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Island of Vis

This year's (2014) Balkan trip was to the Croatian island of Vis. The furthest out of the Adriatic islands, 30 miles from the coast and just 60miles from Italy. Normally, a week on a small island would be too limiting for me, but Vis was a military zone until the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991/92 and has a rich history. 

The original inhabitants were pushed aside in around 2000 B.C by the Illyrians who dominated the lower Dalmatian coast. The Syracuse tyrant Dimitrij the Elder in approximately 397 B.C. established a Greek colony on Vis (Issa). There are a number of archeological finds from this period in the museum in Vis Town.


The Illyrian King Agron I and Queen Teuta, were defeated by the Romans in 219 B.C. and Issa fell under the authority of Rome. There are a few remains of a Roman theatre but not a lot else from this period. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire (476AD), Vis came under Gothic and then  Byzantine authority before the Croats started settling in Vis in the seventh century.

In 1420, the Venetians occupied Vis (Lissa) as a strategic base in their trading empire. The architecture of both towns on the island has an obvious Italian influence and Komiza has a Venetian castle on the harbour to protect it from pirates. Despite Vis's natural harbour, Komiza has a natural spring, making it a more useful staging post for ships of the period.


Napoleon incorporated Venice into his Kingdom of Italy and the Austrian defeat at Austerlitz in December 1805, followed by the Treaty of Tilsit brought Vis (Lissa) under French control. There is a small fort in the central of the island built by the French. However, they exercised limited control. 

The Royal Navy, seized the island in 1807 and used it for raiding French and allied coastal shipping. In October 1810, the French landed 700 Italian soldiers on Lissa while the British frigate squadron was away, burning a few vessels before retreating when they returned. In March 1811, a French invasion force of six frigates, numerous smaller craft and a battalion of Italian soldiers sailed for Lissa but were defeated by Captain Hoste and his four ships based on the island in what is known as the Battle of Lissa (sometimes Vis).

Despite the obvious advantages there was considerable opposition to the expense of fortifying and garrisoning the island. Malcolm Hardy's book covers the progress of that debate and arguably the island wasn't properly fortified until after any French threat to the island had receded in April 1812. The locals were quite happy to be occupied and even formed their own militia unit. The advantages were mainly economic, with Vis being used as a base for smuggling and piracy. There are several reminders of the British period. There are three Martello Towers on the heights above Vis Town. Here is one of them.


More impressive is Fort George, although the current building was improved by the Austrians. A local trust is doing a great job of conserving the building. It is accessible by a good road, or a 30 minute walk from the town.


The island at the entrance to Vis Bay is named after Hoste, who is also credited with bringing cricket to the island, a tradition maintained to this day with the club named after him.


The British handed Lissa back to the Austrians in 1815. They improved the British fortifications, most notably the fort in the town that houses the local museum.


Austrian rule is perhaps most famous for another Battle of Lissa in 1866. This was a decisive victory for an outnumbered Austrian Fleet commanded by Admiral Tegetthoff over a numerically superior Italian force. It was the first major sea battle between ironclads and one of the last to involve deliberate ramming. Austrian rule ended with the Hapsburg Empire in 1918 and after a short period of Italian rule it became part of Yugoslavia.

With the Italian occupation of Vis, support for the partisans was strong on the island and after the Italian surrender in 1943 it became an important partisan base. Tito was based here after the failed attempt to capture him at Drvar. It was fortified with allied help and became a base for a Commando brigade, a small American force and Motor Torpedo Boats. The allied Balkan Air Force build a small runway that provided fighter cover for the allied raids on the mainland and other islands as well as an emergency landing strip for heavy bombers. Michael McConville describes this period well in his book 'A Small War in the Balkans'. Naval aspects are covered in 'Secret Flotillas' (Volume 2) by Brooks Richards.

Fort George has a small room with some exhibits from this period.


The runway is on the old road between Vis and Komiza, now a field, but is still marked out and the apron is now the cricket pitch.


Tito's cave is worth a visit in a very defensible position on Mount Hum, the highest point on the island.


After the war Vis became a military zone for the newly formed JNA. There are numerous installations on the island from this period. The best is the submarine pen.


There are also many coastal gun positions that you can visit.


Plus the former rocket base and the large nuclear war command bunker in the centre of the island.


The best way of visiting these is a military tour organised by the Paiz Travel Agency in Vis. Their knowledgeable guide, Robert, will take you around in an off road vehicle, essential for the rough tracks that a normal hire care would struggle with.

The JNA sailed away from Vis in 1992 and the island is Croatian once again. It is a quiet tourist idyll, less commercialised than other islands closer to the coast. For the non-history minded family members, there are many secluded beaches and stunning water caves. The local wine, fish and cheese are excellent. It is also very good value for money. We flew direct to Split from Glasgow by EasyJet and caught one of three ferries a day. You can hire a car on the island, which we did for one day, but there are many tours by boat and car as well a bus service. There are only a few hotels, but a number of apartments. We stayed at the Hotel Issa, which was fine.

Highly recommended, we had a great week.


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Copyright 2005 Balkan Military History
Last modified: 01/23/12