Monday, 23 May 2011 08:07

Croatian island of Vis remembers WW2 role

    Croatia has marked the final visit of British Second World War veterans to the only island in the Adriatic that withstood Hitler's onslaught, and provided a base for attacks on Nazi-dominated Yugoslavia.

    Senior government and military officials joined islanders on Vis to pay tribute Royal Navy and RAF veterans who fought German forces in the Adriatic from 1943 to 1945.

    Vis was the hideout of Josep Broz Tito – the Yugoslavs Partisan leader and later the country's communist president – and the stationing of a small British combined force from 1943 transformed it into one of the most important outposts of the war.

    With Marshal Tito camped in mountain caves, Winston Churchill decided to send a detachment to what is now Croatia, led by Royal Marines, to assist the partisans' mainland raids.

    The commitment quickly expanded, with the Royal Navy sending Motor Torpedo Boats to attack German supply ships and the RAF launching air raids.

    Churchill's decision to assist Yugoslavia's communist-backed partisans rather than the exiled royalists was controversial, even to Sir Fitzroy Maclean, the Special Operations Executive chief liaison officer. The prime minister refused to back down, saying: "What interests us is, which of them is doing most harm to the Germans."

    Freddie Nicoll, 90, one of the veterans and a former RAF flight lieutenant, recalled: "We weren't allowed to go into the town or really mix with the locals. We stayed in the mess and lived under canvas. The only person I really remember was a woman who cooked for us and her daughter Dobrila who brought us our food."

    But while contact with the locals was slight, it created a lasting legacy.  Unveiling a plaque that celebrated British servicemen, Tonka Ivecevic, the mayor of Vis, said the island's debt was deep.  "I can't imagine the day when you are no longer coming here but I hope your families will come at least to keep alive our ties with you."  Mr Nicoll, who modestly described his Distinguished Flying Cross as an award for firing rockets at German ships that got in the way, landed his Hurricane fighter-bomber on the island after running low on fuel during a raid on a German convoy.

    His landing in May, 1944, was the first of hundreds of sorties from what was to become the Allies' unsinkable aircraft carrier in attacks against the south-eastern flank of the retreating Axis powers.

    "I didn't even know the island existed," he said he surveyed the scene nearly seven decades later.

    "It turned out they had twisted the vines out by hand and tramped the ground down with their feet to create an airstrip."

    Peter Bickmore and Reg Ellis served on a Motorised Torpedo Boat that inflicted heavy losses on the German supply lines.

    "We weren't allowed off the pier," said Mr Bickmore. "We'd go out looking for the German boats between the islands during the day and returned at night for maintenance drill and rations cooked on two primus stoves before getting some sleep.

    "Even when we captured the German's supplies we'd hand them over to the partisans without dealing with them person to person."

    Pave Thomic, now 83, was a boy who played in the Hurricane workshop at the airstrip. The impact of the Allied force on local life has left a deep well of gratitude. "Before they came we had nothing. They gave us food and looked out for our basic needs," he said. "They were life-saving."

    The nearest Croatian island to Italy, Vis has a long history of links with the British military.  St George's Fort was built after an 1811 sea battle in which Sir William Hoste's frigates defeated a much larger French force.  Parallels can be drawn between the Allied role on Vis and today's conflict in Libya. Col Kevin Oliver, a Ministry of Defence representative at the ceremony, said: "It shows it's amazing what you can do with a few determined men in commando raiding teams with bombers in the skies and the navy patrolling the seas. It's a type of warfare that fitted the circumstances and is a model for today."

    The damage inflicted on the Germans, who failed to figure out where the British were based, was immense.

    "The Germans didn't know how to explain the Allied raids in the Adriatic," said Mr Nicoll.

    "Their intelligence was constantly hunting an aircraft carrier in the area."

    One mystery that has been solved is the identity of Dobrila, the girl who served dinner to RAF officers.

    Antica Svilicic, 59, a resident of Vis, approached Mr Nicoll this week to tell him about how her mother told stories of working with the RAF right up until her death in April.




    • Sunday, 19 June 2011 14:00 posted by James Darbyshire

      Fred, I have emailed you.

    • Friday, 27 May 2011 06:31 posted by Miles Robinson

      It's a shame I could not reach you guys to give you enough time to come out and join us all on Vis last week.

      Though it was mostly the Coastal Forces boys & the RAF which were represented the Commandos were also not forgotten as Col Edward, laid a wreath on behalf of the men of the Second Battalion, The Highland Light Infantry, who formed part of the Second Commando Brigade based there during 1944, and Colonel Kevin Oliver, RM, was also there.

      There was also a presentation by a local Croatian historian on the Allied Fortress on Vis, followed by a lively Q&A session with the veterans which provoked some banter between the RAF and Coastal Forces as to who scored the most hits on enemy shipping!

      Magic fun!

      Anyone who wants to know more please contact me at

    • Thursday, 26 May 2011 20:00 posted by Jeff Young

      This was before my time, but I find it very interesting. I'm surprised it is not well documented. That is a shame. I may do some more research.

      It was very interesting about how they kept the military serviceman away from the general population. Still, there must have been some relationships, romantic or otherwise that were established. Of course, military men were more disciplined in that generation.

      Jeff Young

    • Thursday, 26 May 2011 08:38 posted by Fred Carrington

      Anyone else served on Vis? I was there with 43 Commando Royal Marines during the war and have lots af annecdotes.

      Fred Carrington

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