Bojan Dimitrijevic and Milan Micevski, Tito’s Underground Air Base (Helion, 2020)
Where would you hide your Air Force in the event of a nuclear war? This was a question that preyed on the minds of Yugoslav military planners in the early phases of the Cold War. Their answer: carve out the inside of a hill and put the warplanes in it. So begins the fascinating story of Tito’s Underground Air Base brought to us by two experts in Yugoslav military history.
The base started with the question that became an idea then reality. Dimitrijevic and Micevski describe the ‘Top-Secret’ base’s planning and construction near Bihać, now in Bosnia – it was not Top-Secret for long. Work began in 1957 and took nearly a decade to complete, though the first asphalt covered runways were laid down in 1964. Mig-21 fighters arrived in 1968 with elaborate air defence systems already in place, but the base was already behind schedule. When Tito visited a second time in 1970, the interior galleries were still not fully operational. Further problems followed when exercises revealed how vulnerable the base was and crashes were not infrequent before 1973. But the situation improved through that decade and into the 1980s. In the early 1990s, however, Yugoslavia fell apart and the base found itself on the frontline of an increasingly bitter war, and the divisions in the country were mirrored among the pilots and support crews at the base. In 1992, the UN arrived in the wake of the peace agreement and flying became restricted. But the situation became untenable and the base was evacuated in May with much of it destroyed. The only remaining functional part was the radar station as a Serb facility, but it too had to be evacuated and destroyed in 1995 while under attack from Croat and Muslim militias.
This slim but information packed book is an excellent new addition to Helion’s Europe @ War series. The authors examine every facet of life and work in the underground air base; they might be accused of providing too much detail at times. Many photographs of the base, planes, and personnel accompany the text, and the colour plates of the MIG-21 aircraft are exceptional. Anyone interested in Cold War air forces will enjoy this book, and even if you are not Tito’s Underground Air Base is a surprisingly good account of an operational military base during the Cold War.