Operation Rösselsprung (1944)
Operation Rösselsprung (Knight's move) was a combined airborne and ground assault by the German XV Mountain Corps and their allies on the Supreme Headquarters of the Yugoslav Partisans located at the town of Drvar in western Independent State of Croatia (of which modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina was a part) during World War II. The operation was launched on 25 May 1944, and was aimed at capturing or killing Marshal Josip Broz Tito and destroying the headquarters, support facilities and co-located Allied military missions. It is associated with the Seventh Enemy Offensive (Serbo-Croatian: Sedma neprijateljska ofenziva) in Yugoslav history. The airborne assault itself is also known as the Raid on Drvar (Desant na Drvar).
Operation Rösselsprung was a coup de main operation involving direct action by a parachute and glider-borne assault force based on 500th SS Parachute Battalion and their link-up with ground forces of the XV Mountain Corps converging on Drvar. The airborne assault was preceded by heavy bombing of the town by the Luftwaffe. The ground forces included Home Guard forces of the Independent State of Croatia.
The operation was a failure, as Tito, his principal headquarters staff and the allied military personnel escaped, despite their presence in Drvar at the time of the airborne assault. The operation failed due to a number of factors, including Partisan resistance in the town itself and along the approaches to Drvar. The failure of the various German intelligence agencies to share the limited intelligence available on Tito's exact location also contributed to the unsuccessful outcome for the Germans, and this failure to share intelligence was compounded by a lack of contingency planning by the commander of the German airborne force.
- 1 Background
- 2 Partisan dispositions around Drvar
- 3 German Intelligence
- 4 Partisan Intelligence
- 5 Planning
- 6 Operation
- 7 Aftermath
- 8 In film
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
- 11 Further reading
The Axis Case White and Case Black offensives of the first six months of 1943 caused significant setbacks for the Partisans; however, in September Tito took advantage of the capitulation of Italy and managed to increase the territory under his control and double his forces in size to around 200,000 men, arming them with captured Italian weapons. In late November, he held a National Congress at Jajce in the liberated area of northwestern Yugoslavia and designated himself Marshal and Prime Minister. He established his headquarters nearby at Drvar in the Dinaric Alps and temporarily quit his successful tactic of being constantly on the move. Generalfeldmarschall (Field Marshal) Maximilian von Weichs, the Wehrmacht Commander-in-chief Southeast Europe admitted a few weeks later that: "Tito is our most dangerous enemy."
Supreme Partisan Headquarters was located in the town of Drvar, Bosnia, within the territory of the German puppet state the Independent State of Croatia (which included today's Bosnia and Herzegovina). Tito's personal headquarters was initially located in a cave about one kilometre north of the centre of Drvar. The Unac River ran along the base of the ridge line in which the cave was located, creating an obstacle to movement between the town and the cave, and a rail line ran along the ridge line behind the cave. In addition to Partisan headquarters, various Partisan and Communist Party of Yugoslavia support, training and youth organisations were also based in and around Drvar at the time, along with the Tito Escort Battalion which was responsible for his personal safety. In villages close around Drvar were the British and Soviet military missions to the Partisans, and some United States military officers on various missions. The British mission was headed by Brigadier Fitzroy Maclean, who was in London at the time of the raid, and included Major Randolph Churchill, son of Winston Churchill. At the time of Operation Rösselsprung, the British mission was led by its second-in-command, Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Street.
Partisan dispositions around Drvar
Apart from Partisan headquarters and related organisations close in and around Drvar, there were between 12,000 and 16,000 Partisans in the area of operations that would be subject to the ground assault by XV Mountain Corps. In the immediate vicinity of Drvar was the Partisan 1st Proletarian Corps commanded by Koča Popović, which consisted of the elite 1st Proletarian and 6th Proletarian Divisions, with the Corps headquarters located in the village of Mokronoge, six kilometres east of Drvar. The nearest large Partisan formation to Drvar was the 3rd Proletarian Brigade of the 1st Proletarian Division based in the village of Kamenica five kilometres south of Drvar.
In the wider area of operations were the Partisan 5th Corps commanded by Slavko Rodić and 8th Corps commanded by Vlado Ćetković. The 5th Corps was deployed to the northeast and northwest of Drvar with its headquarters south of the Mrkonjić Grad-Klujc road, and the 8th Corps was positioned to the south east with its headquarters in the mountains between the Glamoč and Livno valleys. Importantly, the 4th Division of the 5th Corps was deployed between Bihać and Bosanski Petrovac and the 9th Division of the 8th Corps was deployed between Livno and Bosansko Grahovo.
Three separate organisations were involved in attempting to determine the location of Tito's headquarters and the disposition of Partisan forces in Drvar. These were the intelligence and special clandestine operations sections of the Abwehr, and the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) (the intelligence branch of the SS).
The first of these was the Benesch Special Unit of Section II of the Abwehr, some members of which had been involved in identifying Tito's presence in the town of Jajce prior to the German offensive to retake the town. The Benesch Special Unit was part of the Brandenburg Division, and was staffed by ethnic Germans who spoke local languages. The unit had many contacts with both the Chetniks and Ustaše militia, and had been tracking Tito since October 1943. Leutnant (Lieutenant) Kirchner of that unit had been responsible for locating Tito prior to the re-capture of Jajce, and he established a patrol base near Bosansko Grahovo. He got very close to the Drvar cave, and located the Allied military missions, but despite German radio intercepts confirming that Drvar was the site of Tito's headquarters, Kirchner was unable to pinpoint the cave as the location of the headquarters. Kirchner was attached to 500th SS Parachute Battalion for the operation.
The second intelligence organisation was FAT (Front Reconnaissance Troop) 216 of Section I of the Abwehr. FAT216, commanded by Leutnant Zavadil, was also attached to 500th SS Parachute Battalion, but did not contribute much to the intelligence used to plan the raid.
On Hitler's orders, SS-Sturmbannführer (Major) Otto Skorzeny, who had commanded the operation to rescue Mussolini, was independently involved in intelligence gathering in the lead-up to the raid. Skorzeny acted on behalf of the SD, and after obtaining information from a Partisan deserter that pinpointed Tito's headquarters at the cave, he proposed a plan to infiltrate Drvar with a small group of soldiers to assassinate Tito. Skorzeny soon discovered that the plan to eliminate Tito had been compromised, and had nothing further to do with the planned operation. It appears that he did not pass on the useful intelligence he had gathered to SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Kurt Rybka, the commander of 500th SS Parachute Battalion, who was responsible for planning the critical airborne aspects of the operation.
Largely due to interservice rivalry and competition, the three organisations did not share the intelligence they gathered, which had a significant effect on the tactical planning and execution of the operation.
The Partisans had their own highly effective intelligence network. They had been aware of the presence of the 500th SS Parachute Battalion in Yugoslavia for some time, and had been aware of the general threat of an airborne assault for over six months. They may have become aware of the isolation of the 500th SS Parachute Battalion for over a month before the operation, or the concentration of transport aircraft and gliders at Zagreb and Banja Luka. One of the reasons Skorzeny believed the operation had been compromised was the recapture by the Partisans of a deserter he had interrogated. As a result of these early indicators of an attack, Tito's main headquarters had been relocated to another cave near the village of Bastasi, seven kilometres west of Drvar. Tito then used the Drvar cave during the day, but returned to the Bastasi cave at night. In addition to this precaution, elements of the 6th Proletarian Division were moved closer to Drvar.
On 23 May 1944, a single German Fieseler Fi 156 reconnaissance aircraft flew a number of parallel runs up and down the Una valley over Drvar at 2,000 feet (610 m); activity consistent with conducting aerial photography. The aircraft paid particular attention to the villages of Prinavor and Trninić Brijeg where the British military mission and American military personnel were located. This was observed by Lieutenant Colonel Street, the acting commander of the British military mission, who assumed it was spotting for an bombing raid and advised both Tito and the Americans. Both Allied missions moved their locations as a result.
Despite the intelligence received and observations made by the British, the Partisans appear to have been quite complacent about the threat, with Tito's chief of staff, Arso Jovanović swearing that "a German attack was impossible". The most obvious indicator that Tito was unaware of the imminent attack is that he remained at the Drvar cave overnight on the evening of 24 May 1944, following his birthday celebrations, instead of returning to Bastasi.
Through Ultra intercepts of German signal traffic, the British had become aware that the Germans were planning an operation codenamed "Rösselsprung" but the information available did not include where the operation would occur or what its objectives might be.
Following intelligence collection, higher level planning for the operation began on 6 May 1944, following the issue of orders by von Weichs. Adolf Hitler gave his approval to von Weichs' final plans on 21 May. The order to XV Mountain Corps was issued by Generaloberst (General) Lothar Rendulic, the commander of 2nd Panzer Army on the same day, leaving only three days for preparation. General der Infanterie (Lieutenant General) Ernst von Leyser, commander of XV Mountain Corps headquartered at Knin was responsible for the conduct of the operation. The ground forces of von Leyser's XV Mountain Corps were significantly reinforced from Army Group F, 2nd Panzer Army and V SS Mountain Corps reserves. These reinforcements included two panzer companies, the reconnaissance battalions of the 1st Mountain Division (the 54th Mountain Reconnaissance Battalion) and 369th (Croatian) Infantry Division, and most of 7th SS Volunteer Mountain Division Prinz Eugen.
In outline, the XV Mountain Corps plan was for a heavy aerial bombardment of Partisan positions in and around Drvar by Luftwaffe aircraft, followed by a parachute and glider assault by 500th SS Parachute Battalion who had the task of capturing or killing Tito and destroying his headquarters. The assault also included tasks to capture or destroy the Allied military missions to the Partisans. On the same day, ground elements of XV Mountain Corps were to converge on Drvar to link up with 500th SS Parachute Battalion. A small reconnaissance aircraft was tasked to fly into Drvar after its capture to retrieve Tito or his body.
500th SS Parachute Battalion
Rybka received an outline of the operation on 20 May, and more details the following day. He realised that the gliders and transport aircraft would be insufficient for the whole of 500th SS Parachute Battalion to be delivered to Drvar in one lift, so he came up with a plan involving two waves, with a first wave of 654 troops conducting the assault at 7am and a second wave of 220 troops about five hours later. Critically, the intelligence he was given regarding the suspected location of Tito's headquarters (codenamed "Citadel") was that it was in or near a cemetery on high ground southwest of the centre of Drvar, nearly two kilometres from Tito's actual headquarters cave. This would have far-reaching effects on the planning and execution of the assault.
Rybka's plan for the first wave called for the insertion of 314 parachute troops in three groups (Red, Green and Blue) to secure the town, and another 354 troops in six glider-borne assault groups to carry out specific tasks. The glider-borne group tasks were:
- Panther Group (110 soldiers) – capture "Citadel" and destroy Tito's headquarters – to land at the cemetery
- Greifer (Attacker) Group (40 soldiers) – destroy the British military mission in the village of Prnjavor two kilometres south of Drvar on the road to Bosansko Grahovo
- Stürmer (Stormer) Group (50 soldiers) – destroy the Soviet military mission between the centre of Drvar and the Unac river
- Brecher (Breaker) Group (50 soldiers) – destroy the American military mission in the village of Trninić Brijeg two kilometres south of the centre of Drvar
- Draufgänger (Daredevil) Group (70 soldiers including members of the Brandenburg Division, the Abwehr officer Lieutenant Zavadil and some Chetniks) – capture the crossroads (codenamed "Western Cross") immediately to the west of Drvar including a nearby suspected communications facility
- Beißer (Biter) Group (20 soldiers) – seize an outpost radio station to the south of Prnjavor then assist the Greifer Group
The second wave of 220 troops based on the training company of 500th SS Parachute Battalion were to insert by parachute at midday.
Rybka does not appear to have planned for any significant contingencies such as errors in the intelligence on the location of Tito's headquarters. His only contingency plan was that he would fire a red signal flare to order all available forces to converge on his position for subsequent tasks.
On 22 May 1944, 500th SS Parachute Battalion were transported to airfields at Nagy-Betskerek, Zagreb and Banja Luka, dressed in Wehrmacht uniforms for security reasons. However, the troops were not briefed on the operation until a few hours before it was launched. They linked up with their transport aircraft, including the ten-man gliders that would deliver the glider-borne troops onto their objectives. By 24 May, all preparations for the airborne assault were complete.
The plan for the ground forces of von Leyser's XV Mountain Corps was for nine separate but coordinated thrusts toward the Drvar-Bosanski Petrovac area from all directions. The groupings and tasks were:
- A regimental group of the 373rd (Croatian) Infantry Division (Croatian legionnaires) referred to as Battle Group Willam was to advance east at 5am from the village of Srb toward Drvar. Battle Group Willam had the primary responsibility for relieving then taking command of 500th SS Parachute Battalion in Drvar on 25 May, and was then to attack in the direction of Bosanski Petrovac.
- 92nd Motorised Regiment, with 54th Reconnaissance Battalion and a regimental group of the 2nd Croatian Light Infantry Brigade was to advance southeast from Bihać at 5am through the village of Vrtoče to capture Bosanski Petrovac as quickly as possible, destroy the Partisans in that location, and occupy the Partisan airfield and supply installations. After capturing Bosanski Petrovac, elements were to be sent toward Drvar to prevent the withdrawal of Partisans along that road and to link up with 500th SS Parachute Battalion in Drvar.
- A battalion group of the 373rd (Croatian) Infantry Division was to set out at 5am from Lapac and drive east through Kulen Vakuf to capture the crossroads at Vrtoče. If necessary, they were then to advance northwest toward Bihać to open the road.
- A regimental group of 7th SS Mountain Division Prinz Eugen with an additional panzer grenadier assault battalion was to advance west from the area of Mrkonjić Grad, break through Partisan resistance east of the Sana and then advance on a wide front to block escape routes east out of Drvar.
- A second regimental group of the 7th SS Division was to advance from Jajce along the rail line and roads through Savici to reach their objective, the area around Mliniste power station.
- Battle Group Sturmbattalion with 202nd Panzer Company was to advance from Banja Luka toward Ključ to seize the crossing point across the Sana utilised by the Partisans.
- 105th SS Reconnaissance Battalion with an additional panzer company was to advance from Livno and occupy any Partisan supply installations in the Livno Valley, and prevent any Partisan withdrawal to the south of Drvar by attacking through Bosanski Grahovo toward Drvar.
- The 369th Reconnaissance Battalion of the 369th (Croatian) Infantry Division (Croatian legionnaires), under the command of the 105th SS Reconnaissance Battalion, were to advance from Livno up the Glamoč Valley against Partisan forces withdrawing from Drvar to the southeast.
- The 1st Regiment of the Brandenburg Division, with mixed irregular elements, were to advance from Knin toward Bosanski Grahovo and conduct special operations against Partisans in the Prekaja-Drvar area.
The offensive began at 5am with the advance of ground forces from their assembly areas surrounding the areas of operations. About 6.35am, five squadrons of Luftwaffe bombers, including Junkers Ju 87 dive bombers, began bombing targets within Drvar and Bosanski Petrovac. A total of 440 sorties were flown on 25 May 1944.
Airborne assault and initial response
500th SS Parachute Battalion began to parachute and glide onto their objectives at 7am, with most parachutists and glider pilots able to land relatively close to their targets despite the smoke and dust from the bombing. Some gliders landed significantly off course, including one that landed in front of the Bastasi cave seven kilometres to the west of Drvar, and several that landed in Vrtoče. The occupants of the glider that landed in Bastasi were immediately killed by members of Tito's escort battalion guarding the cave, and the occupants of the gliders at Vrtoče had to fight their way toward Drvar. After landing, the first wave of the 500th SS Parachute Battalion quickly gained control of Drvar.
Panther Group supported by Red Group overcame minimal resistance at the cemetery and Captain Rybka established his headquarters behind the cemetery walls. However, there was no sign of Tito or his headquarters. Greifer Group and Brecher Group were also unsuccessful as the British and American groups had moved following the aerial reconnaissance on 23 May. Parts of Stürmer Group landed their gliders in a field immediately south of the Drvar cave and came under fire from members of Tito's escort battalion on the high ground in the area of the cave. The Draufgänger Group landed their gliders at the "Western Cross", then assaulted a building they believed was the Partisan communications centre. However, the building was actually the office of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia Central Committee, who resisted fanatically until the building was levelled using satchel charges. Both Blue Group and Green Group, consisting of parachute troops that landed in the eastern part of Drvar where most of the population lived, were also engaged in heavy fighting. The Young Communist League of Yugoslavia had just finished a conference in Drvar, and many of the delegates were still staying in the town. Many youths took up whatever arms they could obtain and commenced fighting the parachutists who were attempting to establish a cordon on the eastern side of the town.
Two kilometres further east on the road to Mokronoge was a Partisan officer training school with about 130 students. On hearing the fighting from the direction of Drvar, the students marched west initially armed with pistols and a few rifles. They split into two groups, a smaller group which crossed the Unac and advanced west along the railway line on the ridge leading toward Tito's cave, and a larger group which collected arms and ammunition from several stray canisters of German equipment dropped by parachute. The larger group of students attacked Green and Blue Groups from the east around 8am, suffering severe casualties but maintained continuous pressure on the German flank. About 9am, the Germans had largely secured Drvar, and the available troops went from house to house, armed with photographs of Tito, brutally questioning the civilians they could find. Soon after this commenced, Rybka realised that Partisan resistance was concentrated to the north in the vicinity of the cave. He therefore fired the red signal flare to rally his troops for an assault in that direction.
Assault on Tito's cave and the Partisan counterattack
About 10.30am, Rybka launched a frontal attack across the Unac supported by at least one MG42 machine gun firing into the mouth of the cave. The Germans reached the base of the hill, fifty metres from the cave, but suffered severe casualties in the assault. They were also running low on water. Prior to this attack, Tito and around 20 staff had taken refuge in the cave.
While Rybka was assembling his troops for this attack, surrounding Partisan forces were rushed toward Drvar. Three battalions of the 3rd Proletarian Brigade of the 1st Proletarian Division approached from the southeast. One battalion attacked the German position at the cemetery while the other two swung around to strike the Germans from the west.
Tito makes his escape
At about 11.15am, after Rybka's first attack had been defeated, Tito and the small group gathered with him escaped from the cave. There was a platform at the mouth of the cave, and they climbed down a rope through a trapdoor in the platform, although the hysteria displayed by Tito's mistress Davorjanka Paunović (codenamed "Zdenka") and his dog "Tiger" caused some delays. The party split up and following a creek leading to the Unac, the small groups climbed the heights to the east and withdrew toward the village of Potoci.
Second German attack and withdrawal
About midday, the second wave of parachute troops were dropped in two groups to the west of the cemetery. The drop zone was within fields of fire of the Partisans to the west of Drvar, and they suffered many casualties during the drop. Collecting the remainder, Rybka mounted a second attack, but the pressure on his flanks was too heavy, and the assault again failed. Fighting continued throughout the afternoon with both sides taking heavy casualties.
In the late afternoon, Rybka ordered a withdrawal of all his forces to the area of the cemetery and formed a defensive perimeter. During the withdrawal, at least one group of troops was cutoff and killed. About 6pm, Rybka was wounded by a grenade blast and was later evacuated with other casualties in the light aircraft intended to carry away Tito after his capture. By 9.30pm, the Germans had consolidated their position in the cemetery, although they were now completely surrounded by the Partisans. During the night the 3rd Proletarian Brigade attacked the cemetery, with elements of the 9th Dalmatia Division reinforcing the assault. At 3.30am on 26 May, the final Partisan attack was launched against the cemetery, breaching the walls in several places, but the paratroopers held on.
Ground force assault and Partisan withdrawal
Throughout 25 May, the ground forces of XV Mountain Corps had not been able to advance as quickly as expected. There had been unexpected resistance from the Partisan 1st, 5th and 8th Corps along their axes of advance, and there was very poor communication between the various elements which resulted in lack of coordination of their movements. They were also subjected to several Allied air attacks.
Escorted by elements of the 3rd Krajina Brigade, Tito made his way to Potoci, where he was met by a battalion of the 1st Proletarian Brigade. At Potoci they were met by the allied mission staff and groups of Partisans. Fortunately the British mission signals officer had brought the only surviving radio. After the final night attack had failed to overrun the Germans in Drvar, and realising that the ground forces would eventually fight their way to the town and relieve the paratroopers, Tito ordered the withdrawal of Partisan forces from the town. About 5am on 26 May, a Luftwaffe fighter-bomber formation engaged the withdrawing Partisan troops. After German troops were observed in the area of Potoci, Tito, his staff and his escort continued toward Kupres, travelling on foot and by horseback, as well as on the wagons of a narrow-gauge logging railway. During this trek, one of the members of the Soviet mission was wounded by shellfire.
Relief of the paratroopers
About 7am on 26 May, the 500th SS Parachute Battalion established radio contact with reconnaissance elements of Battle Group Willam, but it was not until 12.45pm that the 92nd Motorised Grenadier Regiment reached Drvar and relieved the paratroopers.
During their escape, the British mission were able to make contact with their headquarters using the surviving radio. This contact was maintained, and had two major results. The first of these was an air offensive against the German formations taking part in Operation Rösselsprung and also against the Luftwaffe in the skies over Yugoslavia. This offensive included over one thousand sorties by the newly formed Balkan Air Force. The second diversion was a costly attack by a combined Partisan, British and US force on the German-held Dalmatian island of Brač. The assault was mounted from the British-held island of Vis further out in the Adriatic Sea. It was conducted on the night of 1/2 June and fighting continued late into 3 June 1944, and resulted in the reinforcement of the island by a further 1900 German troops.
After six days evading the Germans, the leader of the Soviet mission, Lieutenant General Nikolai Vasilevich Korneev, who had lost a leg in the Battle of Stalingrad, suggested an air evacuation of Tito and the Soviet mission and this was expanded by Street to include the whole party. After three days deliberation, Tito agreed on 3 June and Street arranged the evacuation the same night from a RAF–operated airfield near the town of Kupres. Seven Douglas C-47 Skytrain aircraft, one with a Soviet crew and the remainder with US crew carried Tito and his party, the Allied missions and 118 wounded Partisans to Bari in Italy.
Although Tito's headquarters, along with several other Partisan organisations, was temporarily disrupted and key staff were lost during the operation, all Partisan organisations were quickly re-located and resumed operation. Drvar reverted to Partisan control within a few weeks of the operation.
500th SS Parachute Battalion was decimated during Operation Rösselsprung, suffering 576 killed and 48 wounded. Only 200 soldiers of the battalion were fit to fight on the morning of 26 May. It continued throughout the rest of the war as the only SS parachute unit, although its name was later changed to 600th SS Parachute Battalion. Operation Rösselsprung was its only combat parachute operation.
According to a German report, the ground troops of XV Mountain Corps suffered 213 killed, 881 wounded, and 51 missing during Operation Rösselsprung. The same report claimed that 6,000 Partisans were killed. According to the commander of the 7th SS Division, SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS (Brigadier) Otto Kumm, Partisan losses included 1,916 confirmed and another 1,400 estimated killed, and 161 taken prisoner. Kumm also claimed that six Allied aircraft were shot down during the operation.
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