Resistance: The Underground War in Europe, 1939-45


This is a highly detailed (936 pages!) study of resistance across Europe during the Second World War, from its tentative beginnings in 1939 to the large-scale partisan warfare of 1944-1945. Indeed, the author’s coverage of the subject is so extensive that any review can do little more than scratch the surface.

The book describes how the development of resistance movements differed considerably from country to country, partly due to varying ethnic and historical rivalries that could sometimes become more important than fighting Axis forces.

A further factor was the wide range of occupation policies adopted by the Germans, ranging from overt brutality in Russia to relative restraint in Denmark – the more brutal the regime, the greater the incentive to retaliate.

However, the shock of the crushing series of Allied defeats between 1939 and 1941 initially overwhelmed any serious resistance in most of the newly occupied territories across Europe. As the author puts it, ‘Contrary to popular belief, resisters were initially regarded not as heroes or selfless patriots, but as reckless adventurers who at times needlessly endangered the lives of their fellow countrymen for acts of doubtful value.’

This was seen as early as the 1940 Norwegian campaign, when MI6 agent Oluf Reed-Olsen destroyed the Lysaker Bridge. Kochanski notes that ‘the surprise was the response of the Norwegians: a large group of prominent citizens published a warning to would-be resisters and saboteurs not to endanger the civilian population.’

The situation was very different in Poland, where the German occupation was far harsher than in Western Europe and, almost uniquely, there were no significant collaborationist movements. The Polish Army had undertaken pre-war planning for guerrilla warfare and small-scale resistance began in late 1939, gathering pace in the spring of 1940 when an entire German battalion was destroyed near the village of Huciska.

Savage reprisals led to a realisation that effective resistance would involve more than straightforward attacks on German targets, and should have several key elements, including the collection and transmission of intelligence, sabotage, reprisals against spies, traitors and Gestapo agents, and the long-term aim of armed insurrection. Resistance movements were rarely able to carry out strategically important sabotage – with the exception of the series of raids carried out on the Norwegian heavy-water plants – but their repeated attacks on transport and communications systems constantly hindered Axis operations.

For much of the war, intelligence-gathering was arguably one of the most valuable roles undertaken by resistance groups across Europe. For example, the Norwegians transmitted vital information on the location of the battleship Tirpitz, the French resistance drew up detailed maps of German defences in Normandy, and the Polish Home Army provided data on the V-2 rocket.
Maréchal, nous voilà

In France the situation was complicated by the establishment of Marshal Pétain’s Vichy regime, which attracted widespread support. The author notes how ‘Pétain’s influence did enormous damage to the Resistance… [his] portrait was displayed everywhere: post offices in the Unoccupied Zone sold over a million copies in two weeks and a new national hymn, “Maréchal, nous voilà!” largely replaced the “Marseillaise”. He became “an idol, a way out, an excuse” for the defeat.’

Initially, collaboration with the Germans was boosted by anger at the British attack, designed to neutralise or destroy the French fleet at the Algerian port of Mers-el-Kébir in July 1940. However, the German takeover of the nominally independent Unoccupied Zone of France in November 1942 damaged the Vichy regime’s credibility, forcing it into more overt collaboration, notably the establishment of the Milice (Militia), recruited from French right-wing groups such as Action Française.

Resistance groups soon found that the local knowledge of the Milice made them a far more dangerous enemy than even the Gestapo and SS. (Although the Milice fought a particularly brutal war against the resistance and anyone suspected of supporting them, Pétain’s personal popularity remained high among much of the French population. As late as April 1944 he was enthusiastically greeted by huge crowds while attending a requiem mass at Notre-Dame for the victims of Allied bombing of French cities.)

Although Soviet partisan forces were numerically impressive – 220,000 in 1942, rising to 550,000 the following year, the elaborate preparations for partisan warfare that had been made in the 1920s and early 1930s were destroyed by the Stalinist purges, so that the entire infrastructure had to be hastily rebuilt immediately after the German invasion.

Home Army soldiers fighting during the Warsaw Uprising in the city’s Kredytowa-Królewska Street, 3 October 1944. Stalin saw the Uprising as an ideal opportunity to remove the Army as a threat to Communist control of post-war Poland, referring to the resistance as ‘a handful of criminals’. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Stalin’s paranoia regarding the potential security threat posed by a largely independent military force led to most of the new partisan units (100- to 200-strong ‘Destruction Battalions’) being commanded by NKVD officers, many of whom lacked the military skills to fight a guerrilla war.

In theory these units were supposed to carry out a scorched- earth policy ahead of the German advance, before switching to partisan warfare when their area was overrun. In practice, even these supposedly politically reliable units proved to be prone to desertion – 8,000 of the 10,000 men raised to defend the Orel district, south-west of Moscow, fled as the Germans approached.

Those who did fight suffered heavy losses through inexperience – the NKVD’s 1st Partisan Regiment was virtually wiped out near Zhitomir in August 1941. The units that did survive tended to concentrate on attacking collaborators rather than Axis forces – by the end of January 1942, partisans around Orel had killed more than 200 civilians and local officials, plus 38 Russian police, but just 33 Germans. In October 1941, the Political Directorate of the North-West Front summarised some of the problems:

The absence of a single centre directing the partisan movement inevitably causes numerous flaws… Nobody supplies radios… no one analyses the experience of partisan combat, nor do the fronts exchange information and… we have received no instructions on the organisation of the partisan movement.

Matters began to improve from May 1942, when the Central Staff of the Partisan Movement was established with responsibility for supplying weapons and radios and coordinating partisan operations with those of the Red Army. However, partisan tactics remained clumsy, and they incurred heavy casualties during Axis offensives. In the Yelnya-Dorogobuzh region, for example, the 40,000 Axis troops of Operation Hanover inflicted 10,500 Soviet casualties.

Initial limited cooperation between Polish and Soviet partisans broke down in mid-1943, following Stalin’s order to ‘combat by every possible means bourgeois-nationalist units and groups.’ This led to confused and vicious fighting between the Polish Home Army and Soviet partisans, with Lithuanian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian guerrillas, and German forces, all involved in attempts to control Poland’s pre-war eastern provinces. (By late 1943, the UPA – Ukrainian nationalists – controlled much of the western Ukraine and Galicia, and they continued to fight Soviet forces until at least the mid-1950s.)

National uprisings were the ultimate ambition of many countries’ resistance movements, but they were incredibly risky – very few guerrillas had the equipment or tactical skill successfully to fight even the second-rate regular units that comprised the bulk of Axis occupation forces.

Allied support

Of the attempted insurrections, only those in Paris and Yugoslavia were victorious, largely due to large-scale Allied support. In Paris, the rapid intervention of the Free French 2nd Armoured Division was crucial in defeating the German garrison.

The Yugoslav partisans were only able to undertake their major offensives of 1944-1945 thanks to significant Allied air support from the Balkan Air Force and the two tank brigades that were formed with British-, US-, and Soviet-supplied armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs). Similar operations, such as the Warsaw Uprising and the Slovak National Uprising, which were launched without this level of support, were crushed by superior German forces.

(Stalin saw the Warsaw Uprising as an ideal opportunity to remove the Home Army as a threat to Communist control of post-war Poland. He referred to the resistance as ‘a handful of criminals’ and stated that the uprising was inspired by ‘enemies of the Soviet Union’. On 1 August, the first day of the uprising, the Soviet advance was halted by a direct order from the Kremlin when Red Army units were already in the outskirts of Warsaw.)

Beria’s NKVD, a forerunner of the KGB, was given a free hand in brutally eliminating any potential threat to emerging Communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe. In early 1945, a British intelligence summary reported that, in the Polish town of Sandomierz, ‘more Poles have been arrested during the few months of Soviet occupation than during the whole five years of German occupation.’

Another British report of the same period noted that: ‘The Russians are… out for a predominant position in SE Europe and are using Communist-led movements in Yugoslavia, Albania, and Greece as a means to an end… If anyone is to blame for the present situation in which the Communist-led movements are the most powerful in Yugoslavia and Greece, it is ourselves. The Russians have merely sat back and watched us do their work for them…’.

Apart from in Greece, where British forces totalling 80,000 men played a key role in preventing Communist guerrillas seizing power in 1944-1945, pro-Soviet partisans helped to ensure that the rest of Eastern Europe was ‘liberated’ by the Red Army. The nature of that ‘liberation’ was such that it generated new resistance movements in Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Baltic states. But that, as they say, is another story.

Overall, this is an exceptionally clear and comprehensive study, which deserves to become a standard reference work on the subject.

Resistance: The Underground War in Europe, 1939-45, Halik Kochanski, Allen Lane, hbk (£35), ISBN 978-0241004289.