The Battle of Nis – The True Beginning of the Cold War?

The Cold War between the Soviet Union and United States defined much of the latter half of the twentieth century in international relations. But was the only time that the superpowers actually came to blows when they were allies in World War Two? Mykael Ray explains.

The Battle of Nis - The True Beginning of the Cold War?

An image reflective of the Cold War. Source: Anynobody, available here.

As history shows us, there is limited adhesive holding America and Russia together. Though there has been peace between them for many years, there have been a number of occasions in which tensions ran much higher than is comfortable between the two countries.

Simply mentioning the Cold War is enough to make this point, but even now, there is “The Mutual-Hostage Relationship between America and Russia”, which is described by Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky as essentially a nuclear standoff between the two nations that creates a system of balance and fear based peace in the world.

With both countries having their hands on the most powerful weapons, other nations can be kept in a state of unwillingness to act on a large scale – just in case one of the triggers gets pulled.

Despite the amount of tension found between the two, direct conflict has never truly ensued.

Or has it?


Friendly fire?

On October 7, 1944, American P-38 Lightning pilots bombed ground troops near Nis in Yugoslavia on their way to assist Soviet troops. What actually happened was that the American fighters rained down upon the Soviets themselves. Out of response to the situation, the Soviets put their own Yak fighters in the air, which resulted in a 15-minute dogfight between the two supposed allies.

US planes must have realized the error a little too late, or maybe not even at all. Or, for all anybody truly knows, they could have realized it from the start and followed through anyway. On the other hand, instead of trying to call off the attacking Americans, the Soviets fought back at full strength, killing an undisclosed number of American airmen.

Accounts vary greatly as to how the friendly fire fight happened. Some believe that the Americans strayed up to 400 kilometers off course, and misidentified the Soviet fleet as hostile German forces. Others claim that the Americans were due to meet up with the Soviets to provide air support, but the Soviets traveled faster than anticipated, putting them 100 kilometers ahead of schedule, leading to the same end result.

Regardless of whose fault it was, both countries are keeping their records of the situation classified, and speculation will continue to be the only explanation for the “misunderstanding”. Even with certain facts regarding the incident being omitted, there are aspects of the battle that bring up a resounding question about the relationship between the two superpowers.

Was there some sort of bad blood between the two powers in south-eastern Europe at the time? Assuming that it was actually a case of mistaken identity, once the Soviets put their planes into action, the American pilots would have instantly been made aware of the true identity of their targets after seeing the blaring red star being brandished on the side of the airplanes. At that point, an unwavering ally would have ceased the attack and pulled away from the area. Instead, the battle extended 15 minutes after Soviet pilots were in the air.


So what happened?

Why do we not know the details? The embarrassment surrounding the situation must be shared equally between the two countries. We do not know the exact facts about what happened because both governments have classified as much information about it as possible, leading to much speculation that either both parties regret the event in its entirety, or that there is a mutual benefit to both of them in keeping it secret.

Of course, this was not the only time that the two countries faced each other in battle in the twentieth century. In 1950, during the Korean War, the Soviets provided the Chinese and North Koreans with their MiGs 15 fighters and pilot training. Soon after, evidence revealed that Soviet pilots actually flew against American fighters.

However, the Russian military to this day deny involvement in any direct confrontation in Korea. And with the Russians not taking responsibility (or credit) for the accusations, Nis remains the only direct confrontation between the two powers in which both admit to having participated in.

The debate around Nis will have to continue until the documents are declassified and made public. Whether it was a secret government conspiracy, or an embarrassment swept under the rug, there is an irony in the details.

Over 70 years later, despite many decades of tension between these two superpowers, one of the few times that the the Soviets and Americans actually came to blows was potentially due to a simple case of mistaken identity – and shortly after their alliance during World War Two, the Cold War began.


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Wolfgang K. H. Panafsky “The Mutual-Hostage Relationship between America and Russia”

Norwich University “10 Largest Air to Air Battles in Military History”, “USAAF Lightnings vs Soviet Yaks over Yugoslavia 1944”