Operation Rosselsprung – German Invasion of Drvar 1944

Operation Rosselsprung – German Invasion of Drvar 1944

Historiography of the Second World War in Yugoslavia is unfortunately still full of Communist propaganda, not just in Croatia but in the West as well. But some facts are now more available. Today it is known that after the occupation of Yugoslavia in April 1941., Stalin forbade Tito from starting a partisan rebellion in order to maintain the then-nearly-idyllic relationship between the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Draža Mihailović for his part escaped to Ravna Gora in Serbia, collecting the remnants of the broken Royal Yugoslav Army and waiting an opportunity to make a move, which he himself had no clue what it should be. This has led to perception, which exists even today in the West, that Draža Mihailović was the first rebel in Yugoslavia.

After the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941., Stalin sent a message to Tito to immediately begin the rebellion and combat operations against the Axis forces so as to weaken the Axis pressure. Tito could not refuse. First, just like all communists (international socialists), he was more loyal to the Soviet Union than to his own homeland. Second, Tito owed Moscow as its influence had helped him climb the party ladder during the 1930s, becoming the leader of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. Now Moscow was asking for the debt to be repaid.

It is also clear that the start of the partisan uprising was neither practically nor ideologically unified the way Communist Party wanted to present it later. It was in fact a mixture of various interests: fighting against the occupation, introducing Communism, destroying political enemies, carrying out ethnic cleansing and/or genocide under the guise of antifascism, and so on. Tito largely managed to calm the tensions between various factions, uniting them into the common People’s Liberation Movement (NOP), and thus securing himself the title of the most successful guerilla leader of the Second World War.

Partisan movement in Yugoslavia had become a significant problem for the German occupational administration, which had been hoping to use Yugoslavia as a source of ores and wheat. Prior to invasion of Soviet Union and the start of uprising in Yugoslavia, German forces in Yugoslavia consisted of four weak divisions and some police units. But these quickly became insufficient. Major part of the reason for this is that Germany had intentionally blocked development of armed forces of Independent State of Croatia, and focused merely on exploitation of raw resources while partisans were a problem for later, if ever. But this changed in late 1942. as the uprising developed into a serious Partisan movement with some 50 000 troops under its flag and operations carried out by units of 1 000 – 1 500 men.

First major defeats in 1943. and the loss of Sicily drew Hitler’s attention towards Balkans. He correctly assessed that the attack on Sicily was a step towards invasion of Balkans from Italy. This was, in fact, Churchill’s plan. Invasion of Normandy only won out because United States steadily gained influence in how the war was being waged, and Roosevelt was far too friendly to Stalin and did not see the Soviet Union as something to fear. But Hitler was not aware of these factors.

Because of this, Hitler decided to destroy the partisan movement in the Balkans. By this time, Tito had 90 000 armed partisans, including several elite “proletariat” brigades and independent divisions. Otto Kumm, commander of the 7th SS Mountain Division “Prinz Eugen” wrote that these could face even the best German units on an even footing.

Hunting Tito

German intelligence services began to more seriously address the issue of Tito in the second half of 1942., following the first larger operations against the partisan territory and bases. Based on the experiences from prior attempts of destroying main partisan forces, Germans drew the conclusion that one of main causes of failure was Tito himself. Thus the increasing importance was ascribed to removing Tito. While preparing for the operation “Schwarz”, which culminated in the Battle of Sutjeska, German command for the first time set a goal of not only destroying the surrounded Partisan units but also discovery and destruction of Tito himself and his headquarters. This task was given to the Lau company of the Brandenburg division, trained for operating behind the enemy lines. Because of the flawed intelligence, Lau company was sent to the wrong place at the wrong time, and achieved nothing.

Owen Reed, member of British mission in Croatia, March 1944

Intelligence section of the Brandenburg division managed to decrypt radio traffic of the Partisan High Command (VŠ NOV i POJ – Vrhovni štab narodnooslobodilačke vojske i partizanskih odreda Jugoslavije / Supreme Headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army and Partisan Detachments of Yugoslavia). By doing this they learned of the meeting of chief Partisan political body (AVNOJ – Antifašističko vijeće narodnog oslobođenja Jugoslavije / Antifascist Council of People’s Liberation of Yugoslavia) in Jajce and on 12th November 1943. suggested using two parachute battalions supported by larger infantry and motorized forces with the aim of destroying Tito and his headquarters. This suggestion was rejected as the German commander for the Balkans lacked the requested forces.

Other side too had noticed something was going on. Main headquarters of partisans in Croatia (GŠ NOV i POH – Glavni štab narodnooslobodilačke vojske i partizanskih odreda Hrvatske / Main Headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army and Partisan Detachments of Croatia) informed the High Command of the Partisan movement on 4th November 1943. that German forces were planning an airborne assault by paratroopers with the aim of capturing Tito. Seven days later, Moscow informed Tito that Germans were trying to find out location of the High Command in order to destroy it and Tito by paratroopers. Believing that partisan forces without Tito would not be a strong opponent, German command for Balkans concluded that Tito has to be “removed”. For this purpose, Kirchner special operations unit of the Brandenburg division was transferred to Banja Luka. German commandoes unsuccessfully searched for Tito until 15th February 1944., when their operation was called off.

After this, Hitler had personally ordered Tito to be captured or killed at any cost. This task was given to commander of German forces for the southeast, General-Fieldmarshall Maximillian von Weichs. In the meantime, SS Major Otto Skorzeny had arrived to Zagreb. He was a well-known German commando who by this time had gained fame with a daring action of rescuing Mussolini. According to Skorzeny’s autobiography, Hitler had personally ordered him to hunt Tito, which is not impossible. More likely however is that the order was given by Himmler or one of his close aides.

Otto Skorzeny

With a Mercedes, a driver and two commandoes, Skorzeny went to Belgrade, whose commander could not believe he had not met a single partisan along the way. Questioning a partisan deserter, Skorzeny learned that Tito was located in a cave above Drvar, surrounded by 6 000 veteran partisans and with more reinforcements only a short distance away. Tito himself was protected by the Escort Battalion of the High Command, comprised of 350 fanatically loyal troops. Skorzeny realised that the only way to reliably eliminate Tito would be infiltration by a small special forces unit dressed in partisan uniforms. He chose the best Commando instructors from the Friedenthal training centre and proposed a plan of “quietly removing” Tito. General von Rendulitz however decided that the plan was too bold and thus rejected it.

Preparation of the Airborne Assault

Capitulation of Italy on 8th September 1943. threw the German front in Italy into crisis. German command estimated that the coastal areas of Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece were under imminent threat of Anglo-American invasion, so these areas were reinforced with new forces. In September the commander of German forces for South-East General-Fieldmarshall Maximillian von Weichs had available 14 divisions, in early November 17 and by the end of the year 20. With this, German occupational forces in Balkans had increased to 700 000 men, of which 270 000 in Yugoslavia (these numbers may be overestimations to some extent, though Mitrovski-Glišić-Rotkovski do state that Germans had 300 000 men in Yugoslavia in 1944.). As part of measures which were to enable stabilization of German positions in the Balkans, on 29th October 1943. Hitler made a special order on “Unified management of war against Communism in the southeast”. Hitler tasked Hermann Neubacher with political activities and coordination of all available forces.

Having concluded that Allied landings in the Balkans were not possible before spring of 1944., von Weichs decided to utilize the winter of 1943./44. to construct a defensive line along the coast while at the same time suppressing the various Partisan forces in the Balkans. Nevertheless, islands of Vis, Lastovo and the coastal hinterland remained in the Partisan hands. This was especially noticeable in supply lines that led from Sava valley towards the Adriatic, which were seriously disrupted by Partisan activity. Operations Kugelblitz, Schneestrum, Adler, Panther and Weihnachtsman only had limited success and failed to solve the crucial issue of supply. At the same time, the general situation on the Eastern front had grown much worse when the Red Army reached borders of Romania. Worse, there were clear indications of upcoming Allied landings in Normandy.

Due to a serious situation on the eastern front and necessity of securing the hinterlands, in early May von Weichs made a decision to suddenly penetrate into the heart of Partisan territory in Bosnia, thus causing confusion in the leadership of Tito’s organization, capture Tito himself and destroy Partisan forces in the area. With this aim, von Weichs on 6th May 1944. ordered the headquarters of the 2nd Panzer Army commanded by General Lothar Rendulic (Austrian of Croatian roots, hence the surname) to prepare the operations. At the meeting of headquarters on 17th May in Vrnjačka Banja it was decided to name the operation Rosselsprung (“Knight’s move”). Operation’s immediate planning and control was task of the headquarters of the 15th Mountain Corps, located in Knin. Plan of the operation was finalized already on 19th May, and was accepted with smaller changes on 21st May. Plan of the operation called for deployment of 20 000 troops.

General-Lieutenant Lothar Rendulic, commander of the 2nd Panzer Army in the Balkans and overall commander of the Rosselsprung operation

Short version of command was this:

  1. In Western Bosnia, Communist leadership had set up headquarters in Drvar (Tito’s headquarters and the Allied mission). In the area of Bosanski Petrovac there is a runway and the large logistical base. In total, there are 12 000 men armed with heavy weaponry, artillery and antitank weapons. Several tanks are located in the vicinity of Bosanski Petrovac. Roads are blocked with trenches and mines, and these are reinforced with ambush points. Strong resistance can be expected from 1st Proletariat Division to the southeast of Mrkonjićgrad and the 6th Lika Division at the upper flow of river of Unac.
  2. Our paratroopers and airborne forces will carry out strong attacks against the enemy with the goal of destroying enemy command and control centers in Drvar. Success of the operation is extremely important for the outcome of combat along the Adriatic shore and in its hinterland. Decisive and expert leadership and commanding as well as the greatest devotion of each soldier are necessary for success of the operation.
  3. One regimental group of the 7th SS Mountain Division “Prinz Eugen” as well as the subordinate Armored Grenadier Assault Battalion of the 2nd Armored Army (Panzer-Grenadier-Sturmbattallion/ Pz.A.O.K.2) will penetrate through the enemy position to east of river Sana and will advance northwards along the wide front between Sana and Unac. One battle group of grenadiers and the subordinate tank company of the 202nd Independent Tank Battalion (Panzer-Abteilung 202) will advance from Banja Luka and take Ključ. Second group of the same division will advance along the railroad from Jajce towards the objective at Mliništa where the generator and other machinery were located. Reinforced 105th SS Reconnaissance Battalion (SS-Nachrichten-Battalion 105) with one tank company will destroy the enemy at Livno field, take the local logistical bases and by attacking through Grahovo towards Drvar prevent the retreat of Partisan war bands, headquarters and Allied missions towards the south. Reconnaissance battalion of the 369th Infantry Division (369. Kroatische-Infanterie-Division), subordinated to 105th SS Reconnaissance Battalion, will advance through Livno towards the Glamoč Field and prevent the enemy retreat towards southeast. Defense of Livno has to be secured.
  4. On X Day at 0500 hours the 373rd Infantry Division (373. Kroatische-Infanterie-Division) will move towards the area of Srb alongside the battlegroup “William” and at any cost link up with the 500th SS Paratroop Battalion (SS-Fallschirmjager-Battalion 500) on the same day. All command posts and Allied missions were to be destroyed. After securing Drvar, attack was to continue towards Bosanski Petrovac. Battlegroup “Lapac” was to continue advancing through Kulen Vakuf towards Vrtoč where it would secure the road Bihać – Vrtoče.
  5. On X Day at 0500 hours the 92nd Motorized Grenadier Regiment (Motorisierte-Grenadier-Regiment 92) with subordinated 54th Reconnaissance Battalion of the 1st Mountain Division (Gebirgs-Nachrichten-Abteliung 54., 1 Gebirgs-Division) and the 2nd Hunter Company of the 1st Home Guard Hunter Regiment (2. lovački zdrug 1. domobranske lovačke pukovnije) will move from Bihać to southeast with the task of taking Bosanski Petrovac, logistical base and the airport as quickly as possible. Advance of this group is decisive. Reinforced 92nd Motorized Grenadier Regiment will direct a portion of its forces towards Drvar where they will link up with the 500.SS Paratroop Battalion and the battlegroup “William” and prevent enemy retreat northwards.
  6. 1st Regiment of the Brandenburg Division (Brandenburg-Regiment 1) with subordinated Chetnik units will advance from Knin towards Bosansko Grahovo where they will operate on the line Drvar – Prekaja.
  7. In the early morning of the X Day the 500 SS Parachute Battalion will jump into Drvar following the attack by Ju-87 dive bombers. Paratroopers are tasked with eliminating Tito’s Headquarters. Croatian Air Force (Fliegerfuhrer-Kroatien) will attack enemy headquarters, command posts, visible resistance groups and antiair positions with the aim of chasing the enemy away from fighting positions and into cover.
  8. , 9., 10. contain notes on logistics, communications and so on.
  9. X
  10. X
  11. On day X the headquarters of the 15th Mountain Corps will be set up in Bihać.

Air Forces For Supporting the Operation

Archives of the 15th Mountain Corps contain the order from 21st May 1944., given by the commander of German Air Force for Croatia (Fliegerfuhrer Kroatien) general Walter Hagen. According to this order, air forces prepared for the operation Rosselsprung consisted of:

  • 2nd Group of 151st Assault Regiment (II./SG 151) with three squadrons (4., 5., 6./SG 151) and the 13th Independent Squadron of the same regiment (13./SG 151). Group was located on the air field Zalužani near Banjaluka, while the 13th Squadron was at air field Ceravici near Bihać. It is known that the 13th squadron at the time had only 7 Ju-87D Junkers aircraft. 2nd Group itself also had predominantly dive bombers, specifically the Ju-87D. Whether the group had any Focke-Wulf Fw-190F fighters – which appear on the status list from June 1944. – is unknown. During 1943., 151st Regiment (12 squadrons) was present on Borongaj airport in Zagreb, serving as replenishment squadron where crews would come from the Eastern Front to pick up new aircraft. Regiment itself was later transferred to Hungary, but the 13th Squadron remained in Zagreb and became a combat squadron. Fourth squadron remained in Zagreb until October 1944. and its status was unknown.
  • 4th Group of the 27th Fighter Regiment (IV./JG 27) with 26 Messerschmitt Bf-109G fighter aircraft located at Lučko air port near Zagreb.
  • 1st Group of the 7th Night Combat Group (Stab., 1. and 2./NSGr 7) with a total of 28 aircraft of varied types, among whom 19 Heinkel He-46 and 11 Henschel HS-126 was located at the Zalužani Air Field. Third squadron (3./NSGr) had been founded in April 1944. and equipped with 19 Fiat CR-42 aircraft. It was located on Pleso airfield. While the Third Squadron only officially became operational in August 1944., CR-42 aircraft participated in the operation.
  • Headquarters and the 2nd Squadron of the 12th Group for Aerial Reconnaissance “Tannenberg” (Stab. i 2./NAGr. 12) with 9 Me-109G6 and Me-109G8 aircraft located at airfield in Mostar.
  • Reconnaissance squadron “Croatia” (NASt. Kroatien) equipped with 9 Henschel HS 126B-2 and 4 Dornier Du-17P2 aircraft.

Two groups were added onto the command later by hand:

  • 1st Group of 2nd Strike Regiment “Immelman” (I./SG 2) with 31 Ju-87D aircraft which was to be based at Pleso airfield near Zagreb. However the group appears to have remained in the strategic reserve, as the list of airfields it was based on during this time does not show any in the area of operations. From January to August 1944. the group was based on the Husi airfield in Hungary, assumedly prepared for transfer to one of airfields in the area of operations should need arise.
  • 2nd Group of the 51st Fighter Regiment “Molders” (II./JG 51) with 40 Me-109G fighter aircraft on the airfield in Niš. This group was transferred from Sophia airfield to Niš airfield between 27th and 31st May 1944. It most likely remained in reserve, though possibility exists that its fighters were responsible for remote security of the operation.

Combat aircraft were given task of attacking targets in Drvar and Bosansko Grahovo on early morning of 25th of May, as well as supporting the advance of ground forces towards Drvar. In total, general Hagen could count on 222 aircraft capable of combat operations.

Following units were given the task of transporting paratroopers, towing the gliders and later resupply:

  • 3rd Group of the 1st Glider Towing Regiment (III./LLG1) with 17 towing complets (towing aircraft + glider) which took of from Nancy in March 1944. They were first transferred to Belgrade and then to Cerklje near Brežice. First two squadrons (7. and 8.) had Hs-126 as tugs and DFS-230 gliders, while the 9th Squadron had Heinkel He-111 as tugs and Gotha Go-242 gliders.
  • 4th Squadron of the same regiment (4.II/LLG1) with 8 Ju-87D towing aircraft and 8 DFS-230 gliders which had flown from an airfield near Strasbourg over to Lučko. One report mentions the entire 2nd Group (4th, 5th and 6th Squadrons) on Lučko. It is thus uncertain whether the whole group had flown over or merely one its part. Preserved German photos show presence of 41 glider on Drvar, which indicates presence of more than one squadron.
  • 2nd Group of the 4th Transport Regiment (II./TG4) with 37 transport aircraft Ju-52 on Ečka (Zrenjanin) air field near Petrovaradin.

Plan of Operations of the 500th SS Parachute-Hunter Battalion

Based on the data collected by German intelligence service as well as the aerial photo reconnaissance, 2nd Armored Army Headquarters under command of Lieutenant von Varnbuller made a detailed plan of action of the reinforced 500th SS Parachute Hunter Battalion (SS-Falschirmjaeger-Battaillon-500). According to the plan, first wave to land in Drvar would consist of 654 paratroopers. Of those, 314 were to jump out by parachute from tri-engined Junkers Ju-52, while remaining 340 would land in DFS-230 and Go-242 gliders.

DFS-230 glider, Italy, 1943

Glider troops were divided into six groups with the following tasks:

  • Battlegroup “Panther”, 110 men in six subgroups tasked with capturing the Citadel (Zitadelle). Commander SS Captain (SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer) Kurt Rybka had noted the area of the old market and Šobić head as place where Partisan High Command could be located. On aerial photographs this area was circled in white and designated the Citadel.
  • Battlegroup “Grasper” (Greifer), 40 men in three subgroups – capture or destroy members of the British military mission.
  • Battlegroup “Stormtrooper” (Sturmer), 50 men in two subgroups – capture or destroy members of the Soviet military mission.
  • Battlegroup “Breacher” (Brecher), 50 men in four subgroups – capture or destroy members of the American military mission.
  • Battlegroup “Forceful Attacker” (Draufganger), 70 men in three subgroups – capture the main crossroads in Drvar. In this group were 20 members of the German special forces (experts for communications, cypher, translators) with the task of capturing Partisan radio-code books and cyphers.
  • Battlegroup “Biter” (Beisser), 20 men – capture and search houses in Jaruge.

Paratroopers were divided into four groups with their own tasks:

  • Battlegroup “Blue” (Blau), 100 men in three subgroups – capture approaches to Drvar from the direction of Mokronoge and Šipovljani and together with group “Green” prevent Partisan retreat along that direction.
  • Battlegroup “Green” (Grun), 95 men in four subgroups – capture northeastern part of Drvar and the railway bridge over Unac and together with group “Blue” set up positions.
  • Battlegroup “Red” (Rot), 85 men in three subgroups – take positions on Šobić head (“Citadel” in the plan) as battalion commander’s reserve. Establish connection with groups “Green”, “Blue”, “Panther” and “Stormtrooper”.
  • Battalion headquarters with reserve, 19 men – will land together with group “Red”.
  • Second wave of 171 paratroopers will take off from the airport Zalužani at commander’s decision and land as reinforcements southwest of the Šobića head, unless commander determines another landing point.

Disposition of Units of NOV and POJ

General Headquarters of the NOV and POJ (Vrhovni Štab Narodnooslobodilačke Vojske i Partizanskih Odreda Jugoslavije – General Headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army and Partisan Detachments of Yugoslavia) was located in Drvar in a cave below the hill of Gradine, some 200 meters northeast of Mandić bridge over river Unac. Immediate security of the General Headquarters, military missions and other HQ services was task of the Escort Battalion of GHQ which consisted of four companies, a cavalry squadron, and a company of heavy machine guns for antiair defense – a total of 400 men. Another two battalions of the Engineering Brigade of the GHQ, a total of 300 men, were set up in the houses in the city. On the Trninić Hill was the tank platoon of the 1st Proletariat Corps with three captured Italian tanks (2 light tanks L6/40 and 1 tankette CV L3) and one armored car AB-41. In Drvar were also numerous services of the General Headquarters, as well as local and regional headquarters, hospital, warehouses, training courses, theater, newspaper and so on. In village of Šipovljani, some 2 kilometers from Drvar, was the Officer School with 127 officers. In total there were around a thousand armed men in Drvar and immediate surroundings.

In the general territory in which the German headquarters had planned the operation Rosselsprung were located the 1st Proletariat Corps (1st and 6th Division), elements of the 5th Corps (4th Division, elements of the 39th Division, as well as Drvar-Petrovac, Glamok and Livno-Duvno detachments) and elements o fthe 8th Corps (9th Division and Grahovo-Peulja detachment). Being aware from experience that the enemy will attempt quick advance along the roads, the General Headquarters positioned forces of the 1st Proletariat Corps as well as elements of the 5th Corps so that they closed off the approaches to Drvar.

First Proletariat Division itself consisted of three brigades: 1 Proletariat, 3rd Krajina Proletariat and 13th Proletariat Brigade “Rade Končar”. First Proletariat Brigade was closing off the roads towards Mliništa and 13th towards Ključ. Both of these brigades had saboteur detachments which operated on the road link Bugojno – Mrkonjić Grad. Third Brigade closed off the link from Livno towards Glamoč.

Sixth Lika Proletariat Division “Nikola Tesla” consisted of three Proletariat Brigades: 1st, 2nd and 3rd . First Brigade was closing off the way to Martin Brod, Second from Srb to Drvar, and Third from Gračac and Resanovac towards Drvar. Saboteur detachments were active on the road Bihać – Lapac – Knin.

Fourth Krajina Division had three brigades in its ranks, but only two – 6th and 8th – participated in the operation. Both brigades were blocking the way to Bosanski Petrovac, with 6th Krajina Brigade blocking the approach from Bihać and 8th Krajina Brigade from Bosanska Krupa.

Ninth Dalmatian Division consisted of three Dalmatian Brigades: 1st, 2nd and 3rd strike. First (3rd Dalmatian) Brigade was blocking the way from Knin to Bosansko Grahovo, second (4th Dalmatian) from Vrlika towards Crni Lug and third (13th Dalmatian) from Livno towards Bosansko Grahovo.

Operation Rosselsprung Begins

It was a clear and sunny day in Drvar on 25th May 1944. Town was cheaply decorated for Tito’s birthday, and numerous political and cultural groups were planning commemmorative events. German scouting flights warranted no notice, and anti-air defense was not alerted. At 6:30, first 50 kg bombs suddenly exploded around the celulose factory. Light attack aircraft He-46 and Hs-126 from the 7th Night Combat Group (Stab., 1. and 2./NSGr 7) managed to sneak in and suddenly attack ground targets. At 6:40, the second attack happened against the center of Drvar. Dive bombers Ju-87D from the 2nd Group of the 151st Attack Regiment (II./SG 151) dropped heavier bombs of 250 and 500 kg. Then at 6:50, third attack happened by 13th Squadron of the 151st Regiment (13./SG 151), lasting until 6:55. Last attack was carried out by the 3rd Squadron of the 7th Night Fighting Group (3./NSGr 7) using Italian CR-42, which lasted until 7:00. Air cover was provided by Me-109G fighter aircraft of the 4th Group of the 27th Fighter Regiment (IV./JG 27), flying at altitude of 3 000 meters. Despite rapid response by the Partisan anti-air defense, no German aircraft were shot down.

Junkers Ju-87D-1

At 7:00, first transport Ju-52s overfew Drvar, deploying 314 paratroopers of the 500th SS Parachute-Hunter Battalion (SS-Falschirmjager-Bataillon-500). At 7:10, first gliders landed, out of a total of 45 gliders carrying 340 paratroopers. In total 654 paratroopers of the first wave would land. Defenders managed to damage a single glider which was forced to land outside Drvar and shoot down two more, while another three were damaged at landing. Some 20 men were lost in total. During the landing operations, Ju-87 dive bombers used machine guns to attack targets in the vicinity of Drvar, suppressing the Partisan defenses.

Simultaneously with air attacks, German ground forces – numbering some 20 000 men – started their offensive with the goal of destroying “Tito’s State”, that is, the territory around Drvar that was being controlled by the Partisans. Heavy fighting erupted along the nine key lines of advance utilized by the German forces. From direction of Srb was advancing battle group “William”, with the goal of linking up with the 500th Jaeger Battalion in Drvar. According to plan, it was supposed to reach Drvar by the evening of 25th of May.

Command of Drvar, expecting arrival of larger number of Communist Youth for Tito’s birthday, had ordered people to keep outside the wheat fields. In the morning of the 25th of May these fields were full of German paratroopers and gliders. Air attacks and invasion had taken the Partisans completely by surprise, and threw their ranks into unmitigated chaos. German paratroopers organized into units upon landing, and moved towards planned objectives. Along the way they opened fire on civilians and partisans with or without weapons, threw hand grenades into houses, and attacked hastily-organized resistance points. Luckier civilians and partisans were captured and placed under guard.

Those paratroopers that had landed closer to river of Unac, at the area which the Escort Battalion had in the line of fire, were thrown back towards houses in Drvar. Smaller groups of partisans of the Engineering Brigade and the Horse Squadron offered short resistance before withdrawing from the city and organizing defense at the slopes of Kamenica. One crew of the Tank Platoon, which was located on the Trninića Hill, managed to start up a tankette and advance towards Drvar. This tankette was quickly destroyed. A group of youth (Communist Youth members?), village guards and several officers from the Officer School in Šipovljani, armed with 25 rifles, went to protect the hospital in Danići. They repelled German attack, and on Zrolod they managed to capture a glider with one machine gun and four ammunition boxes. Second group of officers from the Officer School had managed to break out of Šipovljani along the railway and reinforce the defenses of the Escort Battalion at positions below the cave. Together they managed to stop the paratroopers that had managed to cross Unac.

German paratroopers landing in a field near Drvar

Having taken Drvar, Germans quickly realized that the only remaining organized resistance was located across Unac river, from positions behind Mandić bridge, and thus Tito was on that side. They also learned that Tito had headquarters in a cave below Gradina, not visible from the town. At around 9 o’clock, a rifle unit went towards Unac and positions of the Escort Battalion that had been reinforced with officers of the Officer School. A battery of 105 mm recoilless guns and two batteries of 81 mm mortars of the escorting company of the Jaeger battalion opened fire at the Partisan positions. German attack was stopped by strong fire some 50 paces away from Unac. After repeated unsuccessful attacks, Germans retreated to nearest houses.

According to some historians this moment could have been decisive. Commander of the 500th Jaeger Battalion, SS Captain Kurt Rybka, had available 171 paratrooper of the second wave. These could have been deployed above the cave and thus cut off Tito’s retreat. Why he did not do this is unknown, but it is possible that he was aware of incoming Partisan reinforcements and thus concluded forces would be required in Drvar itself. If he was not certain that Tito really was in the cave, preparing for defense instead may have seemed a prudent choice.

By 10 hours, Drvar was completely in German hands. Most of the Partisan radiocommunication devices had been captured or destroyed, and even more importantly, Partisan codes had been captured – thus making Partisan radio communication useless for some time. A number of civilians and partisans had been killed, far larger number captured, and one part managed to run away. Direct Partisan losses in Drvar were over a hundred killed, while Germans suffered some 60 losses (dead and wounded). Several members of Allied military missions had also been captured or killed.

Germans thus started preparing defenses against the incoming counterattack. Portion of captured civilians were forced to dig trenches, fortify positions and collect ammunition. The graveyard at Šobića head, which was surrounded from two sides by a stone wall, was chosen as the central resistance point as well as 500th Battalion headquarters. Graveyard was thus fortified and prepared for all-around defense. It would also act as ammunition dump, field hospital and morgue. Selected places in Drvar were fortified and prepared for defense. Paratrooper headquarters had also learned that the advance of battlegroup “William” had been slowed down by strong Partisan resistance. Further, reconnaissance air squadron “Croatia” (NASt. Kroatien) reported arrival of Partisan reinforcements from direction of Srb. Commander of the Jaeger battalion ordered landing of the second wave of 171 paratrooper at the field in front of Šubića head. Ten Ju-52s deployed parachutes with ammunition and medical materiel.

Headquarters of the 500 SS Parachute-Jaeger battalion at Šobića Head

Tito leaves the cave

When attack began, Josip Broz Tito was in a shack in the cave. For a time, he observed the air attacks and combat while waiting for more detailed information about state of the town. He remained in the cave until the lull in combat around 10 o’clock, when German attack in this direction ceased. German machine gunners held under fire the slope of Gradina where a track led to the shack, so retreat that way was judged too risky. Several soldiers from Tito’s personal guard cut through the floor of the shack, below which was a 15 meters deep rift. Several soldiers climbed down the rope followed by Tito; one of the soldiers was killed while climbing down. Tito managed to escape towards Podovi, leaving the Escorting Battalion to cover his flight.

Josip Broz Tito photographed in front of his shack in the cave

It is unclear what exactly Tito had been doing during the first crucial hours of the operation nor why didn’t he leave the cave earlier. While the shack was well protected and safe from aerial attacks and reconnaissance, it functioned essentially as Tito’s personal office. It was simply too small to serve as headquarters, and so the General Headquarters were located elsewhere, communicating with Tito by the way of couriers.

Tito decided to leave the shack after 10:00, following numerous requests to do so by the General Headquarters. This means that he had been separated from the General Headquarters for four hours by this point, unable to effectively coordinate with it or to command. General HQ thus self-initiatively sent requests for assistance and reports of situation to commanders of units in the general vicinity.

It should be noted that while the above is the official version, some things are not very clear, and it is possible that Tito had escaped much earlier in fighting.

Partisan Counterattack

Headquarters of the 1st Proletariat Corps, located in the village of Mokronoge (“Wet Feet”) near Drvar, very quickly learned of the invasion and ordered the 6th Proletariat Division to immediately send one brigade. The brigade that went towards Drvar was 3rd Lika Brigade with four battalions. Headquarters of the 9th Division ordered the 1st Dalmatian Brigade to send one battalion which was closest to Drvar. Headquarters of the 1st Lika Corps also sent two battalions of the 1st Lika Proletariat Brigade. In total, over a thousand Partisans were racing to Drvar.

Partisan reinforcements marching towards Drvar

First Battalion of the 3rd Lika Brigade, with 130 partisans, reached slopes of Kamenica at 11:30 and immediately attacked German positions at the railway station near Stravikuće. In close combat Germans suffered seven dead and a dozen wounded, and were forced to withdraw to nearby cemetary. At 11:50 German reinforcements of 171 paratroopers landed and were immediately sent to attack Partisan positions at the slopes of Kamenica. Mutual attacks and counterattacks gave no results and Germans were forced to defensive. Several groups of the Engineering Brigade and the soldiers from different headquarters and services from Drvar had managed to join the 3rd Lika Brigade. Partisan positions were on several instances bombarded by the Luftwaffe.

Around 13:00 the 3rd Battalion of the 6th Lika Division arrived, together with the division commander. Commander sent the 3rd Battalion into Drvar valley with orders to attack the German right flank. First company crossed the Zorića bridge and reinforced positions of the Escort Battalion, 2nd company advanced along the Bastaska road and third across Spasovina. German commander reinforced defenses on this side and first combat started around 14:00.

Second company with support of mortars destroyed several German machine gun nests and at around 16:40 pushed the Germans back to the main crossroads on the Bastaska road, where local command was located. HQ building changed hands several times before Germans withdrew towards Šobića head. Part of the Officer Battalion managed to push Germans over the right side of Unac and at around 16:45 cross Dodig’s bridge. At around the same time the 1st Battalion of the 1st Proletariat Brigade also arrived, but was left in reserve.

In the meantime the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Lika Brigade also arrived and was immediately sent to attack German left flank from march. Its 3rd Company had, after heavy fighting, pushed the group “Crusher” from Trninić hill towards Knin Gate. Germans managed to hold positions behild the railways for a time, but arrival of the 1st Company and the elements of the Engineering Brigade forced them towards Trnjak at around 18:00. Fourth Battalion of the 3rd Lika Brigade arrived with 130 soldiers at around 17:00 but was left in reserve in case third German wave arrived. By around 20:00 majority of paratroopers had been pushed back o Šobića hill. Their rear guard held positions along the main road in Drvar and towards Prnjavor, but they too fell back by 21:30. Five transport Ju-52s managed to deploy ammunition to positions still held by Germans.

German paratroopers at Šobića hill / Šobića head

Šobića hill

Graveyard at the Šobića hill was transformed into a fortified point or a strongpoint. Towards Kecmani and the cellulose factory it was bounded by the concrete wall in which engineers of the 500th Jaeger Battalion managed to pierce loopholes. Towards the field where the second wave of paratroopers had landed, that is towards Mramor and Trnjak, civilians had dug out a complete infantry trench.

Germans at Šobića head were blockaded from all sides by four battalions of the 3rd Lika Brigade as well as the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Dalmatian Brigade. First Battalion of the 1st Lika Proletariat Brigade was left in reserve. Precisely at 23:00 with mortar support the Partisans began a concentric assault against the German positions. Germans responded with a massive number of flares (flare rockets) and intense small arms fire, which they could sustain thanks to a large number of automatic weapons and adequate ammunition supplies. First Partisan attack was thus thrown back in short order. Second Partisan attack, again with strong mortar support and usage of hand grenades, was carried out at 1:00 by the 3rd and 4th battalions of the 3rd Lika Brigade, but this too was unsuccessful and Germans even counterattacked in two places. Third attack at 2:00 was reinforced by the 1st Battalion of the 1st Lika Proletariat Brigade, but it was unsuccessful as well. Final concentric attack was carried out at 3:30, but it was no more successful than previous ones.

German advance towards Drvar

During the night the General Headquarters learned of the advance of the 92nd Regiment (Motorisierte-Grenadier-Regiment 92) towards Bosanski Petrovac and thus ordered a retreat of all units from Drvar. This had to be done before dawn to avoid German air attacks. Around 6:00 1st Company of the 373rd Legionairre Infantry Division (373. Kroatische-Infanterie-Division), serving as advance guard of the battlegroup William, appeared behind the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Lika Brigade on Kamenica. During the short engagement the 3rd Battalion managed to pull out the 1st Battalion. At around 7:00 legionnaires of the 373rd Division managed to establish contact with the 500th SS Parachute-Jaeger Battalion in Drvar.

According to report by the 15th Mountain Corps from 5th June 1944., 500th Battalion had suffered heavy losses: 145 dead and 384 wounded out of 825 troops that had participated in Rosselsprung. Partisan losses were also heavy. Official data reported 179 dead, 63 wounded and 19 missing, but they were certainly higher.

May 25, 1944 – beginning of the Operation “Rösselsprung”. Soldiers from SS-Fallschirmjager-Bataillon 500 and Brandenburger with captured Josip Broz Tito uniform. Notice the empty collar SS patches at the man on the right

Postwar misconceptions

Yugoslav postwar historiography had, as usual, produced a number of misconceptions and outright falsehoods about the operation, some of which I will note here.

German paratrooper forces consisted of the 500th SS Penal Battalion and 200 members of the parachute division Prinz Eugen, which were promised return to former units should they succeed

This is sheer nonsense. Prinz Eugen was a volunteer mountain division of Waffen SS. It was neither a penal unit nor a paratrooper unit. It consisted primarily of local Germans (volksdeutscher) as well as Germans from Banate and Srijem, as well as Croats and Muslims. Commanders were Germans and command language was German. Main task of the unit was anti-guerilla / anti-insurrection operations and it was deployed all over Yugoslavia, but primarily in Croatia. It did participate in attack on Drvar – but it was not a parachute division!

Waffen SS for its part never had penal units, with the sole exception of Dirlewanger unit – which during the Warsaw uprising carried out such crimes that Waffen SS itself had the commanders of the unit executed. 500th SS Battalion did exist, but that unit – not Prinz Eugen – was a parachute unit. Specifically, it was called 500th SS Paratroop Battalion (SS-Fallschirmjager-Battalion 500).

Germans carried out a massacre in Drvar and very few civilians survived

Military units in middle of combat operations very rarely kill civilians, except as collateral casualties. Targeted murders can only begin once combat operations had ended. Especially parachute units are not likely to engage in war crimes. These are special forces, and during major operations they act as advance guard of a larger force. Their task is to cause confusion by operating behind the enemy lines, destroying and/or securing infrastructure, collecting information, and otherwise supporting advance of main forces. And all these tasks have to be carried out without much leeway from the original schedule so as not to endanger the main force. They simply have no time to go around killing civilians, nor would any sane commander waste highly-trained and resource-intensive troops on tasks that can be carried out by drunk criminals.

Paratroopers did kill some civilians – but this was either by accident, or because they refused to provide information asked of them. But while these are definitely war crimes, number of dead is numbered in low dozens at most, nowhere near to hundreds or thousands.

And if they had massacred all the civilians they could have, it is unlikely there will have been so many witnesses of the operation.

Tito left the cave only around noon

As already noted, that is rather unlikely. Tito left the cave immediately after seeing first paratroopers (at around 7:00) – and even then he did it at the last moment, as German encirclement had closed just five minutes later.

If he had remained until noon, he would not have been able to leave. And after leaving, for several days nobody even knew whether Tito was alive or not. Tito and his men spent several days avoiding German and Croatian forces that were searching the area, and with him were personnel from Allied missions (at least, those that had escaped). Only on 3rd of June did Allied aircraft transport Tito to Bari in Italy, and then to Vis.

Seeing Tito’s life in danger, inhabitants of Drvar all grabbed weapons and died to the last

Drvar was not uninhabited when battlegroup William arrived. So either inhabitants did not grab weapons and die fighting the Germans, or they did die and were then resurrected by arcane magics. Also, how could they have all died during the battle if Germans massacred them after the battle had ended?

Seeing Tito’s life in danger, inhabitants of Drvar all grabbed weapons and killed all the Germans

So did civilians first die, then rise from the dead and kill their killers? Or did they kill the Germans who then rose from the dead and killed the civilians?

And if Germans really were randomly killing everything alive, then they will not have been taking prisoners. And take prisoners they did. Not only that, but some at least were released after the battle – as was the case with 19-year-old Partisan Gospe Talić. She had been captured near Šobića head by German paratroopers and remained imprisoned for several days before being released. She was not mistreated in any way, and died in 1977.

Seeing Tito’s life in danger, all members of SKOJ grabbed weapons and died to the last

Seeing Tito’s life in danger, all members of SKOJ grabbed weapons and killed all the Germans

All members of SKOJ were murdered after the battle

These three claims are same as two previous about “inhabitants of Drvar”, except instead of population of Drvar we have members of SKOJ (League of Communist Youth of Yugoslavia). Yugoslav literature about the battle has one, sometimes two and occasionally all three of above listed claims. Needless, to say, claims contradict each other. If all members of SKOJ had died, who had killed the Germans? If all Germans were killed, who had killed members of SKOJ? If all members of SKOJ were murdered after the battle, who then had died or killed during the battle?

6th Lika Division which was 35 kilometers away arrived under full equipment in less than three hours, entered Drvar, chased paratroopers to the graveyard and saved Comrade Tito

At the time of paratroopers’ landing, 6th Division was 35 kilometers away from Drvar. They had typical partisan equipment, which for infantrymen weighted around 16 kg overall.

French Foreign Legion standard is eight kilometers in under 40 minutes with 12 kg load + rifle and helmet (so 17 kg overall). This would give them 36 kilometers in three hours. But one has to consider that a) marching for eight kilometers in under 40 minutes is very different from marching for 36 kilometers – exhaustion is different, and thus so is pacing – marching speed, rests etc.; soldiers that can march eight kilometers in 40 minutes cannot march 36 kilometers in three hours, b) Partisans are not French Foreign Legion, c) they were marching over a very mountainous and hard-to-traverse terrain and d) they were marching into combat and they knew this. And this combat ended up lasting until the morning of 26th of May.

In short, this claim is pure fantasy. In reality, 6th Lika Division was some 15 kilometers away from Drvar, and thus could indeed arrive after three hours of march.


2 thoughts on “Operation Rosselsprung – German Invasion of Drvar 1944

  1. Interesting that the story mentions Partisans of course and the Chetniks briefly . Not a word about the Croatian Ustaše- the fascist puppet state established under German tutelage
    The Germans used a number of puppet states in Yugoslavia including the NDH in Zagreb run by Ustaše and the Government of National Salvation in Belgrade. In practice their police and military acted as auxiliaries of the german military
    The Hungarian and Italian allies of the Germans also took parts of the country under their control


    1. There were no Ustaše in this operation. Croatian units in the Rosselsprung operation consisted of 2nd Jaeger Company of the 1st Home Guard Jaeger Battalion, Battlegroups “William” and “Lapac” of the 373rd Infantry Division, and the reconnaissance battalion of the 369th Infantry Division.

      There was not a single Ustashi unit present in the operation, so why would they be mentioned?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s