Operation Kranich

crane

This was the German withdrawal of the 2/738th Jägerregiment of Generalmajor Hubert Lamey’s 118th Jägerdivision from Sumartin on Brač island off the Dalmatian coast of German-occupied Yugoslavia (14/18 September 1944).

Less one of its companies but reinforced by the 628th Marineartillerieabteilung and able to call in additional artillery support from the Makaska area, this battalion had remained on Brač island after ‘Eisbär’ (vi), and occupied a good defensive position centred on the dominating peak around the chapel of St Nikola, with bunkers trenches dug into solid rock with pneumatic drills, more than 7,000 land mines, several lines of barbed wire and several heavy machine guns. The Germans believed that this position was well able to withstand any assault, and until ‘Kranich’ it had been planned to defend the position to the last man.

The Yugoslav partisans already had in the area the whole of their 12th Brigade and two battalions of their 1st ‘Dalmatia’ Brigade, supported by four tanks and battery of mountain guns, and a British commando and two batteries of artillery were made available at the request of the 26th ‘Dalmatia’ Division to support the attack.

On the morning on 14 September three partisan battalions (one of 12th Brigade and two of the 1st Brigade) started to move forward to their start positions as two air attacks were made on German positions. A two-hour artillery bombardment began at 17.00, and the main attack followed at 20.00 but was easily repulsed by the German battalion. On the following day two more battalions of the 1st ‘Dalmatia’ Brigade arrived from Vis island to replace the two battalions used in the previous day’s attack. Artillery and air attacks pounded the German position throughout the day.

SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Artur Phleps’s (from 21 September SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Karl Ritter von Oberkamp’s) V SS Gebirgskorps, which included the 118th Jägerdivision, stopped the evacuation on the night of 15 September in order to keep the Brač strait open to German traffic into the immediate future, and reinforced the garrison with one company of the 118th Aufklärungsabteilung, which was landed directly at Sumartin instead of the port of Povlja, which is where the staff of the 1st ‘Dalmatia’ Brigade had expected any German reinforcement from the mainland to arrive.

The partisan attack in the evening of 15 September was again poorly co-ordinated and quickly failed. The 1st ‘Dalmatia’ Brigade’s battalions also became involved in a ‘friendly fire’ incident, and only one battalion from the 12th Brigade managed, after moving along the coast, to enter the village before being expelled by a German counterattack.

Because of co-ordination problems during night, the next attack was scheduled for dawn of the 17 September. On 16 September there was a measure of preparatory work, with occasional artillery and air attacks on the German positions, which were little discomforted. At dawn, and after a one-hour artillery preparation, the third attack was finally committed. This time the partisan attack managed to secure Sumartin and St Rok chapel, leaving only the position at St Nikola chapel in German hands.

Surrender negotiations from 12.00 to 18.00 on 17 September were only a stalling manoeuvre, and the 1st ‘Dalmatia’ Brigade launched another attack in the evening on St Nikola, but this again failed and the partisans went over the defensive.

By this time the V SS Gebirgskorps had decided to withdraw the garrison before it was destroyed, and during the night 17/18 September despatched marine pioneers, coastal Jäger troops, landing craft, and torpedo boats to Povlja harbour, to which the garrison battalion was ordered to break out. The battalion attacked at about 24.00 toward the west, but was repulsed. By dawn it had finally managed to break through toward the north and reach Povlja, but by this time the German ships had already left for feat of Allied air attack during the daylight hours. Now caught outside its prepared defences, the battalion surrendered after 30 minutes of combat with the 1st ‘Dalmatia’ Brigade.

The German force lost 105 men killed and 583 taken prisoner, while the partisans suffered the loss of 37 men killed and 197 wounded.

A few German soldiers attempted to swim across the Brač strait, but most of them drowned.

In the face of partisan assault operations, the German idea of planned withdrawal from less important islands to free troops for other duties was superficially good, but in this instance a whole battalion was lost and the Germans had then to abandon all of the islands they had hoped to hold, with the exception of Drvenik Veli, and also to fall back from the Pelješac peninsula. This secured for a partisan movement a solid base for the liberation of the Dalmatian mainland.