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Liveblogging World War II: June 9, 1943


F.W. Deakin with Tito and the Partisans in Yugoslavia:

The enemy planes, a motley circus of Dorniers, Henschels, Stukas, and weird flying machines, caught us at dawn in the glades of birch trees just below the summit of Ozren.

In low continuous sweeps along the Sutjeska valley they sought to close the crossing to the second group ofthe Yugoslav force now trapped between the Piva and the river line just behind us.

But the aircraft had also spotted and identied our concentration of figures among the trees on the crests of the surrounding hills to the west of the German strongpoint at the village of Tjentiste.

A sinister game was imposed upon those of us caught on the heights. The planes, in low dives, criss-crossed the wood in straight patterns, leaving in each run a neat path of bombs and, at times, the smaller fry tossing grenades from their cockpits.

One could only dodge among the birch trees, seeking cover in an instinctive variety of postures: now rigid against a tree trunk; now crouched among the shattered branches.

On such a bombing run, a group of us was cornered. I had just time to shout to Stuart: ‘Take cover; they are using explosive bullets.” As the explosions darted through the trees, we scattered in the tight space around us: Bill Stuart and a group of officers in one direction; Tito, the commander of his Escort Battalion, and myself in another.

The remaining members of the British mission and the Yugoslav Staff dispersed amid the trees. As the last bomb of one stick blew up a few feet from us, Tito, several of his men, and myself found ourselves heaped in a shallow depression in the ground. We pulled ourselves out and sought fresh cover from the following wave, but we were not unscathed.

One of the commanders of the Escort Battalion and several of his men lay dead; Tito, wounded by a bomb splinter in the shoulder, lay under the body of his Alsatian dog ‘Tiger’, who had thrown himself across his master at the second of the explosion; and I hobbled out, my left boot blown away, and limping with a slight leg wound.

Stuart was out of sight. He had sought, standing upright, the protection of a stout beech tree, but had been killed by a bomb splinter or bullet in the head. The rest of our immediate party were unhurt. Stuart’s radio operator was dazed by the impact of a splinter, which had been embedded in a pack of cards in his breast pocket.

Senior officers swiftly took charge of Tito and with the Staff and members of the Escort Battalion found a cavernous lair roofed with rock. Here, as the air attack mounted in intensity throughout the day, a command post was improvised.

At a short distance the British mission, except for Stuart whose body lay on the opposite slopes of Ozren, was trapped on a narrow ledge of rock on an outlying spur. Below was a steep drop into the valley and, just above, the crest of the hill.

The planes, at times flying below our eagles’ nest, seemed to gather like vultures awaiting the kill, and the stuttering note of their machine guns was punctuated by the crump of artillery and mortar shells from German positions on the neighbouring heights. For the remaining daylight hours we were pinned down, motionless.