Liberators Over the Balkans: Missions Over Europe

The Yugoslav Detachment made up of airmen from Yugoslavia trained in the U.S., would fly missions over Greece, Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia as part of the U.S. Army Air Force in 1943 and 1944.

On November 8, 1943, the Yugoslav air crews were attached to the 376th Bombardment Group, under Colonel Keith Compton, stationed in Enfidaville, Tunisia. The four planes were part of the 512th Squadron of the 15th U.S. Army Air Force. They began training missions on November 11 and participated in a bombing raid over France which was cancelled due to weather conditions. The planes were numbered 20, 21, 22, and 23. They had the Royal Yugoslav Air Force insignia and the U.S. Army Air Force star and bar symbols on the fuselage.

After a week of training the Yugoslav crews flew their first combat mission on November 15 to strike the Eleusis Airport, a German air base since 1941, located outside of Athens. The attack formation consisted of 52 other aircraft. The air field sustained severe damage in the attack by 46 B-24 Liberator bombers with an escort of Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter planes. Sixty tons of fragmentation bombs were dropped which damaged hangars and fuel stores. Six German aircraft were reported destroyed on the ground.

The group was stationed in San Pancrazio, Italy thereafter. The base was located approximately two and half miles northeast of San Pancrazio Salentino in the province of Brindisi in Apulia, southwest of Brindisi, on the south-east Italian coast. The base was south of Bari, where the headquarters of Fifteenth Air Force would be located, in the heel of the Italian boot. The airfield was constructed in 1943 by U.S. Army Engineers primarily for the use by the Fifteenth Air Force. This B-24 Liberator heavy bomber base was used in the strategic bombing of Germany. San Pancrazio was also used by tactical aircraft of Twelfth Air Force in the Italian Campaign.  The 376th Bombardment Group was assigned to the air base from November 17, 1943 to April 19, 1945, consisting of B-24 Liberator bombers as part of the Fifteenth Air Force heavy bomber base.

The second mission occurred on November 24 against targets in Sofia, Bulgaria. Two detached bombers participated, Number 22 and Number 23. The crew also consisted of one American, George Cale They attacked the railroad marshaling yards in Sofia which was seen as a key Axis communication and supply center in the southeastern European theater. After their successful bombing runs, they were attacked by pairs of Messerschmitt fighter planes. Tail gunner Vaso Benderach of Number 22 brought one of the pursuing planes down but the bomber had sustained severe damage. The plane caught on fire and spiraled out of control after one of the wings broke off. The crew was able to all safely bail out as the plane crashed over Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia. They landed safely and were taken prisoner by Bulgarian and German forces.

The raid on Sofia was made up of 60 B-24 Liberator bombers. The Allied aircraft destroyed 87 buildings in the vicinity of the Central Railway Station, killing 5 people and wounding 29. Bulgarian fighter planes shot down two bombers, losing one aircraft to escorting American fighters.

Liberator Number 22, piloted by Dragisha M. Stanisavljevich, was shot down along with  Liberator 42-41018, “Earthquake “, piloted by G.W. Gore.

The crew of B-24 Liberator, 42-73137, Number 22, shot down November 24, 1943 over Sofia, Bulgaria, consisted of: Stanisavljevich, Dragisha M.  Pilot, Yelich, Millosh M. Co-pilot, Milloykovich, Zhivko T. Navigator, also known as Milloy, Joe T., Vecherina, Dinko N. Bombardier, Timothiyevich, Miodrag M. Engineer, Halapa, Ivan M. Radio, Benderach, Vaso B. Gunner, Lakich, Ognyan I. Gunner, Korosha, Ivan V. Gunner, and the American Gunner, Cale, George.

The crew parachuted outside the town of Bogomila, in central Macedonia, west of Veles, which was then occupied and annexed by Bulgaria. Bulgarian and German troops apprehended them. They were taken to the railroad station in the town. The Germans put the pilot, Captain Dragisha Stanisavljevic, the radio operator Sgt. Ivan Halapa, and gunner Vaso Benderach on a train south to Prilep and turned them over to Bulgarian forces. Zhivko Milloykovich, Sgt. Miodrag Timotijevich, Lt. Ognyan Lakich remained in the Bogomila guard house. They were transported by rail to the prison in Prilep the following day. The rest of the crew members were picked thereafter. They were moved to Skopje and then to a Bulgarian military prison in Sofia, the capital. In January, 1944, they were transferred to the Shumen POW camp in northeastern Bulgaria. Their treatment in prison in Sofia was not as difficult as when they were moved to Shumen, where they subsisted on water and bean soup and freezing temperatures in winter. There were 450 American POWs by September, 1944 in the camp. After the Soviet Red Army advance into the Balkans, Bulgaria was forced to surrender and switch sides. The airmen were incarcerated from November 24, 1943 to September 10, 1944, when they were released to the U.S. Consul.

Liberator Number 23 was again a part of a bombing run against Sofia. During this mission, the plane was pursued by 15 Messerschmitt fighters. Gunner Dusan Lazarevic shot down one Bulgarian fighter.

On December 23, Number 21 was shot down by German fighter planes over Germany. There were no survivors. Major Dusan Milojevic was part of this bomber crew. An American navigator, Levie Vause, Jr., was also on board. German Messerschmitt fighters attacked the plane, which lacked P-38 fighters to protect it, and were able to shoot it down. The Liberator was seen heading nose down with no parachutes visible. Its propeller had been shot off.

At first, B-24 Liberator and B-17 Flying Fortress bombers flew missions into the interior of Germany without fighter escorts. The slow and heavily-loaded bombers were vulnerable targets for German fighter planes and flak from anti-aircraft batteries. Long-range fighters were subsequently added to the formations to provide protection for the exposed bombers.

On December 19, planes 21 and 23 participated in the first bombing run against Germany, targeting the Messerschmitt plant in Augsburg in Bavaria in southern Germany northwest of Munich.

The Liberators typically departed in the morning carrying 2,300 gallons of fuel and 10 bombs, flying over Italian territory in a northward descent, crossing the Alps. They dropped 500-pound bombs on the Messerschmitt aircraft factory in Augsburg, Germany. Up to 30 German fighters attacked the planes, made up of 10 to 12 Messerschmitt ME 110s and 10 to 12 Messerschmitt ME 109s and Focke-Wulfe Fw 190s. A report stated: “AA – heavy and very accurate. Very large bursts.” A 98th Bomb Group operations summary stated: “Three B-24s probably shot down, most planes holed, at least 7 men wounded and 1 man killed.”

In the December 19, 1943 Augsburg raid, 42-73089, Liberator Number 21, piloted by Dushan Milloyevich, was shot down. Liberator 42-41175, Sad Sack, piloted by D.P. Rice, was brought down by enemy fighters. Liberator 41-11779, Lil Abner, piloted by E.D. Thurman, crash landed at the base.

The crew of B-24, 42-73089, Number 21, consisted of: Milloyevich, Dushan Z. Pilot, Mucich, Dushan M. Pilot/Co-pilot, Stefanovich, Borislav V. Bombardier, pilot Dragoljub Jeremic, Intihar, Franyo F. Engineer, Tseray, Eduard S. Radio Operator, Lazarevich, Dushan S. Gunner, Ishich, Patar A. Gunner, Vidoykovich, Momchillo V. Gunner, Ognyenovich, Yovan E. Gunner. The one American who was on board the plane was Vause, Jr., Levie E. Navigator.

The ranks of the Yugoslav detachment were gradually depleted. In March, 1944, one Yugoslav crew member, Momcilo Markovic, a Bombardier, left the bomber group. Three others, Jovan Pesic, Nedeljko Pajic, and Milos Marinovic, left to join the Yugoslav Communist Partisan forces led by Josip Broz Tito. Four Slovenians from the RAF joined the detachment to shore up the depleted crews.

On March 24, Number 20 avoided a midair collision with another plane due to poor visibility because of dense cloud formations. A gunner was forced to bail out. After this near debacle, another crew member quit the detachment.

The detachment suffered another casualty in an attack on a target in Austria. Bombardier-gunner Bogdan M. Madjarevic was killed on May 24, 1944 during a bombing mission against an aircraft factory in Wiener Neustadt, Austria.

On June 16, Liberator Number 20 attacked the Apollo Oil Refinery in Bratislava, Slovakia, an independent state created by and allied to Germany under President Jozef Tiso. Germany controlled and modernized the production at the plant, known as Apolka, where diesel fuel and oil were refined to produce fuels to supply the German armed forces. Located on the left bank of the Danube River, it was attacked by waves of U.S. bombers, destroying 80% of the facility. It was reported that 176 workers and civilians were killed.

After the bombing was completed, the group was attacked by 40 enemy aircraft. Four were shot down, including one by Lt. Vuko Sijakovic of Liberator 20. Sijakovic, an Engineer, had been a pilot in the Royal Yugoslav Air Force until 1941, when he escaped capture by German troops by fleeing to Egypt with several other officers.

Disaster struck in the next bombing run. In the bombing mission on Lobau, Austria, on August 22, 1944, 42-73085, Liberator Number 20, piloted by Blagoye N. Radosavlyevich, collided with Liberator 44-40502, Bessa Me Mucho, commanded by Marshall N. Stickel, Jr. Another Liberator bomber, 44-40330, Hardway Ten, commanded by C. Andrew, crash landed during the same mission. Vuko Sijakovic was killed in the crash.

The crew of the American-staffed Liberator 44-40502 consisted of: 1/LT Stickel, Marshall N Jr., CPL Brancato, Stephen V., CPL Edwards, Horace P., CPL Jones, Robert L., CPL Catron, William H., 1/LT Good, Robert P., 2/LT Johnston, James L., CPL Newton, Lawrence D., 2/LT Scott, Douglas, and 2/LT Smith, Charles W.

The mission had originated from Bari AFB in Italy on August 22, 1944. The bombing target was Vienna but the accident occurred over Yugoslavia over Croatian territory.

The Yugoslav air crew commanded by Captain Radosavljevic took part in the aerial assault on underground oil storage tanks near Lobau, east of Vienna. It was the 200th mission of the 512th Squadron. It was the 35th combat mission for the Yugoslav Liberator 20 crew.

The B 24 Liberator, 44-40502, known as Bessa Me Mucho, under the command of American 1/LT Marshall N. Stickel, was struck over the target by several heavy shots. As a result, the damaged plane fell behind the formation. The leader of the bomber group took evasive measures to aid the crippled bomber. The other planes reduced their speed and engine power and began a descent. As they were approaching the Adriatic coast, Stickel radioed the Yugoslav Liberator to determine if they were over Allied-controlled territory. He could no longer control the flight or direction of the stricken plane. Captain Radosavljevic had his Navigator Captain Pavlovic radio back that they were exiting Axis air space. The two bombers were at a height of 12,800 feet. Liberator 31 pulled up slightly and slid to the starboard wing.

The right wing and propellers of the American bomber cut the fuselage and tail of the Yugoslav Liberator. It also broke the left wing of the bomber. The bombers crashed 12 miles northwest of Sinj, east of the village of Kijevo, south of Knin, in the Axis-allied Independent State of Croatia.

Two men were able to parachute out of the planes, one from each plane. The remaining crew members of both planes died in the crash. Yugoslav tail gunner 2nd Lt. Vojin Stojkovic parachuted to safety by escaping from the tail section.

He landed on the Dinara Mountain range separating Croatia from Bosnia-Hercegovina. He suffered a leg injury during the fall. Yugoslav Partisan guerrillas were able to locate him and transport him to Vis Island which was under Partisan control and defended by British naval vessels. He reported that he saw another flier parachute in the area west of the Cetine River. He heard gun shots. He concluded that he was killed. He was informed that he had been killed by German and Croatian gunfire. After 19 days, he returned to the base in Italy in September.

A local resident, Filip Soldic, who was seven years old at the time, witnessed the crash of Liberator 31 as it fell into a vineyard. The crew was killed instantly in the explosion. He did see, however, a member of the crew parachute out 12 yards from the plane.

The U.S. government relocated the remains of the crew members from both aircraft after the war. The remains of the Liberator 20 crew were buried in a cemetery in Zasiok. A part of the plane was also preserved. A memorial plaque erected on the site read: “Returning after an operation in the battle against fascism during the war. Died: 22 VIII. 1944. Airmen of the allied army of Yugoslav descent. Bobek Anton, Vuko Sijakovic, Radosavljevic Major and four other unknowns. This memorial was raised by the Alliance of NOR fighters of the Sinj Municipality on January 23, 1958.” This area was later flooded by the adjoining Perucky Lake.

The crew of Liberator 20 consisted of Captain Radosavlyevich, Blagoye N. Pilot, Voolich, Borivoje G. Co-pilot, Pavlovich, Slobodan M. Navigator, Tsrvenkovich, Obrad D. Bombardier, Shiyakovich, Vooko V.  Engineer, Zhivanovich, Toma M. Radio, Parapatich, Boris K. Arm, Stoykovich, Voyin P. Gunner, Bobek, Milutin A. Nose Turret, and Trampush, Emil A. Waist Gunner.

On August 27, 1944, Lt. Colonel Richard Fellows, the commanding officer of the 376th Heavy Bomb Group (H) bestowed a commendation on the Yugoslavian Air Force Detachment”

“Headquarters- 376th Bomb Group (H) AAF

It is desired to commend the Royal Yugoslavian Air Force detachment, attached to the 512th squadron of the 376th Bomb Group (Heavy) and the 15th AF for outstanding performance of duty in action in strategic support of allied forces in the Mediterranean theater.

From November 1943 to August 1944- four (4) crews made up of forty (40) Officers and Enlisted men forming the Detachment flew regular and frequent combat missions attacking vital enemy installations; exhibiting the greatest bravery, stamina and skill completing eighty eight (88) successful missions. During this period the Detachment lost three (3) of their B-24 aircraft, and sacrificed three of their four crews, all lost over enemy targets. The Royal Yugoslavian Air Force Detachments by its actions has constantly given its utmost in devotion to duty for the allied cause, and will always be worthy of emulation.

R.W. Fellows, Lt. Col.

Air Corps, Commanding

Captain Vojislav N. Skakich presented three officers of the U.S. Army Air Force, Major General N. T. Twinging, commander of the 15th U.S. Army Air Force, Brigadier General Charles F. Born of the 15th USAAF, and Brigadier General Hugo P. Rush, commander of the 47th Wing, with wings of the Yugoslav Royal Air Force on October 3, 1944.

In November, four members left the group to join the Partisans in Yugoslavia. Two Slovenians also left the group.

On November 13, the airmen were ordered by the U.S. Army to travel to Cairo where they were to be incorporated within the armed forces of the new Communist regime of Yugoslavia. Ivan Halapa, Miodrag Timotijevic, Dinko Vecherina, and Ivan Korosha followed the order.  Skakich and the remaining fliers refused. They continued on bombing missions until 1945 when after their 51st flight they no longer had to engage in combat.

Three out of the four Yugoslav Liberators were lost, two shot down and one destroyed in a collision with another Liberator.  Only Liberator Number 23 survived the war. The Yugoslav airmen had flown a total of 88 missions for the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II from 1943 to 1945.

By 1945, the Yugoslav detachment flew back to Cairo then returned to San Pancrazio in Italy. They refused to join the Yugoslav Partisans and remained in limbo until August, 1945, when they were inducted into the U.S. Army.

In October, they flew to the U.S. In July, 1947, they were able to attain U.S. citizenship after a U.S. Congressional bill was passed. They had successful careers in the U.S. Air Force. Vojislav Skakich and Milos Jelic rose to the rank of Colonel.

The airmen of the Yugoslav Detachment played a role in the Allied bombing campaign against Axis targets during World War II. The group was created by Peter II as part of the Yugoslav Royal Air Force to support the Allied operations and to provide material assistance to Draza Mihailovich and the royalist Yugoslav government forces under his command on the ground in Yugoslavia. The latter objective, however, was not realized. At the 1943 Tehran Conference, the Allied Powers would acknowledge the Communist guerrilla forces under Josip Broz Tito as the sole and legitimate resistance group in Axis-occupied Yugoslavia. This created a split within the crewmen. Some did join the Partisans. But the others, who had been members of the Yugoslav Royal Air Force, refused to return to a Communist Yugoslavia under Tito. They refused to join the Communist Partisan forces. Instead, they sought and found refuge in the U.S. While their efforts contributed to the ultimate Allied victory, they also witnessed Tito assume power and establish a Communist regime in Yugoslavia. The monarchy would be abolished and the pre-war royalist government replaced. They would not return to Yugoslavia. Instead, the airmen would find refuge and success in the U.S.