Aleksandra's Note: Of all the books written and published on the complicated subject of Yugoslavia in World War II and the role of the Western Allies in how things turned out, The Web of Disinformation by historian David Martin is one of the best. He cuts through the smoke and mirrors and reveals the realities that make the former Yugoslavia a continuing source of fascination for anyone interested in the intrigues of history and the manipulations that either doom or elevate the protagonists and antagonists regardless of what they actually deserve. Below you will find excerpts from David Martin's thesis and introduction which will whet your appetite to learn more if you are unfamiliar with this subject matter, and if you are familiar, will serve to illuminate in the right direction. Do what you can to find this book and make it part of your collection. It will be worth the search.
It's worthy of note that this book was published in 1990, shortly before the former Yugoslavia began its descent into another era of civil war and self destruction. This time, the internal conflicts, fueled by outside influences and manipulations, would lead to a final dissolution of a country that some yearn for today and others feel should never have existed in the first place.
My sincere thanks to Ann L. for provide the transcript of this important and valuable documentation.
THE CAMPAIGN AGAINST MIHAILOVICH
Excerpts from the Thesis and Introduction to David Martin's
The Web of Disinformation: Churchill's Yugoslav Blunder
The Web of Disinformation: Churchill's Yugoslav Blunder
(New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990)
The campaign against Mihailovic was launched in July 1942, when the Soviet Union, which had publicly supported Mihailovic until that time, openly turned against him and charged that he was collaborating. This should have been the signal that the Soviet Union was, from that point on, implacably committed to the destruction of Mihailovic and the installation of Tito in power. It is to be noted that the open change in Soviet policy coincided with the recruitment of the first group of Canadian-Yugoslav Communists, most of them Croats, almost certainly by design, to serve as British intelligence officers in Yugoslavia.
The campaign against Mihailovic rested on three basic charges: first, that his forces were inactive and ineffectual against the Axis; second, that many of his followers were engaged in active collaboration with the Italians and the Germans against the Partisans; third, that Mihailovic had lost most of his popular support, whereas Tito had overwhelming support among the anti-Axis Yugoslavs. In a remarkably short time the Soviets, by the simple device of feeding material to friendly or gullible press contacts in the Western world, had the Western press parroting their new line on Yugoslavia.
After nine or ten months of such softening up, this was the gist of the reports sent out beginning April 1943 by the several intelligence teams of Canadian-Yugoslav Communists recruited to serve with the Tito forces; and it constituted the gist, as well, of the reports sent out shortly afterward by the first British liaison officers (BLOs) with Tito’s forces, Captain (later Lt. Colonel) William Deakin and Brigadier Fitzroy Maclean, who parachuted into Yugoslavia on May 27, 1943, and September 15, 1943, respectively.
Deakin, despite his junior rank, commanded considerable influence because he had, as a young history don at Oxford, assisted Churchill in writing his life of Marlborough. Maclean, who had served as first secretary in the British embassy in Moscow, was fluent in Russian and, as a conservative MP, was known to Churchill and respected by him. Because of their personal relationship with Churchill, the reports of Deakin and Maclean at that stage had a far greater impact than did the reports of Colonel Bailey and the thirty-odd other British liaison officers who served at Mihailovic’s headquarters or in the fifteen or more sub-missions scattered over the face of Serbia.
By the end of November 1943 there were entries in the records of the Foreign Office and the prime minister indicating that Churchill had completely lost confidence in Mihailovic and that he had, for all practical purposes, decided to sever relations.
In the report he filed on November 6, 1943, Fitzroy Maclean spoke of a Partisan army of some 220,000 men, of which 30,000 were in Serbia and Macedonia. This roughly confirmed the prior reports of William Deakin. Mihailovic was credited with having 10,000 armed men in Serbia.
There could be no more effective illustration of the power of propaganda to destroy the critical faculty of decent and intelligent people than the uncritical manner in which the completely impossible accounts of Partisan strength were accepted as gospel by politicians and the media during World War II.
Bozidar Puric, at the time prime minister of the Yugoslav government in exile, related to me a conversation he had had with Anthony Eden during the first part of 1944. Puric said to Eden that he considered the estimate of 220,000 armed followers in the Tito movement to be a gross exaggeration. He said that from a simple logistical standpoint it would be utterly impossible in a country the size of Yugoslavia to find sufficient food for a permanent force of guerrillas of this magnitude. Eden, who had indicated more than a little skepticism about the Maclean report, admitted to Puric that he considered the figures contained in the report to be inflated. He said that he personally believed that Tito had an army of somewhere between 100,000 and 125,000 men.
“But 100,00 to 125,000 is not even remotely comparable to 220,000,” said Puric. “Why does the British government lend its authority to such ridiculous estimates?”
Puric was right. The logistical problem of providing for a guerrilla army of 220,000 armed men would have been insuperable in the case of a country the size of Yugoslavia. It would be comparable to the United States, with a population of 250,000,000, fielding a guerrilla army of over 4 million in the event of an enemy occupation. Actually, the size of the guerrilla army as a percentage of the total population from which it was recruited would have had to be far greater in the case of wartime Yugoslavia for the simple reason that Tito had virtually zero following in Serbia proper, the most populous region of the Yugoslav state.
It is interesting to compare Maclean’s estimate of Partisan strength with that of Colonel Bailey. Bailey, after 14 months in Yugoslavia, said when he got back to London that he did not
. . . believe that Tito himself controls more than 120,000 men, of whom perhaps half are territorially tied to the Northwest of area A. [Slovenia, Croatia, Slavonia, Vojvodina west of the Ticza, Bosnia north and west of the Drina, Dalmatia north of the Neretva, and the Adriatic Islands.] Of this 120,000, not more than 10,000 come from Serbia proper. These estimates are based on careful personal interrogations of Partisan prisoners and deserters with all due allowance for prejudices of latter (3) [author’s emphasis].
It is to be noted that Mihailovic, on the basis of his own intelligence, estimated Partisan strength at roughly 75,000. This figure was almost certainly on the low side because Mihailovic, for obvious reasons, was seeking to downplay the size of Tito’s following.
The Maclean report credited the Mihailovic movement with having 10,000 armed men in Serbia. (This compares with an estimate of 35,000 men in the ready Mihailovic forces, which was the estimate of Captain Walter T. Mansfield of the American mission after conducting an extensive tour of inspection of Mihailovic units in northern and central Serbia.) In no area was the Maclean report more remote from the mark than in its estimates of Partisan and Mihailovic strength. But this report was taken as gospel by the media, by political leaders, and by intelligence officers.
Both Maclean and Deakin, writing in the fall of 1944, admitted in effect that their 1943 estimates of Partisan strength in Serbia were grossly exaggerated. “At the beginning of 1944,” said Maclean, “Partisan forces in Serbia were limited to a few scattered, ill-equipped detachments of a few hundred men each, who were all that had been left to carry on the struggle after the Partisan defeat and withdrawal of 1941. . . .” (4)
But the gross overestimation of Partisan strength in Serbia in the fall of 1943 had been of critical importance in justifying the decision to abandon Mihailovic. Despite Maclean’s belated admission, Churchill took the figures of Partisan strength that Maclean had used in his November 6, 1943 report and further enlarged upon them in reporting to the British public.
There was no question that Serbia was the heartland of Yugoslavia. Nor was there any question of the martial valor of the Serbian people, or of their passionate opposition to the Nazi regime, or of the central role they had played in the revolution of March 27, 1941. But among those caught up in the pro-Tito mania of 1943 and 1944 apparently no one stopped to consider how passing strange it was that this people had overnight become “collaborators” and traitors.
Time and time again during the period preceding the final abandonment of Mihailovic at the end of 1943, Colonel Bailey, and later Bailey and Brigadier Charles D. Armstrong, who succeeded Bailey as chief of mission on September 25, 1943, reported to their government that in Serbia proper, which contained the critical north-south communication lines the British would want sabotaged, the Tito forces amounted to nothing and the Mihailovic forces were everywhere paramount.
Colonel Bailey returned to Britain in early March 1944 for the express purpose of trying to impart his information to Churchill. On March 15 he had a first meeting with Churchill and Foreign Secretary Eden, followed by a second meeting in early April. After his second meeting Bailey told his colleague Major Archie Jack that Churchill had said he now saw that he had been badly informed about the situation in Yugoslavia. (5)
That Churchill was enormously impressed by Bailey’s account of the situation in Serbia is apparent from a statement he made shortly thereafter in a letter to Marshal Tito. The letter, dated May 17, 1944, said:
"We do not know what will happen in the Serbian part of Yugoslavia. Mihailovic certainly holds a powerful position locally as Commander-in-Chief, and it does not follow that his ceasing to be Minister of War will rob him of his influence. We cannot predict what he will do. There is also a very large body, amounting perhaps to two hundred thousand, of Serbian peasant proprietors who are anti-German but strongly Serbian, and who naturally hold the views of a peasant ownership community, contrary to the Karl Marx theory." (6)
Where did Churchill get the information contained in this paragraph? Certainly not from Maclean and Deakin, who were still talking about Tito’s overwhelming strength in all parts of the country. Certainly, too, this kind of lecturing was not likely to ingratiate him with Tito. It almost appears that Churchill was so impressed by the new information he had received from Bailey that he was willing to risk Tito’s ire by at least raising the possibility of a compromise with Mihailovic and Serbia.
There were a few partial inaccuracies in the Churchill letter. In the first place, it is very certain that Bailey never told him, or implied to him, that unlike the Serbian peasant proprietors, the Croatian and Slovenian and Moslem peasants found communism acceptable. The fact is that they were just as strongly opposed to it as their Serbian compatriots. It is clear also that Bailey, in reporting to the prime minister, was talking about the Serbian people as a whole and not just 200,000 Serbian peasant proprietors. This figure, which Bailey almost certainly did use, conforms roughly to both British and American estimates of Mihailovic’s military strength, counting both regular and territorial forces.
But what really stands out from the paragraph I have quoted is that suddenly it must have dawned on Churchill that one could not begin to discuss Yugoslavia without discussing Serbia, and that neither Deakin nor Maclean had ever set foot in Serbia at the time they submitted their reports recommending the abandonment of Mihailovic.
Churchill virtually repeated the remarks he had made in his letter to Tito in a statement in the House of Commons on May 25, 1944. He repeated them once again in a second letter to Tito dated August 12, 1944. In this letter he said, “His Majesty’s Government, while regarding Marshal Tito and his brave men with the utmost admiration, are not satisfied that sufficient recognition has been given to the power and rights of the Serbian people.” (7) Churchill seemed tormented by the realization that he himself had not given “sufficient recognition . . . to the power and rights of the Serbian people” and driven by a desire at that late hour to do something to moderate the disastrous consequences of his policy.
Despite the massive support they now received in arms and ammunition, the Partisans, in accordance with the predictions of Bailey and Armstrong, accomplished remarkably little over the next six months to harass and sabotage the critical north-south lines of communication. As matters turned out, the British, having abandoned Mihailovic at the turn of the year, found themselves in August 1944 in the invidious position of having to supply an undisguised Partisan invasion of Serbia, directed overwhelmingly against the Mihailovic forces.
About this time there was growing evidence that the prime minister had become worried and pessimistic. The official account British Foreign Policy in the Second World War, written by Sir Llewellyn Woodward, has this to say about the change that came over Churchill’s attitude:
"The Prime Minister was not favourably impressed with Marshal Tito or his demands. He wrote a minute to Mr. Eden on August 31 that a great responsibility would rest on us after the war when all the arms in Yugoslavia - supplied by us - would be in Marshal Tito’s possession, and could be used by him to subjugate the country. Mr. Eden noted on this minute that the Foreign Office hardly needed a reminder of this danger, and that, in spite of their warnings, the Prime Minister himself had persistently ‘pushed Tito.’" (8)
3. WO 208/3103. Appendix A, p. 4.
4. WO 202/155, p. 1.
5. Interview with Major Archie Jack in La Collanche,
, October 1984. Thorens-Glieres, France
6. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 5, pp. 477-478.
7. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 6, p. 92.
8. E. L. Woodward, British Foreign Policy in the Second World War (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1962), p. 346.
If you would like to get in touch with me, Aleksandra, please feel free to contact me at
If you would like to get in touch with me, Aleksandra, please feel free to contact me at