Belgrade, 1944: The 1964 Air Disaster at Avala

By Carl Savich

Twenty Year Anniversary

October 20, 1964 marked the twentieth anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade in World War II. To commemorate the event, a Soviet delegation was coming to Belgrade for celebrations and memorials. The Soviet team was made up of Marshal Sergey S. Biryuzov, the Soviet Chief of Staff of the 3rd Ukrainian Front, and General Vladimir I. Zhdanov, the commander of the 4th Guards Mechanized Corps that had taken the city in 1944. Arriving in fog during a rain storm, the airplane crashed into Mt. Avala, killing all on board. All the commemorative events were cancelled. Yugoslavia announced two days of mourning. A day of victory and triumph was turned into tragedy and mourning.

The flight had departed from Sheremetyevo Airport in the Soviet Union, 18 miles northwest of central Moscow, 1,066 miles away. The destination airport was the Belgrade Batajnica Military Air Base in Yugoslavia, 15 miles from central Belgrade. The Ilyushin IL-18V crashed 600 feet below the peak of Mount Avala. The aircraft was on a military flight to Belgrade, carrying seven high-ranking Soviet military officers and fifteen World War II veterans. There was a crew of 11. A total of 33 were killed. The accident was due to pilot error. No foul play was suspected.

A Monday, October 19, 1964 United Press International (UPI) cable photograph from Belgrade, Yugoslavia, described the crash: “Firemen and rescue workers probe the wreckage of a Soviet Il-18 airliner which crashed 10/19, killing Marshal Sergey Biryuzov, Russia’s highest military officer and 28 others. The accident occurred as the plane was making a landing approach near fog-shrouded Mount Avala in Yugoslavia.”

Both Marshal Sergey S. Biryuzov and Colonel General Vladimir I. Zhdanov were killed in the crash. The visit was to mark the 20th anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade by Soviet troops on October 20, 1944 with a wreath laying ceremony.

Vladimir Zhdanov had been the commander of the IVth Guards Mechanized Corps in 1944 during the Belgrade Offensive. This unit captured Belgrade on October 20, 1944. Zhdanov had a background in armored or tank warfare. He began his military career in 1941 as the Assistant Commandant of the Syzransk Tank School. He attended the Military Academy of the General Staff from 1941 to 1942. From 1942 to 1944 he was the Chief of Staff of the XIII Tank Corps. He commanded the IV Guards Mechanized Corps in 1944 and 1945.

After the war, he held district commands in the Soviet Union and was a military advisor to the East German Army. In 1964, he was the head of the Military Academy of the Tank Forces in the Soviet Union and held the rank of Colonel General.

In 1944, the IVth Guards Mechanized Corps which he commanded, spearheaded the assault on Belgrade and was crucial in the success of the operation. Following Katyusha and artillery barrages, Soviet infantry troops advanced into the city. Equipped with and supported by the then new T-34/85 medium tank, his forces stormed the city and seized the Palata Albanija in central Belgrade by October 20. The remaining German troops retreated westward into the Independent State of Croatia, or NDH. Soviet troops had captured Belgrade.

Both Biryuzov and Zhdanov were recipients of the Hero of the Soviet Union award and the Order of the People’s Hero of Yugoslavia.

Soviet Marshal Sergey S. Biryuzov was the Chief of the General Staff of the Soviet Army in 1964. He had also been the Commander in Chief of the Strategic Missile Forces and was Deputy Defense Minister.

He was a veteran of the landmark Battle of Stalingrad. He had been the chief of staff of the 2nd Guards Army since November, 1942 at Stalingrad. He was twice a Hero of the Soviet Union. He was posthumously awarded National Hero of Yugoslavia.

In October, 1944, Biryuzov became the commander of the 37th Army, which advanced against German Wehrmacht units into German-occupied Serbia in the fall of 1944 after crossing Romania and Bulgaria. He would hold this command until May, 1946.

The other officers killed were Maj. Gen. Nikolai R. Mironov, Maj. Gen. Leonid Bocharov, Lieut. Gen. Nikolai N. Shkodunovich, and Lieut. Gen. Ivan Kravtsov. The crew was headed by Maj. Mikhail Syusyev.

Belgrade Offensive

Both Biryuzov and Zhdanov were crucial in the success of the 1944 Belgrade offensive.

Biryuzov had played a decisive and pivotal role in negotiating and organizing the Belgrade Offensive. On October 5, he had flown into Craiova, Romania to negotiate the alliance between the three powers which were involved in the offensive against Belgrade, the USSR, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria. He was engaged in discussions with Tito and Dobri Terpeshev of the Bulgarian Fatherland Front.

For the offensive push into Nis, Leskovac, Vlasotince, and Kursumlija, the Bulgarians committed the 1st, 2nd, and 4th Armies, consisting of nine divisions, and three brigades, one of which was an armored formation. Tito committed two army groups to the offensive.

There was hesitation on the part of the Yugoslav delegation because Bulgaria had switched sides overnight. The Soviets sought to persuade the Yugoslav leaders to ally themselves with Bulgaria, which had invaded, occupied, and annexed Yugoslav territory in 1941 as part of the Axis. Biryuzov went over the final attack plans for Belgrade. He noted that none disputed that Bulgarian troops were needed for the offensive. The new Bulgarian government had to be distanced from “the criminal acts of the former royalist government”. He was able to get Yugoslavia and Bulgaria to agree to joint operations during the offensive.

The meeting lasted the whole day. Biryuzov briefed Tito and Terpeshev about the troop strength of Soviet forces, which they also did regarding their own forces. He was able to get them to sign the tripartite military agreement on the joint operations against Belgrade. The offensive against Belgrade was now finalized and agreed to.

The city of Craiova in Romania is located 130 km or 80 miles directly east of Negotin and the border with Yugoslavia. The city is northeast of Vidin, Bulgaria at the Danube River. Negorin was the first region seized by Soviet troops in September, 1944. This opened the way for the offensive on Belgrade.

1962 Cuban Missile Crisis

Marshal Sergei Biryuzov played a key role in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis as chief of the Soviet Rocket Forces. A U.S. invasion of Cuba was seen as imminent. The Soviet Union sought ways to defend the Fidel Castro regime. Pursuant to this objective, he had led a Soviet survey team that visited Cuba in 1962. He told Nikita Khrushchev that nuclear missiles placed in Cuba would be a viable option. He argued that they would be concealed and camouflaged by the palm trees.

On May 24, 1962, at an expanded meeting of the Soviet Presidium, a unanimous decision was made to deploy nuclear-tipped R-12 and R-14 missiles in Cuba. They could both strike most of the United States. In June, Khrushchev discussed the plan at the meeting of the Defense Council, or Sovet Oborony, chaired by Semen Ivanov. The Minister of Defense Radion Malinovsky eventually approved the decision. Marshall Biryuzov, as the commander of the strategic missile forces, RVSN, reportedly was enthusiastic.

A Soviet delegation, led by First Secretary of the Uzbekistan Central Committee Sharaf Rashidov, which included the commander of the strategic rocket forces, RVSN, Marshal Sergei Biryuzov and Lt. General of the Air Force Sergei Ushakov, traveled to Cuba at the end of May, 1962. They informed Fidel Castro of the plan. According to recollections attributed to Aleksandr Alekseev, the Soviet ambassador to Havana, Castro was initially stunned and flabbergasted by the plan. The Soviet team emphasized that a U.S. invasion was inevitable and offered economic aid. Castro accepted the plan. There are other sources which asserted that Castro found the plan “interesting” from the start. Biryuzov enjoyed Khrushchev’s “highest respect and trust.” Khrushchev had known him from the Battle of Stalingrad.

The U-2 spy plane flown by Gary Powers was shot down during his command.

Biryuzov had been a supporter of the Soviet space program and was photographed with the first cosmonauts, including Yuri Gagarin, who was the first man in space in 1961 aboard Vostok 1.

He was a key military leader in the Khrushchev government. But Khrushchev was ousted on Wednesday, October 14, 1964, five days before the Belgrade crash.

U.S. Media Coverage

The U.S. media covered both the crash and the funeral extensively. It was a front page story in American newspapers. It was at a pivotal transitional period in Soviet history. Nikita Khrushchev had been removed from power and replaced by a troika made up of Leonid Brezhnev, Alexei Kosygin, and Anastas Mikoyan.

Marshal Sergey Biryuzov had been regarded as one of the top Soviet military officers. Kremlinologists were monitoring events closely. There was speculation over the absence of Soviet theorist Mikhail A. Suslov from the Biryuzov funeral. He was reported to have been instrumental in the removal of Khrushchev as Soviet Premier. His absence was due to illness.

The U.S. media coverage focused on Biryuzov’s position or rank in the Soviet Union military hierarchy as one of the top military leaders. His association with Nikita Khruschchev was also noted and that he had risen rapidly under his regime.

The New York Times described him as “a leading figure in the Soviet armed forces” and a “Rocket Expert” who “had been No. 3 in the military hierarchy”. U.S. newspapers described him as “Russia’s top military officer”, “commander-in-chief of Russia’s military forces”, “top Soviet military man”, and the “top Red”. The coverage was matter-of-fact, detailed, and objective.

The New York Times headline was: “Soviet Marshal Dies in Air Crash; Biryuzov, Army Staff Chief, Among 18 Victims on Way to Belgrade Ceremony.” The account was factual and thorough. There was no discussion on what changes would result, if any, in Soviet policy due to the deaths.

The headline of the Tuesday, October 20, 1964 issue of The San Bernardino County Sun in San Bernardino, California, page 10, was: “Soviet Military Chief Killed in Airliner Crash, Belgrade, Yugoslavia. A Soviet airliner carrying Marshal Sergei S. Biryuzov, Russia’s top military officer, crashed and burned yesterday in a fog-shrouded mountain outside Belgrade, killing all 18 persons aboard. Biryuzov, the Soviet armed forces chief of staff, was named deputy defense minister only three months ago by ousted Premier Khrushchev. He had been considered close to Khrushchev and accompanied him on a trip to Czechoslovakia in July.

Biryuzov, 59, headed a seven-man Red army delegation made up of officers who helped liberate Yugoslavia from the Nazis. They were en route to attend the 20th anniversary celebration of the liberation. The Yugoslav government canceled all celebrations and most of the ceremonies that were to have begun today and proclaimed two days of nationwide mourning. The Ilyushin 18, a four-engine, turboprop plane, struck the 700-foot high mountain at the 1, 312-foot level while making a landing approach.

The Yugoslav government last night released the names of the other six Red army generals killed with Biryuzov. They were Col. Gen. Vladimir I. Zhdanov, chief-of-staff of the Soviet Armored Forces Academy, Lt. Gen. N. I. Skadunov, Lt. Gen. I. V. Kravcov (ret.), Maj. Gen. L. P. Bocarov, Maj. Gen. N.P Kironov and a Lt. Gen. Salucki.

Biryuzov, first deputy minister of defense, also was a member of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist party. Biryuzov was an aide to Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, the Soviet defense minister. But he was top military officer through his post as chief of staff of the armed forces. Khrushchev named him head of the strategic rocket forces in 1962. Biryuzov, a veteran of the Battle of Stalingrad, played a prominent role as commander on the southern front. Between 1942 and 1943 he was chief of staff of the southern front and then commander of the 37th Army from 1944 to 1945 during operations in Bulgaria, Romania and Yugoslavia.”

A front page story and photograph appeared in the Independent, Long Beach, California, on Tuesday, October 20, 1964. The photo caption read: “Wreckage of Soviet airliner is scattered on Mt. Avala outside Belgrade, Yugoslavia. All 18 aboard, including Marshal Sergei S. Biryuzov, commander-in-chief of Russia’s military forces, were killed.”

The headline in the Independent was: “Airliner Crash Kills Marshal, 6 Other Red Army Leaders. Belgrade, Yugoslavia – A Soviet airliner carrying Marshal Sergei S. Biryuzov, Russia’s top military officer, crashed and burned Monday on a fog-shrouded mountain outside Belgrade, killing all 18 persons aboard. Biryuzov, the Soviet armed forces chief-of-staff, was named Deputy Defense Minister only three months ago by ousted Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev. He had been considered close to Khrushchev and had accompanied him on a trip to Czechoslovakia in July. Biryuzov, 59, headed a seven-man Red Army delegation made up of officers who helped liberate Yugoslavia.

The Yugoslav government canceled all celebrations and most of the ceremonies that were to have begun today and proclaimed two days of nationwide mourning. The Yugoslav Civil Aviation Department and the official Tanjug news agency foreign affairs said seven officers and 11 crewmen–all Russians–were aboard the llyushin 18 turbo-prop which crashed on Mt. Avala near Yugoslavia’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where some of the celebrations were to have been.”

The Stars and Stripes, in its European edition, on Tuesday, October 20, 1964, featured the crash as a front page story with two photographs: “Air Crash Kills Top Soviet Military Man.”

The story was reported in the MSU State News, East Lansing, MI, Tuesday, October 20, 1964: “Air Crash Claims Top Men in Russia’s Armed Forces.”

“Top Red Killed” reported The Daily Banner, Greencastle, Putnam County, IN, on Monday, October 26, 1964 under a photograph of Biryuzov in uniform.

Funeral at the Kremlin

Both Sergey Biryuzov and Fyodor Tolbukhin are buried at the Kremlin Wall in Moscow, an honor reserved only for the most distinguished Soviet military commanders. Sergei Biryuzov’s funeral was on Friday, September 23, 1964, at the Kremlin Hall of Columns. His ashes were placed in the Kremlin wall. Photographs in American newspapers showed an urn containing his ashes carried by Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet Communist Party First Secretary, Alexei Kosygin, the Soviet Premier, and Anastas Mikoyan, the Soviet President, and party official Dmitry Polyansky, former Soviet PM. The photo caption read: “Russian Leaders at Marshal’s Funeral.”

Sergey Biryuzov’s funeral in Red Square in Moscow in 1964 put the international spotlight on the new Soviet leaders: Leonid Brezhnev, Alexei Kosygin, and Anastas Mikoyan. They were all pallbearers at the funeral procession. Leonid Brezhnev would eventually emerge as the Soviet leader, eclipsing the other members of the troika, Alexei Kosygin and Anastas Mikoyan.

Nikita Khrushchev had been ousted from office only five days before the crash on October 14. Buryuzov was one of the most distinguished Soviet commanders of World War II who rose quickly up the military ranks, becoming the Chief of Staff of Soviet Armed Forces at the time of his death.

Leonid Brezhnev, the Secretary of the Communist Party, was photographed at the head of the procession. Third from right was the new Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin. The Soviet President Anastas Mikoyan was also photographed as one of the pallbearers.

“Russian Leaders at Marshal’s Funeral” reported the Charleston Daily Mail, Charleston, West Virginia, on Saturday, October 24, 1964. There was a front page story with a photograph. Leonid Brezhnev, Alexei Kosygin, and Anastas Mikoyan were shown carrying the remains at the Kremlin.

In 1967, a Soviet postage stamp was issued by the USSR to honor Marshal Sergey S. Biryuzov, a two-time Hero of the Soviet Union award recipient who also received the People’s Hero of Yugoslavia award after his death.

War Veterans Monument

A Monument to Soviet War Veterans, Spomenik sovjetskim ratnim veteranima, at Avala, in Belgrade, was erected in 1965. It was to be a memorial for the Soviet Red Army commanders killed in the plane crash on Avala on October 19, 1964, traveling to Belgrade to attend the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the capture of the capital on October 20, 1944. Killed in the crash were two major commanders of the Belgrade Offensive in 1944, Marshal Sergey Semyonovich Biryuzov and Colonel General Vladimir Ivanovich Zhdanov. The plane was flying in bad weather, crashing into the Avala mountain, 10 miles south of Belgrade.

The Belgrade Monument to Soviet War Veterans at Avala was photographed with wreaths with the flags of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Azerbaijan. It was from these former Soviet Republics that the troops involved in the 1944 offensive came.

The statue was created by Serbian sculptor Jovan Kratohvil, a Belgrade native. The monument was abstract, made of bronze, five meters tall, located near Pinosava, south of Belgrade.

The plaque reads in Serbian Cyrillic:

“Here in an airplane tragedy on October 19, 1964 were killed Soviet heroes, our wartime allies and comrades.”

The names of those killed in the crash were listed.

“October, 1944. Here they fought to free Belgrade. Here on October, 1944, our city entered into legend, becoming an omen of a brotherly and united war.”

The first name listed is Marshal Sergey Biryuzov, the Chief of Staff of the 3rd Ukrainian Front, who was involved in the planning and organization of the offensive. The second name is General Vladimir Zhdanov, the commander of the Soviet tank corps which captured the city. Marshal Fyodor Tolbukhin, the commander of the 3rd Ukrainian Front in 1944, had died in 1949.

The Soviet delegation in 1964 had consisted of the following members: Sergei Biryuzov, Marshal of the Soviet Union, Hero of the Soviet Union and the National Hero of Yugoslavia, Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Zhdanov, Hero of the Soviet Union and the National Hero of Yugoslavia, Major General Nikolai Mirnov, Lieutenant General Nikolai Škodunovič, Lieutenant General Ivan Kravtsov, Major General Leonid Bočarov, and Colonel Šeluljko Timofeevič.

A total of 33 were killed in the crash of the Soviet Ilyushin Il-18.

In 1970, Tito and his wife Jovanka were photographed during a visit to the monument.

Biryuzov was awarded two Hero of the Soviet Union Awards, a Medal “For the Defense of Stalingrad” Award, and the People’s or National Hero of Yugoslavia Award. Zhdanov was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union award and the People’s Hero of Yugoslavia award.

Belgrade Streets Renamed

New streets were named after General Vladimir I. Zhdanov and Marshal Fyodor Tolbukhin in the Novi Beograd section of Belgrade on October 20, 2016, the 72nd anniversary of the capture of the city. Ulica Pohorska or Pohorska Street was renamed in 2016 as Ulica Generala Zdanova. The street is in Novi Beograd, a northern district or section of Belgrade.

Vladimir Zhdanov first had a street named after him in Belgrade in 1946. Resavska Street in downtown Belgrade was named after him from 1946 to 1951. The Josip Broz Tito regime removed his name from the street by 1952 after the Stalin-Tito Split. The Tito regime restored his name to the same street in 1965, after the 1964 air disaster. The street was named Ulica Generala Zdanova from 1965 to 1997 when it was removed for a second time under the Slobodan Milosevic regime.

The new street signs were unveiled in the Novi Beograd section of Belgrade on October 20, 2016: General Zhdanov Street and Boulevard Marshal Tolbukhin. The street signs were blue with white lettering. The letters were in Serbian Cyrillic and Latin. The coat of arms of the city of Belgrade was also featured.

The Russian Ambassador to Serbia Alexander Chepurin and Belgrade Deputy Mayor Andreja Mladenovic were part of the ceremony.

On that same day, Thursday, October 20, 2016, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic also placed a wreath at the memorial to Soviet Red Army Soldiers in Belgrade, Serbia on the 72nd anniversary of the capture of the city. A Serbian military honor guard stood at attention. The wreath had a banner of the Serbian flag.

New Era in Serbian and Russian Relations

The improved relations and closer ties between Serbia and Russia reestablish a traditional and historical relationship that goes back to over a century. The 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War, when Russia entered the war against Ottoman Turkey in support of Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Hercegovina, resulted in the full independence of Serbia. World War I began when Russia intervened on Serbia’s behalf when Austria-Hungary threatened war. During World War II, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were allies, an alliance not only with the Communist regime, but also with the Royalist government in exile. The Yugoslav Karadjordjevic Royalist regime even signed a Friendship Pact with Joseph Stalin in 1941. The turmoil of the 1948 Stalin-Tito Split was reversed by the time of the 1964 Belgrade twentieth anniversary ceremony. After the death of Stalin in 1953, relations between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union remained stable and consistent throughout the Cold War.

The collapse of Communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia resulted not only in the end of the Cold War, but an era of changing and renewed relationships and alliances. The relationship between the successor states, Russia and Serbia, has been reassessed and re-evaluated. Russia has been the only major power to support Serbian sovereignty and to recognize Serbian territorial integrity. NATO has occupied Kosovo and has stripped it unilaterally from Serbia without United Nations authorization and in violation of international laws and customs. Russia supported Serbian sovereignty over its territory.

The dramatic shift in relations between Russia and Serbia was highlighted on October 16, 2014 when Russian President Vladimir Putin made an official state visit to Serbia to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade on October 20, 1944. He was a guest of honor at the parade and placed a wreath on the Soviet Red Army Monument at Avala accompanied by Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic.

Closer political, military, and economic ties emerged between the two nations. The 1944 liberation of Belgrade remains a fulcrum or pivot point for restoring and redefining the historical relationship between Serbia and Russia.

One result of the 1964 tragedy was that closer ties between the two countries were achieved. Marshal Sergey Biryunov was posthumously named a National Hero of Yugoslavia. General Vladimir Zhdanov and Marshal Fyodor Tolbukhin street names returned in Belgrade in 1965. The Soviet War Veterans Monument was constructed in 1965 as a tribute and memorial to those killed in 1964. In 2016, streets were renamed to commemorate Zhdanov and Tolbukhin. Ultimately, the air disaster at Avala in 1964 was a tragedy that brought the two countries closer together.