Belgrade, 1944: The Battle for the City

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By Carl Savich

The battle for Belgrade lasted for six days from October 14-20, 1944. The seizure of Belgrade was the climax of a major Soviet offensive. What made the offensive possible was the total collapse and implosion of Romania and Bulgaria. Their surrender freed up massive manpower resources. Instead of fighting Romanian, Bulgarian, or German troops in those countries, these forces could be deployed to eastern and southern Yugoslavia or Serbia.

The Soviet command assembled 580,000 men for the offensive consisting of the Soviet 3rd Ukrainian Front, three Bulgarian Armies, 1st, 3rd, and 4th, and the 1st Yugoslav Army Group. Soviet forces consisted of infantry units, the Danube flotilla naval arm, and the 17th Air Arm. The Soviet army, navy, and air force were involved in the operation. This was not a rag-tag guerrilla operation but a full-scale Red Army assault. Soviet casualties were 4,350 dead or missing in action, 14,488 wounded. An estimated 976 Soviet troops were killed in the assault on Belgrade.

The Soviets assembled 520 tanks and assault guns, 3,640 pieces of artillery, 1,420 aircraft, and 80 ships of the Danube flotilla for the assault on Belgrade. The T-34/85 tank was used in the assault on the city. Katyusha rocket launchers were also used against German targets in the city. The top Soviet commander was Fyodor Tolbukhin on the Yugoslav front.

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The Germans had assembled 150,000 troops for the defense of Belgrade from the 2nd Panzer Army and Army Group E. They had 125 tanks and assault guns, 2,100 pieces of artillery, 350 aircraft, and 70 naval vessels. Maximilian von Weichs was the top German commander.

Soviet Red Army troops were welcomed in cities such as Prague, Sofia, Bucharest, Warsaw, and Belgrade. They were not welcomed in Berlin, Vienna, or Budapest. They were greeted cordially in Slavic cities or Orthodox countries or where there were historical ties such as in Serbia even though they were Communist troops.

The 1944 Belgrade Operation involved the Third Ukrainian Front of the Soviet Army, the National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia, and troops of the Fatherland Front of Bulgaria, lasting from September 28 to October 20.

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At the end of September 1944 the troops of the Third Ukrainian Front under Marshal of the Soviet Union Fyodor I. Tolbukhin had completed a 600 kilometer or 372 mile forced march through Bulgaria. They reached the Bulgarian-Yugoslav border at the town of Vidin. The First, Second, and Fourth Bulgarian armies were deployed south of Pirot.

At the beginning of September there were two German army groups in the Balkan Peninsula. One was under Luftwaffe Colonel-General Alexander Loehr and the other under Field Marshal Maximilian von Weichs, who was concurrently the commander in chief of German troops in the southeast. These formations consisted of 20 divisions and seven brigades.

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The battle of Jassy-Kishinev was crucial in opening the door to the Soviet advance into Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Soviet troops encircled and defeated the southern wing of the German front in eastern Romania. This allowed for the rapid advance of Soviet troops into the Balkans and knocked Romania out of the war. Adolf Hitler ordered Alexander Loehr to withdraw German troops from the Balkans as a result. Fearing being cut off and destroyed, German troops began a retreat from Greece, Albania, and southern Yugoslavia. The retreat to Hungary passed through Belgrade.

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Maximilian von Weichs formed the “Serbia” army group to defend against the impending Soviet attack from Bulgaria.

The objectives of the Soviet Belgrade Offensive were to destroy Weichs’ Army Group, to seize the capital Belgrade, to sever the communication links between German forces, and to prevent the withdrawal of German troops to Hungary by passing through Belgrade. Hungary would be the next battleground after Serbia.

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Soviet forces assembled the Fifty-seventh Army under Lieutenant-General Nikolai A. Gagen, the IV Mechanized Guard Corps under Major General Vladimir I. Zhdanov, one division and one brigade subordinated to the command of the front, the Seventeenth Air Army, and the Danube Flotilla. These forces of the Third Ukrainian Front were supported by the Forty-sixth Army and part of the air forces of the Second Ukrainian Front. The Yugoslav guerrilla forces, the National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia, provided 17 divisions, and the Bulgarian People’s Army provided 13 divisions and brigades.

Bulgarian troops attacked in the south from October 8 to 10 in coordinated operations with Soviet and Yugoslav troops. They were able to seize Nis, Leskovac, Skopje, and Prokuplje. This forced the German troops to withdraw through Montenegro and Bosnia.

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The offensive started when Soviet troops of the Soviet Fifty-seventh Army commanded by Lieutenant General Gagen attacked German forces on September 28 and continued to advance until October 11. This began the assault on Belgrade. They broke through the German border perimeter and crossed the mountains of eastern Serbia and the Morava River. By October 11, they assembled two bridgeheads at Velika Plana and Palanka.

On October 12, the Soviet IV Mechanized Guard Corps under Major General Zhdanov joined the fray from the same bridgeheads and advanced on Belgrade.

From October 14 to 20, in intense street battles and house to house combat, the Soviet Red Army troops took Belgrade by storm.

Red Army artillery bombardments in the Belgrade operation contributed to breaking the German occupation of the city. They also destroyed numerous enemy groups which attacked from the direction of Smederevo and Grocka. Soviet forces limited heavy artillery attacks and bombardments from air to reduce civilian casualties and to prevent the destruction of buildings.

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Soviet Red Army troops which took part in the Belgrade operation met on October 12 in a village near Sopot Djurinci to co-ordinate the offensive with Yugoslav guerrilla forces.

The role of the Soviet 4th Guards Mechanized Corps which possessed heavy artillery was crucial for the success of the Belgrade operation. The Yugoslav guerrilla units were poorly equipped with artillery.

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The Order of Battle of Soviet troops consisted of two stages. The first was the 4th Guards Mechanized Corps. The second was made up of the 73rd and 236th Guards Rifle Divisions.

Soviet forces seized districts in the outer perimeter of the city on October 14. The districts taken were Rakovica, Kosutnjak, Banjica, and Dedinje. This success was possible because of the Red Army artillery attacks which softened up the German defenses. Soviet gunners and pilots had received instructions to attack only those targets that were accurately determined to be German positions. One result was that Soviet artillery and air attacks on the city resulted in considerably less destruction of buildings and loss of civilian life than the April, 1944 indiscriminate bombing by the U.S. Air Force. The U.S. bombing resulted in a large number of civilian deaths and widespread destruction of the city. Soviet combat engineers defused or disarmed explosives in buildings. Red Army engineers cleared mines in 845 locations in Belgrade and dismantled 3,179 mines.

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Motorized units of the Red Army rapidly penetrated the Avala road in the direction of Autokomande. Two Soviet tank armies penetrated deep into the city by employing cannon and machine-gun fire. This attack forced the German forces to retreat.

On October 15, the Red Army reached Slavia where German troops put up a stiff resistance. Further penetration from Slavia into the city center was halted. The Soviet Red Army units therefore bypassed this point and advanced into the center of the city by taking a circuitous route. They advanced from Princess Zorka Street to Smiljanic, Prote Mateje, Njegosev, and Belgrade by going through King Aleksandar Boulevard. The target was the National Assembly building or Skupstina.

On October 16, Soviet forces were able to attack in the direction of the National Assembly building.

The support of the Red Army tank company expedited the penetration from Karadjordje Park, across Savinac, Street Princess Zorka, to Tasmajdan. A Soviet Red Army tank company provided support to units of the Yugoslav Third Krajina Brigade in an attack on the Main Post Office building. Lieutenant Nikolai Kravtsov of the Red Army was killed in storming the building of the Main Post Office.

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The 14th Guards Motorized Brigade of the Red Army occupied the City Hospital in Zvezdara, the Danube station, and the electrical switchboard in Dorcol on October 15.

The Red Army raid on Paliluli and Zvezdari prevented direct communication between the German forces east of Zvezdari with those in the center of the city. The Red Army forces advanced to the Danube station and Dorcol on October 15-16. German troops in the city center and at Kalemegdan were unable to communicate with the “Smederevo Group” or “Stettner Group” made up of approximately 20,000 German troops, the majority of whom were from the First Mountain Division, who attacked at the bridgehead.

A crisis point was reached on October 16 due to the penetration by the German “Smederevska grupa” from Grocka to Mali Mokri Lug and Zvezdari. Soviet and Yugoslav troops had to battle this German formation that had attacked from Smederevo to relieve Belgrade.

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The majority of the Red Army forces were sent to meet the coming invasion by the German group. Intense fighting took place in the following days in the villages between the Smederevo road and Avala. The German group from Grocka was unable to connect with their forces in the city center. This reduced casualties, prevented destruction to the city, and allowed for a quicker capture of the city.

The battle around Podavalska and Obrenovac lasted for several days. The Red Army destroyed the bulk of German forces in the “Smederevska grupa”, taking prisoners. A small group, however, was able to escape to the Obrenovac and Sabac region.

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The Smederevo group reached Vuk’s Monument where they were encircled and ultimately destroyed. German General Walter Stettner, the commander of the First Mountain Division, was killed in the fighting.

A key objective of the offensive at this stage was to take the Terazije section of the city where the 13 story Palata Albanija stood. On October 16, units of the Red Army occupied the building of the Main Post Office and the National Assembly. The participation of Soviet T-34 medium tanks were decisive in allowing for the advance into the city center where fighting was house to house to take every building.

Several Soviet T-34/85 tanks supported the breakout to the block of buildings in the street Dragoslav Jovanovic and helped to suppress the movement of German soldiers towards the buildings on the right side of Terazije.

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After that point, it was decided that at all costs to take the right-hand side of Terazije, up to the palate Igumanova and further to Kolarceva. Further penetration to Terazije in the direction of the Palata Albanija or Albanian Palace was stopped at the Old Palace.

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German defenses were strong from Pasic street to Terazije. At the crossroads the Germans had set up an anti-tank gun. Along the streets of Pasic from Terazije to Majke Jevrosime the German forces had dug trenches for standing position which were swarming with German troops. The Germans were seen dragging the dead and wounded and retreated to the Terazije tunnel.

There were intense battles at the Glavnjaca prison at the intersection of the streets Brothers Jugovic and Visnjic. The Ministry of Transport building and the main railway station were also stubbornly defended by German troops. German forces also held on doggedly to the Soldatensender Belgrad building on Knez Milos street which contained the radio transmitter for broadcasts sent to German troops in operational theaters. The battle for this building lasted from October 16 to 19.

From the direction of the National Assembly building, two Red Army T-34/85 tanks moved onto Kosovo Street. At the crossroads of Decanske and Nusiceve, these tanks destroyed the German positions on the left side of Decanske.

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German forces held out at the Palata Albanija until the early morning hours of October 20. German troops on the perimeter of Republic Square maintained a dogged resistance. The German objective was to safeguard a bridgehead on the Sava River, holding out until the “Smederevska grupa” would stop the Red Army and the Yugoslav forces at the entrances to Belgrade.

German occupation troops committed atrocities and war crimes during the battles for the city. They plundered and destroyed residential and public buildings and killed civilians in the western part of the city they still controlled. They killed 23 civilians in Vase Carapica 22 on October 18. German soldiers forced residents of the building down to the basement and then blew up the building killing the 21 residents and two civilians who sought shelter in the building.

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The battle for the National Theatre continued from October 17 to 19. Red Army troops attempted to seize the National Theatre three times, supported by artillery and heavy fire from three T-34/85 tanks. Yugoslav officers noted the sheer determination and doggedness of Soviet troops.

After the artillery bombardment, Soviet infantry rushed toward the building of the theater. German forces, however, concentrated their fire on the Soviet troops. After the failed infantry attacks of the Red Army, the building was recaptured with the help of Soviet artillery.

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On October 19, German forces still held the Palata Albanija, the railway station, the Cukarica section, the Ministry Buildings along Nemanjina, the Moskva and Balkan hotels, and the Kalemegdan Fortress. They held sectors in the western part of the city that protected the Sava River bridgehead which was also their point of retreat.

The Red Army controlled the area between Slavija square and the streets Knez Milos, the right side of Terazije, the National Theatre, and Republic Square. The sugar factory on Cukarica street was taken by a company of Soviet Red Army infantry.

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With the forces of the 13th Guards Mechanized Brigade of the Red Army, the remaining German resistance points were destroyed in the block of Ministry buildings in Nemanjina, as well as in hotel “Moskva” and “Balkan”.

The climax of the battle for Belgrade was the assault on the Palata Albanija building. The structure was the highest point in the city, a skyscraper 53 meters or 174 feet high, or 13 stories, opened in 1940. It was a stronghold for German forces holding out in the city. Intense battles occurred there on the night of October 19-20. It was symbolically the last battle for the city. Placing the flag on the top signified a Soviet Red Army and Yugoslav victory.

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The Red Army T-34/85 tanks were crucial in taking the building. Soviet forces put pressure on the right side, concentrating intense cannon fire on the building from three Soviet tanks on the Republic Square. The targets were German machine-gun nests ensconced in the structure. They did not want to use more powerful shells because of the danger of destroying the building. The first breakthrough in the attack on the Palata Albanija occurred when several tanks of the Red Army penetrated the German defenses on Terazije from the left flank.

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They broke through the entrance to the palace on Prince Mihailo Street 2, then quickly penetrated through the same entrance and another. There was still a German machine-gun crew on the roof of the building.

The German troops doggedly defended the building. Yugoslav troops tried several times to enter the building but were prevented by German machine-gun fire. Under the heavy fire of Soviet tanks, however, they were able to enter the building. There were intense battles from floor to floor. The Yugoslav flag with the Soviet red star or crvena zvezda was placed at the top of the Palata Albanija. This symbolized the taking of the city and the expulsion of German occupation troops. The remaining German troops retreated across the Sava River.

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The Soviet T-34/85 tanks were vulnerable to German Panzerfaust attacks. The explosion would turn the tank into a torch. Those not killed instantly would be burned alive. One destroyed and burned out tank was photographed at the entrance to the Palata Albanija building.

The final battle was for the Kalemegdan Fortress. On the night of October 19-20 and early morning of 20 October, the 4th Guards Motorized Corps of the Red Army began its assault of the Kalemegdan fortress, where they encountered the remnants of the German army.

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After an artillery barrage by the Soviet river flotilla and ships of the Red Army, Soviet and Yugoslav troops were able to seize the German stronghold at the Kalemegdan Fortress. Retreating German troops sought to blow up the bridge but were unsuccessful. Units from the 13th Guards Brigade of the Red Army cleared the bridge. German forces sent a truck loaded with explosives but was destroyed by Soviet guns.

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German forces retreated into the Independent State of Croatia, the NDH. The German occupation of Serbia and Belgrade was over. Zagreb and Sarajevo, however, would remain under German occupation until the last days of the war.

The Soviet Offensive had limited goals. A key objective was to cut off and destroy German troops in southern Yugoslavia, Greece, and Albania. This was meant to disrupt or hinder their redeployment in northern sectors of the front such as in Hungary and Austria. Another objective was to expel German forces from Serbia and to take over the capital. A pro-Soviet or Communist government would be ensured. By allowing Yugoslav guerrillas to participate in the assault would reduce Soviet casualties and allow Yugoslav guerrillas themselves to fight for the city. The offensive would allow the Soviet Union to achieve its strategic objectives in the Balkans.

After the war, the battle for Belgrade was transformed into a “foundational myth” in the new Yugoslavia. To legitimize their rule, the new Communist regime in Yugoslavia created the false picture that it had been Yugoslav Communist guerrillas that had taken Belgrade and driven out German occupation forces. The new regime created their own history of the battle. That history was falsified and distorted.