Motivations for joining partisan movements varied widely. Many became members as an act of survival; others joined from ideological motivations or to protect their families. Some groups were made up of escaped prisoners of war and political prisoners. Regardless of why they joined, partisans assumed an incredible burden as well as the risk of being shot out of hand if they were apprehended.
Early on, partisans spent much of their efforts merely establishing their organizations and working to sustain them by securing food, supplies, weapons, and ammunition. Late in 1942, as Axis battlefield fortunes turned, the partisans began conducting raids against railways and supply depots. Some even participated in assassinations of Axis officials.
Life for the partisans was difficult. For their own security, they tended to live in, and operate from, inhospitable terrain such as mountains, swamps, and deep forests. Partisans had to endure primitive living conditions, malnutrition, lack of medical assistance, and enemy patrols. They took inspiration from successful operations of this type in the past, such as the guerrillas of Spain against the French army during the Napoleonic Wars.
The British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) established contact with many partisan units, helping to coordinate their activities and to supply them with weapons and matériel. In return, the partisans provided intelligence, assisted Allied operatives and downed airmen, and conducted limited sabotage and assassination operations. In some cases, partisans found themselves pawns in the geopolitical contest by the various Allied powers during the war, as was the case in Yugoslavia and Greece.
Partisan units varied in strength and tactics from country to country. Space does not allow discussion of even a majority of such movements, but some of the most famous of partisans were the Polish Home Army; the French maquis; the Greek ELAS (National People's Liberation Army); the Yugoslavia Partisans; and fighters in the Soviet Union. Numerous other partisan groups also operated in Europe and in the Pacific. As a rule, the more crucial the role that partisan groups played in liberating their country from occupation, the more likely there were to have a major part in establishing and running its postwar government.
Although Poland was defeated by Germany in September 1939, many Poles continued the fight. Resistance groups coalesced into the Polish Home Army, which sought to combat the occupation of the country by both German and Soviet troops. With nearly a fifth of the country in forests, the Poles had a natural base for unconventional warfare. The Polish Home Army did provide useful intelligence to the western powers and, once the tide of war had turned, began to attack German supply trains and tie down German forces that might otherwise have been at the front. Their most spectacular action by far, however, was the Warsaw Rising of August–October 1944. When Soviet forces arrived at the city limits of the Polish capital, the Home Army came out in the open and battled the Germans for control. The Soviets refused for more than two months to move to assist the Poles. The Home Army fought on virtually alone until it was defeated. Warsaw was largely destroyed in the fighting. Some accurately viewed the Soviet refusal to act as a deliberate decision to effect the destruction of the natural Polish leadership and thus help ensure Soviet control of Poland in the postwar period.
Probably the best known partisan efforts in the west were those in France, particularly the guerrilla units known as the maquis. The French Resistance as a whole included everything from underground opposition newspapers to organized combat units; the maquis carried out sabotage and harassment operations. Originally operating in southern France, the maquis spread throughout the country. The maquis provided immense assistance to the western Allies in the June 1944 Normandy invasion when it conducted wide-scale sabotage operations against German lines of communication and helped isolate the battlefield from German reinforcement. The maquis also harassed small German units.
Following their conquest by the German army, the Yugoslavs formed Resistance movements. The two chief groups were bitter rivals: the Cetniks (named after the Serbian guerrillas who had fought the Turks), who were loyal to the monarchy and were led by General Dragoljub "Draza" Mihajlovic, and the Partisan movement led by veteran Communist Josip Broz (Tito). These two organizations, often at odds with each other, fought the occupying Axis powers and the fascist Ustase movement in Croatia. Partisan activities here were among the most effective in Axis-occupied Europe and tied down a great many Axis troops, but they also exacted a high cost in the form of reprisals and casualties to the civilian population. During the course of the fighting, the British government, which was supplying aid to the Yugoslav Resistance, decided to back the Partisans exclusively because, unlike the Cetniks, they did not hesitate to engage the Germans. At the end of the war, the Partisans were the dominant force in Yugoslavia and, in consequence, liberated much of the country themselves.
In Greece, resistance to the Axis occupiers began almost immediately. The largest group was the leftist National Liberation Front (EAM), with the National People's Liberation Army as its military wing. It had poor relations with the more conservative National Republican Greek League, and the two groups fought each other during the winter of 1943–1944, although a truce was arranged in February 1944. When the Germans pulled out of Greece, EAM held the vast majority of the country.
Following the 8 September 1943 armistice, Italian Resistance began against the Germans and Benito Mussolini's subsequent Italian Social Republic (RSI) in the northern part of the country. Early groups sprang up around former military units and were centered in the Alpine valleys and the Piedmont. The partisan groups varied ideologically, but those in the cities tended to be largely socialist or communist. In turn, the RSI fielded groups to fight the partisans. Captain Junio Valerio Borghese headed an independent unit allied to the Germans. It numbered 10,000 men and fought against partisans in both Italy and the Yugoslav border area. The Italian Resistance claimed that in fighting from September 1943 to May 1945, it sustained 36,000 killed out of 250,000 participants. Some 10,000 civilians also died in reprisals.
The rapid German advance through the Ukraine and White Russia led many Red Army stragglers and those opposed to the Nazis to find refuge in the forests. Only 11 days into the war, Soviet leader Josef Stalin called for a partisan uprising to harass the Germans. Nazi occupation policies played a key role, driving many who had initially greeted the Germans as liberators over into the partisan camp.
Partisans operated extensively in the region of the Pripet Marshes south of Minsk. They formed around smaller cells known as Orgtroikas, consisting of officers and operatives from state, party, and Narodnyy Kommissariat Vnutrenniakh Del (NKVD, People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs) sources. By the summer of 1943, about 17,000 partisans were conducting sabotage and harassment operations in the Pripet Marshes; at the time of Operation bagration in 1944, these numbers reached 140,000 people. Despite the efforts of special German antipartisan units, Soviet partisans carried out some 40,000 railway demolitions alone, greatly aiding the Red Army offensive.
In the Ukraine, nationalist movements such as the Ukrainska Povstanska Armiya (UPA, Ukrainian Insurgent Army) formed, bent on driving out both the Germans and the Soviets. Roman Shukhevich, leader of the UPA, controlled a wide swath of territory. Although conflicts between pro-Soviet partisans and nationalist partisans reduced the effectiveness of the movement, such activities forced the Germans to divert significant military resources to maintaining lines of communication. German General Heinz Guderian later wrote that this was one of the prime factors in the defeat of the German Army in the east.
Jews able to escape the German grasp also sought to organize. The Bielski Partisans were the most famous of the Jewish Resistance groups. The movement began as an act of simple self-preservation and the rescue of other Jews fleeing the Nazis, and eventually it grew to more than 1,000 people, including children and the elderly. Jewish partisans lived in constant danger because of rampant anti-Semitism among others apart from the Nazis.
The Germans did their best to put down the partisan movements. Their tactics included reprisals against villages aiding partisans and the taking and execution of hostages, often at the rate of 20 or more executed for every German killed. However, regardless of the tactics used, and probably because of the Germans' ruthlessness, the partisan numbers continued to grow.
In the Pacific, partisan movements were found in many locations, most notably in the Philippines. Following the Japanese victory at Corregidor in 1942, some 260,000 Filipinos and Americans organized to oppose the Japanese occupiers. Most notable among these groups was the Huks (Hukbalahap), or the People's Anti-Japanese Army. Communist Luis Taruc organized a Huk army of 30,000 men that ultimately controlled much of Luzon. U.S. forces not captured by the Japanese attached themselves to Filipino partisan groups.
Groups in China, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and some Pacific islands initiated intelligence-gathering and sabotage operations against the Japanese. One of the better known of the partisan groups was the Viet Minh, led by Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh. The Viet Minh conducted guerrilla operations against both the French and the Japanese. Robert W. Duvall and Benjamin F. Jones
Bailey, Ronald H. Partisans and Guerrillas. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life, 1978.; Deakin, F. W. The Embattled Mountain. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1971.; Macksey, Kenneth. The Partisans of Europe in the Second World War. New York: Stein and Day, 1975.; Tec, Nechama. Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1993.; Wellsted, Ian. SAS with the Maquis. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994.; Willoughby, Charles A. The Guerrilla Resistance Movement in the Philippines: 1941–1945. New York: Vantage Press, 1972.
Robert W. Duvall and Benjamin F. Jones