Challenges in Coalition Unconventional Warfare: The Allied Campaign in Yugoslavia, 1941-1945

By Duke, Darren J.; Phillips, Rex L. et al. | Joint Force Quarterly, October 2014 | Go to article overview

Challenges in Coalition Unconventional Warfare: The Allied Campaign in Yugoslavia, 1941-1945


Duke, Darren J., Phillips, Rex L., Conover, Christopher J., Joint Force Quarterly


During World War II, operatives and military advisors of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was a precursor to both the current Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. Special Forces, conducted a challenging unconventional warfare (UW) campaign against the Axis forces with and through guerrilla resistance elements in Yugoslavia. The resistance movement effectively fixed in place 35 German and Italian divisions, consisting of roughly 660,000 soldiers in the western Balkan region during 1941-1945. (1) This campaign rendered them strategically irrelevant by preventing their use in other theaters. The combined United Kingdom (UK)-United States (U.S.) contingent achieved this effect with never more than 100 Allied personnel on the ground in the denied area. The number of Axis personnel killed in the Balkans is estimated at 450,000. (2) This extremely favorable force ratio and its associated effects commend UW as a low-cost, high-reward method of warfare.

Although ultimately successful, the campaign experienced difficulties. British and American policymakers, primarily President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, chose with great risk near-term military goals over long-term postwar political strategic interests. Failures in operations security, differences in policy goals, difficulties in command relationships, and disparities in talent and skill among Allied personnel often strained the British-American relationship at multiple levels. Clandestine operatives on the ground inside Yugoslavia dealt with an increasingly vicious civil war among factions within the resistance movements that was rooted in longstanding political and ethnic differences. Contemporary policymakers and UW planners considering unconventional options can benefit from an examination of these challenges, experiences, and lessons learned from the Balkans Campaign of World War II.

Unconventional warfare is activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, or guerrilla force in a denied area. (3) Special operations forces (SOF) conduct and support unconventional warfare. U.S. Army Special Forces, Green Berets, are the lead SOF Service component for its doctrine and conduct, while other Service components of U.S. Special Operations Command are tasked with conducting operations in support of UW efforts. Currently, no doctrine for joint or combined UW operations exists. However, history shows us that combined UW not only is possible, but also can be highly successful, even if fraught with challenges. The combined UK-U.S. UW campaign in the former Yugoslavia offers several important lessons that should inform and help shape continued efforts to improve UW doctrine.

The Balkan Campaign

Formed out of the upheavals of the Balkan wars of the early 1900s and the fallout from World War I, Yugoslavia was a patchwork state cobbled together by treaty and riven by political and ethnic strife. In the spring of 1941, when Adolf Hitler realized that Yugoslavia's weak cohesion as a state would not allow him to keep it in the Tripartite Pact and to protect his southern flank in preparation for his invasion of Soviet Russia, (4) he ordered the German-led blitzkrieg attack by Axis forces on April 6, 1941, which brought Yugoslavia into the war. Organized Yugoslavian military resistance rapidly evaporated, and the government capitulated after only 11 days. Armed guerrilla attacks on German and Italian units began in earnest by early July. (5) These attacks--eventually recognized as the most successful guerrilla movement in occupied Europe--created sufficient concern within the German government that counterguerrilla operations were conducted to address the threat. These resulted in severe reprisals against Yugoslavian civilians as early as October 1941. …

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