Right-wing Serb nationalists have for decades sought to rehabilitate Draza Mihailovic and his Chetnik movement, which during World War II collaborated with the Axis occupiers of Yugoslavia and carried out genocidal crimes against Muslim Bosniaks, Croats and other non-Serbs. Mihailovic was convicted as a war-criminal and executed in Yugoslavia in 1946, but in 2015 was rehabilitated in post-Communist, nationalist Serbia. However, the rehabilitation is deemed unwarranted by most mainstream scholarly opinion outside of Serbia, by almost all non-Serb opinion in the former Yugoslavia, and by left-wing and anti-nationalist opinion in Serbia itself.
Pro-Mihailovic propaganda in particular revolves around Operation Halyard, which involved Mihailovic and his Chetniks facilitating the rescue of Allied airmen from German-occupied Yugoslavia by the US’s Air Crew Rescue Unit (ACRU). During 1944, the ACRU flew seven evacuation missions from three Chetnik landing strips in Serbia and Bosnia, resulting in the evacuation of at least 343 US airmen, 8 British airmen and 66 others. For this, and with the Cold War in full swing, US President Truman posthumously awarded the anti-Communist Mihailovic the Legion of Merit in 1948. This legacy has been highlighted in recent years in the diplomacy of the US government, as part of its efforts to woo Serbia, which in turn has led right-wing nationalist Serbs to claim for him the mantle of an Allied war-hero.
In reality, Mihailovic and his Chetniks were opportunistic Great Serb nationalists whose policy was to collaborate with both Axis and Allied forces where necessary to achieve their war-aims, above all the destruction of their chief domestic political rivals for power in Yugoslavia, the Communist-led Partisans, who were the ones actually conducting most of the Yugoslav resistance to the occupiers. As early as 11 November 1941, Mihailovic met with representatives of the German occupiers at Divci near Valjevo, in order to ask them for ammunition with which to fight the Partisans. The Germans were unwilling to collaborate with Mihailovic’s Chetniks at this time, yet this did not stop the latter from turning their guns against the Partisans, helping to ensure the defeat of the Serbian uprising against the Germans and the expulsion of the Partisan main forces from Serbia. After this, part of Mihailovic’s Chetniks were legalised within the framework of the Serbian quisling forces serving the Germans, while his Chetnik commanders in Bosnia would reach agreements with the Croatian fascist (Ustasha) puppet-state for further collaboration against the Partisans. Collaboration between the Italians and Chetniks was particularly warm, and the Chetniks fought alongside the Italians in large numbers against the Partisans at the crucial Battle of the Neretva in February-March 1943, at which Tito’s Chief Operational Group narrowly avoided total destruction.
On 28 February 1943, according to the British Colonel William Bailey who was attached to Mihailovic’s staff, Mihailovic gave a speech in which he accused the British of perfidy and of ‘fighting to the last Serb’, and stated that ‘his enemies were ‘he Partisans, the Ustashas, the Muslims and the Croats’ and that ‘As long as the Italians remained his sole adequate source of benefit and assistance generally, nothing the Allies could do would make him change his attitude towards them.’ Subsequently, following the Italian capitulation to the Allies in September 1943, German collaboration with the Chetniks increased. On the basis of Field Marshal Maximilian von Weichs’s 21 November 1943 directive, several of Mihailovic’s top officers, above all Vojislav Lukacevic, Nikola Kalabic, Jevrem Simic and Ljuba Jovanovic-Patak, reached agreements for collaboration with the Germans. Simic, as the overall inspector of Mihailovic’s Supreme Command, renewed his agreement with the Germans on 17 January 1944. The agreement specified that the Mihailovic forces would receive ammunition and medical supplies from the Germans. Three days later Mihailovic ordered the buying of weapons and munitions from the Germans.
This extensive and systematic collaboration was primarily opportunistic in nature rather than due to any strong ideological identification with the Axis powers or sincere loyalty to them on Mihailovic’s part, and he hedged his bets by collaborating with the Allies as well. The evacuation of Allied airmen was his way of ingratiating himself with the Americans after he had already fallen out of favour with the British. However, even this was cynical in nature. According to a 1977 Research Report by Thomas T. Matteson for the Air War College of the US Air Force:
‘Although thankful for the protection provided by Mihailovic’s people, the returned airmen displayed a generally restrained enthusiasm toward their Chetnik saviors. Overall, the flyers agreed that their rescue was due in large part to the efforts o£ the ACRU field team and not, as some believed, to Chetnik loyalty or dedication to the Allied cause. In fact, there is indisputableevidence that Mihailovic concealed some airmen from the .ACRU field party in order to exhibit them as “Americanrepresentatives” to the Chetnik cause. For example, an American pilot who parachuted into Serbia on July 3, 1944, was kept by the Chetniks until October 4, 1944, when he escaped to the Partisans and was eventually evacuated on October 17.’
Furthermore, much fewer Allied airmen were rescued by the Chetniks than by the Partisans; according to Lieutenant-Colonel James Parton’s official ‘History of the M.A.A.F [Mediterranean Allied Air Forces], 1 September 1944 – 9 May 1945’, of 2350 airmen rescued from Yugoslavia the Partisans rescued 2,000 and the Chetniks only 350. Historian Robert J. Donia, in his study of the topic, estimates that the real figures for both Partisan and Chetnik rescues were significantly higher; nevertheless, that American-Serbian commemoration focusing on Halyard ‘whether by design or not, promoted the memory-based, one-sided, incomplete Chetnik version of the Halyard rescues and caused the larger, more numerous, and more strategically significant rescues aided by Partisans to vanish from public memory’.