Page last updated at 12:33 GMT, Monday, 7 September 2009 13:33 UK

Veterans recall fateful Balkan airlift

Archive picture of "Dakota landings" in Montenegro, 1944
Hundreds of injured Partisans were evacuated by the British

By Mark Lowen
BBC News, Brezna, Montenegro

High up in a lush valley in western Montenegro a Galeb jet roars its way through an elaborate aerobatics routine.

It twists over the verdant plains of Brezna village, delighting the small crowd gathered below. This flight is just for show - part of a colourful ceremony to commemorate the far more vital air mission that took place here 65 years ago.

Back then, this small, isolated piece of land was turned into a makeshift airstrip for one of the most daring - and least known - escapades of World War II.

In 1944, Yugoslavia was still under occupation. It had surrendered shortly after Hitler invaded three years earlier. Montenegro itself was taken first by the Italians and then, from 1943, by the Germans.

As fighting grew more intense against the occupiers, the country descended into a civil war between two rival resistance groups.

The royalist Chetniks, supporting the idea of an ethnically pure Greater Serbia, were pitted against the communist Partisans led by Josip Broz Tito, who fought for a federal Yugoslavia.


Britain initially hedged its bets over which Yugoslav resistance force to back, maintaining contact with both Chetniks and Partisans. But in 1943, London decided to lend its support solely to the Partisans.

"Britain's stance was simply determined by pragmatism," says Dr Kenneth Morrison, a Balkan expert at De Montfort University in Leicester.

"Churchill was told by his advisers that the Partisans were killing more Germans than the Chetniks."

Flight Lieutenant Philip Lawson
I immediately said it was hopeless. My colleague didn't listen. He immediately said 'it's on'
Flt Lt Philip Lawson

A new British-led Balkan Air Force was soon formed for operations in Yugoslavia. Its efforts were concentrated on aiding the Partisans.

One such group of Partisan fighters was stuck in the Piva region of western Montenegro in 1944, hopelessly outnumbered by the Germans and encumbered by massive injuries. Had they remained without assistance, they would almost certainly have been captured by the advancing German forces.

It was decided that an emergency airlift of the wounded by the Balkan Air Force was the only option. Flt Lt Philip Lawson was one of two British officers sent ahead to find a suitable location for the risky mission.

"We spotted the village of Brezna," he recalls. "I immediately said it was hopeless.

"My colleague didn't listen. He immediately said 'it's on'. His concern was being able to land the Dakota planes to fill up with the wounded. Mine was that they would be able to take off again."

The "Dakota landings", as they became known, involved around 30 planes, airlifting out almost 1,000 wounded Partisans over one day. It succeeded by a matter of minutes, with the Germans taking Brezna soon afterwards.

"The fact that we managed it without a single casualty was remarkable," says Flt Lt Lawson.

Chetnik resentment

As we peruse the photo archive at the commemoration ceremony, I put it to him that he is feted as a hero for his role in the airlift.

"That's rubbish," he replies. "I'm certainly not a hero and never was. I was just doing my job. And I was proud to be a part of such a mission."

Emboldened by wider British support, the Partisans were able to crush the Chetniks and push back the German forces, eventually winning the war in 1945 and liberating Yugoslavia.

"The Partisans would not have become the force that they did without British support," says Dr Morrison.

"The long-term impact of the British decision to support the Partisans was that a communist government ruled in Yugoslavia between 1945 and its collapse in the late 1980s."

Archive picture of "Dakota landings" in Montenegro, 1944
Churchill's decision to support the Partisans helped make Yugoslavia communist

But away from the ceremony, 80-year-old Dr Chedomir Vukmanovic has a very different perspective on the British-Partisan co-operation.

He was a member of the Chetniks, many of whom were targeted by the Partisans on charges of collaborating with the occupying forces.

After the war, thousands of Chetniks were rounded up and executed, including his father.

Some had managed to escape to Austria, where they were promptly handed back to the Partisans by the British, who, he says, knew full well what fate would befall them.

"Everyone had put their faith in Britain," he recalls. "We hoped they would come and liberate us and not allow massacres to take place. But unfortunately that's not how things turned out. I resent what the British did."

On the field in Brezna, a mound of white rock bears a new plaque commemorating the remarkable airlift in 1944.

It pays tribute to the "bravery and suffering of all sides".

But 65 years on from the Dakota landings, Montenegrin sides remain polarised.

More than a million Yugoslavs were killed in WWII by their fellow nationals, and bitter memories of atrocities committed by both Partisans and Chetniks linger on.

And some here still feel that the British intervention did more to widen divisions between Yugoslavs than to unite them.

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