How a Soviet intelligence officer saved the life of Churchill’s son

Archive photo; Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis/Getty Images; Public Domain
Konstantin Kvashnin had to “knock out” Randolph Churchill to prevent the Germans from capturing him.

At 5 a.m. on May 25, 1944, the town of Drvar in western Bosnia and Herzegovina, controlled by the National Liberation Army and Partisan Detachments of Yugoslavia, was massively bombed by German aviation. Shortly after, gliders landed on the outskirts of the city, from which soldiers of the 500th SS Parachute Battalion disembarked.

This marked the start of the German ‘Operation Rösselsprung’ (Knight’s move), which aimed at destroying or capturing the leaders of the Yugoslav resistance movement, primarily Marshal Josip Broz Tito and his staff officers, as well as members of the Soviet, British and American military missions stationed in the city.

‘Operation Rösselsprung’.

The Germans, who were after the Yugoslav leader, could have killed two birds with one stone, since the only son of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Randolph, was also in Drwar at the time.

A special mission

“Keep in mind that sons of prime ministers don’t just skydive and appear at another country’s headquarters without certain goals,” was how Stalin commented on the announcement by Alexander Golovanov, commander of USSR Long-Range Aviation, that Major Randolph Churchill had arrived in Yugoslavia in February 1944. 

Soldiers of the 500th SS Parachute Battalion.

At first glance, Churchill’s son’s appearance in Drwar was unrelated to any significant political tasks. He was engaged in war journalism and spoke at anti-fascist youth congresses in Yugoslavia. 

But, in fact, Randolph played the role of liaison between the British leadership and Marshal Tito. Like other officers in the British and U.S. missions, he worked actively to get the National Liberation Army out of Moscow’s custody and into the sphere of London’s and Washington’s influence.

Marshal Tito stands with his Cabinet Ministers and Supreme Staff at his mountain headquarters in Yugoslavia on 14 May 1944.

However, the latent rivalry between the USSR and the West in the Balkans did not prevent Churchill from establishing friendly relations with Konstantin Kvashnin, a subversive adviser in the Soviet military mission. It was to this officer that Randolph would owe his life.

Caught in a trap

The Germans took the hunt for Tito very seriously. Motorized rifle regiments, reconnaissance, tank and sapper battalions, a regiment of the Brandenburg Division, while Croatian units took part in ‘Operation Rösselsprung’ in addition to the SS Battalion.

Randolph Frederick Edward Spencer-Churchill.

Having broken the resistance of Yugoslav units, the Germans quickly occupied the city, forcing the scattered Allied forces to break through into the mountainous areas. The marshal, together with his comrades, Soviet, British and American officers, moved toward Kupres; Randolph Churchill, Kvashnin and some members of the Western military missions were in the group heading toward the village of Tičevo. 

Being persistently pursued by the enemy, the groups established contact with the air base in Bari. The Soviet Air Force, in addition to British and American squadrons, was also based there.

German troops during the ‘Operation Rösselsprung’.

Kvashnin-Churchill’s group should have been evacuated by air as early as June 1, but the plan never materialized. Konstantin Konstantinovich recalled: “We were chased through the mountains until June 8, like a herd of sheep. We moved forward only at night, and when daylight came, we hid and conducted reconnaissance.” 

Konstantin Kvashnin, who had extensive experience in reconnaissance and subversive activities, did his best to ensure that the group had effectively evaded the enemy. Nevertheless, at one point, the trap almost slammed shut. The Germans attacked from three sides, leaving the only escape route - a dangerous descent down a steep slope and into the valley.

The rampant major

Yugoslav partisans.

Kvashnin himself had to ensure Churchill’s safety during the descent. According to the recollections of the intelligence officer, the British Prime Minister’s son was not quite sober at that moment. Randolph was a drinker and the surroundings must have affected him a bit too depressingly.      

Randolph began to sing and did not react to the negative remarks of his comrades. In doing so, he could have not only attracted the Germans’ attention, but also risked falling, dragging Kvashnin and one of the Yugoslav partisans down with him. To prevent this from happening, the Soviet officer simply knocked out the uncontrollable major with a single blow and lowered him down on the ropes.

Konstantin Kvashnin.

After silently eliminating the enemy posts, the group broke out into a safe valley, where it was soon picked up by British planes that had arrived from Bari. As it turned out, Tito had been rescued a few days earlier: the Yugoslav marshal and his headquarters had been evacuated by Soviet pilots, who had made a difficult landing on a small mountainous foothold.

At the airbase in Italy, Randolph had already sobered up completely. As he said goodbye, he shook Kvashnin’s hand firmly. The Prime Minister’s son did not hold a grudge against his savior.

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