisans, to quote a New Zealand eye-witness, "swooped down the hillside and disarmed the eighteen guards". In a short time prisoners, guards, and civilian overseers were being escorted along the route used by the first seven prisoners the previous evening.[citation needed]

At the first headquarters camp reached, details were taken of the total of 132 escaped prisoners for transmission by radio to England. Progress along the evacuation route south was difficult, as German patrols were very active. A night ambush by one such patrol caused the loss of two prisoners and two of the escort. Eventually they reached Semič, in White Carniola, Slovenia, which was a Partisan base catering for POWs. They were flown across to Bari on 21 September 1944 from the airport of Otok near Gradac.[81]


SFR Yugoslavia was one of only two European countries that were largely liberated by its own forces during World War II. It received significant assistance from the Soviet Union during the liberation of Serbia, and substantial assistance from the Balkan Air Force from mid-1944, but only limited assistance, mainly from the British, prior to 1944. At the end of the war no foreign troops were stationed on its soil. Partly as a result, the country found itself halfway between the two camps at the onset of the Cold War.

In 1947–1948, the Soviet Union attempted to command obedience from Yugoslavia, primarily on issues of foreign policy, which resulted in the Tito-Stalin split and almost ignited an armed conflict. A period of very cool relations with the Soviet Union followed, during which the U.S. and the UK considered courting Yugoslavia into the newly formed NATO. This however changed in 1953 with the Trieste crisis, a tense dispute between Yugoslavia and the Western Allies over the eventual Yugoslav-Italian border (see Free Territory of Trieste), and with Yugoslav-Soviet reconciliation in 1956.

This ambivalent position at the start of the Cold War matured into the non-aligned foreign policy which Yugoslavia actively espoused until its dissolution.[citation needed]


A number of Partisan units, and the local population in some areas, engaged in mass murder in the immediate postwar period against perceived Axis sympathizers, collaborators, and/or fascists. The best known incidents include the Bleiburg massacre, the Foibe massacres, and the killings in Bačka.

The Bleiburg massacre was the retribution enacted by the Partisans on the retreating column of Chetnik and Slovene Home Guard troops, and soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Independent State of Croatia and thousands of civilians that were retreating towards Austria in an attempt to surrender to western Allied forces. The "foibe massacres" draw their name from the "foibe" pits in which Croatian Partisans of the 8th Dalmatian Corps (often along with groups of angry civilian locals) shot Italian fascists, and suspected (or even alleged) collaborationists and/or separatists, in retribution to the decades-long Italian oppression they experienced. According to a mixed Slovene-Italian historical commission[82] established in 1993, which investigated only on what happened in places included in present-day Italy and Slovenia, the killings seemed to proceed from endeavors to remove persons linked with fascism (regardless of their personal responsibility), and endeavors to carry out preventive cleansing of real, potential or only alleged opponents of the Communist government. The 1944-1945 killings in Bačka were similar in nature and entailed the killing of Hungarian fascist separatists, and their suspected affiliates, without regard to their personal responsibility.

There were also differences between the conduct of Partisans from different areas. For example, in Ajdovščina Slovenian Partisans and the local garrison of (Austrian) German forces agreed to abstain from any further fighting in the closing days of the war, with the German garrison agreeing to be disarmed. When Partisans from the other parts of Yugoslavia entered the village, the unarmed Austrians were shot in cold blood, something not received well by the Slovene Partisans.[citation needed]

The numbers of dead due to Italian, German and collaborationist organised killings, however, far outstrip even the most lavish estimates of the Partisan crimes' death toll. Indeed, the Partisans didn't have an official genocidal agenda (unlike the Ustaše, the Chetniks, the Italians, and the Germans), as their cardinal ideal was the "brotherhood and unity" of all Yugoslav nations (the phrase became the motto for the new Yugoslavia). The country suffered between 900,000 and 1,150,000 civilian and military dead during the Axis occupation.[83] Only a small fraction constitute civilians actually killed by the Partisans.

This controversial chapter of Partisan history was a taboo subject for conversation in the SFR Yugoslavia until the late 1980s, and as a result, decades of official silence created a reaction in the form of numerous data manipulation for nationalist propaganda purposes.[84]


The first small arms for the Partisans were acquired from the defeated Royal Yugoslav Army, like the M24 Mauser rifle. Throughout the war the Partisans used any weapons they could find, mostly weapons captured from the Germans, Italians, Army of the Independent State of Croatia, Ustaše and the Chetniks, such as the Karabiner 98k rifle, MP 40 submachine gun, MG 34 machine gun, Carcano rifles and carbines and Beretta submachine guns. The other way that the Partisans acquired weapons was from supplies given to them by the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, including the PPSh-41 and the Sten MKII submachine guns respectively. Additionally, Partisan workshops created their own weapons modelled on factory-made weapons already in use, including the so-called "Partisan rifle" and the anti-tank "Partisan mortar".


The Yugoslav National Liberation Movement claimed 6,000,000 civilian supporters; its two million women formed the Antifascist Front of Women (AFŽ), in which the revolutionary coexisted with the traditional. The AFŽ managed schools, hospitals and even local governments. About 100,000 women served with 600,000 men in Tito's Yugoslav National Liberation Army. It stressed its dedication to women's rights and gender equality and used the imagery of traditional folklore heroines to attract and legitimize the partizanka.[85] After the war women were relegated to traditional gender roles, but Yugoslavia is unique as its historians paid extensive attention to women's roles in the resistance, until the country broke up in the 1980s. Then the memory of the women soldiers faded away.[86][87]

Cultural legacy[]

Partisan ranks included some of the most important artists and writers of 20th century Yugoslavia. The experiences of Partisans in particular had a major impact on the culture of the country. The Partisan struggle was therefore well-chronicled through the memoirs of its participants, and later those experiences served as basis for important literary works, most notably by authors like Jure Kaštelan, Joža Horvat, Oskar Davičo, Antonije Isaković, Branko Ćopić, Ivan Goran Kovačić, Karel Destovnik Kajuh, Mihailo Lalić, Edvard Kocbek, Tone Svetina, Vitomil Zupan and others.[citation needed]

According to Vladimir Dedijer, over 40,000 works of folk poetry were inspired by the Partisans.[88]

Comic books depicting the Partisan struggle also became very popular, most notably works by Croatian artist Jules Radilović. The most popular, however, was the Mirko i Slavko comic book series.

The Partisan struggle also influenced the film industry, which developed its own genre of Partisan film, with its own set of unofficial rules and motives, very much like American Western or the Japanese Jidaigeki movies. The most notable of these was the Oscar-nominated 1969 film. The movie Force 10 from Navarone displayed the struggle of the Yugoslav Partisans during the war, as British and American special forces arrive to help them destroy a German-held bridge.

An outsider's perspective of the partisans is recorded in Evelyn Waugh's 1961 novel Unconditional Surrender, the last of The Sword of Honour trilogy. Waugh was stationed in Yugoslavia towards the end of the war.

Božidar Jakac promoted culture and education in the Province of Ljubljana and participated at the second session of the AVNOJ in Jajce. He noted his wartime comrades and the events in numerous graphics.

The most visible aspect of Partisan legacy, however, is the series of monuments commemorating their struggle. Most of these sculptures belong to the socialist realism art form, with some of them becoming victims of state-sponsored vandalism following the break-up of the country in the early 1990s. (see Yugoslav wars).[citation needed]

See also[]


  1. Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, Slovene: Partizani, Партизани
  2. Serbo-Croatian language: Narodnooslobodilačka vojska (NOV), Народноослободилачка војска (НОВ); Macedonian language: Народноослободителна војска (НОВ); Slovene language: Narodnoosvobodilna vojska (NOV)
  3. Serbo-Croatian language: Narodnooslobodilačka vojska i partizanski odredi Jugoslavije (NOV i POJ), Народноослободилачка војска и партизански одреди Југославије (НОВ и ПОЈ); Macedonian language: Народноослободителна војска и партизански одреди на Југославија (НОВ и ПОЈ); Slovene language: Narodnoosvobodilna vojska in partizanski odredi Jugoslavije (NOV in POJ)
  4. Serbo-Croatian language: Narodnooslobodilački partizanski odredi Jugoslavije (NOPOJ), Народноослободилачки партизански одреди Југославије (НОПОЈ); Macedonian language: Народноослободителни партизански одреди на Југославија (НПОЈ); Slovene language: Narodnoosvobodilni partizanski odredi Jugoslavije (NOPOJ)
  5. Serbo-Croatian language: Narodnooslobodilačka partizanska i dobrovoljačka vojska Jugoslavije (NOP i DVJ), Народноослободилачка партизанска и добровољачка војска Југославије (НОП и ДВЈ); Macedonian language: Народноослободителна партизанска и волонтерска војска на Југославија (НОП и ВВЈ); Slovene language: Narodnoosvobodilna partizanska in prostovoljna vojska Jugoslavije (NOP in PVJ)
  6. Serbo-Croatian language: Jugoslavenska armija (JA), Југословенска армија (ЈА); Macedonian language: Југословенска армија (ЈА); Slovene language: Jugoslovanska Armada, (JA)


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Further reading[]

  • Bokovoy, Melissa (1998). Peasants and Communists: Politics and Ideology in the Yugoslav Countryside. University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 0-8229-4061-2. 
  • Irvine, Jill (1992). The Croat Question: Partisan Politics in the Formation of the Yugoslav Socialist State. Westview Press. ISBN 0-8133-8542-3. 
  • Roberts, Walter R. (1987). Tito, Mihailovic and the Allies, 1941–1945. Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-0773-1. 

External links[]

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