The collapse of Italy in the autumn of 1943 led to a power vacuum in the Adriatic, with both the Germans and Tito’s Partisans racing each other to take control of the region’s major ports and islands. Eager to support the Partisan effort, the British occupied Vis in early 1944, and in June of that year the island was chosen as the temporary headquarters of the Partisan high command, headed by Tito himself. Having narrowly escaped a German attack on Drvar in western Bosnia, Tito was taken to Vis on board the HMS Blackmore on June 7, entertaining the officers’ mess, it is said, with a near-perfect recital of The Owl and the Pussycat.
Tito took up residence in a cave on the southern flanks of Mount Hum, while his staff meetings took place in another cave next door. British officers entertained all kinds of wild ideas about who this shadowy guerilla leader really was. Novelist Evelyn Waugh (then a British liaison officer) was obsessed with the idea that Tito was a lesbian in disguise, and continued to spread this rumour for reasons of personal amusement even after meeting the Partisan supremo in person – it’s said that Tito upbraided Waugh about this during a trip to the beach, the Marshal’s skimpy trunks leaving no room for further doubt about his gender.
Vis soon became a vast armed camp, hosting 10,000 Partisans and 700 British and American commandos. The island was an excellent base from which to harry German positions on nearby islands, although commando raids on rugged Brač (where the Scottish Highlanders indulged in a Guns of Navarone-style attempt to capture Vidova Gora) led to heavy casualties. The daily existence of those stationed on Vis was made bearable by the endless opportunities for swimming, sunbathing and drinking the local wine, though for the local population things were not quite so jolly: all men between the ages of 15 and 50 were called up by the Partisans, while women, children and the elderly were evacuated to the British-controlled El Shatt camp in the Egyptian desert, where many died in the stifling heat.
Vis saw the first meeting between Tito and the head of the royalist Yugoslav government in exile, Ivan Šubašić, who arrived there on June 16, 1944. After agreeing on paper that Tito would protect democracy after the war, the signatories went on a trip to the Blue Cave on Biševo, where they indulged in skinny dipping, followed by a lunch of lobster and wine. Fitzroy Maclean, Winston Churchill’s envoy at Partisan HQ, noted that the sea was choppy on the way back and that “several of the party were sick”.
Ultimately Tito feared that he would lose his political independence if he accepted British protection on Vis for too much longer, and decided to relocate. On September 18 he abandoned the island in the dead of night, flying to join the Soviet Red Army in a Russian plane. Vis’s brief period in the political limelight was over.