After the Italian defeats in North Africa and Greece, Mussolini had no choice but to seek help from his German ally. Hitler was not very interested in the Mediterranean theater, being more preoccupied with the plans for the invasion of the Soviet Union. But, worried by the possibility of a second front being opened to the South in Greece by the British while the German forces were assaulting the Soviet Union, he reluctantly decide to send German military aid to help the Italians. For the planned occupation in Greece, Hitler counted on the neutrality of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
Axis invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941. The Axis forces used the southern parts of Yugoslavia, to quickly attack Greek positions. Source:By Spiridon Ion Cepleanu. via Wikimedia Commons
The government of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia signed the Tripartite Treaty on the 25th March 1941. Two days later, Air Force General Dušan Simović, with the support of other military officers (mostly from the Yugoslav Royal Air Force), staged a coup d’etat and overthrew the government (the so-called Cvetković-Maček government) that had intended to join the Axis forces. Due to these events, and in preparation for the attack on the Greece and the Soviet Union, the German High Command decided to occupy Yugoslavia and create a safe backing for further operations and so the ‘April war’ started. The April war is the name given for the Axis invasion (codenamed Directive 25) of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia on 6th April 1941. This operation also marked the beginning of the Second World War for the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
The Kingdom of Yugoslavia had a fairly large army before the war. According to Yugoslav HQ military plan (code named R 41), it would have some 1.2 million first line soldiers and some 500,000-second line soldiers who could be mobilized in case of war. The whole process of mobilization though, was slow and poorly organized, so only less than 600,000 men were ever mobilized.
The Yugoslav Royal Army was completely surprised by the speed and size of the Axis forces. The war ended on the 17th of April 1941 with the capitulation, occupation, and division, of Yugoslav territory by the Axis forces. The Yugoslavian Royal family and some of the government representatives went into exile in Great Britain.
Yugoslav Royal Army – Fighting vehicles
The first armored units were formed at the end of the 1920’s. In contrast with other European armies, these armored units had no connections to Cavalry divisions. They did not develop as an extension of the Cavalry divisions but instead formed as independent units called “јединице борбених/бојних возила/кола” fighting vehicle/car units. Tanks were called “Борбена кола” fighting vehicles.
In 1929, the French delivered 11 Renault FT and 10 Renault-Kegresse M-28 (11 according to some sources) tanks to the Yugoslavian army. Some 14 FT’s were brought in 1932. Earlier, it was thought that they had arrived from France, however, new research shows that they may have been bought from Poland instead. During the 1935/1936 period, around 20 FT tanks (in poor condition) were received from France as military aid. With these tanks, a Battalion of fighting vehicles (Батаљон бојних возила) was formed in 1936. This unit is often mistakenly called the First Battalion. It consisted of three companies with three platoons. Each platoon had three tanks, and 21 more tanks were in reserve, giving a total of 48 FTs and M-28s.
In the early 1930’s, Yugoslavia had two cavalry divisions. It was planned to attach a motorized regiment to each division. However, it was necessary to obtain some light tanks or tankettes for these new cavalry units. In the end, it was decided to purchase 8 Škoda Š-I-D tankettes under the designation of ‘Брза борна кола T-32’ (Fast fighting car/vehicle) in 1937. They were incorporated into the Armored Vehicles Squadron of the Cavalry School based in Zemun (Земун).
The Renault R35 was the first modern Yugoslavian tank. In total, 54 were acquired from France in April 1940, shortly before the German invasion. On the 3rd of May 1940, the former battalion of fighting vehicles was disbanded and two new units were formed: the First and Second Battalions of fighting vehicles. The Second Battalion was equipped will all of the available R-35’s. The First Battalion, along with the Command HQ, were stationed in Belgrade. The companies equipped with FT and M-28 tanks were assigned to the Second Army in Sarajevo (Сарајево), Third Army in Skopje (Скопље) and Fourth Army in Zagreb (Загреб). The Second Battalion was also stationed in Belgrade, some of its units were sent to support the Third Army in the autumn of 1940.
In conclusion, Yugoslavian armored vehicles used in WW2 were:
Renault FT – approximately 45
Renault-Kegresse M-28 – 10 (possibly 11)
R-35 – 54
T-32 (Š-I-D) – 8
White Automitrailleuse M1918 – 2
SPA (Unidentified type of WWI armored car) – 2
Unlike the Yugoslav aviation, which had around 420 combat aircraft (some modern planes like Me-109, Hurricane, and the domestically built Ik-3), armored units were small at only 118 fighting vehicles. Some armored cars and domestically built armored trucks were also used by the Yugoslavian army but in limited numbers and all were WWI era vehicles.
All fighting vehicles were used and lost during the April war. Some units simply surrendered, others tried to resist the Axis attack with limited success, while there were some who left Yugoslavia and headed towards Greece. The simple conclusion is that these units were few in number and were technically and military inferior to the joint Axis forces. The Germans captured at least 78-80 fighting vehicles. At the end of June 1941, some (mostly R-35) were used to form the Panzer Kompanie zu b.V.12 (12th Tank Company for Special Purposes) to be used in fighting against the resistance movement in Yugoslavia.
One of R-35s used during the coup of the 27th of March. This is perhaps the most iconic image of the Yugoslavian armored force. Source:srpskioklop.paluba.info/
Renault FT located in the Belgrade Military Museum. Source: Wiki
M-28 in Yugoslavia service. source:srpskioklop.paluba.info/
Unknown and unidentified type WWI era armored car in Yugoslav Royal army service ( some sources sometimes call it the ‘SPA’). Source: Axishistory.com
The Defeat and Division of Yugoslav Territory
After the end of the April war, Yugoslavia was divided amongst Axis forces. Germany annexed a large part of Slovenia and got most of the Serbian territory. Hungary annexed the northern part of Slovenia, Bačka and the city of Novi Sad. The Bulgarians got a greater part of Macedonia and a part of southeastern Serbia. The Italians got part of Slovenia, Kosovo, the rest of Macedonia, Montenegro, and parts of Adriatic coast. What remained of Serbia was organized in the form of a State under the General Milan Nedić (Милан Недић). This ‘State’ was a German puppet and was poorly respected by the German occupation forces. From the rest of the territory of the former Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the so-called independent state of Croatia (NDH – Nezavisna Država Hrvatska) was formed. The territory of the former Kingdom of Yugoslavia would be under occupation until the final liberation done by the Partisans forces in 1945. The interesting fact is that Yugoslavia was the only country in Europe liberated by a resistance movement during the war.
Occupation and partition of Yugoslav territory by the Axis forces in 1941. Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Beginning of a Resistance
At first, it seemed that there would be no greater need for engagement of larger military and armored units and that that part of the Europe was secured. But an uprising that had started in Serbia only a few months later forced the Germans to re-introduce some armored units in this region.
Note: The role of the Partisans and Chetniks in WW2 is still a ‘hot’ political topic in the countries of the former Yugoslavia (especially in Serbia and Croatia), due to the constant revision of history. This article will not contain political discussion on which side was right or wrong. Instead, it will only contain essential historical information about the use of armored vehicles by these two resistance groups.
There were two resistance groups, the Royalist Chetniks (Четници) and the communist Partisans (Партизани). The Chetniks were led by General Draža Mihailović (Дража Михаиловић) and the communist Partisan movement was led by Josif Broz Tito (Јосиф Броз Тито).
Josif Broz Tito (March/May 1892 – May 1980). Source Welt.de
Draža Mihailović (April 1893 – July 1946). Source: Wiki
The definition of the term “Partisan” describes both groups: “a member of a guerrilla band operating behind enemy lines” (source: Concise English – Dictionary). Today, the term Partisans has become a synonym for the communist resistance movement in Yugoslavia and, in the following article, this term will apply to the communist movement only (to avoid any confusion).
The Chetniks were mostly Serbians (former soldiers) who wanted the King to return to power after the war. The origin of the term Chetnik (Četnik/Четник-Srb) dates back to 1848, when a man named Matija Ban wrote and published a work called the ‘rule of Chetnik War’ (Правило o четничкој војни). These were, in fact, armed groups of fighters which operated deep behind the enemy lines. Such units were used in several subsequent wars until the first half of the twentieth century. Before the Second World War, the Yugoslav Royal Army had small numbers of such units, that were renamed to ‘assault troops’ but their combat use was limited, during the April war. These units of the regular army had nothing to do with the Chetnik formations that appeared during the war (1941-1945) beside the name. The young King Petar II Karađorđević and his Royal Government, who were now in exile in London, appointed Draža Mihailović as the chief commanding officer of the resistance forces in Yugoslavia.
The Partisans had members from nearly all nations of the former Kingdom of Yugoslavia (Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian etc.). They wanted to form a new communist government after the war. After the fall of Yugoslavia, the communists spent some time gathering any available weapons they could find. On the 27th of June 1941, they founded the National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia known as ‘NOVJ’ (Народноослободилачка војска Југославије). Both resistance movements began with their anti-Axis actions in the second half of 1941.
Use of Armored Vehicles During the Uprising 1941-1945
At the outbreak of the uprising (the uprising started in Serbia and later expanded to Montenegro and Bosnia), the Germans had only one armored company of old and captured tanks in the whole territory of occupied Yugoslavia. The Germans hastily rushed a tank battalion from France, armed with beutepanzers (French captured equipment) to help stop the uprising. In October 1941, some of these tanks were captured by joint Partisan and Chetnik forces. Three captured tanks (SOMUA S35, Renault R35, and Hotchkiss H35/39) were used to form a tank platoon with crews consisting of Partisans and Chetniks fighters. Two tanks were used in a joint attack on the city of Kraljevo (Kраљево) on the 31st of October 1941. This attack failed and, although these two groups worked together in the fight against the common enemy, a conflict between these two forces would break out into an open civil war.
The Chetniks did not capture or operate any more tanks until the end of the war. The Partisans, on the other hand, succeeded in capturing different types of tanks on several occasions, like the ones captured by a Partisan unit in Montenegro on the 26th of November 1941. At least three Italian vehicles (possibly CV.3 light tanks) were reused by the Partisans against the Italian stronghold in the village of Lastva (Ластва) near the town of Trebinje (Требиње).
It is very important to note that the Partisans used various names for the enemy’s tanks they encountered. Often, for example, information can be found that a ‘Panther’ or ‘Ferdinand’ was destroyed or captured, but in reality, it is a StuG III or some other vehicle. In fact, they were not familiar with the real names of armored combat vehicles which can lead to a very complicated identification of these vehicles by historians.
During 1942-1943, the Partisans succeeded in seizing several tanks and armored vehicles (mostly Italian CV.3 light tanks and some domestically built armored cars and trucks). They were stationed in Bosnia, but due to insufficient spare parts and the lack of trained crews, their use was limited.
After the capitulation and withdrawal of Italian forces in September 1943, large parts of once Italian occupied Yugoslavian territory were left undefended and abandoned. Partisan forces rushed in to capture abandoned Italian positions. They succeeded in capturing large quantities of weapons including Italian tanks, self-propelled guns, armored vehicles, and trucks. This enabled the Partisan forces to form several armored units, such as the tank company Laza Marin, 6th Slavonian Corps etc. However, their use was limited due to the superiority of the German ground forces at that time, so they kept them hidden, until the moment when their use could be decisive for some military action.
By the end of 1943 and early 1944, for a lot of factors and reasons, but perhaps the most due to the lack of Chetnik actions against the Germans, the Allies decided to support the Partisan movement only. They supplied large amounts of military aid (weapons, tanks, aircrafts etc.) even though they had helped Chetniks in the previous years.
During 1944/45, two tanks brigade and some independent armored units were formed:
– First Tank Brigade: Composed of Allied armored vehicles and the structural organization was also taken from them
– Second Tank Brigade: formed using armored vehicles supplied by the Soviets, and organized on the experience of the Soviet Army
– Several small units were also formеd, using any available vehicles, mostly captured German, Italian or French tanks. These units were used only to support infantry assaults and were never organized in larger units.
German H39 somewhere in Yugoslavia, the driver accidentally got the vehicle stuck in a ditch. Source: Bundesarchiv
Italian captured CV.3 and L.6/40 light tanks captured by the Partisans and put to use. Source: srpskioklop.paluba.info
Partisan AB.41 on a victory parade in the streets of Belgrade. Source: Topwar.ru
First Tank Brigade
According to the agreement between the Partisans and the Allies, it was planned to form one tank brigade. Equipment would be provided by the Allies while the crew for these vehicles would undergo extensive training in the vicinity of the Egyptian city of Cairo (where they were transported earlier by the Allies). The crews consisted of Serbs, but were later joined by Slovenes and Croats.
The First Tank Brigade was formed on the 16th of July 1944. The brigade had an HQ with support staff, ambulance, four tank battalions (each battalion had two tank companies, an anti-tank battery, and one support company), one engineering battalion, one company of armored cars, one repair unit, and a training school.
The British provided all the equipment needed to equip this brigade. In its inventory, there were some 56 M3A1/A3 Stuart tanks, 24 AEC Mk.II armored cars, and two M3A1 armored reconnaissance cars. During the war, they also received a few replacement Stuart tanks. The next larger delivery of 36 mostly M3A1 tanks would take place on the 6th of March 1945, so that the total numbers of Stuart tanks used was around 100.
The First Tank Brigade participated in the heavy battles for the liberation of Yugoslavia, especially in Croatia, parts of Bosnia, and Slovenia. The losses were great, some 60 tanks were lost (damaged or destroyed).
There is an interesting story about Partisans modified tanks used by this brigade during the war. By the end of 1944, in Šibenik, the Partisans set up a workshop to repair their vehicles. In addition to the workshop, a collection office (also located in Šibenik) for captured, damaged, and destroyed vehicles was organized, which also served as a source of spare parts. There, American M3A3 tanks that had damaged turrets were modified and armed with the German weapons: 75mm PaK 40 anti-tank guns (3 vehicles) and 20mm Flak 38 Flakvierling (2 vehicles). It is also alleged that the Partisans rebuilt two more tanks and armed one with a mortar and the other with a 15 cm sIG heavy infantry artillery gun, but the existence of either of these vehicles cannot be ascertained at this time.
One more interesting field modification was done on one French S-35 Somua tank (possible two) by removing the main gun and installing a British 6-Pounder (57mm) anti-tank gun was taken from a damaged AEC Mk.II armored car. Other than a few pictures showing that this vehicle existed, there is no information on its participation in the war or its use. It was probably quickly destroyed or the whole modification turned out to be impractical for use.
M3 Stuart in the liberated Šibenik. Source:Balkanwarhistory.com
The lone Somua S-35 with 57mm Anti-Tank gun. Not much is known about this vehicle besides few pictures. Source:srpskioklop.paluba.info
Heavily camouflaged Partisan AEC Mk.II in action.
Second Tank Brigade
Tanks of the second tank brigade on a victory parade in Belgrade. The T-35/85 was the best tank in Partisan use during WW2. Source:srpskioklop.paluba.info
The formation of this unit begins with a direct order from Stalin himself for the formation of a new tank brigade consisting of Partisan fighters which should be completed by the 1st of November 1944. The crews consisted of Partisans who were sent to the Soviet Union for training but also of those who did not join the First Tank Brigade. The were transferred from Italy to the Soviet Union (in September 1944) to supplement this brigade.
The first major date for this brigade was the 6th of October 1944, when the training process on 16 T-34/76 tanks started. Due to the lack of tanks, only in the spring of 1945, was the brigade ready to be sent to Yugoslavia. The Second Tank Brigade was officially formed on the 8th of March 1945.
The brigade was formed according to the Red Army model of the Tank Brigade. It had three tank battalions with two tank companies with three platoons. It was supported with a special infantry battalion, which used the tanks for transport (this battalion was later formed in Yugoslavia). The Second Tank Brigade also had a reconnaissance and a medical platoon and one anti-aircraft company. Similar to the Soviet army, it also had a political commissar in it. As far as equipment is concerned, this brigade was equipped with 65 T-34/85 tanks and 3 BA-64 armored cars.
This brigade arrived in Topčider/Топчидер (Serbia) on the 26th of March. After a military parade held in Belgrade (27th of March), it was sent to the Syrmian front (21st of October 1944 – 12th of April 1945) where this brigade participated in heavy battles that lasted until the final collapse of the German forces there. The Second Brigade also participated in the fighting for Slavonia and during the liberation of Zagreb.
Camouflage and Markings
The tanks of the Yugoslav Royal Army were painted in French dark green color (R-35, FT, and M-28), however, few FT and M-28 tanks had camouflage coloring. The FT’s were marked with French numbers 66000-74000 of the front armor and the running gear. The M-28’s had two-digit numbers in the range of 81-88 also painted on the front or on the left-hand side. The first modern tanks, the R-35’s, had on the front and back armor four-digit numbers in the range of 49XX to 50XX. An interesting detail is the existence of a French image of a shield with the number ‘1’ on it on the left side painted on a toolbox. Also, during the coup on the 27th of March, some R-35’s had on them painted slogans like “За Краља и отаџбину” similar to ‘for the King and Country’. The eight Škoda Š-I-D tankettes were painted in classic Czech army chocolate brown, dark green, and ocher and were without any specific markings.
Regarding Partisans, their situation is much more complicated due to a large number of captured and foreign-supplied vehicles (from the British and Soviets) of different nations. The existence of several smaller military units that had their own marking and the lack of adequate conditions for proper painting and markings also makes cataloging of their camouflage and markings very hard.
On Italian tanks only the red star on the side was painted, with the original color left as it was. In a few cases, like the ones captured in Slovenia, the tanks received a two-digit number designation (30 and so on) or the name of the unit that used them was painted (like NOVH or Tенк батаљон).
Armored vehicles of the First Tank Brigade were painted in British colors, with a large Partisan Yugoslav flag (blue, white and red with a red star in the middle). By the end of the war some had political slogans painted on them.
Tanks of the Second Tank Brigade had a simple Russian dark green color, with marking numbers on few tanks. Most vehicles had political slogans painted on them. The captured German tanks retained their original color with minor modifications such as the red star painted over the Balkenkreuz. After the war they received some number markings.
In the End
Armored vehicles from almost all major countries were used on the territory of Yugoslavia during the war (USA, Germany, France, Great Britain, Poland, Soviet Union, and Italy). The Partisans used tanks and other vehicles that were given to them by Allies and Soviets, but they also managed to capture some numbers of enemy vehicles on several occasions like: Jg.Pz.38t. ‘Hetzer’, Pz.I Ausf F, CV.3 Series, L.6/40, M.15/42, AB-41, Semovente 47/32, StuG III, Munition Pz.Kpfw.Ausf I, Sd.Kfz.251 and 250, T-34/85, TKS tankettes etc. Also, the Allies supplied the Partisans with 19 M7 ‘Priest’ and M8 ‘Scott’ self propelled howitzers on the 19th of April 1945.
Independent State of Croatia, Italian built M-15 tank chassis fitted with a German Panzer 38(t) turret carrying the markings U.O. 139 and Croatian red and white shield, driving in the snow in Croatia. The letter U behind the shield stands for ‘Ustashe’ the Croatian Fascist movement.
Links, Resources & Further Reading
Oklopne jedinice na Jugoslovenskom ratištu, Bojan B. Dumitrijević i Dragan Savić, Institut za savremenu istoriju, Beograd 2011.
Tito’s Partisans 1941-45, Velimir Vuksić, Osprey publishing 2003.
Modernizacija i intervencija, Jugoslovenske oklopne jedinice 1945-2006, Institut za savremenu istoriju, Beograd 2010.
The Second World War an illustrated history, Ajp Taylor, Penguin Books.
Der Zweite WeltKrieg, H.P. Willmott, Robin Cross and Charles Messenger.
The armoured vehicles of the Yugoslav Arмy 1918-1941 (Borna kola Jugoslovenske vojske 1918-1941.) Bojan b. Dimitrijević,
Elitni vidovi jugoslovenske vojske u Aprilskom ratu, Dušan Babac, Beograd,
Specijalne jedinice jugoslovenske vojske u Aprilskom ratu, Dušan Babac, Beograd.
Tito život i delo, Dragan Marković and Tihomir Stanojević, Beograd.
Artillery and Armoured vehicles in exterior of military museum, Mirko Peković i Ivan Mijatović, Vojni muzej Beograd 2009.
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