Operation Battle of Poljana

The 'Battle of Poljana' was a battle fought between the Yugoslav army and German forces supplemented by a number of allied detachments at Poljana, near the village of Prevalje in the Slovenian region of Yugoslavia and was the culmination of a series of engagements between the Yugoslav army and a large column of retreating Axis forces numbering more than 30,000 men (14/15 May 1945).

The Axis column comprised units of the German armed forces, the armed forces of the Independent State of Croatia, the Montenegrin People’s Army (former Četniks and the survivors of the 'Battle of Lijevče Field') and Slovene home guard forces as well as other collaborationist factions and even civilians who were attempting to escape into British-controlled Austria. The battle took place after Germany’s official surrender on 8 May.

In November 1944 the so-called Independent State of Croatia reorganised its armed forces to combine Ustase units and the Croat home army into 13 infantry, two mountain, two assault and one replacement divisions, each with its own organic artillery and other support units. There were also several armoured units. From a time early in 1945, these divisions were allocated to various German corps, and by March 1945 were holding the Axis forces' southern front.

In the spring of 1945 the German army and its allies were in full retreat from the Yugoslav army. Early in April, Lieutenant General Kosta Nađ's Yugoslav 3rd Army fanned out through the Drava river valley, reaching a point to the north of Zagreb, and crossed the previous Austrian/Yugoslav border in the Dravograd sector. The 3rd Army closed the ring round the Axis forces when its advanced motorised detachments linked with detachments of the 4th Army in Carinthia. This action prevented Heeresgruppe 'E' from escaping to the north-west across the Drava river and, with his forces completely surrounded, Generaloberst Alexander Löhr, commanding Heeresgruppe 'E', was forced to sign an unconditional surrender of the forces under his command at Topolsica, near Velenje in Slovenia, on 9 May. Nevertheless, some of the German forces, along with collaborationist units (Croat armed forces, Slovene home guard, ex-Četniks of the Montenegrin People’s Army and elements of other factions, continued to resist and tried to fight their way to the west to seek the protection of the British forces at Klagenfurt in Austria.

Just before 09.00 on 14 May, a significant force primarily of the Croat armed forces and Slovene home guard, approached the Yugoslav army’s positions at the Surnik farm near Poljana and demanded free passage to the west. Such permission was refused, and each side started to fire on the other. The Croat forces' attacks, including artillery fire support, intensified during the afternoon and continued into the evening and night. The end-of-war situation was chaotic, with individuals and small groups leaving the main column and seeking to make their own way across the hills in order to reach Austria. Large numbers of skirmishes took place.

In this highly charged situation, there was a meeting at a castle in Austrian Carinthia during the evening of 14 May 14 involving the British, the Yugoslavs (represented by Ivan Kovačič, Ivan Dolničar, the political commissar of the 14th Strike Brigade, and Viktor Cvelbar, commander of the Zidansek Brigade), and four or five Ustase generals (including Ivo Herenčić and Mirko Gregurić). The Ustase officers demanded free passage for their forces across the Drava river to the protection of the British. The Yugoslav delegation argued successfully that they were the long-standing allies of the British and that the British should not flirt with 'enemy' forces but should rather co-operate in suppressing them. It was also argued that the Ustase and others were guilty of crimes against the people and should be held accountable for them in Yugoslavia. By agreement between the Yugoslavs and British, an ultimatum was given to the Ustase at the meeting that surrender to the Yugoslav army was the only option available to them, and that British armour would be deployed to block the only open route of escape to the west.

The main battle ended on the morning of May 15 with the arrival of around 20 British tanks. Tense negotiations followed, during which British officers made it abundantly clear that they would not offer protection to the collaborationist forces and that unconditional surrender to the Yugoslav army was therefore the only option. White flags of surrender were finally raised at about 16.00 on 15 May.

Casualty estimates by the Yugoslav army were at least 310 Croat and other Axis dead in the two main locations of fighting, and 250 wounded. On the Yugoslav side, losses were considerably lower, numbering fewer than 100 dead and wounded.

The surrender of this last area of Axis resistance occurred eight days after the official end of World War II in Europe, which was the German surrender on 7 May.

In May 1945, at the end of World War II in Europe, tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians associated with the Axis powers fled Yugoslavia to Austria as Soviet and Yugoslav forces took control of Yugoslavia. When they reached Allied-occupied Austria, the British refused to accept their surrender and instead directed them to the Yugoslavs. The prisoners of war and columns captured by other Yugoslav forces in Yugoslavia were subjected to forced marches. Tens of thousands were executed; others were taken to forced labour camps, where more died from the harshness of the conditions. These events are named for the Carinthian border town of Bleiburg, where the initial repatriation was carried out from 15 May.