Operation Lawine

avalanche

This was a German and Croat operation against the Yugoslav forces of Marshal Josip Broz Tito in the valley of the Lašva river and around Travnik in the Syrmia region of the puppet state of Croatia in German-occupied Yugoslavia (29 December 1944/22 January 1945).

After success of the second Banja Luka operation, the Yugoslav V Corps (ex-II 'Bosnia' Corps) was ordered to undertake the Travnik operation during October 1944. In this, the corps overran the Axis garrisons in the Lašva river valley as far as Zenica to pave the way for the capture of Sarajevo. This put the Yugoslavs in a position to threaten the Bosna river valley which, after the Belgrade operation, had become main route for the north-westward retreat for Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s Heeresgruppe ‘F’ from the Balkans.

General-lajtnant Slavko Rodić's V Corps carried out 134 attacks during November 1944 and another 144 in December of the same year against the Axis garrisons holding this vital line of Germans communications. With Generalmajor Hubert Lamey’s 118th Jägerdivision hard pressed in Syrmia, Generaloberst Alexander Löhr’s Heeresgruppe ‘E’ feared a breakthrough in Slavonia with the Yugoslav forces advancing to Vinkovci and Slavonski Brod and thereby isolating the German forces in Sarajevo and the Mostar area. Initially it was planned to open secondary line of retreat through Travnik and Banja Luka toward the Una river valley as the local commanders’ request to undertake the complete evacuation of Bosnia had been rejected by Adolf Hitler.

After the Soviet LXVIII Corps had been replaced by General-Polkovnik Vladimir D. Stoychev’s indifferent Bulgarian 1st Army and the exhaustion of the Yugoslav divisions involved in the offensive operations in Syrmia had brought a temporary halt to operations, the Germans were able to bring in reinforcements and stabilise the front. The change in the overall situation resulted in ‘Lawine’ being scaled down to just the capture of Travnik in order to secure the flank of German forces drawing back through Sarajevo to Slavonski Brod.

The operation was intended to advance along the Lašva river valley from Zenica and retake Travnik, which had been captured by the Yugoslavs during the previous October, and to tackle the partisan 4th and 10th Divisions. The Germans assembled a force of 19 infantry battalions, 50 pieces of field artillery, eight tanks and four armoured cars. Under the overall tactical command of SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger’s V SS Gebirgskorps, the core of the 14,175-man German force for the first phase of ‘Lawine’ was Oberst August von Eberlein’s Kampfgruppe ‘Eberlein’ (639th Sicherungsregiment and 273rd, 516th and 803rd Sicherungsbataillonen, 920th Landesschützenbataillon, 4th and 5th Regimenter of the Russisches Schutzkorps, 505th Aufklärungsabteilung of SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Otto Kumm’s 7th SS Gebirgsdivision ‘Prinz Eugen’ and other German elements), supported by Croat units including the 1st and 4th Battalions of Ustaše Dopukovnik Krešimir Kuraja’s 11th Ustaše Brigade.

Against this the Yugoslav V Corps had 6,000 men under the control of the 4th ‘Krajina’ Division (7th Brigade of the 10th ‘Krajina’ Division along line line linking Busovača and Kiseljak, 6th ‘Krajina’ Brigade on the left bank of the Lašva river, 8th ‘Krajina’ Brigade on left bank of the Lašva river, 11th ‘Krajina’ Brigade, and the artillery battalion of the V Corps).

The German and Croat operation began on 29 December 1944 with a German probe into the Kreševo area, some 18.5 miles (30 km) to the west of Sarajevo, by elements of the V SS Gebirgskorps. This first phase of the operation began with simultaneous advances in four main directions: from Busovača toward the village of Rovno by the 4th Regiment of the Russisches Schutzkorps, 920th Landesschützenbataillon, one company of the 505th Aufklärungsabteilung, 5th Luftwaffe Sicherungsbataillon, two tanks and 12 guns; from Kopaonik along the road toward Han-Kompanija by most of the 505th Aufklärungsabteilung, 843rd Sicherungsbataillon, five tanks, two armoured cars and four guns; from Zenica toward the village of Čajdraš by the 1/11th Ustaše Brigade, 7th Feldersatzbataillon of the 7th SS Division and two armoured cars; and from the village of Gradina toward the village of Stranjani by the 5th Regiment of the Russisches Schutzkorps, 4/11th Ustaše Brigade and 369th Pionierbataillon of Generalleutnant Georg Reinicke’s 369th Division (kroatisch).

The German effort was thus centred on taking most direct route toward Travnik, but made only minor advances on the first day largely as a result of the efforts of the Yugoslav 4th Division’s artillery battalion. On 30 December the Germans switched their primary effort to the flanks in hopes of enveloping the 4th Division, and on 1 January 1945 managed to reach the Guča mountain area on partisans’ left flank, thereby opening a direct route to Travnik. The Yugoslav V Corps immediately ordered the movement of the 6th Brigade from right flank to cover the Guča mountain area, and as a result the Kampfgruppe ‘Eberlein’ was attacked in the centre by the 6th Brigade and on its flanks by the 8th and 11th Brigades. On 5 January the V Corps ordered all units to attack the Kampfgruppe ‘Eberlein’, which fell back to Zenica.

The failure of the Kampfgruppe ‘Eberlein’ compelled Heeresgruppe ‘E’ to transfer its operational reserve, Generalleutnant Hartwig von Ludwiger’s 104th Jägerdivision, from Sarajevo to Zenica, whose defence it then assumed. The 18,000-man division also took under command the Kampfgruppe ‘Eberlein’ and began planning a new attack toward Travnik in the second phase of ‘Lawine’. Preparations took 12 days because the new undertaking, initially planned for 10 January, had to be postponed after the 14th Brigade of the partisan 53rd Division cut the railway line between Žepča, Maglaja and Doboj in many places, thereby preventing the movement of several of the V SS Gebirgskorps’ staff units to Zagreb. The 104th Jägerdivision was given the immediate task of securing the movement of these units, delaying the resumption of ‘Lawine’.

The operation’s second phase therefore began at 04.00 on 19 January, the main attack being directed at the the Guča mountain area and the Malina. The Guča mountain area was lost and recaptured by 4th Division several times.

In ‘Lawine’ the 104th Jägerdivision operated in four Kampfgruppen. The Kampfgruppe ‘Wecker’ advanced from Hill 800 and the village of Sušanj toward Vranići and Suhi Do with task of enveloping Travnik from the north using the 734th Jägerregiment and the 845th Deutsch-Arabische Sicherungsbataillon. The Kampfgruppe ‘Mayer’ advanced from Grahovčići and Konjevići toward the villages of Brajkovići and the Guča mountain area with the 724th Jägerregiment and 5th Luftwaffe Sicherungsbataillon. The Kampfgruppe ‘Dorner’ guarded the 724th Jägerregiment’s southern flank and advanced via Pečarnice toward the Bila river near the village of Klaci and thence to the Lašva river near the village of Nević Polje with the 104th Aufklärungsabteilung. And the Kampfgruppe ‘Eberlein’ advanced by road from Busovača to Travnik with the 639th Sicherungsregiment, 273rd and 516th Sicherungsbataillonen, 522nd Landesschützenbataillon, 1st and 2nd Regimenter of the Russisches Schutzkorps, and two batteries of captured Italian 75-mm (2.95-in) guns.

‘Lawine’ ended on 22 January with the German capture of Travnik after the Germans had advanced along the Lašva river valley against heavy opposition from the surrounding hills on both sides of the winding road. The Yugoslavs counterattacked on several occasions with great determination, but were driven back and finally disappeared into the mountains.

In the first phase of ‘Lawine’, the Germans admitted the loss of six men killed and 67 wounded, together with two vehicles and 11 pack animals, while the partisan losses were claimed as 84 men killed and 337 wounded; in the operation’s second phase, the 104th Jägerdivision lost 34 men killed, 134 wounded, 87 incapacitated by frostbite, and four missing, while the partisan losses were claimed as 92 men killed, 178 wounded and 21 missing.

According to Yugoslav records, the Axis forces lost 682 men killed and several hundred wounded, while the partisans themselves suffered 280 casualties.

At the end of January the 104th Jägerdivision was transferred to Doboj for an attack toward Gračanica and from Brčko and Bijeljina toward Zvornik in support of Generalleutnant Helmut Friebe’s 22nd Division, which was advancing through the Drina river valley toward Brčko. This left only the Kampfgruppe ‘Eberlein’, reinforced with a little armour and artillery, for for the defence Travnik and the Lašva river valley against the V Corps. The partisan attack began on 15 February, liberated Travnik on 19 February and drove the Germans back to Zenica by 25 February. German reinforcement took the form of the 359th Regiment of Generalleutnant Eugen Bleyer’s 181st Division, but this proved insufficient to stabilise the situation, and the 7th SS Gebirgsdivision had to be redeployed into the area for the following ‘Seitensprung’ (ii).