Case White (German: Fall Weiss), also known as the Fourth Enemy Offensive (Serbo-Croatian: Četvrta neprijateljska ofenziva/ofanziva) was a combined Axis strategic offensive launched against the Yugoslav Partisans throughout occupied Yugoslavia during World War II. It was one of the most significant confrontations of World War II in Yugoslavia. The offensive took place in early 1943, between 20 January and mid-to-late March 1943.
The operation is most remembered in Yugoslavia for its final phase, the Battle of the Neretva (Bitka na Neretvi) in Jablanica, named after the Neretva river. The final phase is also known as the Battle for the Wounded (Bitka za ranjenike).
In late 1942, with the Axis situation in North Africa deteriorating, the German high command became concerned about the possibility of an Allied landing in the Balkans. This was of particular concern due to the substantial resources they were extracting from Yugoslavia, including timber, copper and bauxite. In the event of an Allied landing, resistance forces in Yugoslavia would be likely to interfere with German defensive operations as well as continued resource extraction. As a result, on 16 December 1942, Adolf Hitler ordered the Armed Forces Commander in South-East Europe, Generaloberst Alexander Löhr to crush the resistance in Yugoslavia. In a meeting of 18–19 December, the General Staff of the Wehrmacht decided on the destruction of the Bihać Republic. On 8 January, Löhr and Mario Roatta, commander of the 2nd Italian army, met in Zagreb and devised a detailed plan.
The operation was planned to be carried out in three stages:
- Weiss 1 aimed at destroying Partisan-held areas: Lika, Kordun, Banija, Cazinska Krajina, and Grmeč. It was started on 20 January 1943 and lasted until 25 February.
- Weiss 2 focused on Partisans in the south-east of the Bihać Republic: Drvar, Glamoč, Livno, Jajce, and Ključ.
- Weiss 3 was launched in March, and centered around the areas of northern Herzegovina, but the targeted Partisans managed to break out from an encirclement into northern Montenegro, and the third phase was not successfully completed.
The Germans aimed to destroy the central command of the Partisan movement, the Central Committee of Communist Party of Yugoslavia, as well as the main Partisan hospital. The Axis rallied ten divisions equaling 90,000 troops and in addition twelve air squadrons.
Chetnik auxiliaries and formations consisting of between 12,000 and 15,000 men also took part and worked closely with the Italians. The operation coincided with the Chetnik's "March on Bosnia" which intended for Chetniks from Lika, northern Bosnia, northern Dalmatia, Herzegovina, and Montenegro to combine to destroy the core of the Partisan's territory and involved a genocidal attack on the Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Sandžak. According to the Germans, the Chetniks stood at 150,000 men in February 1943 (up from 100,000 in August 1942). The Partisans on the other hand numbered less than a third of that figure. On 2 January, Mihailović reported to the Chetniks of his plan for the destruction of the Partsian's Bihać Republic in order to "liberate this Serb territory from Communist terror" and on the 21st said "indeed, the question of Bosnia is most important. In western Bosnia and Lika we are currently making the final preparations for the definitive destruction of the Communists who are preventing us from destroying Pavelić's Croatia"."
On 20 January, Weiss 1 commenced and would last until 25 February. The Axis forces attacked the territory controlled by the Partisan 1st Croatian and 1st Bosnian Corps – the areas of Banija, Kordun, Lika and western Bosnia. The Partisan Chief Operational Group had left Bihać in late January and in the meantime tried to carry out the Supreme Staff's plan of moving its operations eastward. The Supreme Staff wanted its force to relocate from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Serbia while the Croatian and Bosnian Corps hold the line against the enemy. The Chief Operational Group, enlarged to include the 7th Banjia and the 9th Dalmatian Divisions, struggled across south-west Bosnia while Axis forces gradually beat the Croatian and Bosnian Corps' resistance. On 9–12 February, during its journey toward the Neretva river, the Chief Operational Group defeated the Italian Murge Division and gained control of Imotski, Ljubuški, Široki Brijeg, Prozor, and Jablanica.
Battle of the Neretva
During the battle, the Partisans were caught in a pocket with their backs to the Neretva river. On their western side, were German forces, including several elite units and supported by panzer brigades. The eastern side (opposite the Partisan pocket) was guarded only by Chetnik formations, who were acting in coordination with the Germans. To reach this side the Partisans would have to cross one or more of the five bridges on the Neretva river. If the Partisans could cross the river they would be relatively safe; however, they had insufficient time to cross as the Axis forces were preparing for their final push.
In order to counter this strategic "checkmate", the Partisan commander, Josip Broz Tito, prepared an elaborate deception. He ordered his sappers to actually blow up all the bridges on the river. When air reconnaissance brought this information to the German command, they concluded that the Partisans must be preparing a final dash north of their current position (along the western shore of the Neretva), and had blown up the bridge to prevent desertion as well as attack by Chetnik forces from the other side of the river. They thus began a redeployment of troops in the area to block the anticipated movement.
This redeployment gave the Partisan engineers precious time needed to sufficiently repair the bridge and to eliminate the Chetnik troops defending its far side. The Germans, characteristically, quickly caught on, but were unable to correct their mistake and prepare a serious attack in time, because of their previous redeployment orders. With their rearguard fighting off an increasingly powerful German advance, the Partisans crossed the river under intense air bombardment (the Axis deployed large Luftwaffe formations), but the mountainous landscape prevented accurate destruction of the makeshift bridge. After the escape was complete, the weak bridge was finally rendered useless to prevent pursuit. The humiliating strategic defeat was amplified by Tito being able to keep his well known pledge not to leave the wounded behind, as they faced certain execution at the hands of the Axis (which later actually happened in the aftermath of the Battle of the Sutjeska).
The operation marked the "high point of Chetnik collaboration with the Axis powers". In order to ensure the operation's success, Draža Mihailović relocated from Montenegro to Kalinovik where Zaharije Ostojić, commander of operations in Herzegovina, was situated. On 9 March, Mihailović informed Colonel Bajo Stanišić:
"I manage the whole operation through Branko [Zaharije Ostojić]. No action is ordered without my approval. Branko is keeping me informed of even the smallest details. All his proposals are reviewed, studied, approved or corrected. In this we follow these principles: we work for ourselves alone and for no one else; we are concerned only with the interests of the Serbs and of future Yugoslavia; for the achievement of our objectives we use one enemy against another, precisely as do all our enemies with exception, and achieve our objectives with the least sacrifice, but are prepared even for the greatest sacrifices if this is necessary in the general interest, and to safeguard the people from all unnecessary exposure to danger in their homes."
By the end of March, the Germans claimed to had killed about 11,915 Partisans, executed 616, and captured 2,506. Despite these heavy losses and a tactical victory for the Axis powers, the partisan formations secured their command and the hospital, and were able to continue operations. In fact, once they reached the eastern parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Partisans had to face only the Chetniks, and in turn almost entirely incapacitated them in the area west of the Drina river.
The next major operation in Yugoslavia was Operation Schwarz.
In popular culture
Alistair MacLean's 1968 thriller novel Force 10 From Navarone, subsequently filmed, also brings forth the fight of outnumbered Partisans against Germans and Chetniks, and the blowing up of the Neretva bridge. But the actual historical events are not in play, and the story is entirely fictional.
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