Serbian Volunteer Corps (World War II) - Retreat and Demise

Retreat and Demise

In September the Partisans with Red Army support began their final offensive in Serbia. The major battle was on 9 September when the Partisans totally defeated joint SDK and Chetnik forces. After this defeat, the Chetniks decided to cross the Drina river and continue their struggle in Bosnia. Under these circumstances the SDK supreme command decided to withdraw to Slovenia where Dimitrije Ljotić's idea was to form a joint front of nationalist, anti-communist forces.

The withdrawal began on 8 October during the final joint Partisan and Soviet assault on Belgrade when the 1st volunteer regiment under Major Ilija Mićašević and 4th volunteer regiment under Major Vojislav Dimitrijević crossed the Sava river. The 3rd regiment under Major Jovan Dobrosavljević delayed crossing the Sava as they were fighting the Partisans in Šabac and met up with the others later in Ruma. The 2nd Regiment under Major Marisav Petrović crossed the Sava near Obrenovac. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 5th Regiment were still on the ground. When they reached Niš they learned that the Red Army had taken Aleksinac and their way to Belgrade was blocked. The commander of 5th Regiment was forced to change the withdrawal plan and moved across the Raška mountains with the Wehrmacht towards Bosnia. The 1st Battalion of 5th Regiment under Captain Vasa Ogrizović held Zaječar but as soon as the Russians crossed the Danube they moved to Belgrade and crossed the Sava and they became a temporary part of the 4th Regiment. Most troops met each other at Sremska Mitrovica where they awaited trains for transfer to Slovenia. Meanwhile, major changes in Berlin had an impact on many non-German volunteers fighting with German forces. There was a branch-of-service redistribution by ethnic group, and the Serbian volunteers now found themselves under the authority of the Waffen-SS. The order effecting the transfer was dated 9 November, but not formally recognized until 27 November. At this time the SDK composition on paper was a corps staff, five regiments each with three battalions, a signal company, a mountain supply detachment and German liaison staff. It is important to point out at this time that the SDK's relationship with the Waffen-SS was official, but not on the ground. The troops never wore SS uniforms, and it is doubtful whether the relationship ever went beyond the simple exchange of a limited amount of paperwork. The SDK's situation was quite similar to that of the XV. Kosaken-Kavallerie-Korps, which was also absorbed into the Waffen-SS at about the same time. As they reached Slovenia the SDK troops concentrated in the area around Ilirska Bistrica and Postojna with command being set up in Ilirska Bistrica. As soon as he arrived in Slovenia Dimitrije Ljotić got in touch with pro-Nazi Slovenian Domobranci commander Leon Rupnik and Bishop of Ljubljana Gregorij Rožman and agreed on mutual help and co-operation. SDK established volunteer schools in Ilirska Bistrica, one for officer training and one ideological. The school for officers was directed by Ljotić himself. During the settling in period, the 3,000 able-bodied survivors of the SDK were augmented by released Serbian POWs, Chetniks, and members of the Serbian State Guard who had been evacuated to Istria. These new additions brought the unit's strength to approximately 8,000. Lika Chetnik Corps and Slovenian Chetniks called Plava Garda ('Blue Guard') were also present in Slovenia and they also joined the Nationalist front. Nationalist formations in Slovenia numbered about 40,000 armed men in total.

The part of 5th Regiment that withdrew reached Bosnia in mid-November and began to move towards Slovenia. It was during the move north that an event befell the SDK which was to cripple the unit's leadership capability in the coming months. 30 to 40 officers were seized in Zagreb by the Croatian Ustaše and executed. The Ustaše considered them dangerous enemies of the NDH, and this was the Ustaše response to the German failure to obtain permission prior to transporting these Serbs through their country. Any Serb who supported the 'Greater Serbia' concept, as did Ljotić and his followers, was by definition an enemy of Pavelić's Croatia.

SDK's first major action in Slovenia was to take the Partisan-held Kras village of Col on 18 December 1944. From 19 December to the end of the month a major encircle-and-destroy operation was mounted from the garrison towns of Gorizia, Idrija, Postojna and Sežana aiming to eliminate the Partisan stronghold in the Trnovska Mountains. Nearly 5,000 men were used, including 500 from the SDK's 1st Regiment in Postojna, the 10th SS-Police Regiment, Italian R.S.I. troops, Slovenian Domobranci (pro-Nazi Slovenian militia).

The next campaign participated in by the SDK was against Josip Broz Tito's 9th Corps during the first few days of March 1945 and codenamed Ruebezahl. Two combat groups were formed to strike against Partisan concentrations near Lokve. The first group was called 'Zuschneid', and comprised three SS-Police battalions, elements of the 1st Slovenian Domobranci Assault Regiment, two SDK battalions and one Caucasian battalion, with a total force of around 5,000 men. The second group, 'Koestermann', consisted of two battalions of the German 730th Infantry Regiment (710th Inf. Div.), a police company and some engineers, with a total of 2,500 men. The attacking forces pushed forward from a south and west direction, and this time the operation was more successful. The Partisans suffered moderate losses, and the concentration was broken up and dispersed to the northeast.

However, the Partisans quickly regrouped, so the Germans were forced to conduct a supplementary operation (19 March-7 April), which proved to be the final operation against Tito's 9th Corps. Four combat groups were organized along the perimeter of the area now occupied by the Partisans, with the task of bringing the 9th Corps to battle by gradually advancing in unison toward the centre, and thereby reducing the size of the area under their control. This was the standard German method of cleansing a Partisan-controlled area, that never significantly changed during the course of the war. To the west, along a line Idrija-Rijeka-Grahovo-Podbrdo, Combat Group Blank was assembled with major elements of the 10th and 15th SS-Police Regiments, II./1. SDK Rgt, II./4. SDK Rgt, 21st SS-Police Reconnaissance Co., SS-Police Company 'Schmidt' and an artillery battery from the LXXXXVII Army Corps. This force was later joined on 4 April by the 2nd and 3rd SDK Regiments, and 1,500 men from the Chetnik 502 Lika Corps. The second group, under Police Major Dr Dippelhofer, consisted of the Ljubljana SS NCO School, Slovenian Domobranci, Chetniks and a 1,200-man Russian ROA unit. This group was deployed to the southeast along the line Idrija-Škofja Loka. The northern assault group, 4,500 men from the 13th, 17th and 28th SS-Police Regiments formed up along the road between Podbrdo and Škofja Loka, while a special assault force from the 14th Ukrainian SS Division was concentrated along the north-eastern side of the perimeter.

The area encircled was mountainous, thickly forested, and still deep in winter snow. Once off the few roads that encircle the area, the attacking forces were faced with extremely difficult terrain that limited their progress to a few kilometres each day, inhibited contact with neighbouring units, and greatly restricted the ability to rapidly bring up fresh supplies and heavy weapons. Very soon gaps developed in the line of advance, through which the main body of 9th Corps escaped. Although a number of minor skirmishes were fought, and casualties suffered on both sides, the overall result of the operation was disappointing.

On 27 March, General Damjanović replaced General Mušicki as commander of the Serbian Volunteer Corps and the SDK became a component of Draža Mihailović’s Yugoslav Army in the Homeland, the formal name for the Chetnik forces, although the Corps was still assigned to the HSSuPF Trieste under SS-Gruppenführer Odilo Globocnik. Whether this change affected the SDK’s relationship to the Waffen-SS is unknown, but doubtful. Shortly thereafter, Hermann Neubacher, Hitler’s special political representative for the Balkans, paid a visit to Ljotić in Trieste to discuss German fears about what would happen when the SDK and Chetnik forces in Istria came into contact with British and American units who were expected to move in that direction from Italy. Ljotić reassured Neubacher of the SDK’s loyalty.

Meanwhile, Tito’s 4th Army was advancing north along the coastal road from Novi Vinodolski, Croatia to liberate Istria, Trieste and all of central and western Slovenia. German Army Group E immediately issued orders to the LXXXXVII Army Corps to build a perimeter around the port city of Rijeka, to try to block the 4th Army's westward advance. In early April the 237th Infantry Division was rushed to the area, and within a few days defensive positions were established in a 21-kilometre arc to the east and north of the city. The 4th Army began its attack on Rijeka around 20 April with the Partisan 13th, 19th and 43rd Divisions. Although the outnumbered German 237th Infantry Division offered stiff resistance and held its positions, General Kuebler ordered the 188th Reserve Mountain Division to launch an immediate attack on Partisan concentrations in the vicinity of Grobnik Airfield, 16 kilometres north east of Rijeka. To support this attack, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th SDK Regiments were moved up from the Postojna area. However the regiments of the Serbian Volunteer Corps arrived too late and never made contact with the 188th Mountain Division. The attack on the airfield was unsuccessful, and by 23 April it was clear to General Kuebler that his Corps was threatened with total encirclement. Kuebler's appreciation of the situation was entirely correct, as on 22 April the general staff of Tito's 4th Army ordered a flanking movement to bypass the city. While the LXXXXVII Corps continued to be pressed by three divisions, the Partisan 20th Division was brought up from Ogulin along with one additional brigade, three tank battalions and two artillery battalions. This force moved to the north, around the German defensive perimeter, and advanced on Trieste via Ilirska Bistrica with the intention of linking up with the Partisan 9th Corps which was pushing south on Trieste.

As the battle for Rijeka moved toward its inevitable conclusion, SDK Regiments 2, 3, and 4 were sent to Ljubljana and transferred to the authority of SS-Obergruppenführer Erwin Rösener, HSSuPF for Carinthia, who had been appointed commander-in-chief of Army Group E's rear area. Rösener's task was to open up and keep open the road and rail routes in northern Slovenia to facilitate the Army Group's withdrawal from Croatia north into Austria. SDK Regiments 1 and 5 remained assigned to Globočnik, who had meanwhile transferred his headquarters from Trieste to Udine, across the Isonzo River in Italy. The SDK was therefore split into two groups, one in central Slovenia under Rösener and moving toward the Austrian border, while the other was in the extreme western part of Slovenia under Globočnik moving toward Italy.

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