Bato Tomašević, publisher and survivor of the 1958 Munich air disaster – obituary

Bato Tomašević,who has died aged 87, was a child partisan in former Yugoslavia, a diplomat, author and publisher, and a survivor of the Munich air disaster in 1958, in which 23 people died, including eight members of Manchester United Football Club.

Nebojsa Bato Tomašević was born on November 9 1929 in Kosovska Mitrovica, in the newly created Yugoslavia, the seventh of eight children of one of many Serb and Montenegrin families who had moved there.

His father, Petar, became deputy head of police in Cetinje, the former capital of Montenegro. Petar Tomašević’s work mostly involved quelling increasing levels of discontent in the country, where many people, particularly the young, were turning to the Communist Party.

Bato’s elder sister, Stana and brother, Duško, were both secretly members of the party and on one occasion Petar had to put down a demonstration led by Stana, and was forced to strike her as a signal to his officers to crush the protest.

In April 1941, after the invasion of Yugoslavia by the Axis powers, Montenegro came under Italian occupation. Bato’s father refused to collaborate and spent three years in prison in terrible conditions. Later that year Stana escaped from occupied Cetinje and joined the partisans.

Bato’s brother Duško was arrested and interned in Italy. The 13-year-old Bato went to look for his sister in the nearby mountains and found himself recruited as a child partisan (he was too embarrassed to say that he had only come to see his sister).

He spent the rest of the war years with the partisans, and recorded his harrowing experiences in his autobiography, Life and Death in the Balkans (2008); he witnessed the death of a fellow child partisan when the two of them were sheltering from Italian bombs behind a rock and fractured his skull when an armoured vehicle he was travelling in overturned on the front line.

Bato’s brother, Duško, who walked back to Yugoslavia after Italy’s capitulation, was wounded while fighting with the partisans, captured, and later murdered by Chetnik collaborators. Stana went on to serve as a minister in Marshal Tito’s government and was later the country’s first woman ambassador – to Norway and then Denmark.

After the war the family moved to the Yugoslav capital and Bato finished school and graduated from Belgrade University’s School of Journalism and Diplomacy. He was then sent to Britain to study English at Exeter University, where he met and fell in love with a young British woman, Madge Phillips.

In 1958, while working as a diplomat at the Yugoslav Embassy, Tomašević sought permission to marry Madge – during the Cold War marriage with a foreigner was frowned upon – and decided to fly to Belgrade to make his request, offering, as a way of getting a flight, to accompany the Manchester United football team to their European Cup match with Red Star Belgrade.

His request was denied, but his disappointment was eclipsed by the fact that on the return flight their plane crashed when taking off, killing eight of “Busby’s Babes”, as they were known. Tomašević – who was badly injured – shared his hospital room with Bobby Charlton, Ray Wood, Dennis Viollet and Albert Scanlon.

Two months after he was discharged from hospital, Tomašević married Madge. The couple moved to Belgrade and after a spell working for the Ministry of Information, Tomašević set up Yugoslav Review, the country’s first glossy magazine, before moving into book publishing.

In 1977, Tomašević and the German publisher Juergen Braunschweiger brought together a group of international publishers for an Adriatic cruise to launch their book Islands of the Adriatic. The trip was such a success that the publishers continued to gather together each year and became known as the Motovun Group, taking the name from the hilltop village in Istria where they held their annual summer meetings.

Tomašević was also a great authority on naive art and he co-authored the Encyclopedia of World Naive Art and several other books, including Gypsies of the World.

He had a wide circle of friends including Sir Fitzroy McLean, the wartime British emissary to Tito’s partisans, fellow survivors of the Manchester United crash Bobby Charlton and Harry Gregg, and Denis Healey.

Tomašević always believed in a united Yugoslavia and despaired as nationalism re-emerged in the Balkans. In 1990, he was appointed Director of the Federal TV station YUTEL. But as Yugoslavia disintegrated in 1991, he fled the country.

He and his wife settled in Britain where Tomašević continued to publish with his own company, Flint River Press.

In 1999, having been diagnosed with cancer two years earlier, he returned to Belgrade but found himself caught up in the Nato bombardment of the city and once again had a lucky escape when he managed to get out of the country in a van which he shared with two Serbian boxers en route to Germany.

He is survived by his wife and two daughters.

Bato Tomašević, born November 9 1929, died April 15 2017