Operation Halyard – Pranjani: a revisionist assault on the essence of anti-fascist struggle


The return of mission Halyard in Bari, Italy – 27 December 1944. Source: www.znaci.net

While the Serbian Government lavishly financied the construction of the Pranjani Memorial Complex (near Gornji Milanovac) dedicated to “the greatest rescue of allies” and “the Serbian-American friendship” during the Second World War – there was just enough time to ask where lies the truth.

Historical events are subject to different, often diametrically opposed interpretations, depending on ideological viewpoint, and of course the current interest of those presenting them.

The Second World War was basically an exception to the abundance of (mis)use of historical facts, interpretations and memories. Namely, there used to exist a wide consensus on who were the “villains”, who were the “good guys”, the criminals, and the victims.

However, this time is long past and for decades now we are witnessing a real flood of negationist, relativist and revisionist attacks on the meaning of the anti-fascist struggle.

“Case Pranjani” is an ideal occasion to exercise revisionist mythology. This is one of the extremely few cases when Draža Mihailović’s Chetniks performed something useful for the Allied cause.

Characteristic of the politicking-revisionist illusions of grandeur, salvos of superlatives are employed to imbue the event with marked historical significance.

“Operation Halyard was the greatest rescue operation of American and allied airmen ever”, can be read, for example, in Politika.

Unsurprisingly, those who believe in Serbian exceptionalism and grandeur, have found a useful ally in the former U.S. Ambassador, Mr. Kyle Scott, who stated “that the United States will forever be thankful to its Serbian allies that rescued 500 American pilots during the Second World War.”

The Serbian authorities eagerly accepted this narrative of the “greatest rescue” and the “American-Serbian alliance” (whatever that may have been), using the occasion for cheap publicity. Therefore, this year will see the opening of the Pranjani sports airfield and memorial complex. With this act, per Minister Zoran Mihajlović, “we desire to display once more the friendship between the Serbian and American people, to be grateful and pride ourselves of the people in this region, who from 1944, and all the way to 1945, guarded, healed and helped in the evacuation of the allied pilots.”1

By using such neutral and watered-down formulations, space is continuously opened-up for the identification of “the Serbian people” with the “Chetniks” of Draža Mihailović, and for their elevation to the rank of an “ally”.

You may ask, where lies the truth in all of this? What is the “greatest ever” and who were whose allies? Just how magnificent, significant, pure and exalted is the story told by Filmski Centar Srbije, that invested 52 million for the story to be preserved for the posterity on film?

At first glance, there’s nothing suspicious. But only at first glance. Basic facts are simple as known: altogether 2392 airmen were evacuated; 2010 with the assistance of the Yugoslav Partisans (NOVJ); and, about 382 with the Chetniks of Draža Mihailović, of which 330 from the Pranjani (makeshift landing strip) for the duration of mission Halyard.2

That means, less than 16% of American airmen that returned to their bases were evacuated with the assistance of the Chetniks, and more than 84% with the active help of the Partisans. That much for the “greatest undertaking ever”.

Although, during the night of August 9th to 10th, 1944, from Pranjani in one one fell swoop 225 American and 6 British airmen were transferred to Italy, which is most likely the single greatest transfer.

The formation of such a large group of airmen didn’t take place because of some significance or value of the Chetniks. Quite contrary: this took place due to the Allies severing all contacts with Mihailović and his Chetniks in view of their collaboration with the enemy; the last members of the Allied mission staff to Draža Mihailović were withdrawn in May, 1944.

The Allies, as is well known, stopped all contacts with the Chetniks because of Chetniks collaboration with the Germans.

Bosanski Petrovac, Partisan evacuation, September 1944. Source: www.znaci.net

Operation Halyard

In effect, because of this severance of all contacts and relations there was an increased gathering of airmen with the Chetniks, and since such a large group of airmen was stuck with the Chetniks, it necessitated the formation of a rescue team. During 1944, the Allied air assault on the large Ploești oil fields, in Romania, was ongoing; and, as it happened, many of the aircrews of the stricken planes were forced to jump over Serbia. Many were picked-up by territorial Chetnik patrols. Because of that, on July, 1944, the Commander of the Allied Air Force in the Mediterranean, General Ira C. Eaker, in correspondence with the Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean, General Sir Henry M. Wilson, suggested the formation of a special team of 10 to 20 people with the aim of providing medical assistance to the downed airmen and to organize evacuations from the enemy occupied Balkans.

General Wilson agreed in principle, with the condition that all activities be coordinated in tight collaboration with General Brigadier Fitzroy MacLean (Chief of the Allied Mission to Tito’s Partisans). This is how the Fifteenth Air Force Air Crew Rescue Unit (ACRU) was formed.3 This rescue unit was given the strictly limited task of providing assistance to the airmen, therefore, it was not a representative mission meant to maintain connections with any field groups and was required to avoid any interference in political, military or propaganda activities and relations in the theatre.

As mentioned by the American historian, Thomas T. Matteson, who analyzed the operation, “if the Chetniks had actively fought the Germans, ACRU might never have been established.”4 Matteson notices the quandary how was it possible for the Chetniks to rescue American airmen from the Germans, while at the same time actively collaborating with the Germans.

Who was an ally with whom, and against whom?

In conjunction with Operation Halyard, which bore the code name for the Allied evacuation of airmen from the Chetnik territory, Operation Ranger was run by intelligence (OSS). These two ops coincided and depended on one another.

The circumstances under which all of this happened need to be presented in more detail.

Operational Situation

During the summer of 1944, the Red Army was still far away, while the western Allies slowly advanced up the Apennine Peninsula. The places of the main events in the war were still relatively far from the Balkans: on June 6th, the Normandy landings took place; on June 23rd, the Red Army commences in Belorussia its large offensive, Operation Bagration; at the Cairo and Teheran Conferences, the Allies agree to provide full support and co-belligerent status to the People’s Liberation Army of Yugoslavia (NOVJ), as the British PM Winston Churchill stated: “These stalwarts were holding as many Germans in Yugoslavia as the combined Anglo-American forces were holding in Italy.” The British Army Chief of Staff, General Alan Brooke, specified that 21 German divisions were held in Yugoslavia (while 23 in Italy).

However, none of those roughly twenty divisions (fifteen were left by summer of 1944) were in Serbia. The High Representative of the German Reich, Hermann 23, wrote: “All until the autumn of 1944, the dominant force in Serbia was that of Draža Mihailović. Nothing can better depict the situation in Serbia than the fact that towards the end of August, 1944, only one German combat unit was based there, a police battalion, which did not have its full complement numerically.”5

Therefore, Mihailović dominated Serbia, and the Germans were satisfied.

However, such somewhat simplified picture, as provided by Neubacher (in Serbia there was actually one police regiment) began falling apart in the summer of 1944. In some southern and eastern parts of Serbia, partisan units were gaining in strength, and early August, 1944, the NOVJ main Operations Group, under the command of General Peko Dapčević, crossed the river Ibar.

The competent command, the Army Group F, inclined towards allowing the greatest degree of autonomy over the situation to the Commander of Wehrmacht forces in Serbia, General Hans Felber, who lacked major army units. During spring and summer 1944, the Germans based their defense of Serbia against NOVJ incursions on operations in Sandžak and east Bosnia, which had as its aim the destruction of NOVJ troop concentrations. For the internal security in Serbia they relied on the Chetniks, encouraging the establishment of larger mobile troop formations. Bulgarian forces (an Axis participant) in Serbia were regarded by the Germans as poorly equipped, not mobile and mostly unusable, so the Chetniks were utilized as the main defensive force against the NOVJ in Serbia.6

However, the situation took a dramatic turn when on August 23rd, the Red Army initiated the Jassy-Kishinev Operation, which brought the downfall of the fascist government in Romania and its switching sides to the Allies. Army Group Felber (F) was forced to concentrate forces in east Serbia; while NOVJ in conjunction with the Allied Air Force, was undertaking everything possible to paralyze its movements. That’s when the defense of Serbia in Sandžak collapsed, followed by the simultaneous advance of the 1st Proletarian Corps of NOVJ towards western Serbia. The defense mainly based on police battalions and Chetnik irregulars collapsed, thus the partisans advanced quickly.7

It was exactly in these last few weeks of false peace and stability, and the first weeks of a systemic crush, that the above mentioned “greatest undertaking ever” took place.

Pranjani, 1944. Source: www.znaci.net

The interests and goals of all concerned

During the whole process of evacuation there were three concerned sides: the Chetniks of Draža Mihailović, the Americans and the Germans.

The Chetnik stance: Draža Mihailović, considering his ambitions following the war and in accordance with his faith in a final Allied victory, beginning in October 1941 determined his activities in accordance with two aims: survival on the battlefield and elimination of rivals.

The first induced him to seek a sort of condominium, while the second task presented common cause with the occupier. However, with the need to at least nominally remain on the side of the Allies, as well as, maintain a positive perception among the people, collaboration with the occupier had to be discreet and concealed. Mihailović suggested to the Germans this state of relations in Divci, as far back as 11 November 1941, pointing out that they share a common interest until the end.

Regarding the Allied airmen, Mihailović had two vested interests: to demonstrate his loyalty to the Allies by his care for them, without at the same time irritating the Germans, and also show the people “proof” of an Allied presence and support. There are documented instances of concealment and unwillful retention of downed airmen for the purpose of parading them in front of the people as representatives and symbols of Allied support for the Chetniks.8

The Germans got over their initial phase of disdain, since towards the end of 1942 with the strengthening of the People’s Liberation Army of Yugoslavia (NOVJ), they found themselves exhausted and in severe lack of troops.

Thence, they eagerly utilized the Chetniks in battle. Especially, since as Wehrmacht Commander for the South-East sector, General Maximilian Von Weichs, stated post-war, that his commanders highly appreciated their “reconnaissance skills”.9

The Germans troops could stay in towns and guard the more important lines of communication, while effectiveness and presence in the interior was achieved thru the Chetniks.

The German high-command was aware of Mihailović’s hope for an Allied victory and Germany’s departure; his goal to takeover points of strategic importance and become the dominant force on the battlefield. Because of that the cooperation with Mihailović’s troops was “temporary” and limited in scope. This “temporality”, however, lasted until the very end.

In August 1944, during the time of the “greatest undertaking ever”, the German special envoy, Neubacher, proposed an initiative to surpass “temporality” and for Germany to arm a Chetnik corps strength unit of 50,000 men, under the command of Mihailović. However, Hitler rejected the initiative and ordered a return to “temporary” and limited collaboration.10

As was mentioned, Germany’s defense of key points in Serbia depended on the use of the Chetniks, to the extent that a large move against them wasn’t possible, especially, considering the acute lack of combat troops. Yet, a brazenfast intrusion by a smaller force wasn’t out of the question, especially, since the American airmen presented such an attractive target.

Did the Germans know about the undertaking?

“What was happening in the Chetnik camp, on that, I wasfully informed”, states Neubacher in his memoirs.11

Yet, there was no incursion by special forces, nor a significant airborne assault against the evacuation of the Allied aircrews.

The Americans: the United States Army in that period was an earnest ally. It fully supported allied unity, insisting on Germany’s unconditional surrender and participating in the supply, as well as operational and tactical cooperation with the People’s Liberation Army of Yugoslavia (NOVJ). However, the military intelligence service (OSS), headed by General William J. Donovan, was already busy preparing for the upcoming Cold War, and recognized Mihailović as a potentially valuable asset. Donovan was successful in obtaining, notwithstanding allied disagreement, an approval from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to send an intelligence mission to Mihailović. This is how Colonel Robert McDowell’s group landed at Pranjani airfield on 26 August 1944, in the midst of evacuations. His mission was recalled one week later, on the insistence of the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.12

However, he stayed with Mihailović until November 1st, and in the meantime twice succeeded in meeting with Rudy Stärker, Naubacher’s representative; advising Mihailović to stay away from clashes with the Germans; instead, extracting as many armaments as he can from them; with the task of survival on the battlefield, and acting as an impediment to the spread of communism following Germany’s withdrawal.13

Topola 11. August 1944: Kalabić (commandant “Gorske garde”), Račić (commandant IV Group Assault Corps (or per German documents, combat group Weyel), Neško Nedić (Chief of Staff for IV Group Assault Corps) and Rittmeister Count Vrede, Representative of Commander for Serbia Felber and his Chief of Staff General Geitner). Source: Geitner archive / www.znaci.net


Operation Ranger

“My assignment, he told us, is to use the German surrender in Serbia for your organization”, said McDowell, as stated by Dr. Đuro Đurović – Mihailović’s secretary at the Central National Committee.

In talks with the German representative, Colonel McDowell inquired as to the possibility of using the eventual German surrender and withdrawal towards strengthening of Mihailović’s forces, and his taking over the government in Serbia, which would prevent the Red Army’s and NOVJ advance. On his part, Neubacher inquired thru his representative about the American readiness to reach an agreement or willingness to accept a fictitious surrender and participate in the stopping of the Red Army’s advance. That way Mihailović found himself in the middle of potential combinatorics on both sides. Colonel McDowell transmitted the German proposals to his chief, OSS Director, General Donovan. His freedom to maneuver was, however, limited by the inter-Allied consensus to only accept an unconditional German surrender; yet, there were open possibilities involving Mihailović as a favorite for both sides. In the end, the fast changing turn of events on the frontlines, made these negotiations pointless.

Naubacher and the German South-East command continued to seek contact with the Americans via Mihailović, even after Colonel McDowell’s departure. Per Draža Mihailović’s own statement facing the war crimes tribunal: that at his command in Bosnia, March 1945, arrived Neubacher’s representative Stärker, with the request to relay to the Americans the offer of the Commander for South-East Alexander Löhr’s readiness to be at the disposal of the Allies, and to use his troops to secede Austria from Germany.

Marines from the American Embassy in Serbia lay a wreath in memory of Mission Halyard, Pranjani, 15 August 2009. Source: www. wikipedia.org

Serving the same purpose

As it happened, in the summer of 1944, on the territory controlled by Mihailović’s Chetniks there were over 300 downed Allied airmen. Although heavily involved in collaboration with the Germans, Mihailović’s only hope was that following the German departure, the Allies would again recognize him as a co-belligerent. Therefore, the Allied airmen were a real gift from heaven. “There was absolutely no advantage for Mihailović to give them up to the Germans. Actually, the evacuated Americans became a source of first rate publicity for the Chetniks.”14

On the other hand, there were certain circles in the American military, political and intelligence communities, who were in this late phase of the war already working to oppose the spread of communism. They used the predicament of the retained airmen by Mihailović, for propaganda purposes and to renew contacts with him. Their main man was Colonel McDowell, and his mission Ranger. The most provocative aspects of his work were negotiations with German high ranking representatives in the Balkans, and the aim of finding a commonly acceptable and attainable platform, one useful to Mihailović, and acting against the Red Army’s progress thru Yugoslavia.

With the open escalation of the Cold War, this kind of politics was revealed in the testimony of the downed airmen in front of the Committee for a Fair Trial for Gen. Draža Mihailović, when they probably kept quiet about seeing the Chetniks accompanying the Germans, followed by awarding of a posthumous medal to Mihailović, who due to pure circumstance contributed to the rescue of approx. 400 pilots (that is, if we ignore the 2000 rescued airmen by the Partisans). The most important fact when judging the meaning and value of the Chetniks merit at that moment in time, is that after the “greatest undertaking’s” completion, they were not offered any Allied support. A good illustration is the advice to Mihailović by Lieutenant George Musulin (OSS), in his departing letter he wrote: “for the sake of improving our situation abroad, we should undertake sometimes activities, even against the Germans.”

The Germans for their part didn’t undertake any actions to obstruct the evacuation. In that operational phase, the Chetniks were a necessary ally for the maintenance of positions in Serbia. Besides, in view of their proposals and wish to negotiate with the Americans, it wasn’t conducive to their interest to irritate them.

After 76 years, Operation Halyard again serves the same purpose: the spread of lies and concealment of Chetnik collaboration with the Germans, and all under the cover of celebrating a fictitious alliance and friendship with the Allies. Instead of the truth – we get lies, instead of anti-fascism – rewriting history, and instead of friendship among people – a transparent media hoax which hides the struggle to impose once more the ideological interests of the imperial powers.

Translation from Serbian: L.P.

This article was  originally published in Serbian on Sep 22, 2020.

  1. Otvaranje aerodroma Pranjani i kompleksa Halijard za mesec dana: U toku gradnja travnate piste – Telegraf Biznis, 11.8.2020
  2. Miloš Bojanić: Evakuacija savezničkih avijatičara iz jugoslavije tokom drugog svetskog rata, Zbornik radova Narodnog muzeja Xlix, Čačak 2019, pp. 94
  3. Thomas T. Matteson: An Analysis of the Circumstances Surrounding the Rescue and Evacuation of Allied Aircrewken From Yugoslavia, 1941-1945 Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, April 1977, pp. 1.
  4. Ibid., pp. 39.
  5. Herman Nojbaher: Specijalni zadatak Balkan, Službeni list SCG, Beograd 2004, pp. 191.
  6. Gaj Trifković: „The Key to the Balkans: The Battle for Serbia 1944‟, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 28 (3), 524-555.
  7. Chronology:

    – July 24th: General nIra C. Eaker signs an order to form ACRU

    – August 2nd: three American officers from the ACRU team under the command of Captain George Musulin parachuted to Chetnik theritory. The operation’s code name is Halyard.

    – August 3rd : The NOVJ main Operations Group,

    under the command of General Peko Dapčević, crossed the river Ibar and causes the Chetniks to suffer a heavy defeat

    – August 9/10th : 225 American and 6 British airmen evacuated from Pranjani

    – August 11th : Rittmeister Count Vrede, representing the Germans, and Račić, Neško Nedić and Kalabić, representing Mihailović, hold talks in Topola

    – August 13th : Draža Mihailović and Milan Nedić, representing the Quisling Serbian government, meet at Ražana village

    – August 22nd : The German special envoy, Neubacher, presents a plan to Hitler to arm a Chetnik corps strength unit under the command of Mihailović

    – August 23rd : Romania ends alliance with Germany

    – August 26/27th : OSS Colonel Robert McDowell and the staff of the intelligence mission Operation Ranger lands at Pranjani airfield

    August 26/27th : 15 American airmen evacuated from Pranjani

    – August 27/28th : 43 American and 2 British airmen evacuated from Pranjani

    – early September: McDowell meets a Neubache’s representative for the first time

    – September 5/6: 17 American airmen evacuated from Pranjani

    – September 10th : The 1st Proletarian Corps (NOVJ) blows away the majority of Chetnik forces at Jelova gora, causing their decisive defeat

    – September 11th : the Chetniks and the American staff leave Pranjani while retreating in front of the NOVJ forces

    – September 17th : 20 American airmen evacuated from Koceljeva

    – September 18th : the 1st Proletarian Corps liberates Valjevo

    – late September: McDowell meets a Neubache’s representative for the second time

    – September 22/23rd : Red Army executes a landing operation on Danube near the town of Gornji Milanovac

    – September 24th : Mihailović and his staff together with McDowell cross the Drina river towards Bosnia

    – November 1st : Bunar (east Bosnia)—three American airmen evacuated; Operation Ranger finishes

    – December 27th : Bunar – 20 American airmen evacuated; Operation Halyard completed

  8. Matteson, pp. 31.
  9. NARA, Record Group 238, microfilm publication M1270, SAIC/FIR/55, Interrogation v. Weichs (10.12.1945). M1270, available at: http://znaci.net/ 00002/318_4.htm.
  10. Official note of an Abwehr Southeast Command officer taken August 22nd 1944
  11. Nojbaher, pp. 161.
  12. Dušan Biber: Failure of a Mission: Robert McDowell in Yugoslavia, 1944 in: The Secrets War The Office of Strategic Services in World War II, Proceedings of a conference sponsored by and held at the National Archives in Washington 1992, pp. 209.
  13. Nikola Milovanović: Rasulo. Slom. Odmetništvo. Emigracija, Rad, Beograd 1984.
  14. Matteson, pp. 40.

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