The Counter-Offensive of the Communist Albanian National Liberation Army in February and March, 1944
Communist Albanian partisan forces 1944
During the Second World War Albania was occupied first by the forces of fascist Italy and then by the Nazis. All during this time the Albanian people resisted the occupation and eventually -- primarily under the leadership of the Albanian Communist Party and future Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha -- a partisan movement arose that, with the help of partisans from Yugoslavia, would fully liberate the country in November, 1944. It is a remarkable story of courage and resilience.
After the collapse of fascist Italy in 1943 the partisans in Albania made large gains that the Germans then pushed back late in the year.
Here we republish an article first published in New Albania magazine in 1974 about the partisan counter-offensive in February and March of 1944 that drove the Germans back and set the stage for final victory. It is an interesting look at a largely forgotten Communist triumph over the forces of fascism.
In the first week of February 1944, it became clear that the Big Winter Campaign organized by the Hitlerite invaders in our country had met with complete failure. Under the leadership of the Communist Party, our National-Liberation Army, and the whole people, supporting it, harassed the enemy, exhausting all its material and moral resources, and prevented it from achieving its
political and military objectives. Through prolonged and arduous defensive operations which lasted about three months, through repeated attacks, rapid movements and stratagems, keeping firm links with the people, the National Liberation Army maintained its military strength and made speedy preparations for a counter-offensive.
In essence, the German Command admitted that its activities during the winter months had failed. The National Liberation Army had not been crushed. Nevertheless, the Hitlerites did not expect that the insurgent forces of the Albanian people could undertake counter-offensive activities before the spring. A report on the situation, dated February 16, 1944, which the Hitlerite Command of the 21st Alpine Army Corps sent to the Command of the llnd Tank Corps, says: “In essence, the communists have given up their offensive activities; according to our latest information, we must expect strong communist activity again in the spring”. Parallel with their ferocious military operations, during the winter months the Nazi invaders tried to mobilize the internal reactionaries both militarily and politically. They armed the “Balli Kombetar” and the “Legaliteti” bands (fascist collaborators), incited the formation of certain so-called political parties, and promised, for demagogical purposes, political and economic reforms, such as the so-called “Agrarian Reform ” or the “Association for the Economic Development of the Country”, which were loudly proclaimed in February 1944. At the same time, the Hitlerites urged the reactionaries to make efforts to collaborate with international reaction in the neighboring countries.
None of these schemes of the enemy succeeded, because they w ere based on wishful thinking rather than the actual situation. This reality showed that the National Liberation Army had emerged from the winter campaign stronger politically, morally, and militarily, despite the losses it had suffered. It had the capacity to launch a sudden counteroffensive. The General Staff had already made preparations for this during the winter months, when the National Liberation Army was compelled to go onto the defensive, and they began the offensive when the enemy least expected it.
In the field of military actions, the situation was as follows: The National Liberation Army held firmly or immediately liberated on the eve of the counter-offensive, an area much smaller than that of the liberated zone it had possessed at the beginning of January 1944. The biggest concentration of the National Liberation Army (the 1st, IVth, and Vlth Brigades, the Illrd Skrapari group, the partisan groups of Shpirag and Myzeqe, as well as units of the 1st operative zone Vlora-Gjirokastra, and the Staff Command of Korca) was in action at this time in a region between Permet, Erseka, Korca and Berat (see chart). In the meantime, another smaller concentration was engaged in two separate regions of the Vlora District, namely, on Mt. Cika (3 battalions of the Vth Shock Brigade) and in Mesaplik (2 battalions of the Vth Brigade and other partisan detachments of the 1st Operative Zone. One partisan group engaged in offensive operations on the Konispol-Saranda-Delvina, Jorgucat and Upper Dropulli highway.
The main forces of the National Liberation Army acting in the regions, although under conditions of encirclement, without sufficient arm aments and materials, without sufficient provisions and under unhealthy conditions, possessed high morale and a sound fighting spirit, which were the basic premises on which to stage a counter-offensive. The Operative Group of the General Staff of the National Liberation Army, sizing up the critical condition of the enemy on one hand, and the inexhaustible energies of the liberation forces of our people on the other, in a short space of time, prepared for and ordered the launching of the counter-offensive. The objectives of this counter-offensive were of a strategic nature, and their realization would prepare the conditions for the eventual general offensive. This decision was the concrete application of the Marxist-Leninist principle that defense spelt death for the revolution, and that only the offensive ensures victory over the enemy. On the other hand, this was also the way to carry out the directives of the Party and the General Staff to keep attaching the enemy without respite, and to make short work of them.
The counter-offensive was prepared in strict secrecy, and caught the enemy by surprise. The objective of the counter-offensive was to crush the Hitlerite and traitor forces, and to reestablish the situation existing at the end of January in southern Albania.
The realization of the counter-offensive was based on this idea: minor forces should exert pressure on the enemy from the zones of Dangllia, Kolonja and Vithkuq, while the principal forces should launch decisive attacks from the center to the periphery of the liberated zone, to break through the enemy operative encirclement towards Corovoda, Berat and Potom-Gramsh, Lavdar in Opar-Korca and Permet-Gjirokastra; Later, when the conditions had been prepared, to continue the counter-offensive, starting from the upper reaches of the Shishica River, towards Drashovica (Vlora) and, on the other side, towards Delvina.
Before launching the counter-offensive, units of the National Liberation Army had successfully carried out a Number of counter attacks of a local nature, and concentrated their forces in the Dangllia, Skrapar and Opar District. Although in dire economic straits, the population of the villages supplied the liberation forces with whatever food they could. They also secured small amounts of ammunition for the forces on the counteroffensive. Valuable information about the enemy was received from the regions temporarily occupied by the enemy through the clandestine Party organs, and through the people them selves: the German forces were withdrawing from their permanent garrisons to the fortified cities and centers, leaving behind the traitorous forces of collaborators. The partisan units carried on reconnaissance work within a radius of up to 50 kilometers.
Good work of an ideological and political character was done by the party organizations, the commissars and the political sections in the partisan ranks, in order to enhance the revolutionary spirit of the partisans and the people.
On February 8, the 1st Brigade and the units and detachments of the Berat District, launched an attack on both sides of the Tomori ridge. The IVth Brigade and the detachments of the Korca District launched their attack towards Gopesh-Shenapremte and Selenica e Pishes-Erseka. The Vlth Shock Brigade launched its counter-offensive from Dangllia towards Permet- Gjirokaster. In collaboration with the detachments of the Berat District, it out-flanked the enemy garrison at Tepelena.
In the meantime, the Vth Shock Brigade and units of the 1st Operative Zone (Vlora-Gjirokastra), operating in Kurvelesh and Mesaplik were actively engaged in frustrating the attacks of four battalions, and a Hitlerite group assisted by the Ballists, who were launching their “Und Dennoch” (Once Again) campaign. Partisan forces south of Delvina were engaged in offensive operations.
The counter-offensive began in very rugged, snow-covered mountain terrain. Throughout February, the weather was wet, snowy and stormy. Under these difficult conditions, after several days of fighting, trudging over the mountains, crossing the torrential Devoll and Vjosa Rivers, the units of the National Liberation A rmy, on February 15, reached Shemerdhej, the Dardha Pass, Vertop (in the Berat District), Gora and Kolonja, and smashed the “Gams" operation of the enemy east of Vithkuq. In the direction of Permet-Gjirokastra, our forces emerged on a wide front on the east bank of the Drinasi, from Tepelena to Libohova
Three battalions of the 1st partisan brigade were ordered, on February 11, to march towards the Shengjergj Region in Central Albania. This heroic incursion of the 1st Brigade also had repercussions on the concentrated action of the counter-offensive, as well as on activating the partisan units in the central and northern parts of the country. A concentration of forces of the National Liberation Army (the Vth and V lth Brigades and other units of the 1st Operative Zone) was also set up in the district of Gjirokastra.
Continuing the counter-offensive successfully, the units of the National Liberation Army liberated Mokra on February 21, while in the direction of Berat, they defeated the enemy at Gllava and forced their way to Mallakastra. The Vth and Vlth Brigades and the other units of the 1st Operative Zone launched their counter-offensive towards Kug-Drashovice and Kug-Senice (Delvina). After a week of fighting they cut the Tepelena -- Vlora Highway.
Sizing up the successes already scored, and setting out the tasks lying ahead for the counter-offensive, the General Staff of the National Liberation Army issued, on February 20, the following instructions: “Our No. one enemy is the invaders. We must keep this well in mind. The enemy and the reactionaries are making preparations to attack us. . . We must frustrate their preparations. They aim at crushing the living forces of our army. We must crush their forces." The Party intensified its ideo-political work among the ranks of the army and the population and as a consequence, there was an enhancement of revolutionary optimism and of confidence in victory, binding the people m ore closely to their Liberation Army.
Thus the drive of the counter-offensive kept gaining momentum. Our forces operating in the Korca District advanced and liberated the districts west of the Korca-Pograded and Korca-Bellovoda Highways and the right bank of the Osumi River, then re-established the situation at Devolli and Morava. The newly-formed VIIth Brigade took upon itself the task of launching fierce attacks on the left bank of the Osumi River towards Berat.
Up to March 14, the Vth and the VIth Brigades, having cut the Tepelena-Vlora Highway, launched attacks on the Vajza-Drashovica highway and encircled the Hitlerite troops in the Mavrova, Kropisha and Penkova Region, on March 31 they captured Mavrova, the fortified center of the Hitlerites, and frustrated a counter-offensive by the enemy. During the second ten days of March, the forces of the VIth Brigade and those of the IIIrd Group of the Ist Operative Zone marched deep into Mallakastra and freed Ballsh. By March 31, they had succeeded in cutting the Fier-Berat Highway, re-establishing the situation that existed there on November 10, 1943.
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The counter-offensive lasted 52 days, having begun from a situation of operations under encirclement in a narrow mountain district; thanks to the leadership of the Party and the General Staff, headed by Comrade Enver Hoxha, it gave results of major strategic proportions. By the end of March, the National Liberation Army had succeeded in liberating districts stretching from the Prespa and Ohri Lakes to the Ionian coastline, from the Gramshi District in the north to the southern border. Thus, the opportunity was created to expand the ranks of the National Liberation Army, which doubled its effective, setting up two new brigades and filling the gaps in the brigades that had suffered losses. The economic conditions of the remote mountain areas were also improved, since the units of the National Liberation Army occupied or came nearer to the fertile areas. Under the guidance of the Party organizations and the National Liberation Councils in the liberated areas, the peasants set to work and completed their spring sowing.
While this operation was going on, Comrade Enver Hoxha, Secretary General of the Albanian Communist Party and Political Commissar of the General Staff of the National Liberation Army, instructed the Party Committees to intensify the Party organizational and propaganda, work within the areas occupied by the enemy too. “All those underground there, and in other cities, all the youth and all the sympathizers who want to take to the mountains, should join the ranks of our army” -- this is what Comrade Enver Hoxha wrote to the Secretary of the Regional Committee of the Albanian Communist Party for Tirana at that time.
The successes scored during the counteroffensive showed once again what the people in revolution can do, when they are guided with courage and wisdom by a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary Party like the Albanian Communist Party.