Sean M. Maloney, May, 2009
Introduction: Bunkers and the Defence of Yugoslavia
During the Cold War, practically every government in Europe built protected underground facilities designed to ensure command and control in the event of nuclear or conventional attack. Yugoslavia, led by Second World War Partisan leader Josip Broz Tito, started the construction of several such facilities in the late 1940s. Although Yugoslavia was a Communist and therefore totalitarian state, Tito was wary of Stalin’s Soviet Union as much as the Western states which eventually would form NATO in 1949. Yugoslavia was the southern-most route through the East to attack NATO. Consequently, Yugoslavian defence planning emphasized repelling external attacks from both NATO and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. As for internal uprisings or coups d’etat, Yugoslavian leadership needed protective facilities to ensure an unbroken chain of command to the armed forces and internal security troops so that vital facilities could be re-taken and uprisings put down.
Geographically, the bastion for Yugoslavian defence was the mountainous regions of Bosnia Herzegovina. The outlying provinces tended to consist of more rolling terrain, while areas of Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro and Kosovo presented significant obstacles to mechanized operations, as the Germans and their allies discovered in the Second World War. The defence of Yugoslavia did not solely consist of conventional armoured and mechanized units: the 1969 General People’s Defence law formalized a “nation in arms” strategy which in theory meant that 70% of the civilian population could be armed in the event of war to resist the invaders. In Bosnia particularly, there were well-organized local home defence groups. These neo-partisans had access to large well-maintained stockpiles of weapons which were established in numerous small bunkers located throughout the countryside. Many of these facilities can still be seen while driving around Bosnia. They consist of a concrete bunker opening and door surrounded by a barbed wire enclosure supported by the characteristic inward-bent concrete pillars. Bosnia also boasted substantial industrial capacity devoted to weapons production. If the fight on the borders failed to stop an enemy attack, Yugoslav forces would withdraw into the Bosnian bastion and continue to fight on ground which was well-suited to an obstinate defence.
Mount Gola and Zeljava Military Airport
From 1991 to 1995, the federal state of Yugoslavia collapsed into several simultaneous wars between the former country’s ethnic groups. The introduction of the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR) to Bosnia in late 1995 and early 1996 resulted in the deployment of a Canadian contingent to north-western Bosnia. As part of Operation ALLIANCE, Canada sent 2 Canadian Multinational Brigade to the Bihac region. The Canadian area of operations for Operation ALLIANCE was extensive and included almost all of western Bosnia. Consequently, communications between the spread-out units was critical. A Radio Re-Broadcast or RRB facility was needed: The highest accessible points in the region were Mount Gola and Gos Peak. The 5500-foot Mount Gola, located adjacent to the city of Bihac, was selected for the northernmost RRB site, and Gos Peak much further south was also occupied. (IFOR was replaced with the smaller NATO-led Stabilization Force or SFOR in 1996-97).
It was, however, not just a matter of flying in communications equipment and personnel. The area around Mount Gola, including the base of the mountain, had been the front line between Krajinan Serb forces in Croatia and Bosniac Federation forces trapped in the Bihac Pocket from 1992 to 1995. The Bihac Pocket was a predominantly Bosnian Muslim area swollen with refugees from western Bosnia and held by a combination of Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat forces. The besiegers included Krajinan Serb and Bosnian Serb troops wielding superior firepower.
At the base of Mount Gola lay a huge underground facility: the Zeljava Military Airport. The runways themselves were built on a plateau: there were four massive concrete hangers which entered the mountain. Jet fighters could launch from these protected hangers onto taxi strips and take off from the reinforced concrete runways. The Zeljava facility was built starting in 1956: It housed between 80 and 120 MiG-21 fighters, 1000 guards and administrative personnel, 200 pilots, plus 500 aircraft mechanics and armourers. Seven radars and a plethora of meteorological equipment, all mounted on Mount Gola, were part of the Zeljava/Mount Gola operation.
The story of the Zeljava base during the wars of the 1990s is shrouded in mystery. One story is that ethnic Croatian officers in the Yugoslav air force tried to disable the underground facilities to prevent the aircraft from being used against Croatia while it was fighting for its independence in 1991-92. At the time, the base housed the 117th Fighter Aviation regiment which included the 124th and 125th Fighter Aviation Squadrons equipped with MiG-21bis, and the 352nd Reconaissance Squadron equipped with the recce version of the MiG-21. It appears as though most of these aircraft escaped at the start of the conflict. During the wars that followed, the 117th lost three MiG-21’s during combat operations in the Bihac region.
There is also the story of a Ugandan-registered 707 cargo jet, which may have been one of the last aircraft to visit Zeljava. The 707, which had been intercepted by the Yugoslav Air Force some years before and impounded because it was violating sanctions against South Africa by smuggling arms out of the country, was apparently used by the Yugoslav Air Force to remove vital equipment from Zeljava in the spring of 1992: the aircraft was also probably used to covertly bring in small arms and ‘volunteers’ from Belgrade to Zeljava and another Yugoslav air force base located nearby at Udbina in order to support the Krajinan Serbs against the Croatians. In any event, the area was disputed between the forces on the ground. Krajinan Serb forces held Mount Gola, while the Bosniac Federation held the outskirts of Bihac. The airfield was rendered unusable (it was eventually cratered with explosives) and the area quickly became one of the most heavily mined in Bosnia. The underground hanger facilities were all booby-trapped to deny their use.
In 1995, Croatian forces launched Operation STORM: the Krajinas region was emptied of Serbs, who retreated into Bosnia. Krajinan Serb forces fought rear-guard actions in key locations, while other forces were evacuated. The Croatians moved on the region around Mount Gola when the Dayton agreement was signed. It was the summit of Mount Gola, however, that interested IFOR so plans were made to clear the site and use it for RRB. British and Canadian demining teams, however, found that the retreating Krajinan Serb forces mined and booby-trapped the entire summit. It apparently took some nine months to clear only a portion of the summit. What the teams found, however, was astonishing. There was a large and once luxurious chalet built into a revetment. Underneath that chalet was an underground bunker which was connected via 6000 feet of tunnels and elevators to the Zeljava airfield bunkers some 5000 feet below.
This bunker became the home of Canada’s IFOR (and later SFOR which replaced IFOR in 1996) RRB site. It was generally manned by five signals personnel on a rotating basis. The drive up on unimproved roads and switchbacks takes over one hour from the main highway. There are several entrances: the first, which is on the approach road at a sentry post, was called the “DP entrance” (DP is a Canadian Army term for “drop point”) where food and supplies were brought in. Taking the road up to the top, one passes wrecked equipment and the remains two old microwave relay antennas. A defensive post overwatches the approach road and the “DP entrance.” To the left a road slants down to two doors: this used to be a generator bay and has an entrance to the bunker tunnels. The main entrance is to the right, through a steel door to a chamber which contains water tanks and generators. A ladder goes up to the rock roof. Through the main chamber is a slanting stairway with a spray painted fluorescent “Come on Down!“ The tunnels pass the door to the empty generator room and continue down. Much further down, a door to the right leads to what has been converted into a gym: the gym is connected to the main command complex via a door with rubber gaskets. Back in the main tunnel, the “DP entrance” door appears out of the gloom on the left: the tunnel takes a turn right and the main command complex entrance door opens.
This complex consists of two vaulted tunnels shaped like an “L”. If you look at a cross-section of the vault, 4/5ths of it is used as “spaces”: living, equipment, and so on, while the other 1/5th is the “hallway” between the spaces. To the left of the entrance door is a square chamber which is used for accommodation: it was probably used as executive quarters for Tito. Continuing along the vaulted tunnel, the spaces on the left include the communications room, a gym, a kitchen, living room/canteen, and more accommodation. At the end of the vaulted hall is the bathroom and laundry, and to the right is the other gym which connects to the entrance tunnel: above it is a space for ventilation systems. Taking the left-hand turn into the other part of the “L”, there are storage spaces to the right. Two ship-type doors in which looks like some form of NBCD clean-up lock lead to a large cube of a room which once contained ventilation filters and processing equipment. To the left is a tunnel slanting up which exits in the courtyard of the revetted Chalet. Beyond the ventilator room, the tunnel jinks or zig-zags slightly: probably to slow down blast effects. A sealed door marked “Mines” leads to an elevator and stairs which lead up to the Chalet via what one can presume to be several booby-trapped or mined chambers. Continuing down the main tunnel, there are large doors which exit to a large ledge outside: Canadian signalers built a patio and BBQ pit there. These overlook “Griffon Rock,” a tower of rock on which Canadian CH-146 Griffon helicopter pilots conduct training for landings in confined spaces.
Towering above the tunnel entrance is the Chalet. A curved concrete step-road passes in front of the Chalet and around back to the top of the revetment and numerous rusting and decrepit microwave and satellite antennas.
The access shafts between the Mount Gola site and the Zeljava site have been sealed with concrete. Members of earlier Canadian rotations had penetrated further into the mountain but turned back due to collapsed portions and the possibility of booby-traps.
Other Former Yugoslavian Underground Sites
Mount Gola and Zeljava are only two of many underground facilities in the region. The locations of at least two other leadership bunkers are known: one is in Croatia under Mount Velebit: there has been some discussion about converting it to an art storage facility. Another “Tito bunker” is located near Bugojno in central Bosnia. According to media reports, American personnel surveyed the Bugojno site because the manufacturer also apparently built bunkers for the Hussein regime in Iraq based on the Tito-era plans.
Slatina Military Airport outside of Pristina, Kosovo, is a facility similar to the Zeljava base. Slatina has aircraft entrances to underground galleries buried under a mountain, though the (much smaller) Mount Goles has several thousand feet of tunnels and communications facilities.
The former Yugoslav Navy base at Kotor Bay is riddled with U-Boat pens which housed the Yugoslav submarine force.
Zeljava article: http://community.webshots.com/album/80969242fEmmtj/1
Taken from a Yugoslav air force magazine, this picture shows a MiG-21 and its armament situation in one of the aircraft bunkers at Zeljava Military Airport in “the old days” before the wars of the 1990s. (source: http://community.webshots.com/album/80969242fEmmtj/1 )
A drawing showing the layout of the Zeljava Military Airport, also taken from a Yugoslav air force magazine (source: http://community.webshots.com/album/80969242fEmmtj/1 )
Another entrance to a Zeljava Military Airport bunker. (source: http://www.avijacijabezgranica.com/Photos/Privremeno/august2004/august2004.html )
Overgrown runway leading under Mount Gola at Zeljava Military Airport. (source: ? )
Cratered taxiway at Zeljava Military Airport. (source http://www.avijacijabezgranica.com/Photos/Privremeno/august2004/august2004.html)
View from north east looking south-west up Mt Gola. Zeljava Military Airport is at the base of the mountains.
The Zeljava Military Airfield runways seen from Mount Gola, looking North East.
The “DP” entrance to the Mount Gola bunker complex. The square fiberglass casing was for an antenna, probably microwave.
A protected ventilator: several of these are located around the site.
Looking up from the “DP” entrance to the green sand-bagged fighting position located next to the entrance to the bunker complex.
The view from Mount Gola, looking South East at the city of Bihac and the front lines of the 1992-95 war.
The best CF driver in the Balkans, along with “Feisty” and “Princess”. The Canadian generator is to the left,. To the front is an old satcom antenna housing next to a fighting position. The two concrete protrusions are antenna housings similar to the one above the “DP” entrance.
This is the entrance to the old generator compartment. Note that the top of the “DP” entrance can be seen to the left. The vehicle in the background is a Canadian 5/4-ton truck which is parked next to the Canadian generators.
The rear of Tito’s Chalet: it remains off-limits as it has not been completely cleared of booby-traps.
Another shot of the Chalet from the rear.
This tunnel is an access way leading from the parking lot behind the Chalet to the NBCD filter room in the bunker. It has not been cleared of explosives at this time.
The interior of the Chalet: stripped bare and left to the elements. Not even a hint of opulence.
Looking back at the bunker entrance and Canadian generator hut.
The roof of the Chalet: this photo shows how the Chalet is revetted from the rear.
A former Krajinan Serb observation bunker overlooking Bihac from Mount Gola.
More microwave antenna housings.
The old (Yugoslav) satcom antenna cover next to a (new) Canadian satcom antenna, with the Chalet in the background.
Inside the entrance of the bunker complex: a friendly greeting from Canadian signalers!
The hallway inside the bunker, with the rooms to the left. Note the curvature of the roof.
Like the cave paintings in southern France, in a thousand years archaeologists will wonder: “What the f--- is this?” The obvious connections to the Bat-Cave will be lost by then…
The hallway at the base of the “L” looking towards the NBCD/ventilation room.
Sealed entrance which appears to connect to the Chalet above and/or several other galleries which remain closed due to booby-traps and/or mines.
Tunnel from the NBCD/ventilator room to the exit under the Chalet.
Front of the Chalet: Tito’s view would have been phenomenal on a clear day…
Curved road leading from the exit to the Chalet parking lot: note the concrete sentry post.