Belgrade Strategic Offensive Operation

The 'Belgrade Strategic Offensive Operation' was a Soviet and Yugoslav undertaking to liberate Belgrade, the capital of German-occupied Yugoslavia (14 September/24 November 1944).

The Soviet and Yugoslav forces launched separate but loosely co-ordinated operations that were sufficient to evict the Germans from the Belgrade area. The two sub-operations within the 'Belgrade Strategic Offensive Operation' were, according to the Soviets, the 'Nis Offensive Operation' (8/14 October 1944) and the 'Batina Offensive Operation' (11/29 November 1944).

The Yugoslav forces led by Josip Broz Tito against the Axis powers after the completion of 'Unternehmen 25' in April 1941 are generally known as partisans but as a result of their frequent changes in size and structure, between 1941 and 1945 the partisan movements had four official names, namely the National Liberation Partisan Detachments of Yugoslavia between June 1941 and January 1942, the National Liberation Partisan and Volunteer Army of Yugoslavia between January and November 1942, the National Liberation Army and Partisan Detachments of Yugoslavia from November 1942 to February 1945, and the Yugoslav Army from 1 March 1945. (From November 1942, the partisan military as a whole was increasingly often called simply the National Liberation Army (Narodnooslobodilačka Vojska [NOV]), the words 'partisan' and 'partisans' becoming more generally accepted as referring to any and all who resisted the Axis occupation.)

The 'Belgrade Strategic Offensive Operation' involved Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Fedor I. Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front (including General Leytenant Kiril N. Stanchev’s Bulgarian 2nd Army) and elements of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front in the north, and General-pukovnik Peko Đapčević's 1st Army Group of the Yugoslav army in the west, where it was already undertaking an offensive against part of Generaloberst Alexander Löhr’s Heeresgruppe 'E' (General Wilhelm Schneckenburger’s Korpsgruppe 'Schneckenburger' with 30,000 men and General Stern’s Korpsgruppe 'Stern') of 30,000 men including men of the Serb State Guard, the military force of the pro-German government of Serbia.

The Soviet and Yugoslav forces' objective was firstly the destruction of Heeresgruppe 'E' in the Suva mountain region, and Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s Heeresgruppe 'F' to the east of the Velika Morava river, and secondly the liberation of Belgrade. A tertiary objective was the severance of the routes, and most especially the railway line, linking Thessaloníki and Belgrade, by which Heeresgruppe 'E' was retreating northward from Greece, Albania and the southern regions of Yugoslavia through Belgrade toward Hungary.

By a time early in September 1944, the two German commands in the Balkan theatre (Yugoslavia, Greece and Albania) were thus Heeresgruppe 'E' and Heeresgruppe 'F' in the southern and northern area of operations respectively. After the Axis defeat in the Soviet 'Iassy-Kishinev Operation', which persuaded Bulgaria and Romania to switch their allegiance to the Allies, and the overall advance of the Soviet forces into the Balkans, Heeresgruppe 'E' had been ordered to withdraw into Hungary, where its primary formations were to come under the command of General Hans Felber’s Armeeabteilung 'Serbien'.

By the end of September, the 3rd Ukrainian Front was concentrated along the Bulgarian/Yugoslav border. General Leytenant Nikolai A. Gagen’s 57th Army was concentrated in the area of Vidin, while Stanchev’s Bulgarian 2nd Army was located farther to the south on the Nis railway at the junction of the Bulgarian, Yugoslav and Greek frontiers. This prompted the movement of what on 1 January 1945 became the Yugoslav partisans' 1st Army, under Đapčević, from Yugoslavia to provide support for General-major Ljubo Vučković's XIII Corps and the XIV Corps collaborating in the liberation of Nis and supporting the 57th Army’s advance to Belgrade respectively.

General Leytenant Ivan T. Shlemin’s 46th Army of the 2nd Ukrainian Front was deployed in the area of the Teregova river in Romania, which it was well placed to cut the rail link between Belgrade and Hungary in the area to the north of Vrsac.

The forthcoming Soviet and Yugoslav operations were co-ordinated between Tolbukhin and the partisan forces' commander, Marshal Tito. The latter arrived in Soviet-controlled Romania on 21 September, and flew on to Moscow, where he met Iosif Stalin. The meeting was a success, in particular because the two leaders reached an agreement concerning the participation of Bulgarian troops in the operation that would be fought on Yugoslav soil.

Before the beginning of ground operations, General Leytenant Vladimir A. Sudets’s 17th Air Army of the 3rd Ukrainian Front was ordered to slow the withdrawal of German troops from Greece and the southern regions of Yugoslavia, and in pursuance of this aim flew air attacks on the railway bridges and other important facilities in the areas of Nis, Skopje, and Krusevo in the period 15/21 September.

Operations began in the south of the area with an attack by the Bulgarian 2nd Army into the area of Leskovac and Nis, where the Bulgarians almost immediately engaged SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Otto Kumm’s 7th SS Gebirgsdivision 'Prinz Eugen'. Two days later, having established links with the Yugoslav partisans, the Bulgarian 2nd Army with partisan participation defeated a combined force of Četniks and Serb frontier guards, and occupied Vlasotince. Spearheaded by its tank brigade, the Bulgarian 2nd Army then tackled the German positions at Bela Palanka on 8 October, and reached Vlasotince two days later. On 12 October the tank brigade, supported by the 15th Brigade of the partisans' 47th Serb Division, took Leskovac, the Bulgarian reconnaissance battalion crossing the Morava river and probing toward Nis. The goal of this was to not so much to pursue the remnants of the 7th SS Gebirgsdivision pulling back to the north-west, but for the Bulgarian 2nd Army to begin the liberation of Kosovo and thus sever the final link in the route to the north for the formations of Heeresgruppe 'E' in the process of withdrawing from Greece.

On 17 October the leading units of the Bulgarian 2nd Army reached Kursumlija and them moved forward to Kursumlijska Banja. On 5 November, after negotiating the Prepolac Pass with heavy losses, the tank brigade occupied Podujevo, but was then unable to reach Pristina until 21 November.

The 57th Army began its attack on 28 September from the Vidin area in the general direction of Belgrade. The army’s LXIV Corps advanced from the area to the south of Vidin to secure the crossing of the Morava river at Paraćin, while General Major Nikolai N. Shkodunovich’s LXVIII Corps advanced from Vidin in the direction of Mladenovac, meeting elements of the Yugoslav XIV Corps to the south of Petrovac. General Major Akimenko A. Zakharovich’s LXXV Corps, advancing from the area of Turnu-Severin, covered the 5th Army’s northern flank by advancing toward Posarevac. The 57th Army had the support of the Danube Military Flotilla, which operated along the Danube river on the northern flank of the front, and provided river transport to troops and military equipment.

Supported by aircraft of the 17th Air Army’s X Assault Air Corps, under the command of General Leytenant Oleg V. Tolstyakov, the Yugoslav XIV Corps broke through the German border defences in the eastern Serb mountains after heavy fighting. On 8 October the Yugoslav forces advanced to the Morava river, capturing two bridgeheads on the Velika Plana and Palanka, where on 12 October General Leytenant Vladimir I. Zhdanov’s IV Guards Mechanised Corps was introduced into the penetration, after reaching the area from the south-eastern part of Bulgaria, for the development of the offensive toward Belgrade from the south.

Meanwhile, the offensive was continued by Colonel Vaso Jovanović's newly arrived Yugoslav 1st Proletarian Division and the 12th 'Slavonia' Division, which secured bridgeheads over the Sava river to the west of Belgrade.

On the offensive’s northern sector, the 46th Army of the 2nd Ukrainian Front advanced in an attempt to outflank the German defences of Belgrade from the north by cutting the river and railway supply lines running along the Tisa river. Supported by General Leytenant Sergei K. Goryunov’s 5th Air Army, the 46th Army’s X Guards Corps swiftly undertook assault crossings of the Tamis and Tisa rivers to the north of Pančevo to threaten the railway link between Belgrade and Novi Sad.

Still farther to the north, the XXXI Guards Corps advanced in the direction of Petrovgrad, and the XXXVII Corps made an assault crossing of the Tisa to threaten the stretch of railway between Novi Sad and Subotica to prepare for the planned 'Budapest Strategic Offensive Operation'. The IV Guards Mechanised Corps and General-pukovnik Danilo Lekič's Yugoslav XII Corps broke through the German defences to the south of Belgrade on 14 October and closed on the city.

The Yugoslavs advanced along the roads in the direction of Belgrade south of the Sava river, while the Soviets fought the Germans on the northern outskirts of the city. The assault on Belgrade was then delayed as a result of the diversion of forces for the elimination of the many thousands of German troops surrounded between Belgrade and Smederevo off to the south-east. By 20 October, however, Belgrade had been completely liberated by the Yugoslav and Soviet forces.

The Yugoslav XIII Corps, in co-operation with the Bulgarian 2nd Army, advanced from the south-east. These forces were responsible for the areas of Nis and Leskovac, and as noted above also had the task of cutting off the main routes for the evacuation of Heeresgruppe 'E' along the rivers of South Morava and Morava. Heeresgruppe 'E' had, therefore, been forced to retreat through the mountains of Montenegro and Bosnia, and was therefore unable to strengthen the German forces in Hungary.

On the next day elements of the 3rd Ukrainian Front stormed Kraljevo and finally cut the road route linking Thessaloníki with Belgrade.

Yugoslav partisan units, together with the X Guards Corps of the 46th Army, moving via the Danube with the aid of Captain Pavel I. Derzhavin’s Brigade of Armoured Boats of the Danube Military Flotilla, provided more offensive strength from the north-east against the German positions round Belgrade. They cleared the left bank of the Tisa and Danube rivers, and also liberated Pančevo.

After the end of the Belgrade operation, the formations of the 3rd Ukrainian Front were transferred to Hungary to support those of the 2nd Ukrainian Front, and subsequently assisted the Yugoslav partisans in the liberation of their country, mainly with weapons, ammunitions and equipment.