369th Croatian Reinforced Infantry Regiment (Wehrmacht)
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|369th Reinforced Infantry Regiment
Verstärktes Kroatisches Infanterie-Regiment 369
369. pojačana pješačka pukovnija
Insignia worn by members of the regiment on the right side of the helmet and right upper sleeve of the tunic
|Active||16 July 1941–January 1943|
|Motto(s)||Što Bog da i sreća junačka!
("What God gives and luck of heroes")
|Decorations||Medal of Poglavnik Ante Pavelić for Bravery in gold|
The 369th Reinforced Infantry Regiment (German: Verstärktes Kroatisches Infanterie-Regiment 369, Croatian: 369. pojačana pješačka pukovnija) was a unit of the German Wehrmacht that fought on the Eastern Front in World War II. The regiment was raised from volunteers drawn from Croatia and was commonly referred to as the Croatian Legion (Hrvatska Legija).
On 10 April 1941, the Independent State of Croatia (NDH, Croatian: Nezavisna Država Hrvatska) was created as a puppet state aligned to the occupying Germans. The Ustaše fascist government of the NDH asked Germany for military assistance as they feared Italian territorial ambitions after ceding much of the coastal area of Dalmatia to Italy in treaties signed on 18 May 1941. By 25 June 1941, Poglavnik Ante Pavelić, the leader of the NDH, had sent an envoy to Berlin to offer volunteers to serve on the Eastern Front. By 2 July, Hitler had accepted the offer, and military units were formed under the supervision of two German army officers. The NDH viewed this as a means of strengthening its ties with Germany, potentially an ally in resisting further territorial losses to Italy.
Although the unit was considered by the NDH to be a part of the Croatian Home Guard and the NDH authorities retained responsibility for providing replacements, the members of the regiment swore an oath to Adolf Hitler. Whilst not an official part of the Wehrmacht, the regiment was under German military jurisdiction and direct German command throughout its existence, serving as part of the 100th Light Infantry Division. All soldiers wore Wehrmacht uniforms with a Croatian checkerboard patch incorporating the word Hrvatska (Croatia) on the upper right sleeve and right side of the helmet.
Initially, two battalions were raised and formed into a regiment at Varazdin. This was followed by the raising of a third battalion at Sarajevo. Only Croats, Ukrainians or White Russians were accepted as volunteers, and about one third of those accepted were Bosnian Muslims. A training battalion was formed for the regiment in Stockerau, Austria. The regiment was then transported to Dollersheim, Austria for training. With an effective strength of 5000, the regiment consisted of three infantry battalions, a machine-gun company, an anti-tank company, three batteries of field artillery, headquarters staff and a supply company.
On 21 August 1941, the regiment was transported to Romania. From there, it spent several weeks marching on foot to the front line. On 10 October, the regiment linked up on the line of the Dnieper River with the 100th Light Infantry Division, which was then part of the 17th Army, Army Group South.
Military action on Eastern Front
In order to accustom the regiment to the conditions and divisional procedures, as well as to further progress their training, the units of the regiment were initially divided up among other regiments of the division immediately after their arrival on the front line near Kharkov. The divisional diary recorded that the main goal for units of the regiment during this period was to improve discipline across various areas. To improve poor discipline, on 30 September 1941, Colonel Ivan Markulj sent 43 officers and NCOs as well as 144 soldiers back to the NDH due to illness and/or for disciplinary reasons.
After the Red Army counterattacked and re-took Rostov in November 1941, the 100th Light Infantry Division was marched south to the front line on the Mius River on 22 November. Temperatures dropped as low as -18C and the regiment had no winter clothing. The units of the regiment, still divided among the other regiments of the division, dug in alongside the Slovak Mobile Brigade and SS-Division Wiking. In mid-January 1942, the 100th Light Infantry Division was deployed to the Stalino area to assist in fighting off a Soviet cavalry corps that had broken through the front line. Through some heavy fighting along the line of the Samara River, the division held on through the winter.
Starting in early 1942, soldiers of the unit were able to send messages back to the Independent State of Croatia. Messages for family members and friends were written on any paper the troops could find, such as cigarette papers or pages torn from notebooks. Communications from the Regiment's soldiers were subsequently broadcast on Radio Zagreb (later known as Hrvatski Krugoval), alongside propaganda announcements that praised the Croatian authorities and did not mention the soldiers' fate — most often death or capture.
The commander of the 100th Light Infantry Division, Generalleutnant Werner Sanne commended the regiment's successes over the winter, especially the actions of Lieutenant Colonel Marko Mesić's artillery battalion on 21–22 February 1942. On 23 February 1942, Sanne awarded Mesić the Iron Cross.
During April 1942 four soldiers of the regiment were sentenced to death and shot while many others were sentenced to imprisonment of between 2–10 years.
From mid-May 1942 the regiment was re-united under Colonel Markulj, after which the 100th Light Infantry Division joined in the final phases of the pincer attack on the Red Army bridgehead at Kharkov. In June, the division supported the drive of the 1st Panzer Army along the Don River, through Voronezh to Kalach where the regiment incurred heavy casualties trying to cross the river in the face of serious resistance.
After the Second Battle of Kharkov, Colonel Markulj, Lieutenant Eduard Bakarec and six other officers of the regiment were awarded the Iron Cross First Class. A report dated 21 June 1942 states that Legion contained 113 officers, 7 military clerks, 625 NCOs, and 4317 soldiers, as well as 2902 horses.
After participating in mopping-up operations in along the Don, the division rested briefly in September, and the regiment was re-organised after receiving some reinforcements.
At 'Proljet Kultura,' the regiment suffered 53 dead and 186 wounded in desperate hand-to-hand combat during the German attack on 27 July and subsequent overwhelming Soviet counterattack on 28 July. The worst recorded casualties before Stalingrad were 171 dead suffered in combat in various villages along the Samara River. Lt. Tomljenović, Lt. Tomislav Anić and Lt. Ivan Malički were killed in action during this period.
On 24 September 1942, during a visit to the 6th Army headquarters, Pavelić decorated and promoted some soldiers of the regiment. Two days later the 100th Light Infantry Division was committed to the Battle of Stalingrad.
The number of legionnaires from that date was fast reducing to a reported total of 1,403 altogether by 21 October 1942. New fresh forces from Croatia were not added except for returns of sick and wounded and a few officers and staff. A total of 22 (15%) officers were killed, 38 (26%) wounded and 66 (45%) returned to Croatia from the original 147 Legion officers in total before fall. Only 20 officers, including Mesic, remained in Stalingrad and one is treated as MIA.
Lt. Bakarec, who was the first Legion soldier ever to receive the Iron Cross 2nd class, was later wounded at Stalingrad and evacuated to Croatia, where he was killed on 5 July 1944. Col. and later NDH general Markulj was tried and executed in Belgrade in September 1945. Markulj was court-martialled and executed after his capture by the Allies, who extradited him to the Yugoslav army in summer 1945.
Battle of Stalingrad
The 100th Light Infantry Division, including the 369th Croatian Reinforced Infantry Regiment, was involved in the heavy fighting for the "Red October" factory and for Mamayev Hill during the Battle of Stalingrad. By November 1942 the fighting in their sector had become a locked stalemate with little progress. By December 1942 the regiment had seen such intense combat that it was at 1/3 strength. Despite the harsh conditions, the German high command credited the regiment with maintaining 'proper and military bearing'.
Sergeant Dragutin Podobnik was awarded Iron Cross Second and First Class as well as many Croat decorations including one personally from Pavelic in September 1942 for his actions at Stalingrad. Pavicic ordered a strategic building to be captured in the Red October factory, however the armored vehicle support was delayed. Podobnik and his 18 men surprised the Soviets and captured the building without loss, then handed it over to units from the German 54th Army Group. Sergeant Podobnik was later wounded and evacuated from Stalingrad and was killed in spring 1945 whilst serving in Pavelic's elite unit.
Several distinctions and citations are noted in war diaries and official military documents. There are several citations for bravery, valor, and leadership under fire for men of all ranks, including Lieutenant Rudolf Baričević. In addition, the regimental doctors received distinction for their actions and success in saving lives. One notable citation is that of Captain Madraš, who was wounded and was to be flown out of Stalingrad, but refused and instead stayed and fought with his men.
Despite the honorable distinctions, there were of course acts of insubordination, dereliction of duty, and cowardly behaviour also cited in reports. This was common for the demoralized and surrounded German and German-allied troops at Stalingrad, as the conditions were extremely harsh on the soldiers. Major Tomislav Brajkovic is noted to have desperately attempted to keep morale and discipline high. However, due to major disagreements with other officers, including his commanding officer, he was transferred out of the regiment.
By 14 January the regiment's section of the front line had reduced to 200 m held by some 90 remaining troops, all suffering from extreme cold, hunger, fatigue and lack of ammunition. Colonel Viktor Pavicic reportedly left a resignation letter and disappeared from the theater for good. He recommended Colonel Mesić to General Sanne to be his successor. General Sanne officially reported that Pavicic was a deserter, but Sgt. Erwin Juric claimed that Pavicic had received written orders signed by Sanne to leave Stalingrad by air on 15 January. During its last days at Stalingrad, the Legion was desperately retraining about 700 inexperienced artillery and support soldiers to infantry combat duty. The last official report from 21 January 1943 counted 443 infantry and 444 artillery soldiers in Stalingrad. Just before the surrender of the 6th Army at the end of January, about 1,000 wounded were flown out, and of the remaining men in the regiment, nearly 900 became prisoners of war.
Among the last Wehrmacht soldiers to leave Stalingrad by air were a group of 18 wounded and sick Croat legionnaires, including Lt. Barićević, who were flown out by Luftwaffe pilots and were landed on the last serviceable German airfield at Staljingradskaja near the 369th's artillery section positions on the night of 22 to 23 January 1943. The regiment's war diary and other documents were also saved in this evacuation. The previous night, several Luftwaffe planes had crashed attempting to take off and land perilously close to fast-advancing Soviet forces, thus fewer planes flew in for rescue missions. During the day of 23 January Stalingradskaja airfield fell into Soviet hands.
Elements of the regiment fought as long as they could but ultimately surrendered to the Soviet General Vasiljev on 29 or 30 January 1943. In the three months between 21 October 1942 and 21 January 1943 they had lost 540 of 983 troops fighting for the Red October factory.
On 31 January 1943 General Paulus announced the surrender of the German 6th Army. On 2 February the Legion became Soviet prisoners of war including all officers, approximately 100, mostly wounded, sick, and frostbitten combat soldiers, as well as some 600 other legionaries from artillery and support units. In the two weeks leading up to the capitulation the 369th Regiment had lost 175 soldiers.
The Legion assembled at Beketovka on river Volga where they were joined by some 80,000 mainly German as well as Italian, Romanian and Hungarian POWs. They were sent on a forced march to Moscow where they were joined by Croatian legionnaires from the Light Transport Brigade who had been attached to Italian forces on the Eastern Front. From there, they were sent to work camps in Siberia. Many died on the march due to starvation, hypothermia or disease.
More than 1000 legionnaires were evacuated from the Soviet Union and later Stalingrad by various means and for various reasons. They were awarded the Croatian Legion 1941 Linden Leaf for their service and formed the core of a new unit, the 369th (Croatian) Infantry Division (Wehrmacht).
In late October 1944, a "Yugoslav Legion" numbering about 3000 men operated as part of the Red Army around Čačak during the Belgrade Offensive. This unit was formed in early 1944 partly from former members of the 369th (Croatian) Reinforced Infantry Regiment, and was commanded by the former Ustaše Lieutenant Colonel Marko Mesić assisted by Captain Milutin Perišić, a Serb. Both officers were praised by Soviet general Sergey Biryuzov.
In the Summer of 1943 one hundred legionaries and 6 officers including Marko Mesic were transferred to Suzdalj and later to Krasnogorsk near Moscow, where they met with most of the surviving Croat soldiers. At Krasnogorsk, the Soviets formed a new unit that utilized Royal Yugoslav uniforms (At the time, Soviets did not recognize Tito's forces as a sovereign state). During early Soviet imprisonment, Col. Mesić may have been forced to appear in Soviet propaganda wearing a Royal Yugoslav Army uniform and Tito's flag to save the lives of his remaining men. Upon news of this, the Ministry of the Armed Forces removed him from the Croatian Armed Forces and rescinded his awards.
Col. Mesić was given command by the Soviets of this newly formed First Yugoslav Volunteer Brigade, assembled from prisoners of war of Yugoslavian origin as well as volunteers living in Russia at the time. It is quite likely that most former Croatian soldiers of the 369. Regiment chose Communist Partisan service to avoid almost certain death in Soviet prisoner-of-war camps. During the first few months in captivity, Legionnaire numbers were reduced from some 700 to around 400 odd survivors or a 40% loss of life in under twelve months. The new Yugoslav partisan brigade, now wearing old Royal Yugoslav Army uniforms, was commanded by experienced former 369th Regiment Croat Legion officers like Lt.Col. Egon Zitnik, the former commander of the Light Transport Unit; Major Marijan Prislin, the former second in command of the 369. Regiment's artillery section; and Major Marijan Tulicic, the former artillery unit commander. New unit military training was very fast as most men were experienced soldiers. As late as March 1944 they were joined by 200 more former 369th legionaries led by former 369th Stalingrad Doctor Bogoljub Modrijan as well as Lt. Vlahov, Lt. Tahtamišimov, Lt.Draženović and Lt. Ivan Vadlja, who was wounded at Stalingrad but missed the last flight out. They were transported to Yugoslavia in late 1944 under direct orders from Tito, where they were sacrificed in combat against superior German forces, suffering very high casualties. The few remaining survivors were suspected and most were later convicted of being Soviet infiltrators by the partisans as well as Croat NDH authorities.
- Colonel Ivan Markulj
- Lieutenant-Colonel Ivan Babić
- Colonel Viktor Pavičić
- Lieutenant-Colonel Marko Mesić
- Tomasevich (1975), p. 395
- Tomasevich (2001), p. 419
- Tomasevich (2001), p. 266
- Muller (2012), p. 97
- Muller (2012), p. 98
- Davis (2012), p. 18
- Muller (2012), pp. 97-98
- Milan Pojić (2007). Hrvatska pukovnija 369. na Istočnom bojištu 1941. - 1943 (in Croatian). Hrvatski državni arhiv. p. 366. ISBN 978-953-6005-88-8. Retrieved 5 July 2012.
- Muller (2012), p. 99
- Virtualni radio - museum. "Povijest radija u Hrvatskoj". Virtualni radio - museum (in Croatian and English). Virtualni radio - museum. Retrieved 5 July 2012.
- Muller (2012), p. 100
- Muller (2012), p. 101
- Davis, Brian (2012). Flags of the Third Reich (2): Waffen-SS. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-78096-536-2.
- Muller, Rolf-Dieter (2012). The Unknown Eastern Front: The Wehrmacht and Hitler's Foreign Soldiers. New York: I.B. Tauris. ISBN 1-78076-072-8.
- Tomasevich, Jozo (1975). War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941-1945: The Chetniks. 1. San Francisco: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-0857-6.
- Tomasevich, Jozo (2001). War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941-1945: Occupation and Collaboration. 2. San Francisco: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-3615-4.
- Heroji za pogrešnu stvar: Bačeni na Staljingrad, Jutarnji list, 24. veljače 2008.
- Milan Pojić Hrvatska pukovnija 369. na Istočnom bojištu 1941. - 1943.
- Welz H. Verratene Grenadiere. — Berlin, Deutscher Militärverlag, 1965
- Units location sketch from Stalingrad.
- ullstein bild search for " kroatische ostfront " returns so far rarely seen original German photos of 369th Legion
- Hrvatski legionari u Staljingradu za Pavelića, a u Srbiji za Tita (Croatian)