The Belgrade Hariken

The Royal Yugoslav Army Air Force (Vazduhoplovstvo Vojske Kraljevine Jugoslavije, VVKJ) was born from the old Serbian Army Aircorps post-Versailles with the former tracing its origin to 1912.

An early armed Bleriot XI two-seater aircraft of the Serbian Army. Pilot Miodrag Tomic and Scout Sgt. Milutin Mihailovic at the machine gun. Taken on the Serbian Front, May 1915

By WWII, the force had a strength of some 30,000 officers and men, flying 460 aircraft. Astride Fascist Italy (who had just invaded Albania in 1939), the Yugoslavs had turned to the British to help flesh out their force for possible war.

In 1937, the VVKJ bought 24 Hawker Hurricane Mk.Is (“Hariken” in Yugoslav use) and secured a license to produce another 100 domestically in local factories from kits (60 at Rogozarski and 40 at Zmaj.)

Note the distinctive VVKJ roundels, which ceased to exist in 1941

Meanwhile, Rogožarski was putting the finishing touches on a very fast fighter plane of native design, the Ikarus IK-3, which could use the legendary Rolls-Royce Merlin II engine, and likely would have given the early P-51 Mustang a run for its money had it gone into full production.

As it turned out, by the time the Axis roared across the Yugoslavian border in April 1941, the country had just 41 Hurricanes to defend it and the handful of IK-3s were basically just experimental.

Hurricanes of the VVKJ’s 6th Fighter Squadron, 1940

Nonetheless, Yugoslav pilots gave it their all and downed a number of estimated German aircraft (claims vary but seem to run into a happy median of about 20) in their short 11-day war before destroying most of their remaining planes on the ground and displacing for British-held North Africa. Some were soon flying with the RAF’s transport service and by 1942 formed “B” Flight of No. 94 RAF squadron, flying
Hurricane IICs out of Egypt.

The Brits later formed two wholly-Yugoslav-manned squadrons in the RAF, 351 and 352, in Libya in 1944, as part of the Allied Balkan Air Force. Both units flew Hurricanes with No. 351 seeing their first combat on 13 October while No. 352 (which later converted to Spitfires) became active on 18 August.

By the end of the war, the two squadrons had deployed to Yugoslavian airfields, and, flying the Red Star of Tito’s National Liberation Army– his Partisans were the only WWII resistance movement to have their own air force–  had completed 593 combat sorties.

Yugoslavian pilot Tugomir Prebeg with his damaged Hawker Hurricane 1945

Yugoslav ground crew wheel a trolley of 3-inch RP-3 rockets past re-armed Hawker Hurricane Mark IVs of No. 351 Squadron (Y) RAF in their dispersals at Prkos, Yugoslavia. 31 December 1944 IWM CNA 3500

Post-War, the VVKJ ceased to exist, replaced by the new Yugoslav Air Force (Jugoslovensko Ratno Vazduhoplovstvo, JRV) which endured until 1992 after the Breakup of Yugoslavia. The organization continued to fly a small number of Hurricanes until 1952, ironically alongside German Me109s and Soviet Yaks.

One, Hurricane Mk IV RP LD975, is on display at the Yugoslav Aeronautical Museum adjacent to Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport.

Photo: Muzej Vazduhoplovstva

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