Operation Kugelblitz (ii)

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This was a German operation against the partisan forces (II Corps in northern Montenegro and Sandžak, and III Corps [2nd, 5th 17th and 27th Divisions] in eastern Bosnia) of Marshal Josip Broz Tito operating in the eastern Bosnia, western Serbia, Slovenia and Adriatic islands region of German-occupied Yugoslavia (2 December 1943/February 1944).

‘Kugelblitz’ (ii) was one of a trio of concerted operations, together with ‘Schneesturm’ and ‘Herbstgewitter’ (i), that became known in Yugoslavia as the 'Sixth Enemy Offensive'. The Germans eventually used several divisions in this operation, which was planned as a decisive stroke against the communist resistance forces in the western and north-western Balkans under Tito’s overall leadership.

The partisan movement had come into being almost immediately after the conquest of Yugoslavia by the Germans, but bided its time until after the beginning of ‘Barbarossa’ before issuing a call to arms. Tito’s plans called for dispersed hit-and-run operations against the occupying forces, which would tie down the Germans and Italians, cost the opposition heavily in men and matériel, and build up the strength and offensive capability of the partisan movement without the need for heavy losses.

The success of Tito’s movement is attested by the fact that the Germans had lost control of much of western Serbia by September 1941. There then followed a period of great difficulty as the partisans became more embroiled against the Četnik royalist resistance under Colonel Draža Mihailovic than against the Germans as each resistance movement sought to bring the other into its fold. The struggle of the Četniks and the partisans led the former away from their anti-German position, their greater hatred of the partisans persuading them increasingly to co-operate with the Germans against the partisans.

In the short term the partisan/Četnik struggle of 1941 allowed the Germans to recover most of western Serbia by December 1941 during the course of their first offensive against the Yugoslav partisans. This persuaded Tito to fall back into Bosnia and re-establish his forces, which had up to that time consisted mostly of local-defence resistance groups. Tito realised that the war with the Axis would be a long campaign, and that for his long-term aims of driving out the Axis and establishing a communist state he would need a formal army. The 1st Proletarian Shock Brigade was formed in December 1941, and just 12 months later this People’s Liberation Army had grown into a resistance force of some 28 brigades each comprising some 3,000 to 4,000 men and women. Though weapons, ammunition and other requirements were in short supply, the PLA was notable for its high standards of discipline and its excellent care for the wounded.

Tito’s forces then started to fight their way northward from Bosnia against the much strengthened forces of Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s Heeresgruppe ‘F’. The Allies were highly distrustful of the partisan movement at this time, and therefore furnished no matériel aid until mid-1943, by which time the partisans had endured five Axis offensives against them.

From this time onward a steadily increasing flow of matériel support began to reach the partisans, who had to endure the Germans’ most strenuous offensive against them in ‘Kugelblitz’ (ii), which initially used SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Artur Phleps’s V SS Gebirgskorps controlling some 70,000 men 1.

‘Kugelblitz’ (ii) lasted until February 1944 and drove the partisan forces back toward Bosnia while capturing Dalmatia and all the offshore Adriatic islands except Vis. The plan had been too ambitious, however, and the German forces committed to the undertaking had been tasked with covering too large an area. Most of the partisans slipped through the large gaps in the narrowing German ring, but even so the cost of ‘Kugelblitz’ (ii) to the partisans was very high, the Yugoslavs suffering something in the order of 9,000 casualties including 2,280 counted dead, 2,000 estimated dead, 2,330 captured and 1,900 renegade Italian soldiers taken prisoner.

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These comprised Generalleutnant Walter Stettner Ritter von Grabenhofen’s 1st Gebirgsdivision, SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Karl Reichsritter von Oberkamp’s 7th SS Gebirgsdivision ‘Prinz Eugen’, part of Generalleutnant Fritz Neidholdt’s 369th Division, part of Generalleutnant Josef Brauner von Haydringen’s 187th Reserve-Division (from 12 December 42nd Jägerdivision), General Major Simeon Simov’s Bulgarian 24th Division, and elements of the Četnik forces from Sandžak under the command of Lukačević.