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In January 1943 during World War II, Yugoslavian Partisans, led by communist Josip Broz Tito, defend their land against invading German troops led by General Lohring, whose plan, Fall Weiss, enlists Italian forces and Serbian royalist Chetniks to destroy the Partisans. Lohring, with the aid of Colonel Kranzer, plans to surround the Partisans in the River Neretva valley. Although greatly outnumbered and handicapped by limited munitions and typhus among the soldiers, the Partisans defend themselves against the first attack by the German battalion. Having successfully halted hundreds of enemy troops, tanks and machine guns, many of the Partisan officers are surprised and resentful when their commanding officer Ivan calls for a retreat over hard-won territory. Martin, one of the officers, at first refuses to leave his trench, but finally relents and then assists thousands of fleeing Partisans, including the wounded, women, children and elderly, as they climb the mountainous hillsides toward the Neretva River. Demolition expert Vlado then sets up roadside bombs to block Nazi tanks in pursuit. In February, Italian forces arrive by train under the command of General Morelli and Captain Riva to fight the Partisans. Meanwhile, the Partisans learn that the town they are headed toward has been taken by the enemy, forcing them to change course. Realizing they are quickly being surrounded by the enemy, Martin orders everyone to march to Neretva River bridge where they can cross into safe territory. When Ivan receives word that night to strike an Italian-occupied village, he sends in Vlado to blow up the enemy camp and then assigns Partisan artillery to finish the assault, which results in an Italian retreat. Torn between his guilt over seeing so many innocent Yugoslavians lose their lives in the battle and his desire to defeat the fascists in his own country, Riva surrenders to the Partisans and offers to help Martin. Meanwhile, among the Partisan ranks, frontline guerrilla fighter Danica, Ivan's lover, learns from Mad Bosko that her brother has died in combat. Finding her other brother Novak drunkenly celebrating their victory, she admonishes him and then falls into his arms crying over their shared loss. While others are dancing the street, many more succumb to typhus, leaving them haggard and delirious, including village woman Nada and soldier Nikola, who take solace in each other's company. Learning that the road to Neretva is open, the Partisan soldiers lead thousands of civilians toward the river. Meanwhile, a pompous Chetnik senator orders his commanding officer to let the Partisans head to the river unimpeded, certain that the winter conditions in the mountains will decimate the Partisans, who are hampered by the sick and wounded they carry. The Chetnik units are ordered to follow close behind, while the Nazis plan to meet the Partisans at the bridge to destroy them. Despite heavy bombing by enemy planes, the Partisans make it to the bridge only to learn that Tito has ordered Vlado to destroy it, preventing their escape. Knowing they will have to confront the enemy once again, Ivan attempts to give Danica an engagement ring as a promise to reunite, but Danica gives it back, asking him to keep it until they reach the other side of the Neretva. After Vlado blows up the wide metal bridge, the crowd becomes distraught and a desperate Bosko jumps into the rushing water and drowns. Retreating into an abandoned village nearby, the Partisans use their artillery guns to confront German tanks. After Riva leads a hand-to-hand attack on the road and dies in battle, a village woman, armed with only a homemade fire bomb, destroys a tank, blinding herself in the process. Nurses in the hospital then lead the patients in patriotic song, inspiring the Partisans to continue fighting the remaining Germans. Despite orders from his superiors to continue the attack, Kranzer decides to "dig in" and post sentries around his command. Meanwhile, Vlado and others are secretly rebuilding a small foot bridge over the Neretva with the remains of the metal bridge. Learning of the effort soon after, the Germans begin bombing the bridge just as Partisans attempt to cross the river. When Ivan orders a small band of soldiers to defend a hill that lies between them and thousands of approaching Chetniks, Danica and Novak volunteer. Despite knowing they will face certain death while holding the Chetniks at bay, sister and brother are committed to fighting in order to allow the majority of Partisans to cross the river safely. At the Chetnik camp, the senator orders his commanding officer to retreat, but the commander, driven by a code of honor never to surrender, kills the senator and proceeds with the offensive. During the battle, Danica, Novak and others fight valiantly, convincing the Chetniks that the Partisan forces are much larger than they appear, but soon they are both killed. As the Chetniks surrender, Ivan finds Danica's lifeless body and says goodbye. Meanwhile, thousands of Partisans cross the bridge to safety, carrying hundreds of wounded and dying comrades on stretchers across the steep and treacherous terrain.