The Recruitment of Yugoslav Irregulars in Canada, 1942-43

Extract from Recruiting and Training of Recruits in Canada Para-Military Duties.jpg

During the Second World War, British Security Coordination (the Secret Intelligence Service’s proxy in North America) recruited Yugoslavs resident in Canada for special service with Tito’s partisans. These recruits became agents of the Special Operations Executive, which Winston Churchill famously tasked with setting Nazi-occupied Europe ablaze.

SOE files at the UK National Archives were an essential foundation for Michael Petrou’s excellent article on the “Recruitment of Yugoslav-Canadians for Special Operations Executive Missions during the Second World War.” Roy MacLaren’s book on Canadians Behind Enemy Lines also features a detailed chapter on SOE operatives in Yugoslavia. The documents in this briefing book complement these works and open British files. They reveal that Canadian diplomats and Canada’s General Staff helped identify/transfer “useful material” from Canada’s armed forces to the SOE (CDYS00037). These Canadians, most notably External Affairs officers Tommy Stone, George Glazebrook and Saul Rae, developed close working and personal relationships with their BSC counterparts. 

Most of the recruits were illegal residents of Canada, rather than Canadian citizens. External Affairs arranged passports or naturalization certificates for them, even though few of the Yugoslav volunteers returned to Canada after the war (seven were killed, while others chose to stay in Yugoslavia). The true nature of the Yugoslavs’ service could not be disclosed to immigration inspectors, RCMP investigators or the Naturalization Branch of the Department of the Secretary of State. BSC officers appreciated the “dexterity” shown by their DEA counterparts, who secured residency/citizenship status for the recruits without compromising the secrecy of the program (CDYS00042).

These documents provide glimpses of how Canadian communists of Yugoslav heritage like Paul Phillips and Edward Yardas proved more effective recruiters than an official Yugoslav mission in Windsor. The British secret service hoped to recruit up to one hundred men, but the actual total was most likely around forty (CDYS00030 & CDYS00041). Petrou has compiled a list of over thirty Yugoslav special operations volunteers from Canada, and MacLaren confirms that at least twenty of them infiltrated Yugoslavia.[1]

The documents in this briefing book are part of a broader file on Canada's liaison with British Security Co-ordination during World War II. This file was requested by Timothy Sayle and released under Canada's Access to Information Act (Library and Archives Canada ATIP A-2019-03092).  

[1] Michael Petrou, “‘Melancholy Courage and Peasant Shrewd Cunning:’ The Recruitment of Yugoslav-Canadians for Special Operations Executive Missions during the Second World War,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association Volume 29:1 (2018), 39-71 & Roy MacLaren, Canadians Behind Enemy Lines (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2004), 151.

The Recruitment of Yugoslav Irregulars in Canada, 1942-43