One of the first acts of the new parliament in liberated Yugoslavia was to organize schools, to care for and educate the thousands of children orphaned and made homeless by the war. Medical training was instituted as well as intensive agriculture and certain necessary manufactures.
The respite, however, was not very long. The Germans realized well enough that Yugoslavia was one of the most dangerous cracks in Fortress Europa. So long as even a part of the country remained in Partisan hands, it could some day be a jumping off spot for an invasion. In addition. the Partisan threat in Bosnia immobilized some ten German divisions that could be put to better use on the Russian front, where they were sorely needed.
In January of 1943, the Germans determined to put an end to the Partisan threat once and for all. They mustered overwhelming aerial support; they selected four of their crack divisions, with Italian and Ustachi support, and they arranged for a simultaneous supporting attack by Mikhailovich. Their target was Bihach.
At this point, Tito made a brilliant and daring decision. In his victorious campaign of the year before, success had come with the help of two important factors — the endurance of his men and their knowledge of the rugged Yugoslav country. So long as he fought a war of quick movement, he could take deadly toll of the Germans yet keep his own force intact. If, however, he chose a definite line to hold and slugged it out with the Germans, they could continue to bring up reinforcements until they had cut all avenues of escape, and then, with their strong air support, they could eventually destroy the entire Partisan army.
With this in mind he detached from his army the First Bosnian Corps and the First Croatian Corps, one hundred thousand men in all. They were to follow the accepted Partisan procedure. When the German attack came, they were to lash back and then break up and disappear into the woods and the hills. When the Germans had passed by, they were to re-assemble and cut to ribbons the German lines of communication, destroying at the same time whatever garrisons the Germans left behind in an effort to pacify the northern half of the country.
Tito himself was to be the bait for this plan. With him, he would keep five of his best divisions. They would place themselves directly in the path of the German attack, and they would hold the enemy at bay until the Germans began flanking movements. Then Tito and his army would retreat southward toward Serbia. That was as far as Tito could plan ahead; if he was successful, he would draw the German army out of Croatia.
The Partisan Valley Forge
Tito's five divisions bore the full brunt of that initial German attack. His men fought like tigers, clinging to every inch of the ground under a murderous hail of bombs and shells. Then, slowly, fighting a rearguard action day and night, they began to retreat southward. They carried their wounded with them, knowing that the Germans took no prisoners but murdered every wounded or unwounded Partisan they could lay hands on.
C. L. Sulzberger, New York Times correspondent, points out that aside from Valley Forge, American history has no parallel to this magnificent retreat. Indeed, when the full story of this war is told, this strategic retreat of Marshal Tito may emerge as its most courageous incident.
During the month of February, Tito led his army almost due south through the Bosnian mountains. Day and night they were bombed by the Germans; day and night the Partisan rear-guard counter-attacked. This was no beaten sheep to be caught and led to the shearing; this was a savage wolf that turned again and again, showing its fangs. The Partisans left a trail of blood in the snow-covered hills, but they also left German dead to mark every mile they travelled.
It was a bad winter. Snow and sleet and snow again, and through it, slogging on, the ragged, savage Partisan army marched. Their food gave out, and there was no food to be found in this wild land. They boiled bark and chewed it. They killed their pack animals and ate them. And again and again they turned on the Germans and fought them off.
To Tito and his Partisans, life became a constant unending nightmare. Half starved, they saw visions, smelled non-existent food. Yet their courage did not give way. Following behind them, again and again, the Nazis heard their wild, triumphant songs:
"Oj Sloveni, yosh shte zhivi . . ."
"Oh, Slavs, you still live, you still fight . . ."
Once again, the Partisans broke the Nazi spirit. This was more than the Nazi supermen could stand; they had to rest, recuperate, wait for reinforcements. These were not human beings they fought, but madmen! These south Slavs had no feelings, no sensibilities! Who else but madmen would fight every mile for two hundred miles of hell, when they knew at the beginning that they were defeated?
So the Nazis paused, but not to let the Partisans escape. South of them, in Herzegovina, was an Italian Fascist division. The Nazi commander radioed to them to intercept the Partisan retreat.
One may speculate upon how bitter Marshal Tito's smile was when he heard about that. This particular Italian division was known as a "purge unit." For months it had been indulging in the pleasant fascist sport of murdering civilians. In one case, to prove its toughness to its Gestapo pals, it had wiped out three hundred women and children.
Tito informed his ragged troops that an Italian division was waiting for them. He added that they would take no prisoners. The Partisans attacked, wiping out the fascist division. Now they had food, warm Italian uniforms, thousands of rifles, machine guns and artillery, as well as Italian trucks, wagons, supply animals and medical material.
Meanwhile the Nazi army to the north of the Partisans had rested and increased its strength Supplies and ammunition were brought up. Colonel General Alexander von Loehr flew in from Belgrade, assumed command and almost immediately ordered an attack.
Perhaps he had expected Tito to resume his former tactics and retreat. In that case he would be brought up by the swollen Neretva River, almost impossible to cross at this time of the year. But instead of retreating, Tito attacked. He launched a terrific artillery barrage with the captured Italian guns. The German attack folded, and for the moment the Nazis were driven back in disorder.
That was the time Tito chose to cross the Neretva River. He had no engineering corps to build a bridge. All the heavy equipment he had captured from the Italians — trucks, tanks, guns and ammunition would have to be left behind. But he had to cross now, while the Germans were still reeling from the blow he had dealt them.
Everything that could not be carried on a man's back, Tito destroyed. He had over four thousand wounded; they were carried across on rafts. The unwounded crossed over on rafts or waded and swam through the icy waters. After crossing the river, Marshal Tito marched his army south, through Herzegovina in the direction of Montenegro.
They were desperately short of medical supplies; an epidemic of typhus had struck them. Every day more and more of the wounded died from blood poisoning. Again their food gave out. They marched through a snow-covered, silent land. Houses were burned out, empty shells. Villages were deserted. Wolves regarded the spectre-like army, sat back on their haunches and howled. There had been no wolves here for a hundred years.
This was the part of Yugoslavia that had been generously left by Hitler to the Italians, and they had outdone the Germans in savagery. The men looked at the landscape, this face of their native land, set their teeth, and remembered.
Then their scouts discovered an Italian garrison, and when word was brought back, the Partisans smiled. They attacked in the night; an Italian brigade was annihilated, and once more the Partisans had food, fresh ammunition, artillery and trucks.
The captured trucks and carts were of inestimable value in transportation of the wounded. It was a point of pride with the Partisans that only forty-five of the original four thousand, five hundred sick and wounded were captured by the enemy despite the hazardous march.
With the captured Italian equipment, Tito led his Partisans south, through Montenegro to a quiet valley near the Albanian frontier. A warm and gentle spring was coming to Yugoslavia. For the moment, the Partisans had some respite. The wounded lay in the fields, in the warm sun, gathering strength. Marshal Tito employed that time to re-equip his troops, to contact the other Partisan armies, and to arrange for future concerted action.