Srpski Dobrovoljački Korpus (Serbische Freiwilligenkorps)
by H.L. deZeng IV
On 29 August 1941, a few months after the conquest of Yugoslavia, the German military Commander for Serbia approved the formation of a civil administration to be headed by Serbian General Milan Nedić. Realizing that this new government would need the means to maintain law and order and to combat the Communist-led insurrection which had already broken out across the land, the Germans granted permission on 15 September for the formation of a Serbian auxiliary volunteer corps in a strength of five battalions. This force was under the orders of minister President Nedić and commanded by Colonel Kosta M. Mušicki. An abundance of volunteers immediately stepped forward from the ranks of the para-military Chetnik organization and from Dimitrije Ljotić's pro-German "Zbor" organization. (1)
Ljotić, a distant relative of Nedić, was a political zealot and ideologist who had founded the "Zbor" movement, that after a considerable rise in popularity had been suppressed by the prewar liberal government in Yugoslavia. The "Zbor" was a Serbian-nationalist revival movement, completely independent in character, and having a religious basis.
Ljotić and his followers believed in the preservation of the old values and viewed atheism, materialism and liberalism as responsible for the present misfortunes of the Serbian people. Communism was a Satan-inspired curse aimed at the destruction of the Christian world. These were the beliefs that led him to cooperate with the Germans in the fight against Tito's Partisans. Ljotić was revered by his followers, but outside of his movement he was not popular due to his irreconcilable inflexibility concerning his beliefs. Ljotić eventually became the inspector and chief political officer of the volunteer corps. (2)
The commander of the corps was in many ways more of a politician than a soldier. Colonel, later Major General, Mušicki, was a former officer of the Austro-Hungarian Army and adjutant to Queen Maria, and was a friend of the Germans. He was a man of faultless character and of a calm, almost detached nature. Standing at his side as chief of staff was Lt. Col. Tatalović, likewise a former officer of the Austro-Hungarian Army. The cadre of the corps was good; it was composed of students, and in the beginning also the sons of peasants, many of them Serbian, but also many of the Eastern Orthodox faith who had been driven out of Croatia for their pro-Serbian, and therefore anti-Croatian, beliefs. The corps was consistently well thought of by the various German commanders under which it served. (3)
Mušicki's force was referred to by its members from the beginning as the Srpski Dobrovoljački Korpus (S.D.K.), but by the Germans only loosely as the Serbian Volunteer Detachments. (4) The men wore an olive green uniform or, in the case of officers, the uniform of the former Yugoslav armed forces, with the Cross of St. George on the right breast. (5) Rank or grade designation was for all practical purposes that of the former Royal Yugoslav Army. Weapons were mixed; besides the German arms which were eventually supplied, foreign rifles and machine guns, especially those seized as war booty from the defeated Yugoslav forces, were used. Mortars and light artillery were also on hand in varying quantities. (6)
By 15 February 1942, the corps had reached a strength of 172 officers and 3,513 men, which was very close to the planned strength for the five battalions. (7) As soon as the component units were brought up to strength, they were immediately deployed for anti-partisan operations against Tito's forces in central and northern Serbia. By 1942 the Partisans had suffered so many defeats in Serbia, a decision was made by Tito to transfer the tactical emphasis north into Croatia. Throughout 1942, the German occupation troops and the various indigenous territorial formations in Serbia, of which the volunteer corps was one, were engaged in protecting industrial resources and guarding the lines of communication. Few significant actions occurred, and casualties were light.
The continuing loyalty and distinguished service of the corps caused the Germans to grant it formal recognition on 1 January 1943, by officially changing its designation to the Serbische Freiwilligenkorps (Serbian Volunteer Corps). This formal recognition brought it more firmly under German control, and each S.F.K. battalion was subordinated to a battalion belonging to one of the German divisions in Serbia for tactical employment as well as for supply and disciplinary matters. (8)
The Partisans had meanwhile grown to an army of considerable strength, and by the spring of 1943 were once again active throughout Serbia. This renewed activity greatly worried the responsible German commanders, since the strength of the occupation forces had dwindled considerable during the relatively peaceful months of 1942. Nedić was also aware of this problem, and he decided to go see Hitler at the Obersalzberg in the hope of finding a solution. The meeting occurred on 15 September 1943, and Nedić succeeded in obtaining the Führer's agreement for the reinforcing of the S.F.K. by five additional battalions, with a further five to follow as circumstances permitted. (9) These measures were immediately carried out, and by 20 October each of the five independent battalions had become a regiment with a strength of two battalions. The reorganization was based on the S.F.K.’s "exemplary conduct in battle against the Communist Partisans.” (10) Training for the five new battalions took place at the respective regimental garrison locations: S.F.K. Regiment 1 in Valjevo, Regiment 2 in Kragujevac, 3 in Šabac, 4 in Smederevo, and 5 in Kruševac. Corps headquarters remained in Belgrade.
The S.F.K. fought the Partisans with great courage throughout the spring and summer of 1944, engaging in a number of large operations alongside the more numerous German and Bulgarian forces. By 21 August 1944 the five regiment S.F.K. had reached a strength of 9,886 officers and men, (11) and from its inception to September 1944 had suffered 700 killed in action and 1,800 wounded in action. (12) But now the German front in the Balkans began to collapse. Rumania changed sides on 23 August, followed a few weeks later by Bulgaria. The Red Army pushed across these two countries and was soon threatening the eastern borders of Yugoslavia. The Germans had no choice but to order an immediate withdrawal of all forces from Greece and Serbia, with the hope of establishing a stable front along the Drina and Sava Rivers in southern Croatia.
As the Red Army and Tito's Partisan forces began to close on Belgrade during early October, Major General Mušicki was ordered to form a tactical combat group with the task of keeping open the line of withdrawal between Belgrade and Sr. Mitrovica. The fighting raged in this area for the next several weeks, and heavy casualties were suffered by both friend and foe. The sacrifices made by the S.F.K. were not in vain however, since the majority of the German forces in the vicinity of Belgrade succeeded in pulling back to the north. (13)
Early October's heavy fighting to the north and west of Belgrade had cost the S.F.K. dearly. By 14 October there were only 4,000 men remaining in the line battalions, and Lt. Gen. Winter, operations officer for the Commander-in-Chief Southeast (OB Südost), requested OKW in Berlin to transfer the remnants out of the combat zone for regrouping prior to further employment. Winter thought very highly of the S.F.K. and did not want to see it totally destroyed before it could be brought back up to strength. (14) The transfer plan was approved, and the S.F.K. began moving north to the Graz, Austria, area.
Meanwhile, major changes were occurring in Berlin that had an impact on many of the non-German volunteers who were fighting with the German forces. There was a branch-of-service redistribution by ethnic group, and the Serbian volunteers now found themselves under the authority of the Waffen-SS. The order effecting the transfer was dated 9 November, but not formally recognized until 27 November. At this time the S.F.K. consisted of a corps staff, five regiments each with three battalions, a signal company, a mountain supply detachment and a German liaison staff -at least this was its composition on paper. (15)
It is important to point out at this time that the S.F.K. 's relationship with the Waffen-SS was consumated officially, but never organically. The troops never wore the uniform of the Waffen-SS, and it is doubtful whether the relationship ever went beyond the simple exchange of a limited amount of paperwork. The S.F.K. 's situation was quite similar to that of the XV. Kosaken-Kavallerie-Korps, which was also taken into the Waffen-SS at about the same time. (16)
It was during the move north that a tragedy befell the S.F.K. which was to cripple the unit's leadership capability in the coming months. 30 to 40 officers were seized in Zagreb by the Croatian Ustasha and executed. The Ustasha considered them dangerous enemies of the Croatian State, and this was the Ustasha response to the German failure to obtain permission prior to transporting these Serbs through their country. Any Serb who supported the "Greater Serbia" concept of pan- slavism, as did Ljotić and his followers, was by definition an enemy of the Independent State of Croatia. (17)
En-route to the Graz area, plans were changed and the S.F.K. was sent instead to a German camp at Slovenj Gradec, which is in Slovenia near the Austrian border. Here the unit regrouped and received orders to proceed to Istria, where it was assigned to the anti-partisan and security forces of the German HSSuPF Triest, SS-Gruppenführer u. Generalleutnant der Polizei Odilo Globocnik, with the task of helping to safeguard the Logatec-Postojna-Pivka-Rijeka railway. The 1st Regiment was garrisoned in the Postojna area, 2nd Regiment in Pivka, 3rd Regiment in Mucicih, 4th Regiment in Ilirska Bistrica and the 5th Regiment in Prem. During the settling in period, the 3,000 able-bodied survivors of the S.F.K. were augmented with some released Serbian PoWs, Chetniks, and members of the Serbian State Guard who had been evacuated to Istria. These new additions brought the unit's strength to approximately 8,000. (18)
Istria, or more correctly the Adriatic Littoral to the north and east of Trieste, was the home of 10,000 Partisans belonging to Tito's 9th Corps. These Partisans were a constant problem for the Germans because the heavily forested, mountainous geography of the area provided them with excellent cover, and prevented attempts to destroy them from
being successful. By the fall of 1944, the 9th Corps had established a stronghold to the northeast of Gorizia and so thoroughly disrupted road and rail traffic in the area, that the Germans were forced to set up a corps command in Gorizia under General of mountain Troops Kuebler (LXXXXVII. Armeekorps z.b.V. ) and bring in a number of new units, principally the 188th Reserve Mountain Division and the 237th Infantry Division. (19)
Once the reinforcements were in place, operations against the 9th Corps began in earnest - nearly all of them participated in by the S.F.K. - from 19 December to the end of the month a major encircle and destroy operation was mounted from the garrison towns of Gorizia, Idrija, Postojna and Sezana with the objective of eliminating the Partisan stronghold in the Trnovska Mountains. Nearly 5,000 men were used, including.500 from the S.F.K.'s 1st Regiment in Postojna, the 10th SS-Police Regiment, Italian R.S. I. troops, and Slovene Domobrans (Slovene militia who fought on the German side). As was so often the case, the encircling troops were spread too thin and the Partisans managed to slip through the lines and get away. (20)
The next campaign organized against the 9th Corps, and participated in by the S.F.K., was conducted during the first few days of March 1945 and code named "Ruebezahl". Two combat groups were formed to strike against Partisan concentrations near the town of Lokve. The first group was called "Zuschneid", and was composed of three SS-Police battalions, elements of the 1st Slovene Domobran Assault Regiment, two battalions of the S.F.K. and one Caucasian battalion, with a total force of around 5,000 men. The second group, "Koestermann", consisted of two battalions of the German 730th Infantry Regiment (710th Inf. Div.), a police company and some engineers, with a total of 2,500 men. The attacking forces pushed forward from a south and west direction, and this time the operation was more successful. The Partisans suffered moderate losses, and the concentration was broken up and dispersed to the northeast. (21)
But when Partisans disperse they do not stay dispersed, so the Germans were forced to conduct a supplemental operation between 19 March and 7 April, which proved to be the final operation against Tito's 9th Corps. Four combat groups were organized along the perimeter of the area now occupied by the Partisans, with the task of bringing the 9th Corps to battle by gradually advancing in unison toward the center, and thereby reducing the size of the area under their control. This was the standard German method of cleansing a Partisan-infested area, and it was never significantly changed during the course of the war. To the west, along the line Idrija-Reka-Grahovo-Podbrdo, Combat Group Blank was assembled with major elements of the 10th and 15th SS-Police Regiments, II./1. S.F.K. Rgt., II./4. S.F.K. Rgt., 21st SS-Police Reconnnaissance Co., SS-Police Company "Schmidt" and an artillery battery from the LXXXXVII Army Corps. This force was later joined on 4 April by the 2nd and 3rd S.F.K. Regiments, and 1,500 men from the Chetnik 502 Lika Corps. The second group, under Police major Dr. Dippelhofer, consisted of the Ljubljana SS NCO School, Slovene Domobrans, Chetniks and a 1,200- man Russian ROA unit. This group was deployed to the southeast along the line Idrija-Škofja Loka. The northern assault group, 4,500 men belonging to the 13th, 17th and 28th SS-Police Regiments, were formed up along the road between Podbrdo and Škofja Loka, while a special assault force from the 14th Ukrainian SS Division was concentrated along the northeastern side of the perimeter.
The area encircled is mountainous, thickly forested, and in March still deep in winter snow. Once off the few roads that circumscribe the area, the attacking forces were faced with extremely difficult terrain that limited their progress to a few miles each day, inhibited contact with neighboring units, and greatly restricted the ability to rapidly bring up fresh supplies and heavy weapons. Very soon gaps developed in the line of advance, through which the main body of 9th Corps was able to escape. Although a number of minor skirmishes were fought, and casualties suffered on both sides, the overall result of the operation was disappointing. (22)
On 27 March, General Damjanović replaced General Mušicki as commander of the Serbian Volunteer Corps and the S.F.K. became a component of Draža Mihajlović’s Yugoslav Army in the Homeland, the formal name for the Chetnik forces, although the Corps was still assigned to the HSSuPF Triest, SS-Gruppenfuehrer Globocnik. (23) Whether this change affected the S.F.K.’s relationship to the Waffen-SS is unknown, but doubted. Shortly thereafter, Hermann Neubacher, Hitler’s special political representative for the Balkans, paid a visit to Ljotić in Trieste to discuss German fears about what would happen when the S.F.K. and Chetnik forces in Istria came into contact with the British and American units who were expected to move in that direction from Italy. Ljotić reassured Neubacher of the S.F.K.’s loyalty, and that his men believed it improper to even consider raising their weapons against the Wehrmacht, since it was the Germans who had originally provided these weapons. (24)
Meanwhile, Tito’s 4th Army was advancing north along the coastal road from Novi, Croatia, posing a grave threat to Istria, Trieste, and for that matter all of central and western Slovenia. German Army Group E immediately issued orders to the LXXXXVII Army Corps to build a perimeter around the port city of Rijeka, and hopefully block the 4th Army's westward advance. In early April the 237th Infantry Division was rushed to the area, and within a few days defensive positions were established in a 12 mile arc to the east and north of the city.
The 4th Army began its attack on Rijeka around 20 April with the Partisan 13th, 19th and 43rd Divisions. Although the outnumbered German 237th Infantry Division offered stiff resistance and held its positions, General Kuebler ordered the 188th Reserve Mountain Division to launch an immediate attack on Partisan concentrations in the vicinity of Grobnik Airfield, 9 miles northeast of Rijeka. To support this attack, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th S.F.K. Regiments were moved up from the Postojna area. But the regiments of the Serbian Volunteer Corps arrived too late and never made contact with the 188th Mountain Division. The attack on the airfield was unsuccessful, and by 23 April it was clear to General Kuebler that his Corps was threatened with total envelopment. Kuebler's appreciation of the situation was entirely correct, for on 22 April the general staff of Tito's 4th Army ordered a flanking movement to bypass the city. While the LXXXXVII Corps continued to be pressed by three divisions, the Partisan 20th Division was brought up from Ogulin along with one additional brigade, three tank battalions and two artillery battalions. This force moved to the north, around the German defensive perimeter, and advanced on Trieste via Ilirska Bistrica with the intention of linking up with the Partisan 9th Corps which was pushing south on Trieste. (25)
As the battle for Rijeka moved toward its inevitable conclusion, S.F.K. Regiments 2, 3, and 4 were sent to Ljubljana and transferred to the authority of SS-Obergruppenführer Roesner, HSSuPF for Carinthia, who had been appointed commander-in-chief of Army Group E's rear area. Roesner's task was to open up and keep open the road and rail routes in northern Slovenia to facilitate the Army Group's withdrawal from Croatia north into Austria. S.F.K. Regiments 1 and 5 remained assigned to Globocnik, who had meanwhile transferred his headquarters from Trieste to Udine, across the Isonzo River in Italy. The S.F.K. was therefore split into two groups: one group was in central Slovenia under Roesner and moving toward the Austrian border, while the other group was in the extreme western part of Slovenia under Globocnik and moving toward Italy. (26)
At about this time, the 22nd of April, Neubacher paid his final visit to Ljotić. A total collapse of German forces in the Balkans and in Italy was recognized as being only a matter of weeks if not days away, and Neubacher wanted to know Ljotić's plans for withdrawing and surrendering the S.F.K. The next day, during the hours of darkness, Ljotić drove his car through a hole that had been blown in abridge by Allied fighter-bombers. His neck was broken and he died shortly thereafter. (27)
On 29 April, as Tito's forces were closing on the Trieste area, General Damjanović issued orders to the 1st and 5th Regiments to cross into Italy, where on 5 May in the town of Palmanova (31 miles northwest of Trieste) between 2,400 and 2,800 S.F.K. men surrendered to the British. (28)
The men belonging to the other three regiments experienced a less agreeable fate. They moved north from the Ljubljana area into Austria and surrendered to the British at Unterbergen on the Drau River on 12 May 1945. 20 days later these 2,418 men were turned over to Tito's Partisans. Some were executed almost immediately in the Gottschee Forest, while the others were carted off along with 10,000 Slovene Domobrans to the infamous camp at St. Vid, near Ljubljana. Subsequently, after a period of brutalization, these too were executed.
The group that surrendered in Italy was eventually transported to a camp at Munster, Germany, where they were released in July, 1947. These men made their way to various countries around the world, including the United States. General Mušicki was arrested by the Allied authorities, returned to Yugoslavia, and executed in 1946 as a result of sentences passed at the same war crimes trial that pronounced the death verdict on Draža Mihajlović and a number of others. (29)
1. Mommsen, H. – “Serbische Nationale Freiwilligen-Verbände”, in Gutachten des Instituts für Zeitgeschichte. Vol. II. Stuttgart: Anstalt Verlag, 1966. p.302.
2. Neubacher, Hermann - Sonderauftrag Südost 1940-1945. Göttingen: Musterschmidt-Verlag, 1956, p.154.
3. Kriegstagebuch des Oberkommandos der Wehrmacht - 4 volumes, Frankfurt: Bernard und Graefe Verlag, 1961-69, Vol. IV, pp.728-29.
4. Kriegstagebuch, pp.728-29.
5. Militärbefehlshaber Serbien, Abt.Ia Nr. 23/43 geh., 27.8.1943, in: National Archives and Records Service, Collection of Seized Enemy Records, Record Group 242, Microcopy T-313, roll 194, frame 7454202.
6. Kriegstagebuch, pp.728-29.
7. Strength returns, in: NARA T-501, roll 247, frame 864.
8. Kommandierender General und Befehlshaber in Serbien, Ia Nr. 10/43, 4.1.1943, in: NARS T-501, roll 248, frame 001124.
9. Mommsen - p.307.
10. Militärbefehlshaber Südost, Abt. Ia/Nr. 1105/43 geh., 20.10.1943, in: NARS T-501, roll 253, frames 000586-87.
11. Militärbefehlshaber Südost Ia Nr. 5737/44 geh., 21.8.1944, in: NARS T-311, roll 194, frame 000974.
12. NARS T-311, roll 194, frames 000444-45.
13. Armeegruppe Felber (Mil. Befh. Südost) Ia Nr. 7399/44 geh., 7.10.1944, in: NARS T-501, roll 257, frame 000188.
14. NARS T-311, roll 194, frames 000444-45.
15. OKH, GenStdH/Org.Abt. Nr. II/47133/44 g.Kdos., 27.11.1944, in: NARS T-78, roll 432, frame 6404254; Klietmann, K-G. - Die Waffen-SS: Eine Dokumentation, Osnabrück: Verlag .'Der Freiwillige.', 1965, pp.383-84.
16. Verheye, Pierre C.T. - letter to the author dated 18 September 1980.
17. Tomasevich, Jozo - The Chetniks. Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1975, p.445.
18. Petelin, Stanko - Osvoboditev Slovenskega Primorja, Nova Gorica, 1965, pp.25-43.
19. Schmidt-Richberg, Erich - Der Endkampf auf dem Balkan, Heidelberg: Scharnhorst Buchkameradschaft, 1955. pp.116-17.
20. Petelin - pp.80-83.
21. Petelin - pp.94-97.
22. Petelin - pp.112-70.
23. Tomasevich p.449.
24. Neubacher - p.192.
25. Strugar, Vlado - Jugoslaviia 1941-1945, Belgrade: Vojnoidavački Zavod, 1969, pp.329-30; Schmidt-Richberg - pp.132-35; Petelin - pp.173-75.
26. Schmidt-Richberg - pp.139-40.
27. Neubacher - p.192.
28. Tomasevich - pp.451-52.
29. Precla, John and S. Guldescu - Operation Slaughterhouse, Philadelphia: Dorrance, 1970, p.275; Neubacher - p.193; Mommsen - p.308.
Reference material on this unit
Momcilo Dobrich - Belgrade's Best: The Serbian Volunteer Corps 1941-1945
Edited by ZBOR, 05 April 2010 - 06:54 PM.