Belgrade, 1944: The Soviet Offensive

By Carl Savich

The major myth of the Communist Yugoslav dictatorship under Josip Broz Tito was that the Partisan guerrillas defeated the German occupation troops and captured Belgrade on October 20, 1944. This was their key and underlying basis of legitimacy and justification. This was how they sold their dictatorship and how they validated their rule. This foundational myth, however, was false and inaccurate. It was based on deception and self-delusion. What really happened? How was Belgrade actually “liberated” in 1944?

Foundational Myth

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A Soviet Red Army anti-aircraft battery in front of the Yugoslav parliament or Narodna Skupstina building, also known as the National Assembly building, prepares for German air strikes, Belgrade, October 30, 1944.

Foundational myths are meant to lend legitimacy and credibility to a regime that assumes power. The Partisan foundational myth is that they defeated the German occupation forces and liberated Belgrade. This is false. The Soviet Red Army “liberated” Belgrade. This is the fact. This fact, however, does not legitimate or validate the Tito dictatorship regime that emerged. It is an inconvenient fact. Therefore, a myth or fake origin was created. Factually, the assertion is absurd. The Partisans could never take Belgrade. Rag-tag guerrilla forces were militarily unable to defeat regular German troops. A myth or lie thus had to be created. A new “narrative” had to be manufactured.

A myth can be based on delusional fantasy or self-imposed irrational thinking. The myth was more self-gratifying and egocentric. The issue was one of obtaining power. Once power was achieved, it could be rationalized and justified by whatever means necessary. In this case, a foundational myth was created. The Partisans defeated the German troops occupying Belgrade and liberated the city. This was done with Soviet assistance, but it was the Partisans who achieved this result themselves. Is this supported by any facts?

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Soviet Red Army sappers with PPSh-41 “Shpagin” submachine guns in the Terazija section of downtown Belgrade in front of the Palace Albania, or Palata Albanija, October 20, 1944.

This scenario is factually impossible. How was the myth sold then? The Partisans took credit for something that they were not able to achieve. This is self-delusional. But it served a function. It created legitimacy and popular support for the regime. It is irrelevant how power is justified or rationalized. Myths can be just as important as facts, in fact, even more so.

Founding myths unify a nation and give the new regime legitimacy by creating the perception that it originates through their heroic actions and efforts alone.

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A Soviet T-34/85 medium tank outside of Belgrade during the Soviet assault on the city, September-October, 1944.

In “Carmella’s Story. October 1944 — Belgrade is in ruins — January 2005,” Carmella Dight enunciated the Communist myth succinctly. Carmella Dight was a Belgrade resident who witnessed the capture of Belgrade in October, 1944. She adopted and internalized the Communist Yugoslav propaganda line and myth about the event. She claimed: “Tito and the partisans liberated Belgrade on 20th October 1944. The Soviet army, partially instrumental in the liberation of Yugoslavia, arrived soon after.” This is false. It is based on the erroneous assumption that Yugoslav guerrillas can engage German Wehrmacht troops. Whenever and wherever German troops have fought against Partisan guerrillas, the Partisans have been completely defeated and suffered high casualties. This assertion cannot be true because it is impossible. It is, however, the “foundational myth” of Communist Yugoslavia. The myth is that the Partisans captured Belgrade and the Red Army just helped them. When deconstructed, this myth is revealed to be ridiculous and illogical. It is not based on any of the facts that are available. Carmella related her own personal experiences regarding Russian Red Army troops that captured Belgrade: “Another heart-warming experience in my memory is a meeting with a Russian officer assigned by the local government to share our two-bedroom flat. He used to take me on his lap and longingly (he probably had a daughter in Russia) sing and tell me fairy tales. Although I did not understand Russian, his expressive and melodic voice was sufficient to stimulate in me a long lasting love for Russian language and literature.”

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A Soviet T-34/85 tank crew examines a shell during the Belgrade offensive, October, 1944.

The Soviet Red Army captured Prague in 1945 with coalition troops: the Polish 2nd Army, the Romanian 1st and 4th Armies, and the Czech Army Corps. Soviet forces in the offensive included: 1st Ukrainian Front, 2nd Ukrainian Front, and 4th Ukrainian Front. When the Soviet Red Army captured Warsaw in January-February, 1945, Soviet forces included the 1st Polish Army under General Stanislav Poplavsky as part of the 1st Belorussian Front under Marshal Georgi Zhukov. The 1st Ukrainian Front under Marshal Ivan Konev was the other participant in this offensive. The 1st Polish Army contained up to 200,000 troops. Finally, the Soviet offensive that captured Berlin in 1945 included the 1st Polish Army. Up to 10% of the Soviet forces that took part in the capture of Berlin were Polish troops from the 1st Polish Army.

None of these offensives, however, are ever described as Czech or Polish offensives with help from Soviet troops. They are always termed Soviet offensives. The capture of Belgrade is unique and unusual in that the capture of the city is described as being carried out by Yugoslav Partisan guerrillas, by Josip Broz Tito, with help from Soviet troops. The 1944 Belgrade offensive by the Soviet Red Army was not any different from the Soviet offensives against Prague, Warsaw, or Berlin. It is the only one falsified and distorted to make it appear as if the rag-tag Yugoslav Partisans took the city.

Factually, the Partisans did not have a strong presence in Serbia or Belgrade even in 1944. The Partisans had been pushed out of Serbia and Belgrade by the end of 1941. Serbia and Belgrade were controlled by Chetnik guerrillas under Draza Mihailovich. The Partisan presence in Serbia and in Belgrade only occurred in the period preceding the Soviet offensive, to bolster Soviet ground forces, as in the offensives on Prague, Warsaw, and Berlin.

The 1944 Soviet capture of Belgrade was thus manipulated and faked to make it appear as if Josip Broz Tito, who had little if any military background or experience, had captured the city with guerrilla troops. Factually, it is impossible. But this was the foundational myth that was created by Partisan propaganda after the war to justify their dictatorship.

The Yugoslav Partisans lacked the training, weapons, equipment, logistical support, and manpower strength to defeat the German occupation troops. Whenever they had engaged German troops, they had faced annihilation and total defeat. How then could the Yugoslav Partisans defeat German troops and capture or “liberate” Belgrade? They couldn’t. It was factually impossible. Myths, however, are not based on facts. When deconstructed, the myth is shown to be untrue and delusional.

Romania Surrenders

The Soviet Red Army advance on Belgrade was launched from Romania and Bulgaria.

Romania had surrendered to the Soviet Union on September 12, 1944. Romania was knocked out of the war after the successful Soviet offensives at Jassny-Kishinev between August 20 to 29, 1944. Soviet troops subsequently captured the Ploesti oil fields, one of Germany’s major sources for fuel.

The rapid Soviet advance westward forced German troops to begin retreating from Greece, Albania, and Yugoslavia to avoid being cut off and destroyed.

The Romanian coup d’etat that ousted the Ion Antonescu regime and surrender also allowed Soviet troops to advance on Belgrade unopposed.

The reformed German 6th Army from Stalingrad was again surrounded and destroyed. German and Romanian troops were annihilated in a double envelopment action.

The 2nd Ukrainian Front under Rodion Malinovsky and the 3rd Ukrainian Front under Fyodor Tolbukhin were the major Soviet formations which participated in the offensive against Romania. General Vladimir Zhdanov’s 4th Guards Mechanized Corps participated in this operation, attacking in the direction of Bucharest and the Ploesti oil fields.

The USAAF participated in this action by bombing German positions after German troops attempted to seize Bucharest following King Michael’s coup d’etat on August 23. An estimated 115,000 German POWs were taken by the Red Army. Romanian losses were 170,000 captured or missing in action. The road was now open for a speedy advance against Belgrade.

The Ploesti Oil Fields Seized

In the prelude to the Soviet advance on Belgrade, Red Army troops captured the strategically important city of Ploesti with its oil fields which were vital for the German war machine. Russian troops had captured Ploesti by August 30, 1944.

In the news story “Ploesti, Oil Town, Falls to The Russians”, Thursday, August 31, 1944, The Barrier Miner, Broken Hill, New South Wales, Australia, the capture of Ploesti was reported: “LONDON, August 30. – The Russians’ moving sweep from Rumania today captured Ploesti, the great oil field centre, and reached a point 18 miles from Bucharest. This success, which puts the whole of the Ploesti oil region in Russian hands, is not only a great military defeat for the Germans, but the greatest economical setback Hitler has yet had. Three hundred more towns in Rumania were today occupied by the Russians, and they captured 15,000 Germans, including two generals, making a total of 34 German generals taken prisoner since the Soviet offensive began in June.”

Joseph Stalin announced that Ploesti had been captured by General Rodion Malinovsky’s troops of the 2nd Ukrainian front: “Thus the occupation of the towns of Buzau and Ploesti has completely liberated all of the oil regions in Rumania.” Ploesti had formerly supplied one-third of Germany’s oil and was a key communication center.  The rapid Soviet advance “which has written off Ploesti’s oilfields as a source of supply for the Germans, brings the enemy’s oil situation near a crisis.” A Soviet communique announced that 200 localities north-east of Bucharest were taken, including one 18 miles from the city. The town of Mizil, between Zuzac and Ploesti, and Urziceni were among the places occupied. Over 100 places were captured south of Ismail, in the Danube delta area.

Bulgaria Surrenders

On September 5, 1944, the Soviet Union declared war on Bulgaria and invaded the country. On September 9, the Bulgarian government formally surrendered to the Soviet Union. The Red Army entered Sofia unopposed, welcomed by the populace. The Bulgarian troops joined the Soviet Red Army forces in the advance on Belgrade.

The Bulgarian Army consisted of four Bulgarian armies made up of 455,000 men. In October, 1944, three Bulgarian armies of 340,000 men were deployed to the Yugoslav front. The Bulgarian units were under the operational command of Soviet officers.

The Road from Stalingrad to Belgrade

The unprecedented German military disaster at Stalingrad was not only the turning point of World War II. This Soviet victory resulted in the Red Army advance eastwards into Eastern Europe and the Balkans. After the decisive battle of Kursk in 1943, the Soviet armies could no longer be contained by the Wehrmacht. It was only a matter of time before they world reach Berlin. The Wehrmacht lost strategic capability. The Soviet advance was now unstoppable. That advance would move into Eastern Europe. Belgrade would be a target in the Balkans.

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Maximilian von Weichs had been the commander of Army Group B on the Stalingrad Front during Operation Blue which resulted in an unprecedented German military disaster. The German debacle at Stalingrad opened the way to the Soviet Red Army advance into eastern Europe and the Balkans. The road from Stalingrad led to Belgrade. He had met with NDH Poglavnik Ante Pavelic outside of Stalingrad in Golubinskaya on September 24-25, 1942 before the Axis assault on the city. Pavelic had awarded him an NDH medal. After the German surrender at Stalingrad, parts of Army Group B were removed from Weichs’ command. Erich von Manstein was put in charge of a reconstituted army group. Weichs was placed on leader reserve. He was reassigned to the Balkans subsequently. In 1943, the Germans expected an Allied landing in Yugoslavia or Greece. Weichs’ task was to defend against such a landing and to eliminate guerrilla resistance. Weichs had also been one of the key Wehrmacht commanders during the April 6, 1941 Axis invasion of Yugoslavia, Operation 25. He had organized the surrender negotiations in Belgrade and signed on behalf of Germany when Yugoslavia surrendered on April 17, 1941. The document called for unconditional surrender of the Yugoslav forces. Foreign Minister Alexander Cincar-Markovic and General Milojko Jankovic signed on behalf of the Yugoslav government. He was also a veteran of the 1940 French campaign and the 1941-1942 campaigns in the USSR before he was tasked with capturing Stalingrad.

Weichs was a defendant at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials in the Hostages Case which dealt, inter alia, with Yugoslavia, but was removed from the case due to medical reasons without a verdict ever having been rendered.

German Commanders

German Field Marshal Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs was the commander of Army Group F based in Belgrade from August 26, 1943 to March 25, 1945. He was the German Wehrmacht commander in the Balkans when the Soviet Red Army captured Belgrade on October 20, 1944.

Weichs had commanded Wehrmacht Army Group B at Stalingrad and Army Group F in Belgrade. His defeat at Stalingrad led to the Red Army advance on Belgrade. He would be defeated for a second time by the Red Army in Belgrade on October 20, 1944 when the city fell.

Maximilian von Weichs had been received in Zagreb by Ante Pavelic during the war. They also met outside of Stalingrad in 1942.

Ante Pavelic awarded von Weichs the Order of King Zvonimir’s Crown with Star and Swords (Grosskreuz on sash) which he was shown wearing on his left breast pocket at Golubinskaya outside of Stalingrad on September 25, 1942.

Wilhelm ‘Willi’ Schneckenburger was the Wehrmacht General der Infanterie in Belgarde who was killed on October 14, 1944 during the Soviet assault on the city. He was killed by fire from low flying aircraft during the battle for Belgrade. He was the commander of one of the main German battle groups in Belgrade in October, 1944.

Hans-Gustav Felber was the German General of Infantry stationed in Belgrade from September 26 to October 27, 1944. He headed the Army Group Serbia or Armee-Abteilung Serbien during the Soviet offensive to take Belgrade. He managed to retreat from Belgrade. He had been a veteran of the campaigns in Poland, France, and the Eastern Front before being assigned to the Balkans in 1943.

Generaloberst Alexander Löhr was an Austrian-born commander in the Luftwaffe or German Air Force during World War II. As Generalleutnant, he commanded Luftflotte 4 which bombed Belgrade beginning on April 6, 1941. He was the Commander-in-Chief of Army Group E, Heeresgruppe E, from January 1, 1943 until the end of the war, when he surrendered on May 9, 1945. He commanded Army Group E during the Soviet offensive that captured Belgrade on October 20, 1944.

He was tried for war crimes by the Communist government of Yugoslavia after the war. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad. He was executed on February 26, 1947.

Percentages Agreement

On October 8, 1944, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin met at the fourth Moscow Conference. Churchill proposed to Stalin to divide eastern Europe based on an imperialist and colonialist spheres of influence approach or paradigm. This was the so-called Percentages Agreement. Churchill suggested that the Soviet Union should have 90 percent influence in Romania and 75 percent in Bulgaria. Great Britain should have 90 percent influence in Greece. In Yugoslavia and Hungary, the influence should be split with each having 50 percent. Churchill wrote the percentages on a slip of paper which he gave to Stalin. He checked it off and returned it to Churchill. While the US was not directly involved, US Ambassador Averell Harriman was an observer at the meeting and thus had full knowledge and notice of the agreement.

Red Army Advance on Belgrade

After the surrenders of Romania and Bulgaria to the USSR, the stage was set for the Soviet invasion of Yugoslavia. The Soviet 3rd Ukrainian Front under the command of Marshal Fyodor Tolbukhin, joined by Bulgarian troops, advanced into eastern Yugoslavia on September 14, engaging positions held by troops of the German 7th SS Mountain Division “Prinz Eugen”, made up largely of ethnic Germans from the former Yugoslavia, Volksdeutsche.

On September 28, the Soviet 57th Army began a separate advance toward Belgrade from the south aided by Yugoslavian troops. North of Belgrade, the Soviet 46th Army of the Soviet 2nd Ukrainian Front provided indirect support by taking transportation hubs along the Tisza River in southern Ukraine, Hungary, and Yugoslavia to prevent German supplies from reaching Belgrade and to prevent Axis troops from fleeing north along the Tisza River.

The Soviet 4th Guards Mechanized Corps of the 3rd Ukrainian Front was the first force to reach Belgrade, penetrating Axis defenses south of the city on October 14, 1944. They were assisted by the Yugoslavian 12th Corps.

German forces began evacuating the city on October 19. Soviet troops took the city on the following day. They were assisted by Yugoslav forces. Soviet forces blocked transportation routes in northern Serbia to prevent German forces from escaping. The German troops were forced to retreat westward over mountainous terrain through Bosnia and Croatia. These troops would not be able to play a role in the Soviet Budapest Strategic Offensive Operation which was to begin against Hungary. Most German formations would be defeated or driven out of eastern Yugoslavia by the end of November, 1944. The Soviet troops would then move north toward Hungary.

German Forces

German forces defending Belgrade consisted of two battle groups, Battle Group Schneckenburger and Battle Group Stettner. The battle group “Schneckenburger” was named after the commander General Will Schneckenburger, who was killed on October 13, 1944. It was made up of:1.2 Battalion 750th Regiment 118 Hunting Division, 2. Puk “Belgrade Fortress”, later a division k to special purpose “Stefan”, 3. Brigade “von Ore”, 4. Parts of 737 Regiment 117 Jaeger or Hunting Division, 5. Additional battalion of the 7th SS Division “Prinz Eugen”, 6. 28th landesšicen-battalion, 7. Several police battalions, 8. a protective battalion of Kostolac. 9. 38th motorized antiaircraft artillery regiment, 10. several artillery battalions from the 2 Panzer Army, 11. 202 Tank Battalion, and 12. Parts of the 5 motorized police regiment.

The total manpower of the combined group was approximately 20,000 men, 40 tanks and 170 guns and mortars.

The second German combat group, “Stettner”, was based in eastern Serbia, named after Walter Stettner Ritter von Grabenhofen, who died on October 18, 1944. It consisted of: 1. 1 Mountain Division, 2. 2 regiment “Brandenburg”, 3.749 Regiment 117 Jaeger or Hunting Division, 4. 117 reconnaissance battalion, 5. A battalion of the 7th SS Division, and 6. Parts of police units in Eastern Serbia.

The total strength of the Group was over 20,000 men, 35 tanks and 150 guns and mortars.

Red Army Forces

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Belgrade residents cheer a Soviet T-34/85 tank crew as they move down a city street in Belgrade with hatches open, October, 1944.

The Red Army units that fought in the Belgrade battle were: 1. 4 Guards Mechanized Corps, under the command of Lieutenant-General Zhdanov, composed of: 13, 14 and 15 mechanized and 36 Tank Brigade, 230 howitzer artillery regiment, 140 Mortar Regiment, 58 Guards regiment mortars, 42 hunting anti-tank artillery brigades, 22 anti-aircraft artillery battalion and 218 Independent Engineer Battalion, 2. 5 independent Guards Motorized Brigade, 3. 73 rifle division, and 4. 236 rifle division.

The 4 Guards Mechanized Corps, together with units of reinforcements, was made up of 17,022 men, 160 tanks, 21 self-propelled artillery pieces, 31 armored cars, and 366 guns and mortars.

October, 1944: The Soviet Red Army Assault

The 4th Independent Rifle Regiment of the 6th Tank Army had reached Turnu-Severin in western Romania on September 4, 1944. They had crossed the Danube river and had seized the region near Kladovo in eastern Serbia. A section of Soviet riflemen then entered a Yugoslav village in the eastern part of the country. This was the first territory seized in Yugoslavia by Soviet troops.

For the Belgrade offensive, Stavka, the Soviet military command, committed the 3rd Ukrainian Front, left-flank units of Rodion Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front, the 17th Air Army, and elements of the 5th Air Army, for a total of 13 air divisions, the Danube Flotilla, 19 rifle divisions from the 46th and 57th Armies. The offensive made use of over 500 tanks and self-propelled or SP guns supported by 2,000 aircraft. The Soviet T-34 tank model had proven highly successful against anything the Germans could throw against it. As a result, it was the most produced tank during World War II. The 1944 model, the T-34/85, was the principal tank used in the Belgrade offensive. The tank had also been the centerpiece of Soviet armor throughout the campaigns in eastern Europe in 1944 and 1945.

For the attack on Nis and Leskovac in Serbia and Kocani and Veles in Macedonia, three Bulgarian armies were to be deployed, the 1st Army under Lieutenant-General Vladimir Stoychev in the Nis and Kosovo operation, the 2nd Army under Lieutenant-General Kiril Stanchev in the Stracin and Kumanovo operation, and the 4th Bulgarian Army under Major-General Asen Sirakov in the Bregalnica and Strumica operation, consisting of 9 divisions in all.

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Soviet Marshal Fyodor Tolbukhin, a recipient of the Hero of the Soviet Union award and the Order of the People’s Hero of Yugoslavia.

Fyodor Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front was to assault Belgrade and clear eastern Serbia with the main assault coming from the south from Vidin in western Bulgaria aimed at Belgrade-Palanka. Malinovsky’s left-flank units were to attack in the north at Vrsac, Pancevo, and Belgrade.

Adolf Hitler had created a new front along the Yugoslav-Bulgarian border which he planned to defend using troops from Group Serbia, a new formation created from Army Group F.

Soviet Lt. General N.V. Korneyev flew to Moscow to discuss a meeting between Stalin and Tito in the summer of 1944. Korneyev was the Soviet military representative in Yugoslavia. Stalin agreed in September. On September 21, Tito flew on a Soviet DC-3/C-47 Skytrain transport plane or Dakota from Vis island in the Adriatic Sea to Soviet bases in Romania. From Tolbukhin’s Front HQ he was flown to Moscow escorted by Soviet fighter planes where he met with Soviet premier Joseph Stalin. Tito had last been to the Soviet Union in 1940.

During the talks, Stalin urged Tito to restore King Peter II Karadjordjevic as the Yugoslav king. Tito rejected this suggestion, describing the “corruption and terror” of the Karadjordjevic dynasty. Stalin requested that he “take him back temporarily”. Tito’s arrogance and dictatorial attitude was exhibited here.

Unlike Romania and Bulgaria, where the monarchs were pro-Axis, King Peter II was an ally of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia had signed a Treaty of Friendship and Non-Aggression on April 5, 1941 in Moscow, the day before the German assault on Yugoslavia began. Yugoslav Ambassador to the USSR, Milan Gavrilovic, had negotiated the treaty with Vyacheslav Molotov and had signed it in the presence of Stalin. The King Peter II regime, thus, was allied with the Soviet Union. Moreover, both the U.S. and Great Britain were allied with the King Peter II government, now in exile in London. By rejecting Peter II, Tito was arrogantly and disdainfully dismissing a Soviet ally.

Moreover, the Soviet Union played a role in putting Peter II in power. The role of British and U.S. intelligence in instigating the March 27 coup is well-known. Less well-known is the role of Soviet intelligence in the coup in Belgrade that deposed the Prince Regent Paul regime. Stalin had sent a Soviet intelligence operations team to Belgrade on March 11, 1941 consisting of Major-General Solomon Milshtein, Vasily Zarubin, and A.M. Alakhverdov. After the March 27 coup, demonstrators were seen with placards in the streets: “Down with Hitler”, “Power to the Soviets”, “Alliance with the USSR”, and “Three Cheers for Stalin and Molotov”. Thus, in rejecting Peter II, Tito was rejecting a leader allied with the Soviet Union whom the USSR had supported.

Stalin queried Tito on how he would respond if British forces occupied Yugoslavia: “[I]f the British really forced a landing”, what would the Partisans do? Tito assured Stalin that they would fight the British.

Tito then flew to Craiova in Romania where Soviet, Bulgarian, and Yugoslav commanders were meeting to coordinate the offensive. In late September, the Soviet offensive had already begun with Major General A.Z. Akimenko’s 75th Corps advancing to the Yugoslav frontier from the Danube river bend. On September 28, the 75th Corps reached the Yugoslav border, joined by the Danube Flotilla with gun boats under Soviet Admiral S.G. Gorshkov’s command moving up to Negotin in eastern Serbia near the borders with Romania and Bulgaria. Soviet troops seized Negotin on September 30.

On October 5, Soviet commander Sergey Biryuzov flew into Craiova to negotiate the alliance between the three powers with discussions between Tito and Dobri Terpeshev of the Bulgarian Fatherland Front. For the offensive push into Nis, Leskovac, Vlasotince, and Kursumlija, the Bulgarians committed the 1st, 2nd, and 4th Armies, consisting of nine divisions, and three brigades, one of which was an armored formation. Tito committed two army groups to the offensive.

The Soviet command assessed that the Yugoslav Partisans lacked weapons and especially heavy weapons. The 3rd Ukrainian Front sent reports to Moscow requesting that the Soviet government allocate resources to equip and to train the Partisans. On September 7 the State Defense Committee (GKO) in Moscow gave permission for the training of 500 Yugoslavs as tank-crewmen in the Soviet Union. The Yugoslav troops lacked the weapons and training to engage German troops directly. Soviet instructors were sent to the Yugoslav forces and the Soviets stockpiled equipment and ammunition for 12 Yugoslav divisions in the Craiova and Sofia areas. Two Soviet air divisions and an airbase contingent were also deployed to Yugoslavia.

The Soviet Union dispatched the following weapons to the Yugoslav Partisans: 100,000 rifles, 68,000 machine-guns, over 800 anti-tank and field guns, 491 aircraft, 65 tanks, and equipment for 7 field hospitals and four surgical units. The Yugoslav Partisans would use the newly-acquired Soviet T-34/85 tanks in the occupation of Trieste in 1945.

On October 5, an armistice was signed between the three powers, the USSR, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and the plans for the offensive finalized. Tito ordered Peko Dapcevic of the 1st Army group to attack Obrenovac southwest of Belgrade but his forces were instantly repulsed and thrown back. Tito wrote that it was vital that the Partisan troops enter the city before Soviet troops: “It is desirable that our troops enter Belgrade first, and the Russians are of the same opinion.” This was a bit of stagecraft and PR to create the illusion that it was the Partisans that had liberated the city.

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A Soviet T-34-85 tank crew of the 4th Guards Mechanized Corps on a Belgrade street, October, 1944.

Advance units of the Red Army had penetrated into Serbia as early as September. According to Soviet reports, “Red Army troops liberated the first few yards of Yugoslav territory” on September 6, 1944 at 1700 hours. The 4th Independent Motorcycle Regiment of the 6th Tank Army had reached Turnu-Severin on September 4, forced the Danube in the ensuing twenty-four hours and had driven out enemy troops out of the area of Kladovo, located on the right bank of the Danube river in eastern Serbia, after which a section of Soviet riflemen entered a Yugoslav village.

Lt. General N.A. Gagen’s 57th Army, with the 75th Corps attached to it, advanced into eastern Serbia after capturing Negotin. They then linked with Yugoslav Partisan guerrillas. By October 8, the Soviet 68th Rifle Corps reached the Morava river and established a bridgehead at Velika Plana. The 4th Guards Mechanized Corps under General Vladimir Zhdanov was ordered on October 9 to advance through the hole punched in the German defenses by the 68th Corps. Belgrade was to be taken by the 14th of October and held until the arrival of the 57th Infantry Army. The tanks were to begin their attack on October 11.

General V.I. Zhdanov’s 4th Corps consisted of 17,000 men with 180 tanks. They had initially been deployed to the Bulgarian village of Archar a small village south of Vidin. Vidin was located on the left bank of the Danube river at a point near the confluence of the borders with Romania and Yugoslavia. They had crossed Bulgaria from the east since receiving their orders on September 30 to deploy to the Yugoslav border. They moved towards the Morava river in a single column through the heights. The 36th Guards Tank brigade was in the lead or forefront of the ensuing assault. Once engaged in the main battle, the corps would split into two parts, a main attack group and an artillery anti-tank reserve. Three brigades operating on the left flank were to join the main attack. The fuel and ammunition and other supplies needed for the assault were carried on the tanks and self-propelled guns. The tank crews and riflemen had rations for two days. A total of 2,000 tons of fuel, 800 tons of ammunition, and 400 tons of supplies were transported in this way. By October 10, the 4th Mechanized Corps was massing at Petrovac to attack the next day in the direction of Palanka-Belgrade.

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Soviet T-34/85 tanks enter eastern Yugoslavia on September 14, 1944 during the Belgrade offensive.

Soviet forces had to traverse vast stretches of mountainous and wooded terrain rapidly. This swift advance presented logistics problems because they lacked adequate numbers of trucks or transport vehicles.

At Velika Plana in the south, Tolbukhin’s column cut the Nis-Belgrade railway line and the main road. On October 8, Bulgarian General Kiril Stanchev’s 2nd Bulgarian Army began the assault on Nis coordinated with the 13th Yugoslav Corps. Soviet troops cut German forces in two as they advanced to the Morava. In the north, Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front along with Lt. General I.T. Shlemin’s 46th Army with three mobile columns advanced north of Belgrade. The 10th Rifle Corps advanced through Vrsac, reaching Pancevo on October 5, which it was able to seize the same day, nine miles east of Belgrade. Soviet troops were now within striking distance of Belgrade advancing from the north.

During the following three days, additional units from the 10th Rifle Corps advanced in the north and northeast area of Belgrade. They had now secured a stretch of the Danube bank. North of them the 31st Rifle Corps advanced into Vojvodina attacking Petrovgrad and the lower Tisza river. A column from 37th Rifle Corps advanced from Timisoara to Velika Kikinda, encountering the 4th SS Division and Hungarian units. By October 8, Soviet troops had occupied Yugoslav territory east of the Tisza from Kanjiza in the north to the source of the Tisza river. The 37th continued to advance in Vojvodina to Senta and Stari Becej, taking Subotica in the Banat.

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Soviet General Vladimir I. Zhdanov, the commander of the 4th Guards Mechanized Corps, after his troops captured Belgrade, October 23, 1944.

Zhdanov began his tank assault on Belgrade on October 12, moving against Topola and Mladenovac south of Belgrade. He was supported by elements of the 68th Corps and the 5th Independent Motorized Brigade. The German troops put up a fierce resistance in Belgrade, reinforcing their defenses in the city. They sought to preserve their lines of communication with the south until German units could be withdrawn from Serbia and Macedonia. Army Group E divisions withdrew across the Ibar valley. At Kraljevo, intense battles with Soviet troops ensued.

In mid-April and May, 1944, American and British bombers had leveled Belgrade and killed over a thousand civilians in the city. Tolbukhin, by contrast, sought to spare civilian lives and to reduce the destruction of Belgrade. His plan was to intercept German troops which were retreating to Belgrade and to defeat them south of the city before they reached the urban centers. Soviet aircraft bombed German columns retreating northwestwards. The 4th Mechanized Corps took Velika Plana and advanced to the heights of Avala, ten miles south of Belgrade. Soviet tanks were now on the outskirts of the city.

The German front was now split in the middle. Units of Gagen’s 57th Army surrounded a German force from Army Group F southeast of Belgrade. Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front attacked in the north and east while Tolbukhin’s forces attacked in the south and southeast.

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A column of Soviet T-34/85 tanks moves into Belgrade with infantry troops on board with PPSh-41 submachine guns in preparation for the ground assault on the city. October, 1944.

German forces in the city amassed 22,000 men supported by a few dozen tanks. The Germans placed the city in a state of siege. The German forces in Belgrade had StuG III assault guns and Panzer IV medium tanks, which were no match for the Soviet T-34/85 tanks.

A German contingent of 20,000 troops in the southeast was retreating to Belgrade to elude a Soviet encirclement action at Pozarevac and Kucevo. Another German force made up of 15,000 troops fought through the 57th Army’s right flank and crossed the Morava retreating along the southern bank of the Danube towards Belgrade. Their objective was to cross the bridge at the Sava river and retreat to the northwest.

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Soviet trucks move into Belgrade carrying infantry and artillery as they pass destroyed and burning German vehicles, Belgrade, October, 1944.

The Soviet assault plan was to storm the city during the week of October 14 to 20 and destroy the German units trapped in the southeast sector. Tito again requested that Soviet commanders “make it possible for troops of the Yugoslav National Liberation Army, supported by tanks and artillery, to be the first to enter Belgrade.” Tito was obsessed with the PR or propaganda value of appearing to have taken the city himself. This phony image meant everything to Tito. He had to be seen as the one who captured or liberated Belgrade. The Partisans had to be seen as taking Belgrade at all costs. The image was everything. The myth that the Partisans took Belgrade was, thus, consciously manufactured and orchestrated even before the offensive began.

The Soviet plan for the assault was to focus on a frontal attack on a narrow sector to break through the German defenses and into the rear of the defenses followed by an attack on the Sava bridge to prevent German reinforcements from arriving and to prevent a German withdrawal to the northwest.

The 4th Guards Mechanized Corps would spearhead the assault, supported by two rifle divisions. Soviet Admiral Gorshkov’s gunboats on the Danube would provide additional support. Yugoslav Partisan troops of the 1st Proletarian Corps were transported on Soviet tanks to the front lines to bolster Soviet infantry troops.

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A Soviet Katyusha BM-13 rocket battery fires missiles at German positions in Belgrade, October, 1944.

The assault on Belgrade began on October 14 with a Soviet artillery barrage against German positions using the cover of darkness. The Avala heights were attacked. Soviet infantry, bolstered by Yugoslav troops, broke through the German line of defense. Tolbukhin ordered his forces not to fire heavy artillery while in the city to avoid destruction. Many of the battles consisted of hand-to-hand combat and close-quarter engagements in the streets and buildings of the city.

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The German radio station in the city, Soldatensender — Belgrad, was located in a building on Knez Milos street. This building was stormed by Soviet troops. The battle lasted from October 16 to October 19. From this radio station, the Germans had made radio broadcasts across Europe, to Scandinavia, North Africa, and Russia. The song that introduced the broadcasts was “Lili Marlene”.

Seven battalions of sappers then followed to clear the streets and buildings of mines and booby traps.

On October 16, the Soviet offensive was threatened by a German attack from Smederevo to reinforce German units in the city. This group was encircled and finally destroyed on October 19 after refusing an order to surrender. Soviet troops also engaged German forces in Kragujevac to prevent them from being sent as reinforcements to Belgrade.

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Soviet Red Army infantry troops storm Belgrade on October 19, 1944, reaching the center by the next day when the city fell.  The soldier in the front is aiming a DP-27 machine gun.

Soviet artillery and Katyusha rockets, tanks, and aircraft pounded German positions in the city. Guns from the Danube Flotilla also fired on German forces in the city. On October 19, Soviet gunboats seized the island of Ratno, preventing a German retreat across the Sava and Danube. Soviet infantry, joined by Yugoslav troops, reached Kalamegdan Fortress where Vladimir Zhdanov met up with Peko Dapcevic. The German Army Group F had been defeated. German troops were retreating across the Sava to Zemun, which was being bombed by Soviet aircraft, who also attacked the withdrawing German trucks and other vehicles on the roads.

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A knocked out German StuG III assault gun on a Belgrade street, October, 1944. The tank tracks on the right have been damaged.

Zemun in the northwest was taken on October 22. Soviet forces attacked northwestwards as German troops retreated west. Soviet forces took Kragujevac on October 21. The German goal was to keep Soviet forces from cutting the Kraljevo-Cacak-Sarajevo road, which would allow German divisions in Greece to retreat north. The Athens-Belgrade railway line had been taken. The 117th German Infantry Division continued to fight doggedly at Kraljevo to buy additional time. The Soviets had cut the Krusevac-Kraljevo railway line.

German Army Group E was “in fact cut off” now. The Germans could not retreat through the Morava valley. The road through Skopje to Mitrovica to Kraljevo to Sarajevo was the only route for the German retreat. German forces continued to tenaciously hold Kraljevo which was seen as essential for the German retreat.

Army Group F was slowly being decimated and eventually destroyed. Estimates are that 15,000 German soldiers were killed and 9,000 taken prisoner during the offensive.

On October 22, Soviet and Yugoslav soldiers killed in the fighting were buried after a procession through the streets of Belgrade. Tito held a victory parade in Banjica later for Partisan forces.

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Belgrade residents cheer a Soviet Red Army T-34/85 tank crew during the victory parade after Soviet troops captured the city on October 20, 1944.

A victory parade was held in central Belgrade for Soviet troops who had captured the city. The victory parade in Belgrade was led off by the 36th Guards Tank Brigade with lines of T-34/85 tanks. Jubilant crowds cheered the Soviet troops as they passed through the streets on foot, mounted on horses, in T-34/85 tanks, and in trucks. The 36th Guards Tank Brigade moved along with the 4th Mechanized Corps across the temporary bridges on the Danube to advance into Hungary to begin the battle for Budapest.

The battle for Belgrade was over. But the propaganda campaign to rewrite the history of the battle through the distorted lens of Tito’s Communist regime had just begun.

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A Soviet tank crew in a T-34/85 medium tank on the streets of downtown Belgrade, October 22, 1944, two days after the capture of the city. They are part of the 36th Guards Tank Brigade of the 4th Guards Mechanized Corps. The 4th Guards Mechanized Corps was the first unit to enter the city, commanded by General Vladimir Zhdanov.

Conclusion: Dangerous Delusions

The myth of the Partisan liberation of Belgrade served its function during the period from 1944 to 1992. It was a foundational myth that legitimized, sanctioned, and validated the Communist regime. There were repercussions as there always were when reality is disregarded in favor of delusion and irrationality. One result was to create a fake and false image of the Yugoslav Partisans as responsible for defeating German and Axis occupation troops in Yugoslavia during World War II. Although factually and militarily impossible, this falsification and myth was needed to create a Yugoslav identity rooted in victory during World War II. This was the mystique or image needed to legitimize Tito and the Communist regime. It gave them an aura of invincibility and their regime an air of inevitability. This manufactured image also increased Tito’s prestige and image internationally, especially among Third World and undeveloped countries, who were themselves challenging the domination of the imperialist and colonial powers.

The most dangerous illusion that resulted from the myth of Partisan victory was that a small nation could defeat a large military power, a Superpower. This illusion began with the 1948 confrontation with the USSR that resulted in the Yugoslav split from the Soviet bloc. The illusion continued throughout the Cold War into the 1990s. During the Cold War, the illusion was never challenged or tested. In 1991, however, the illusion finally collided with reality. That is when the illusion was seen as a dangerous and delusional construct, as a dangerous delusion. The illusion, nevertheless, persisted. The assumption was, contrary to all historical experience, that Yugoslavia could, like during World War II, decide its own destiny. Historically, the Great Powers determined borders and sovereignty. The Great Powers, the largest and most militarily and economically advanced nations, the “international community”, always decided the political, economic, and military outcomes and fates of nations. The foundational myth, however, created a certain hubris or megalomania on the part of the Yugoslav national actors. The reality was that Yugoslavia had not defeated Germany in World War II. Yugoslav Partisan guerrillas did not liberate Belgrade in 1944. It was the Great Powers who achieved this. It was the classic case of the tail wagging the dog. But the illusion died hard. All the national actors in the former Yugoslavia, for good or ill, learned the hard way that it was the Great Powers, the “international community”, that determined their political destinies.

Bibliography

Erickson, John. The Road to Berlin: Continuing the History of Stalin’s War with Germany. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1983. pp. 379-390.

Medvedev, Zhores A., and Roy A. Medvedev. The Unknown Stalin: His Life, Death and Legacy. London: I.B. Tauris, 2003. p. 212-214.