Brave life of the Slovenian Aviation Ace

Josip Križaj was a pilot of four air forces: the Kingdom of Italy, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the Air Force of the Spanish Republic (F.A.R.E. ), and post-war Yugoslavia (FNRY). He was posthumously awarded the Golden Aviation Badge, which was awarded only to the best Yugoslav pilots in recognition of his superior training and outstanding achievements in flying.


Josip often spent his childhood in the company of Austrian soldiers during the First World War. After the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, this part of Primorska belonged to Italy, and Kopriva was flown over by aircraft several times. Josip therefore once said to his mother Marija, “Mom, I will also be a pilot.”

After high school, he dreamed of aviation and in 1929 when he applied for admission to an Italian non-commissioned officer school, that dream came true. Although he was the son of Slovenian parents, he was sent to Capua near Naples. Among the 300 pupils, he became a pilot among the first in March 1930. 

Until graduation, he piloted training aircraft at the Civil Aviation School, then completed a course for fighter pilots in Furbara, and practiced acrobatic figures in Ghedi near Brescia. 

Josip Križaj in front of a Fiat CR-32 aircraft, based on Gustav Ajdič’s material


As an excellent young aviator, he was soon deployed to Milan Bresso Airport, to the team of the famous Death Squadron, commanded by the Fascist Minister of Aviation, later Marshal Italo Balbo. He took part in large rallies, and they also flew heavy bombers. Križaj soon became a sergeant. The squadron commander wrote in his file that he was an excellent, disciplined, and reliable pilot. He applied to become a professional pilot but had to retire in 1931 as he lost the trust of his superiors due to his national consciousness. 


Dissatisfied with his situation, he returned to Ajdovščina the same year, where he had a brother and sister. He sent many job applications but no one wanted to hire a Slovene. When he was called up for weapons exercises near Udine, Italy in June 1932, he took the opportunity and fled to Yugoslavia on 26 June in a Fiat As1 single-winged airplane. He landed in Šiška in Ljubljana and applied for political asylum. 


He stayed in Ljubljana for two years while he was tried in Italy for stealing a plane and illegally crossing the border. Instead of the desired job, he was interrogated and after a few months confined to Loznica and Bjeljina in eastern Bosnia, where he made a living from occasional work. In 1934 he received Yugoslav citizenship and returned to Ljubljana to his sister Stanislava after two years. Shortly afterward, he was called up to the air unit from Zemun, where he trained on reconnaissance aircraft.


When the Spanish Civil War broke out, he decided to leave Yugoslavia, and although he had been a member of TIGR the year before, he did not succeed until August 1936. He arrived in Paris and contacted a representative of the Spanish Republican Government to be classified as a volunteer. He was given a passport and signed a contract to join the Republican Air Force and to receive 3,000 pesos a month. A few days later, he traveled with two Russian pilots to Madrid, where he was assigned to a fighter squadron and first assigned an older aircraft, which he was not satisfied with. The squadron leadership thus entrusted him with a better aircraft, the Devoatin D371, with which he flew the next day on his first combat mission. 


On the second day already, he proved to be an extremely combative and daring hunter, as he “shot down” the Francoist aviation ace Salaz from the Spanish sky. Days of successful fighting were followed by the persistent pursuit of enemy aircraft, and successful evasion of their attacks. He became a lieutenant and commander of a hunting squadron. He made over a hundred combat flights. 


In October 1936, he was attacked by three Italian fighters at an altitude of about 3,000 m. In an unequal fight, he was shot down by Italian aviation ace Magistrini. He hit his plane with incendiary bullets, injuring Križaj. Križaj jumped from the burning plane but did not open the parachute up to about 1000 m altitude. He broke three ribs while opening the parachute and was bleeding profusely from a wound below his knee. He landed near the Tajo River. In the twilight, he crawled towards the river to reach the Republican positions but the next day the Francoists found him and took him to the hospital. During the ride, he was accidentally filmed by a cameraman from the American film company Paramount, who was filming short shots from the battlefield. The film was also shown in Slovenia, where people recognized him and told his sister he is alive.  


Until the end of January 1937, Križaj was interrogated and threatened with execution. The sister, who went to Paris, managed to get him on the list of prisoners for exchange. After seven months, he and two other captured Russians were replaced by seven French journalists. 


Upon his return, Josip again traveled to Spain, this time to Valencia, where he was entrusted with the command by the Russian instructors who had taken over the leadership of the Red Air Force. As a commander, he did well and remained in Spain until 1938. 

He was not greeted with laurels in his homeland. After a short stop in Ljubljana, he accepted the position of secretary of the aeroclub in Sombor, Serbia where he trained to fly gliders, and achieved a silver C.


In Smederevska Palanka, he got a job as a flight instructor at a pilot school. In 1939, the first class of students of the Air Force Command was trained there. Among his students was also his future wife, Jelena Štefanović, a student at the Belgrade Technical Faculty, Department of Aeronautics. In April 1940, they married – the first marriage of two pilots in Yugoslavia.



Due to the April war, they withdrew to the countryside in Rača, where they remained until the arrival of the partisans. They wanted to shoot him because he was suspicious of them, but in the end, they realized who he was. He was mobilized in Pančevo. After founding a school for the retraining of former pilots on Soviet fighter airplanes in Pančevo, he became a pilot-fighter and was transferred to the airport in Zemun. In December 1944, he became the commander of the 3rd Squadron of the 11th Hunting Division of the 112th Hunting Regiment of the NOVJ, where he took part in combat operations on the Srem front until the end of the war. 


In August 1945, the Air Force Command awarded him the Order of Bravery and awarded him the rank of lieutenant. In 1947 he was promoted to the rank of captain, was assistant commander of the air division, and was responsible for operations. 


On October 8, 1948, he was sent to observe the weather by JAK 3 aircraft towards Rijeka. Due to bad weather over Ljubljana, he headed towards Pula. He also flew over Snežnik, nearby peaks, the rocky edge of Cifer and crashed into the foothills of the forested Brestovica. Since he did not return, some speculated that he may have fled to the Soviet Union. The news that the plane had crashed into the hill did not arrive until the next morning.


Križaj was buried with all military honors in the Žale cemetery in Ljubljana.

A small memorial plaque was erected at the site of the plane crash by the Križaj family. In 1989, the Ilirska Bistrica Mountaineering Association Snežnik, together with the National Liberation Aviation Committee and the Aviation Museum in Zemun, erected an air wing near the tragic spot. A memorial wing with a metal inscription plate stands on the Slovenian side right next to the Croatian border.

Today, the aeroclub in Ajdovščina is named after the pilot, and his monument also stands at Portorož Airport.

He was posthumously awarded the Golden Aviation Badge, which was awarded only to the best Yugoslav pilots in recognition of his superior training and outstanding achievements in flying.  

Back today,

Čaven free, greet me!

What I wanted young then,

I enjoy today a thousand times……

To the wings I always whispered:

I will take you to a free homeland…

(From a poem by Valerija Podgornik Urbas: Memory of the hero of Comrade Križaj)

-Zgodovina letalstva na Slovenskem, Darinka Kladnik, ZIP 2008
-Letalstvo in Slovenci 2, Gustav Ajdič/Zoran Jerin, Založba Borec
– Mladika, Ljubljana 1990

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