Battle of Sutjeska

Map of the Battle of Sutjeska

Map of the Battle of Sutjeska

From Operation Barbarossa on, the Yugoslavian partisans started to attack German and collaborators positions. Their power grew fast but they were forced to retreat to the mountains of Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as they Wehrmacht was pushing them a lot. Even though they were located in the mountains and the German reprisals were extreme (many civilians were assassinated by the occupiers and the collaborators), the partisans managed to create People’s Liberation Army (from now on PLA) and, in November 1942 Josip Broz Tito, its leader, was able even to create the Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation, something similar to a government.

The occupiers started to worry as they were seen that partisans had more power than expected and as that power would maybe urge on the Allies to invade Balkans. With the intention of destroying the Partisan Main Operational Group, Axis powers planned Operation Case Black (Fall Schwarz in German), also known as the battle of Sutjeska or the Fifth Enemy Offensive.

German preparation

Germans had already tried to defeat partisans during Battle of Neretva but they did not succeed. During April 1943, German command decide to launch Operation Case Black. Hitler stated before the operation: “Units are obliged and authorized to use every mean in this battle, without limits and against women and children as well if it leads to success… No German who fights against gangs can be called to disciplinary or military-judicial responsibility for staying in the fight against gangs and their supporters.” Hitler was clearly ordering German troops to use any tactic, even if it was killing civilians, to achieve their goal.

The Axis’ plan was to encircle the main partisan units and destroy them between two rivers: Piva and Tara. The Axis had 127.000 troops, 8 artillery regiments, tanks and 300 aircrafts ready for the offensive. Axis’ order of battle was:

Germany

  • 7th SS Volunteer Mountain Division Prinz Eugen
  • 1st Mountain Division
  • 118th Jäger Division
  • 369th Croatian Infantry Division
  • 4th Brandenburg Regiment
  • 724th Infantry Regiment (reinforced) from the 104th Jäger Division
  • Motorized Brandenburg Regiment

Italy

  • 1st Alpine Divisio Taurinense
  • 19th Mountain Division Venezia
  • 23rd Infantry Division Ferrara
  • 32nd Infantry Division Marche
  • 151st Infantry Division Perugia
  • 154th Infantry Division Murge
  • Forces of the Podgorica Sector

The Independent State of Croatia

  • 4th Home Guard Jäger Brigade

Bulgaria

  • 63rd Infantry Regiment (under the command of the 369th Croatian Infantry Division)
  • 62st Infantry Regiment also in the area (under the command of the 369th Croatian Infantry Division)

Partisans

Partisans Main Operational Group had 16 brigades and 2 artillery battalions ready for this battle with, more or less, 15.700 soldiers along with 4.000 wounded and people suffering from typhus. The partisans’ units that took part in the battle were:

  • 1st Proletarian Division
  • 2nd Proletarian Division
  • 3rd Assault Division
  • 7th Banija Division
  • 6th Proletarian Brigade
  • 15th Majevica Brigade

The offensive

4th Montenegrin Brigade moving towards Miljevina, June 12

4th Montenegrin Brigade moving towards Miljevina, June 12

On May 15th Axis forces launched the offensive. During the first days they managed to gain territory to the point of threatening the central hospital. After this first hit, 1st and 2nd Proletarian Divisions were forced to retreat to the north, but at that moment the Partisan command recognized the German intention and they started to think how could they escape from the trap.

Even though partisans were able to defeat the Axis’ troops that were threatening the Central Hospital, they had big problems to break the encirclement. They tried to break it near Foča but they were unable to success. Luckily, the Axis troops were unable to achieve their goals. After May 28th, the Partisan command ordered to all its units to move towards the valley of Sutjeska. All units arrived on May 31st.

Breaking the encirclement

On June 3rd, Partisan commanders decided to break the encirclement in two different directions:

  1. The group formed by the 1st and the 2nd Proletarian Divisions tried to break the encirclement across Sutjeska river and over the Zelengora mountain.
  2. The second group, formed by the 3rd Shock Division and the 77th Banija Division along with the central Hospital was to try to break the encirclement across Tara river and towards Sandž

The first group fought hard but the second one had problems and tried to reach the first group. On June 9th, Marshal Tito was wounded while Captaion Stewart, Head of the British Military Mission, was killed due to a bombardment.

Marshal Tito and Ivan Ribar during the battle

Marshal Tito and Ivan Ribar during the battle

On June 10th and after burning heavy weapons and documents, the 1st Proletarian Division was able to break the encirclement after attacking the position of the 369th Division and all units barring 3rd Shock Division were able to escape from the encirclement. Axis troops thought only small groups had escaped, but actually the only unit inside the encirclement was the 3rd Shock Division. The Axis command sent five divisions against the 3rd partisan division. Only some small groups of the division were able to escape, especially due to many soldiers that came back to rescue their wounded comrades.

Axis troops killed aroung 1.200 wounded partisans on June 14th. Killings were very usual and during some days many captured partisans were killed. For example, some 700 wounded partisans and nurses taking care of them hid on Piva mountain. The Germans used dogs to find them and almost all of them were assassinated.

Casualties and conclusion

The battle caused many casualties in both sides:

People’s Liberation Army

  • 1st Proletarian Division: 1.514 killed out of 5.041 soldiers (30%).
  • 2nd Proletarian Division: 2.605 killed out of 8.106 soldiers (32%). Figures include troops under its command on June 10th).
  • 3rd Shock Division: 1.554 killed out of 4.664 soldiers (33%).
  • 7th Banija Division: 1.349 killed out of 2.547 soldiers (53%).
  • Around 1.500 civilians killed.

Germany

  • 583 killed, 1.760 wounded and 425 missing.

Italy

  • 290 killed, 541 wounded and 1.502 missing.

The Independent State of Croatia

  • 40 killed, 166 wounded and 205 missing.

Chetnik

  • 17 killed and 3.764 captured.

The battle of Sutjeska was the turning point of the Balkans warfare as the Allies started supporting the communist partisans instead of supporting the Royalist partisans. People’ Liberation Army continued gaining popularity and by the end of 1943 around 300.000 partisans were under its command.

Sources

(1) Edin Hardaus. “The Story of the Valley of Heroes” War History Online. 31 Aug. 2018 <https://www.warhistoryonline.com/whotube-2/uss-ranger-dronevideo.html>.

(2) “The Battle of Sutjeska Memorial Monument Complex in the Valley of Heroes”. Spomenik Database. 1 Sep. 2018 <http://www.spomenikdatabase.org/tjentiste>.

(3) “Partisan”. Britannica. 1 Sep 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Partisan-Yugoslavian-military-force#ref141668>

(4) Edin Hardaus. Balkan war history. 1 Sep 2018. <http://www.balkanwarhistory.com/>

 

Bulgaria in World War 2

Map of Bulgaria during World War 2

Map of Bulgaria during World War 2. [Source: Gotsev D. sp. Macedonian Pregled, br.3 / 2004 (or. Гоцев Д. сп. Македонски преглед, бр.3/2004]

Even though Germany was the most powerful country in the Axis, many other countries formed the coalition. Bulgaria was one of them. The Tsardom of Bulgaria did not participate in the Great Patriotic War (they only sent a medical unit, as we will see) but they use many troops against partisans, so we can say that it did participate on it indirectly, as it freed many German units that were send to the Eastern Front. This is the summary of Bulgaria in World War 2.

Background

Bulgaria had a population of 6.319.000 inhabitants and its area was 103.100 square kilometres in 1938. From October, 1918 on Tsar Boris the III was the Head of State and in 1939 Georgi Kyoseivanov (1940-9/9/1943: Bogdan Filov; 9/9/1943-14/9/1943: Petar Gabrovski; 14/09/1943-1/6/1944: Dobri Bozhilov and 1/6/1944-2/9/1944: Ivan Ivanov Bagryanov) was the Prime Minister. Despite Kyoseivanov was the Prime Minister, his government was little more than Tsar’s puppet. The regime has inclination towards fascism, especially when Filov was in charge.

After World War I, Bulgaria lost some territories as it was Germany’s ally and they lost the war. Bulgaria wanted those territories back and that was one of the reasons of the future Bulgarian Pro-Axis politics.

Neutrality

Just before the start of the war, Bulgaria was in a very difficult position. The war was about to start and, as the other countries in the region, Bulgaria had to decide which country to support. Elites and the military command wanted to support Nazi Germany while people preferred to support the Soviet Union. The Tsar would choose the fascist if he would be forced to support one or the other.

When Germany launched its offensive in Poland, Great Britain and France pressured Bulgaria, as they wanted a neutral Bulgaria. The Tsar declare neutrality on September 16th. France was defeated in June, 1940 and, then the Allies stopped pressuring Bulgaria, but pressure appeared from the other side.

Bulgarians entering Southern Dobrudzha

Bulgarians entering Southern Dobrudzha, 1940

That month, Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Miniter, requested the return of the areas Romania got in 1919. It is important to notice that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact (Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) in August 1939, so the relations between them were not hostile at that moment. Finally, on September 7th, 1940 Hitler forced Romania to sign a treaty (Treaty of Craiova) in which Bulgaria got Southern Dobrudza, the same area Bulgaria lost in 1919.

In October 1940, Italy attacked Greece and, from the very beginning, it was a disaster. Even though Bulgaria was not part of the Axis yet, it allowed the entrance of some German engineers and Luftwaffe personnel. Eventually, Bulgaria acceded to the Axis Tri-Partite Treaty (Hitler demanded this some times before, but Boris did not agree) on March 1st, 1941, allowing the use of its military facilities and railway.

Bulgaria as belligerent

Using Bulgaria as a springboard, Nazi Germany quickly conquered Yugoslavia and Greece. Bulgaria, as it become an Axis member in March, was awarded with almost the entire Yugoslavian Macedonia, a little Serbian area and Greek Thrace (Bulgarian called it Belomorie). Even though the country did not take part in the offensive, Bulgarian Army entered both countries as soon as the clashes finished, as occupation unit.

Bulgarian Army

Bulgaria lost World War I and due to that, its army was limited to 20.000 men, including internal forces and border guards. But as well as Germany, it started rearming from 1934 on. During the spring of 1941, the Bulgarian Armed Forces were composed by 230.000 men divided in:

  • 16 infantry divisions
  • 2 cavalry divisions
  • 1 motorized brigade
  • 7 air regiments (in 1940: Around 300 combat aircrafts, 10 seaplanes, 9 airfields; Some German and French aircrafts were received during 1941).
  • Special and service units
  • 4 old torpedo-boats
  • 2 motor torpedo-boats
  • 2 training sailing-ships

When Macedonia was given to Bulgaria, the manpower was used for the creation of the 5th Army. When its formation finished, the Armed Forces grew to:

  • 21 infantry division.
  • 2 independent cavalry brigades
  • 2 brigades of border guards
  • 1 armoured brigade

Repression and anti-Semitism

Bulgarian invasion of Macedonia

Bulgarian invasion of Macedonia (Yugoslavia), April 1941

When the Army entered Macedonia, at the beginning most of the people welcomed them, but the conquerors started a brutal policy of Bulgarization, so they lost people’s confidence. In Belomorie (Greek Thrace) the occupation was even more savage. Bulgaria started a Bulgarization there too, but people who did not accept it were deported or murdered. Many businesses and lands were confiscated and Bulgarians were sent to take charge of them. When the Greek revolted, the occupation forces executed as many as 15.000.

During the occupation, Hitler pressured the Tsar to apply some anti-Semitic laws. 11.000 Jews were sent from Macedonia and Greek Thrace to Treblinka, one of the Extermination camps used by the Nazis. Most of them were killed there. When the German asked for Bulgarian Jews, the Tsar sent them to labour camps but he did not deport them to Germany. Some sources stat that the Tsar and his wife Princess Goivanna of Savoy avoid any deportation, saving 50.000 Jews.

Fighting against Partisans

When Nazi Germany declared war on the Soviet Union, Bulgaria did not. The Germans wanted a Bulgarian legion to be used in the Eastern Front but the Tsar denied, as well as the joining of Bulgarian to the SS, but finally he sent a medical unit. Anyway, Bulgaria did not fight against the Soviet Union because the Tsar knew that people would revolted, as they have a good impression of Soviet people.

As soon as the Soviet-German War started, the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Workers’ Party (the Communist Party of Bulgaria) started organizing the partisan movement to fight against German occupation forces and Bulgarian regime. On June 26th, 1941 the First Bulgarian Partisan Detachment was formed in Upper Dzumaya. In June 1942 the Fatherland Front (it stipulated the relations with the Axis, the start of co-operation with Soviet Union and the Allies, the abolition of Bulgaria’s monarchist-fascist regime and the proclamation of popular-democratic rule) was founded, been crucial in the Liberation. From June 1941 to December 1942, the partisans carried out 520 actions.

The defeat of the 6th German Army in Stalingrad and the good job carried out by the Yugoslavian Army of National Liberation were the turning point of the partisan movement. The movement was reorganized into 12 partisan operational zones and a Partisan General Staff was created. The power of the movement grew and in mid-1944 its strength was: 20.000 partisans, 20.000 resistance members and 10.000 fighters of separate groups.

Of course, Bulgarian regime tried to destroy these partisan units but they were unable to do it even though the government rewarded for the heads of partisans. The Bulgarian Armed Forces fought against partisans not only in Bulgaria but in Yugoslavia too, participating in the repression. For example, two Bulgarian army regiments were used during Operation Schwarz (also named Fifth Enemy Offensive or Battle of the Sutjeska) to try to destroy the main Yugoslavian partisan units, but they were unable to achieve their goal.

Between 1941 and 1944, 9.150 Bulgarian partisans and over 20.000 members of the resistance were killed, 31.540 people were sent to concentration/extermination camps. From 1942 until September 9th, 1944 60.345 resistance/partisans-related Bulgarians were arrested and 12.461 were sentenced to death.

Fighting against the Allies

Bulgaria declared war on USA and Great Britain on December 13th, 1941 but the German defeat in Stalingrad changed governors mind quickly. Several diplomats started offering peace to the Allies but among the conditions to sign it, they wrote that Bulgaria would keep its territorial gains. Obviously, the Allies rejected the offer.

In 1943, the Allies started with the Strategic Bombing of Romanian oilfields. Bulgarian Air Force was too weak for attacking allies air raids but Bulgarian anti-aircraft units help Luftwaffe.

On August 28th Tsar Boris died when he was 49 years old, and his son Simeon replaced him as Tsar Simeon II. The bombing of Sofia started in late 1943. Those bombings threatened people and Bulgarians started to blame on the government for joining the Axis while the partisans continue growing. Bulgaria started again with the peace offers, but the Allies wanted an unconditional surrender, so they did not agree nothing.

On August 26th, 1944 the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Workers’ Party issued a directive explaining the armed uprising that had to be done. The Red Army was near the border and on September 2nd the Soviet Union sent an ultimatum ordering Bulgaria to kick out German troops from its country. The government collapsed.

Red Army entering Sofia

Red Army entering Sofia, September 9th, 1944

Three days after the Soviet Union declared war on Bulgaria and three days after it, September 9th, 1944 the Fatherland Front took-over the government and established the first popular-democratic government with Kimon Georgiev as Prime Minister (that was the second time Georgiev was Prime Minister of Bulgaria; the first one from 19/05/1934 to 22/1/1935). Finally, one day after, September 10th, 1944 Bulgaria declared war on Germany. Later, it signed an armistice with the Allies on October 10th, 1944 but it lost all the occupied territories except Southern Dobruja, the territory Romania got in 1919 but was returned to Bulgaria in 1940.

Fighting against Axis

Bulgarian paratroopers entering Kumanovo

Bulgarian paratroopers entering Kumanovo, November 1944

The new rulers purged Nazis from the military and reorganized the army, including the incorporation of political officers. They fought against the German troops and their collaborators that where in Bulgaria and its occupied territories of Macedonia and Greek Thrace. On September 19th-20th, a general mobilization took place, mobilizing 450.000 soldiers (40.000 volunteers) that were distributed in: 16 infantry divisions, one cavalry division, 2 cavalry brigades, one armoured brigade and two brigades of border guards. On September 9th, Bulgaria had 196 tanks: 88 Panzer IV, 36 Škoda, 10 Praga, 20 light Horch armoured cards, 40 Renault T35s, 9 Vickers E and 14 Fiat CV-3. The Soviet Union gave some tanks to the Bulgarian Army want it took control of it (more information regarding Bulgarian Army tanks in (2)).

Since September 17th, the 1st, 2nd and 4th Bulgarian armies fought against the German troops that where retreating from Greece and the rest of occupied countries in the area. They liberated, among others, Kumanovo and Skopje. Bulgarian Air Force and Navy also took part in the actions against Germany. By the end of 1944, when the Red Army and the rest of Soviet allies were fighting along the Danube, a brand new 1st Army was formed. Before the end of the war, it participated in the liberation of Slovenia and finish its way in Austria in May 1945. Combating the Axis, 31.360 Bulgarian soldiers were killed or wounded.

After the World War 2

After the war, on September 15th, 1946 Bulgaria became People’s Republic of Bulgaria. In June 1990, the Bulgarian Socialist Party won the elections and one year after the country adopted a new Constitution, becoming a capitalist country again, even though the change did not improve the quality of people during 1990s.

Gallery

Sources

(1) “Bulgarian Armed Forces of WWII”. Bulgarian Armed Forces of WWII. 26 Aug. 2018 <http://members.tripod.com/~marcin_w/index-bul.html>.

(2) “Bulgarian Tanks in World War 2”. Tank Encyclopedia. 26 Aug. 2018 <http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com/ww2/bulgaria/bulgarian-tanks-in-world-war-2>

(3) Hans Johnson. “Bulgaria in WW2.” Armchair General. 26 Aug. 2018 <http://armchairgeneral.com/bulgaria-in-world-war-ii.htm>.