Liberators Over the Balkans: Arrival in Cairo

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King Peter II of Yugoslavia, fourth from left, and Major General Ralph Royce, Commanding General, U.S. Air Force in the Middle East (USAFIME), fifth from left, under the propeller of one of the U.S. B-24 Liberator bombers presented to the King by General Royce, on a tour of inspection at John Payne Airport, Cairo, Egypt, 1943.

Following the presentation of the four B-24 Liberator bombers by President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Bolling Field in Washington, DC, on October 6, 1943, the aircraft were flown to Cairo, Egypt the next day where they were presented to Peter II.

The Yugoslav government had moved from London to Cairo on September 28, 1943. The Greek government in exile was already based there. Peter had proposed the move in a letter to Winston Churchill on March 31, 1943. The government was now headed by Bozidar Puric after the resignation of Slobodan Jovanovic in July, 1943. Lincoln MacVeagh was appointed the new U.S. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Yugoslavia and to Greece on November 12, 1943 after the move to Cairo, replacing Anthony Biddle.

Peter thought that the “likelihood of an Allied landing in Yugoslavia to be strong” in early 1943. The move of the exile Yugoslav government from London to Cairo “seemed to me to be the first step back to Yugoslavia”. He felt that the time for “action” had come and was “ready to give the whole of my energies” to the effort. On March 31 he wrote a letter to Winston Churchill about the proposed move to Cairo. Peter also proposed to Churchill that he be parachuted into Yugoslavia to join up with Draza Mihailovich’s troops. In his view, this would be “of great moral help” and would contribute to “rally all resistance forces in the country”.

Churchill replied on April 15 stating that he saw the move to Cairo as a good plan that would encourage Yugoslav troops there and the people in Yugoslavia as well. Churchill did not, however, support Peter’s plan to return to Yugoslavia, arguing that he should wait until liberation and then return.

British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden informed the Yugoslav cabinet that a major offensive was being planned and that landings in Yugoslavia were “under preparation”. Eden also suggested that the government should move to Cairo. Peter agreed. Peter had been considering this earlier and saw the move as “more effective action” on the part of himself and the government. He saw the liberation of Yugoslavia as imminent.

The Croat Banovina issue, however, divided the government. Vice-President Juraj Krnjevic, a Croat member, refused to go to Cairo until the Banovina issue was resolved. There was thus a divide between the Serbian and Croatian members of the government.

Peter set off for Cairo by ship from Liverpool. He arrived at Port Said in Egypt from where he set off along the Suez Canal by car to Cairo.

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When he arrived at the airport, Peter was welcomed by Major General Ralph Royce, Commanding General, USAFIME, at the Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers presentation ceremony held at John Payne Airport, Cairo, Egypt, in October, 1943. Peter was photographed exiting a car with insignia on the door of the Yugoslavian Royal Air Force. The B-24 Liberator bombers were assigned to the 376th Bomber Group of the U.S. Army Air Force, to be flown by Yugoslavian flight crews. The Yugoslav detachment was under the command of the U.S. Army Air Force. It was attached to a B-24 Liberator squadron of the 15th American Air Force. The Yugoslav detachment was integrated into the American squadron with the Yugoslav airmen living and flying together with the American crews.

John Payne Field was developed by the USAAF as an air base for the Air Transport Command in 1943 located 13 miles east of Cairo. The land was obtained from the RAF. The U.S. Air Force in the Middle East (USAFIME) was based in Cairo, Egypt, originally set up by General George C. Marshall in 1942 during the Egypt and Libya operations in North Africa.

The Royal Yugoslav Air Force (RYAF) crews were assigned to the 376 Bomber Group (BG)/512 Bomber Squadron (BS) in October, 1943. This detachment of the Yugoslav Air Force continued to operate under the operational control of the North-West African Air Forces and flew on equal terms with American bombers.

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An inspection tour was part of the presentation ceremony of the Liberator bombers. The Yugoslav detachment was under the command of the U.S. Army Air Force. It was attached to a B-24 Liberator squadron of the 15th American Air Force. The Yugoslav detachment was integrated into the American squadron with the Yugoslav airmen living and flying together with the American crews.

The presentation ceremony was featured in a British War Pictorial News newsreel, November 15, 1943, No. 132. The film segment was entitled “Egypt” with commentary by Rex Keating.

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The national flags of the United States and Yugoslavia were shown at Heliopolis Airport in Cairo during the aircraft presentation ceremony attended by King Peter II of Yugoslavia and Major-General Ralph Royce, Commander United States Army Air Force (USAAF) in the Middle East. A USAAF guard of honor was shown standing at attention armed with M1903 Springfield .30-in rifles and holstered M1911A1 .45-in automatic pistols.

King Peter is shown getting out of an official 4X2 Ford 21A Light Sedan automobile accompanied by Major-General Royce. A parked and chocked Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber can be seen in the background. The bomber is equipped with an Emerson defensive nose turret. No national markings are visible.

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Peter delivered his acceptance speech from a free-standing podium in thanks for the generous presentation of four Liberator bombers to the Yugoslavian people by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Peter was shown speaking to a Royal Yugoslavian Air Force aircrew officer, part of the team of ferry pilots who collected the aircraft from the United States.

Peter and Major-General Royce posed for photographs in the defensive waist gun position of a B-24. The air-cooled .50-in Browning heavy machine gun is not mounted and has been stowed away prior to the aircraft’s ferry flight.

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Peter and Major-General Ralph Royce were photographed as Peter arrived at the airport. The American national anthem was played at the start of the ceremony.

Peter was photographed reading his acceptance speech behind a microphone at the air field. Behind him were Major-General Royce and the American and Yugoslav officers.

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American troops of the U.S. 835 Engineer Battalion were photographed passing in review before King Peter II of Yugoslavia and U.S. Major General Ralph Royce, Commanding General of USAFIME, at the B-24 Liberator bomber presentation ceremony in Cairo, 1943. Both Peter and General Royce were shown saluting the troops.

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Peter was photographed in the cockpit of a U.S. Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber at John Payne Airport in Cairo, Egypt, 1943. King Peter of Yugoslavia was photographed in the pilot seat of B-24J 42-73085 for a briefing during acceptance ceremonies for Yugoslavian flight crews of the 376th BG at Cairo Airport.

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The RYAF Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers flew as #20 through #23. #23 was the only one to survive the war. The planes were manned by Yugoslav crews with an American crewman as part of the team. The insignia of the Royal Yugoslavian Air Force was painted on the side of the aircraft left of the number “23”. The insignia of the 512th Squadron was on the right, a skull in front of propellers.

Peter described the Cairo ceremony in his account from the 1954 autobiography A King’s Heritage:

“Earlier in the year [1943] ten Liberator (B-24’s) had been presented to members of the Yugoslav forces in Washington by President Roosevelt in person. Our men subsequently flew these planes to Cairo and as I was there at the time yet another ceremony was held, at which General Ralph Royce and [U.S.] Ambassador [to Egypt, Alexander] Kirk presented me with these planes officially.”

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Peter had envisioned the role of the planes as supplying and supporting Draza Mihailovich and his guerrilla troops. The bombers were used instead on missions outside of Yugoslavia:

“I had hoped that they would be used in Yugoslavia to help Mihailovich. However, this was not to be their function. We were informed that as part of the Mediterranean Command they were vitally needed elsewhere. These planes were stationed at Foggia in Italy and were used in the first bombing of the Ploeshti oil fields, and later to raid Munich. Less than half of them came back.”

There was to be a leaflet-dropping sortie using the Liberator bombers. The British Foreign Office objected and prevented this because of the designation of “High Command of the Yugoslav Army”. This was seen as recognizing Draza Mihailovich’s guerrilla headquarters. This was in November, 1943. The Foreign Office was concerned that Tito and the Communist Partisans would be offended. The U.S. State Department was notified. The U.S. ambassador was advised that “further gifts of this character might best be avoided”. The U.S. Office of War Information in Washington agreed that leaflets “issued independently by the Yugoslav government should not be dropped by Yugoslav aviators acting on their own initiative and under their own direction”. The OWI stated that it did not want to do anything that might antagonize “one of the bravest and most effective fighting groups in occupied Europe, namely the PLA”. The PLA was the People’s Liberation Army, Tito’s Communist Partisans. It was initially recommended to issue the leaflets in Peter’s name. But this too was rejected after the British ambassador opposed it.

The Yugoslav Communist Partisans under Josip Broz Tito immediately voiced their opposition to the granting of the bombers. On the Free Yugoslavia radio station, Josip Broz Tito and Ivan Ribar attacked the presentation of the four Liberator bombers by FDR as a “blunder” because they assumed they would be going to Draza Mihailovich. “Resent ‘Gift’ of Bombers”, The Milwaukee Journal, October 19, 1943, page 2. This was what Peter and Constantin Fotich wanted. FDR was somewhat ambiguous on this point. In fact, they were not used to supply and support the guerrillas under Draza Mihailovich.

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On November 2, 1943, Peter sent a cable to FDR, thanking him for the bombers, stating that the Liberators are “truly magnificent machines”. Peter wrote: “I take this opportunity to renew my personal and my people’s warmest thanks to you Mr. President and to the American nation for this generous gift.”

The arrival of Peter and his government to Cairo was also featured in a British Movietone News newsreel, “Personalities: King Peter — Lord Wavell”, October 21, 1943. King Peter of Yugoslavia was shown exiting out of a car, greeted by Mr. Richard G. Casey, UK Minister of State, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas, at Cairo, Egypt. He was the Air Officer Commanding in Chief of RAF Middle East Command in January, 1943. Also present was British Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, whom Peter also was shown greeting. The group was shown walking into the camera. King Peter was shown on steps saluting.

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Peter met with King Farouk, King George II of Greece, and General Bernard Montgomery in Egypt. He had discussions with all three. Monty informed him that a Salonika front as in World War I was “impossible” because “it was too long and too difficult to approach” and was unnecessary because the Allies had established a landing in Italy.

Peter also met with FDR during the Cairo Conference of November 22-26. Puric and Peter were invited to Alexander Kirk’s residence. “I thanked him for handing the B-24s to our contingent in Washington — the first real aid we had received from the U.S. Air Force.” Peter asked him about a possible Allied landing in Yugoslavia. FDR was vague. Peter argued that the Allies should attack the “soft underbelly” in the Balkans as an ideal target. FDR vehemently disagreed. FDR believed that Germany should be attacked in France. This was where Germany was strongest. Moreover, France was a steadfast and longstanding ally of the U.S. Most importantly, FDR still supported Draza Mihailovich at this time according to Peter. FDR wanted the rival guerrilla groups to divide the country into a western and eastern zone. FDR wanted to reconcile or unite the Partisan and Chetnik guerrilla movements and said it was possible. Puric, however, disagreed.

At the Teheran Conference held from November 28 to December 2, 1943, the Allies recognized Tito. Peter recalled: “Mihailovich was thus denied and abandoned.”

On November 8, 1943, the Yugoslav flying personnel were attached to the 376th Bombardment Group, stationed in Enfidaville, Tunisia. After a week of training the Yugoslavs flew their first combat mission on November 15 to strike the Eleusis Airport, Athens. The Yugoslav airmen would fly missions over Greece, Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia.