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Breaking through the encirclement: the battles of Neretva, Sutjeska and Kozara

At the dramatic peak of the 1969 “Battle on the Neretva” film, Vladimir Smirnof, a character portrayed by Yul Brynner, wields a pistol in front of his baffled partisan comrades, before blowing up a bridge on the Neretva River. “That bridge is our only hope and salvation”, someone cried out, “and you want to blow it up!” But Smirnov had marching orders from Tito himself. The bridge was destroyed. Yet, as one learns later on, this was a clever ruse: while the Germans thought the Partisans are turning back and falling into a trap, they adapted the wreckage at the bottom of the canyon, crossed the Neretva and defeated the Chetniks, their Royalist rivals, encamped on the other side.


Of course, historical facts are somewhat more complicated: the Partisans indeed broke out of the German encirclement in this way, but the solution was somewhat accidental, improvised along the way, and helped by the short respite during negotiations with the Wehrmacht over prisoner exchange. Nonetheless, the enemy offensive eventually collapsed after months of heavy fighting over merciless mountain terrain. Barely three months later, the Partisan Army would break out of another, even deadlier encirclement. During the battle on the Sutjeska River, in Eastern Bosnia, the Partisan shock troops briefly broke the enclosure, but parts of the mobile central hospital were captured, with many wounded being slaughtered. Through fighting, exhaustion, disease and hunger, struggling over mostly barren terrain, the Partisans lost over a third of their people. This breakthrough inspired another film, the 1973 “Battle on the Sutjeska”.


In a way, breaking through the encirclement was a standard element of Yugoslav Partisan warfare. Tito’s Main Staff would establish a central liberated territory, then, while being surrounded, it would break through and establish another stronghold. Indeed, four of the seven so–called “enemy offensives” by the Axis were either full or semi–encirclement operations. In 1944, battle hardened commander Ivan Gošnjak would explain to the Partisan journalist Vladimir Dedijer: “Critical point of each enemy offensive is passed when you pinpoint their exact direction and start to penetrate behind their backs.” Of course, not all encirclements ended in a breakthrough. The most notable failure came with the 1942 Kozara Offensive. After many attempts, the local Partisans could not breach the deadly barrier. They pulled back, seeking shelter in the dense forests, while tens of thousands of civilians were captured and taken to the camps, or shipped off to Germany as laborers. Nonetheless, this ordeal also inspired a cinematic masterpiece, the 1962 “Kozara”.


Vladan Vukliš

Sources used
  • Films “Kozara” (1962), “Bitka na Neretvi” (1969) and “Sutjeska” (1973)
  • Vladimir Dedijer, Dnevnik (Beograd: Drzavni izdavački zavod Jugoslavije, 1945)
  • Mišo Leković, Martovski pregovori (Beograd: Narodna knjiga, 1985)
Further reading
  • Viktor Kučan, Borci Sutjeske (Beograd: Zavod za udžbenike i nastavna sredstva, 1996)
  • Koča Popović, Beleške uz ratovanje (Beograd: BIGZ, 1988)
  • Mladen Oljača, Kozara (Beograd: Prosveta, 1967) (Cyrillic)
Trailers / extracts of the movies

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