Anti-partisan operations during World War II were counter-insurgency operations against the various partisan resistance movements. During World War II those operations were primarily carried out by the invading and occupying Axis powers, although with changing fortune of the wars, the Soviet Union and the Allied powers also had to deal with partisans.
Resistance movements and corresponding anti-partisan operations by occupying authorities were a common occurrence during the war, particularly in the territories occupied by the Nazi Germany.
As most of the war consisted of Axis occupying Allied territories, and not the other way around, much less material exists regarding the Allied anti-partisan operations. In the end, the Axis powers were unable to implement any serious plans for the resistance movement, hence the Allies never needed to devote significant resources to developing and implementing anti partisan policies.
Allies based much of their anti-partisan policies (often untested) on harsh German policies; for example, in early 1945, Allied policy in the light of a potential German uprising on occupied German territories was to shoot captured German partisans on the spot. However, the Allies never considered collective punishment of the local populace to deprive partisans of potential support, as was the German policy.
A separate issue involves anti-Soviet resistance in territories occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of the war. Such resistance groups formed in the Baltic states, Poland (a former Allied country) and Romania. Such groups were active in the first post-war decade, and were eventually destroyed by the Soviets and their local communist puppet state-allies.
The forms of resistance varied depending on place and time, and so did the Germans' countermeasures. Both the scale of resistance and the severity of German reprisals were much more limited in the West than in the East. While Germans were much more likely to treat the entire local populace as enemies in the East, they were much less ideologically driven in the West, where, for example, women and children were only rarely killed by SS troops (while being a much more common target in the East). In the East, some scholars noted that the anti-partisan operations gave Germans a pretext for ideologically motivated ethnic cleansing.
The Germans concentrated on short-term victories against the partisans and were able, in some cases, to defeat the partisans militarily, but on the whole their atrocities against civilians in the East resulted in a continuous flow of volunteers joining the partisan ranks.
The first resistance movements were created as early as in late 1939 in occupied Poland. As the war progressed and the number of Nazi-occupied territories grew, so did the number and strength of resistance movements.
Overall, the Germans were able to achieve military successes but were never able to end the partisan threat; the struggle of Germans versus the partisans can be described as a stalemate – eventually ended by the German military defeat in the regular war.
The Polish resistance movement was formed soon after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 and quickly grew in response to the brutal methods of the German occupation. Polish resistance had operatives in the urban areas, as well as in the forests (leśni). Throughout the war, the Polish resistance grew in numbers, and increased the scale of its operations, requiring the Germans to devote an increasing amount of resources (personnel, equipment and time) to deal with the partisan threat.
Polish partisans were particularly active in the Zamość region (see the Zamość Uprising). Sturmwind I and Sturmwind II ("Hurricane") in June 1944 were the largest German operations against the Polish leśni partisans, based on the "cauldron operations" Germans developed to deal with the Soviet partisans (see also battle of Osuchy). Soon afterwards, the Polish resistance launched a series of major operations against the Germans (Operation Tempest), of which the Warsaw Uprising was the best known. In Operation Tempest, Polish partisans challenged the Germans in a series of open battles for the control of vital strategic areas. The Germans were not prepared for the vast scale of the Polish operation, but had the advantage of numbers and better equipment; further, when the Polish partisans operated without the support of the advancing Red Army, they were significantly less effective. In areas where the Soviets cooperated with the Poles, the Germans were much less able to suppress the partisans, but where the Soviets did not advance to aid the Poles, as was the case with the Warsaw Uprising, the Germans were able to concentrate enough regular army and anti-partisan units to defeat the Polish insurgents.
In early 1941 Germans set up special units – Wehrmacht Security Divisions – to deal with securing the rear and carrying out the anti-partisan duties. Those formations would also be involved in the suppression of civilians (including participation in The Holocaust by rounding up Jews).
The policies the Germans employed in the occupied Soviet territories were the extension of the brutal policies they had developed over the past two years in occupied Poland. At first, the Germans tried to cow the local populace with violence. The policies of 1941 were aimed more at a potential than a real threat, as the Soviet partisans were only just organizing in the aftermath of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. It was on the Eastern Front (including the Balkans) that German terror directed against the local populace was the greatest. To a certain degree, it is hard to distinguish pure military anti-partisan operations from ethnic cleansing actions.
With the German failure to topple the Soviet Union in the first year of the war, the German anti-partisan policy changed, switching from short term to a more long term view. Nazi propaganda and similar tactics were employed in order to influence the local populace and make them more friendly towards the Germans (and less towards the partisans). It was at that time that Germans started to support the creation of local auxiliary units that were to be used against the partisans. The anti-partisan operations also became more professional and better organized.
By late 1942, the "hearts and minds" policy had already weakened. Around 1942–1943, large-scale "encirclement operations" were employed, which involved the use of regular army units, detached from the frontline, against the partisans. Such operations often involved the destruction of local settlements (villages) that were seen as potentially supporting the partisans, that meant both the physical destruction of the buildings and the massacres of local inhabitants. Those "encirclement operations" resulted in antagonizing the local populace, contributing to the growth, not shrinking, of the Soviet partisans. Major "encirclement operations" included: Operation München and Operation Bamberg (March–April 1942), Operation Hannover (May–June 1942), Operation Vogelsang (June–July 1942) and Operation Zigeunerbaron ("Gypsy Baron", May–June 1943).
In 1944, a new policy was introduced: creation of Wehrdoerfer, or fortified villages. This project, seen by Germans as one of the most successful German anti-partisan policies (and later imitated by other armies, for example French in Algiers or United States in Vietnam, (Strategic Hamlet Program)) involved the creation of autonomous and well-armed villages, in collaboration with local Nazi sympathisers. The advance of the Red Army and liberation of the remaining Soviet territories from under the German occupation prevented the full implementation of this policy.
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After the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia, the Yugoslav resistance forces consisted of two factions: the Partisans and the Chetniks. The Partisans were a communist-led movement propagating pan-Yugoslav tolerance ("brotherhood and unity") and incorporating republican, left-wing, and liberal elements of Yugoslav politics. The Chetniks were a conservative royalist and nationalist force, enjoying support almost exclusively from the Serbian population in occupied Yugoslavia. The Chetniks organized soon after the Axis invasion and received recognition from the western Allies. The Partisans organized after the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union and were initially supported by the Soviets. The Partisans received universal Allied recognition in place of the Chetniks after the Tehran conference in 1943. By the time of this conference, the degree of Chetnik-Axis collaboration was indicated to have increased greatly.
During the war, the Axis forces mounted a number of operations against the partisans. Former Yugoslav historiography recognized seven major offensives, of which the fourth and the fifth came close to defeating the partisan forces, and the seventh almost captured their headquarters.
In France, as the rest of occupied Western Europe, Germans used different, milder policies than in the East. Part of that reason was that the scale of resistance facing German authorities was much smaller. A large part of France remained under autonomous Vichy regime. Hence from the very beginning of the occupation, much of the police duties were carried out by local (French) forces.
Around 1943, as the French Resistance grew in size (due to the Vichy regime accepting the deportation of Frenchmen for forced labor in Germany), German anti-partisan operations in France became more serious. In response, Germans deployed military units against the resistance groups. Further, Germans managed to create a large and successful counter-network of covert collaborators, which succeeded in infiltrating many cells of the French resistance. The first major German military operation against the French Resistance took place in early 1944 in the mountainous region of the French Alps and French Jura. The French resistance forces went to ground and reorganized soon after the German operation ended. Soon afterward, another operation where the French Resistance challenged the Germans to a battle at Plateau de Glieres in Savoy ended in a German victory. Despite this defeat and London's advice to avoid head-on confrontation, in the aftermath of the Allied invasion of France (D-Day) the French Resistance openly challenged German forces in several areas. After several early Resistance successes, German countermeasures became particularly harsh. Once seriously threatened, German forces resorted to brutality and terror that had been mostly unheard of previously in the Western front (but commonplace on the Eastern). The largest atrocity occurred in Oradour-sur-Glane, where the Germans massacred 642 local inhabitants and burned the village. German terror tactics proved successful in the short term, as the shocked Resistance pulled back.
Around July and August, Germans launched their largest operations against the French partisans (Maquis du Vercors). Similar to the "cauldron operations" employed in the Soviet Union, 10,000 German troops encircled and destroyed a 4,000 strong local partisan force, also committing atrocities against the local civilian population, in order to terrorize the locals and to prevent the surviving partisans from regrouping in the villages.