Croatian Axis Forces in WWII
On December 1st, 1918, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was proclaimed, a creation of the Treaty of Versailles. This new country was to unite the Southern Slav peoples of the Balkans into an equal federation,under the Serbian Royal family’s rule. Part of this new state was Croatia,whose people had enjoyed a great deal of autonomy under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until its dissolution at the end of WWI. The Croats were not asked whether they were interested in joining this new state, this was decided for them. At first, this country of Southern Slavs did not seem like such a bad idea to the Croats, but it quickly became clear to most that this Versailles creation was not a federation of equals, but rather apolitical creation that excused Serbian expansionism. This disenchantment brought resistance by the Croats, firstly pacifist and political. This was answered by the abolition of the country’s constitution in 1929, and the establishment of an absolutist dictatorship by the King. The country was also re-named Yugoslavia.
The dictatorship caused the creation of a Croatian separatist group – the Ustasha (roughly translated as “Rebel” or “Upriser”). Led by Dr. Ante Pavelic, a Croatian lawyer, the Ustashe demanded an independent homeland for the Croatian people. They received financial and military assistance from Fascist Italy and Hungary, both of whom were hungry for a piece of Yugoslavia. The Ustashe organized an armed insurgency against the Yugoslav government and commenced with an assassination and bombing campaign. In 1934, they managed (with the help of a Macedonian anti-Yugoslav party, the VMRO) to assassinate Yugoslavian King Aleksander, while he was in Marseille,France.
On April 6th, 1941, Germany invaded Yugoslavia. Most of the population of Croatia greeted the Germans as liberators. The Ustashe took the opportunity, and on April 10th 1941, while the battles for Yugoslavia were still being waged, Yugoslav Colonel and secret Ustasha Slavko Kvaternik announced in Zagreb (Croatian capital) the formation of an “Independent State of Croatia” (Nezavisna Drzava Hrvatska in the Croatian language -“NDH”). Ante Pavelic was declared the “Poglavnik” (Leader) of the new state,while Kvaternik became the Commander-in-Chief of the Croatian Armed Forces(of course, at that time still non-existent). These armed forces would be definitely required, as a Communist uprising, led by Josip Broz “Tito”,would soon plunge the new state into a horrible civil war.On the next day, April 11th, 1941, an order creating the “Hrvatsko Domobranstvo” (Croatian Home defense) was issued. The Domobranstvo was to consist of an Army, Navy, Airforce, Gendarmerie, Railway Security and Labour Service. Over the years of war, the Domobranstvo (mostly conscript) would prove to be of dubious quality and loyalty. At times, they would fight like lions, other times they would desert or surrender en masse. The Ustasha Party also formed an armed force (a Croatian version of the Waffen SS) called the”Ustashka Vojnica”. The Ustashe were highly motivated (mostly volunteers),and quickly earned a reputation for fanatical bravery, as well as brutality.They never gave, nor asked for mercy.
From the very beginning, the Croatian military was plagued by a lack of equipment and weapons, especially heavy weapons and armor. Artillery battalions had, for example, only 2 batteries, instead of the usual 3-4 batteries. Armoured units were few, and they had no tanks, only a few tankettes and armored cars.
The meddling of Italy in Croatian affairs, poor Italian military efforts in their assigned area in southern Croatia, and Italian support for Royalist Serbian Cetniks in Croatia also posed a serious problem to the Croatian military.
Another major problem for the Croatian military forces was the mass exodus of many of the best Croatian officers, NCO’s and soldiers to volunteer for service in the German or Italian armies. Croatia had an infantry regiment and an air and naval legion fighting on the Eastern Front as part of the German Wehrmacht. 3 German infantry divisions were also manned by Croatian volunteers, as were 2 Waffen SS Divisions and an SS Police Division. The Italians also formed 2″Legions”, staffed with Croatians (Please see the section on Croatian Volunteers in the German Wehrmacht.
The Domobranstvo was re-organized twice after its initial set-up. This took place on November 1st, 1941 and on May 1st, 1943. Many new units were formed,re-formed, organized, and destroyed during these re-organizations. A unit worth noting was the 1st Mountain Division (17,000 men), activated in April 1942.On November 20th, 1944, the Domobranstvo and the Ustashka Vojnica were amalgamated into the “Croatian Armed Forces” (Hrvatske Oruzane Snage). This was done largely to bolster Domobran moral, as well as to place faithful Ustashe amongst potential weak links as a form of motivation.
Of note during this time period was the 1st Croatian “Assault” (Udarna) Division.This division was the best of the regular Croatian Army units. Wearing surplus Finnish uniforms, this division received the best of Croatian armament and fought well against both Partisan attacks and Soviet Red Army assaults into Croatian territory.
On May 6th, 1945, with the German Army in full retreat, the Partisans taking town after town, and the Red Army swarming across the borders, the Croatian government left Zagreb. The remnants of the Croatian Armed Forces(approximately 200,000 troops) retreated towards Austria in the hopes of surrendering to the British. At the town of Bleiburg, Austria, the Croatians surrendered to the British between May 15th and May 17th, 1945, becoming the last European Axis army to capitulate. The British promptly returned the Croatians to Yugoslavia, and to certain death at the hands of Tito’s Communists.
The military of tiny Croatia in WW2, despite the lack of proper arms,despite fighting against a formidable guerilla opponent (the partisans) and a strong nationalist army (the Cetniks), despite a meddling Italy, managed tofield an army that fought until the bitter end, and for this should be respected.
Initial organization, April 11th, 1941 to November 1st, 1941: The Croatian Army was initially organized into 5 Divisional Regions, with a handful of independent units as follows.
The Commander of the Army in this period was Lt.-General August Maric.
First re-organization, November 1st 1941 to April 30th 1943: The Army was now organized into 3 Corps Regions, each with a Corps as follows:
The commander of the Army in this period was Lt.-General Vladimir Laxa.
Second re-organization, May 1st, 1943 to November 20th, 1944: The Army was now organized into 3 Corps Regions, with the 6 divisions re-organized into 4 Mountain and 4 Rifle Brigades, and 1 Mobile Brigade. Each Corps also received a Replacement Brigade and 11 Garrison Brigades, while III Corps received 23 railway Security Battalions and 3 Labour Regiments as follows:
Lt.-General Vladimir Laxa remained in Command.
Final re-organization, November 21st 1944 to May 6th 1945: In an attempt to create a more effective military force, the Army and the Ustaska Vojnica were amalgamated into the Croatian Armed Forces, creating 13 Infantry, 2 Mountain, 2 Assault, and 1 Replacement Division, plus the Poglavnik Bodyguard Division. These units were organized into 5 Corps as follows:
Commander of the amalgamated armed forces was General Djuro Djuric,answering to Pavelic who had taken supreme command.
Final order of battle, end of April 1945 to May 15th, 1945: These were the remnants of the Croatian Armed Forces that fought their way to Bleiburg,Austria, and surrendered to the British. Corps II-V were known as Ustashe Corps, although not all members were Ustashe:
The initial organization of the Ustashe between April 10th 1941 and June1st 1943 consisted of the following:
The elite Poglavnik Bodyguard Battalion (PTS), which became a brigade on May 10th 1942, expanding to 2 regiments by June 1st, 1943. This unit had almost all of the Croatian armor, concentrated in its armored battalion. It also had guard, cavalry and mobile battalions.
The “Defense Battalions” charged with guarding concentration camps, organized by Colonel (later General) Max Luburic.
Thirty-nine “Active Battalions”, the backbone of the Ustashe, formed by June1943, a Zagreb Garrison Brigade, and 4 ethnic German Einsatzstaffel Ustashe Active Battalions. The German battalions joined the Prinz EugenWaffen SS Division in April of 1943.
The 1st Ustashe Regiment, known under the name Black Legion, formed inSarajevo by Major Jure Francetic in September of 1941. The most successful and most notorious of the anti-Partisan units, the Legion operated in eastern Bosnia until September of 1942, when it was disbanded.
Various Ustashe Railway Troops (later Communications Brigades) organized in October of 1941.
All of these units would grow in manpower until a reorganization would become required. The commander of all Ustase units was Colonel Tomislav Sertic.
First Ustashe reorganization, June 1st, 1943 to December 31st, 1943:
Second re-organization, January 1st, 1944 to November 20th, 1944:
Upon the Creation of the NDH, the Italian government vetoed use by the Croatian Navy of any warship over 50 tons. The Croatian Navy therefore organized a Customs and Coastguard service in small armed boats and fishing vessels, divided into 3 Naval Commands: North (based in Crikvenica, later Susak), Central (based in Makarska, later in Split), and South (based in Dubrovnik). ARiverine Flotilla was also organized (based at Zemun), patrolling the Danube and Sava Rivers. The Riverine Flotilla also had a Naval Infantry Battalion,based at Zemun (later moved to Zagreb).
The Croatian Navy did not undergo any reorganizations until the surrender of Italy in September 1943. The surrender nullified the veto on the tonnage of Croatian naval vessels and allowed the Croatian’s to occupy several excellent harbors in the parts of Croatia annexed by Italy.
The commanders of the Croatian Navy were Rear-Admiral Djuro Jakcin (April,1941 – late 1943), Commodore Edgar Angeli (late 1943 – January 1944), andRear-Admiral Nikola Steinfl (January 1944 – May 1945).
Originally organized into 7 wings, and subdivided into squadrons,the Croatian Airforce (Hrvatsko Zrakoplovstvo) did not undergo any organizational changes during the war; with the exception of Croatian Airforce Legion units being returned to Croatia in 1942 and 1943respectively, and integrated into the existing Airforce. The Airforce operated from 4 air bases (Zagreb, Sarajevo, Banja Luka and Mostar), usingGerman, Italian, old ex-Yugoslav and obsolete French planes. For the most part, the Croatian planes flew in a support role to the Luftwaffe in anti-Partisan operations. Late in the war, some Croatian planes fought Allied bombers and their escorts in the skies over Croatian cities.
The Airforce also had command over the Anti-Aircraft Artillery, which it had divided into 2 regions – I (Zagreb), and II (Sarajevo).
The 1st Croatian Parachute Battalion was also under Airforce command. Basedat Koprivnica, later at Zagreb, the paratroopers were used in anti-partisan duties.
The commanders of the Croatian Airforce were Major-General Vladimir Kren(April 1941 – 14 September 1943), Colonel Adalbert Rogulja (14 September,1943 – June 4, 1944), and again General Kren (June 4, 1944 – May 1945).
The Croatian Gendarmerie (Hrvatsko Oruznistvo) was formed on April 30th, 1941,as a rural police, commanded first by Major-General Milan Miesler, then Major-General Tartaglia, and finally Ustasha Colonel Pecnikar. The Gendarmerie was divided into 7 regiments (Zagreb, Split, Banja Luka,Sarajevo, Mostar, Knin, Zemun), with a total of 23 companies, and covered the entire territory of the NDH. A special, 3 battalion unit, named the”Petrinja Brigade” was specially formed for anti-Partisan duties, although all Gendarmerie units participated in these assignments. The Gendarmerie was approximately 18,000 strong.
Croatian State Labor Service
Founded on August 20th, 1941, the “Drzavna Radna Sluzba” (DRS) was modeled on the German Reichsarbeitdienst (RAD). All physically fit males between 19 and 25 were obliged to serve in the DRS for 12 months, prior to a call-up for service in the armed forces. There was also regular cadre personnel.By summer of 1942, over 90,000 men served in the DRS, under the command of General Palcic. Over and above their work service, the DRS also acted as combat engineers in emergency situations.
Reserve and other units of the Croatian Armed Forces
The following units and formations also existed as a part of the Armed Forces of Croatia. The “Ustasha Reserve Corps” (Pucko Ustaski Sbor – also translated as the”People’s Uprising Corps”), was formed in the Summer of 1944, under the command of Army Major-General Josip Metzger. This unit consisted mostly of older armed forces reservists, under Ustashe NCO’s and officers (in many ways similar to the German Volkssturm). 4 Regiments were raised (Vuka,Baranka, Posavje, and Livac-Zapolje). The Livac-Zapolje Regiment joined Luburic’s “Ustashe Defense Brigades” in December of 1944, while the other 3Regiments fought together as part of the Vth Armed Forces Corps. In March,1945, the 3 Regiments were disbanded.
The “Domdo” Home-defense Volunteer Militia also existed consisting of 21 battalions of village militia in the Croatian province of Bosnia-Hercegovina, controlled bythe Army until the amalgamation of the Armed Forces, at which time they were disbanded. Most militiamen ended up joining the Ustashe or the Waffen SS”Handschar” Division.
There also existed an Ustashe Militia (Ustaska Milicija) and Ustashe Peasant’s Protection Force which was Ustashe paramilitary units in Bosnia-Hercegovina.They were mostly absorbed by the Ustashe “Active Battalions” by late 1944.
The “Hadziefendic Legion” (Hadziefendiceva Legija) was another obscure unit, raised as an autonomous, brigade-sized Croatian Muslim militia in the Northeastern part of Bosnia-Hercegovina (Tuzla area), led by Croat government commissioned Major Muhammed Hadziefendic. The force was poorly armed and had few trained officers or NCO’s. In 1943, Major Hadziefendic was courted by the newly forming Croatian-Muslim Waffen SS Division “Handschar”, however, in October of that year he was killed together with 55 of his men in an engagement with Communist Partisans. The Legion was disbanded upon his death, with the surviving men joining either the Croatian Army, the SS “Handschar”, or defecting to the Partisans.
Lastly, there also existed the “Huska’s Legion” (Huskina Legija) which was another Muslim militia,sponsored by the Croatian government, raised in Western Bosnia. It numbered approximately 3,000 men, in 11 battalions, led by Husko Miljkovic. It was formed in the Summer of 1943 but was of poor quality. In February of 1944,Miljkovic and a group of his men deserted and joined the Partisans. The militia was dissolved, with a number of its members joining the “Handschar”Division, the rest opting for the Ustashe.