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An exciting tale drowned in peculiar politics
on October 17, 2013
This book surprised me. I was prepared for a solid narrative of an apparently exciting wartime event about which I knew little. Instead, the core of the story--the rescue of hundreds of allied airmen in World War II Yugoslavia--was greatly diminished by the author's stop-and-start character development and strange fascination with Draza Mihailovich. Freeman begins with a competently told story of an American airman, Clare Musgrove, downed in Nazi-controlled Serbia while flying one of the heroic and blood-curdling missions over the Ploesti oilfields. Yet as I settled in to follow the interesting tale of Musgrove and other fliers on the run in Yugoslavia, the story shifted to a biography of the OSS agent who eventually headed the rescue operation, George Vujnovich, and his "sophisticated, learned, beautiful blond" Serbian wife (these sorts of character descriptions turned out to be unpleasantly frequent). This story too is mildly interesting. I started thinking to myself, "Oh, THIS is what this book is about--the effort of Vujonvich and his OSS colleagues in getting the fliers out of Yugoslavia. Usually, at this point in a World War II book of this kind, the author immerses his reader in the fascinating details of a secret mission that will supply the book's main source of appeal. Nope. Not that either. In fact, what this book is really about (as other reviewers have noted) is a defense of Serbian wartime political leader Draza Mihailovich.
I'm by no means an expert on modern Serbian history, and I definitely don't want to be, but the universally held historical opinion among people who are expert seems to be that the dubious Mihailovich was at best an opportunist. The general weight of opinion about his actions during the war is that, through people in his senior leadership, he collaborated with the Nazis and oversaw troops involved in the kind of Serbian "ethnic cleansing" that made its dreadful reappearance in recent history. Freeman invests much of the book with his own anti-communist agenda, and in doing so, he misrepresents the actions of both American and British secret services. Essentially, Freeman appears to be a resurrected post-war right-wing True Believer, who is be smitten with the CIA in its particularly paranoid post-war incarnation. There's also a weird and paranoid anglophobic slant to his description of British activities in Yugoslavia, where the British were clearly far more knowledgeable and far more effective than their naive (to put it politely) American cousins. The British supported Tito, and with good reason: The Chetniks, Mihailovich's "rebels," spent most of their time fighting Jews, Croats, Muslims, and communists, very often courting their fellow anti-semites the Nazis, and recurrently bidding for German aid in the shared noble cause of ethnic cleansing. Tito was no angel. His show trial of Mihailovich was despicable. But unlike the Chetniks, ensconced in their mountain fastnesses, waiting for the Allies to rescue them, and posing no threat to the Germans, Tito and the Partisans were fully engaged in fighting and dying, like the Maquis in France, the Polish Home Army, and the Dutch, Norwegian and Greek Resistance movements, fighting their no-quarter clandestine war against Nazism.
Finally, I have to point out that the book is rife with errors, which I'm surprised haven't been called out by the World War II buffs among the reviewers. A typical example: On page 216, Freeman devotes a long paragraph to the German Stuka dive bomber, calling it "one of the most advanced and successful planes used in World War II." This is isn't just wrong--it's embarrassingly wrong. The Stuka is universally treated with contempt by historians of the air war in Europe. Stukas were incapable of taking on any Allied warplane of any kind by 1941, by which time it was a woefully out-of-date death-trap for its pilots.
Finally, the book is also rife with truly outstanding examples of stating the obvious. A typical instance: "They climbed into a C-47 painted black to make it harder to see at night."