resistance unit

Resistance during World War II

Resistance during World War II occurred in every occupied country by a variety of means, ranging from non-cooperation, disinformation and propaganda to hiding crashed pilots and even to outright warfare and the recapturing of towns. Resistance movements are sometimes also referred to as "the underground".

Among the most notable resistance movements were the Polish Home Army (the largest resistance movement in WWII), the Yugoslav Partisans, the Soviet partisans, the French Forces of the Interior, the Italian CLN, the Greek Resistance and the Norwegian Milorg.

Many countries had resistance movements dedicated to fighting the Axis invaders, and Germany itself also had an anti-Nazi movement. Although mainland Britain did not suffer invasion in World War II, the British made preparations for a British resistance movement, called the Auxiliary Units, in the event of a German invasion. Various organisations were also formed to establish foreign resistance cells or support existing resistance movements, like the British SOE and the American OSS (the forerunner of the CIA).

There were also resistance movements fighting against the Allied invaders. In Italian East Africa, after the Italian forces were defeated during the East African Campaign, some Italians participated in a guerrilla war against the British (1941 to 1943). The German Nazi resistance movement ("Werwolf") never amounted to much. On the other hand, the "Forest Brothers" of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, and Polish cursed soldiers included many fighters who fought for the Nazis and operated against the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States into the 1960s. The Forest Brothers were primarily nationalists and, while they were clearly "anti-Soviet," there is little to indicate that they were pro-Nazi. During or after the war, similar "anti-Soviet" resistance rose up in places like Romania, Poland, and the Ukraine. While the Japanese were famous for "fighting to the last man," Japanese holdouts tended to be individually motivated and there is little indication that there was any organized Japanese resistance after the war.


After the first shock following the Blitzkrieg, people slowly started to get organized, both locally and on a larger scale, especially when Jews and other groups were starting to be deported and used for the Arbeitseinsatz (working for the Germans). Organisation was dangerous, so much resistance was done by individuals. The possibilities depended much on the terrain; where there were large tracts of uninhabited land, especially hills and forests, resistance could more easily get organised undetected. This favoured in particular the partisans in Eastern Europe. But also in the much more densely populated Netherlands, the Biesbosch wilderness could be used to go into hiding. There were many different types of groups, ranging in activity from humanitarian aid to armed resistance, and sometimes cooperating to a varying degree. Resistance usually arose spontaneously, but was encouraged and helped mainly from London, the "capital of the European resistance" and Moscow (helping the communist partisans).

Forms of resistance

Various forms of resistance were:

  • Sabotage – the Arbeitseinsatz ("Work Contribution") forced locals to work for the Germans, but work was often done slowly or intentionally badly
  • Strikes and demonstrations
  • Based on existing organizations, such as the churches, students, communists and doctors (professional resistance)
  • Armed
    • raids on distribution offices to get food coupons or various documents such as Ausweise or on birth registry offices to get rid of information about Jews
    • temporary liberation of areas, such as in Yugoslavia and Northern Italy, occasionally in cooperation with the Allied forces
    • uprisings such as in Warsaw in 1943 and 1944
    • continuing battle and guerrilla warfare, such as the partisans in the USSR and Yugoslavia and the Maquis in France
  • Espionage, including sending reports of military importance (e.g. troop movements, weather reports etc.)
  • Illegal press to counter the Nazi propaganda
  • Political resistance to prepare for the reorganization after the war. For instance, the Dutch resistance took part in forming the new government in the Netherlands after the war.
  • Helping people to go into hiding (e.g. to escape the Arbeitseinsatz or deportation) – this was one of the main activities in the Netherlands, due to the large number of Jews and the high level of administration, which made it easy for the Germans to identify Jews
  • Helping military people caught behind lines get back
  • Helping POW with illegal supplies, breakouts, communication,...
  • Forgery of documents

Famous resistance operations


In February 1941, the Dutch Communist Party organized a general strike in Amsterdam and surrounding cities, known as the February strike, in protest against anti-Jewish measures by the Nazi occupying force and violence by fascist street fighters against Jews. Several hundreds of thousands of people participated in the strike. The strike was put down by the Nazis and some participants were executed.

This first World War Two armed resistance unit in occupied Europe was formed on June 22 1941 (the start-date of Operation Barbarossa) in the Brezovica forest near Sisak, Croatia by the Yugoslav partisans. This launched the largest, and arguably the most successful resistance movement in Europe, as well as marking the beginning of the Yugoslav People's Liberation War.

On 13 July 1941 in Italian-occupied Montenegro Montenegrin separatist Sekula Drljević proclaimed an Independent State of Montenegro under Italian protectorate, upon which a nation-wide rebellion escalated raised by Partisans, Yugoslav Royal officers and various other armed personnel. In quick time most of Montenegro was liberated, but on 12 August 1941 after a major Italian offensive the uprising collapsed as units were disintegrating, poor leadership occurred as well as collaboration.

Operation Anthropoid was a resistance move during the WWII to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi “Protector of Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia” and the chief of Nazi's final solution, by the Czech resistance in Prague. Over fifteen thousand Czechs were killed in reprisals, with the most infamous incidents being the complete destruction of the towns of Lidice and Ležáky.


On 25 November 1942, Greek guerrillas with the help of twelve British saboteurs carried out a successful operation which disrupted the German ammunition transportation to the German Africa Corps under Rommel – the destruction of Gorgopotamos bridge (Operation Harling).


In early January 1943, the 20,000 strong main force of the Yugoslav Partisans, stationed in western Bosnia, came under ferocious attack by over 150,000 German and Axis troops, supported by circa 200 Luftwaffe aircraft in what became known as the Battle of Neretva (the German codename was "Fall Weiss" or "Case White"). The Axis rallied eleven divisions, six German, three Italian, and two divisions of the so-called Independent State of Croatia (supported by Ustaše formations) as well as a number of Chetnik brigades. The goal was to destroy the Partisan HQ and main field hospital (all Partisan wounded and prisoners faced certain execution), but this was thwarted by the clever escape across the Neretva river, planned executed by the Partisan high command led by Marshall Josip Broz Tito. The main Partisan force escaped into Serbia where it immediately took the offensive and succeeded in eliminating the Chetnik movement as a fighting force.

On April 19 1943 three members of the Belgian resistance movement were able to stop the Twentieth convoy, which was the 20th prisoner transport in Belgium organised by the Germans during World War II. The exceptional action by members of the Belgian resistance occurred to free Jewish and gypsy civilians who were being transported by train from the Dossin army base located in Mechelen, Belgium to the concentration camp Auschwitz. The XXth train convoy transported 1,631 Jews (men, women and children). Some of the prisoners were able to escape and marked this kind of liberation action from the Belgian resistance movement unique in the European history of the Holocaust. In October the rescue of the Danish Jews meant that nearly all of the Danish Jews were saved from KZ camps by the Danish resistance. This action is considered one of the bravest and most significant displays of public defiance against the Nazis.

The Battle of Sutjeska from 15 May to 16 June 1943 was a joint attack of the Axis forces that once again attempted to destroy the main Yugoslav Partisan force, near the Sutjeska river in southeastern Bosnia. The Axis rallied 127,000 troops for the offensive, including German, Italian, NDH, Bulgarian and Cossack units, as well as over 300 airplanes (under German operational command), against 18,000 soldiers of the primary Yugoslav Partisans operational group organised in 16 brigades.
Facing almost exclusively German troops in the final encirclement, the Yugoslav Partisans finally succeeded in breaking out across the Sutjeska river through the lines of the German 118th Jäger Division, 104th Jäger Division and 369th (Croatian) Infantry Division in the northwestern direction, towards eastern Bosnia. Three brigades and the central hospital with over 2,000 wounded remained surrounded and, following Hitler's instructions, German commander-in-chief General Alexander Löhr ordered and carried out their annihilation, including the wounded and unarmed medical personnel. In addition, Partisan troops suffered from severe lack of food and medical supplies, and many were struck down by typhoid. However, the failure of the offensive marked a turning point for Yugoslavia during World War II.


In the spring of 1944, a plan was laid out by the Allies to kidnap General Müller, whose harsh repressive measures had earned him the nickname "the Butcher of Crete". The operation was led by Major Patrick Leigh Fermor, together with Captain W. Stanley Moss, Greek SOE agents and Cretan resistance fighters. However, Müller left the island before the plan could be carried out. Undeterred, Fermor decided to abduct General Heinrich Kreipe instead.

On the night of April 26, General Kreipe left his headquarters in Archanes and headed without escort to his well-guarded residence, "Villa Ariadni", approximately 25 km outside Heraklion. Major Fermor and Captain Moss, dressed as German military policemen, waited for him 1 km before his residence. They asked the driver to stop and asked for their papers. As soon as the car stopped, Fermor quickly opened Kreipe's door, rushed in and threatened him with his gun while Moss took the driver's seat. After driving some distance the British left the car, with suitable decoy material being planted that suggesting an escape off the island had been made by submarine, and with the General began a cross-country march. Hunted by German patrols, the group moved across the mountains to reach the southern side of the island, where a British Motor Launch (ML 842 commanded by Brian Coleman) was to pick them up. Eventually, on 14 May 1944 they were picked up (from Peristeres beach near Rhodakino) and transferred to Egypt.

During April and May 1944, the Axis launched the daring Raid on Drvar aimed at capturing Marshall Josip Broz Tito, the commander-in-chief of the Yugoslav Partisans as well as disrupting their leadership. The Partisan headquarters were in the hills near Drvar, Bosnia at the time. The representatives of the Allies, Britain's Randolph Churchill and Evelyn Waugh, were also present.

German SS and paratrooper units fought their way to Tito's cave and exchanged heavy gunfire resulting in numerous casualties on both sides. Interestingly, Chetnik fighters under Draža Mihailović also flocked to the firefight in their own attempt to capture Tito. By the time German forces had penetrated to the cave, however, Tito had already fled the scene and escaped. Actually, Tito had a train waiting for him that took him to the town of Jajce. It would appear that Tito and his staff were well prepared for emergencies. The commandos were only able to retrieve Tito’s marshal uniform, which was later displayed in Vienna. After fierce fighting in and around the village cemetery, the Germans were able to link up with mountain troops. By that time, Tito, his British guests and partisan survivors were fêted aboard the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Blackmore and her captain Lt. Carson, RN.

An intricate series of resistance operations were launched in France prior to, and during, Operation Overlord. On June 5 1944, the BBC broadcasted a group of unusual sentences, which the Germans knew were code words – possibly for the invasion of Normandy. The BBC would regularly transmit hundreds of personal messages, of which only a few were really significant. A few days before D-Day, the commanding officers of the Resistance heard the first line of Verlaine's poem , "Chanson d'automne", "Les sanglots longs des violons de l'automne" (Long sobs of autumn violins) which meant that the "day" was imminent. When the second line "Blessent mon cœur d'une langueur monotone" (wound my heart with a monotonous langour) was heard, the Resistance knew that the invasion would take place within the next 48 hours. They then knew it was time to go about their respective pre-assigned missions. All over France resistance groups had been coordinated, and various groups throughout the country increased their sabotage. Communications were cut, trains derailed, roads, water towers and ammunition depots destroyed and German garrisons were attacked. Some relayed info about German defensive positions on the beaches of Normandy to American and British commanders by radio, just prior to 6 June. Victory did not come easily; in June and July, in the Vercors plateau a newly reinforced maquis group fought more than 10,000 German soldiers (no Waffen-SS) under General Karl Pflaum and was defeated, with 840 casualties (639 fighters and 201 civilians). Following Tulle Murders, Major Otto Diekmann's Waffen-SS company wiped out the village of Oradour-sur-Glane on June 10. The resistance also assisted the later Allied invasion in the south of France (Operation Dragoon). They started insurrections in cities as Paris when allied forces came close.

Operation Tempest launched in Poland in 1944 would lead to several major actions by Armia Krajowa, most notable of them being the Warsaw Uprising.

Norwegian sabotages of the German nuclear program drew to a close after three years on February 20 1944, with the saboteur bombing of the ferry SF Hydro. The ferry was to carry railway cars with heavy water drums from the Vemork hydroelectric plant, where they were produced, across Lake Tinnsjø so they could be shipped to Germany. Its sinking effectively ended Nazi nuclear ambitions. The series of raids on the plant was later dubbed by the British SOE as the most successful act of sabotage in all of World War II, and was used as a basis for the US war movie The Heroes of Telemark.

As an initiation of their uprising, Slovakian rebels entered Banská Bystrica on the morning of August 30 1944, the second day of the rebellion, and made it their headquarters. By September 10 the insurgents gained control of large areas of central and eastern Slovakia. That included two captured airfields, and as a result of the two-week-old insurgency, the Soviet Air Force were able to begin flying in equipment to Slovakian and Soviet partisans.

Resistance movements during World War II

Notable individuals


  • Confusion was their business (from the BBC series Secrets of World War II is a documentary about the SOE (Special Operations Executive) and its operations
  • The Real Heroes of the Telemark is a book and documentary by survival expert Ray Mears about the Norwegian sabotage of the German nuclear program (Norwegian heavy water sabotage)
  • Making Choices: The Dutch Resistance during World War II (2005) This award-winning, hour-long documentary tells the stories of four participants in the Dutch Resistance and the miracles that saved them from certain death at the hands of the Nazis.


See also

External links


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