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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Thursday 23 November 2017

The Forgotten 500

My latest reading is Gregory Freeman's 'The Forgotten 500'. This is the story of Operation Halyard the largest rescue of allied aircrew in WW2. Over 500 airmen were airlifted out of the hills of Nazi occupied Yugoslavia in August 1944.

By any standard it is a remarkable story. When the allies captured southern Italy it gave them a number of bases to more effectively target the main Axis oilfields in Romania. Before that it was a long flight from North Africa, infamously undertaken on 1 August 1943 by Liberator bombers. I recommend James Dugan and Carroll Stewart's book 'Ploesti' for the details of that astonishing raid.

Inevitably a large number of bombers didn't make it back to Italy and many crash landed or aircrew bailed out in Yugoslavia. This story deals with those who landed in the hills of Serbia controlled by the Royalist Chetniks, commanded by General Draza Mihailovich. The airmen who landed in this area were supported by Serbian villagers, who generously cared for them as best their own meagre food supplies enabled. The Chetniks gathered most of the airmen together around their headquarters at Pranjane. 

At this stage of the war, allied support was focused on Tito's partisans, so the news of all these airmen filtered through slowly. The book tells the story of a number of airmen and their experiences as well as the plan to to rescue them. The rescue was organised by OSS, who sent in agents and organised the preparation of a makeshift airfield in the hills, which was barely long enough for a C47 transport aircraft to land and take off again. 

Amazingly, this was achieved right under the noses of the nearby German garrisons and air base. In one night alone 272 airmen were rescued, bearing in mind that a C47 could only carry around 12 men on each trip. The mission continued for six months and 512 men were rescued without the loss of a single life.

The story is little known largely because it was kept a secret. Partly because of the fear of German retaliation on the Serbian villages and partly because allied support had been withdrawn from Mihailovich. Although I did notice a small display in the Belgrade Military Museum on my last visit, that I don't recall on previous trips. 

This reflects some rehabilitation for Mihailovich and his role during the war. While it is right that some balance is restored on this issue, in my view the author goes too far the other way. Obviously this rescue should be credited to Mihailovich and the rescued airmen justifiably supported him after the war during his trial and subsequent execution.

However, the author almost entirely focuses on the strongly anti-Communist views of the OSS officers and ignores the very real evidence against Mihailovich. What he describes as 'local accommodations' were in fact deals with the Germans and followed earlier negotiations. As the historian Marko Attila Hoare puts it, "On other occasions, however, Mihailović's Chetniks rescued German airmen and handed them over safely to the German armed forces ... The Americans, with a weaker intelligence presence in the Balkans than the British, were less in touch with the realities of the Yugoslav civil war. They were consequently less than enthusiastic about British abandonment of the anti-communist Mihailović, and more reserved toward the Partisans."

The Allied effort later in the war shifted to Tito because he was actively fighting the Germans. Mihailovich avoided conflict with Germans and focused his efforts on fighting the Partisans. In that context, allied support for Tito was the right policy.

Despite this criticism this is still a good read. If you strip out the politics, this is a great story that deserves to be better known.  

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