Intrigued by stories of the wartime events on Hvar, Frank has done some research among archives in Split and in the UK National Archives. This is the first of three pieces on the Hvar Resistance and support for it from British Commandos on Vis.
On 6 April, 1941, Hitler implemented “Operation Punishment,” Belgrade was bombed for three days and German Panzer Divisions, spearheading the drive from the north and west, tore apart the hastily mobilised Yugoslav Army that was already being sabotaged from within by rival factions. Although the Italians bombed Split that same day, Hvar and the Dalmatian islands were far from the frontline. By 10 April, the Germans had entered Zagreb and by the 13th, Easter Sunday, the Ustasha, who had been stealthily creating their own militias, had proclaimed “the Resurrection of the Croatian State” with Pavelic as their Poglavnik.
Hvar was in some ways a microcosm of Croatia beyond Zagreb. Pavelic’s new government, the NDH gained support from the Church and the right wing of the Croatian Peasant Party. On the pjaca in Hvar town, Franciscan friars were rallying citizens to the cause while those on the left tried to shout them down. Many of the menfolk were absent, having been called up to join Divisions opposing the Italians near Zadar or to march north to engage the Germans. As the army disintegrated they were taken prisoner or deserted, joining the Ustasha or simply fighting their way back to their homes.
The Ustasha had the initiative but lacked broad popular support or an established leadership. Hardliners from outside Hvar were brought in as Mayors of Stari Grad, Jelsa and Vrboska. The municipalities were reinforced by a younger generation of students radicalised in the University of Zagreb. Ustasha Councils were set up, and movements restricted curfews introduced in the smaller villages like Vrboska. As the Ustasha terror spread out from Zagreb to the Dalmatian coast and into Dubrovnik, the Hvar militias began to emulate their repressive practices.
Nevertheless, small bands of returning soldiers opposed to the NDH, managed to retain their weaponry, clothing and equipment and filtered into the hillside villages of Dol, Pitve, Svirce and Vrisnik. Since the early 1930’s there had been a small communist faction on the island and a chain of resistance began to form among the settlements running along the ridge of the island.
Then the rule of the NDH on the Dalmatian coast took a humiliating blow in October 1941. Under the treaty signed by Mussolini and Pavelic in May, the Dalmatian coast down to Split and all of the islands except Hvar and Brac had been annexed by Italy. Now, following the bloody shambles of NDH administration, the remaining islands and Dubrovnik were to come under Italian administration.
On Hvar, the Italians adopted a non- confrontational policy, avoiding punitive measures and allowing normal commercial activity, including fishing, farming and traffic between island and coast in return for acquiescence. The policy backfired. The population outside the occupied towns refused to play ball, and, deprived of the benefits began to form a significant resistance movement, linked to others along the Dalmatian coast, calling themselves the NOP, the Peoples Liberation Movement. They became more aggressive as they were forced to raid for food and clothing.
During the first months of 1942, a full Company of fighting Partisans was raised from the NOP camps in Dol and Borovik. Since the rural population was suffering badly from the hoarding of supplies by occupiers and collaborators, its objectives were to seize food, raid from the warehouses in Stari Grad and Vrboska, and to capture weapons and ammunition that were in short supply. Many small raids were carried out successfully, but with the number of fighters reaching nearly three hundred, a bolder approach was required.
In that respect, the Vrboska raid of 20 July 1942 marked a turning point in the resistance on Hvar.
The Partisans’ informants in Vrboska had reported in mid-July that a great quantity of food was being hoarded in the Sardine canning factory there, consisting of not only of tinned fish but large quantities of oil and salt. The food was being withheld from the local population outside the town to prevent it from falling into the hands of insurgents.
A plan was drawn up for a large-scale raid with Partisans providing armed escort for a caravan of villagers with their mules to enter the village by night, break into the canning factory and carry off as much as they could plunder. Their informants had confirmed that there were few troops billeted in the village itself but that there were frequent patrols along the coast road between the large Italian Garrison at Stari Grad to the west and Jelsa to the east. As darkness fell, the main group of Partisans descended the hillside above Vrboska and split into two groups, securing the approaches to Vrboska from Jelsa where the Italians had an outpost and Stari Grad where there was a strong Italian garrison. Around 11.00, a column of people and mules snaked down the road from Vrbanj, Vrisnik, and Svirce and quietly entered Vrboska. But as their cartwheels clattered and the animals’ hooves on the cobbles of the narrow alleys of the village it seemed, as was said later, that they were making enough noise to wake the dead.
Yet no-one disturbed them as the villagers – more than a hundred of them – proceeded to ransack the factory warehouse and pack boxes of canned fish, sacks of salt, barrels of oil and bales of goatskin onto their backs of their animals and make off the way they had come. A boat appeared in the channel, tied up alongside the factory and was promptly filled with more booty.
Strangely enough, none of the Vrboska residents seemed to have had their slumbers disturbed that night though stories of an incident spread throughout the island. The Italian and Ustasha authorities could not figure out how so much oil, salt and fish could disappear in just a few hours and it turned out no-one could help them with their investigations. They began to realise what they were up against. The Partisans had become a force to be reckoned with.