Independent State of Croatia #B35 (1943)

Croatia, Independent State Of #B35 (1943)

Croatia, Independent State Of #B35 (1943)

The Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska, or NDH) was a World War II puppet state of Germany and Italy founded on April 10, 1941, after the invasion of Yugoslavia by the Axis powers. The NDH encompassed most of modern-day Croatia, all of Bosnia and Herzegovina, part of modern-day Serbia, and a small portion of modern-day Slovenia in the Municipality of Brežice. It bordered the Third Reich to the north-west, Kingdom of Hungary to the north-east, Serbian administration (a joint German-Serb government) to the east, Montenegro (an Italian protectorate) to the south-east and Italy along its coastal area.. The regime targeted Serbs, Jews, Roma people and anti-fascist or dissident Croatians and Muslims, as part of a large-scale genocide campaign in places such as the Jasenovac concentration camp.

In 1915 a group of political emigres from Austria-Hungary, predominantly Croats but including some Serbs and a Slovene, formed themselves into a Yugoslav Committee, with a view to creating a South Slav state in the aftermath of World War I. They saw this as a way to prevent Dalmatia being ceded to Italy under the Treaty of London (1915). In 1918, the National Council of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs sent a delegation to the Serbian monarch to offer unification of the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs with the Kingdom of Serbia. The leader of the Croatian Peasant Party, Stjepan Radić, warned on their departure for Belgrade that the council had no democratic legitimacy. But a new state, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, was duly proclaimed on December 1, 1918, with no heed taken of legal protocols such as the signing of a new Pacta conventa in recognition of historic Croatian state rights.

Croats were at the outset politically disadvantaged with the centralized political structure of the kingdom, which was seen as favoring the Serb majority. The political situation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was fractious and violent. In 1927, the Independent Democratic Party, which represented the Serbs of Croatia, turned its back on the centralist policy of King Alexander. On June 20, 1928, Stjepan Radić and four other Croat deputies were shot while in the Belgrade parliament by a member of the Serbian People’s Radical Party. Three of the deputies, including Radić, died. The outrage that resulted from the assassination of Stjepan Radić threatened to destabilise the kingdom. In January 1929, King Alexander responded by proclaiming a royal dictatorship, under which all dissenting political activity was banned and renaming the state the “Kingdom of Yugoslavia”. The Ustaša was created in principle in 1929.

One consequence of Alexander’s 1929 proclamation and the repression and persecution of Croatian nationalists was a rise of support for the Croatian extreme nationalist, Ante Pavelić, who had been a Zagreb deputy in the Yugoslav parliament, He was later implicated in Alexander’s assassination in 1934, went into exile in Italy and gained support for his vision of liberating Croatia from Serb control and racially “purifying” Croatia. While residing in Italy, Pavelić and other Croatian exiles planned the Ustaša insurgency.

Following the attack of the Axis powers on the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1941, and the quick defeat of the Royal Yugoslav Army (Jugoslavenska Vojska), the country was occupied by Axis forces. The Axis powers offered Vladko Maček the opportunity to form a government, since Maček and his party, the Croatian Peasant Party (Hrvatska seljačka stranka, or HSS) had the greatest electoral support among Yugoslavia’s Croats. Maček refused the offer.

Slavko Kvaternik, deputy leader of the Ustaše proclaimed the establishment of the Independent State of Croatia on April 10, 1941. Pavelić, who was known by his Ustaše title, “Poglavnik” returned to Zagreb from exile in Italy on April 17 and became the absolute leader of the NDH throughout its existence.

Acceding to the demands of Benito Mussolini and the Fascist regime in the Kingdom of Italy, Pavelić reluctantly accepted Aimone the 4th Duke of Aosta as a figurehead King of the NDH under his new royal name, Tomislav II. Tomislav II never visited the NDH and had no influence over the government, which was dominated by Pavelić. Tomislav II was not interested in being the figurehead King of Croatia. Upon learning he had been named King of Croatia, he told close colleagues that he thought his nomination was a bad joke by his cousin King Victor Emmanuel III though he accepted the crown out of a sense of duty.

From a strategic perspective, the establishment of the NDH was an attempt by Mussolini and Hitler to pacify the Croats, while reducing the use of Axis resources, which were more urgently needed for Operation Barbarossa. Meanwhile, Mussolini used his long-established support for Croatian independence as leverage to coerce Pavelić into signing an agreement on May 19, 1941, under which central Dalmatia and parts of Hrvatsko primorje and Gorski kotar were ceded to Italy. Under the same agreement, the NDH was restricted to a minimal navy and Italian forces were granted military control of the entire Croatian coastline. After Pavelić signed the agreement, other Croatian politicians rebuked him. Pavelić publicly defended the decision and thanked Germany and Italy for supporting Croatian independence.

After refusing leadership of the NDH, Maček called on all to obey and cooperate with the new government. The Roman Catholic Church was also openly supportive of the government. According to Maček, the new state was greeted with a “wave of enthusiasm” in Zagreb, often by people “blinded and intoxicated” by the fact that the Nazi Germany had “gift-wrapped their occupation under the euphemistic title of Independent State of Croatia”. But in the villages, Maček wrote, the peasantry believed that “their struggle over the past 30 years to become masters of their homes and their country had suffered a tremendous setback”.

On August 16, 1941, the Ustasha Surveillance Service was established, consisting of four departments — the Ustasha Police, the Ustasha Intelligence Service, Utasha Defense, and Personnel — for the suppression of activities against the Ustasha, the Independent State of Croatia, and the Croatia people. The Service was eliminated as a separate agency in January 1943 and functions were transferred to the Ministry of Interior under the Directorate of Public Order.

Dissatisfied with the Pavelić regime in its early months, the Axis Powers in September 1941 asked Maček to take over, but Maček again refused. Perceiving Maček as a potential rival, Pavelić subsequently had him arrested and interred in the Jasenovac concentration camp. The Ustaše initially did not have an army or administration capable of controlling all the territory of the NDH. The Ustaše movement had fewer than 12,000 members when the war started. While the Ustaše’s own estimates put the number of their sympathizers even in the early phase at around 40,000.

To act against Serbs and Jews with genocidal measures, the Ustase introduced widespread measures that Croats themselves were victim to. Jozo Tomasevich in his book, War and Revolution in Yugoslavia: 1941-1945, states, “never before in history had Croats been exposed to such legalized administrative, police and judicial brutality and abuse as during the Ustasha regime.” Decrees enacted by the regime formed the basis that allowed it to get rid of all unwanted employees in state and local government and in state enterprises. The unwanted being all Jews, Serbs, and Yugoslav-oriented Croats who were all thrown out except for some deemed specifically needed by the government. This would leave a multitude of jobs to be filled by Ustashas and pro-Ustasha adherents. This would lead to government jobs being filled by people with no professional qualifications.

According to reports by General Glaise-Horstenau, Adolf Hitler was angry with Pavelić, whose policy inflamed the rebellion in Croatia, thwarting any prospect of deploying NDH forces on the Eastern Front. Moreover, Hitler was forced to engage large forces of his own to keep the rebellion in check. For that reason, Hitler summoned Pavelić to his war headquarters in Vinnytsia (Ukraine) on September 23, 1942. Consequently, Pavelić replaced his minister of the Armed Forces, Slavko Kvaternik, with the less zealous Jure Francetić. Kvaternik was sent into exile in Slovakia — along with his son Eugen, who was blamed for the persecution of the Serbs in Croatia. Before meeting Hitler, to appease the public, Pavelić published an “Important Government Announcement” (»Važna obavijest Vlade«), in which he threatened those who were spreading the news “about non-existent threats of disarmament of the Ustashe units by representatives of one foreign power, about the Croatian Army replacement by a foreign army, about the possibility that a foreign power would seize the power in Croatia …”

Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler is quoted characterizing the Independent State of Croatia as “ridiculous”: “our beloved German settlements will be secured. I hope that the area south of Srem will be liberated by … the Bosnian division … so that we can at least restore partial order in this ridiculous (Croatian) state.”

The Ustaše gained German support for plans to eliminate the Serb population in Croatia. One plan involved an exchange in 1941 between Germany and the NDH, in which 20,000 Catholic Slovenes would be deported from German-held Slovenia and sent to the NDH where they would be assimilated as Croats. In exchange, 20,000 Serbs would be deported from the NDH and sent to the rump Serbian State. During a Salzburg meeting with Hitler on June 6,  1941, Pavelić agreed to receive 175,000 deported Slovenes. The agreement provided that the number of Serbs deported from NDH to Serbia could exceed the number of Slovenes received by 30,000. During the talks, Hitler stressed the necessity and desirability of deportations of Slovenes and Serbs, and advised Pavelic that NDH, in order to become stable, should carry on ethnically intolerant policy for the next 50 years. The German occupation forces allowed the expulsion of Serbs to Serbia, but instead of sending the Slovenes to Croatia, they were also deported to Serbia. In total, about 300,000 Serbs had been deported or fled from the NDH to Serbia by the end of World War II.

The atrocities committed by the Ustaše stunned observers, Brigadier Sir Fitzroy Maclean, Chief of the British military mission to the Partisans commented, “Some Ustaše collected the eyes of Serbs they had killed, sending them, when they had enough, to the Poglavnik for his inspection or proudly displaying them and other human organs in the cafés of Zagreb.”

The Nazi regime demanded that the Ustaše adopt antisemitic racial policies, persecute Jews and set up several concentration camps. Pavelic and the Ustaše accepted Nazi demands, but their racial policy focused primarily on eliminating the Serb population. When the Ustaše needed more recruits to help exterminate the Serbs, and the state broke away from Nazi antisemitic policy by promising honorary Aryan citizenship, and thus freedom from persecution, to Jews who were willing to fight for the NDH. As this was the only legal means allowing Jews to escape persecution, a number of Jews joined the NDH’s armed forces. This aggravated the German SS, which claimed that the NDH let 5,000 Jews survive via service in the NDH’s armed forces.

German anti-Semitic objectives for Croatia were further undermined by Italy’s reluctance to adhere to a strict antisemitic policy, which resulted in Jews in Italian-held parts of Croatia avoiding the same persecution facing Jews in German-held eastern Croatia. After Italy abandoned the war in 1943, German forces occupied western Croatia and the NDH annexed the territory ceded to Italy in 1941.

The Ustaše’s genocidal onslaught on its minorities provoked mass movements of resistance, inspired in part by royalist (Četnik) and – more effectively – communist (Partisan) ideologies, but driven primarily by a determination to fight back by any means. The uprisings were particularly strong in rural areas where many village populations fled from the terror and then mounted guerilla operations from vantage points in the mountains and forests. On June 22, 1941, the Sisak Partisan Detachment was formed in Brezovica forest near Sisak; this was to be celebrated as the first armed resistance unit formed in occupied Europe during World War II. Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks, and citizens of all nationalities and backgrounds began joining the pan-Yugoslav Partisans led by Josip Broz Tito.

The Partisan movement was soon able to control a large percentage of the NDH (and Yugoslavia) and before long the cities of occupied Bosnia and Dalmatia in particular were surrounded by these Partisan-controlled areas, with their garrisons living in a de facto state of siege and constantly trying to maintain control of the rail-links. In 1944, the third year of the war in Yugoslavia, Croats formed 61% of the Partisan operational units originating from the Federal State of Croatia.

The Federal State of Croatia also had the highest number of detachments and brigades among the federal units, and together with the forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Partisan resistance in the NDH made up the majority of the movement’s military strength. Partisan Marshal Tito, was half Croatian, half Slovene.

In August 1944, there was an attempt by the NDH Foreign Minister Mladen Lorković and Minister of War Ante Vokić to execute a coup d’état against Ante Pavelić. The Lorković-Vokić coup failed and its conspirators were executed. By early 1945, the NDH army withdrew towards Zagreb with German and Cossack troops. They were overpowered and the advance of Tito’s Partisan forces, joined by the Soviet Red Army, caused a mass retreat of the Ustaše towards Austria and effectively an end to the Independent State of Croatia.

In May 1945, a large column composed of NDH Home Guard troops, Ustaša, Cossacks, some Chetniks and the Slovene Home Guard, as well as numerous civilians, retreated from the Partisan forces heading northwest towards Italy and Austria. The German Instrument of Surrender was signed on May 8, but the Germans put Pavelić in sole command of NDH forces, and he ordered them to continue fighting as the columns tried to reach the British forces to negotiate passage into Allied-occupied Austria. The British Army, however, refused them entry and turned them over to the Partisan forces, starting the Bleiburg repatriations.

Meanwhile, Ante Pavelić had detached from the group and fled to Austria, Italy, Argentina and finally Spain, where he would die in 1959. Several other members of the NDH government were captured in May and June 1945, and sentenced to death or long-term imprisonment in the trial of Mile Budak. The end of the war resulted in the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Yugoslavia, which later became the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, with the Constitution of 1946 officially making the People’s Republic of Croatia and the People’s Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina two of the six constituent republics of the new state.

Although far right movements in Croatia inspired by the former NDH reemerged during the Croatian War of Independence, the current Constitution of Croatia does not officially recognize the Independent State of Croatia as the historical or legitimate predecessor state of the current Croatian republic. Despite this, upon declaring independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, the Republic of Croatia rehabilitated the Croatian Home Guard, who have since received generous state pensions. German soldiers who died on Croatian territory were not commemorated until Germany and Croatia reached an agreement on marking their grave sites in 1996. The German War Graves Commission maintains two large cemeteries, in Zagreb and Split.

Prior to 1918, Croatia, including Slavonia, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and beginning in 1850 with the introduction of postage stamps, the stamps of the empire were used. In 1871, after the Croatian–Hungarian Settlement, the new stamps of the Kingdom of Hungary were used, except in Dalmatia which continued to use Austrian stamps.

In 1918, as part of the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs (SHS), Croatia overprinted the existing stocks of Hungarian stamps, with Hrvatska SHS. In 1919 they printed their own stamps with Hrvatska (Croatia) as the country name, some of which also included an SHS. The stamps of Croatia-Slavonia are listed in Volume 6 of the Scott Postage Stamp Catalogue, following the issues of Yugoslavia with “2L” prefixes in their catalogue numbers. These were used until 1921, when the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later Yugoslavia, began issuing stamps for use throughout the kingdom.

With the establishment of the Independent State of Croatia in 1941, the new government first overprinted existing stocks of Yugoslav stamps with Nezavisna Drzava Hrvatska, which were released on April 12, 1941 (Scott #1-8). The government began printing its own by the middle of that same year. With the fall of the Croatian government in 1945, Croatian stamps were overprinted with a star and Jugoslavia or a star and Demokratska Federativna but were soon replaced by the new stamps of Yugoslavia beginning with the Marshal Tito stamps of 1945.

With the resumption of independence in 1991, the Republic of Croatia again reinstated the Croatian Post, with the first new postage stamp being an airmail issued on September 9, 1991, and with the first new regular postage stamp being issued on November 21, 1991. However, on April 1, 1991, Croatia had issued a postal tax stamp, required on all mail during the month of April 1991, with the tax payable to the State’s Worker’s Fund. The stamp was affixed alongside the regular Yugoslav postage stamps which paid the transmittal fees.

Croatia joined the Universal Postal Union on July 20, 1992, and was an initial participating country in the WADP Numbering System.

Scott #B35 was issued by the Independent State of Croatia on July 1, 1943, part of a four-stamp and souvenir sheet set of semi-postals issued to honor the Croatian Legion (Hrvatska Legija) which fought with the Germans in Russia. The 3.50 k stamp carries a surtax of 1.50 k which was used to support the National Youth Society and aid the Croatian Legion. Printed in dark blue with a perforation gauge of 11, Scott #B35 portrays an infantryman at Stalingrad.

The NDH founded the Army of the Independent State of Croatia (Hrvatsko Domobranstvo) in April 1941 with the consent of the German armed forces (Wehrmacht). The task of the armed forces was to defend the state against both foreign and domestic enemies. The Army included an air force. The NDH also created the Ustaška Vojnica (Ustaše militia) which was conceived as a party militia, and a gendarmerie.

The Ustaše fascist government of the NDH asked Germany for military assistance as they feared Italian territorial ambitions after ceding much of the coastal area of Dalmatia to Italy in treaties signed on May 18, 1941. By June 25, 1941, Pavelić had sent an envoy to Berlin to offer volunteers to serve on the Eastern Front. By July 2, Hitler had accepted the offer, and military units were formed under the supervision of two German army officers. The NDH viewed this as a means of strengthening its ties with Germany, potentially an ally in resisting further territorial losses to Italy.

The 369th Reinforced Infantry Regiment (Verstärktes Kroatisches Infanterie-Regiment 369 in German, or 369. Pojačana Pješačka Pukovnija in Croatian) was a unit of the German Wehrmacht. As the regiment was raised from volunteers drawn from Croatia it was commonly referred to as the Croatian Legion (Hrvatska Legija).

Although the unit was considered by the NDH to be a part of the Croatian Home Guard and the NDH authorities retained responsibility for providing replacements, the members of the regiment swore an oath to Adolf Hitler. Whilst not an official part of the Wehrmacht, the regiment was under German military jurisdiction and direct German command throughout its existence, serving as part of the 100th Light Infantry Division. All soldiers wore Wehrmacht uniforms with a Croatian checkerboard patch incorporating the word Hrvatska (Croatia) on the upper right sleeve and right side of the helmet.

Initially, two battalions were raised and formed into a regiment at Varazdin. This was followed by the raising of a third battalion at Sarajevo. Only Croats, Ukrainians or White Russians were accepted as volunteers, and about one third of those accepted were Bosnian Muslims. A training battalion was formed for the regiment in Stockerau, Austria. The regiment was then transported to Dollersheim, Austria for training. With an effective strength of 5,000, the regiment consisted of three infantry battalions, a machine-gun company, an anti-tank company, three batteries of field artillery, headquarters staff and a supply company.

On August 21, 1941, the regiment was transported to Romania. From there, it spent several weeks marching on foot to the front line. On October 10, the regiment linked up on the line of the Dnieper River with the 100th Light Infantry Division, which was then part of the 17th Army, Army Group South.

In order to accustom the regiment to war conditions and divisional procedures, as well as to further progress their training, the units of the regiment were initially divided up among other regiments of the division immediately after their arrival on the front line near Kharkov. The divisional diary recorded that the main goal for units of the regiment during this period was to improve discipline across various areas. To improve poor discipline, on September 30, 1941, Colonel Ivan Markulj sent 43 officers and NCOs as well as 144 soldiers back to the NDH due to illness and/or for disciplinary reasons.

After the Red Army counterattacked and re-took Rostov in November 1941, the 100th Light Infantry Division was marched south to the front line on the Mius River on November 22. Temperatures dropped as low as -18°C and the regiment had no winter clothing. The units of the regiment, still divided among the other regiments of the division, dug in alongside the Slovak Mobile Brigade and SS-Division Wiking. In mid-January 1942, the 100th Light Infantry Division was deployed to the Stalino area to assist in fighting off a Soviet cavalry corps that had broken through the front line. Through some heavy fighting along the line of the Samara River, the division held on through the winter.

Starting in early 1942, soldiers of the unit were able to send messages back to the Independent State of Croatia. Messages for family members and friends were written on any paper the troops could find, such as cigarette papers or pages torn from notebooks. Communications from the Regiment’s soldiers were subsequently broadcast on Radio Zagreb (later known as Hrvatski Krugoval), alongside propaganda announcements that praised the Croatian authorities and did not mention the soldiers’ fate — most often death or capture.

The commander of the 100th Light Infantry Division, Generalleutnant Werner Sanne commended the regiment’s successes over the winter, especially the actions of Lieutenant Colonel Marko Mesić’s artillery battalion on February 21-22, 1942. On February 23, 1942, Sanne awarded Mesić the Iron Cross.

During April 1942 four soldiers of the regiment were sentenced to death and shot while many others were sentenced to imprisonment of between 2–10 years.

From mid-May 1942 the regiment was re-united under Colonel Markulj, after which the 100th Light Infantry Division joined in the final phases of the pincer attack on the Red Army bridgehead at Kharkov. In June, the division supported the drive of the 1st Panzer Army along the Don River, through Voronezh to Kalach where the regiment incurred heavy casualties trying to cross the river in the face of serious resistance. After the Second Battle of Kharkov, Colonel Markulj, Lieutenant Eduard Bakarec and six other officers of the regiment were awarded the Iron Cross First Class. A report dated June 21, 1942, states that Legion contained 113 officers, 7 military clerks, 625 NCOs, and 4317 soldiers, as well as 2902 horses.

After participating in mopping-up operations in along the Don, the division rested briefly in September, and the regiment was re-organised after receiving some reinforcements. Markulj was transferred back to Croatia and was temporarily replaced by Colonel Marko Mesić on July 7, 1942 and Lieutenant Colonel Ivan Babić who was finally replaced by Colonel Viktor Pavičić.

At ‘Proljet Kultura,’ the regiment suffered 53 dead and 186 wounded in desperate hand-to-hand combat during the German attack on July 27, 1942, and subsequent overwhelming Soviet counterattack the following day. The worst recorded casualties before Stalingrad were 171 dead suffered in combat in various villages along the Samara River. On September 24, 1942, during a visit to the 6th Army headquarters, Pavelić decorated and promoted some soldiers of the regiment. Two days later the 100th Light Infantry Division was committed to the Battle of Stalingrad.

The Battle of Stalingrad (August 23, 1942 to February 2, 1943) was marked by fierce close quarters combat and direct assaults on civilians by air raids and is often regarded as one of the single largest (nearly 2.2 million personnel) and bloodiest (1.7–2 million wounded, killed or captured) battles in the history of warfare. The heavy losses inflicted on the German Wehrmacht make it arguably the most strategically decisive battle of the whole war. It was a turning point in the European theater of World War II; German forces never regained the initiative in the East and withdrew a vast military force from the West to replace their losses.

The German offensive to capture the southern Russian city of Stalingrad began in August 1942, using the German 6th Army and elements of the 4th Panzer Army. The attack was supported by intensive Luftwaffe bombing that reduced much of the city to rubble. The fighting degenerated into house-to-house fighting, and both sides poured reinforcements into the city. By mid-November 1942, the Germans had pushed the Soviet defenders back at great cost into narrow zones along the west bank of the Volga River.

On November 19, 1942, the Red Army launched Operation Uranus, a two-pronged attack targeting the weaker Romanian and Hungarian armies protecting the German 6th Army’s flanks. The Axis forces on the flanks were overrun and the 6th Army was cut off and surrounded in the Stalingrad area. Adolf Hitler ordered that the army stay in Stalingrad and make no attempt to break out; instead, attempts were made to supply the army by air and to break the encirclement from the outside. Heavy fighting continued for another two months. By early February 1943, the Axis forces in Stalingrad had exhausted their ammunition and food. The remaining units of the 6th Army surrendered. The battle lasted five months, one week, and three days.

The 100th Light Infantry Division, including the 369th Croatian Reinforced Infantry Regiment, was involved in the heavy fighting for the “Red October” factory and for Mamayev Hill during the Battle of Stalingrad. By November 1942, the fighting in their sector had become a locked stalemate with little progress. By December 1942, the regiment had seen such intense combat that it was at 1/3 strength. Despite the harsh conditions, the German high command credited the regiment with maintaining ‘proper and military bearing’.

Sergeant Dragutin Podobnik was awarded the Iron Cross Second and First Class as well as many Croat decorations including one personally from Pavelić in September 1942 for his actions at Stalingrad. Pavelić ordered a strategic building to be captured in the Red October factory but the armored vehicle support was delayed. Podobnik and his 18 men surprised the Soviets and captured the building without loss, then handed it over to units from the German 54th Army Group. Sergeant Podobnik was later wounded and evacuated from Stalingrad and was killed in spring 1945 whilst serving in Pavelić’s elite unit.

Several distinctions and citations are noted in war diaries and official military documents. There are several citations for bravery, valor, and leadership under fire for men of all ranks, including Lieutenant Rudolf Baričević. In addition, the regimental doctors received distinction for their actions and success in saving lives. One notable citation is that of Captain Madraš, who was wounded and was to be flown out of Stalingrad, but refused and instead stayed and fought with his men.

Despite the honorable distinctions, there were of course acts of insubordination, dereliction of duty, and cowardly behavior also cited in reports. This was common for the demoralized and surrounded German and German-allied troops at Stalingrad, as the conditions were extremely harsh on the soldiers. Major Tomislav Brajkovic is noted to have desperately attempted to keep morale and discipline high. However, due to major disagreements with other officers, including his commanding officer, he was transferred out of the regiment.

By January 14, 1943, the regiment’s section of the front line had reduced to 200 m held by some 90 remaining troops, all suffering from extreme cold, hunger, fatigue and lack of ammunition. Colonel Viktor Pavicic reportedly left a resignation letter and disappeared from the theater for good. He recommended Colonel Mesić to General Sanne to be his successor. General Sanne officially reported that Pavicic was a deserter, but Sgt. Erwin Juric claimed that Pavicic had received written orders signed by Sanne to leave Stalingrad by air on January 15. During its last days at Stalingrad, the Legion was desperately retraining about 700 inexperienced artillery and support soldiers to infantry combat duty. The last official report from January 21, 1943, counted 443 infantry and 444 artillery soldiers in Stalingrad. Just before the surrender of the 6th Army at the end of January, about 1,000 wounded were flown out, and of the remaining men in the regiment, nearly 900 became prisoners of war.

Among the last Wehrmacht soldiers to leave Stalingrad by air were a group of 18 wounded and sick Croat legionnaires, including Lt. Barićević, who were flown out by Luftwaffe pilots and were landed on the last serviceable German airfield at Staljingradskaja near the 369th’s artillery section positions on the night of January 22-23, 1943. The regiment’s war diary and other documents were also saved in this evacuation. The previous night, several Luftwaffe planes had crashed attempting to take off and land perilously close to fast-advancing Soviet forces, thus fewer planes flew in for rescue missions. During the day of January 23, Stalingradskaja airfield fell into Soviet hands.

Elements of the regiment fought as long as they could but ultimately surrendered to the Soviet General Vasiljev on January 29 or 30, 1943. In the three months between October 21, 1942, and January 21, 1943, they had lost 540 of 983 troops fighting for the Red October factory.

On January 31, 1943, General Paulus announced the surrender of the German 6th Army. On February 2, the Legion became Soviet prisoners of war including all officers, approximately 100, mostly wounded, sick, and frostbitten combat soldiers, as well as some 600 other legionaries from artillery and support units. In the two weeks leading up to the capitulation the 369th Regiment had lost 175 soldiers.

The Legion assembled at Beketovka on river Volga where they were joined by some 80,000 mainly German as well as Italian, Romanian and Hungarian POWs. They were sent on a forced march to Moscow where they were joined by Croatian legionnaires from the Light Transport Brigade who had been attached to Italian forces on the Eastern Front. From there, they were sent to work camps in Siberia. Many died on the march due to starvation, hypothermia or disease.

More than one thousand legionnaires were evacuated from the Soviet Union and later Stalingrad by various means and for various reasons. They were awarded the Croatian Legion 1941 Linden Leaf for their service and formed the core of a new unit, the 369th (Croatian) Infantry Division (Wehrmacht).

In the Summer of 1943 one hundred legionaries and 6 officers including Marko Mesic were transferred to Suzdalj and later to Krasnogorsk near Moscow, where they met with most of the surviving Croat soldiers. At Krasnogorsk, the Soviets formed a new unit that utilized Royal Yugoslav uniforms (At the time, Soviets did not recognize Tito’s forces as a sovereign state). During early Soviet imprisonment, the former Ustaše Lieutenant Colonel Marko Mesić may have been forced to appear in Soviet propaganda wearing a Royal Yugoslav Army uniform and Tito’s flag to save the lives of his remaining men. Upon news of this, the Ministry of the Armed Forces removed him from the Croatian Armed Forces and rescinded his awards.

In late October 1944, a “Yugoslav Legion” numbering about 3,000 men operated as part of the Red Army around Čačak during the Belgrade Offensive. This unit was formed in early 1944 partly from former members of the 369th (Croatian) Reinforced Infantry Regiment, and was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Mesić assisted by Captain Milutin Perišić, a Serb. Both officers were praised by Soviet general Sergey Biryuzov.

Colonel Mesić was given command by the Soviets of this newly formed First Yugoslav Volunteer Brigade, assembled from prisoners of war of Yugoslavian origin as well as volunteers living in Russia at the time. It is quite likely that most former Croatian soldiers of the 369. Regiment chose Communist Partisan service to avoid almost certain death in Soviet prisoner-of-war camps.

During the first few months in captivity, Legionnaire numbers were reduced from some 700 to around 400 odd survivors or a 40% loss of life in under twelve months. The new Yugoslav partisan brigade, now wearing old Royal Yugoslav Army uniforms, was commanded by experienced former 369th Regiment Croat Legion officers like Lt. Col. Egon Zitnik, the former commander of the Light Transport Unit; Major Marijan Prislin, the former second in command of the 369. Regiment’s artillery section; and Major Marijan Tulicic, the former artillery unit commander. New unit military training was very fast as most men were experienced soldiers. As late as March 1944 they were joined by 200 more former 369th legionaries led by former 369th Stalingrad Doctor Bogoljub Modrijan as well as Lt. Vlahov, Lt. Tahtamišimov, Lt.Draženović and Lt. Ivan Vadlja, who was wounded at Stalingrad but missed the last flight out. They were transported to Yugoslavia in late 1944 under direct orders from Tito, where they were sacrificed in combat against superior German forces, suffering very high casualties. The few remaining survivors were suspected and most were later convicted of being Soviet infiltrators by the partisans as well as Croat NDH authorities.

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