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Spitfires of the No 352 (Y) Squadron RAF before first mission on 18 August 1944, from airport Canne - Italy, Yugoslav Aeronautical Museum

During World War II, the Balkan Air Force (BAF) was an Allied air formation composed of units of the Royal Air Force and South African Air Force under the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces command. It was active from 7 June 1944 until 15 July 1945 under the command of RAF Air Vice Marshals William Elliot and George Mills.

The BAF operated mainly over Yugoslavia, supporting the Partisans against Germany, but occasionally supporting the Greek and Albanian resistance movements also.


The formation was based at Bari in Italy, and activated on 7 June 1944, to simplify command arrangements for the air support of Special Operations Executive-operations in the Balkans, i.e. across the Adriatic and in the Aegean and Ionian seas. The Desert Air Force had been responsible for those operations, but its prime job was the support of the troops of the Commonwealth Eighth Army, thus making operations over the Balkans a distraction. The Balkan Air Force was a subordinate to Mediterranean Allied Air Forces, the overall allied air formation in the Mediterranean.

The BAF mainly supported the operations of the Partisans, led by Josip Broz Tito, against German forces in Yugoslavia, but also provided support to Greek and Albanian resistance organisations. It transported supplies to the partisans, evacuated wounded, dropped agents to help them, and provided air support in their operations against German troops.

The Balkan Air Force was a multinational unit, with 15 types of aircraft and men from eight nations: Greece, co-belligerent Italy, Poland, South Africa, Yugoslavia, the UK, USA and USSR (a transport squadron). Between its inception and May 1945 the BAF flew 38,340 sorties, dropped 6,650 tons of bombs, delivered 16,440 tons of supplies and flew 2,500 individuals into Yugoslavia and 19,000 (mostly wounded) out.[1]

Towards the end of its existence, it operated a small number of units from Yugoslav soil to harass the retreating Germans. However, disgreements with Tito (particularly the arrest of members of the Special Boat Squadron on 13 April 1945, although they were quickly released) meant that all British ground forces were withdrawn, although BAF aircraft operating from Zadar continued to support the Partisan offensive. Between 19 March and 3 May they flew 2,727 sorties, attacking the German withdrawal route from Sarajevo to Zagreb and supporting the Fourth Yugoslav Army advancing from Bihac to Rijeka.[2]

The Balkan Air Force was disbanded on 15 July 1945. During its short existence, it was commanded by (British) Royal Air Force Air Vice Marshals William Elliot and George Mills.[3]

Deakin and Maclean

William Deakin was attached as advisor to the newly formed command, Balkan Air Force, under (then) Air Vice Marshal William Elliot, with headquarters at Bari, Italy. This body assumed responsibility for all operations by land, sea, and air into Central and South-Eastern Europe.[4]

Fitzroy Maclean the head of the British military mission to the Partisans said that the Balkan Air Force " .... was responsible for the planning and co-ordination of all supply dropping as well as for all bomber and fighter operations in support of the Partisans. This gave me a single authority with whom I could deal direct and was of incalculable advantage in obtaining quick results”.... This was decisive in enabling the Partisans to withstand the Raid on Drvar (Seventh Offensive) [5]

Much of the planning for “Operation Ratweek” to impede the German withdrawal from the Balkans was done at B.A.F. Headquarters and Maclean’s own Rear Headquarters at Bari. Ratweek, started on 1 September 1944, also involved the Navy and the Partisans [6] USAAF Flying Fortresses (50) were called in to bomb Leskovac and impede the German withdrawal, though with many civilian casualties [7]

Units of the Air Force

Gallery of images


Notes and citations
  1. The Oxford Companion to World War II page 79
  2. The Oxford Companion to World War II page 80
  3. Air of Authority. Retrieved November 2008.
  4. Deakin p 265
  5. Maclean p 460-1
  6. Maclean p 471
  7. Maclean p 486-7
  • Deakin, F.W.D. (1971). The Embattled Mountain. Oxford University Press, London. ISBN 0-19-215175-4. 
  • Maclean, Fitzroy (1949). Eastern Approaches. Jonathan Cape, London. 
  • The Oxford Companion to World War II, edited by I.C.B. Dear & M.R.D. Foot (2005, Oxford University Press) ISBN 0-19-280666-1
  • Milanović, Djordje (1978). Naši Piloti u Borbi (Our Pilots in Combat), Četvrti Jul, Belgrade.

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