Battle of Lijevče Field
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The Battle of Lijevče Field (Serbo-Croatian: 'Bitka na Lijevča polju, Битка на Лијевча пољу) was a battle fought between March 30 and April 8, 1945 between the Croatian Armed Forces (HOS, the amalgamated Ustaše militia and Croatian Home Guard forces) and Chetnik forces on the Lijevče Field near Banja Luka in what was then the Independent State of Croatia (NDH).
The combined Chetnik force was defeated by an NDH force. Chetnik leaders, Đurišić, Zaharije Ostojić and Petar Baćović, and ideologue Dragiša Vasić were captured in an apparent trap set by the NDH forces and Sekula Drljević after being induced to negotiate. They were then executed along with a number of Serbian Orthodox priests.
Build-up to the battle
In the fall of 1944, the Chetniks were scattered across the territory of the former Yugoslavia. Divisions of the Red Army had entered the Territory of the Military Commander in Serbia and were assisting Yugoslav forces in capturing and destroying the Chetniks.
The Armed Forces of the NDH were reorganized in November 1944 to combine the units of the Ustaše militia and the Army of the Independent State of Croatia into the Croatian Armed Forces (HOS) comprising eighteen divisions, comprising 13 infantry, two mountain, two assault and one replacement divisions, each with its own organic artillery and other support units. There were also several armoured units. From early 1945, the HOS divisions were allocated to various German Corps and by March 1945 were holding the Southern Front. Securing the rear areas were some 32,000 men of the NDH Gendarmerie (Hrvatsko Oruznistvo), organised into five Police Volunteer Regiments plus 15 independent battalions, equipped with standard light infantry weapons, including mortars.
When the German forces began to abandon Montenegro, the Chetniks decided to withdraw with them as there was little escape from Partisan attacks in the region. Before they left, a command was issued by the Chetnik leader Draža Mihailović (who was at that time in Serbia), to head towards Bosnia where they would join up with an alleged number of 100,000 troops from Serbia.
It was decided that the Chetniks would consolidate in the area between the rivers Bosna, Vrbas and Sava. On December 5, 1944, Đurišić's Chetniks headed north along the Drina river, and met up with Mihailović in the village of Kožuhe. With him were 10,000 soldiers, far short of what had been promised. Much of Mihailović's troops in these final months were forcefully mobilized peasants from Serbia who frequently deserted.
There are varying versions of what the Chetniks further plans were:
- Later, Ustaša emigrants claimed that the Chetniks had sought to attack the Croatian capital Zagreb after the Germans had left. This would have destroyed the Independent State of Croatia, and this would allegedly have shown the Allies that the Chetniks were a "powerful anti-fascist army upon whom they could count on".
- Partisan sources say that Mihailović sought to utilize Đurišić's forces to return to Serbia to raise an "anti-communist rebellion". Đurišić did not accept this, refusing Mihailović's commands. He then began to retreat towards Slovenia.
- Chetnik sources claim that Mihailović commanded Đurišić to head toward Slovenia to join with those Chetnik forces which would surrender to the Americans. Đurišić's Chetniks eventually headed towards Lijevče Field near Banja Luka.
Beginning of the battle
The NDH forces which were located in the region numbered 27,940 soldiers. On March 30, Chetnik forces passed the river Vrbas and took the village of Razboj. From there the Sanjak Chetniks headed towards the Sava river and the village of Dolinama on the road toward Bosanska Gradiška. In late March 1945 elite NDH units were withdrawn from the Srem front to destroy Đurišić's Chetniks trying to make their way across the northern NDH.
At the same time, three Ustaša companies from the 10th Ustaša Brigade commanded by General Metikoš headed out from Banja Luka towards Gradiška and took position near the village of Gornje Doline. There they battled with the Chetnik forces. With Chetniks in greater numbers, the Ustaša companies were forced to retreat. Concurrently, the local Croatian population began to flee the area towards Gradiška in fear of the Chetniks.
On 2 April, General Metikoš along with the 6th Croatian Infantry Division attacked the Chetniks not far from Gornja Doline. After half a day of battle, the NDH forces forced the Chetniks to withdraw. They had also captured a Chetnik officer, Captain Mijuković. He was a Montenegrin by background, a supporter of a Montenegrin independence as well as a follower of Sekula Drljević. Mijuković did not agree with the Chetnik ideology and he gave the Ustaša officers information about the intentions of the Chetnik command.
Attack on Bosanska Gradiška is foiled
From records,[which?] General Metikoš and the commander of the 17th Croatian Infantry Division, General Marko Sučić, made a decision towards a quick attack against the Chetniks. General Sučić moved an Armored Group that same day from Novska as well as an Artillery Group from Nova Gradiška and two infantry battalions. Generals Metikoš and Sučić met in Bosanska Gradiška and discussed a plan of attack. The fifth battalion of the 10th Ustaša Brigade was sent to the town of Vrbačko to guard against any possible Partisan attacks. That same day at noon Ustaša artillery fired on the Sanjak Chetnik Corps. At the same time, the Ustaša Armored Group with 24 armoured vehicles and 4 Panzer IV tanks entered Doline and began to fire their machine guns at the fleeing Chetnik troops. After an hour the battle was over. The Armored Group captured 400 Chetniks, among them some officers, while on the field of battle lay 2,000 dead or injured Chetniks.
During questioning of the captured officers, the Ustaše found that the Chetniks were planning to attack Bosanska Gradiška that very day. They also established the makeup of the Chetnik force: the Sanjak Corps led by Captain Kalajitović; the Drina Corps led by Voivoda Drašković; as well as 5,000 Montenegrin Chetniks led by Voivoda Boško Agram. They also found that the Chetniks had received help from the Germans to get there.
Disruption of Chetnik command
Because of the unexpected loss of their forward troops, the heads of the Chetnik forces came to a spat and even some armed conflict erupted between officers. However, this only intensified the dissatisfaction of the Montenegrins who were forcefully mobilized and who did not want to fight for a Greater Serbia. Just as Captain Mijuković had foreseen, 5,000 Montenegrins deserted the Chetniks in the following days and defected to the Ustaša.
This forced Đurišić to change plans. On 3 April he made the decision not to attack Bosanska Gradiška nor Banja Luka, but to take the remaining Chetnik forces across the Vrbas, to take Lijevče Field and the villages of Topola, Dubrava and Maglajan. There they would care for their provisions and horses, and begin to head across Mount Kozara towards Kordun where they would meet with Đujić's troops from Slovenia.
On 4 April Durišić decided to break through the NDH ranks. In the meantime the NDH forces had built and strengthened bunkers on the road from Bosanska Gradiška to Banja Luka. The building of the bunkers was overseen by the engineer Lieutenant Colonel Josić. In the bunkers were placed troops from 4th Jager Brigade. Every bunker was armed with a mortar and a machine-gun, while each crew numbered thirty soldiers. The bunkers were situated at the intersections of roads: Nova Topoli, Gornja Topola, Maglajan and Laktaš and were all fortified. On 40 kilometres (25 mi) of road 22 bunkers were built. In Laktaš, one armored Group and two infantry battalions stealthily moved towards the road near Razboj. General Sučić placed one armored Group towards Donji Doljani, deployed a battalion with a motorized infantry and a tank company behind them in the village of Bukovac. A battalion under Major Ante Vrban was sent towards Vilus to protect against a Partisan attack from Kozara.
At 2am on 5 April, the Chetniks began a frontal assault on the bunkers, showering them with hand grenades and infantry gunfire. The NDH troops in the bunkers waited until the Chetniks came closer then opened fire with their machine guns and mortars, which resulted in high losses to the Chetniks, as well as confusion among their ranks. This lasted for the remainder of the day and into the night.
Chetnik Mihajlo Minić later recalled the battle with these words: "The valley of Lijevče field echoes with the thunder of exploding grenades and hand-bombs. Ustaša tanks snorted and sowed fire on all sides. Night turned to day."
However, at 6am on 6 April, Chetnik forces under Captain Perišić succeeded in penetrating between bunkers and attacked the NDH 3rd battalion from behind. General Sučić with part of his own division blocked the Chetnik penetration point, and sent two tank companies to the road from Bukovac to Turjak to help the 3rd battalion. With his remaining troops Sučić set off to hunt down the Chetnik group, which numbered about 1,000 troops. Soon the tank companies reached the 3rd Battalion and commenced their attack, killing approximately 500 Chetniks, while the survivors retreated towards Kozara.
The 3rd Battalion, strengthened by the arrival of the armoured units, then set out to find the remaining 500 Chetniks. Two days later a battalion from the 4th Croatian Infantry Division under the command of General Zdenko Begić came across these fleeing groups and completely destroyed the unit.
During the night of 7 April, due to the attacks by the NDH forces, panic struck the Chetnik ranks all the way up to the top command and their forces began to flee across the Vrbas with the intention to spread out into the forests. In the morning NDH artillery began to fire at boats attempting the crossing and in this way halted the Chetnik retreat.
At this time, Yugoslav Partisan forces began a troop build up near Bosanski Petrovac and Sanski Most. As the NDH forces did not wish to fight a battle on two fronts, the commander of the 4th Division Josip Metzger decided to launch a final attack on the remaining Chetniks who numbered approximately 7,000.
At 11:00am the 6th and 7th Croatian Infantry Divisions began to attack those Chetniks who had gathered around Razboj. Over Dolina and Glamočani towards Razboj turned the first Armoured Group led by 4 Panzer IVs, along with a motorized artillery company and motorized infantry. Another Armoured Group headed down the Brezovljani-Glamočani road. From the south the Armoured Group from the 6th Division chased the Chetniks from Kukolk towards Razboj. Behind them came a motorized artillery company and two infantry battalions which began a frontal battle with the Chetniks. The NDH troops left their bunkers and returned sharp machine-gun fire.
Under the onrush of NDH tanks and armoured vehicles, the Chetnik right flank was crushed and NDH forces circled to the their rear and began to attack with machine-gun fire. The Chetnik Drina Corps began to crumble while Chetnik forces tried to close the NDH penetration. Under ceaseless fire from the NDH force accompanied by hand grenades, panic spread across the Chetniks. The Chetniks began to abandon their posts and attempted to flee, but they did so in vain as they were surrounded on all sides. The NDH infantry destroyed the resistance of the Chetniks, who soon surrendered. At 1pm the battle was over.
The Montenegrins who had earlier deserted the Chetnik ranks buried the dead. The spoils of war were great, five thousand Chetniks were captured, among them Đurišić who had hid beneath a carriage hoping to escape by nightfall. He had to be closely guarded to ensure the Montenegrins did not kill him.
Five thousand Montenegrins were moved to Sisak, where they were left armed and placed under Ustaša command as the Montenegrin People's Army.
In May 1945, these troops were among NDH forces, as well as Croatian civilians, who retreated at war's end towards Austria, attempted to surrender to the British, but were refused and were instead repatriated to Yugoslavia from Bleiburg, Austria. Many were killed by the Partisans during the return trip, with those survivors being interned at various POW camps.
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