On this day, U.S. aircraft begin dropping supplies to guerrilla forces throughout Western Europe. The action demonstrated that the U.S. believed guerrillas were a vital support to the formal armies of the Allies in their battle against the Axis powers.
Virtually every country that experienced Axis invasion raised a guerrilla force; they were especially effective and numerous in Italy, France, China, Greece, the Philippines, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union. Also referred to as a “partisan force,” a guerrilla army is defined roughly as a member of a small-scale “irregular” fighting force that relies on the limited and quick engagements of a conventional fighting force. Their main weapon is sabotage-in addition to killing enemy soldiers, the goal is to incapacitate or destroy communication lines, transportation centers, and supply lines.
In Italy, the partisan resistance to fascism began with assaults against Mussolini and his “black shirts.” Upon Italy’s surrender, the guerrillas turned their attention to the German occupiers, especially in the north. By the summer of 1944, resistance fighters immobilized eight of the 26 German divisions in northern Italy. By the end of the war, Italian guerillas controlled Venice, Milan, and Genoa, but at a considerable cost–all told, the Italian resistance lost roughly 50,000 fighters.
Perhaps the most renowned wartime guerrilla force was the French Resistance–also known as the “Free French” force–which began as two separate groups. One faction was organized and led by Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who left France upon the Vichy/Petain armistice with Germany but rallied his forces via the British airwaves. The other arm of the movement began in Africa under the direction of the commander in chief of the French forces in North Africa, Gen. Henri Giraud. De Gaulle eventually joined Giraud in Africa after tension began to build between de Gaulle and the British. Initially, de Gaulle agreed to share power with Giraud in the organization and control of the exiled French forces, but Giraud resigned in 1943, apparently unwilling to stand in de Gaulle’s shadow or struggle against his deft political maneuvering.
The Allies realized that guerrilla activity was essential to ending the war and supported the patriots with airdrops. The American support was critical, because guerrillas fought admirably in difficult conditions. Those partisans who were captured by the enemy were invariably treated barbarically (torture was not uncommon), as were any civilians who had aided them in their mission. Tens of thousands of guerillas died in the course of the war, but were never awarded the formal recognition given the “official” fighting forces, despite the enormous risks and sacrifices.