Waugh’s Visit to Vis

The Observer has published an interview of Croatian writer Srećko Horvat whose new book Poetry from the Future will be issued next week. The interviewer Andrew Anthony describes him as “one of the busiest leftwing political activists in Europe”, noting his friendship with such other activists as Julian Assange, Yanis Varoufakis (former Greek Finance Minister), and writer Slavoj Žižek. Srećko lives on the Croatian island of Vis where the Observer conducted most of the interview. A tour of the island is described and includes a report on its importance in the history of WWII and of Evelyn Waugh’s part in that history. As explained by the Observer’s interviewer:

… Horvat is keen to show me the island’s sights. There’s Tito’s cave, in which the Partisan hero was said to have hidden – Evelyn Waugh, on an army mission, actually flew out to meet him. There’s also an abandoned network of military bunkers and tunnels, and a secret submarine shelter. Before we see these delights we sit down for an interview.

The island is located off the Dalmatian coast south of Split and was the closest of the Dalmatian islands to Allied bases in Southern Italy. When Mussolini was deposed in September 1943, the Italians, who were occupying Vis, pulled out, and the island was taken over by the Partisans. Some time in late 1943-early 1944 the Partisans allowed the British to establish a base there. An airfield was built which provided a convenient access to mainland targets as well as a reliable relief station for damaged Allied aircraft unable to fly the distance to Italian bases. It also proved convenient when in late May 1944 the Germans attacked Partisan headquarters in Drvar, Bosnia, with the goal of kidnapping Tito. The Partisans managed to evacuate him out of harm’s way with the help of the British mission who flew him to Bari and from there to Vis where a new HQ was temporarily established in June.

Shortly thereafter, Waugh and Randolph Churchill were in Bari awaiting passage to a new British mission they were to operate in Topusko, Croatia. They were members of a party of Allied officials flown to Vis to meet Tito and prepare him for his scheduled meeting with General Maitland “Jumbo” Wilson (Supreme Allied Commander of the Mediterranean) at Caserta. Waugh recorded his impressions of Tito (Diaries, 10 July 1944, pp. 571-2):

He in brand new cap and uniform of Russian marshall with Jug badge. Hammers, sickles and Communist slogans everywhere. [A note explains that it was, in fact, a Partisan uniform.] Tito startled all by going back on his agreement to meet Jumbo Wilson at Caserta. […] Orphans singng and rolling tins. Partisan girls. Omladinas [young people]. […] Tito like lesbian.

While the Germans had never apparently shown any interest in occupying Vis, they had fortified the adjacent island of Brač. The British and Partisans tried to take that island, while the Germans were distracted by their Drvar operation, but without success. It was reported to have been the biggest Allied action in Yugoslavia during the entire war. The British forces had withdrawn from Brač shortly before Waugh and Randolph Churchill arrived in Vis, and Waugh ironically closed his comments on the day of arrival, as he described walking through the vineyards: “Jack Churchill piped ‘Will you no come back again ?’ to fleeing Marines.” A note explains that Jack Churchill (who was usually referred to as “Mad Jack” and was not related to Randolph) had been captured in the Brač raid and was last seen (or heard) playing the tune on the bagpipes before he was captured. He survived the war and died in 1996. Waugh returned to Bari on 12 July. Whether Waugh knew Jack Churchill from his service in the Marines is not mentioned. Tito ultimately did meet with Jumbo and later on, in August, with Winston Churchill himself. Waugh never forgot his impression of Tito as a lesbian.

 

 

 

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