As you lie in the heat of the summer sunshine, gazing out at the turquoise Adriatic Sea, the UK seems such a long way away and it is hard to imagine that British armed forces could ever have made part of Croatia their home. We’re used to the idea of the Venetians running up and down the coast building in that amazing golden local stone, but if we associate the country with Britons and war at all, we tend to think of blue berets and the recent break up of Yugoslavia. There were indeed British forces in Croatia at that time, including, for instance, a unit based at Divulje airbase at Split, whose hospitality I enjoyed on at least one occasion.
In fact, Britain has a much longer military association with Croatia and, improbable though it sounds, there is a small bit of Croatia that has been, at least for a while, British. As early as the fourth century, Magnus Maximus, who was later to enter Welsh legend as Macsen Wledig, led an army from Britain into mainland Europe to seize the imperial throne. And he specifically recruited more Brits for an attempted invasion of Italy. But the forces of Theodosius advancing from the east won a significant victory over forces from the army of Maximus at Siscia, present-day Sisak in Croatia, and Magnus Maximus himself was captured and killed at Aquileia in northern Italy shortly afterwards.
Many British holidaymakers know the beautiful Croatian islands, and will have their favourite spot. Vis lies one of the furthest from the Croatian mainland, and it is perhaps for this reason that on two occasions in our history we have chosen to make it a British base.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the Adriatic was a vital strategic area both commercially, because of the trade routes that ran through it, and strategically, because of its location on the southern flank of Napoleon’s extending power base. It was too tempting a target for the Royal Navy. In 1807 we seized control of the 14-mile-long island of Vis, or Lissa as it was then known, and built a naval base at Port St George.
Using Vis as a base we then proceeded to raid French positions and allies in and around the Adriatic, occupying a few that took our fancy, such as the Ionian Islands (see Greece). Unsurprisingly, the French found this rather irksome and, in March 1811, a leading French naval commander, Rear Admiral Bernard Dubourdieu, led a sizeable task force of six frigates, plus other ships and hundreds of soldiers, towards Lissa with the intention of ending Britain’s stay on the island. Perhaps unwisely, Dubourdieu decided personally to lead a boarding attempt on the British commander’s ship HMS Amphion. The British then launched a load of musket balls at point blank range at the French, which killed Dubourdieu and many of his officers, rather weighting the odds against the French. The result of the battle was a decisive victory for Britain, leaving us free to roam up and down the Adriatic at will for the rest of the war, working with our Austrian allies to destroy French influence in the area. In May 1811, Alceste and Belle Poule chased a French brig into Porec harbour and landed men and guns on a nearby island to fire on and sink the brig. In August 1813, landing parties from HMS Eagle and HMS Bacchante attacked Rovinj and captured or destroyed twenty-one vessels there. And in 1814, we forced the surrender of lots of prime real estate along the Adriatic coast at Zadar, Kotor (see Montenegro) and even Dubrovnik, something to think about if you ever wander through Dubrovnik’s gorgeous streets today.
This was not to be our last stay on Vis. The nineteenth century turned into the twentieth century, and another little corporal set off on his own European tour. In 1941, Hitler’s blitzkrieg smashed its way through Yugoslavia, of which Croatia was then a part. It was the beginning of our return to Vis, in what was to become one of the most interesting, but least known aspects of our Second World War effort. We’ve all heard about the invasions of France and Sicily, but who knows about our landing in Croatia?
Up until 1943, the Italians had been the occupying power. When Italy dropped out of the war, Tito’s partisans took over a number of the Croatian islands and, to prevent the Germans moving in, we decided to base forces again on our old home, Vis. This time round our forces consisted of a couple of commando units, the Highland Light Infantry and some other troops. Together, they were rather grandly known as Land Forces Adriatic. There were also the motor gunboats of the 61 Motor Gun Boat (MGB) Flotilla, and Allied planes flying off an airstrip carved out of the vine-covered countryside.
The base was the same as in the Napoleonic Wars and, in many ways the mission was similar. The gunboats spent much of their time attacking and sometimes just seizing supply ships. The Royal Navy also transported commandos and partisans in assorted raids on targets up and down the coast that many Britons have more recently visited on holiday. Operation Detained targeted Solta; Operation Endowment went to Hvar; Operation Farrier attacked Mljet; and the delightfully named Operation Flounced was aimed at Brac. Several more ambitious plans for attacks in the Adriatic area were formulated and then shelved as the focus of the war shifted elsewhere; nevertheless, at a crucial period of the war, British forces on Vis had distracted the enemy, made him feel unsafe in what was then his own backyard and ultimately played a key role in facilitating the final partisan victory in Yugoslavia.
It’s all well worth thinking about, if you ever get to wander today though the vineyards, pine trees and citrus orchards of Vis.
One final slightly random effect of the Second World War was that we ended up occupying the beautiful Croatian city of Pula, with its lovely stone buildings and Roman amphitheatre, for a couple of years after the war, as part of the process to settle border disputes with Italy. A British battalion of the 26th Guards Brigade helped US troops control the territory.
The last time we attacked targets in Croatia was during the war after Croatia declared independence. For instance, on 21 November 1994, two Jaguars from 54 Squadron bombed Udbina air base, at that time held by rebel Croatian Serbs.