The geography of the Vis island and its position in the Adriatic sea ensured that during its history it poved a vital strategic location on the Adriatic for the purposes of maritime trade and naval warfare. The development of the aviation technology during the first half of the 20th century opened new possibilities for trade and travel. Vis will be one of the first places in Croatia to to utilize these new technologies, but, as it was often the case during its history, it was used for war – specifically, during the bloodiest conflict in human history, Second World War.
Although the island of Vis was under Italian occupation at the start of WWII, after its capitulation in September 1943 it became the focal point of the war effort and the last stronghold of the resistance on the Croatian territory. Following the capitulation, members of the People’s Liberation Army of Yugoslavia (known as Partisans) liberated entire Croatian coast and its islands, but soon they had to retreat in front of the German counterattack to the islands of Šolta, Brač, Hvar and Vis. German military operations were halted because of the approaching winter, but it was obvious that they will renew the offensive on spring of 1944. Partisans were faced with the shortage of food and materiel and burdened with a large number of non-combatants (women, children, sick and the wounded) that made any kind of military operation difficult. Therefore, at the end of 1943 and the start of 1944 partisan leadership on Vis made two decisions that will shape the course of war: they will establish contact with the Allied forces in southern Italy and ask for their help, and they will fortify Vis as a last bastion of resistance. The Allies were aware of the advantages of using Vis island as a forward base, so first they transfered the non-combatants from Vis to southern Italy and then to Egypt, and they helped the fortification of Vis with men and materiel. Of course that the Germans tried to stop this, but because they didn’t have enough manpower to capture and hold the island, they limited their actions to sporadic bombings with limited effects.
Very soon it became apparent that the Allies will need to establish air superiority for purposes of the defense of Vis island, as well as the control of the shipping lines and negating the German air control. To that end, it was decided that Vis should have an airfield, and it’s construction began in March 1944. For this purpose around 30 acres of most fertile vineyards were cleared on the area of Velo polje, which caused great economic damage to the island. Members of the Resistance were sent to Italy for training on airfield operations, and German POW did the bulk of the work. Because the whole area was prone to suuden flooding, to save on time and costs the runway was covered with interlocking steel plates to minimise the damage. The runway itself was 850 m long and 140 m wide, and it had a complimentary emergency runway in Plisko polje, and the meteorological stations and hangars in Dračevo polje. The airfield was fit only for daytime operations, but they could set up an emergency lighting for nocturnal landings. It was primarily designed to receive damaged planes when they returned form their missions over Germany and the Balkans and to repair and resupply them. During the summer of 1944 215 Allied aircraft forcibly landed on the airfield, which saved the lives of 1936 Allied airmen. Airfield was also used for emergency medical transports and supply transfer. With the establishment of the airbase the course of war in Dalmatia was altered and it laid the foundation for the further liberation of the Croatian territory. Since the airfield was mostly used by the Allied forces in cooperation with members of the Resistance, it facilitated the creation of diplomatic contacts between them and eased the international recognition of the new Yugoslavia in the making.
With the end of WWII the Vis airfield fell out of use – parts of it were turned back to vineyards. With the advent of tourism at the start of the 21st century a greater emphasis is placed on the airfield as a part of the tourist offer of the island. For now, it’s the airfield’s historical heritage that attracts the most visitors. British veterans who were stationed on the island during 1944 and 1945 return every year to honor their fallen comrades leaving flowers on their memorials. Time has taken its toll (last year there were only two veterans attending) but the memory is kept alive by numerous British tourists whose relatives served on Vis and who regularly include the visit to the airfield to their itinerary. The airfield has also contributed (albeit indirectly) to the development of the scuba diving tourism because of the large number of the wrecked airplanes that crashed and sunk near the shores of the island. They are a great draw for diving enthusiast around the world, but because of the depths on which they are located they are available mostly to the professional divers. Finally, its important to mention the initiatives for restoring the airfield to its use, mostly for smaller planes, but also for parachuting, paragliding and similar activities. It would improve the island accesibility and bring more tourists, and it would expand the island’s tourist offer with adventurous activities that are always popular with the younger generations.
The importance the Vis airfield had during the tumultuous period of WWII ensures that no visit to the island is complete without learning about its history and visiting its remains, either as a part of the military tour organized by Paiz travel agency, or as a part of the wine tour, where you can taste some of the best local wines with a great view of the airfield.