Yugoslav leader Tito wounded in Luftwaffe attack

Marshal Josip Broz Tito reviewing the Partisan 1st Proletarian Brigade during World War II.

Marshal Josip Broz Tito reviewing the Partisan 1st Proletarian Brigade during World War II.

In Yugoslavia rival groups of resistance fighters had become a major nuisance to the occupying German forces. Emerging as the likely dominant group were the communist inspired People’s Liberation Army and Partisan Detachments of Yugoslavia, usually simply known as the Partisans. The British had decided to support them and had despatched a Military Mission to provide what support they could to them. They arranged for arms and other supplies to be parachuted in to them.

In the mountainous country the Germans were determined to crack down on the guerrilla activities of the Partisans. Under Operation Black around 150,000 German troops were pursuing the main body of around 20,000 Partisans during May and June of 1943. The British Military Mission went on the run alongside them, walking across country to find a refuge in the mountains.

F.W. Deakin was one of the British officers with the Mission. He was with Tito on 9th June, when the future leader of Yugoslavia had a very narrow escape:

The enemy planes, a motley circus of Dorniers, Henschels, Stukas, and weird flying machines, caught us at dawn in the glades of birch trees just below the summit of Ozren.

In low continuous sweeps along the Sutjeska valley they sought to close the crossing to the second group ofthe Yugoslav force now trapped between the Piva and the river line just behind us.

But the aircraft had also spotted and identied our concentration of figures among the trees on the crests of the surrounding hills to the west of the German strongpoint at the village of Tjentiste.

A sinister game was imposed upon those of us caught on the heights. The planes, in low dives, criss-crossed the wood in straight patterns, leaving in each run a neat path of bombs and, at times, the smaller fry tossing grenades from their cockpits.

One could only dodge among the birch trees, seeking cover in an instinctive variety of postures: now rigid against a tree trunk; now crouched among the shattered branches.

On such a bombing run, a group of us was cornered. I had just time to shout to Stuart: ‘Take cover; they are using explosive bullets.” As the explosions darted through the trees, we scattered in the tight space around us: Bill Stuart and a group of officers in one direction; Tito, the commander of his Escort Battalion, and myself in another.

The remaining members of the British mission and the Yugoslav Staff dispersed amid the trees. As the last bomb of one stick blew up a few feet from us, Tito, several of his men, and myself found ourselves heaped in a shallow depression in the ground. We pulled ourselves out and sought fresh cover from the following wave, but we were not unscathed.

One of the commanders of the Escort Battalion and several of his men lay dead; Tito, wounded by a bomb splinter in the shoulder, lay under the body of his Alsatian dog ‘Tiger’, who had thrown himself across his master at the second of the explosion; and I hobbled out, my left boot blown away, and limping with a slight leg wound.

Stuart was out of sight. He had sought, standing upright, the protection of a stout beech tree, but had been killed by a bomb splinter or bullet in the head. The rest of our immediate party were unhurt. Stuart’s radio operator was dazed by the impact of a splinter, which had been embedded in a pack of cards in his breast pocket.

Senior officers swiftly took charge of Tito and with the Staff and members of the Escort Battalion found a cavernous lair roofed with rock. Here, as the air attack mounted in intensity throughout the day, a command post was improvised.

At a short distance the British mission, except for Stuart whose body lay on the opposite slopes of Ozren, was trapped on a narrow ledge of rock on an outlying spur. Below was a steep drop into the valley and, just above, the crest of the hill.

The planes, at times flying below our eagles’ nest, seemed to gather like vultures awaiting the kill, and the stuttering note of their machine guns was punctuated by the crump of artillery and mortar shells from German positions on the neighbouring heights. For the remaining daylight hours we were pinned down, motionless.

See

F. W. D. Deakin: The Embattled Mountain

German picture of a burning house in Yugoslavia during anti Partisan operations.

German picture of a burning house in Yugoslavia during anti Partisan operations.

German troops burning down a suspected Partisan hideout in the forest.

German troops burning down a suspected Partisan hideout in the forest.

German troops in Yugoslavia during a 'Police action'.

German troops in Yugoslavia during a ‘Police action’.

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