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Aiding The Partisans: Air Force, Part 52

Flying officers Frank Moore and Fred Ashbaugh of the RCAF were among the Canadians who served in the Balkans during the Second World War.
Germany’s invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941 precipitated a fierce, complex four-year conflict. The enemy exploited ethnic and religious divisions within the country; local collaboration was common. A puppet Croatian state supported the Axis. Rival partisan groups fought each other as much as they fought the Axis; during the war there were few prisoners taken but many fierce reprisals. “Peace” brought further bloody settlings of accounts. Any objective history of the Yugoslav war is a narrative of courage and cruelty. For decades the full story was suppressed to create heroic national myths which nevertheless failed to keep the country united.

Royal Air Force support of resistance movements grew slowly from four Liberators dropping supplies in May 1942 to the formation of No. 148 Squadron dedicated to Special Operations in March 1943. Meanwhile, Allied air forces attacked where and when they could, but it was not until late 1943, from bases in Italy, that they were able to offer substantial direct material and tactical support to the partisans. Increasingly, the airpower was directed at targets chosen by the guerrillas. Much of this was done by night, but close to the Adriatic coast it was possible to provide fighter escort for daylight strikes.
On April 8, 1944, Wellington bombers of Nos. 40 and 104 squadrons, with Spitfire cover, bombed German troops concentrated in Niksic, 65 kilometres from Dubrovnik. The attack was requested by partisans who had surrounded the town which was pulverized with 4,000-pound bombs. Members of the Royal Canadian Air Force were mixed through the crews, including Flying Officer Fred Ashbaugh of Vancouver and Pilot Officer Thomas McAneneny of Toronto, each piloting a Wellington.

As support was extended, it was necessary to choose which factions to assist. The aggressive Joseph Broz (Tito) trumped a more hesitant Draza Mihailovic. Meanwhile, the fortunes of war took dramatic swings. In May 1944, a German offensive drove the partisan leadership into temporary exile and nearly captured Tito. During this phase the first Allied air landings took place in Yugoslavia, supplementing earlier airdrops.

The near-defeat led to dramatic changes, including insertion of radio beacons and portable radios into mountain retreats to improve the airdrop accuracy. By September 1944, partisan forces were co-ordinated with Allied air and naval power to conduct Operation Ratweek. Its goal was to obstruct German withdrawals from Greece and Romania. Guerrilla raids and air attacks destroyed over 100 locomotives. With rail traffic disrupted, the enemy took to the roads and promptly lost over 300 trucks to fighter attack.

No. 253 Sqdn. had at least three members of the RCAF on its roster during Operation Ratweek, namely Warrant Officer Allen McEwen of Smiths Falls, Ont., WO John A. Gordon of Wallaceburg, Ont., and Flight Sergeant Fred Wetherall of Calgary. McEwen described an attack on an enemy troop train, in company with a New Zealand pilot. “We came at it from the rear and got the engine. A cannon shell hit the boiler and it blew up in a cloud of steam. Then we circled around a hill and came back to shoot up the coaches.” Gordon was particularly aggressive; he was credited with crippling five locomotives in one sortie on Dec. 4, 1944, and led an attack on two ships near Fiume on March 6, 1945. These achievements earned him a Distinguished Flying Cross.

The Balkan Air Force (BAF), formed in June 1944, was a multinational organization; it even included elements of the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force plus Russian transports and fighters. The BAF was principally involved in tactical ground support, supply and medical evacuations. Meanwhile, units of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces operated widely, from Poland to Greece. Scattered through all units were Canadians who had never imagined their enlistment would lead them to such a theatre. Ultimately, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission would record 23 members of the RCAF buried in Yugoslavia, two in Romania, and one in Bulgaria. More are listed on memorials to those with no known grave.

Air force units often looked in multiple directions. Wellington, Halifax and Liberator bombers might attack Romanian oil fields one night, and then hit rail centres in northern Italy or Bulgaria the next. Crews often observed extensive fires on the ground—villages being burned as the Germans retaliated against partisans. Airmen who bailed out over Yugoslavia could normally count on guerrilla assistance, whatever faction they met.

Squadron Leader Laurence Wells. [PHOTO: DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE—E010988382]

Squadron Leader Laurence Wells.

An example of this was the crew of a Halifax of No. 148 Sqdn., shot down by anti-aircraft fire over Albania on the night of June 28-29, 1944, while en route to Yugoslavia on a supply drop. A Canadian air gunner, WO Archibald McCaig of Toronto was killed, as were two others. PO Byard “Barney” Boyes of Fenwick, Ont., ordered the rest of his crew—all British—to jump at roughly 600 metres; despite some confusion and a jammed hatch, they all parachuted to safety and met local partisans who guided them to Himare on the coast. They arrived on July 29, just as a commando raid was in progress, and were evacuated to Italy.

No. 267 Sqdn. was typical of an RAF unit’s Canadian content. In May 1944, Major Randolph Churchill was flown into Yugoslavia to confer with partisan leaders; his pilot was Squadron Leader John Rice of Tillsonburg, Ont. As of August 1944, there was at least a dozen aircrew in No. 267. A press release cited the versatility of the tasks; on a day when PO Richard Ryerse of Port Dover, Ont., was flying two sorties delivering blood plasma and penicillin to a forward field in Italy, PO Robert Younger of Winnipeg conducted a sortie to Yugoslavia with arms, ammunition, boots and medical supplies. He landed in the dark on a crude mountain airfield that had been levelled by Yugoslav villagers. After unloading he flew back to Italy with wounded partisans.

Mountainous terrain and patchy weather reporting added to the hazardous flying conditions. These dangers were magnified at night. Frequent German anti-partisan campaigns meant shifting drop zones and landing sites. Sqdn. Ldr. Laurence Wells, a former construction engineer from Weston, Ont., spent much of 1944 as an airfield controller in the mountains, an experience he described as “a game of cops and robbers, played for keeps.” On one occasion a German bomb exploded less than two metres from his slit trench.

As the partisans drove the Germans from swaths of territory, airfields became more secure. On Aug. 22, 1944, American, British and Russian aircraft, protected by swarms of fighters, airlifted 1,059 partisan casualties to hospitals.

Even in 1944, Canada’s multicultural composition contributed to operations. Before the war, Flight Lieutenant William Kereliuk had been an accountant in Regina. He trained as a navigator, flew to Britain in 1941 and then embarked on operations. In his spare time he helped form the Canadian-Ukrainian Serviceman’s Association in London with a branch in Italy. When authorities recognized he could speak Russian, he was assigned to the BAF as a liaison officer.

Sergeant Paul Stichman was born in Dobrinci, Yugoslavia, in 1909, but came to Canada in 1925. He was married and had a daughter when he joined the RCAF in Toronto in 1942. Trained as an armourer, he might have spent the war servicing bomber turrets, but by May 1943 authorities realized he spoke Serbo-Croat. His service record shows a series of attachments to British formations and intelligence units. He was an interpreter and was probably trained to operate radios. His last known posting was to “Headquarters, Middle East” on March 21, 1944. He was then swallowed up in the fog of war, killed in action on May 4, 1944, somewhere northwest of Zagreb.

Prior to being dropped into Yugoslavia, Stichman had been under the command of Major James Broom Millar, MBE (British Intelligence). On Aug. 30, 1944, Millar wrote to Stichman’s widow. “He was a most efficient NCO and his great courage and unfailing good humour made him very popular with all men in the Unit. I was not present when he met his death and am sorry that I cannot describe to you the exact circumstances, as no other men from our unit were present at the time. Paul had been temporarily attached to an Allied Unit and was fighting with them. He became involved in an enemy offensive and we heard that he met his death on 4th May. I understand that he was killed in the thick of the fighting, and did not have to undergo any prolonged suffering. We are still trying to obtain details with regard to his funeral and place of burial, but this is proving unusually difficult as most of the men who were engaged in battle with him were killed at the same time.”

Stichman has no known grave; his name is recorded on the Malta Memorial.

The German air force deployed limited resources in Yugoslavia—approximately 50 Bf.109 fighters, 50 Ju.87 dive bombers and a collection of Do.17, CR.42, Fiesler Storch and Hs.126 aircraft. There was thus little “trade” for Allied fighter pilots, who dealt more in ground support work than air-to-air combat. RCAF pilots were sown among the RAF units. No. 73 Sqdn., for example, had six Canadian pilots as of January 1944, four as of June 1945, and two still on strength as of VE-Day.

Sergeant Paul Stichman. [PHOTO: COURTESY HUGH A. HALLIDAY]

Sergeant Paul Stichman.

Among the Canadians in No. 73 Sqdn. was WO Eloi Felix Fernand Potvin of Longeuil, Que., better known to his friends as “Louis.” He reported to the unit at Foggia in June 1944. On Aug. 8, 1944, he was patrolling near Vis, an island off the Dalmatian coast used as an advanced airbase for operations over Yugoslavia, when two Bf.109G fighters in tight formation flashed by. Apparently the aircraft were on a reconnaissance mission. Potvin dropped down in a steep turn and gave chase, firing at one, then the other. With fuel running low, he returned to base where he submitted a claim for two “damaged” enemy aircraft. He then left on one week’s leave. When he returned he was informed that his “damaged” claims had been upgraded to “two destroyed”; Yugoslav partisans had seen one crash in flames while the wreckage of the second was found 48 kilometres inland. On Oct. 14, Potvin shared in the destruction of a CR.42 north of Zagreb.

Flying Officer Norman Pearce of Portage la Prairie was posted to No. 73 Sqdn. in November 1944. Apart from patrols seeking elusive enemy aircraft, he was engaged in attacks on ground targets. Pearce was credited with numerous successes—six vehicles destroyed on Jan. 5, 1945; two more (plus a 75-mm gun) on Jan. 9; direct bomb hits on bridges on March 17 and 30; and locomotives damaged on April 9 and 17, 1945. He also shot down a Dornier 17 bomber 13 kilometres north of Gospic, Yugoslavia, on March 30, closing to 45 metres to finish the job. On April 2, 1945, he destroyed a Croatian Bf.109G in the Karlovac area. Pearce was described as an inspiration to pilots and ground crews, and was awarded a DFC.

No. 249 Sqdn. had a long history of Canadian associations, dating back to the Battle of Britain. At least three RCAF members were in the unit during its Balkan operations, which lasted from October 1943 to the end of the war. The career of WO Kenneth L. Dale of Ottawa was tragically brief. Having joined the unit in July 1943, he shot down a Bf.109 off the Albanian coast on Nov. 17, 1943. Two days later, strafing vehicles south of Tirana, he struck a tree and was killed.

On May 25, 1944, at the height of the German offensive against Tito’s headquarters, No. 249’s Spitfires engaged several Hs.126s and shot down four, one being credited to FO Duncan Sinclair of Toronto. The Hs.126 was a nimble machine, ideal for harassing partisans in valleys and ravines; the destruction of four in one day severely handicapped the enemy. On July 15, Sinclair bailed out over the Croatian coast following engine failure and was taken prisoner.

Other Canadians outside the RCAF were involved in the Yugoslav campaign. Roy Maclaren described the roles of several engaged in “special ops” in his 1981 book, Canadians Behind Enemy Lines, 1939-1945. Captain Thomas Street of Welland, Ont., was detached from the Saskatoon Light Infantry to be an air liaison officer in Yugoslavia, directing bombers and fighter-bombers to destroy bridges and road convoys. Along the coast, a colourful Royal Canadian Navy officer, Lieutenant-Commander Tom Fuller, earned three Distinguished Service Crosses and the sobriquet “The Pirate of the Adriatic.”

Yugoslavia was ultimately liberated by its own people, aided by Russian armies pressing from the east and an Allied air campaign waged from Italy. For the Allies the payoff was tying down 600,000 German troops that would otherwise have fought in Italy, Holland or Poland. These goals were accomplished at the cost of 300,000 partisans over four years.

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