The 1944 Battle for Belgrade on Film

44docThe battle for Belgrade from October 14 to 20, 1944 was filmed for a documentary by the Central Documentary Film Studio, CSDF, in 1944 based in Moscow. This was the name of the studio in 1944. It began as an offshoot of Sovkino in 1927. In 1931 it was reorganized as the All-Union Newsreel Factory – Soyuzkinochronicle. From 1936 it was known as the Moscow Newsreel Studio and since 1940 as Central Newsreel Studio. Sergei Gerasimov was the head of the studio from 1944-1946. The studio had received the Order of the Red Banner award, Ordena Krasnogo Znameni.

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The documentary opens with a panning shot from right to left showing a battlefield with Soviet troops and vehicles on the outskirts of Belgrade. There is billowing black smoke and flames from destroyed vehicles on the road. A Soviet T-34/85 tank is seen moving to the right across the road. Soviet trucks with troops with artillery attached are shown heading into Belgrade past burning vehicles.

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The next scene shows tank commander Major General Vladimir I. Zhdanov of the IV Mechanized Corps with two other Soviet officers going over the plan of attack at the side of a road as a column of Soviet T-34/85 tanks pass by overhead.

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A column of Soviet T-34/85 tanks slowly drive into Belgrade along a street with infantry troops on the tanks with Spagin or PPSh-41 submachine guns wearing long overcoats.

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Soviet troops are shown moving up a Belgrade street as they near the city center. They are running past Soviet trucks which are pulling artillery guns in tow. Some are carrying machine guns.

In the next scene Zhdanov is being briefed on German positions by Yugoslav officers. Peko Dapcevic is pointing out a location for Zhdanov. There is a Yugoslav officer and a Soviet officer.

In the next scene Soviet officers are shown on a building overlooking the city. They are observing tank attacks in the city as T-34/85 tanks advance into the center of the city.

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One scene features a long distance, high angle camera shot of Soviet tanks moving slowly up a deserted street, followed by trucks.

Soviet tanks are seen on a wooded street as Soviet troops move behind on the sidewalk. Incorporating tanks into infantry assaults in street battles in cities had become a hallmark of Soviet offensives.

Soviet artillery gunners are shown from a height scanning the Belgrade skyline to locate and pinpoint German targets.

There is a long panning shot from right to left showing the Belgrade skyline and a bridge.

A street is shown with a concrete German pillbox. Then Soviet artillery is shown blasting away at German fortified positions on the street.

A Soviet tank also fires shells at the fortified German defenses. A gaping hole is shown in a brick defensive position.

There is a return to the street scene where Soviet troops have brought up an artillery piece on the sidewalk. Machine gun crews are shown firing. A large machine gun is fired. The tank is shown firing another shell.

Soldiers shoot with rifles from a window. Wounded and killed Soviet soldiers are shown being evacuated in stretchers with a Soviet truck in the background. One unconscious Soviet soldier is carried in a stretcher by two women and a man.

Soviet officers are shown telling a Yugoslav officer where the attacks are going to occur and the positioning of forces.

A Serbian Orthodox Church is shown with a cross on top. A Soviet soldier is shown breaking down a wooden fence with the butt of his rifle. He has a tankman’s hat on.

The narrator announces in Russian that infantry are now approaching the center of Belgrade as troops are shown moving up the tree lined street. The troops on the sidewalk are wearing Soviet Red Army helmets and long coats. They have rifles with bayonets for hand-to-hand, house-to-house fighting, combat at close quarters, typical of urban warfare. Guerrillas are not going to be engaged in this type of warfare. The bayonets are clearly visible. This is a clue that the front line, first echelon combat troops are Russian Red Army infantry. They are now moving into the center of Belgrade.

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There is a return to the Soviet tankman at the wooden fence where he has placed a machine gun and is firing through the opening. There is another soldier with a Soviet helmet. Another soldier is holding the belt for the machine gun. Then Soviet troops are shown moving horse-drawn artillery into the city center as they move rapidly up the street.

Soviet T-34/85 tanks are shown moving across the deserted streets of Belgrade. Then there is artillery support. Soviet troops are shown loading shells as they fire artillery at German positions. Needless to say, Russian troops were very good and effective at this type of urban, house-to-house, street warfare.

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Infantry advances. Then Katyusha rocket launchers are shown firing rockets. These are the smaller BM-13 Katyushas for close quarter combat. The first Katyusha trucks fire from a grass field. The second group fires from a Belgrade street.

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Destroyed German vehicles are shown. Troops are shown entering captured German bunkers and defensive positions. One German bunker has the Nazi swastika covered over with a Soviet red star or crvena zvezda.

The battle for the city is over. German POWs are shown being marched through the streets of Belgrade. A decorated Soviet officer wearing a cap is at the front of the group of German POWs being marched through the streets. Civilians are watching on the side of the road. One German POW is wearing a German helmet. The others have caps on. Soviet guards can also be seen on the side.

Then military personnel from the Milan Nedic regime are marched as POWs through the street.

Then Yugoslav Partisan troops can be seen marching in the street with weapons being cheered by a crowd. A Soviet soldier with a cap can be seen in the corner. Partisans distribute papers to the crowd.

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A Soviet plane flies over Belgrade filming the city after it was taken at the Palata Albanija building in the background. The narrator announces in Russian that the city is now free.

This ends part 1 of the documentary on the battle for Belgrade. The second part is on the victory parade and the speeches made by Soviet and Yugoslav commanders at the Vuk Karadzic Monument in Belgrade.

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The Vuk Karadzic Monument in Belgrade was where the podium for the victory celebration was located. Four flags were draped beneath it:  From left, the American flag, the Soviet flag, the Yugoslav flag with the Soviet red star or crvena zvezda in the center, and the British flag. These four countries participated in the Belgrade Offensive of 1944. The U.S. and UK provided air support.

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The first scene in the second part on the parade and victory celebration shows a banner with an image of Joseph Stalin. In Russian is written: “Glory to the Red Army!” “Krasnaya armiya slava!” It is not in Serbian. So the victory parade is for the Soviet or Russian Red Army not for the Yugoslav Partisans.

The first vehicle is a personnel carrier like a jeep with Soviet troops. The overflow crowd cheers them on. The crowd shouts “Zhiveli!” “Long life!” Then a Soviet truck with three soldiers standing passes by. The windshield has two cracks in it.

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Then five signs appear on the right in Serbian Cyrillic and in Latin. “Death to fascism! Freedom for the people (narod).” “Ziveli Crvena Vojska.” “Long live the Red Army!” “Long live the united youth!” “Zhiveo Marshal Stalin.” “Zhiveo Marshal Tito.”

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The crowds are overflowing with civilians raising their hats, raising their hands, and clapping. A group of Soviet officers are shown passing by on a vehicle as they salute. One Soviet soldier is holding a Red Army banner as he passes by. Soviet trucks pass carrying artillery.

Women are shown cheering the Soviet troops. A column of Red Army soldiers march past with their rifles. Yugoslav Partisans can be seen by the crowd cheering the Soviet troops. The Soviet troops are wearing long overcoats and Red Army caps that can easily be confused with Yugoslav Partisan caps.

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Soviet troops march in a column wearing Soviet Red Army helmets holding a banner with garlands of flowers and carrying rifles.

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A Soviet T-34/85 tank slowly passes in the parade among a sea of people. One Soviet tankman is riding on the front of the tank and shakes hands with people along the parade route. Belgrade residents cheer on the Soviet tank crew. Then a Soviet truck pulling heavy artillery is shown.

Horse-mounted Soviet troops are shown on three horses, the first one is white, with the soldier carrying a banner. Then a column of Soviet troops on horses march past.

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A Soviet soldier with a mortar being pulled in a horse-drawn cart is seen laughing. A woman is shown clapping. Then a group of army cooks are shown. One cook is shown wearing an apron and chef’s hat in a wagon with a stove.

The cameraman films from a vehicle in the parade. Soviet troops on horses are shown. The massive cheering crowd can be seen along the parade route. This ends the victory parade.

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The next segment shows Red Army Major General Vladimir I. Zhdanov holding a wreath walking to the podium. This segment is on the speeches at the Vuk Karadzic statue. Again, the crowds are overflowing and at capacity. A Yugoslav Partisan soldier introduces Zhdanov. Zhdanov makes a speech to the crowd waving flags. Then Peko Dapcevic speaks. He then embraces Zhdanov. They shake hands and Dapcevic salutes. Then there is a shot of the crowds with flags.

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The final scene is in Russian script noting that the commander of the Yugoslavian Army of National Liberation is Josip Broz-Tito. This ends the documentary.

Tito is not in the documentary and was not in Belgrade during the operation.

The portrayal and assessment of the battle has changed over time based on political and ideological considerations. From 1944 to 1948 the event was depicted in a positive light in Yugoslavia. Following the 1948 Stalin-Tito Split, however, the Soviet Union and the battle for Belgrade were seen in negative terms. Following the 1955 rapprochement with Nikita Khrushchev, a modus vivendi was achieved. The battle was re-evaluated in 1964 following the deaths of Vladimir Zhdanov and Sergey Biryuzov in a plane crash while en route to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the battle. Another re-evaluation occurred in 1997 when once again streets named after the Red Army and Soviet commanders were removed. In 2009, there was a move to commemorate Soviet commanders again. In 2016, the announcement was made that streets in the western New Belgrade or Novi Beograd section of Belgrade would be named after Fyodor Tolbukhin and Vladimir Zhdanov.

The 1944 documentary presents a filmed account of the battle as it occurred. It thus gives one of the clearest glimpses of what happened.