Operation Panther (viii)

This was a German and Croat operation against the partisan forces of Marshal Josip Broz Tito operating in the Metsovan pass region of south-eastern Croatia in German-occupied Yugoslavia (7/20 December 1943).

The undertaking was designed to pin and destroy the partisan forces concentrated in the Glina area and to destroy their supply bases in the Petrova and Samarica mountain regions in order to reduce the frequency and scale of partisan attacks on the railway lines connecting Zagreb and Novska, Zagreb and Sunja, and Sunja and Bihać. As such, the operation was the direct successor to ‘Wolf’ (ii), and was aimed at the 13,000 or so men of the Yugoslav IV Corps (7th ‘Banija’ Division, 8th ‘Kordun’ Division, ‘Banija’ Partisan Detachment and ‘Kordun’ Partisan Detachment) in Kordun and Banija because of the threat they represented to Axis communications between the Sava river valley and the Adriatic sea.

The offensive was undertaken by five battalions of Generalleutnant Emil Zellner’s 373rd Division (kroatisch) attacking from the south and east, Generalleutnant Hermann Niehoff’s 371st Division (kroatisch) from the west, and six battalions of Generalleutnant Hellmuth von Pannwitz’s 1st Kosaken-Kavalleriedivision from the Sava river valley. Croat support was provided by elements of Pukovnik Josip Bučar’s 2nd Jägerbrigade, eight Ustaše and one Domobran companies from the Karlovac area and, attached to the 373rd Division, 300 men of the Domdo Battalion ‘Husko Miljković’.

Ordered by Generaloberst Dr Lothar Rendulic’s 2nd Panzerarmee and supervised by General Ernst von Leyser’s XV Gebirgskorps, the operation was extensive in its geographical context, and took two weeks to complete. After surrounding the area, the Axis forces advanced toward its centre in the location of Glina, Topusko and Vrnograc. According to the German after-action report, the partisan central staff for Croatia was prevented from creating an operational reserve in the area on the basis of the 8th ‘Kordun’ Division, and the partisans were thereby unbalanced and prevented from carrying out operations in and from the area for at least a month.

In addition to their matériel losses, the partisans suffered the destruction of their military and civil infrastructure in the Banija area, major damage to the development of their communist party organisation (Women’s Front, Youth, Young Pioneers, etc), and the discrediting of their earlier propaganda coup in liberating a large area which was then lost.

According to partisan accounts, the operation was marked by large-scale German and Croat looting and mistreatment of the population. The 2nd Panzerarmee’s operations order dictated the forced removal of some 6,000 members of the local population and their temporary incarceration in holding camps in Karlovac and Sisak.

The main body of the IV Corps evaded destruction and slipped away, and while admitting the loss of 70 Germans killed, 278 wounded, 24 missing, 153 sick and 141 horses killed, as well as some 10 Croats killed and 30 wounded, the Germans claimed 882 partisans counted dead, numerous wounded, 191 captured, 21 defectors, and 96 men who had been forcibly conscripted by the partisans rescued and evacuated. The Axis forces also took three 75-mm (2.95-in) guns, one 47-mm anti-tank gun, two mortars, 47 machine guns, 189 rifles, and a large herd of livestock.

In the continuing process of trying to eliminate the partisan movement in Yugoslavia, ‘Panther’ (viii) was soon followed by ‘Weihnachtsmann’.