Operation Kopaonik

(Yugoslav town)

This was a German and Bulgarian operation offensive against the Četnik resistance movement in the Kopaonik mountain area, Goč and Jastrebac within the Serbia region of German-occupied Yugoslavia (12/20 October 1942).

The Germans launched this undertaking with the object of effecting the complete destruction of the Četnik Rasina Corps of the Yugoslav Army in the Fatherland, commanded by Major Dragutin Keserović, headquartered in Kriva Reka. The Germans and Bulgarians seized the territory which had earlier been liberated by the Četniks, but the Četnik forces successfully evaded the German and Bulgarian cordon and fell back into safer territory.

Keserović and his Rasina Corps had liberated this area and then used it as a base for further operations which suffered from German and Bulgarian ripostes, but the Četnik forces nonetheless continued to grow in strength. German intelligence pegged Keserović as a courageous leader who maintained tight iron discipline but was also very popular. The Germans also became increasingly concerned by intelligence estimates indicating that Keserović might soon be in a position to mobilise as many as 10,000 guerrillas. The Četniks were already a threat to the Germans as they had revealed their ability to sever the Axis lines of communication through Morava and the Vardar river valley: these roads were essential to the southward movement of the matériel vital to the continued fighting capabilities of the German forces in the North African campaign.

In the spring 1942 the Germans also became concerned that the Četniks might be about to attack the Trepča mine near Kosovska Mitrovica, from which significant quantities of lead and zinc were extracted for Germany’s war industries. The threat was such, the Germans believed, that Keserović’s forces would have to be tackled and destroyed by a high-quality formation.

At the beginning of 1942 the Germans had established the 7th SS Gebirgsdivision ‘Prinz Eugen’ of some 20,000 men under the command of SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Artur Phleps. Early in October 1942 the division was deployed to the area of south-western Serbia including Kraljevo, Užice, Ivanjica, Čačak, Raška, Kosovska Mitrovica, and Novi Pazar.

The ‘Kopaonik’ offensive was entrusted to this division with support from General Major Dimitr I. Yanchev’s Bulgarian 9th Division. The Rasina Corps’ 1,500 men were currently deployed in Kopaonik, Jastrebac and Goč. On 5 October Phleps issued his operational orders for a converging attack by four columns to encircle the area in which the Četniks were operating, drive them together and then destroy them with a carefully concerted fire plan. This was the 7th SS Gebirgsdivision’s first operational undertaking, and the offensive was launched at dawn on 12 October. The Kampfgruppe ‘Nord’ advanced to Željin and Kavalj. Kampfgruppe ‘Süd’ swept the area of Gobelja, some 10.5 miles (17 km) to the north-west of Raška. The Kampfgruppe ‘West’ concentrated its forces in a valley 3 miles (5 km) from Banje. The Kampfgruppe ‘Ost’ took the area to the west of Brus as the anvil onto which the other three Kampfgruppen would drive the Četnik forces.

Thus the Germans and Bulgarians established a cordon round the Četnik territory, but Keserović had received intelligence warnings about the preparations and movement of major German forces for an offensive on his area of responsibility. Keserović did not see that there was any purpose in using the Rasina Corps in a major confrontation with the German and Bulgarian forces, had already ordered his corps to divide into smaller units to facilitate the Četniks ability to manoeuvre and evade the elements of the Axis force’s closing net, and planned that the Germans and Bulgarians would therefore close on nothing. Thus the Rasina Corps escaped and the Axis force found nothing and instead undertook reprisals against the civilian population, burning several villages and committing war crimes against the Serb peasants. It was Kriva Reka which suffered most heavily as it was there that Keserović’s headquarters had been located: the Germans herded many into the church and burned it, killing 120 civilians. The Germans also killed 300 civilians in Kopaonik, and 250 in the villages on Goč mountain. During this operation Germans killed 670 civilians.