Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Review of The Forgotten 500 by Gregory A Freeman (NAL Calibre, 2007)

From 1942 on the Allies started to systematically bomb the Romanian oil fields at Ploesti flying first from North Africa and then Italy.  Given their vital strategic value to the Axis the refineries were heavily defended by flak defences and fighter squadrons and the attrition rate on Allied bombers and crews was high.  Many of the crews bailed out over Yugoslavia, occupied by German and Italian troops and divided by complex internal divisions: the Fascist Ustase, collaborating with the Axis, and the Communist Partisans led by Tito and Royalist Chetniks led by Mihailović.  The latter two had a different approach to fighting the Axis, the Partisans being more pro-active, the Chetniks biding time until an Allied invasion to avoid severe civilian reprisals, and were engaged in a civil war for control of Yugoslavia post war.  From 1943 onwards, the Allies position was to back the more active Partisans and the advice given to airmen was if they bailed out to try and avoid the Chetniks, who were suspected of collaboration. 

The Forgotten 500 tells the story of the airmen who landed into Chetnik hands and were subsequently rescued by a daring mission organised by OSS and the American Air Force.  Despite the warnings given to them, the several hundred airmen who ended up in Chetnik hands were treated as heroes, extended warm hospitality and offered sanctuary.  Nevertheless, many were injured, all were hungry, and their presence threatened the lives of local villagers.  After a lot of in-fighting amongst the Allies, Operation Halyard was formulated by the OSS to extract them.  Three agents were parachuted in and along with the Chetniks and airmen constructed a short runway at Pranjane in the mountains.  On August 9th and 10th 272 men were picked up by C-47 transport planes are flown back to Italy.  Over the next few months more airmen were extracted bringing the total up to 512 rescued.

Freeman’s account of the rescue mission seeks to balance the story of the American airmen in Yugoslavia, with the efforts of the OSS to organize their rescue, and the wider political landscape of Yugoslavia and the Allies relationship to its two main anti-Axis factions: the Partisans and Chetniks.  His telling is heavily weighted towards the first two using extended personal stories of a handful of survivors to tell the tale.  Some of this material whilst interesting is largely extraneous to the story.  On the other hand, the wider framing of the Yugoslav arena and its internal conflicts is quite cursorily dealt with, as is the Communist ring that influenced the Allied position vis-a-vis its engagement with different factions.  The latter part of the book deals with events after the war.  The victorious Partisans put Mihailović on trial for treason.  Those rescued by Operation Halyard petitioned to be able to attend the trial as witnesses for the defence, and even after his execution continued to campaign to clear his name.  However, for political reasons the rescue mission was largely kept a secret and little attempt was made to set the historical record straight.  Overall, it’s an interesting book, but in my view could have done with a bit of an edit to avoid repetition and redundancy and to frame the mission a bit more firmly in the wider political landscape.  The inclusion of some maps (e.g., the flight path to Ploesti, the strongholds of Partisans and Chetniks, a local map of where the rescue took place) would have also been useful.


Rick Robinson said...

Rob, sounds like a fascinating story if it were told with the editing you suggest. Is it possible to skim past the rest, or must one pick the way through to get "the good stuff"?

Rob Kitchin said...

Richard, I think you'd find it an okay read and interesting story. I never felt like I was wading through it, just that the balance of the narrative was somewhat skewed and it could have done with a decent edit.