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.
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:
- 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
- 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
- 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 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
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:
- The group formed by the 1st and the 2nd Proletarian Divisions tried to break the encirclement across Sutjeska river and over the Zelengora mountain.
- 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.
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.
- 583 killed, 1.760 wounded and 425 missing.
- 290 killed, 541 wounded and 1.502 missing.
The Independent State of Croatia
- 40 killed, 166 wounded and 205 missing.
- 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.
(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/>