Sarajevo, 1941: The Entry of German Troops

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German troops march in Sarajevo in front of a mosque, 1941. Reuters. (Click on image to enlarge.)

After the March 27, 1941 coup d’etat in Belgrade rejecting the alliance with the Axis countries, Adolf Hitler made the decision to destroy Yugoslavia as a country. On April 6, German, Italian, Hungarian, and Bulgarian troops invaded the country in a blitzkrieg assault that began with the bombing of Belgrade and Sarajevo.

After the capture of Belgrade on April 12 by German troops, Yugoslav forces retreated towards Sarajevo in the center of the country in the mountainous region of Bosnia-Hercegovina. The commander of the German Second Army, General Maximilian von Weichs, ordered his forces to maintain a non-stop and determined pursuit of Yugoslav troops withdrawing towards Sarajevo.

The Luftwaffe bombed Sarajevo on April 6, 1941 beginning at 6:00 AM. The Rajlovac airport was bombed in the early sorties. The bombardment continued for nine days, destroying factories, warehouses, and residential structures. Italian bombers struck the city on April 12-13. The National Theater was struck on April 13. One of the houses destroyed was that of the Kavilio family, a Sarajevo Jewish family, who became homeless, fleeing into the surrounding mountainous terrain. The bombing killed 93 residents of Sarajevo.

On April 12, 1941 the German XLIX and LI Corps had assembled and reorganized their forces along the Sava River. Sarajevo, located in the center of Yugoslavia, was to be the convergence point for the Axis attack. The German Second Army split its forces into two pursuit formations.

The German assault from the west was made up of four infantry divisions under the XLIX and LI Corps. These units were put under the command of the LII Infantry Corps. The 14th Panzer Division was to lead the attack on Sarajevo from the west.

The German assault from the east was made up of six divisions under the command of the First Panzer Group. The 8th Panzer Division was to lead the attack on Sarajevo from the east.

The German Fourth Air Force supported the ground assault on the city. The Luftwaffe was to attack Yugoslav troop formations in the Mostar-Sarajevo region of the front.

The Second Army established its command and control headquarters in Zagreb on April 13. XLIX and LI Corps reported that resistance had collapsed by the end of that day. German troops reached and traversed the Kupa River, a tributary of the Sava River that flows into that river at Sisak in Croatia.

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German troops salute as a Nazi swastika flag is raised over the Sarajevo City Hall building on April 16, 1941. Associated Press photo.

The spearhead of the assault on Sarajevo was the 14th Panzer Division which advanced southwest. The German troops used the Mark III tank in the attack.

The German forces were helped by Croatian troops who deserted in the Yugoslav Army who attacked Serbian troops resulting in a breakdown of a unified resistance and the emergence of a civil war. The German command capitalized on this internal strife and mutiny by bombing Serbian formations that were resisting for three hours in the Mostar region. The split between Croatian and Serbian troops in the Yugoslav Army increased and widened by the next day. Hostilities spread to Dalmatia as Croatian soldiers fought Serbian soldiers within the Yugoslav Army.

On April 14, the 14th Panzer Division took the Bosnian town of Jajce from the west, located fifty miles northwest of Sarajevo. The motorized units were able to rapidly advance southwards. Troops from the LI Corps reached the Una River and constructed bridgeheads. The Una River flows from Croatia to Bosnia along the northern boundary and flows into the Sava at the town of Jasenovac.

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A Bosnian Muslim resident looks on as German troops occupy Bosnia-Hercegovina in April, 1941 as captured in a German newsreel. Die Deutsche Wochenschau.

From eastern Yugoslavia, the 8th Panzer Division advanced southwest to Sarajevo. Two German motorized infantry divisions attacked Sarajevo from the east.  One division attacked from Zvornik, a Bosnian town on the border between Bosnia and Serbia, while the second division attacked from Uzice in western Serbia.  The Yugoslav Army collapsed by April 15. The Germans reported 40,000 Yugoslav POWs in Uzice, 30,000 in Zvornik, and 6,000 in Doboj, a town in northeastern Bosnia.

The two German pursuit groups from the Second Army converged on Sarajevo on April 15. The two panzer divisions entered the city at the same time. The German 16th Motorized infantry Division captured the city on April 15, 1941.

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German soldiers with a captured Yugoslav French-made Renault R35 light tank on the road to Sarajevo, April 13, 1941. Ullstein bild.

The Yugoslav Second Army based in Sarajevo surrendered although the bulk of the German infantry formations had not reached the city yet. The German advance was so rapid that it had outpaced the infantry.

German forces demanded the unconditional surrender of all Yugoslav military formations in toto. They refused any separate cease-fire offers made by Yugoslav military commanders of the Yugoslav Second and Firth Armies which were made on April 14. No negotiations, truces, or cease-fires were allowed.

The Yugoslav government, including King Peter II, his staff, ministers, and the supreme military command, had left Belgrade and had settled in the village of Pale, located southeast of Sarajevo. From here they fled through Montenegro to Greece. They escaped the German assault by landing in Cairo, Egypt. Their final destination would be London where Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s government would provide refuge and where a government-in-exile would be established.

By April 14, the Yugoslav government requested an immediate cease-fire. This request was made to German General Ewald von Kleist, whose forces had captured Belgrade on April 12. Kleist commanded the 1st Panzergruppe, which was made up of the III, XIV and XLVIII Panzer Corps and XXIX Infantry Corps.

The German Army High Command sent Maximilian von Weichs to Belgrade to negotiate the surrender on behalf of Germany. The surrender was signed by Weichs and Yugoslav Foreign Minister Alexander Cincar-Markovic and General Milojko Jankovic representing the Yugoslav government. The armistice went into force on April 18, 1941 at 1200.

Alexander Cincar-Markovic had been the Foreign Minister in the Prince Paul regime that signed the agreement with Germany in Vienna on March 25 with Prime Minister Dragisa Cvetkovic. Yugoslav Air Force General Dusan Simovic, who headed the coup, left Yugoslavia for Greece and put General Danilo Kalafatovic in charge of the Yugoslav military as Chief of Staff. The government went into exile so there was no one to act on behalf of the Yugoslav government. Jankovic was the Deputy Chief of Staff to Kalafatovic in the Yugoslav government. Dusan Simovic eventually settled in England with Peter II and created the government-in-exile.

The Axis powers created the Independent State of Croatia, Nezavisna Drzava Hrvatska or NDH, proclaimed on April 10 in Zagreb, which included Bosnia-Hercegovina. Sarajevo became a major city in the NDH.

Many, though not all, of the Croat and Bosnian Muslim residents of Sarajevo, welcomed the German occupation troops. Germany was perceived as a nation that would achieve their nationalist aspirations for independence or autonomy.  Ethnic Germans, or Volksdeutsche, welcomed the German forces and aided and abetted their actions.

After the German entry into the city, German troops assembled before the Sarajevo Town Hall building as a Nazi swastika flag was raised. A German victory parade was held in downtown Sarajevo on Adolf Hitler’s birthday on April 20 which included performances by German military bands.

One of the first actions after the German entry was the destruction of the Sarajevo Sephardic synagogue, Il Kal Grande, known as the Great Synagogue, built in 1930. On April 17, 1941, a Bosnian Muslim mob burned down and looted the synagogue, which was Sarajevo’s largest. Bosnian Muslims were photographed removing wooden structures and other material from the destroyed synagogue.

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Yad Vashem caption: “Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, 1941, Muslims plundering the Great Synagogue.” Yad Vashem.

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German troops also removed the 1930 Gavrilo Princip plaque located at the site of the June 28, 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. The plaque was sent to Adolf Hitler on his 52nd birthday on April 20, 1941. The plaque would become an exhibit in the Berlin Zeughaus, the German Military Museum, along with the Compiegne railroad car which had been brought from France.

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Volksdeutsche, or ethnic Germans, remove the 1930 Gavrilo Princip plaque as a German military band plays and a German cameraman films the event for a German newsreel. Ullstein bild.

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The German occupation of Sarajevo from 1941 to 1945 would result in the murders of hundreds of thousands of Serbs in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia, 32,000 Jews, and 40,000 Roma.

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German Wehrmacht troops holding the 1930 Gavrilo Princip plaque in Sarajevo, April, 1941. The plaque read in Serbian Cyrillic: “At this place Gavrilo Princip proclaimed freedom on Vidovdan, June 28, 1914.” Ullstein bild.