At Stalingrad: Ante Pavelic and the Hrvatska Legija, 1941-1943.
The Turning Point
The battle of Stalingrad was the turning point of World War II. It is one of the greatest battles in all of history. It was the first time that Adolf Hitler was decisively defeated. In fact, the battle was a military disaster for Germany that was unparalleled and unprecedented. It altered the course of history.
The Independent State of Croatia, the NDH, Nezavisna Hrvatska Drzava, consisting of Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, contributed troops to this climactic battle of World War II. Croats and Bosnian Muslims participated in the battle. They were part of the 369th Croat Reinforced Infantry Regiment. How did Croats and Bosnian Muslims take part in the greatest battle of World War II?
After Germany and the other Axis countries invaded, occupied, and dismembered Yugoslavia beginning on April 6, 1941, Adolf Hitler created the Independent State of Croatia, a Greater Croatia that also included Bosnia-Hercegovina. German troops entered Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, on April 10, 1941. The Independent State of Croatia was then proclaimed. Ante Pavelic would subsequently be installed by Hitler as the Poglavnik, or leader or fuehrer, of the new state. Ante Pavelic returned from exile to form the new state. He was a hardcore fascist and staunch supporter and adherent of Nazism. He was one of Adolf Hitler’s most dedicated and most committed supporters and collaborators. A Roman Catholic, he also had the backing and support of the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church of Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina.
As soon as the NDH was established, Pavelic passed anti-Serbian, anti-Roma, and anti-Jewish laws. Modeled on the Nazi Nuremberg laws, Pavelic sought to create an ethnically pure Croatia, cleansed of all non-Croats, who were regarded as foreign ethnic groups. Massacres of Orthodox Serbs started. Jews were rounded up. The NDH would set up its own concentration and death camps, which was unique during the Holocaust. The largest concentration camp in the Balkans would be Jasenovac, set up by the Croat government itself. Pavelic sought to implement and to realize Adolf Hitler’s model and template, creating an ethnically pure nation.
Pavelic met Hitler on an official state visit on June 9, 1941, at the Berghof near Berchtesgaden in Bavaria. Accompanied by Andrija Artukovic, he was greeted by Hitler, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Hermann Goering. The NDH became part of the New Order in Europe and one of Adolf Hitler’s staunchest allies.
On June 22, 1941, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. This was the largest and most decisive German military offensive and operation of World War II. The outcome of the battle would decide the war. Adolf Hitler threw everything he had into the battle, his elite troops and formations.
Ante Pavelic understood that this would be the decisive engagement of World War II. He wanted Croatia to participate in this massive struggle. Pavelic perceived this as a crusade against Communism and Bolshevism, an ideological and religious conflict. It would thus advance the influence and impact of Roman Catholicism, the Vatican, and safeguard the independence of the NDH. Pavelic wanted to repay Hitler for his creation of an independent Croatia, a Greater Croatia. He also wanted to solidify his alliance with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, which also had troops in the USSR. Pavelic insisted that the NDH participate in this landmark invasion.
Pavelic contacted Edmund Glaise von Hostenau, the German military commander in the NDH, offering Croatian troops. Horstenau told Pavelic to make a request personally to Hitler. On June 23, Pavelic wrote to Hitler offering volunteers for Operation Barbarossa. Hitler replied on July 1. Pavelic ordered the recruitment of volunteers for the Russian Front on July 2. The formation of the Hrvatska Legija, the Croatian Legion, began.
The unit was known as the Croatian 369th Reinforced Infantry Regiment, Verstärktes Kroatisches Infanterie-Regiment 369, 369. pojačana pješačka pukovnija. By the end of July, 1941, 9,000 volunteers were assembled. The Legion was an Infantry Regiment made up of three battalions. Two battalions were recruited in Varazdin in Croatia, while the third was recruited in Sarajevo. One third of the troops in the regiment were Bosnian Muslims. Tahir Alagic was a high-ranking Bosnian Muslim military officer in the regiment. He was born in Sanski Most in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Croatian Colonel Ivan Markulj was the first commander of the regiment.
The Legion was part of the German Army or Wehrmacht commanded by German officers. The soldiers in the regiment swore an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler. They wore standard German military uniforms, used German weapons, rank insignia, and were trained and organized by German military forces. They were issued Mauser Karabiner 98 rifles.They wore a checkerboard shield on the right arm with the word “Hrvatska” and a shield on the helmet. On their right chest was the eagle and Nazi swastika symbol of Nazi Germany.
The regiment consisted of a staff company, a machine gun company, an anti-tank company, and a heavy weapons company. An artillery group of three batteries made up of 105 mm guns was added later. The unit would consist of 5,000 troops, with a training battalion.
On July 15, the troops were transported from Zagreb to the Doellersheim training camp in northeast Austria. On August 25, they arrived in Botosani, a town in Moldavia west of the Dniester River north of the Black Sea. The regiment marched from there to join the German 100th Light Infantry Division on October 10, commanded by Division Lieutenant General Werner Sanne from July 6, 1942 to January 31, 1943, when it was destroyed at Stalingrad and the remnants surrendered. The division was then part of the 17th Army Group South commanded by Generaloberst Hermann Hoth. The division was reorganized as a Jaeger or “hunting” division, a smaller infantry division geared to adverse terrain such as hilly or mountainous zones of combat. The 100th Division was the only Jaeger Division which fought at Stalingrad. The regiment began its combat role on the eastern front attached to this German division.
Army Group South
Their first combat engagement in the Soviet Union was on the Kharkov Front in the Ukraine. The units of the regiment had been assigned to other regiments of the 100th division when they were deployed to Kharkov to gain experience and to be tested in combat on the front. German troops captured the Soviet industrial city of Kharkov on October 24, 1941. A Soviet counterattack retook Rostov on November 27. The 100th Light Infantry Division was then redeployed to the Mius River on November 22, south of the Kharkov front.
In January, 1942, the 100th Light Infantry Division was deployed to the Stalino area to counter a Soviet cavalry attack that had broken through the Axis lines. The regiment was engaged in the Samara River area during this period deployed at Valki, Selivanov, and Kalach, on the Don Front. Sanne awarded Marko Mesic an Iron Cross for the performance of his artillery battalion.
In May, 1942, the elements of the regiment were reorganized and reintegrated into a single unit under the command of Colonel Ivan Markulj. On June 21, 1942, the Croatian Legion consisted of 113 officers, 7 clerks, 625 NCOs, and 4317 troops, a total of 5,062 men. The regiment was deployed to the Kharkov front where it was engaged in attacks against Soviet forces which sought to retake the city. Marko Mesic replaced Markulj as the temporary commander on July 7, 1942. Colonel Viktor “Vitez” Pavicic subsequently assumed command of the regiment and led the unit during the assault on Stalingrad. Eight officers in the regiment were awarded German Iron Crosses First Class following the battle, including Colonel Ivan Markulj and Lieutenant Eduard Bakarec.
The regiment was part of the Axis advance on Voronezh and Stalingrad in the summer of 1942. From July 25-28, the regiment was engaged in a battle near Selivanov on the Proljet Kultura Kolkhoz or Collective Farm against Soviet troops that resulted in 53 killed from the regiment. The engagement involved close quarter, hand to hand combat after a Soviet counterattack. The regiment continued to engage in combat operations along the Samara River which resulted in 171 killed from the regiment.
Poglavnik Ante Pavelic would come to inspect and decorate the members of the regiment on September 24, 1941, at the town of Golubinskaya, two days before the regiment would enter Stalingrad.
Seizure of the Caucasus Oil Fields
On April 5, 1942, Hitler signed Directive Number 41, making the Crimean oil fields the primary military objective for German offensive operations in the Soviet Union in 1942, not Moscow or Leningrad. In the Directive, Hitler emphasized that the focus of military operations would be in the South: “First, therefore, all available forces will be concentrated on the main operations in the Southern sector, with the aim of destroying the enemy before the Don, in order to secure the Caucasian oilfields and the passes through the Caucasus mountains themselves.” The city of Stalingrad was to be destroyed. Hitler noted: “In any event, every effort will be made to reach Stalingrad itself, or at least to bring the city under fire from heavy artillery so that it may no longer be of any use as an industrial or communications center.”
The Axis offensive operations for 1942 were code named Case Blue, Fall Blau, later renamed Operation Braunschweig. Stalingrad would be the epicenter of the Axis military campaign in the Soviet Union in 1942.
For Hitler, Stalingrad was to be the convergence point for the operation: “The third attack in the course of these operations will be so conducted that formations thrusting down the Don can link up in the Stalingrad area with forces advancing from the Taganrog Artelnovsk area between the lower waters of the Don and Voroshilovgrad across the Donets to the east. These forces should finally establish contact with the armored forces advancing on Stalingrad.”
On May 8, the German offensive in the Crimea began. German General Erich von Manstein had taken Kerch on May 15. The strategic port city of Sevastopol on the Black Sea was captured by German troops on July 2. The military successes in the Crimean area opened the road to Stalingrad and the Caucasus oil fields.
Stalingrad was an industrial center and communications hub on the Volga River. It was also a vital supply route and transportation center. It was known as Tsaritsyn before the Communist Revolution. It was renamed after Joseph Stalin because he had led Communist forces in the city during the 1918 civil war.
On August 23, the Luftwaffe began a massive bombing campaign of the city. Over 600 bombers had made 4,000 bombing sorties on the city which reduced the city to rubble. The bombing killed an estimated 40,000 Russian civilians. Incendiary bombs engulfed the city in flames. The city would be totally destroyed even before the infantry assaults and the house to house street fighting began.
En Route to Stalingrad
Poglavnik Ante Pavelic met Adolf Hitler on the Russian Front on his way to Stalingrad on September 22, 1942. This was Pavelic’s second meeting with Adolf Hitler. The meeting place was Adolf Hitler’s military command headquarters on the Eastern Front in Vinnitsa, known as Werwolf, Fuehrerhauptquarter Werwolf. Pavelic was on his way to meet Paulus and to inspect and review and present medals to the members of the Hrvatska Legija before the assault on Stalingrad.
Pavelic had his first meeting with Hilter on June 9, 1941, at the Berghof, at Berchtesgaden, in Germany, accompanied by Andrija Artukovic. They met and conferred with Hitler, Hermann Goering, and Joachim von Ribbentrop. The third meeting occurred on April 27, 1943 at the Klessheim Palace near Salzburg, in Austria where Siegfried Kasche, the German diplomat in Zagreb, Reichsaussenminister Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Dr. Paul Otto Schmidt, Chief-Interpreter of the Auswaertige Amt, were in attendance. His fourth meeting was on September 18, 1944, at the Wolfsschanze command headquarters on the Eastern Front at Rastenburg, in East Prussia when he met Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz. Field Marshal General Wilhelm Keitel, the Chief of Armed Forces High Command (OKW) and Reichsaussenminister Joachim von Ribbentrop were also in attendance at this meeting.
Fuehrerhauptquarter Werwolf was the code name for the headquarters which was located seven and a half miles north of Vinnitsa in German-occupied Ukraine region of the Soviet Union. It was in use from 1942 through 1943, located in an area of pine forests. It consisted of bunkers, barracks, and underground tunnels.
The Fuehrer Headquarters or Fuehrerhauptquartiere, FHQ, were a series of military headquarters or military command and control centers that Adolf Hitler had created throughout the Third Reich and occupied Europe. His other headquarters were the Fuehrerbunker in Berlin, the Wolfsshanze, or Wolf’s Lair, in East Prussia, and the Berghof located at Obersaltzberg near Berchtesgaden in Bavaria.
Adolf Hitler had previously met with Slavko Kvaternik, the Minister of the Armed Forces of the Independent State of Croatia, at the Wolfsschanze military command headquarters on the Eastern Front in East Prussia, on July 1, 1941.
Hitler stayed at FHQ Werwolf only three times during the war. During the summer offensive and the advance and assault on Stalingrad, Hitler stayed there from July 16 to 30 October 30, 1942. It was during this stay that he met Ante Pavelic on September 22, 1942. Pavelic had arrived by plane with a group of NDH officials. He was met by German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop at the makeshift airport and escorted by limousine to meet Adolf Hitler. Obercommando der Wehrmact (OKW), chief of the high command, Wilhelm Keitel was also present at the headquarters where he greeted the Pavelic party. The Hitler meeting with Pavelic was photographed and filmed for a newsreel. Adolf Hitler would give a gift to Pavelic of a Mercedes Benz limousine for the services rendered by Croatian volunteers on the Eastern Front. The car would be delivered to Pavelic in Zagreb.
From Werwolf Hitler issued Directive Number 45 on July 23, 1942 which split Army Group South into two spearheads, one to seize Stalingrad and the other the Caucasus oil fields.
Hitler ordered that the objective of Army Group B was to take Stalingrad: “The task of Army Group B is, as previously laid down, to develop the Don defenses and, by a thrust forward to Stalingrad, to smash the enemy forces concentrated there, to occupy the town, and to block the land communications between the Don and the Volga, as well as the Don itself.” Hitler emphasized “the decisive importance of the Caucasus oilfields for the further prosecution of the war”. He detailed that “the operations of Army Group B against Stalingrad and the western part of Astrakhan will be supported. The early destruction of the city of Stalingrad is especially important.”
Order of Battle at Stalingrad
The Croat 369th Reinforced Infantry regiment was part of the 6th Army. The 6th Army itself was part of Army Group B. 6th Army consisted of 2 panzer, 1 motorized infantry and 15 infantry divisions. The 369th Croat Reinforced Infantry Regiment was part of the 100th Jaeger Division which were subsumed in the 11th Army Corps. Army Group B also consisted of Group von Weichs under the command of Maximillian von Weichs, consisting of 1 motorized infantry, 4 German and 2 Hungarian infantry divisions, the 2nd Hungarian Army under Colonel-General Gusztav Jany, which was made up of 4 Hungarian infantry divisions, and the 4th Panzer Army under General Hermann Hoth, made up of 3 panzer, 2 motorized and 6 infantry divisions, the Italian 8th Army, and the 3rd and 4th Romanian Armies. The Soviet 62nd Army under Vasily Chuikov was defending Stalingrad, along with the 8th, 28th, 51st, 57th, and 64th Armies. In August, 1942, Soviet General Georgi K. Zhukov was appointed Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Soviet military forces. He went to the Southwestern Front where he assumed command of the defense of Stalingrad. He had earlier stopped the German advance on Moscow in 1941.
The German 100th Jaeger Division was commanded by Generalleutnant Werner Sanne. In 1942, the Stalingrad Order of Battle for the division consisted of the following elements:
Verstärktes Infanterie-Regiment 369 (kroatisch)
The Axis troop strength at Stalingrad during the Soviet counter-offensive in November, 1942 was a total of 1,040,000 troops, consisting of, 400,000 German troops, 235,000 Italian troops, 200,000 Romanian troops, 200,000 Hungarian troops, 5,000 Croatian and Bosnian Muslim troops.
The town of Golubinskaya was where Generaloberst Friedrich von Paulus, the commander of 6th Army, had his headquarters before the Axis assault on Stalingrad. Golubinskaya is on the west bank of the Reka Don, the Don River, northwest of Stalingrad, north of Kalach-na-Donu. Paulus moved his headquarters to the basement of the Univermag Department Store in the city of Stalingrad after Axis troops entered Stalingrad. Golubinskaya is in the Volgograd Oblast. Golubinskaya is approximately 50 miles west of Stalingrad. The town was an assembly and staging area for the assault on Stalingrad.
The name of the city was changed from Stalingrad to Volgograd in 1961 by Nikita Khruschev. The name was restored for six days, however, to mark the 70th year anniversary of the landmark battle in 2013.
Ante Pavelic met Generaloberst Friedrich von Paulus outside of Stalingrad, on September 24, 1942. Pavelic awarded Paulus the Order of King Zvonimir’s Crown with Star and Swords (Grosskreuz on sash) which is shown attached on his left breast pocket in a photograph of the meeting.
Ante Pavelic met with Generals Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs and Georg von Sodenstern outside of Stalingrad, on September 25, 1942. Pavelic awarded both von Weichs and von Sodenstern the Order of King Zvonimir’s Crown with Star and Swords (Grosskreuz on sash) which they were both shown wearing on their left breast pocket.
General der Infanterie Georg von Sodenstern (Chef des Generalstabes Heeresgruppe Süd, Chef des Generalstabes Heeresgruppe B, was photographed shaking hands with Ante Pavelic on his departure at an airport outside of Stalingrad on September 25, 1942. A German Major in the center is shown wearing the Order of King Zvonimir’s Crown with Swords, Class II, in a photograph of the meeting, who attached his Zvonimir “steckkreuz” through the buttonhole of his left breast pocket.
General von Weichs was photographed seeing Ante Pavelic off at an airport outside of Stalingrad on September 25, 1942. Von Weichs was shown wearing the Star of Order of King Zvonimir’s Crown attached to his left breast pocket.
General von Weichs and Ante Pavelic were photographed at an airport in Golubinskaya outside of Stalingrad on September 25, 1942 during Pavelic’s departure on a German transport plane, a Junkers Ju 52.
Pavelic awarded oberst Viktor Pavicic, the commander of the Hrvatska Legija, the Order of the Iron Trefoil with Oak Branches or Wreaths, Class III, during his visit to Croatian troops outside Stalingrad on September 24-25, 1942.
The Croatian and Bosnian Muslim troops in the regiment received Croatian and German awards and medals. Pavelic awarded them Croatian medals personally during his visit. In September, 1942, the German Iron Cross 2nd class was awarded to Bosnian Muslim Sergeant Dzafer Babovic and Lt. Josip Zambata of the regiment for combat on the southern sector. Captain Geza Majberger, who commanded the 1st battalion, received the Iron Cross 2nd class for his part in the battles around Manojlin in the summer offensive of 1942. Majberger died from the injuries he sustained on July 30, 1942. The Iron Cross was awarded for bravery in combat above and beyond the call of duty.
Ante Pavelic’s message to the troops of the Hrvatska Legija on the Russian Front before battle had been: “I am certain that you will demonstrate to the world the glory of Croatian arms.”
The 6th Army entered Stalingrad on September 25. The Hrvatska Legija entered the city of Stalingrad on September 27.
Croatian and Bosnian Muslim troops participated in the landmark 1941-1943 battle of Stalingrad. This was one of the most fiercely-fought and brutal battles of World War II. The battle was the turning point of the war. The most fanatical and dedicated troops fought at Stalingrad. This was where they proved their loyalty and dedication to Adolf Hitler and the New Order. At Stalingrad, Ante Pavelic sought to ensure the triumph of Adolf Hitler and the New Order. Croats and Bosnian Muslims fought with tenacity and with determination to ensure the victory of Nazism. At Stalingrad, they took part in the turning point of World War II.
Carl Savich is a Michigan-based historian. He received his B.A. in Political Science from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He has an M.A. in History and a J.D. in Law. He is a member of the Alpha Zeta Upsilon chapter of the international history honor society, Phi Alpha Theta. He has received an LCP BW American Jurisprudence Award and a Handy and Harmon Academic Scholarship. His work has been cited on the US Holocaust Memorial Museum website in Washington, DC and the Holocaust and Genocide Studies website of the University of Minnesota. His articles have appeared on antiwar.com, balkanalysis.com, kosovo.net, maknews.com, realitymacedonia.com, SND.com, SUC.com, pogledi.rs, and rastko.com. He has been a contributor to The Detroit News, The Detroit Free Press, Foreign Policy, Ancient Serbia (Stara Srbija), The Voice of Ravanica, Liberty (Sloboda), The American Srbobran, The Macomb Daily, The Sterling Heights Mirror, and The Oakland Post. His areas of interest and expertise are history, journalism, political science, and law.