In mid-1941, seeing the success of the Croatian soldiers on the Eastern Front, and begining to need as many men as possible forthe ongoing war, the German Army decided to raise a Croatian Legion Division. The plan was to send this division to fight in Russiaas well.
The Division began formation on August 21st, 1942 in Stokerau, Austria. Training Battalion personnel and recovered wounded ofthe Kroat.Infanterie-Regiment 369 were the nucleous of the Division. By December of 1942, about 1,000 veterans of Kroat.Infanterie-Regiment 369were in this new unit. Added to these men were a group of fresh volunteers from Croatia. The Commander of theDivision was German and a sprinkling of German officers and NCO’s served to bolster theDivision’s ranks.
The division received the title 369.Infanterie-Division (kroat.) but wasreferred to by its members as the Vrazja (Devil’s) Division. The Vrazja name datesback to a Croatian division (the 42nd) ofthe Austro-Hungarian Army in WWI. The Germans, on the other hand, preferred to call the division the Schachbrett orCheckerboard Division, due to the distinctive armshield worn by the Croatians in the unit and in the German Wehrmacht. The Division wore German uniform and rank insignia, andonly the Croat armshield to identify it as a unit of Croatian volunteers. Unlike the former Kroat.Infanterie-Regiment 369, the new Divisionwore its armshield on the right sleeve. When the original Kroat.Infanterie-Regiment 369 was destroyed at Stalingrad in early 1943, the new division under formationtitled one of its regiments “369” to honor their fallen comrades on the Eastern Front.
In January 1943 it was decided that the situation in Croatia was becoming critical due to the Communist Partisan uprisings in theregion and the Division was instead sent to the Balkans rather than the Eastern Front. Upon arrival in Croatia, the Division hadapproximately 14,000 men in its ranks.
The first operation it participated in was titled Unternehmen Weiss, in northern Bosnia. This battle is sometimes referred to as the Battleof the Neretva. Begining on January 20th 1943, and lasting until the end of March 1943, the operation turned out to be a tacticalvictory for the Axis, but failed to destroy the Partisans. The Division fought well from the area of Sisak-Kostajnica south to Prijedortowards Bosanski Petrovac, where it hooked up with the 7.SS. Unfortunately, the Partisans escaped theplanned trap at the Neretva River by fighting their way through Italian areas of operation and destroying a Serbian Cetnik blockingforce.
After this first battle the Division was assigned an area of operation that ran roughly from the city of Karlovac in the west, tothe Croatia-Serbia border on the Drina River in the east, and from the Croatian Adriatic coast in the south, to the Sava River in thenorth. Most operations, however, were in the Sarajevo-Mostar regions within this area.
The next major operation the Division participated in was Unternehmen Schwarz, in May of 1943. The operation is also referredto as the Battle of the Sutjeska. Large Partisan forces, numbering 4 divisions and 2 brigades, were surrounded in theMontenegro-Bosnian border area. The Partisans made several breakout attempts, and managed to break through the surroundingforces at Foca on the Sutjeska River. Escaping in a northwesterly direction, 3 divisions of Partisans ran into a blocking force of theDivision near the town of Balinovac. A heavy battle ensued, with the Communist guerillas managing to tear several gaps inthe Division’s lines and escape. Losses were heavy on both sides.
After resting and rebuilding, the Division next fought the Partisans in December of 1943 in the area of Travnik (central Bosnia).Unternehmen Kugelblitz (around the town of Visoko, central Bosnia), Unternehmen Schneesturm (eastern Bosnia) and Unternehmen Waldrausch (alsoeastern Bosnia) were then participated in. Ending in late January 1944, these operations netted over 11,000 Partisan dead, butfailed to destroy the guerilla movement. Smaller scale operations continued throughout 1944.
By November the military situation in Croatia had become critical for the Axis. The 369.Infanterie-Division (kroat.)was in the Mostar region tryingto defend a large area with only a few fortress battalions added as reinforcements. In late January of 1945 a large Partisan offensiveon Mostar threatened to overwhelm the outnumbered Division, and February 15th 1945, Mostar was abandoned. The Division wasforced to retreat westwards, leaving much of its heavy equipment behind. The slow, terrible fighting withdrawl of the Axis forcesfrom Croatia into Austria continued, and the 369.Infanterie-Division (kroat.) was a part of this movement. Heavy losses were incurred by theunit and by late April of 1945 it had only about 500 men per regiment remaining!
On May 11th, 1945 the 369.Infanterie-Division (kroat.) surrendered to British armored forces near Bleiburg, Austria. Most of the Croatian soldierswere promptly sent by the British back into Partisan hands where they were for the most part executed.
Knights Cross Holders
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