Croatian Air Force Legion
The Croatian Air Force Legion (Croatian: Hrvatska Zrakoplovna Legija), or HZL, also known as the Croatian Legion, was a foreign volunteer unit of the Luftwaffe raised from volunteers drawn from the Independent State of Croatia which fought on the Eastern Front between 1941-1943 in the Second World War. It was then absorbed by the Air Force of the Independent State of Croatia and its surviving members fought back on Croatian soil. The legion had approximately 360 men.
The unit was sent to Germany for training on 15 July 1941 before heading to the Eastern Front. Many of the pilots and crews had previously served in the Royal Yugoslav Air Force during the Invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941. Some of them also had experience in the two main types that they would operate, the Messerschmitt 109 and Dornier Do 17, with two fighter pilots having actually shot down Luftwaffe aircraft.
The Legion's commander was Ivan Mrak. During operations over the Eastern Front, the unit's fighters scored a total of 283 kills while its bombers participated in 1,332 combat missions.
The Legion was organized into a fighter wing and a bomber wing:
- 4. Fighter Wing (Major Franjo Dzal)
- 10. Fighter Squadron
- 11. Fighter Squadron
- 5. Bomber Wing
- 12. Bomber Squadron
- 13. Bomber Squadron
The 5. Bomber Wing was originally attached to Kampfgeschwader 3 as part of the 10/KG3 and later as the 15.(Kroat.)/KG 3.
Fighter operations over the Eastern Front 1941-43
One squadron of the Fighter Wing was sent to the area of Furth, Germany, for training, the other to Herzogenaurach Airfield, nearby. Training commenced on July 19, 1941, on Arado 96 and Messerschmitt 109D aircraft, and lasted to the end of September 1941 at which time the Legionnaires were deemed ready for the Eastern Front and were equipped with various models of the Messerschmitt 109 fighter. During the course of their training, the men had been issued Luftwaffe uniforms adorned with the Croatian armshield and the Croatian Airforce Legion badge on the right breast pocket.
The Squadron received the official designation '15.(Kroatische)/JG 52', and arrived to its first Eastern Front airfield on October 6, 1941, near Poltava. On 9 October 1941, the Squadron has its first taste of action, when, in the Ahtijevka-Krasnograd area, a Soviet R10 was shot down. The kill was given to the German liaison pilot to the Squadron, Lt. Baumgarten. The Squadron was transferred at the end of October 1941 to Taganrog, and stayed in this area till 1 December 1941. The first kill by a Croatian pilot occurred in this time period by Captain Ferencina, and the second by Lt.Colonel Dzal.
On 1 December 1941, the Squadron transferred to Marinpol. Attacks were made on Soviet armoured columns around Pokorovskoje, Matvejeva, Kurgan, Jeiska and Uspenskoje, and on the railway line Marinpol-Stalino. As well, the Squadron escorted German bombers on their missions. By the end of January 1942, the Squadron had shot down 23 Soviet airplanes (of this, four were MIG-3 fighters). At the end of March 1942, the Squadron received a telegrams from the Commander of 4.Fliegerkorp, General Flugbeil, and the Commander of 4.Luftflotte, Colonel-General Lohr, congratulating them on their successes. In April 1942, the Squadron flew escort missions for Stuka bombers, guarded the Marinpol airfield, and strafed Soviet troops in the Azov Sea area. Nine more Soviet airplanes were shot down in this period.
In May, the Squadron was transferred first to the Crimea, and shortly thereafter, to the Artemovka-Konstantinovka region. From this base of operation, the Squadron flew escort missions for bombers attacking Sevastopol and patrolled the Azov Sea area. Four more Soviet planes were downed, and a Soviet patrol boat was also sunk. From the end of May, till 21 June 1942 (the date of the Squadron's 1000 flight), 21 more Soviet planes were shot down. From this date till the end of July 1942, 69 more aircraft are shot down.
The Squadron continued with its fine performances until late 1943 when it was re-deployed to Croatia to help to combat the increasing air activity over the Balkans by the Allies. By this time, the Squadron had tallied 283 kills, and had 14 pilots who had gained Flying ace status.
Bomber operations over the Eastern Front 1941-42
Officially designated '15.(Kroatische)/KG 53'., the bomber squadron was equipped with Dornier Do 17Z aircraft. It arrived on the Eastern Front on 25 October 1941, after training at the Grosse Kampfflieger Schule 3, in Greifswald, Germany. Their first area of operations was near Vitebsk. The rest of the Bomber Squadron's assignments were in the Northern Sector of the Eastern Front, including the bombing of Leningrad and Moscow. On 9 November 1941, the Squadron was congratulated by Fieldmarshall Kesselring for its actions thus far. After flying some 1,500 sorties on the Eastern Front, the Squadron and its aircraft were re-deployed to Croatia in December 1942, to help combat the growing Partisan threat to the Axis forces in occupied Yugoslavia.
Fighter operations over Croatia 1943-45
Upon its return the squadron was redesignated 1./(Kroat.)JG and sent its Croatian pilots to collect 12 brand new Macchi C.202 fighters direct from the plant in Italy. These aircraft retained their Luftwaffe markings whilst in service with the unit. A second training squadron was also formed, designated 2./(Kroat.)JG and equipped with Macchi C.200 and Fiat CR.42 fighters. After a period of operational conversion, the squadron commenced operations against the frequent incursions over Croatia by USAAF and RAF aircraft. During a period of intensive activity over the summer of 1944, the squadron claimed some 20 Allied aircraft shot down, while at the same time receiving further Macchi C.202s, as well as several brand new Macchi C.205s.
By the end of 1944 the squadron had handed in its remaining worn-out Macchis for brand new German Messerschmitt 109G & K fighters. Over 50 Messerschmitts were delivered to the squadron and the Air Force of the Independent State of Croatia, with the final delivery taking place on 23 April 1945.
Bomber operations over Croatia 1943-45
Upon its return the Legion's bomber squadron was redesignated 1./(Kroat.)KG after having flown its nine Dornier Do 17Z bombers from Russia back to Croatia. The Dorniers proved a welcome addition to the strike power of the Axis forces fighting the Partisans in occupied Yugoslavia right up to the end of July 1944, when it was incorporated into the ZNDH. In late 1943, a second squadron, 2./(Kroat.)KG was formed to provide operational training. It was equipped with Italian designed and built CANT Z.1007 and Fiat BR.20 bombers.
- Air Force of the Independent State of Croatia
- Croatian Legion
- Croatian Naval Legion
- Independent State of Croatia during World War II
- World War II in Yugoslavia
- Royal Yugoslav Air Force
- "The Eastern Front: Back in the Homeland after 65 years." vecernji.hr. Retrieved: 21 July 2010.
- Croatian Air Force
- Ciglic and Savic 2002
- Lisko, T. and Canak, D., Hrvatsko Ratno Zrakoplovstvo u Drugome Svejetskom Ratu (The Croatian Airforce in the Second World War) Zagreb, 1998
- Lisko and Canak 1998
- Ciglic, Boris and Dragan Savic.Croatian Aces of World War II (Osprey Aircraft of the Aces - 49). London: Oxford, 2002. ISBN 1-84176-435-3.
- Lisko, T. and D. Canak. Hrvatsko Ratno Zrakoplovstvo u Drugome Svejetskom Ratu (The Croatian Airforce in the Second World War). Zagreb, 1998. ISBN 953-97698-0-9.