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Our Man in Yugoslavia: The Story of a Secret Service Operative

July 16, 2006

Our Man in Yugoslavia: The Story of a Secret Service Operative

By Sebastian Richie

Routledge (2004), 191 pp., 15 contemporary photos, 3 maps

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

Our Man in Yugoslavia: The Story of a Secret Service Operative is not only the intriguing and likeable account, for the first time, of the adventures of the first covert British agent in occupied Yugoslavia during the Second World War. It was also a labor of love, as the agent happened to be the author’s grandfather.

In the work, military historian Sebastian Richie fleshes out the diaries and reminiscences of this remarkable man, Owen Reed, by consulting other primary sources such as the British National Archives and War Office records. Ritchie also makes use of secondary academic studies and thus contextualizes the daring tales of Reed’s adventure in occupied Croatia and Slovenia within a larger analysis of the significance of the British secret endeavor towards the prosecution of the Allied campaign in the Balkans. Nevertheless, this scholarly view does not detract from the narrative, which moves along at a good pace, telling a story that had never before been told in detail.

The appeal of Our Man in Yugoslavia is thus not limited to military historians, though the book does undoubtedly make a valuable contribution to the literature. It will also appeal to general readers interested in Balkan history, and indeed to anyone who can be captivated by a rousing tale of one ordinary Englishman who found himself literally dropped into a completely new and dangerous world, and somehow survived to tell the story, doing many good deeds in the process.


Considering the prevalence of endnotes and photos, Our Man in Yugoslavia is not actually so lengthy and can easily be read within a day or two. The book is divided into an introduction followed by ten chapters.

The first gives a brief recounting of Reed’s middle-class upbringing near London, his studies in Oxford and his love of theater. In fact, Reed dropped out of the university because of his desire to be a thespian, a vocation that lasted until marriage in 1934, when he found a reliable income with the BBC to be more prudent. He became a radio broadcaster but still kept acting part-time, until war broke out. Reed unhesitantly volunteered for the army. During the 1930’s he had “watched the rise of national socialism in Germany and its subsequent expansion n Europe with a terrible sense of inevitability founded on popular British perceptions of the First World War,” notes the author (p. 7).

However, the RAF refused to accept him because of a previous bout with rheumatic fever. So Reed went back to the BBC, and was later accepted by the army’s Royal Armored Corps (RAC) in October 1940. Training officers noted his strong potential for leadership and interpersonal skills, and in May 1942 was part of a battalion that shipped out to Egypt. On the huge tanker that would take the soldiers the long way around Africa (to avoid the German-controlled Mediterranean), Reed was admitted into the inner circle of officers when he became the ship’s news broadcaster.

The rest of the chapter describes the arrival of the battalion in July, 1942 in Egypt and closes with the account of the disaster that befell the troop in an ill-timed tank battle with the Germans from which Reed luckily escaped. The fighting left Reed with “an overpowering sense of despair and abhorrence” (p. 23) at the folly of war.

Chapter two describes how Reed luckily became ill with hepatitis at a base camp near Alexandria- an event that would change his fate for the rest of the war. He was sent to convalesce in Palestine, never to return to combat.

In Palestine, Reed was again given broadcasting duties and might have, save for a relapse of his illness, been shipped off to Baghdad. Instead, he was made a captain and sent to Cairo, part of the BBC team in spring 1943. However, he found the job dull and longed to take a more active role in the war effort. He would soon get his chance.

Background: British Intelligence and Yugoslavia, 1939-1943

Chapter 3 departs from Reed’s experiences in the Middle East to set the stage for his next deployment, in Yugoslavia. The chapter tells the fascinating story of Allied efforts to collect intelligence in the Middle East and Europe from 1939-1943, and specifies the roles and relative successes of the different British secret services, the SIS (Secret Intelligence Service, later MI6) and ISLD (Inter-Services Liaison Department, or the SIS’ middle Eastern Branch), and the SOE (Special Operations Executive).

The author states that the German occupation hampered the SIS’ activities in Europe: their “activities became largely confined to stations on neutral soil, such as Stockholm, Lisbon and Berne, or to more peripheral capitals like Istanbul and Tangiers… [and] relied heavily on networks established by London-based intelligence services in exile, such as the Czech, Norwegian, Polish, Dutch and French secret services” (p. 41). Plus, in July 1940, SIS Section D (geared towards irregular units in occupied countries) was “lost” when Churchill created a “sabotage and subversion” branch, the SOE (Special Operations Executive).

However, Yugoslavia was for some time a more successfully venture. From the late 1930’s, the SIS had managed to maintain a presence throughout Yugoslavia through a network of consulates and even British Council offices, regarding which the Germans “harbored a profound suspicion.” Indeed, “during 1940 Belgrade and Zagreb became veritable hotbeds of espionage and intrigue” (p. 42). But by April 1941, when the Germans declared war on Yugoslavia, most of the English had had to escape the country.

The ISLD had been formed in Cairo in 1940 to oversee intelligence in the Middle East, but also became important by diverting German attention and by using neutral Turkey as a staging-post for operations. On Sept. 27, 1941, the head of ISLD in Cairo, Cuthbert Bowlby, proposed using Malta as a base for air drops into occupied territory, including the Balkans (p. 46). While the initiative did not get off to a successful start, it would later be through such air drops that Reed entered Yugoslavia along with supplies for the resistance movement.

The second half of this chapter (pp. 47-56) provides a fascinating overview of the evolving British perceptions of the two Yugoslav resistance movements, the Chetniks of Draza Mihailovic and the Partisans of Josip Broz Tito, who after initial cooperation turned on one another in November 1941. While the presence of the exiled Yugoslav royal family in London and British conservatism led much of the elder leadership to support the Chetniks, the younger officials, some with Communist ideological sympathies, urged Britain to aid the Partisans exclusively. The turf war that evolved due to this disagreement would affect Reed’s future clandestine work in Yugoslavia, as the two sides in London squabbled over who to support and how.

While eventually pragmatism would carry the day, with the realization that only Tito’s movement provided for ethnic inclusivity and thus an overarching national resistance movement, in the beginning Churchill and his staff were inclined to support the Chetniks. The chapter provides extraordinary details into how individual officers in the Yugoslavia Section in London developed allegiances or sympathies to one or the other side, and how this affected the volume of intelligence or interpretation of it that was passed on to superiors. Reed, who is described as entirely non-political and good-natured, would be caught in the middle of this struggle for policy control.

The Action Begins

By the end of July 1943, Owe Reed was disappointed with his lethargic existence in Cairo and sought to get a more active role in the fighting. However, he was told that he was “too old’ to be sent back out. Nevertheless his BBC work in the field had allowed him to be introduced to important figures in the British war effort, and one night “he was told to visit a particular address after nine o’clock that evening, to knock three times at the door and to ask for a certain colonel.” Reed recounts:

“It was the full sort of corny film works: a grill in the door slid back revealing bars, and an evil oriental face appeared and I identified myself, and heavy padlocks were undone and the door creaked open, and inside was a very agreeable man in a colonel’s sort of army uniform” (p. 63).

The man was ISLD director Cuthbert Bowlby, and Reed was told nothing about his future job, except that “he would have no identity” and would have to “hand himself over” to the organization “in a quite unqualified way.” Faced with such alluring prospects, Reed accepted and was sent again to Palestine, where he was trained in radio signals work, survival in hostile terrain and the Serbo-Croat language. He received further training in Egypt, and was able to write that “I am the repository of monstrous stores of secret information which makes me rather dizzy to think of but is enormously interesting” (p. 66). On October 12, 1943 Reed, a colleague and a Canadian-Yugoslav interpreter were flown from the North African coast, and dropped over partisan headquarters near Otocac in Croatia- to what were known as the Judge and Fungus Missions’ (p. 67).

However, the party was unexpected by both the few British already on the ground and, more significantly, by the Partisans. Tito had not received a request from the ISLD to insert more staff, and so the arrival of Reed and Co. violated procedure. It was a tense few weeks before the Partisans gave the official approval, and Reed and his small staff began to send out radio signals to the ISLD reporting both on German military plans and the situation on the ground with the Partisans.

By January 1944, Reed had been promoted to major and was cooperating well with the Partisans, who appreciated his efforts to speak their language and of course the airdrops of British aid that he coordinated. It was an exhausting job, and made more difficult by the departure of his translator to the Slovenian front and by the evacuation of an important colleague. A step-up in German attacks in April 1944 also made Reed’s job more harrowing, and tried — with limited success — to get reinforcements and extra supplies sent, in order to keep the mission itself going. Because of the fighting he was kept on the move, living in much less predictable circumstances than he had with the BBC in quiet Cairo.

In his own words, Reed used the Partisan resistance as a “pair of binoculars’, drawing on their human resources to collect large amounts of raw data on everything from German troop movements to political developments and the living conditions of neighboring areas. The author underscores that this was a difficult job because of the locals’ tendency to either present too rosy a picture of events, or else to leave out vital pieces of information. It was an unenviable role; Reed found himself caught between his Partisan supervisors, who of course had their own agenda and their own spin on things, and his paymasters in London and Cairo, who were themselves factionalized and sought to use or manipulate the intelligence to advance their own causes. However, on more than one occasion Reed received complements for his information, which proved useful to the British war effort in southeast Europe.

The chapter also contains the account of Tito’s dramatic escape to the island of Vis, before the Allies turned the tied elsewhere in Europe, and by June 1944 the German retreat from Croatia had begun. At about the same, Reed was also persistently pleading with Allied air forces in Italy to evacuate wounded Partisan soldiers and, later, war orphans. Despite some delays owing to poor weather, Reed’s persistence eventually bore fruit and doubtless many lives were saved because of him (pp. 94-96).

Chapter six of the book goes over the same time period once again, but outlines instead the exploits of other soldiers and remarkable, larger-than-life figures also working at the time in Croatia and Slovenia. It is in the final three chapters of the book, however, that the most harrowing developments occur. Reed was recalled at the end of June 1944 to report directly to his superiors regarding a dangerous and likely possibility: that a triumphant Partisan army would lay claim to Trieste. This was strongly opposed by the Allies who, now having Italy on their side, did not want to do anything to compromise their position- especially anything that might enlarge the western territory of what looked to be a Soviet client state in the making.

Towards the Drama of Trieste

It was into this new drama that Owen Reed arrived once more, by way of an airdrop into Istria on Sept. 9, 1944. Tito and Churchill had met a month earlier, but failed to come to an agreement on the disputed territory. The British wanted a joint Anglo-American military administration of Trieste “until the Italian frontier with Yugoslavia was agreed under the relevant post-war peace treaties” Tito, however, hoped to present the Allies with a fait accompli by annexing a region in which he already enjoyed some measure of popular support (p. 127).

This time Reed’s job would be much harder. The good cheer that had greeted him in Croatia when he was coordinating air drops and even attending cultural events as an honored speaker were over. The contours of the coming Cold War were emerging and the Partisans were growing increasingly distrustful of British and Allied intentions. In fact, just before Reed’s second coming Tito had ordered a British naval attache who had been assisting the Partisans and the ISLD to leave (p. 128).

Part of the problem was that, with other fronts cleaned up, there were now simply too many relocated Allied military men skulking around behind Partisan lines, with apparently little to do. Reed himself noted that “the function of the men thus infiltrated is not clear…  in some cases it is not established that they have any function at all” (p. 129). In a matter of only a few months from when Reed had been leading the mission single-handedly, the situation had changed completely.

The rest of the story chronicles the list of misunderstandings, suspicions and delaying tactics surrounding the new Allied-Yugoslav relationship, as the showdown over Trieste continued. On the 13th of October, a few weeks after his two Slovenian translators had been mysteriously detained and disappeared by the Partisan authorities, Reed was reassigned from Istria to Slovenia, where the German occupation had been brutal not only for the locals but for the British intelligence liaison corps, some of whom were captured and killed while navigating a dangerous frontier on the edge of the Reich.

In Slovenia, Reed was constantly watched by his Partisan minders and accompanied everywhere he went, both because of the new Cold War suspicions but also in order that the Communists could try to keep the British from seeing that much of the local populace was opposed to Tito (p. 143). Reed also bemoaned a lack of cooperation from the Partisans, and even the Russian attache (who were treated much better than the Allied guests) complained too about the unprofessional quality of Partisan intelligence (p. 144). By mid-February 1945, Reed had been evacuated for the last time, sent to Bari to be debriefed by the ISLD staff.

On March 16 he was returned for one final mission to Yugoslavia, landing on the Croatian island of Vis. However, despite a warm welcome from his former colleagues in the Partisan units, inter-agency bickering with stubborn British SOE officials in Croatia left Reed essentially with no clear assignment, and he lived “on the accumulated goodwill” of his hosts, in a villa by the sea and free to move around. Yet the growing tensions over Trieste, coupled with his unclear brief, left Reed susceptible to the whims of Partisan leaders now growing more alienated to the West.

On May 1, 1945 this “most enthralling race” as Reed described it, heated up as Partisan units entered the city ahead of Allied troops coming from the west. As the month war on, the Allies and Tito were bogged down in talks about the future of Trieste, and Reed unhappily found himself having to listen to Yugoslav complaints of Allied duplicity.

Nevertheless, he was taken along for the ride to Zagreb, when the Partisans liberated the city on May 8, experiencing along the way the mixed reactions of “rapturous” Serbs and the “scowling peasants” who supported the fascist Ustashe government, which had just fled. But the Trieste standoff was worsening, and soon it was decided to shut down the British military mission, as the threat of war between the Allies and the Partisans massed in Trieste seemed a distinct possibility. Read hung on for as long as he could, trying to help with the evacuation of Allied personnel including some recovered French POWs. But on the 17th of June, 1945 he left.

After various debriefings (one presided over by the new Soviet sector chief, the infamous Kim Philby) and a SIS job offer which he politely declined, Read decided to return to the life of BBC broadcasting. He died in 1997, at the age of 87.

Although he did not live to see the publication of Our Man in Yugoslavia, he did contribute much to it in the form of personal interviews. And, despite all the hassles he had endured during his wartime missions, until his death Reed still fondly recalled his experience of the peoples of Yugoslavia — who where themselves at war through much of the 1990s. At the end of the book, Reed relates his hope that “they might be able to live together in peace. They certainly deserve it” (p. 182).

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