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Island of Vis during the Second World War

The Adriatic island of Vis was a little known allied base in WW2, home to Partisans, a British Commando brigade, a small force of US Rangers, together with air and naval support. Its an interesting story and offers some interesting actions, very suitable for small scale WW2 wargaming. 

Following the Italian capitulation on 8 September 1943, the Germans poured troops into the Balkans, with the 114th Jager Division supressing the Italian divisions on the coast. The partisans were not equipped to fight set piece battles so they harassed the Germans and then withdrew to the hills. The islands created a different problem for the Germans, who had limited naval assets in the region, to capture and then to hold them. None the less they eventually captured the islands closest to the coast. 

While this was going on the allies, having landed in Southern Italy, were looking for an advanced base with a defensible harbour. This would be a base for RN Coastal Forces (MTB and MGBs) to raid the coast and as a secure base for the island partisans. A landing strip to enable close support for the partisan operations was also planned. The obvious place for this base was Vis, the furthest out of the islands, closest to Italy and with two natural harbours. The island was not new to the British, who had used it as a naval base in the Napoleonic wars. 

An MTB model and obituary to Canadian Captain Fuller who served on Vis. In Fort George museum.

The allied liaison officer with the partisans, Fitzroy Maclean, persuaded Churchill and Tito of the merits of his plan and got the Commandos of No.2 Special Service Brigade assigned as a garrison for the island with a remit to raid from it. The brigade was commanded by Brigadier Tom Churchill and included No.2 Commando commanded by his older brother Colonel Jack (Mad Jack) Churchill. Famous for being the last British soldier to fell an enemy with a longbow in 1940, not to mention his idiosyncratic choice of weaponry that includes a claymore. There are too many Churchill’s in this story, neither of these is related to the PM although his son Randolph Churchill was attached to the allied mission.  

British Commandos from the Warlord range in 28mm

The primary job of 2 Commando was to defend Vis, but this was an aggressive defence with troops acting as boarding parties on the MTB and MGB sorties. Coastal forces had been active for some time sinking a German destroyer and 84 other craft. The partisans also made extensive use of schooners and fishing boats. Commando and Ranger officers were sent to the nearby-occupied islands of Hvar, Brac and Solta to observe the German garrisons and collect intelligence from the partisans. 

On 3 February 1944 Jack Churchill led a troop of Commandos in the first attack on a strongpoint in Hvar town, capturing prisoners who provided useful intelligence.  After this and further partisan attacks, the Germans concentrated their garrisons into a few strongpoints. An example of this was Nerezisce, a small hamlet in the centre of Brac. On 20th February a Lieutenant Barton with partisans sneaked into the hamlet and succeeded in shooting the German commander. 

Large scale partisan attacks on the islands of Korcula and Mljet with RN support netted some 500 prisoners, these and others were held on the small island of Bisevo off Vis. Today, tourists visit the island in droves to see the Blue Cave. German prisoners were not so enthusiastic as many were shot in reprisal for German and Ustashi atrocities on the mainland. 

As the rest of the commando brigade were released from the Italian campaign, more ambitious raids were undertaken. The brigade also benefited from the addition of a raiding support troop with heavy weapons. In April a raiding force attacked Solta with 180 commandos, 138 US troops (mostly of Yugoslav origin), with three 47mm guns and four HMGs. Kittyhawk dive bombers supported the attack. It was a complete success killing or capturing all the German troops on the island. A similar attack on Hvar was also successful. 

By the middle of 1944 the airstrip had a permanent section of Spitfires or Hurricanes as well as accommodating emergency landings of US bombers. Heavy and light AA protected the island. The naval support now included landing craft, which made beach landings easier, particularly for artillery (25pdrs and 75mm pack howitzers) and other heavy weapons. More than 1600 partisans in five battalions were also based on Vis. 

    

The airfield is marked today by a field.                                                                                                                and a sadly defaced monument

In May 1944, the Germans raided Tito’s HQ at Drvar in Bosnia and almost captured him. Urgent raids were put together to distract the Germans from the hunt for Tito. These included partisan and commando raids on all the islands. These had become more challenging as the Germans had dug in with fortified positions. The main attack on Brac island involved most of the Brigade and the commandos alone suffered more than 120 casualties. Jack Churchill was also captured. However, it did force the Germans to reinforce the island with around 2000 troops, so the strategic objective was achieved. 

Tito and the Central Committee were based on the island for a period after he escaped from Drvar. His mountain cave complex can be visited today.

    

By September 1944 the Germans started thinning out their garrisons on the islands as part of their withdrawal from the Balkans. The troops on Vis now focused on preventing them from escaping and occupying the islands, rather than simply raiding. This still meant tough fighting as the German positions were well defended. For example, two companies of the 892nd Grenadier Regiment with 32,000 land mines now garrisoned Solta. The garrisons on all the islands could call in artillery support from coastal batteries at Split. 

The island raids from Vis are ideal for wargaming with Bolt Action rules. The British and German forces can be taken from the army list books and the partisans from the French and allies book. 

For further reading, I recommend Michael McConville ‘A Small War in the Balkans’. This gives a detailed account of the most important raids. Fitzroy Maclean ‘Eastern Approaches’ gives a good overview and for the naval war there is ‘Secret Flotillas Vol2’ by Brooks Richards. Bill Strutton ‘Island of Terrible Friends’ gives a detailed insight on what is was like to be based on Vis, mostly from the perspective of the medical staff in the field hospital.

Some pictures of a typical commando and partisan raid on a German fortified position on the islands. The game was played with Bolt Action rules.

 

 

 

 

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Last modified: 01/23/12