The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

Belgrade Military History Museum

Photos by Kenda Lenseigne

Getting up Close and Personal with the Antiquity of Balkans Combat

Making up a small corner of the very large grounds of Belgrade Fortress, the BMHM is very much a tale of two parts. The first is the museum itself, which is professionally run and spread over two stories of an imposing stone structure, occupying space within the inner walls of the impressive defensive complex that used to guard the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. The second, well, we’ll come to that in due course.

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Round ball holes in the fortress gates indicate that yes, this place has seen quite a bit of history.

Visitors enter the foyer of the museum proper and stroll through chronologically arranged displays detailing around 2,100 years of regional warfare, starting with the Elyrian peoples and ending with the U.S.-led NATO attacks in 1999. Throughout the tour, there’s no sense that you have to conform to a carefully scheduled and orchestrated program — this is no Disney-esque micro-managed show, unlike some other big-name exhibits in other countries. Instead, the visitor can pick their way at a very leisurely cadence, which echoes the pace of life outside.

F117 detritus from Lt. Col. Zelko’s aircraft.

F117 detritus from Lt. Col. Zelko’s aircraft.

The first few displays are a little scant, due to the comparative scarcity of artifacts dating back over two millennia. The museum quickly picks up the pace, however, with hundreds of examples of medieval weaponry used by the various warring factions who invaded, held territory, and got kicked out over the centuries. As the crossroads of three major religions and numerous empires, this region has seen more than its share of bloody conflicts, the aftermath of which is still being dealt with today. Space doesn’t allow us to even scratch the surface of the area’s history, but if you’re interested, then Misha Glenny’s magisterial, The Balkans: Nationalism, War & the Great Powers, 1804-1999 is a good place to start.

Cold War-era Yugoslav Army kit, including Sagger briefcase and RPG2

Cold War-era Yugoslav Army kit, including Sagger briefcase and RPG2

Much space is given to the dozen or so Serb uprisings against the occupying Turkish powers, who invaded in the 15th century and hung around until the First World War. For almost 500 years, the Serbs attempted to throw off the Ottoman yoke with various degrees of success, while other occupants of the Balkans made accommodations to live under rule from Constantinople. They were finally triumphant during the early years of the 20th century, aligning themselves with the British, among others.

A compendium of early 20th century handguns. Clockwise from top: C96, Artillery Luger, Roth Steyr, Steyr Hahn, Rast & Gasser, C96.

A compendium of early 20th century handguns. Clockwise from top: C96, Artillery Luger, Roth Steyr, Steyr Hahn, Rast & Gasser, C96.

The exploits of the young Josip Broz Tito are also covered in detail, as well as those of the partisans he led against Nazi occupation during WWII. Much is made of the Croat Ustasha collaboration with the Germans, perhaps in justification of the post-war marginalization of the Croat and Bosniak peoples in the Serb-dominated Yugoslavia that both predated WWII, and followed it. Unsurprisingly, the part where Tito’s partisan security apparatus executed up to 100,000 political opponents in the years following their victory is skipped.

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Oopsie. 60mm premature initiation.

As part of this large display, there are numerous examples of Mausers with bullet holes in their barrels, as well as a few mortars and cannon that suffered either breech failures or premature warhead detonation. Ouch. For students of European small arms design, the early part of the 20th century is comprehensively dealt with, and there are plenty of machine guns from Italian, French, Czech, German, and British manufacturers on display, some of which are relative rarities.

The Queen of No Man’s Land, in 8mm Mauser.

The Queen of No Man’s Land, in 8mm Mauser.

There’s a comparatively large display covering the Yugoslav contribution to the UN peacekeeping efforts in the Siniai Peninsula during 1956, the first such United Nations boondoggle, though assuredly not the last. The effort to involve the UN was spearheaded by Secretary General Dagmar Hammerskold of Norway, whose plane crashed in 1961 in what is now Zambia, one day after the surrender of the Irish contingent in Jadotville, and was probably shot down by a French CM. 170 Magister piloted by a Belgian who’d flown for the Brits in WWII. A convoluted and shady episode in international relations, indeed.

Unable to read much Serbian, we had absolutely no idea what this was, apart from lethal.

Unable to read much Serbian, we had absolutely no idea what this was, apart from lethal.

As a side note, the state of Yugoslavia had been a member of the UN since its formation in 1945, and was never part of the Soviet Union, having chosen to beat its own path. Tito and Stalin had a bit of a falling out over Yugoslavia’s economic development program, which resulted in the latter dispatching hitmen to take care of business. Tito responded with a letter, which read, “Stop sending people to kill me. We’ve already captured five of them, one of them with a bomb and another with a rifle. If you don’t stop sending killers, I’ll send one to Moscow, and I won’t have to send a second.” The attempts ceased.

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Private Carpenter to the white courtesy phone, we’ve found your Beretta.

Private Carpenter to the white courtesy phone, we’ve found your Beretta.

Following Tito’s death in 1980, it was only a matter of time before internal divisions and external tensions placed the country on its merry way to breakup and civil war, a period to which only lip service is paid in the final displays of the museum, despite it costing the lives of around 140,000 of its citizens between 1991 to ’95. There’s about 25 feet of glass case, behind which are some of the weapons captured from the other participants in the conflict, including a MAC11, complete with suppressor. The last couple of cases deal with the USA’s involvement in the region, including the 1999 air campaign and the lesser-known covert operations by “others” in 1998, which resulted in the capture of several pieces of kit, including SIG STG90 assault rifles, a Barrett .50 cal, laptop, and remote detonators.

Anti-tank weapon test target. Sh*t works, yo.

Anti-tank weapon test target. Sh*t works, yo.

There’s a chunk from the fuselage of the F117 stealth fighter piloted by Lt. Col Dale Zelko, shot down 5 miles west of Belgrade on March 27, 1999 by a modified SA-3 Goa missile. His subsequent rescue by the crew of an MH-53 Pave Low was one of the most challenging combat search-and-rescue operations in recent history, and a testament to the training and professionalism of the personnel involved.

Now, about that second part of our story … Outside the well-groomed displays of the museum building lies a collection of larger pieces, grouped for the most part inside the dead space between the outer fortress walls and the sanctum within. In this moat lies one of the most comprehensive assortments of WWI field artillery we’ve ever come across, together with a few of the most significant milestones of armor development. Panzers 1-5 are there for your perusal, without any barriers or hindrance to you putting paws on them, along with the most significant tank of WWI, the French Renault FT, which subsequently became America’s first tank also.

SA7 Grail (top) and SA16 Gimlet (bottom) used against NATO aircraft in 1999, along with a chunk of F16

SA7 Grail (top) and SA16 Gimlet (bottom) used against NATO aircraft in 1999, along with a chunk of F16

The hands-on aspect of the artifacts on show is one of the things that distinguish this collection from most in the U.S or anywhere else, for that matter. Instead of handrails and warning signs everywhere, there’s no impediment for the visitor to clamber all over the battlements, and there are some pretty decent drops from the top of the walls to the pit below. If you’re visiting with kids, you may want to keep them on a short leash. There’s a sense of neglect and decay pervading the outside displays, though the staff obviously try their best with a limited budget — despite this being a potential jewel of a museum in the heart of the nation’s capital city, there’s trash everywhere.

The upside to this somewhat sad state of affairs is that for the determined pilgrim there’s a “choose your own adventure” vibe to the venue. Take a good flashlight and you can explore tunnels and caverns within the fort that at one time were locked down tighter than a gnat’s chuff, but nowadays are available to anyone willing to wade past the first few yards of discarded water bottles, fast food wrappers, and soiled underwear.

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It’s a trip worth taking, and if you want to make it even more worthwhile, time your visit to coincide with the Belgrade Beer Fest in August. Located in green space in the new part of the city on the banks of the Danube, it’s a five-day extravaganza of libations, grilled meat, and music, which is free to enter, and definitely gets the RECOIL thumbs up.

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