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While the Yugoslav and Greek partisans of WWII are widely known, the Albanian partisans slightly less so, very very few people have ever heard about the Bulgarian partisan movement. Though small and of little consequence in deciding the outcome of WWII, the story still needs to be told, though. This is an attempt at it.
Defeat from the outset
The history of the Bulgarian partisans started right after the invasion of the USSR by Nazi Germany and her allies on 22 June 1941. Two days after this, on 24 June 1941, the Politburo of the BKP (Bulgarian Communist Party) decided to start preparing for armed resistance. A Central Military Commission was created with the aim of preparing and leading the armed struggle, but historical experience with a failed revolt in 1923, that had brought hell down over the party had contributed to a general resentment at starting armed resistance. Adding to the general confusion preventing any concerted attempt at partisan warfare was the arrest of 244 prominent communist functionaries on 3 July. By September the immunity of the Communist deputies of parliament had been lifted, too, and 3 out of the 5 members of the Politburo had been arrested.
As a result of the general confusion caused by this disruption, the resistance was very small in scale, consisting initially only of fighting groups, groups of 3 to 6 "legals", living ordinary lives at day and engaging in small-scale sabotage at night. No actual partisan bands (consisting of illegals that had had to leave society altogether) were active yet. The only centrally planned undertaking that took place at this time was an abortive attack on the Gonda Voda concentration camp, where the arrested communists had been sent along with the other Bulgarian political prisoners. A group of communists from Southern Bulgaria was assembled on 15 August 1941 and tried to spring the prisoners from the camp. Poorly trained and armed, the attempt failed. Another attempt a forthnight later failed, too.
In order to strengthen the movement, the USSR during the months August to October sent in all 58 Bulgarian ιmigrι communists into Bulgaria, either dropped by parachute or put ashore from Soviet U-boats on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. This undertaking, too, was a failure, and of the 58 20 were shot on arrival. Most of the remainder were caught within days of their arrival in Bulgaria, and the result of the operation was zero. By the end of 1941, between 7 and 800 communists had been arrested. Initially the party had managed to regroup and mainting control, but a wave of arrests starting in February 1942 brought the Central Committee and the Central Military Commission to a collapse, thereby practically ending all central conduct of the resistance.
Since partisan warfare had lost all significance by the middle of 1942, the communists looked for another way of fighting. By early 1943, they had finally found it: assassination of important personalities. During the months of February to May 1943 several personalities, mostly police agents and politicians were shot by communist fighting groups consisting of "legal" cadres, living normal lives in daytime.
The first to be shot, on 13 February 1943, was retired general Hristo Lukov, leader of the pro-German Legionary movement, and by many thought to be the Germans favourite choice for a leader to substitute Zar Boris for. An unsuccessful attempt was made on Lukovs secretary on 6 April, but the failure was made good on 15 April, when Sotir Yanev, the chairman of the Committee of Foreign Relations of the Bulgarian parliament was assassinated. Next was Colonel Pantev, the Chairman of the Military Court in Sofia, who died at the hands of the same team that had killed General Hristo Lukov.
At this time, police controls had been strengthened so much as to make further conduct of urban guerrilla warfare difficult, and added to the misgiving the party leadership had in the first place of assassinating public persons (it alienated possible political allies), the assassination campaign was wound down. Though assassinations did occur after May (the Deputy Governor of Plovdiv was killed in July 1943), assassination as a form of combat was left behind.
The successive waves of arrests had by the end of 1941 forced a number of communists out of society, and the first partisan bands were in operation, the first one in Pirin (Bulgarian) Macedonia lead by a veteran communist named Nikola Parapunov. Growth of the partisan movement was very slow, though, and by the end of 1942, police estimates put the strength of the partisans at only 183 men organized in 25 bands in the country at large, discounting the areas acquired by Bulgaria in 1941.
Soviet successes on the Eastern Front and Yugoslav partisan successes in Yugoslavia, as well as continuing arrest waves (6.700 communists had been arrested during the 1941 to 1943 period) led more men into the movement, bringing the strength of it to 372 in March and 650 in 47 bands by June 1943. Increasing numbers brought about the need for a reorganisation of the command structure, and all the partisans units entered the new the Peoples Revolutionary Army of Liberation (Narodno Osvoboditelna Vustanicheska Armiia, or NOVA), led by the General Staff of the Resistance, the former Central Military Commission. During March and April 1943, Bulgaria proper (including a few small areas of Greek Thrace and Macedonia and Yugoslav Macedonia) was divided into 12 Insurrection Military Zones (VOZ), numbered I to XII.
Increasing numbers brought about an increased level of action, too: the number of partisan actions rose from 12 (!) in January 1943 to 28 in February, 83 in March, 72 in April, 125 in May and 145 in June. The sudden drop in March can probably be attributed to the Bulgarian army blockade of the Sredna Gora Mountains, a partisan stronghold for 20 days in March and April (see below).
Sometimes several bands would come together under one command and form a detachment, the detachment "Anton Ivanov" with 100 men in May 1943 being an example. The most successful of the detachments was the detachment of Slavcho Trunski, who operated his unit in the Trunski region on the Bulgarian-Yugoslav border, and was thus able to seek refuge and supplies with the Yugoslav partisans in Vardar (Yugoslav) Macedonia. Sometimes it even came to small-scale joint actions between Bulgarian and Yugoslav partisan units.
Seeing the increase in strength, the Bulgarian police in cooperation with regular army units imposed a 20 day blockade during the months of march and April 1943 in the Sredna Gora mountain, one of the two main partisan strongholds in Bulgaria proper (the other being the Rhodopi mountains). This tactic did not help, though, as the partisans could mostly survive by just laying low.
The second part of 1943 saw more expansion of the partisan forces. The old partisan detachments spawned off new units (among others the "Vasil Levski" partisan unit, that was expanded into a brigade in 1944), and 14 entirely new units came into being around among others Pleven, Jambol, Pasardshik and Varna. Accordingly, the number of partisan actions increased, too, from 174 in July over 187 in August, 214 in September, 274 in October to 280 in November. Though these actions included burnings of factories, saw mills, and attacks on mines, most were of rather less significance, and the impact of the partisans remained small. Partisan bands (Chetas) were on average only a dozen men strong, and were mostly concerned with their own survival.
One of the Insurrection Military Zones, VI VOZ "Burgas", can give a picture of the level of partisan activity. Of the 5 partisans detachments (Otryadi), that operated in the zone, No. 1 repeatedly suffered heavy losses, and had practically disappeared by the end of 1943. No. 2 was more successful, raided a coal mine in August and occupied the town of Golyamo Schivachevo and executed its mayor in September. During December it, along with many other partisan units, suffered heavy losses, though. The other three detachments were of virtually no significance.
A winter of defeat
During the latter part of 1943, the level of armed resistance increased, and additional numbers of communist ιmigrιs were sent from the USSR. They were, however, too small in number to matter militarily, and brought no supplies with them. The British, on the other hand, sent a mission under Major Mostyn Davies, that joined Trunskis Bulgarian Partisans on the Yugoslav-Bulgarian border in December 1943.
During the same time the first large-scale desertion of soldiers of the Bulgarian army took place, 75 soldiers joining the partisans in the Yugoslav free zone as the 1st Soldiers battalion of the Bulgarian resistance. As the one half of the General Staff of the Resistance at the same time joined the partisans in the Yugoslav free zone around Kalna in SE Serbia, they achieved a considerable concentration of forces there. The General Staff had been split in two due to the allied bombing and subsequent disruption of communications in Bulgaria, the one half going to Plovdiv to lead the resistance in Bulgaria proper, the other one going to the free zone centred on Kalna to lead the partisans there.
To better facilitate communications with the partisans, the British sent in a second British military mission during January of 1944. Trying to remedy a general lack of weaponry among the partisans (the partisan weaponry at the end of 1943 only included 563 rifles, 314 pistols, 13 submachine guns and 9 machine guns), 15 drops of supplies were planned during February and the first half of March, but only 3 of them came to anything. The partisan trust in the British did not improve through that experience.
In Bulgaria proper, the partisans did not enjoy any of the "luxuries" that those in Macedonia did. They had no free zones to flee to, received no supplies from abroad, and were in general subject to repeated attacks. In early 1944, a special Gendarmerie with its own cavalry and mechanised units was also formed with the sole purpose of fighting the partisans. Police reprisals against suspected partisans and partisan helpers did produce numbers of new recruits, but at the same time the police actions also scared the populace away from helping the partisans. Thus increasing numbers saw smaller sources of food, and hunger became the steady companion of the partisans. Morale plummeted, and some partisans deserted and tried to return to their villages. Partisan leaders had to resort to summary execution on charges of desertion. In the partisan detachment "Anton Ivanov", partisans were executed for having stolen food from each others.
The detachment itself was annihilated in March, when 135 of its 153 men were lost in a matter of days, either being killed in combat, or captured and beheaded by the Gendarmerie. At the same time, two members (Hristo Michailov and Vlado Georgiev) of the Central Committee of the Politburo of the Bulgarian Communist Party found their deaths. The winter saw the number of partisan actions dwindle to 95 in January, though it picked up and increased to 159 in February. As 1944 began, partisan strength lay at around 2.000 men.
To the offensive
From the outset, the spring of 1944 did not look promising for the partisans: the fate of the "Anton Ivanov" partisan detachment has already been mentioned, and the Bulgarian army also launched an attack on the main partisan grouping in the Kalna free zone in SE Serbia in late March, where the first British mission was wiped out. The partisans soon regained strength, though, and in late 1944, the first two partisan brigades were formed in Macedonia, namely the 1st and 2nd "Sofian" Brigades.
These were intended to let the Bulgarians go over to the offensive: the British had in cooperation with the Bulgarians and Yugoslavs laid out a plan to establish a free zone, that would stretch from Kratovo and Kumanovo in N-Macedonia to Kiustendil in W-Bulgaria, and thus give the Bulgarians a free zone of their own on their own soil. It was launched on 25 April 1944, but though the Yugoslavs initially made some gains around Kratovo (the Bulgarian partisans were directed ad Kiustendil in Bulgaria), the operation ended in total failure, and had to be aborted.
With the milder weather came not only increasing strength for the Macedonian partisans, but also for the partisans in Bulgaria proper. The "Chavdar" Brigade was formed in April as the first there, and during May two other brigades came to: the "Vasil Levski" and "Khristo Botev" Brigades. At this time, the "Chavdar" Brigade had reached a strength of 437 men, being the largest partisan unit in Bulgaria proper.
Thus, an opportunity of creating a free zone in the Sredna Gora Mountains of Bulgaria proper was seen, and the 2nd "Sofian" Brigade was sent out from the Kalna free zone on its "Long March" on 12 May 1944. Along with it went the second British Military Mission. It was planned, that the brigade would penetrate into Bulgaria, go North of the capital of Sofia, then meet up with a number of partisans detachments in the Sredna Gora Mountains to the East of Sofia. It was thought, that the brigade would reach its destination sometime in early June, but problems plagued the endeavour from he outset: the British lost contact with Cairo, and many of the partisans groups with which the brigade was to establish contact failed to show on time. It nevertheless managed to push past the capital and cross the Iskur River, then head for Botevgrad NE of Sofia before it was intercepted by Bulgarian army units at the village of Litakovo. Most of the partisans were killed during the ensuing battle, others being captured and shot over the following days. Major Frank Thompson, the leader of the British Military Mission was court-martialled and shot.
Summer and the coup
The most reliable sources show, that by the early summer of 1944, the partisans had increased in strength to around 4.000 men, armed with 2.026 rifles, 190 submachine guns, 885 pistols, 1.800 hand grenades, 129 light and medium, and 16 heavy machine guns. German suggestions, that the partisans had 12.000 men by 1 July 1944 can more or less be dismissed as probably based on overstated Bulgarian guesses. An example: the "Vassil Levski" partisan detachment (one of the most active units) in the Varna region was estimated at 3.000 men. Its real strength lay at 150.
Though the summer of 1944 did not see any actions as spectacular as the ones of the spring, none were needed either. A new government had been formed on 1 June 1944, and that, and events on the frontlines (the Normandy invasion on 6 June 1944, for one) gave the partisans an advantage. Though negotiations between the government on the one hand and the communist-led Fatherland Front and the tolerated opposition on the other were opened with the aim of bringing Bulgaria out of the war, no results ensued. In the end, Soviet fortunes on the Eastern Front against Romania, and the fact that the government did not scale the attacks on the partisans down brought about the end of the negotiations.
Instead the scale of partisan actions increased greatly, and averaged 500 in both July and August. As before, most of the actions were on a small scale, and the partisans remained more a potential threat than an actual one. In their most dramatic raid during June 1944, where the partisans stopped a train on the Kazanluk-Plovdiv rail line, ordered all crew and passengers (among them Peter Kioseivanov, vice president of the parliament and brother of the former premier) , they were thus interrupted and put to flight by an army force sent out to the rescue of the train. The force consisted of four soldiers and a lieutenant.
During August, the Bulgarian government tried to save itself as best it could. While envoys were sent to the Western Allies, the only ones with whom Bulgaria was at war, to find some kind of peace accord, Bulgaria declared itself neutral in the war between the Soviet Union and Germany. At the same time, seeing that the partisans had to be removed before the Soviets turned up at the Bulgarian northern border, the Bulgarian government launched two drives to achieve this aim: on the one hand, a general amnesty was promised for all partisans, and on the other, a massive effort by the army, police and gendarmerie, named "Operation Bogdan", was launched during August. Both efforts failed. In the end, it did not matter, either.
On 20 August, the Soviets launched their Jassy-Chisinau offensive, that totally smashed the 6th German and 3rd and 4th Romanian armies. Soviet troops rolled south, and on 30 August the USSR announced that it did not recognize the Bulgarian declaration of neutrality, and at the same time requested permission to enter Bulgarian territory. Soviet planes also dropped weapons to the Bulgarian partisans for the first time in late August, thus making it possible for the partisans to form their first divisions, the 1st "Sofian" Peoples Liberation Division.
The day after (31 August), the Bulgarian government stepped down, and the Western Allies broke off negotiations. The same day as Soviet troops showed up on the Bulgarian northern border, the Bulgarian government tried to appease them by granting amnesties, outlawing all fascist organisation and pulling back the occupation troops in Serbia. The next day, the Germans began disarming the Bulgarian troops retreating from Serbia, but ended up fighting them, when two Bulgarian regiments refused to be disarmed.
A Bulgarian declaration of war against Germany was considered on 5 September, but postponed when the prime minister was advised by the minister of war, who was secretly in league with the communists, to wait 72 hours. This gave the partisans the time they needed to organise a coup and take over the government. Communist-organised demonstrations had already begun on the 4th, and now partisan units began converging on the capital. While communist-led strikes and demonstrations multiplied, the "Shopski" partisan detachment was smuggled into town and placed directly under the partisan general staff. All over the country, army units were proving to be increasingly unreliable, not surprising considering that the Minister of War was in league with the communists. Under the impression of the massing Soviet troops on the border, the Chief of Police was also quickly won over.
By now, just on the eve of the coup, that would bring the communist-led Fatherland Front to power, the partisans probably had around 10.000 men, up from 4.000 only 3 months earlier. Their equipment, increased among others by Soviet drops, consisted of 7.660 rifles, 850 submachine guns, 3.180 pistols, 402 light and medium, and 38 heavy machineguns, 5.700 hand grenades and 9 mortars.
The Soviet Army finally invaded Bulgaria on 8 September 1944. A few hours later, the Bulgarian government finally found resolve to declare war on Germany. Bulgaria was thus in the peculiar position to be at war with both all the major Allies as well as Germany at the same time. With Bulgarian army units deserting all over the place, the partisans finally struck: most of the Sofia garrison had been dispersed to outlying towns as a result of Allied bombings, and thus the government was left dangerously vulnerable. During the early hours of 9 September, partisans and sympathizers from the Sofian Military Academy and the army occupied key points throughout the capital, and with the help of the Minister of War, the partisans were let into the War Ministry, where the government was concentrated.
Though it would take them another year with peoples courts and rigged elections before they had eliminated the democratic opposition, the communist were in power, and were in no way inclined to let go og it again.