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Zaharije Ostojić

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Zaharije Ostojić

Lieutenant Colonel
Zaharije Ostojić
Native name Захарије Остојић
Nickname(s) Branko
Zare[1]
Born 1907
Gluhi Do, near Bar
Principality of Montenegro
Died April 1945
Independent State of Croatia
Allegiance Yugoslavia (–1941)
Chetniks (1941–45)
Years of service –1945
Rank Lieutenant Colonel
Commands held Chief of staff to Supreme Chetnik Command
Chetnik detachments in Herzegovina
Battles/wars

Zaharije Ostojić (Chetnik Supreme Command led by Draža Mihailović in Yugoslavia during World War II. He was a major in the Yugoslav Royal Air Force prior to the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia, and was involved in the coup that deposed Prince Paul of Yugoslavia on 27 March 1941. After the coup, he escorted Prince Paul to exile in Greece, and was in Cairo at the time of the invasion in April. In September 1941, he was landed on the Italian-occupied Montenegrin coast along with a British Special Operations Executive (SOE) liaison officer and two companions. He escorted the SOE officer to the Territory of the Military Commander in Serbia and introduced him to the Yugoslav Partisan leader Josip Broz Tito then Mihailović. Ostojić soon became Mihailović's chief of staff, and after the German attempt to capture the Chetnik leader during Operation Mihailović in December 1941, brought the Chetnik Supreme staff to Montenegro where they were re-united with Mihailović in June 1942. During the remainder of 1942, Ostojić launched a counter-attack against Ustaše troops of the Independent State of Croatia returning to the eastern Bosnian town of Foča where they were expected to continue their genocidal anti-Serb policies. As many as 2,000 local Muslims were subsequently killed in the town by forces under Ostojić's command. Ostojić later oversaw large-scale massacres of civilians and burning of Muslim villages in the border region between Montenegro and the Sandžak.

While the Chetniks were an anti-Axis movement in their long-range goals and did engage in marginal resistance activities for limited periods, they also carried out almost throughout the war a tactical or selective collaboration with the occupation authorities against the Partisans. The Chetnik movement adopted a policy of collaboration with the Axis powers, and engaged in cooperation to one degree or another by establishing modus vivendi or operating as auxiliary forces under Axis control. This was demonstrated in late 1942 and early 1943, when Ostojić planned and oversaw the Chetnik involvement in the large Axis anti-Partisan offensive Case White alongside Italian troops. In 1944, he became a leader of the Chetnik forces in Herzegovina, and along with Dobroslav Jevđević was involved in attempts to come to terms with the Allied forces. In late 1944, as the Partisans tightened their grip on the country and the Soviet Red Army captured Belgrade, he re-joined Mihailović in northeastern Bosnia but they could not agree on what course of action to take. Ostojić, along with Chetnik leaders Pavle Đurišić and Petar Baćović and Chetnik ideologue Dragiša Vasić decided to move west to the area of the Ljubljana Gap in modern-day Slovenia where other friendly forces were concentrating. In early April 1945, faced with attacks by the Partisans and the Armed Forces of the Independent State of Croatia (HOS) along their route, the combined Chetnik force was defeated by HOS forces in the Battle of Lijevče Field, after which Ostojić was captured by the Ustaše in an apparent trap. According to some sources, he was killed in the Jasenovac concentration camp alongside Đurišić, Baćović and Vasić.

Early life

Zaharije Ostojić was a Montenegrin Serb,[2] and was born in 1907 in the village of Gluhi Do, near the Adriatic seaport of Bar in the Principality of Montenegro.[1] He joined the Yugoslav Royal Air Force and prior to the outbreak of World War II had risen to the rank of major. Little else is known of Ostojić's early life, but his sister was married to Royal Yugoslav Army Brigadier General Ljubo Novaković.[3]

To Cairo and back

After the outbreak of World War II, the government of Regent Prince Paul of Yugoslavia declared its neutrality.[4] Despite this, and with the aim of securing his southern flank for the pending attack on the Soviet Union, Adolf Hitler began placing heavy pressure on the Kingdom of Yugoslavia to sign the Tripartite Pact and join the Axis. After some delay, the Yugoslav government conditionally signed the Pact on 25 March 1941. Two days later a bloodless coup d'état deposed Prince Paul and declared 17-year-old Prince Peter II of Yugoslavia of age.[5] Ostojić was involved in the coup through his close relationship with one of the main instigators, the commander of the Yugoslav Royal Air Force Brigadier General Borivoje Mirković.[6] Ostojić escorted Prince Paul to exile in Greece and then traveled on to Cairo. Following the subsequent German-led invasion of Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav capitulation 11 days later, Ostojić remained in Cairo until he was selected to join a combined British–Yugoslav Special Operations Executive team which was to infiltrate into occupied Yugoslavia and make contact with resistance groups. The other members of the team were Captain Bill Hudson, a fellow Yugoslav Air Force officer, Major Mirko Lalatović, and a radio operator. They flew from Cairo to Malta on 13 September 1941, before being landed from the British submarine HMS Triumph on the Montenegrin coast near Petrovac between 20 and 22 September 1941.[6] They quickly came into contact with Montenegrin Partisans, including Milovan Đilas and Arso Jovanović, who escorted Hudson and Ostojić to Partisan-held Užice in the Territory of the Military Commander in Serbia.[7] While Hudson familiarised himself with the Partisans, Ostojić went on to Mihailović's headquarters at Ravna Gora, but after briefing Mihailović went back to escort Hudson to Ravna Gora, arriving there on 25 October. When he first arrived at Ravna Gora, Ostojić had delivered a message to Mihailović from the War Minister of the Yugoslav government-in-exile, Bogoljub Ilić, assuring him of the official support of the government-in-exile, but stating that "a rebellion would not be tolerated".[8][9][10] Ostojić also told Mihailović that the communists had taken control of Montenegro.[11] Ostojić and Lalatović then assumed senior staff positions in Mihailović's supreme command headquarters.[12]

Move to Montenegro

After Mihailović went on the run in early December 1941 in the wake of Operation Uzice, Operation Mihailovic and the split with the Partisans, Ostojić maintained a small headquarters consisting mainly of the intelligence branch, which remained close to Mihailović and his small personal staff as he moved around the Rudnik mountain area during the remaining winter months of 1941–42. Mihailović eventually made his way to Montenegro, where he arrived in June 1942. Ostojić, Hudson and other officers joined him soon after, travelling through Italian-held towns by truck disguised as troops of the Nedić regime.[13][14]

In a directive letter dated 30 July 1942, Ostojić urged all Chetnik commanders to "develop the strongest possible oral and written propaganda". He stated that, "the people must be persuaded that the Chetniks are their only friends and that it is from them that they can expect freedom and a happy life" and instructed the Chetniks to "work day and night and maintain the spirit of the people". He wrote, "the hour of freedom is near. Allied aid for the Chetniks is assured, and the whole world is admiring them."[15] In August, he launched a counterattack against Ustaše troops returning to Foča as the Italians withdrew their garrisons from the hinterland. The Chetniks feared the Ustaše were about to unleash another round of genocidal violence on the Serb population in the area.[16] At least 2,000 local Muslims were subsequently killed in Foča by forces under Ostojić's command.[17]

In November 1942, Ostojić was encouraged by Mihailović to wage a campaign of terror against the Muslim population living along the borders of Montenegro and the Sandžak, and subsequently reported that Chetniks had destroyed 21 villages and killed about 1,300 people.[18] Between 30 November and 2 December 1942, Ostojić represented Mihailović at the Conference of Young Chetnik Intellectuals of Montenegro at the village of Šahovići near Bijelo Polje in the Sandžak, which was also attended by Đurišić.[19] The conference was dominated by Đurišić and its resolutions "expressed extremism and intolerance",[20] as well as an agenda which was focused on restoring the pre-war status quo in Yugoslavia implemented in its initial stages by a Chetnik dictatorship. It also laid claim to parts of the territory of Yugoslavia's neighbors.[19][20]

Operation Weiss

A few weeks after the conference, Mihailović sent Ostojić to establish a forward headquarters in Kalinovik in south-eastern Bosnia. Ostojić was to command an operation aimed at encircling and destroying Partisan forces in Bosnia, which was to utilise Chetnik units serving as Italian auxiliaries in Herzegovina and Montenegro, as well as other Chetnik units in the Lika region, northern Bosnia and northern Dalmatia.[21] The plan was predicated on an Allied landing on the Dalmatian coast, which Mihailović believed was imminent. The outline concept was that the Chetniks would set up a corridor through the Italian occupied zone of the NDH as far as the Partisan liberated area in western Bosnia and Lika, neutralising the Italians through a combination of vague promises, encouraging them to surrender, and disarming them if necessary. The plan was finalised by early December 1942 at Mihailović's headquarters in Montenegro, and operations were planned to commence on 5 January 1943. However, the plan assumed that Mihailović's forces were unified, which they were not, and also that his authority extended to many more Chetniks than it did in reality.[22]

However, what transpired instead was that the Chetniks that were preparing for the "march on Bosnia" were drawn into closer collaboration with the Axis during the second phase of Case White that took place in the Neretva and Rama river valleys in late February 1943. During this offensive, between 12,000 and 15,000 Chetniks fought alongside Italian forces, and in one case alongside German and Croatian troops against the Partisans.[23] Despite the fact that the Chetniks were an anti-Axis movement in their long-range goals and did engage in marginal resistance activities for limited periods,[24] their involvement in Case White is one of the most significant examples of their tactical or selective collaboration with the Axis occupation forces.[25] In this instance, the participating Chetniks operated as legalised auxiliary forces under Italian control.[26][27] Ostojić believed that it was actions such as these that would cost the Chetniks the support of the Allies, and he wrote to Mihailović that the Allies would probably have supported the Chetniks had they been more involved in fighting the occupation. Ostojić told Mihailović that his officers also held this view, and proposed that Chetnik collaboration be reconsidered. However, upon receiving Ostojić's message, Mihailović did not even consider changing his strategy.[28]

The plan that Ostojić drew up called for the Chetniks to remain south of the Neretva to avoid being outflanked by the Partisans. However, this essentially defensive strategy was rejected by Herzegovinian Chetnik commanders such as Dobroslav Jevđević and Bajo Stanišić, who wished to follow the Axis-led offensive strategy. This placed Ostojić in a very difficult position, with some of his key detachment commanders following the orders of the Italians rather than his, while the Chetniks were reliant on Italian air and artillery support, particularly around Jablanica.[29] Ostojić subsequently changed his mind and supported the Italian offensive plans, launching an attack against the Partisans retreating from Jablanica to Prozor on 27 February 1943. The attack was indecisive and Ostojić reprimanded the detachment commanders responsible, particularly Stanišić.[30]

During this phase Ostojić first asked Jevđević to obtain more supplies from the Italians, and then when they refused, threatened to declare war on them.[31] By early March, just as the Partisans were forcing a crossing of the Neretva at Jablanica, Mihailović joined Ostojić. In a letter to one of his other Montenegrin Chetnik commanders, Mihailović stated that he was managing the whole operation through Ostojić, although Mihailović later denied that he was in charge of the operation when questioned during his trial by a Partisan court after the war.[23] Mihailović and Ostojić realised that the large concentrations of Chetnik troops in and around Mostar and the nearby bauxite mines were likely to draw German attention, and while they were focused on this issue, the Partisans forced a crossing of the Neretva.[32]

Within a week of Mihailović's arrival the Partisans had successfully crossed the Neretva, and within another week they had forced the Chetniks to withdraw, losing Nevesinje then Kalinovik to the Partisans before the end of March. During the fighting, Chetnik commanders had been ill-disciplined and had failed to cooperate, causing Ostojić to threaten them with courts martial and summary execution. Mihailović ordered Ostojić to pull the Chetniks back towards positions on the line of the DrinaPiva rivers, some 80–90 kilometres (50–56 mi) southeast of Jablanica. By this point the Chetniks had suffered heavy losses, and the Partisans broke through the combined Italian–Chetnik defence line in early April. In a report dated November 1944, Colonel S.W. "Bill" Bailey, the senior British liaison officer with the Chetniks during the war, stated that both Ostojić and Major Vojislav Lukačević had been very critical of Mihailović's "foolhardy, though brave, tactical handling" of Chetnik forces during Case White, which had "contributed largely to the failure of operations".[33] However, Ostojić himself did not possess the necessary authority with his subordinate commanders, had been unable to cope with the rapidly changing situation, had adopted an unpopular and ineffective defensive strategy, and had then blamed the detachment commanders for the Chetnik failures.[34]

1943–1944

In July 1943, the Montenegrin Partisan leader Đilas contacted both Ostojić and Baćović to establish their willingness to work jointly against the Axis occupiers, given that a new government-in-exile was about to be established without Mihailović. They reported this contact to Mihailović who threatened to exclude them from his Chetnik organisation if they maintained contact with the Partisans.[35]

By September 1944, Ostojić had been promoted to lieutenant colonel, and was the Chetnik area commander in eastern Bosnia. In early September 1944, as Mihailović had been removed as Minister of the Army, Navy and Air Force with the demise of the Purić government-in-exile, Ostojić tried to make contact with Allied forces in Italy, and agreed with Lukačević to issue a proclamation to the people explaining that they were going to attack the Germans. After 12 September 1944, when King Peter called for all in Yugoslavia to rally around Tito, he and Baćović warned Mihailović that their men were losing their will to fight the Partisans. Concerned that the Russians would hand the Chetniks over to the Partisans, he then contacted the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS) liaison officer with the Chetniks, Colonel Robert H. McDowell, but was unable to arrange for the Chetniks to be placed under American command.[36][37][38]

Retreat and death

After the fall of Belgrade on 20 October 1944, Mihailović and a force of a few hundred of his Chetniks withdrew from Serbian territory, crossed the Drina and based themselves in the Majevica mountain area north of Tuzla in north-eastern Bosnia.[39] Ostojić, who was commanding Herzegovinian Chetniks, was joined by Đurišić and his Montenegrin Chetniks and together they withdrew towards Mihailović.[40]

From the time he joined Mihailović in northeastern Bosnia, Đurišić was very critical of Mihailović's leadership, and argued strongly for all the remaining Chetnik troops to move to the area of the Ljubljana Gap in modern-day Slovenia. At this point Ostojić and Baćović were also questioning Mihailović's plans.[41] When Mihailović remained unconvinced, Đurišić decided to move to the Ljubljana Gap independent of Mihailović, and arranged for Dimitrije Ljotić's forces already in the Ljubljana Gap to meet him near Bihać in western Bosnia to assist his movement. When he left Mihailović, he was joined by Chetnik ideologue Dragiša Vasić and the Chetnik detachments commanded by Ostojić and Baćović as well as a large number of refugees.[42]

In order to get to Bihać, Đurišić made a safe-conduct agreement with elements of the Armed Forces of the Independent State of Croatia (HOS) and with the Montenegrin separatist Sekula Drljević. The details of the agreement are not known, but it appears Đurišić, Ostojić and Baćović and their troops were meant to cross the Sava river into Slavonia where they would be aligned with Drljević as the "Montenegrin National Army" with Đurišić retaining operational command.[42] The Chetniks however, appear to have tried to outsmart the HOS forces and Drljević by sending their sick and wounded across the river, but retaining their fit troops south of the river, after which they began moving them westwards. Harassed by both the HOS troops and Partisans,

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