It was the most exciting scene Associated Press correspondent Robert St. John had yet witnessed in the career he had abandoned for five years to farm in New Hampshire then returned to when he sensed that war was coming.
It was March 27, 1941, and Terrazia, the Times Square of Belgrade, capital of what was then Yugoslavia, was packed with crowds jubilant at their country’s sudden stunning, defiance of Adolf Hitler. The mood quickly turned to anger, though, directed at St. John when he began to get down to his job of reporting.
“If I wanted to photograph these scenes I must be a Nazi agent gathering evidence, trying to get onto film the faces of those responsible, so they could be punished in true Nazi style when and if Hitler got this country under his thumb again,” he recalled. “That was the way they seemed to figure it.”
Early in his journalism career in notorious Cicero, Illinois, the town owned by Al Capone, St. John had been set upon by thugs and left for dead in a ditch. Understandably anxious to avoid a repetition, he waved his passport and a small American flag; the fickle crowd turned to ransacking the tourist agency of Hitler’s ally Italy while he took the opportunity to hotfoot it from the square.
Just 10 days later St. John would be back in Terrazia Square to witness a very different, tragic scene before running again—this time right out of the country before one of World War II’s briefest but most brutal blitzkriegs, the effects of which would be felt to the end of the 20th century. Yet another American, a female member of a distinguished political-military family, would also be on the run—not from danger but deliberately heading straight into it with near fatal results.
Yugoslavia was the makeshift attempt after World War I to bring the lands and people of the southeastern Balkans, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian empire of the Hapsburgs, under the rule of the royal house of Serbia. But, it turned out, union did not mean unity. Almost a dozen nationalities and ethnic groups seethed with resentment, none more so than the largest among them, the Croats.
The political powder keg finally exploded in 1929 when a member of a different national group gunned down three Croatian deputies during a riotous session of Parliament. Arguing he needed to act to prevent civil war and secession, Serbian King Alexander I moved swiftly to establish a dictatorship.
The response by Croatian extremists out for independence was to found a terrorist group, the Ustachi, which engineered the king’s assassination in France in October 1934.
With his heir Peter II just 11, a cousin, Prince Paul, assumed a regency. The result was power without leadership. The prince, a cultured figure with little interest in or much aptitude for politics, made no secret he was just marking time until he could hand responsibility to the king on his 18th birthday in September, 1941.
Unhappily for the prince and tragically for Yugoslavia, Adolf Hitler would not wait. Preparing for his invasion of Greece, Hitler put relentless pressure on the nations of the Balkans to sign his de facto alliance, the Tri-Partite Pact. Robert St. John found himself rushing from capital to capital: “Weeks of ‘Will they? Won’t they?’ Weeks of dope stories based on the slimmest of chancellery gossip. Weeks of writing two or three long dispatches a day trying to keep the story alive while we waited for the inevitable to happen.”
Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania fell into line, and St. John found himself waiting in Belgrade for Yugoslavia’s turn to fold. Also observing events anxiously there was the other American, the woman of distinguished family, determined to do more about events than merely report on them.
Ruth Mitchell was the daughter of a one-time United States Senator from Wisconsin and the sister of General Billy Mitchell. A journalist herself, she accepted the fateful assignment of covering the comic-opera wedding of Albania’s outlandish King Zog I in 1938. “If I had known then what was coming,” she would reflect after the end of her ordeal, “would I have turned back? The answer is a completely certain No!”
Intending to stay just a few days for her story, she instead became so intrigued by Albania that she gave up her career to stay and study it. Driven out by the Italian invasion in early 1939, she then moved to Yugoslavia. There she became enthralled by Serbian history and culture. “The Serbs,” she was to write, “are a very small race; there were before the war not more than eight million of them. But it is a race of strikingly individual character, of extraordinary tenacity of purpose and ideal. That ideal can be expressed in a single word: Freedom.”
With the same uncompromising intensity for a cause and personal flamboyance that had cost brother Billy his military career due to his vocal advocacy of military aviation in the United States, she went so far as to enlist in the legendary Serbian Chetnik militia, complete with fur hat, skull and crossbones emblem, uniform, boots, dagger, and poison pill in case of capture.
“The soul of Serbia on the march! I was a Chetnik—until death,” she exulted.
For his part, though, Robert St. John was skeptical. “It seemed to me that Miss Mitchell was just looking for some Hollywood adventure. Well, I thought, she’ll probably get all she wants before long.”
Foreign Minister Aleksander Cincar-Markovic, then Prime Minister Dragisa Cvetkovic, and finally Prince Paul himself got the feared summons to meet Hitler at Berchtesgaden. “Fear reigned,” Churchill would record. “The Ministers and the leading politicians did not dare to speak their minds. There was one exception. An Air Force general named Simovic represented the nationalist elements among the officer corps of the armed forces. Since December his office had become a clandestine center of opposition to German penetration into the Balkans and to the inertia of the Yugoslav government.”
Serbian public opinion, remembering their support during World War I and afterward for independence, was overwhelmingly pro-British. “I am out of my head!” Prince Paul bewailed under the strain. After a second visit to Hitler and the assurance—for what it was worth— that all that was wanted was his signature, the prince finally sent Prime Minister Cvetkovic and Foreign Minister Cincar-Markovic to sign the Tri-Partite Pact in Vienna on March 25, 1941. To the protesting minister from the United States, Prince Paul replied bitterly, “You big nations are hard. You talk of honor, but you are far away.”
Ruth Mitchell’s Serbian friends visited, anguished and humiliated at what they considered the betrayal of a friend. “We had written our capitulation stories, packed our bags, and argued over where the next crisis was likely to break out,” St. John later wrote. “But then something happened that forced us to unlimber our typewriters, dig copy paper out of our suitcases, and get to work in Belgrade again.”
Prince Paul had warned Hitler that if he signed the pact he would not last another six months in power. He would be off in his calculations by five months and 28 days.
The day after the signing, demonstrations, started by students, erupted on the streets of Belgrade. As he watched, a secret policeman next to St. John remarked, “You newspaper boys better keep your pencils sharp. Things are going to happen in Yugoslavia yet!”
At 2:30 the next morning, St. John was awakened by a phone call from a colleague who informed him that troops and tanks were in the streets. Rushing out, he was soon led under guard to a park to join prostitutes, cleaning women, and other night-crawlers.
“We were watching the unfolding of a first class, full-dress coup d’etat,” he recognized.
Without a shot, government buildings were occupied and ministers arrested at their homes. At the palace, the guards opened the gates to the rebels without resistance while young King Peter II climbed down a drainpipe to join them. Soon, General Simovic, the leader of the revolt, arrived to announce, “Your Majesty, I salute you as King of Yugoslavia. From this moment you will exercise your full sovereign power.”
Prince Paul had been heading to his country estate for a badly needed rest. He would get a longer one. His train was intercepted and rerouted back to Belgrade. Under guard, he was then trooped into the office of the new prime minister, General Simovic, to sign his resignation. He finally reboarded his train with many of his ministers for a new destination, Greece. They were luckier than they knew. Ruth Mitchell had been tipped that the Chetniks were launching their own coup, which intended to leave none of them alive. Foreign Minister Cincar-Markovic was one the few kept on in the new regime, with a personally tragic consequence.
“Few revolutions have gone more smoothly,” Churchill would comment. The king, who had just learned to drive, without guards creeped and beeped his way through the packed, wild, streets.