By Momo Dobrich
Many readers here are familiar with the Dinarska Cetnik Division which rose up in the tri-mountain area of Bosnia, Lika and Dalmatia, following the catastrophic defeat of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in April 1941. But how many have heard that another division existed during World War II bearing the name Dinarska?
When the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was formed after the end of the Great War in 1918, it had a need to create a new army. This army was at first primarily an extension of the victorious Serbian Army of 1914-18. All nationalities were required by law to serve, including non-Slavs, so by 1939 it reflected Yugoslavia’s multicultural makeup. This mix also extended into the officer corps. Former officers who served in the k.u.k., (which was the Austro-Hungarian Army) were integrated into the forces immediately upon its creation and made up a large percentage of the command organization.
The new army was set up on a territorial basis, as was the case throughout most of Europe. Both reserve and regular army units filled their ranks during war time by mobilizing the local population at hand. In some cases units could be filled with men of one nationality, or depending on the region they could be mixed. The Sumadija Infantry Division was raised in the heart of Serbia, thus it contained mostly Serb soldiers. Whereas the Sava Infantry Division had a majority of Croat men under arms, however as many as 20% of other national groups rounded it out, such as Serbs, Germans and Ruthens.
Each division also held a cradle, which was a fulltime group of officers and men who ran and managed units during peace time and were to command during war. Cradle troops were different by nature when compared with mobilized troops. They were for the most part professional soldiers with long service records, supported by long term reserve officers and non-commissioned men. They were also numerically smaller in number than the mass of soldiers they were to command. Most officers and men of the cradle came from geographically differing areas than the unit they were attached to. This meant a commanding general in Montenegro could be from Slovenia, or a regimental commander in Serbia could be a Croat.
All Royal Yugoslav divisions had a numerical designation, but were more commonly known by a geographical mane. Dinarska Reserve Infantry Division #47 was one such unit. It was based in Sinj, a Dalmatian town which was found in south-central Dalmatia and was attached to the Coastal Army Command in Mostar. The name Dinarska came from the largest peak in the region, Mount Dinara. Sinj and its surrounding villages were predominantly inhabited by Croatians but there was also a substantial Serbian population within the divisional recruiting area, and even a small grouping of Italians.
This division was like most other Yugoslav infantry divisions, it had a staff headquarters, infantry command, three infantry regiments of three battalions each, a replacement regiment, artillery regiment, pioneer battalion, HMG battalion and a cavalry squadron. If fully mobilized, it in theory should have held up to 26,000 men under arms. This number would include combat and supporting arms.
The division’s combat order of battle in early April 1941 was:
- Headquarters Staff Sinj
- Infantry Command 47 Sinj
- 13th Infantry Regiment Sinj/Split
- 84th Infantry Regiment Sinj
- 119th Infantry Regiment Sinj
- 47th Artillery Regiment Sinj/Knin
- 47th Replacement Regiment Pavic
- 47th Machinegun Battalion Jasensko
- 47th Pioneer Battalion Sicane
Commanding the Dinarska Division was Divisional-General Marko Mihailovic. Born in 1886 in Sremska Palanka, he attended Serbia’s military academies and took part in the two Balkan Wars, he survived the Great War of 1914-18. After the war he continued to rise in rank and for a time served as Yugoslavia’s military attaché in France, Britain and Spain. By 1941 as war with the Axis loomed he commanded the Dinarska Division along with his second, Brigadier-General Djordje Dedinac also a decorated veteran.
Yugoslavia had various contingency plans for war and since 1938, all of them were foreseeing Nazi or Fascist aggression. According to the war plan R-41, Dinarska Division was placed under the High Commands Strategic Reserve. It was only one of a total of four divisions in army reserve. This number was woefully low, if a division was required on any of the numerous fronts the High Command planned to fight on it would run out of deployable units very quickly. To make matters worse the High Command ordered the reserve divisions to concentrate in the middle of the country far from any active front.
As per plan R-41 Dinarska Division was to be fully mobilized within twelve days, after the order to do so was given. Then it was to march on foot to the Sarajevo area, from where the division would be allocated either wholly or piecemeal to combat. An overwhelming problem in the Yugoslav army was that all divisions were foot borne, including Dinarska Division. Invading Axis forces had a high number of very modern motorized and mechanized units, supported by superior airpower. This meant that if a German or even Italian armoured unit broke a Yugoslav line anywhere along the front, the Dinarska Division would be so poorly placed and so slow to react it would be of little value during combat. This was the hard truth for the High Command.
Much of Yugoslavia’s long frontier was flat open country perfect for modern armoured warfare, while the interior was rugged and crossed with defensible rivers. Instead of deploying Yugoslav resources to a shorter internal line of defence, the High Commands plan R-41 opted to defend the entire frontier, “He who defends everything defends nothing.’, Fredrik the Great.
As if Yugoslavia’s strategic dilemmas were not enough, internal strife was rampant throughout the country as well. While most Croatians supported the mainstream Croatian Peasant Party a substantial and very active number supported the more radical Croatian Fascist party, the Ustasha. This group was not just opposed to the Yugoslav state, they were radically motivated to physically wipeout the Serbian presence in areas they claimed to be part of Croatia. In the Sinj region the Ustasha had a following and much influence in the villages of the Dinaric Alps. This influence affected the mobilization of Dinarska Division, and was to prevent it from getting to its assigned area of concentration once war commenced.
Throughout the winter of 1941 tensions were rising between the Axis and Yugoslavia. On March 28th the High Command gave orders for a Secret Mobilization in a forlorn hope that Nazi Germany would not attack if Yugoslavia seemed not to be preparing for war. By the first week of April the Dinarska Division should have been at full strength, however the local Croatians were heeding the Ustasha’s call to boycott the Yugoslav army. The 13th Infantry Regiment was only 50% full, while the division as a whole was at 35% strength. Even if more men had come forward and took up arms, local peasants were withholding the livestock needed to move the men around. Only 25% of the assigned horses and oxen arrived at the division, not the numbers prewar plans had envisioned.
Then in late March negotiations failed between Belgrade and Berlin. Without a declaration of war the German Luftwaffe bombed Belgrade into rubble during the early hours of April 6. General Mihailovic had very little contact with the High Command following the bombing raids, as did most of the army. Communications crumbled with the air attacks, so Mihailovic continued to follow orders and mobilize his division as best he could. By April 9th he decided to move his men over the Alps into Bosnia and head for Sarajevo.
On April 10th he arrived in the village of Trnovo. Mihailovic had no way of knowing Yugoslavia’s main fronts were already collapsing under the weight of Axis hammer blows and in Zagreb the Ustasha had declared independence, aligning Croatia with the Nazi’s. This is where a bad military situation got worse. When news of Croatia’s declaration reached the Croatian men of Dinarska Division, they turned their guns on the Serbian officers and men they were up until then marching to war shoulder to shoulder with.
It started when a Croat officer, Lieutenant Milan Luetic turned his pistol on his Serb comrades. The commander of the 13th Regiment, Colonel Rasovic was gravely wounded by Luetic and the commander of the II Battalion, Major Mladenovic and his adjutant Lieutenant Milankovic were killed. Confused fighting ensued between men who were all dressed in Yugoslav uniforms. Luetic was shot dead by a Serb NCO, but not before Major Uzelac, a Serb, of the I Battalion also died. Fighting continued for a few hours after its initiation. By the end of the day Colonel Marko Bozovic was wounded four times and four more Serb soldiers fell, while the Croatian rebels lost one more killed.
General Mihailovic then turned his broken understrength division around and headed back towards Sinj. His intention was to return the Croats troops who did not take up arms against Yugoslavia and send them to their homes. Then he would make small detachments of fighting men from the loyal Serb soldiers still under his command. With these loyal detachments he would re-impose order in the Sinj district of Dalmatia and return all weapons to safe storage. Mihailovic left the Trnovo/Livno area and marched back to Sinj.
Because of the fighting and erratic march orders, General Mihailovic was not in contact with his base areas in Sinj or Livno and was not fully aware of the extent of the Croatian uprising. During the evening of the 11th, General Kukavicic the commander of the Jadran Infantry Division, which was fighting the Italians north of Dinarska Division, received reports from officers still in Livno. They were looking for Mihailovic to pass on what had happened after he turned back to Sinj. The communication read ‘The head of the Livno County with a delegation meet with the chief of the Livno Area and told him that German troops were marching through Croatia and that Croatia has been declared a free state’. With some difficulty this message was passed on to General Mihailovic, who then told General Kukavicic his plans to form Serb only detachments.
Any plans Mihailovic may have made came to nothing. He did make radio contact with the headquarters of the Yugoslav First Army Group in Zagreb, only to be told that there were no more Serb commanders and that Croatia was free! At this point the Italians were breaking out of Zadar and pushing the Jadran Division back, in Mostar an Ustasha inspired takeover attempt failed after bitter and bloody fighting, while Zagreb was firmly in the hands of German motorized troops. Both the Dinarska and Jadran Infantry Divisions were cut off from the rest of Yugoslavia by this point.
Belgrade had fallen, Skoplje was occupied by the Germans and Croatia no longer fought for Yugoslavia. On April 14th the Kingdom of Yugoslavia surrendered to the Axis powers. Some of Dinarska Divisions Serb troops escaped to their homes while Generals Mihaliovic and Dedinac were captured and sent to German POW camps. While some Yugoslav units did fight the Germans and Italians, the Dinarska Division never engaged with the enemy, due entirely to internal strife. Even if the deployment of the division was doomed to fail, it should have fought its enemies at some point if the High Command had planned better. That was the short and tragic history of the Dinarska Infantry Division. After the war General Mihailovic immigrated to Canada where he died in 1969.
What happened to the Dinarska Division was a terribly true example of the falsehood of Yugoslav identity and nationhood. Even if out numbered and lacking modern weaponry, Yugoslavia’s army could have fought a better fight than it did if its peoples were truly united. Dinarska Division when fully mobilized had the potential to put up stiff resistance to any German or Italian force it met in combat, even if tanks and modern planes were thrown against it. This was true of other smaller and technically inferior armies which faced Hitler and Mussolini. However when one group decides to throw in the towel even before the fight begins, such as most Croats did in April 1941, no army can stay cohesive enough to stand and fight.
Poland, Norway and Belgium had no hope of beating Nazi Germany, yet the troops of those countries were united and fought hard, sometimes until the bitter end. We just have to look at how tiny Serbia in 1914 stood up to a Great Power, and after four years of war emerged victorious. In southern Serbia, Yugoslav divisions did fight hard, even if they were utterly crushed by German panzers, but then again these divisions were made up mostly of Serb troops. Divisions in western Yugoslavia such as the Dinarska were mixed and Yugoslavia paid the price in believing its nation and armed forces were united.
From the terrible and shameful defeat of Yugoslavia, terror unimagined was to be unleashed upon the Serb population by the Croat Ustasha. In the Sinj area many would die, there only crime was being a Serb. The Dinarska Cetnik Division sprung out of the ashes of defeat and halted the crimes of the Ustasha, re-establishing the military name Dinarska, however they were never able to penetrate as far south as the Sinj area.
Following the Kingdoms shameful defeat in April 1941, the Dinarska Cetnik Division and all Cetnik forces under the command of Army-General Dragoljub Mihailovic were able to restore the reputation and glory of Serbian military arms. Ironically to the north of Sinj lay the mixed village of Vrilika, where the local Cetnik brigade made up of Serbs was commanded by a Croat and during the war 500 Croats volunteered to form the Split/Sibenik Cetnik Battalion. No war is even black and white.