Montenegro air base that played role in Israel's birth under threat
Remote airfield ensured Israel's survival in operation to provide warplanes for its nascent air force.
The remote airstrip, encircled by Montenegro's snowcapped mountains and overrun by grazing sheep, was the setting for the death of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1941.
But after World War II, it also played a role in the birth of a new state, Israel, serving as a key staging base during its struggle for independence.
Recently declassified documents in both Israel and Serbia reveal that the airfield helped ensure the survival of the new state, as part of a cloak-and dagger operation in 1948 to provide warplanes for its nascent air force in the War of Independence.
"Without this help in armaments, we probably could not have won the war and maybe the state of Israel would never have survived," said Meir Pail, a prominent Israeli military historian who fought in the conflict. "So from our point of view, it was a blessing."
Two new publications - The IAF in the War of Independence by Capt. Avi Cohen of the Israel Air Force's historical department and The Yugoslav Air Force, 1942-92 by Belgrade historian Bojan Dimitrijevic, dating from 2006 and 2007 respectively - provide new details on the clandestine, three-month long operation to supply Israel with Spitfires via Niksic.
Today Niksic airfield is owned by the Montenegrin defense ministry, but operated by a civilian flying club. There isn't much traffic anymore, allowing local farmers to use the grass runway as a grazing ground.
Members of the flying club are worried about its future, because developers are eying the field as the site for a shopping mall and residential homes. "We are trying to preserve this airport but the military wants to sell it," said Miodrag Mrvaljevic, the head of Montenegro's light aviation association.
Built in the 1930s to repel an expected Italian attack from across the Adriatic, the airfield earned a footnote in history as the site from which Yugoslavia's last king and his government fled abroad in April 1941 to escape the Nazi onslaught.
By an odd coincidence, the government-in-exile ended up in Jerusalem, the capital of British-held Palestine.
Then, in 1948, Jewish agents secretly arranged with representatives of Yugoslavia's postwar Communist leader Josip Broz Tito to use Niksic as a waystation for a batch of 60 Spitfire fighters purchased from Czechoslovakia.
Tito gave his approval for the operation, which was codenamed Velvetta. He was persuaded to lend assistance to the new nation by members of Yugoslavia's small Jewish community, who included several top officials in his government and army.
"There was very strong sentiment to begin with, because (Tito's) partisans helped the Jews during WWII, and some Jews from Palestine had been air-dropped into Yugoslavia to work as radio operators for the guerrillas," said Alon Kadish, a historian at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Fortunately, Yugoslavia also operated several squadrons of Spitfires in the late 1940s, so the Israeli flights provoked no undue suspicion, said Cedomir Janjic of the Yugoslav Air Force Museum in Belgrade.
The operation was treated as super-secret because it was opposed by the British and Soviets, he said. The Israelis were allowed to repair and run the base while bringing in the Spitfires and transport planes and modifying and repainting them with Yugoslav insignia for the ferry flights to Israel.
At the time, the Yugoslavs feared that Britain and the Soviet Union would try to interfere with the operation because Tito was sharply at odds with both nations.
London blamed Belgrade for the near-sinking of two Royal Navy destroyers that had struck Yugoslav mines in the Adriatic Sea, while Soviet leader Joseph Stalin regarded Tito as a renegade after he refused to submit to Soviet control.
The Israeli Spitfires were fitted out with additional fuel tanks, and their machine guns were removed to save on weight. These were flown to Israel in transports that accompanied the fighters on their trek across the Mediterranean.
To protect secrecy, the newcomers were forbidden from fraternizing with the locals or with Yugoslav guards stationed outside the base.
"We knew something strange was going on because nobody was allowed to get near the field," said Rade Banovic, who as a boy used to shepherd his family's goats and cows in the hills overlooking the site. "Later we heard rumors that 'Israelis' were around, but at that time nobody knew what Israelis were."
By the end of 1948 all of the Czechoslovak planes had been transferred to Israel, and Operation Velvetta slipped silently into intelligence archives.