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‘Druže Vinko’

Druže Vinko – my father’s adventures in Yugoslavia, 1944


My father as a young man.

In 1944 my late father was stationed in Bari, Italy, as a wireless operator for the Royal Air Force. He noticed a series of signals referring to the “Balkan Air Force”, and decided to ask the officer to whom they were addressed what the BAF was.

“Well,” said the officer. “At the moment it’s just me!”

He explained that the BAF existed on paper at that time, but was intended to give Tito, leader of the communist Partisans in Yugoslavia, who was at that time our ally in the war against the Axis powers, the feeling that he had an Air Force under his nominal command. The officer asked if my father wanted to volunteer for the BAF, to which he said yes.

“For a short time, at the rank of Corporal, I was second-in-command of the Balkan Air Force,” my father later told me. None of this appears in any official account of the formation of the Balkan Air Force, I might add.

Eventually he was parachuted into the mountains of Dalmatia to act as a wireless operator for a unit of Partisans.

He never spoke much about his wartime experience. I believe this was because he saw atrocities he would rather forget, some of them happening to people he cared about. My family once asked him if he had ever shot anyone during World War 2. He said he had once taken a shot at a pursuing Wehrmacht soldier from quite a long range; he has no idea whether he hit his target because his unit didn’t stop to find out! He was always a rational and courageous man, and not someone who would shirk unpleasantness or seek ease when others were enduring hardship, but there was always a sense of gentleness and compassion about him. He never struck me as being a natural “warrior”.

Like many young men in the 1940s my late father found himself serving in his country’s armed forces. He trained as a wireless operator and also as an operator of the newly-invented radar, spending time on an air-sea rescue launch in North Africa. He could have gone for an officer’s commission, but preferred to serve as an OR, reaching the rank of Corporal by the time his adventures in Yugoslavia began.

His parachute drop was achieved at the dead of night, and he was quickly surrounded by armed men. Initially he had no idea whether they were friends or enemies, and they were equally suspicious of him – true they had been expecting an RAF wireless operator but equally it could have been an Axis ruse.

These armed men were indeed Partisans, and went on to become my father’s comrades. They were a multi-ethnic group. About half of them were Serbs, 30% were Croats, and the rest were Slovenes and other nationalities. About one thing my father was clear – at the time of the late 20c Balkan wars I asked him what nationality his comrades said they were, and his reply was, “They referred to themselves firstly as ‘Yugoslavs’ and secondly as communists”. They gave him the Croat name of Vinko, the equivalent of his given name Vincent (the name was not usually found in Serbian Orthodox communities, but was common amongst traditionally Catholic Croats), and called him “Druže Vinko” – Comrade Vincent. Eventually he also got the nickname “Woman’s Arms”, because his arms were slender and pale. The Partisans he was amongst were fighting the Wehrmacht of the German Third Reich and also the Ustaše, the Croat Nationalist forces, but they never saw this fight as an ethnic struggle.

His first night in Yugoslavia was spent in a ruined church in Debelo Brdo*. When he visited the place again in 1971 he recognised the church at once, as it was in more-or-less the same state as it had been in 1944. From notes he made about the handful of photographs he took while he was there, it is possible to work out roughly where he went. All the black-and-white photos of wartime Yugoslavia were taken at Plitvice Jezere, of which he noted, “This attractive area was ‘semi-liberated’ in the 40s. We ran the gauntlet through here when travelling to another area held by the partisans around the town of Slunj.” Speaking of Zadar, he says he was there “having journeyed from Krbavsko Polje across enemy territory near Gospič and then over the mountains, with a small party of ditched American airmen and some escaped British POWs to be picked up by a naval high-speed launch.”
*All place names are as my father spelt them in his notes.

Partisan donkey

Partisans on the move.

His equipment consisted of a rugged transmitter and receiver, a length of wire, and a donkey – the latter being supplied by the Partisans. Whenever a scheduled contact with the RAF was due, he would tie the end of the wire to a stone and throw it over the limb of a tree. As time went on and the wire frequently snapped it got progressively shorter.

Habitually the Germans would jam the signals by transmitting a continuous carrier wave on top of them. My father learned to read the minute fluctuations in the interfering signal caused by the signals from Italy, and so he always received the signals which were intended for his unit.

Once, when they were hiding in the hills above a village, he radioed to Italy for an air strike on the village, which was occupied by enemy forces. Twenty-four hours later the enemy moved out and the Partisan unit re-occupied the village. Unfortunately that was the moment that the RAF decided to send two Spitfires to strafe the village! They had to shelter from “friendly fire”!

Many of my father’s comrades were illiterate. They used to receive newspapers from The Soviet Union. My father eventually learned to speak Serbo-Croat, but when the newspapers arrived they would be handed to him, because he could “read”. In fact his reading was thus: he had learned classical Greek at school, so he knew the basics of the Cyrillic alphabet; picking up a few more letters from Serbian, he was able to make phonetic sense of the Russian text. This he would read aloud, without understanding much. His Serb, Croat, and Slovene comrades’ languages were close enough to Russian to be able to make some sense of it.

VMT dictionary

The pocket dictionary issued to British personnel serving in Yugoslavia.

They used to sing songs. My father remembered one about the Red Star “shining onto our caps from Russia”. There was little time for singing songs when they were being pursued by the Wehrmacht. They would be on the march for days, kept going by Benzedrine. The withdrawal symptoms when they stopped were horrific.

partisandagger03At the end of his time with the unit, he was presented with a ceremonial dagger. I have never seen anything exactly like it. The pommel was a clenched fist; the hilt was decorated with a hammer-and-sickle insignia, a star, and two ears of wheat; the cross-guard had the communist slogan in the Croatian language, “Smrt Fašizmu, Sloboda Narodu” – “Death to Fascism, Freedom to the People”.

There is a similar dagger currently in the Military Museum in Belgrade, but that has an all-metal hilt without the bone insert, and a leather scabbard. The slogan and other decorations are more worn-down too.

Back in Italy, he was a strange sight. His uniform by then consisted of a pair of jackboots (probably a pair liberated from the Wehrmacht by someone – much of the gear used by Partisans was captured from German or Italian troops), a pair of riding britches, an RAF battle-dress jacket, and a beret with RAF wings and a red star. As he had always carried himself like an Air Vice-Marshall rather than a corporal, he said – “The Military Police didn’t know whether to salute me or arrest me!”

Druzhe Vinko 01

‘Druže Vinko’ on leave in Bari, Italy, minus jackboots but still with his distinctive beret. The battledress jacket is probably borrowed, as it lacks his Corporal’s stripes.

My father’s photographs, taken while he was with the Partisans, with his notes. All photos ©GM4ULS:

[1] “Prof” – he was a professor (Univ. of Trieste or Ljubljana?) using my flea/louse powder on his sleeping bag.

Krbavsko Polje 1943-44 [1]


[2] Heavily pregnant lady carrying water in wooden cask: water collected from pond in which we washed (one corner), did the washing (another), and drew drinking water (another); I never enquired about the purpose of the 4th corner!

Krbavsko Polje 1943-44 [2]


[3] and [4] Partisan men and women ‘on parade’.

Krbavsko Polje 1943-44 [3]


Krbavsko Polje 1943-44 [4]


[5], [6], [7], and [8] An RAF Halifax dropping supplies on Krbavsko Polje or rather on the strip known as Prva Aerobaza. Parachute drops were ok. Free fall involved a dangerous game of dodgems.

Krbavsko Polje 1943-44 [5]


Krbavsko Polje 1943-44 [6]


Krbavsko Polje 1943-44 [7]


Krbavsko Polje 1943-44 [8]


Finally, a photograph from 1971, of the outside of the church at Debelo Brdo.

Debelo Brdo 1971 [1]

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