Operation Rosselsprung - German Invasion of Drvar

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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.
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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.
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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.

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