The Vega-31 shootdown, 27th March 1999

The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia emerged from the Second World War under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito, who was to remain in power until his death in 1980.  Containing six republics and two equally heterogeneous provinces, merely keeping peace between them was a substantial challenge, let alone growing them as a federative unit.  However, Tito “organised the central government to ensure his control but, at the same time, he delegated more authority to the Yugoslav Republics.  All Yugoslavians had educational opportunities, jobs, food, and housing regardless of nationality.  Tito, seen by most as a benevolent dictator, brought peaceful co-existence to the Balkan region, a region historically synonymous with factionalism”1.

Despite the fact that discontent had continued throughout the period, Tito’s passing, however, represented the removal of the “glue” that had held Yugoslavia together for nearly 40 years.  Unrest increased significantly after 1980, in particular that roused by Slobodan Milosevic regarding the province of Kosovo – containing, at the time, a 90% ethnic Albanian population, but considered by ethnic Serbs to be the cradle of their civilisation.  At various points in the 20th century, both have felt persecuted at varying times and with varying justification, and ethnic tensions have consistently run very high indeed.  Civil war erupted in 1998/99, placing tiny Kosovo on the world stage.

In order to try and put the brakes on the escalating catastrophe in Kosovo, international negotiations were held in a chateau in Rambouillet, near Paris, between 6 and 23 February 1999; further talks followed in Paris from 15 to 18 March.  At the end of the second round, the Kosovar Albanians signed NATO’s proposed peace agreement, but the Serbians would not, and the talks broke down.  In fact, the Serbian military and police forces “stepped up the intensity of their operations against the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, moving extra troops and modern tanks into the region…Tens of thousands of people began to flee their homes in the face of this systematic offensive”2.  US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke failed to persuade Milosevic to cease the attacks on the Albanians, and on 24 March 1999, NATO launched an air campaign entitled “Operation Allied Force”, with the aim of forcing the hand of the Yugoslavian government to end the persecution of the Kosovar Albanians.

A notable event occurred early on in the air war, on the night of 27 March 1999, when a Lockheed F-117A “Nighthawk” stealth attack aircraft of the United States Air Force – 82-0806 Something Wicked, callsign “Vega-31” – on a bombing raid in the vicinity of Beograd (Belgrade), was shot down by a Serbian surface-to-air missile; the only time that one of these planes was ever downed by an enemy.  The significance of the event is summed up by the Stealth Fighter Association: “the unthinkable had happened.  A super-secret invisible Stealth Fighter had been shot out of the sky”3.  The pilot of that plane was Lieutenant Colonel Dale Zelko, who miraculously managed to eject from the stricken aircraft and parachute to safety.  He landed just south of the town of Ruma, approximately 40 miles west of Beograd – by yet more good fortune, and clearly assisted by the cover of darkness, his landing was not observed, despite there being some traffic on the surrounding roads.  The enemy were, however, searching for him – as there would be great prestige and propaganda potential in capturing an F-117 pilot – but although they located the wreckage within about 15 minutes, remarkably Zelko remained undetected in the shallow irrigation ditch in which he was hiding.  Zelko later found out that they had “unleashed a giant manhunt…involving Army VJ, police, and villagers in the area.  I didn’t realise it at the time, but much later through study and analysis, I guessed that I was somewhere between one and two miles from the crash site, which is pretty close.  I believe I was well within the most heavily concentrated area of search”3.  Whilst in hiding, Zelko felt shockwaves from further US air attacks on targets very close to his location.  On the ground, he was able to make contact with his Command and Control and relay his position (although he got the impression that there was some suspicion that he may not have been the downed F-117 pilot but in fact a Serbian ambush), however he was able to authenticate himself with some personal information.  He was successfully plucked from enemy territory beneath the noses of the Serbians by a daring helicopter rescue mission approximately 8 hours after landing.  A truly exceptional event and a Combat Search and Rescue triumph.

(As an aside, this was not the first time during the 1990s civil war in Yugoslavia that an American airman had been shot down, then rescued by helicopter.  In June 1995, during the Bosnian War, USAF pilot Scott O’Grady survived for six days near Banja Luka having been shot down by the Bosnian Serbs whilst flying an F-16 “Fighting Falcon”.  However, this incident is arguably more significant, purely because Zelko’s aircraft was previously considered impossible to bring down).

Despite their failure to capture Zelko, the Serbians of course trumpeted their success at shooting the plane down, and it remains a subject of nationalistic pride even today.  It is still common to see Serbian tourist souvenirs, such as T-shirts, on sale bearing the phrase “sorry, we didn’t know it was invisible” and a picture of an F-117.  The salvaged canopy of the crashed plane itself is prominently exhibited in the Aeronautical Museum in Beograd.

As a postscript to this story, it was widely reported in the international press in 2012 that Zoltan Dani, formerly the commander of the Yugoslavian anti-aircraft rocket unit that shot down the F-117, and now the owner of a bakery, had met with Zelko and the two had become genuine friends.  This was made into a documentary, The Second Meeting (dir: Zeljko Mirkovic, 2013) and gives an interesting perspective on the human element of warfare.

Of course, the air combat continued after this encounter, and got increasingly more intense over the next two months.  NATO record that “following diplomatic efforts by Russia and the European Union on 3 June [1999], a Military Technical Agreement was concluded between NATO and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on 9 June [1999]”, and on the following day, “UN Security Council Resolution 1244 welcomed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’s acceptance of the principles for a political solution, including an immediate end to violence and a rapid withdrawal of its military, police and paramilitary forces and the deployment of an effective international civil and security presence, with substantial NATO participation”4.  As a result, after confirmation that the Yugoslav forces had begun to withdraw from Kosovo, Operation Allied Force was suspended with immediate effect.  It had lasted for 78 days.

The overall success of the operation has been queried.  Some claim that the damage – of all kinds – that it caused far outweighed that which it averted.  Certainly, the 14,000 bombs dropped during the 78 days resulted in a large number of civilian deaths – over 2,000, including 88 children.  One of the most well-known events was in broad daylight at Grdelica, in southern Serbia, on 12 April 1999, when two missiles fired by NATO aircraft struck a passenger train as it was crossing a river bridge, killing 14 and injuring 16.  The bridge was seen as one of many strategic locations targeted from the air; however, the bombing also resulted in the destruction of schools, hospitals, over 40,000 homes, and significant amounts of damage remain visible across the former Yugoslavia nearly 20 years on.

Despite this, it is clear that NATO achieved its stated aim – Milosevic did withdraw his troops from Kosovo, to ultimately be replaced by UNMIK (the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo), essentially an international security force created to maintain peace in the province.  The international presence has been reduced since the Kosovan declaration of independence in 2008, but, predictably, the unrest in and around Kosovo persists.

1 Shapiro, Susan G. & Shapiro, Ronald (2004), The Curtain Rises – Oral Histories of the Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, Jefferson: McFarland.  ISBN 0-7864-1672-6.

2 NATO (undated), ‘NATO’s role in relation to the conflict in Kosovo’.  Accessed 00:04 8 September 2016.

3 Stealth Fighter Association (2007), ‘Blast from the Past – Interview with Lt Colonel Dale Zelko, USAF’, Nighthawks magazine, Volume 5, Issue 1, May 2007.

4 NATO (undated), ‘The Kosovo Air Campaign’.  Accessed 23:04 14 March 2016.


Naval attack on Scarborough, 16th December 1914

Today, I visited the Yorkshire seaside resort of Scarborough.  An odd thing to do in the middle of December, I agree, but it gave me the opportunity to reflect on a significant and still-controversial event from 102 years ago this week.

Around the turn of the last century, Britain had the largest and most powerful naval force in the world; its “two power standard” ensured that it was at least the equal of the next two strongest navies in the world combined.  After the declaration of the Great War in August 1914, Germany was forced to accept that its Kaiserliche Marine – its Imperial Navy – was simply no match.  Consequently, as the war evolved, they were forced to take to less conventional means when it came to naval warfare – in general, ones which did not pit the two navies head-to-head.

One early tactic of the Germans was to send groups of their warships to less strategic harbours, where they could attack British vessels whilst outnumbered, they could “draw the fire” of the British forces allowing other ships to lay mines in waters further out, and ultimately compel the Royal Navy to alter the disposition of its vessels in order to better defend some of these more unlikely locations.

A raid on Great Yarmouth had occurred in November 1914, but did not cause much damage to the town itself.  An attack further up the east coast on the morning of Wednesday 16th December 1914 was to feature many of the same vessels but, from a German perspective, was to be more successful.

The battlecruisers SMS Derfflinger and SMS Von der Tann were tasked with attacking Scarborough followed by Whitby, whilst SMS Seydlitz, SMS Moltke and the armoured cruiser SMS Blücher headed for Hartlepool, and SMS Kolberg set to work laying a field of 100 mines in the North Sea waters off Flamborough Head.

Scarborough, along with Hartlepool, was attacked as dawn broke at approximately 08:00, with very little warning for the people that lived there. The defenceless town was just beginning its day when 29 minutes of solid bombardment began, seeing a whopping 776 shells launched at it (that’s nearly 26 per minute!).  Initially the people did not recognise the gravity of the situation; as the Scarborough Mercury reported at the time, “numbers of people, in order to obtain a good view of what they thought was a naval battle, took up positions which they afterwards recognised placed them in great peril”.

Ultimately, 18 people died – tragically, 4 of them from the same family – ranging from 65 years old to just 14 months.  Many buildings were damaged; among them, three churches, the castle and the Grand Hotel, as well as two schools – but, luckily, the children had not yet arrived.  Scarborough harbour did not even contain any warships – just four fishing vessels, the coastguard station and the lighthouse constituted the attack’s maritime casualties.

The terrified townspeople took to the roads leading away from the town, and also its railway station, boarding trains to escape to towns and cities further inland.  Remarkably, they were passed in the other direction by daytrippers who had heard news of the attack, and obviously saw the opportunity to see “the war” at first hand as one not to miss.

We might run the risk of judging these people too harshly with the benefit of a century of hindsight.  Even by this stage in the war, very little had been fed back to Britain regarding actual conditions in the trenches – the war was still commonly expected to be over imminently, and the papers were full of propagandistic depictions of naïve young men heading away with smiles on their faces, expecting simply a great adventure with their friends.  Most people had no idea of the horror unfolding on the continent, much less the horror that was to come on the “Home Front” at various times over the next 30 years.

The British propaganda machine reacted to the Scarborough raid immediately; focusing on it much more than the far more effective Hartlepool raid.  This shouldn’t really be surprising – Scarborough saw almost entirely civilian casualties, and numerous deaths of women and children, as well as being a holiday destination familiar to many.  It could be considered to have brought the war to familiar shores for the first time.  Posters implored young men to “Remember Scarborough” and enlist for the armed forces.  In this respect, it could be considered to have been a long-term failure for the Germans, as it was ultimately used to recruit even more people to fight against them, and gave them something tangible to avenge.

All but one of the German vessels involved in the operations of 16th December 1914 survived the war, mostly to be scuttled by their crews at Scapa Flow in 1919.  The exception was SMS Blücher, which was sunk during at Dogger Bank in early 1915.  There, its unfortunate crew were the victims of German ingenuity – the vessel itself was intended by the Germans effectively as a copy of the Invincible-class battlecruisers of the Royal Navy; but whilst Royal Navy ships and crews were engaged in rescuing its crew, a German Zeppelin actually mistook the stricken and doomed SMS Blücher for a British ship and commenced bombing, leading to the withdrawal of the British ships and the needless deaths of hundreds of their own men.  However, that is a story for another time.