The European Resistance Movements of WWII Part II

In France things were slower getting off the ground. The Vichy regime and the Armistice Army took some of the sting out of occupation initially and led to a degree of confusion as to who was actually the enemy, and where effort ought to be directed. Resistance grew up in both the occupied and the Vichy zones, but the simple existence of an ostensibly legitimate government served to make overt resistance a matter of argument. When the Germans occupied all of France after the Allied invasion of French North Africa the issue became clearer. The Armistice Army dissolved, Vichy was removed as an intermediary, and the French stood face to face with the conqueror. By that time there was already a cadre of resisters living in hiding, not only the normal underground resisters, but also the genesis of a partisan army, spawned by the labor draft and the roundup of Jews. Young men had taken to the hill country, where they lived a hand-to-mouth existence, eventually being organized, and armed and supplied in large measure by the British. They emerged to fight and by early 1944 they actually controlled substantial segments of France, on the borders of which they fought pitched battles with the Germans and the German-controlled Milice. At the time of the Normandy invasion the French Resistance made substantial contributions to the Allied effort, tying up German communications and interfering with their reinforcements.

An outstanding example of what the Resistance could achieve, and some of the difficulties under which it labored, was the affair of the Norsk Hydro Plant in Norway. At the start of the war the plant was the world’s only commercial producer of heavy water, a vital component for the creation of an atomic reaction. When the Germans took over Norway, they immediately made plans to increase the heavy-water output and took such an ill-concealed interest in Norsk Hydro that the matter soon came to the attention of the British. The question then was raised as to what should be done to cut off the supply to the Germans.

Eventually, the Allies mounted four separate attacks against the heavy-water plant, by three distinct methods. The result was a major vindication of unconventional methods.

The first attempt was a commando-type operation staged in November of 1941. Two bomber aircraft took off from Scotland towing two gliders. All four crashed in Norway without getting anywhere near their objective. The aircrew were killed in the crashes, and the soldiers who survived the landing were rounded up by the Germans and shot, in accordance with Hitler’s order to execute commandos. Cost of the operation: two bombers, two gliders, and forty-seven lives, for no result except to alert the Germans of British interest.

The second attack was by SOE, which sent in a team of nine specially trained Norwegians. At the end of February in 1943 the Norwegians penetrated the Norsk Hydro plant and blew up 2,000 pounds of heavy water, temporarily wrecking both the storage and production facilities. They got away without a shot being fired at them and believed they had set the German program back two years.

They were correct in assuming they had scored a phenomenal success, wrong in their estimate of the German recovery time. By August the Germans were producing at a rate exceeding pre-attack levels. Now the Americans entered the affair, and the head of the American atomic bomb project asked General Marshall to take an interest in Norsk Hydro. The result of this interest was an attack by 115 Flying Fortresses of the U. S. 8th Air Force. On November 16, 1943, they dropped nearly 200 tons of bombs on the plant and the adjacent town of Rjukan. They killed twenty-two Norwegians, including one several miles from the target, wrecked Rjukan, and never even hit Norsk Hydro. The Norwegian government in exile delivered a stiff note of protest to both the British and the Americans, neither of which paid any attention.

The Germans responded by planning to transport all the existing heavy-water stocks south to Germany. On Sunday, February 20, the Norwegian SOE operatives sabotaged the shipment, and as the heavy water was being ferried across a lake, they sank it in 1,300 feet of water. Several Norwegians went down with the ferry, but the heavy water was lost for good.

The heavy-water strikes were somewhat atypical, in that the plant and its products were ideal targets for unconventional operations, while very difficult ones for the regular forces. Nonetheless, they gave some idea of what might be achieved, and have continually been cited by those who maintain that covert operations and industrial sabotage are far more cost-effective, as well as far cheaper in lives, than indiscriminate and imprecise area-bombing. How much more might have been achieved in this way, as the Resistance moved toward its fourth and final stage, was a matter of argument.

The ultimate aim of all that had gone before was a full-scale uprising, a national war of liberation that would drive the enemy from the homeland. Hopefully, the entire country would participate in this. If every single Frenchman or Belgian were out pulling down telephone wire, changing road signs, blowing up culverts, and—if possible—sniping at Germans, the whole untidy affair would make occupation physically impossible. It would be organized chaos, planned anarchy, and it would topple the German empire. In the midst of this mass action the shadow government of the Resistance would come out into the open at last, and as German power faded from the scene, the liberation, and the moral regeneration that went with it, would be accomplished.

That was the ideal, visionary situation, and it never happened. In some places, the Resistance came close to achieving this aim. Yugoslavia was probably the most nearly successful. Tito controlled large areas of Yugoslavia by 1944 and he and the Axis forces engaged in pitched battles. Late in 1944 Belgrade was occupied by Soviet and Titoist forces, but Tito was strong enough to pursue an independent line and to keep the Soviets from overshadowing him. He managed to clear the rest of his country and take Trieste without Soviet help or interference. Though the country remained theoretically a monarchy, Tito’s National Liberation Front wielded the real authority, and at the end of the war he called a constituent convention that put him officially in power.

The Yugoslav situation was unique, however, in that the country was off the main line of advance of any of the major Allies. What happened in France was more typical, and what happened in Poland more tragic, than the good fortune enjoyed by Tito.

Throughout their lifetimes there were various attempts to unite the separate French Resistance movements into one great whole. Ideological preconceptions and personal rivalries served to prevent this, as did the peculiar problem of de Gaulle, “Fighting France,” and what to do about it. De Gaulle was determined to control all aspects of the French opposition to Germany, but his contacts with the Resistance inside France were tenuous. He did not appear to understand either the problems or the aims of the resisters; they wanted a new, regenerated and rejuvenated France; he seemed to them to want an older France, out of the days of Richelieu or at best Napoleon. Eventually, it was de Gaulle who won; he was the only man whose prestige was sufficient to rally all shades of Frenchmen behind him. Many times, though, it looked as if the Resistance was as preoccupied with its internal politics as it was with fighting the Germans.

Because of the Allied invasion of Normandy, the French never got the chance to try a full-scale, independent, national uprising. They did come close, however. As the Normandy invasion took place, there were general risings in Limousin, the Vercors, Auvergne, and Brittany. A massive interdiction campaign slowed the German movement of reinforcements to the battle front; German troops from eastern France, supposed to reach Normandy in three days, took more than two weeks instead. The price for this was steep; the French Forces of the Interior (FFI), as they called themselves, lacked heavy weapons and armor, and they received relatively scanty supplies from the Allies until the latter realized how widespread the rising was. There were reprisals and massacres, both of armed Frenchmen and of open towns, such as the little village of Oradour-sur-Glane, wiped out by a passing German column out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

In Paris the French rose up and liberated the city before the arrival of the Allies, thereby in some measure resurrecting the national pride after the humiliation of 1940. All over Paris even now, though reminders of the events of 1940 are noticeably lacking, there are small commemorative plaques recalling the liberation of 1944. By late in the year the French Resistance was operating formally alongside the Allies, and was given the responsibility for clearing much of southwestern France and the Biscay coast ports. On his return, de Gaulle quickly took over the leadership of the Resistance cadres, and many of the FFI soldiers were soon drafted into the regular French Army, also fighting beside the Allies. Conscription into the army was one way to deprive potential rivals of their underpinning. Ironically, former Resistance fighters tended not to make excellent regular soldiers; the necessary mental attitudes of both were too far apart.

Triumph in France was matched by tragedy in Poland. The Poles too looked forward eagerly to liberation, but their anticipation was clouded by the fact that the Russians would be their liberators. Once more geography was to prove Poland’s curse. Polish-Soviet relations had been stormy at best throughout the war; the Russians insisted that the large share of Poland they had taken in 1939 would remain Russian, they constantly snubbed the Polish government in exile in London, and eventually, early in 1943, they broke off relations with the Poles, using Polish requests for an investigation of the Katyn Forest massacres as their excuse. If the Poles did not trust the Russians enough to believe the Russian denials of the massacres, the Russians would have nothing to do with them. It was hypocrisy that would have done credit to George Orwell’s vision of 1984, but it served the Russian purpose. Bringing out tame Polish Communists, the Russians moved to set up a puppet prospective Polish government. The Polish underground, desperate to save their own souls rather than come under Russian domination after German, decided they must liberate themselves.

Just as the French had risen up in Paris to present the arriving Allies with a functioning France that had to be acknowledged, the Poles rose up in Warsaw as the Russian forces neared. On August 1, the Russian advance patrols were nearing the eastern suburbs of Warsaw. They had just completed an immense two-month drive that had all but wrecked German Army Group Center. In Warsaw the Polish Home Army, under the command of General Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski, and acting on orders from the London government, rose against the German garrison occupying the city.

Catching the Germans unprepared and busy with the Russians, the Poles soon had control of most of Warsaw. The idea was that when the Russians arrived, which they would do within days at most, the Poles would be able to claim equal status, as masters in their own house. To the dismay not only of the Polish government in London, but of the Western Allies as well, the Russians stopped. Stalin blandly announced—publicly—that the Russian offensive had run out of steam; it would be necessary to regroup and resupply before resuming the offensive. This news was gratefully received and correctly interpreted by the Germans: they were free to pull units in for the suppression of the Warsaw rising. For the third time in the war the unhappy city was the scene of bitter fighting. It had been besieged and taken in 1939; in 1943 the desperate Jews in the Warsaw ghetto had risen up against their tormentors, and after a heroic resistance had been virtually wiped out by the Germans. Now the Home Army was to follow the same tragic path.

While Churchill and Roosevelt both pleaded with Stalin, the Russian dictator shrugged his shoulders; it was a shame, but the Red Army simply could not move; he was very sorry. The Polish government begged Churchill for help. The British went again to the Russians: if they would not intervene themselves, would they allow the British to fly missions to Warsaw, drop supplies, and refuel at Russian airstrips for the return trip. That seemed a small enough request, but the Russians replied that such an upsetting matter would seriously inconvenience their logistics arrangements; they refused permission for Allied planes to land in Russian territory.

The British tried another tack. There were several Polish bomber squadrons in the R. A. F. Now they, and other R. A. F. planes as well, loaded up with every pint of gas they could hold and flew resupply missions all the way to Warsaw and back. Unfortunately, that was the absolute extreme limit of their range, and they could carry so little in the way of supplies that the trip was hardly worth the risk. Nonetheless they took it. Much of what they were able to drop fell into German hands as the Polish perimeter grew smaller and smaller.

In the city itself resistance lasted for more than two months. The Poles fought with Molotov cocktails, light machine-guns, and mortars. The Germans brought in armor and heavy artillery. At point-blank range they blasted their way from house to house, from room to room. The suppression was turned over to the SS, and the Germans employed specialist troops for this job, the Kaminski Brigade, ex-Russian prisoners, and the Dirlewanger Brigade of German convicts. Neither the aged, nor women, nor children were spared by the Germans. Medical supplies gave out, then food gave out, then water. The Germans were deliberately razing the city as they went along. After sixty-three days, out of ammunition and everything else, the survivors of the Home Army, perhaps half of the original 40,000 surrendered. The Germans suffered 10,000 killed, 7,000 missing and presumed killed, and 9,000 wounded. It was further estimated that nearly 250,000 civilians had died during the battle. Stalin sighed, and the Red Army sat within earshot of the small-arms fire in Warsaw until the sounds died away.

The Poles were only the most obstinate of all the Resistance movements. All of them came out into overt action as the regular armed forces of the Allies approached. Short of achieving the national uprising, what they really hoped to do was to assert their title to consideration at the end of the war. The only way they could do that was by making a valid contribution to the defeat of the Axis, and their efforts were such that they did slowly win recognition and respect. Thus Tito gained power and support from the British, and the FFI merged its efforts with the returning forces of de Gaulle. In Russia the partisans eventually controlled more than 80,000 square miles of territory behind German lines; in Norway the underground was strong enough and numerous enough to cut the railways in a thousand places in one night. In northern Italy the partisans came to control a substantial part of the country. The Danish underground mounted a rescue operation that saved large numbers of Danish Jews from the fate of their co-religionists elsewhere. The Belgians formed a secret army, the Poles stole a V-l rocket from a development site and smuggled it out of the country to the Allies.

The questions remain: how much did the Resistance accomplish, and how much did it cost? Unfortunately, there can be a definitive answer to neither question. The underground tied down large numbers of Axis troops and it destroyed huge amounts of material. There is no doubt its contribution was a major one and a vital one, but to equate it with any given amount of conventional activity is impossible. They were different sides of the same war, and neither would have been successful, or at least as successful as soon, without the other.

Even less can be said of the costs of resistance. The final accomplishment was the culmination of untold small acts of defiance. All that can be said with certainty is that the bill, in pain, sorrow, and loss of life, was immense. No one can say how many people were imprisoned, tortured, and killed through, by, or as a reaction against, the activities of the Resistance. The cost in human suffering was enormous, and it was some measure of the German tyranny that people were willing to pay such a price to be rid of it.