We talked to British journalist, writer and director Peter Batty about his book, Hoodwinking Churchill, which recounts how the British prime minister was tricked into transferring his support from royalist Mihajlovic Chetniks to Communist Tito’s partisans during World War II.
Your book «Hoodwinking Churchill« describes how Churchill was double-crossed in dealings with Yugoslav communist leader Tito. How did you choose this topic?
I had always been interested in the Yugoslavian experience during the Second World War. In early 1991 Michael Lees, who was known to me, invited me to accompany him to Belgrade for the launch of the Serbo-Croat edition of his book The Rape of Serbia. One of the places at which he launched his book was Belgrade University when he and I (I think they mistakenly thought I was his son!) came in for a lot of hostile questioning from the young audience as to why we, the English, had connived in allowing the Soviet Union to take over Eastern Europe and hence for them to have suffered 50 years of totalitarian rule. On return to London I tried to persuade Channel 4 to commission me to make a tv documentary about this, but without success. I then tried to persuade the BBC and was successful. My project was entitled The Great Tito Confidence Trick. I was commissioned to make 2 50-minutes documentaries which I duly did but alas behind my back they were re-edited to change the thrust of my argument and to soften my criticisms of such people as Fitzroy Maclean and William Deakin before being transmitted in early 1992. I protested, with some success, and received apologies from a few senior BBC TV executives. However when I asked for my version to be transmitted this was refused. I vowed that when the opportunity arose I would write a book on the subject. My wife died in February 2000. Friends suggested to me to ease the grieving that I should try to embroil myself in a compulsive project. The project I chose was to to write my book Hoodwinking Churchill:Tito’s Great Confidence Trick.
Apparently you found many key informations for your book buried in BBC archives. Why were these informations hidden?
No, I was allowed access to their archives while researching the tv documentaries. My complaint with the BBC was their re-editing of those documentaries to reflect the BBC’s continuing view that Churchill’s decision to back Tito rather than Draza Mihailovic was the correct one
During the war British support shifted from Yugoslav royalists to communists. Why did Churchill, a known anticommunist, decide to support communist guerillas?
I argue that Churchill was misled by people such as Fitzroy Maclean and William Deakin who, for reasons best known only to themselves, argued that only Tito’s Partisans were fighting Germans. People who would have argued that Mihailovic’s forces were fighting Germans more potently were denied access to Churchill.
James Klugmann, SOE head resposible for Balkans, sent biased reports in favour of Tito and the Communists. Were these reports crucial in Britain throwing their support behind the Communists?
I don’t think those reports were crucial though they certainly helped the British decision to back Tito rather than Mihailovic. Churchill was more swayed by what Maclean and Deakin were advising him to do.
Klugmann was a known leftwinger, in fact he was a member of the Communist Party. How was he appointed to such a sensitive position and that apparently no one even bothered to check his reports?
Klugmann had backers in high places within the SOE in Cairo, especially Basil Davidson who was head of the Balkans section. Klugmann outshone everyone in SOE Caairo in his knowledge of Serbo-Croat and hence was allowed to interpret the intelligence that came into the office in that language. Indeed he chose in what form that intelligence was passed on to London and elsewhere, chores his more easy-going colleagues were only too eager to leave to him, a known workaholic. He owed his job to the old-boy network. He had been appointed by a senior intelligence-officer, Terence Airey, from his old school, Gresham’s in Norfolk, when they had met by chance in Cairo. A mere private in the Royal Army Service Corps at the time, within weeks he was commissioned as an officer. Basil Davidson clearly admired him. In his memoirs Special Operations Europe Davidson writes that this period »could even be called the Klugmann period and it changed a great deal« Davidson’s own sympathies then lay more with the Partisans than with Mihailovic. He describes himself as »a well-marked Partisan supporter« and gives the firm impression that William Deakin felt that way too. Documents released in May 2002 to the Public Record Office in London, now styled the National Archives, disclosed that Klugmann, who died in 1977 at the age of 65, had joined the Communist party in 1933. He had been suspected by MI5 thereafter of working for the Soviets, and for the Communist International (Comintern) in particular. Tito had of course worked for the Comintern. Klugmann’s MI5 file, released then too, includes an incriinating transcription of a bugged conversation on 8 August 1945 with Bob Stewart, a senior member of the executive committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain. In it Klugmann admits serving Moscow since his student days. He reveals he had convinced his SOE commanding officer to let him continue handling sensitive communnications between the Middle East, Yugoslavia and London despite concerns expressed by MI5. He was said, too, to have had links with the Egyptian communist party who were in radio communication with Moscow throughout the war. The top KGB defector Vasili Mitrokhin, in The Mitrokhin Archive,which he wrote with the Cambridge historian Christopher Andrew, discloses that Krugmann had been recruited as a Soviet spy in 1936. Klugmann had not been vetted when he joined SOE. They had been more interested in his aptitude for languages, which included colloquial Arabic and Serbo-Croat. Initialy a private, it was only when he was commissioned as an officer in February1942 that he was vetted: then the MI5 dossier was revealed. MI5 strongly advised against his continuing to work for SOE. They were overruled by his immediate bosses in Cairo who promoted him to captain in May 1943 and to major a year later. He was the sole staff officer involved in policy, intelligence and oprational briefings who remained in SOE Cairo’s Yugoslav section throughout its existence. His was a pivotal position. He dealt daily with the British liaison officers in the field, arranging their supplies, handling their signals and summarising their reports before passing them on to London. It was a situation in which he could easily exert leverage.
Some British emmisaries praised the Partisans, others, like Evelyn Waugh, sent detailed reports on communist atrocities. Yet Waugh’s reports were suppressed by the British cabinet. Why?
John Henniker-Major, a British liaison-officer sent out to Titos’s HQ, says in his memoirs Painful Extractions that Evelyn Waugh was thought a crashing snob and that he loathed the Partisans because they were anti-catholic. He says that Waugh and Randolph Churchill, Winston’s only son, and Lord Birkenhead, were tolerated only because their presence gave the Tito mission prestige and a higher profile back home, and added to the impression that Fitzroy Maclean had a lot of people on his side. They were what he described as »markers on the board«. Few took notice of what they said. Fitzroy made sure of that. Eventualy Fitzroy saw to it that Waugh was expelled from Yugoslavia,
Because of Waugh’s reports the British government could anticipate that communists will murder anti-communists, so why did British forces hand over anti-communists to Tito?
For the reasons explained in my previous answer, Waugh’s reports were never taken seriously in London
Don’t you find it interesting that top three politicians (Churchill, Eden, Macmillan), crucial for British support of Yugoslav communists, became prime ministers in post war Britain?
To be fair to Anthony Eden, he was never particularly pro-Partisan. Peter Woodard in The Sunday Telegraph on 5 August 1990, recalled hearing Eden addressing a meeting of the Coningsby Club late in life and being asked, »What is most on you conscience now, towards the end of your political career?« . Eden replied, apparently without hesitation: »Our betrayal of Mihailovic«, Harold Macmillan, similarly, was not particularly pro-Partisan, but I don’t think their attitudes towards Yugoslavia played any part in the 3 of them becoming prime ministers.
Churchill invited Tito on a state visit in the 1950s. It was Tito’s first visit outside communist block, in fact, it opened his door on world stage. So why did Churchill do Tito such favour, if he was doublecrossed by him, as he claimed in first post war years?
It was more of a Cold War manoeuvre than anything personal. After Tito’s ‘break’ with Stalin, the West sought to befriend him so as to annoy the Soviets. There were anti-Tito demonstrations while he was in London.
Some say that the Stalin-Tito break was a charade for western politicians, to estabilish Tito as an »acceptable communist«, while he in reality remained loyal to Stalin, who once addresed Tito as his »favourite son«. Could it be possible, that Churchill was hoodwinked twice?
I don’t think Churchill ever had any personal regard for Tito. He courted Tito politically at that time, simply to annoy the Soviets
On the end, Churchill have a lot of admirers, how did they react on your book? Or british public in general?
As in the BBC, the British Establishment line was that Churchill was right to back Tito rather than Mihailovic. This was particularly so within British academic circles who took their cue from Bill Deakin’s pro-Partisan approach. Deakin, who had helped Churchill with his memoirs, went on to be Warden of St Antony’s College in Oxford which became the centre of wartime Yugoslav studies. An Oxford man myself I came in for a lot of mischievous criticism from colleagues who took the Establishment line. They had such power then that they were able to block Establishment magazines like The Times Literary Supplement reviewing my book. Indeed none of the Established publishers would touch my book, principally because most of their history advisers were pro-Deakin. I don’t think the book stirred the British public but it was read in such circles as the House of Lords from whom I received a few admiring letters. I had a curious experience with Wikipedia when I tried to get my book included in their online Tito bibliography: every time I added it someone immediately deleted it!
Thanks for your answers.
Peter Batty was born in 1931 in the north-east of England: in Sunderland and went to the local grammar school there before moving on to The Queen’s College, Oxford. His first job was as a feature-writer on The Financial Times but in March 1958 he joined the original BBC TV Tonight team, eventually becoming its Editor. After a spell with ITV during which he won the Grand Prix for Documentary at the Venice Film Festival he set up his own production company which was successful in making documentaries for networks in England as well as overseas. He also wrote books, such as The House of Krupp and The Divided Union. He married a ballerina and they had 3 children.