If Only It Were So Simple
By David Stafford
Finest Hour 153
Professor Stafford is the author of Churchill and Secret Service and related books on wartime intelligence.
Hoodwinking Churchill: Tito’s Great Confidence Trick, by Peter Batty. Shepheard-Wlawyn, hardbound, illus. 384 pages, $42.95, Amazon $32.64.
What is this book about? Simply that President Tito of Yugoslavia, who died in 1980, was “the man who, during World War II… hoodwinked Britain’s staunchly anti-communist Prime Minister into giving his full backing to the communist Partisans and cutting all aid to the anti-communist forces resisting the Germans in Yugoslavia…. Churchill’s decision was based on information provided by two trusted advisers, Fitzroy Maclean and William Deakin, who simply passed on without verification what Tito told them. The deception was compounded by a communist mole at SOE headquarters in Cairo who withheld or doctored information from liaison officers with the anti-communist leader, Draza Mihailovic.” Without Churchill’s support, the blurb tells us, Tito would not have overcome his political opponents to emerge as the country’s leader, and Yugoslavs would have been spared over forty years of harsh communist rule.
If only it were so simple. Remove Churchill, and three more people from the complex situation that was wartime Yugoslavia, and all would have been radically different.
The author is a British journalist and TV producer. His motive for writing the book comes from a bust-up with the BBC over a documentary he made about Tito at the time of the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s—which was, he claims, crudely and savagely re-edited behind his back in order to protect the received “myth” of Tito as the great Partisan hero, as well as the reputation of the late Sir Fitzroy Maclean.
As in most conspiracy theories, not all its facts are wrong. The influence of pro-Tito protagonists such as Deakin and Maclean on postwar historical interpretations of events is undeniably true. Both wrote hugely influential books about their experiences with the Partisans, and Deakin for example, as a distinguished historian who helped Churchill write his monumental memoir of the war, exercised considerable influence through his chairmanship of the British section of the International Committee for the History of the Second World War. It’s also the case that several of the junior SOE officers who were parachuted in to serve with the Partisans were too uncritically swept away by the romance of it all and failed to ask some difficult questions.
But the same could be said for the author’s own view of Mihailovic, an undoubtedly tragic and often sadly traduced figure whose patriotism was not in doubt but whose weaknesses and failures (at least from the British point of view, which is what counts here) were apparent long before Deakin and Maclean appeared on the scene and were vouched for by some senior and experienced British sources on the spot. Batty frequently quotes the official history of SOE by W.J. Mackenzie to support his case. Significantly, however, he fails to acknowledge Mackenzie’s judgment that Mihailovic lived in a world that was passing, and that more British support in 1943-44 would have precipitated an even more intense and savage civil war.
As for the Soviet “mole” in SOE Cairo, here too a truth is elevated into something more important than it was. James Klugmann, the man concerned, was indeed a communist and certainly did all he could to influence reports from the field in Tito’s favour. But many other sources, amongst them the Bletchley Park “Ultra” decrypts, demonstrated that Tito’s Partisans were doing more to engage the enemy than Mihailovic, and SOE Cairo was hardly the deciding voice in the affair anyway.
Was Churchill hoodwinked? It’s true that he intervened energetically to urge support for Tito, and his son Randolph, who was parachuted in to serve alongside Tito, sent back photographs of the Partisans that deeply affected his parents. Later on, too, Churchill admitted that his hopes in Tito had been disappointed. But his intervention was as much the result of realpolitik as of any deceit—a fact that the author appears to forget in his obsession with conspiracy.
Maintaining the Anglo-Soviet alliance was an absolute imperative for Britain in the campaign to defeat Hitler, and Stalin’s support for Tito was firm—and perhaps regretted by Stalin when Tito chose an independent policy after the war. To continue supporting Mihailovic would have been to throw dust in Stalin’s eyes. Yes, Churchill was an anti-communist, and so was Mihailovic. But that was no reason for the former to support the latter. War is a dirty and often cynical business. The author is undoubtedly right in most of what he says about the ruthless and dictatorial Tito. But in seeking to explain all by conspiracy, he seems curiously naïve.
What Fitzroy Maclean Told Churchill
It affronts the memory of Sir Fitzroy Maclean to suggest that he misled Churchill by passing along uncritical or ill-judged reports. The following are Sir Fitzroy’s remarks to Churchill Centre members during their tour of Scotland at Strachur, Argyll, 12 September 1987:
In 1942 the Prime Minister was beginning to have doubts about the rightness of British policy in Yugoslavia. Hitherto we had been backing the Chetniks of General Mihailovic. Now, from intercepted enemy signals, which I of course knew nothing about, it began to look as if Tito’s Partisans might be a better bet. He wanted me to go in as Brigadier, commanding a British military mission to the Partisans, and as his personal representative, to find out, as he put it rather brutally, “Who was killing the most Germans. and how we could help them to kill more.” My mission was to be first and foremost military; political considerations were to be secondary.
I found Tito to be a rough, alert, sensible man of about 50, at the head of a far more formidable resistance movement than anyone outside Yugoslavia could possibly have imagined. By his skill as a guerrilla leader he was containing a score or more of enemy divisions and thus making a major contribution to the Allied war effort. He made no bones about being a communist, but for a communist (and I’d just spent three years in Moscow so I knew all about them), he showed a surprising independence of mind, and above all an intense national pride which did not at all fit in with my idea of a Russian agent.
All this I reported to Mr. Churchill, first by radio and then, once I could get out of the country, in person in Cairo. On the strength of my reports a decision had been taken to give all-out support to Tito and the Partisans.
I thought it right to remind him that the Partisans were communist-led. “Do you intend to make your home in Yugoslavia after the war?” he asked. “No,” I replied. “Neither do I,” he said. “That being so, don’t you think we had better leave it to the Yugoslavs to work out their own form of government? What concerns us most now is who is doing the most damage to the Germans.”
Thinking our conversation over afterwards, I felt convinced, and still feel convinced, that this was the right decision.