Royal Yugoslav Air Force
The original Royal Yugoslav Air Force operated from 1918 to 1941 and at the start of World War Two was equipped with a large number of modern combat aircraft from numerous nations which were purchased directly and licence-built. These included Bristol Blenheim I (61), Dornier DO-17K (69) and Savoia-Marchetti SM.79K (40) bombers and fighters such as the Hawker Hurricane I (47), Messerschmitt Bf-109E-3 (73) and the then relatively new, home-grown Rogožarski IK-3 (11 with more under construction).
World War Two
In total the Royal Yugoslav Air Force had over 460 aircraft and 2,000 pilots at the outbreak of war. This was soon null and void though as the air force ceased to exist following the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia, which commenced on April 6th, 1941 and ended in surrender by the Kingdom of Yugoslavia on April 18th, 1941.
Despite a valiant fight and defence of Belgrade, the Royal Yugoslav Air Force was outnumbered and outgunned and many aircraft were destroyed or captured. The captured aircraft deemed useful were distributed to Axis nations including the newly formed Air Force of the Independent State of Croatia (but not the IK-3 as all of them were destroyed by their crews and factory employees to avoid them falling into German hands).
A number of Royal Yugoslav Air Force aircraft escaped to Allied territories including a small number of Dornier DO-17K bombers that made it to Greece with as much of the country’s gold reserve they could carry, young King Peter II Karađorđević (1923-1970) and government members aboard. A large number of aircraft that made it to Greece in April 1941 were later destroyed on the ground following strafing attacks from German and Italian aircraft.
King Peter II joined his government in exile and in 1944 joined the RAF. He was never able to take back his throne though due to the communist dictatorship under Tito in Yugoslavia following World War Two. He died from cirrhosis of the liver as a wealthy but relatively young man of just 47 in exile in the United States.
Balkan Air Force
The communist Yugoslav Air Force (Jugoslavensko Ratno Vazduhoplovstvo – JRV) was officially formed on January 5th, 1945. The JRV originated from British and Soviet trained and equipped air units operating in support of the Tito led communist partisan liberation of Yugoslavia from Axis control.
Yugoslav units primarily operated in the Royal Air Force (RAF) Balkan Air Force which was established on June 1st, 1944 to support Yugoslav partisans and remained in operation until July 15th, 1945. Many Yugoslav personnel also served in the Soviet Air Force, returning to Yugoslavia in 1944. Those serving with the RAF were amongst several hundred aircrew of the former Royal Yugoslav Air Force who had escaped to Greece then Egypt following the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941.
The first Yugoslav manned squadron, RAF No. 352 (Yugoslavian) Squadron formed in Libya on April 22nd, 1944 flying Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIC fighter-bombers. Many of the pilots were ex-Royal Yugoslav Air Force. By August 18th, 1944 they were flying Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Vb fighters on combat missions in occupied Italy as part of No. 281 Wing of the Balkan Air Force and would later upgrade to Mk.Vc and Mk.IX Spitfires. The Yugoslav pilots conducted combat missions over Italy and Yugoslavia.
RAF No. 351 (Yugoslavian) Squadron was formed in Libya on July 1st, 1944 flying Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIC fighter-bombers and re-equipped with the Hawker Hurricane Mk.IV in September 1944. The Yugoslav pilots went on to fly combat operations over Italy and Yugoslavia from October 1944 to May 16th, 1945 as part of No. 281 Wing of the Balkan Air Force. Their ground attack missions were naturally dangerous and 23 pilots including the Squadron Commander were lost in combat.
On May 18th, 1945 both No. 351 and No. 352 squadrons became part of the official Yugoslav Air Force, forming the 1st Fighter Regiment at Zadar Airport in Croatia and the RAF officially disbanded both squadrons on June 15th,1945 (the 1st Fighter Regiment was short-lived though and disbanded with personnel and equipment redistributed to other units at the end of August 1945). By wars end the pilots of No. 351 Squadron had flown 971 combat missions and No. 352 Squadron had flown 1210 missions.
By the end of World War Two, Yugoslav pilots and crews flying with the RAF and the Soviet Air Force had valuable combat experience, flying some 3,500 combat sorties and 5,500 operational flying hours. On September 12th, 1945, the Military Aviation School was formed in Belgrade to train future air force pilots.
Post War Period
The air arm of Yugoslavia became one of the larger air forces in Europe with 40 squadrons by 1947. The initial inventory of the Yugoslav Air Force in 1944/45 was a mix of British and Soviet fighter aircraft that included the Supermarine Spitfire (18 Mk.Vc operated until 1954 – used as reconnaissance aircraft in later years of service and 3 Mk.IX operated from 1944 until 1945), Hawker Hurricane Mk.IV (over 20 operated from 1944 until 1951), Yakovlev Yak-3 (71 operated from 1944 to 1957) and Yakovlev Yak-9 (over 135 DD/P/M/U models from 1945 to 1957). The fighter aircraft flew alongside ground attack aircraft like the “flying tank” Ilyushin Il-2M3 Sturmovik (over 200 operated from 1944 with the last in service until 1955) and the Petlyakov Pe-2FT/UP-2 light bomber (over 150 in service from 1945 to 1954).
The British and Soviet aircraft were supplemented with 10 captured German/Croatian Messerschmitt Bf-109G fighters and post war more were sourced from the Bulgarian air force as part of the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty which limited the size of Bulgaria’s Air Force (a former member of Axis), thus aircraft were sent to Yugoslavia as part of a military equipment trade for Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik components (76 Bf-109 G-2, G-6, G-10 and G-12 models operated from 1947 until 1954 when they were withdrawn due to a lack of spares. Some were converted to two-seat trainers).
An example of many of these World War Two era aircraft can be seen today at the excellent Belgrade Aeronautical Museum in Serbia, which I was privileged to visit in November 2015. The museum at the Belgrade International Airport is a real treasure trove of aviation history and a must see for any aviation enthusiast (the building alone is worth taking a look at)!
The Breakaway from the Soviet Union
In the early years of the new Communist Yugoslavia, most equipment was supplied by the Soviet Union and the air force was operated much along the same lines of organisation as the Soviet system. Despite being a communist country, in June 1948 Yugoslavia had a major change in international relations and broke away from ties with the Stalinist Soviet Union (although post war Yugoslavia had reduced the size of their army, the Soviets wanted them to maintain just a small army and rely on the Red Army to defend their nation. Yugoslav leader Tito was not keen on the offer made and didn’t like Soviet meddling especially with the attempt to recruit spies, agents etc. within the Yugoslav Army!).
Following the 1948 split the Soviet Union withdrew their military advisors and Yugoslavia came under intense pressure from the Soviets who under the orders of Joseph Stalin, cut off general trade, aircraft, spare parts, supplies etc. and banned Yugoslavia from the international association of socialist states. This caused enough tension that Yugoslavia feared possible Soviet invasion right up until 1954 (Tito himself took on the role of Minister of Defence up until 1953 to maintain full control of the nation and the army was greatly expanded)! They did not resume relations on more friendly terms until the early 1960’s under Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev, who re-admitted Yugoslavia back into the international association of socialist states! Yugoslavia still maintained a non-aligned international status though.
Home Grown Fighter Aircraft
The serviceability of the Soviet supplied aircraft started to become an issue as spares declined and aircraft had to be picked apart for parts to keep others flying. This lead to the development of a domestic aviation industry, which in 1949 resulted in the home-grown Ikarus S-49 single piston engined fighter aircraft.
The Ikarus S-49 looks similar to the Yakovlev Yak-9 but was a new design based off an advanced development of the Rogožarski IK-3 fighter, previously operated by the Royal Yugoslav Air Force from 1940 to 1941. The S-49A model (45 in service from 1950) had a Soviet Klimov M-105 engine which was later replaced in 1952 with a Hispano-Suiza 12Z-17 engine in the S-49C model (113 in service from 1952). The S-49 with a top speed of 628 km/h / 390 mph and armed with an engine mounted 20mm cannon, two 12.7mm machine guns plus underwing bombs/rockets remained in service from 1950 to 1961 (the S-49A was retired in 1957) and a S-49C is on display at the Belgrade Aeronautical Museum.
Sourcing Non Soviet Combat Aircraft
To boost the air force inventory during this tense period other new aircraft were required and Great Britain and the United States stepped in to help. Yugoslavia purchased 77 powerful de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito FB.Mk.VI fighter-bombers in 1951-1952 (most were retired by 1960 but 9 were kept operational until 1963 with a sea-reconnaissance squadron and were mainly used as target tugs) and in 1952 they received 150 heavy hitting Republic F-47D-40-RE Thunderbolt aircraft that became the primary fighter-bomber of the Yugoslav Air Force (relegated to a training role in 1957 and retired by 1961). These new aircraft flew alongside the S-49 and the soviet era aircraft that could be maintained.
A couple of great examples of these F-47D aircraft can be found at the Technical Museum Zagreb in Croatia (sporting a camouflage paint scheme) and the Belgrade Aeronautical Museum in Serbia (non-camouflage scheme). Always an impressive and powerful looking aircraft, the big Thunderbolt was a highly successful fighter-bomber in World War Two but soon enough, the jet age overtook even this venerable warrior.
Although there was no direct aggression from the Soviet Union, further advancement of the air force was required to deter any such potential action. By 1953, Yugoslavia began to receive deliveries of jet trainers and a large number of combat jet aircraft from the United States, who wanted to curtail the Soviet influence across eastern Europe. There will be more on these early jet aircraft in my next post.