Walter Kendall 1992

Review of Michael Lees, The Rape of Serbia

Source: Revolutionary History, Volume 4, no 3, 1992. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Michael Lees, The Rape of Serbia, Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovitch, New York, 1990, pp 384, £15.95

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British readers of Revolutionary History will recognise the name of James Klugmann (1912-1977) as that of the official historian of the Communist Party of Great Britain, editor of Marxism Today from 1952 to 1977, a member of the party’s Central and Political Committees, for many years in charge of party education, and the author of a particularly vile volume, From Trotsky to Tito, which was written to order at the time of the Stalin – Tito split, and subsequently withdrawn and pulped in London when Khrushchev in Moscow brought the feud to an end. More well-informed readers will be aware that Klugmann began his Second World War career as a private in the Pioneer Corps, and will have observed from Monty Johnstone’s laudatory ‘partinost’ obituary in the Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History (Spring 1978, pp 7-8) that in due course, whilst remaining a fully-fledged party member, Gresham – and Cambridge – educated Klugmann sought and gained the King’s Commission, and rose to the rank of ‘major in the Intelligence Corps in Italy’.

The more sceptical of us wondered exactly how a known Comintern agent like Klugmann managed to infiltrate the Cairo headquarters of the Special Operations Executive and its successor Force 133 at Bari in Italy, what he did there, and with what consequences for the contradictory fates of General Mihailović and of the Stalinist Partisans over the years 1941 to 1945.

In this forthright volume, which despite its exotic title remains soundly based on official documents in the Public Records Office at Kew, Michael Lees goes a long way towards providing an answer. Lees, a former serving officer with the SOE in Yugoslavia, a scion of a Dorset landed family with a military tradition, is certainly no radical. Nonetheless his book deserves serious attention.

In the Lees ‘revision’ of the ‘received wisdom’ of orthodox academic (and all too often Stalinophile) history, the Partisan war against the Germans and their native allies is recast into a predominantly civil war between Communist guerrillas and Mihailović’s more orthodox defenders of the status quo, to which the war against the German occupation and the Ustasa took a clear second place. The casualties of this internecine war, by Lees’ account, equalled or exceeded those incurred in the struggle against the Nazis.

Mihailović, sentenced to death in a Stalinist show trial in July 1945, was not a ‘collaborator’ at all. Indeed, Tito did his own share of ‘collaborating’, which in March 1943 went so far as to pass Milovan Djilas and two other front-rank Communist leaders through the Nazi lines to negotiate freely with senior German officers in Sarajevo and Zagreb a ceasefire that would leave the Partisans free to launch their forces against the Mihailović-led ^#268;etniks in Montenegro. Only Hitler’s personal refusal to conclude such a deal brought the discussions to a fruitless end.

The Communist victory in Yugoslavia, aided as it was by turncoat Bulgarian troops in Serbia and the Russian army, which led the advance into Belgrade, was in Lees’ view in no sense inevitable. The ^#268;etniks were more popular, and given the opportunity would have been equally, indeed more effective, in resistance and sabotage operations against the Germans than the Partisans ever were. In Lees’ view the British decision to switch support from Mihailović to Tito was a mistake, which sealed the fate of postwar Yugoslavia. In that decision Churchill’s role was crucial. In retrospect, if Lees is correct, it may be remembered as his Gallipoli of the Second World War, an error commensurate with that which sent the Prince of Wales and the Repulse to their doom off Malaya, leading to the inevitable fall of Singapore and the end of the British Empire.

The ‘received wisdom’ or official hagiography would have us believe that Churchill’s decision to switch support from Mihailović to Tito was soundly based on evidence, provided by British intelligence, that the Partisans were ‘killing more Germans’, and that the Mihailović forces, far weaker than the Partisans, were quiescent and collaborationist in character.

Lees, resting his case upon hitherto undiscovered secret documents which found their way into the PRO, argues that this was in no sense the case. The record was deliberately falsified. The scale of the Partisan forces, their zones of occupation, and their level of activity were vastly exaggerated, and those of the Mihailović forces crudely written down. Sabotage operations, the blowing up of bridges and the destruction of railway track carried out by the Mihailović forces were either not reported at all, or if reported attributed quite consciously and quite wrongly to the Partisans. Churchill, in any case, was ill-served by his two chosen emissaries to the Partisans, Captain (now Sir William) Deakin and Brigadier Fitzroy Maclean, each of whom seemed to forget the initial directives with which they were despatched, and came to act, in Lees’ view, as Tito’s spokesmen to Churchill, rather than the other way about. In short, British imperialism was ill-served in its relations with the Communist Party of Yugoslavia as embodied in the so-called National Liberation Army under Tito’s leadership.

The SOE in Cairo had fallen under pro-Soviet influence, in which process Klugmann played a decisive part. The SOE in Cairo came to serve the interests of the Communists in Yugoslavia, rather than those of the British state. Tito’s victory was the direct consequence of British and not of Russian aid. In short, the Klugmann who wrote From Trotsky to Tito in 1951 knew from his own experience as a wartime surrogate for Tito’s victory in Yugoslavia, and from his own postwar work with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation, that every word of his book, ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ included, was a lie. The details of this affair are too complex to be listed in a review of reasonable length. Readers of Revolutionary History must go to the original text for themselves. Let one example suffice.

All through 1942 and well into 1943 the British government was committed to the cause of the Yugoslav Government in Exile, and to that of its Minister of Defence in occupied Yugoslavia, General Mihailović. Yet already in 1942 the SOE in London was requesting its agents in North America to recruit Yugoslav Canadians suitable for use in their original homeland. By one account Captain Deakin, and by other undisputed accounts Colonel William Bailey (later British Liaison Officer to Mihailović) and Colonel Stuart (later BLO to Tito), travelled the full breadth of Canada from Quebec to the Pacific seeking to recruit Canadians of Yugoslav origin who could be parachuted in to make contact with the resistance.

Neither the Yugoslav government in London nor the Yugoslav Consul General in Montreal were informed of what was under way. Instead, the British army officers dealt directly with luminaries of the Communist Party of Canada, first with Nikola Kovačević, head of the party’s Yugoslav section, and later with Tim Buck, the party’s General Secretary. Thanks wholly to the CPC, some 30 Croat Communist miners were recruited. These constituted the vanguard of the British servicemen dropped both to Tito and Mihailović during 1943.

Before completing their training at a special camp close to Oshowa on the banks of Lake Ontario, the Canadian Communist recruits to the British army were addressed by no less a person than Tim Buck, and ordered ‘to fight Fascism’, but ‘not [to do] anything that would be against the interests of the party and the progressive movement’. The cadres were given ‘the name of party contacts in Cairo’. This was hardly necessary. Basil Davidson, who was prominent in the SOE in Cairo at this time, writes in his memoirs, Special Operations in Europe, that the Croats were ‘all of strong revolutionary convictions’, ‘wanted to become Partisans’, and were ‘devoted to James’, who became their mentor and guru. ‘You can’t do without him’, Davidson was told, ‘the Yugoslavs will listen to nobody else.’ [1]

Let us consider briefly what all this means. Buck would not have consented to recruit CPC members for the British army to drop into wartime Yugoslavia without first clearing the matter with the Political Committee. The CPC was subject to the discipline of the Executive Committee of the Communist International in Moscow, which therefore must have been consulted and given its permission before the recruitment could have taken place. The CPY, like the CPC, was a subordinate section of the Comintern. Accordingly it is certain that the ECCI in Moscow would have informed Tito beforehand that the first Allied agents to be dropped into Yugoslavia would probably be members of the CPC. Not surprisingly, when asked, Tito readily agreed to accept British emissaries. Meanwhile, Klugmann, through the SOE, had his own wireless link with Yugoslavia. Furthermore, we know from other sources that Klugmann was in touch with elements of the Communist Party of Egypt, and was able to use their direct links with Moscow, and thus indirectly with Tito himself.

Allied air drops of supplies and munitions to the CPY-led Partisans totalled some 20,000 tons, an immense quantity given the limited airlift capacity of the time. A further 40,000 tons were delivered by sea. In the same period, Mihailović received 200 tons in all. Allied logistical support to Tito, Allied endorsement of the National Liberation Army as a virtual co-belligerent, and Allied air-ground support to the Partisans in the fight against the beleaguered ^#268;etniks were decisive. British imperialism, so Lees concludes, struck the blows which ensured Communist rule in postwar Yugoslavia.

In that process Major James Klugmann’s role was crucial. A member of the CPGB, and a prewar operative for one of the Comintern’s student front organisations, he acted during the war to support the Stalino-Soviet drive to power in the Balkans, and showed himself unquestionably to be a Soviet agent when in his From Trotsky to Tito he denounced the allegedly ‘criminal group of Titoite leaders’ as ‘traitors’, ‘Trotskyites, agents-provocateurs’, ‘wreckers, diversionists, intelligence service agents, spies, murderers’, guilty of ‘treachery’ and ‘betrayal’, agents variously of the French Deuxième Bureau, the Gestapo, ‘Anglo-American imperialism’, and much else besides. All this was in flat contradiction to all that he knew from his own first-hand wartime experience to be true. [2]

As for Churchill, he eventually realised that he was wrong, and wrote expressively his belief in Mihailović’s innocence of the charge of ‘collaboration’, asking Ernest Bevin, the Labour Foreign Secretary, to intervene to secure Mihailović a fair trial. Bevin did not do so, and Mihailović was shot on Belgrade golf course not long after.

Mark Wheeler of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at the University of London has recently been appointed the official historian for SOE activities in the Balkans. There are clearly many dark secrets which remain to be revealed. One hopes that he will not stint his efforts to bring them into the light of day. [3]


1. My treatment of the Canadian Croat Communist issue is fuller than that provided by Lees. Interested readers will find the details in Tim Buck, Yours in the Struggle (Toronto, 1977); Basil Davidson, Special Operations Europe (London, 1980); Vane Ivanovic, LX: Memoirs of a Yugoslav (London, 1977); David Stafford, Camp X: SOE and the American Connection (Toronto, 1986).

2. James Klugmann, From Trotsky to Tito (London, 1951), pp 7, 35, 37, 39, 55, 75.

3. In addition to those mentioned above, I have used the following volumes: FW Deakin, The Embattled Mountain (Oxford, 1971); Milovan Djilas, Wartime (New York, 1977); Fitzroy Maclean, Eastern Approaches (London, 1949), and Disputed Barricades (London, 1957); David Martin, Allied Betrayed (New York, 1946), and The Web of Disinformation (New York, 1990); Walter Roberts, Tito, Mihailović and the Allies, 1941-1945 (New Brunswick, 1973); Sava Bosnic, ‘The Yugoslav Revolution, 1942-1945’, South Slav Journal, Autumn-Winter 1984.