Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Allied Air Forces over Yugoslavia

Durmitor Operation. on 22 August 36 Allied transports escorted by 50 fighters evacuated to Bari in Italy 1,059 Partisans (mostly wounded), 16 Allied air crew who had been shot down earlier over Yugoslavia and 3 members of the Allied military mission. The transports flew in to a small strip near the tiny village of Gronja Brezna about 20 km south of Mt. Durmitor in full view of nearby German patrols. This is a good example of just how weak and ineffective the Luftwaffe had become in the Balkans.

First defeat, then BAF

Right after the invasion of the Balkans by the Axis, the Allied air forces practically vanished from Yugoslavian air space. It was not until the Allies landed in Italy in the second half of 1943, that their planes were to re-emerge in numbers. During the Allied advance up the Italian peninsula more and more British and American planes took part in actions against the Axis in Yugoslavia. In June 1944, the Allies formed the Balkan Air Force (BAF) as part of the RAF in Italy. The BAF was to operate exclusively over the Balkan Peninsula. After 1 October 1943, when bombers of the US 15th Air Force flew their first attack in the Third Reich (against Wiener Neustadt in Austria), Yugoslavian airspace became more and more important in the Allied plans. Many Allied bombers started crossing Yugoslavia to bomb various targets in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Rumania. American bombers also attacked targets in Yugoslavia. The targets were mostly communications centres like Beograd, Maribor, Nis, Leskovac, Slavonski Brod, but sometimes also unimportant cities like Zadar and Podgorica only causing damage and casualties among civilian population. Very important was also the laying of mines in the Danube River which was a very important communications lane for the German and Croatian Armies, and also for the transportation of Rumanian oil to Germany. Mines were dropped at night by one special RAF unit. The Allied Tactical Air Force also attacked targets in Yugoslavia (mainly traffic network). At first these attacks weren't coordinated with the Yugoslav authorities but later almost all Yugoslav HQ got Allied liaison officers which brought about coordination with the Yugoslav Army HQ.

The First attempt at co-operation between the Allied air forces and Yugoslav partisans came in October 1943 when the Germans tried to land on Peljesac Peninsula. Later the Allied air forces also participated in the Drvar operation when they conducted more than 1000 sorties in just seven days attacking German airfields, assault columns and other targets. They successfully co-operated also in the liberation of Mostar, the Bihac-Gospic Operation, in the battles for Knin, Senj, Pag Island and several more. When the Germans began with their retreat from Greece, Albania and Bulgaria through Yugoslavia (September 1944) the Allies started their "Operation Ratweek'' where they tried to destroy the major rail line Solun-Belgrade-Ljubljana and all other railways between the Sava River and the Adriatic Sea. The partisan forces joined in this operation. The Allies mostly attacked by day and the partisans mostly by night. Very important was also contribution of the Allied Transport Aviation which supplied the Yugoslav partisans and evacuated wounded and sick. Especially well known is the action on 22 August 1944 during the Durmitor Operation when 36 C-47 land on at the airfield near village Brezna and took 1059 wounded partisans and 16 Allied airmen (who had been shot down and rescued by the partisans) to hospitals in Italy. They were escorted by 50 fighters. At this time the BAF had a strength of 9 regiments, most of the planes being fighters and light bombers.

The Soviets enter the fight

In the spring of 1944 the BAF was augmented - a Soviet detachment of 12 C-47 which were escorted by 12 Jak-9 fighters. They participated in supplying Yugoslav partisans and they also maintained connection with the Soviet Military Mission accompanying the Yugoslav HQ. One of the Soviet C-47 evacuated Tito and several other members of the Yugoslav main HQ to Italy during the Drvar Operation. Until the end of the war Allied transport planes in more than 10.000 flights carried 16400 tons of all sort of war material and above all they evacuated nearly 20.000 wounded partisans and civilians. The partisans built around 50 airfields for them. As a part of the Allied air forces after September 1943, the new Italian Air Force also took part in the air war over Yugoslavia. From October 1943 they took part in combat with around 200 planes. In 9000 flights they flew about 3000 various combat missions. They lost around 50 planes and 70 airmen. From the autumn of 1944 the Soviet Air Force also supported the Red Army and the Yugoslav (Partisan) Army in Serbia and the Vojvodina - all in all around 1500 planes from the 17th and 5th Air Armies. From 13 to 30 September 1944 the 17th Air Army was busy with destroying all major roads, railways etc. that the German Army used for the retreat of their Army Group E from Greece to Belgrade. These attacks (among other things) were so effective that the Germans had to divert their retreat through Kosovo and Bosnia.

At the beginning of October 1944 the Soviet Air Force helped the Red Army and the Yugoslav Army in liberating South-East and East Serbia. They also participated in the battle for Belgrade where Soviet planes played an important role by destroying a very strong German motorised column which was trying to break through to Belgrade. Soviet Sturmovik Il-2 assault planes attacked bridges across the Sava River near Belgrade which couldn't be taken by Yugoslav partisans and the Soviet 4th Guards Motorised Corps but when this famous assault bombers came, the bridges were immediately taken. After liberating Zemun and Eastern Syrmia almost all Soviet Air Force units were transferred back to Hungary where they participated in the Soviet offensive which was carried out there shortly after. They took part in some battles in Yugoslavia from bases in Hungary, but only on a small scale. Only the two Soviet Air Force divisions that were to help form and educate the Yugoslav Air Force stayed behind: the 236th Fighter Division and the 10th Guards Assault Division

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