The Croatian armored component in World War II

(To Andrea Gaspardo)
22/01/23

Following the bloody and victorious military campaign conducted in the period between 6 and 18 April 1941, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was overwhelmed and erased from the geographical maps by the victorious Axis forces and, during the subsequent work of territorial division, the Germanic Third Reich and Mussolini's Italy decided to fulfill the commitments previously undertaken with their allies of the Croatian nationalist and fascist Ustasha movement and gave their assent to the creation of the Independent State of Croatia under the leadership of the leader of the Ustasha movement, the “Poglavnik” Ante Pavelić.

After the creation of their state, the Ustascia wasted no time and worked hard to set up militias and Armed Forces that could operate autonomously, especially in the context of operations to contrast the nascent partisan movement of Josip Broz Tito.

To carry out their plan, the Croatian authorities formally requested assistance from the Third Reich, Italy and Hungary. Subsequently, they laid the foundations for the establishment of a tank company under the 1o motorized battalion (1.automobilskog batalijuna domobranstva, in the Serbo-Croatian language).

The Independent State of Croatia aspired to get their hands on the abandoned tanks of the defunct Royal Yugoslav Army, but they had already been confiscated by the Germans, who decided to allocate to the Croatians only 24 Renault FT tanks and a similar number of Renault R35s. For their part, the Italians and Hungarians limited themselves to supplying a small number of CV-35 (aka L3/35) tanks (or tankettes). To facilitate management and group the few means available, all Croatian tanks were concentrated in the newly established "Poglavnik defense brigade" (PTS: Poglavnikova Tjelesna Sdruga), a sort of armored brigade that also played the role of "praetorian unit" of the regime.

In 1942 Croatians bought 4 light tanks from Germans Panzer I (opening photo) and, at the same time, they negotiated the sale of 40 Polish tankettes TK and TKS of war booty. To be precise: 18 were destined for the police, another 18 for the army and 4 for the Ustasha territorial militia. Subsequently, the expansion programs of the Zagreb armored component entered a state of limbo. The German proposal to sell 20 old Czechoslovakian LT vz.34 tanks was rejected due to their poor condition. In turn, the German allies reneged on their promise to supply tanks Panzer II e Panzer III which were supposed to equip the tank platoons of the new rifle and mountain brigades engaged in the anti-partisan fight.

The only vehicles that the Germans made available by the spring of 1944 were 4 Semovente 47/32 assault guns, 26 L6/40 light tanks (photo) and 15 Hotchkiss H39 and SOMUA S35 tanks. However, the events that took place between the end of 1943 and mid-1944 soon forced the Germans to break the delay and strengthen their Croatian allies.

The surrender of Italy after 8 September 1943 had created a huge vacuum in the Balkans, where Rome had previously deployed no less than 20 fully equipped divisions. This and the increase in aid from the Allies had led to an exponential increase in the activity of Marshal Tito's Yugoslav partisans who at the end of 1943 deployed no less than 329.000 men among their ranks. Not only that, with the success of their offensives in the Ukraine, the Soviets were now perilously close to the Balkan peninsula.

Given the situation, the Germans decided to speed up the rearmament process of Zagreb by handing over large quantities of Italian armaments, including the ubiquitous L6/40 light tanks and the Semovente 47/32 assault guns, however small amounts of German armor also arrived including 20 Panzer III Ausf. N, 10 Panzer IV Ausf. F1 and 5 Panzer IV Ausf. h.

Most of the means supplied by Berlin was absorbed by the Poglavnik Defense Brigade which was expanded to become a full-fledged division and was therefore renamed "Poglavnik Defense Division" (PTD: Poglavnikova Tjelesna Divizija). However, there were enough means to equip the two tank battalions and the two motorized battalions that made up the Ustasha brigade (BUZ: Brzi Ustaski Zdrug). Three new Croatian infantry divisions were also created with each assigned a company of assault guns, typically Semovente 47/32.

All these forces were employed starting from the autumn of 1944 and until the end of the war against the preponderant partisan forces and against the joint Soviet-Romanian-Bulgarian offensive which finally wiped out the Axis forces from the Balkan area.

Photo: web / Bundesarchiv

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