This was a German and Croat operation against the partisan forces of Marshal Josip Broz Tito in the puppet state of Croatia in German-occupied Yugoslavia (3/6 February 1944).
The undertaking’s objective was the destruction of the 19th ‘Dalmatia’ Division and the 13th ‘Dalmatia’ Brigade of the 26th Division in the area of Karin, Obrovac, Gračac, Kistanje and Velebit to the west of Knin, thereby securing the area behind the German garrisons along the Dalmatian coast.
A preceding operation on 24/27 January had driven the 19th ‘Dalmatia’ Division back from the coast, thereby clearing the Bukovica region, but failed to destroy the partisans, who escaped encirclement. However, the 19th ‘Dalmatia’ Division had been hard hit, was also very low on mortar and small arms ammunition, and hampered tactically by the need to carry with it, over mountainous terrain and in dire winter conditions, more than 100 wounded men. The 19th ‘Dalmatia’ Division was reinforced to an overall strength of some 6,000 men by the arrival from Vis island of the 13th ‘Dalmatia’ Brigade of the 26th Division, but while this was fresh it was generally inexperienced.
The Axis force totalled about 13,000 Germans of Generalleutnant Walter Stettner Ritter von Grabenhofen’s 1st Gebirgsdivision (98th Gebirgsjägerregiment in Knin, Kistanje and Otrić, and 99th Gebirgsjägerregiment in Zadar, Benkovac and Obrovac), parts of the 92nd Grenadierregiment (mot.) and parts of Generalleutnant Albin Nake’s 264th Division, 3,000 Croat army troops, 3,000 Četniks under the command of Momčilo Đujić, and 690 Italians in German service.
As well as the 13th ‘Dalmatia Brigade’, the 19th ‘Dalmatia’ Division had under command its own 5th and 6th ‘Dalmatia’ Brigades, while its 7th ‘Dalmatia’ Brigade was in Lika, north of the road linking Gračac and Gospić road and therefore not involved in the operation, and the Group of Northern Dalmatian Partisan Detachments (two battalions of the ‘Knin’ Partisan Detachment, three battalions of the ‘North Dalmatia’ Partisan Detachment and a few companies of the newly raised ‘Orijen’ Partisan Detachment).
The encirclement of the partisan units began on 3 February and was completed on the following day by simultaneous advances from Kistanje toward Biovičino Selo, Benkovac toward the village of Bruški, Obrovac toward the village of Žegara, Gračac over Vučji Vrh toward Turovac, and from Otrić and Zrmanja toward the villages of Rujište and Duboki dol. The local command of the partisan forces now decided that the encircled units should break out of the trap in which they had been caught, and in an effort to ease this task the VIII Corps despatched two brigades of the 9th Division to attack the 1st Gebirgsdivision in the region of Bosansko Grahovo.
On 5 February the Axis forces failed to launch fully co-ordinated and simultaneous attacks from all sides, and this made it possible for the partisans first to survive and second to use majority of their forces for a nocturnal breakout. The partisan headquarters decided that best escape route was along the line from Javornik to Lipač, the village of Malovan and the village of Glogovo through the German and Četnik lines with the 5th ‘Dalmatia’ Brigade in the lead, the 6th ‘Dalmatia’ Brigade as the rearguard and the 13th ‘Dalmatia’ Brigade in charge of the wounded, while the partisan elements which had escaped encirclement harassed the Axis forces.
The partisan break-out started at 18.00 and easily broke through the German lines, allowing the division to escape and reach safety in the area of Otrić and Gračac in Lika after an 18-hour forced march to the north-west.
The Germans lost nine men killed, 28 wounded and 12 missing, while the partisans lost 23 men killed, 32 wounded and 23 missing; the Germans claimed 327 partisans counted dead, 450 estimated dead and wounded, and 77 captured. The Germans thus achieved their main objective, namely the clearance of Dalmatia inland of the coast, but the reality of the whole situation was that the entire undertaking had been unnecessary as the Allied landing on the coast of Dalmatia, which they Germans expected as a result of an Allied deception effort, did not materialise and indeed had not even been planned.
The VIII Corps then remained a constant partisan threat to the German garrisons and lines of communications until the time of the final German retreat.