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/>

 

Last cavalry charge in History

Last cavalry charge in History

Italian cavalry charge in Izbushensky

Cavalry charges were very usual from Ancient history until 19th century, but with the appearance of some modern weapons like the machine gun and the motorization and mechanization of the armies, their power went down very fast until they disappeared during 20th century. Even so, some cavalry charges took place after The Great War, some of them even after the start of World War 2, the war that changed the War Theory drastically.

On August 24, 1942 (some sources place the action on August 23), about 600 Italian cavalrymen from the Savoia Cavalleria Italian cavalry regiment charge, with sabres drawn, charge towards 2.000 infantrymen from the 812th Siberian Rifle Regiment (part of the 304th Rifle Division). It is known as the Izbushensky charge due to the location where it took place, and it is known as the last cavalry charge in History even though some charges may have taken place after this one during World War 2 (including a charge conducted by the 1st Italian Cavalry Division Eugenio di Savoia) and even after.

That day, the Italians charge towards the Soviets and using hand grenades and sabres bring about many casualties on the defenders.  Italians suffered casualties too, including 32 dead (the commanders of the 3rd and 4th squadrons among them), 52 wounded and 100 horses dead. Even though the action was a quite small skirmish, Italian propaganda used this action widely. That is the story of the ‘last cavalry charge in History’.

Sources

Jesse Greenspan. “Remembering History’s Last Major Cavalry Charges.” History. 23 Aug. 2012
<https://www.history.com/news/the-last-major-cavalry-charge-70-years-ago>.

“Charge of the Savoia Cavalleria at Izbyshensky”. Wikipedia. 19 Jul. 2018 <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charge_of_the_Savoia_Cavalleria_at_Izbushensky>.

Defense of Brest Fortress

During the first months of the Operation Barbarossa, the Soviet Union suffered some of the worst defeats in History. That is a fact we perfectly know. For example, during the Battle of Bialystok-Minsk or the Battle of Kiev many Soviet soldiers were killed or captured. But during those first weeks, some Soviet units did a great job, not winning battles but stopping German infantry and tanks. One of those actions was the Defense of Brest Fortress.

The Brest Fortress

Brest and its Fortress were located on the shores of Bug river, just in the border between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. They were part of Poland but the Soviets annexed them thanks to Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

The Brest Fortress was a classic fortress of the 19th century. It was composed of four different islands due to Bug and Mujávets rivers. The headquarters and the barracks were located in the inner part and they could accommodate up to 12.000 soldiers. The fortifications around it were 1,5 meters’ width.

The Battle

On the 21st of June, just one day before the start of Operation Barbarossa, German spies and recon troupes reported that the Soviet did not expect an attack. Luckily for the Soviets, the command sent by Semion Timoshenko and Georgy Zhukov that night (they ordered all the units to be ready for action) did arrive to the garrison of the Brest Fortress (it did not arrive to many other units).

Map Operation Barbarossa

Map of Operation Barbarossa. The Brest Fortress is located in the cuadrant B3.

7 battalions belonging to the 6th “Orel’ Red Banner” Division and 42nd Rifle Division and some units belonging to the 17th NKVD Border troops and the 132nd NKVD Independent Battalion formed the garrison. In total, close to 3.500 soldiers.

On the 22nd of June, the German 45th Infantry Division assaulted the fortress after a heavy shelling, but they were unable to win the battle as the shelling was not even near to destroying the fortifications. Furthermore, the Soviets were mentally prepared, maybe due to the presence of NKVD troops and they did not follow Moscow’s guideline (not to ’provoke’ the enemy), as they used everything they had to defend the fortress from the very beginning.

Major Piotr Gavrilov

Major Piotr Gavrilov

On the 24th, the Soviet resistance was almost non-existent in the western part of Brest, but the Fortress still resisted. The attackers reported that on the 30th of June, after throwing 1.800 kilogram of bombs just the day before, they capture the fortress. That report is not 100% correct, as there were some Soviet groups still fighting inside the Fortress. Some of them fought until the 20th of July. Piotr Gavrilov, commander of the 44th Rifle Regiment of the 46th Rifle Division, was among them. He was able to prepare a jailbreak, but the Germans surrounded them and, after heavy fighting, he was captured.

The Brest Fortress was the first place where the Soviet resistance was really hard. The 45th Infantry Division suffered 319 kills (29 officials and 290 soldiers) during the first the of the battle. On the 30th of July, their casualties were 40 officials and 442 killed and 1.000 injured. At the end of June, the division reported to have fought against really prepared (military and morally) soldiers.

References

Chris Bellamy. Absolute War. Barcelona: Ediciones B, 2011. P. 207-209 and 239-242.