A Brief History of the NDH
Following the end of the First World War, Kraljevina Srba Hrvata i Slovenaca (Eng: the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes – SHS) was formed in December of 1918 with the aim of uniting all Southern Slavs. This new state was (at least in theory) based on the principles of equality of these three nationalities. In reality, this Kingdom was a politically and ethically divided country. During the 1920s, there were huge political disagreements between the major parties which brought about questions regarding the continuous existence of the Kingdom of SHS. This division was especially noted between the Serbian and Croatian politicians, which ultimately culminated in the assasination of several Croatian Peasant Party members, including the leader, Stjepan Radić, by a Serbian Politician in 1928.
On 6th January 1929, King Aleksandar Karađorđević, in an attempt to avoid the incoming political crisis, led the country into a dictatorship by abolishing parliament. He also introduced a number of political changes, including changing the name of the country to Kraljevina Jugoslavija (Eng: Kingdom of Yugoslavia). This essentially did not resolve much, as the interethnic tensions were still present. During the early 1930s, the first mentions of Croatian Ustaše (the precise meaning is unknown, but could be roughly translated as insurgent) revolutionary organizations began to appear in Yugoslavia. Their main aim was liberation of Croation people from Yugoslavia by all means necessary, even by force. One of the most prominent figures of this organisation was Ante Pavelić.
In 1932, a group of members from this organisation attacked a small police station in the village of Brušani. Due to active police actions, this organisation’s activities were considerably limited in Yugoslavia. However, it gained support from Hungary and, to a great extent, from Italy during the 1930s. These two states both had territorial disputes with the Kingdom of Yugoslavia following the end of the First World War. The Ustaše organisation participated in the assasination of the Yugoslav King, Alexander Karađorđević, in Marseille in 1934. This assasination backfired to some extent for the Ustaše organisation. Not only did it not lead to the breakdown of Yugoslavia, during the following years, under the leadership of regent Prince Pavle Karađorđevića, the political relations with Italy improved. This led the Italian authorities to effectively remove their support from the Ustaše and even arrested some of its members, including Pavelić.
After years of inactivity, the Ustaše benefited when the Yugoslavian government, which supported the Axis, was overturned by pro-Allied officers in a military coup at the end of March 1941. Adolf Hitler almost immediately issued an order that Yugoslavia had to be occupied. The Italians, preparing to join the war against Yugoslavia, began once more to support the Crotian Ustaše movement. With the collapse of the later Kingdom of Yugoslavia during the Axis invasion (after the short April War of 1941), Croatia, with German aid, was finally able to declare independence, albeit becoming a fascist puppet state. Ante Pavelić was chosen as the leader of this puppet state. Officially, the Nezavisna Država Hrvatska, NDH (Eng: Independent State of Croatia), was declared on 10th April 1941. The new state received a significant territorial expansion by annexing most of western Yugoslavia, including Bosnia, parts of Serbia and Montenegro. The Adriatic coast, while nominally part of the NDH, was actually controlled by the Italians up to 1943.
Almost from the start, the new NDH regime began the persecution of all the non-Croatian population. The Serbian, Roma and Jewish populations were especially targeted, with numerous atrocities and arrests. Croatians who did not agree with this regime were also persecuted. Death camps, similar to those used by the Germans, were also established, with the most infamous being Jasenovac. There, between several tens of thousands to up to a million people were killed (the precise number is still hotly contested even to this day).
In response to the NDH’s actions against Yugoslavian civilians, resistance movements began to emerge on its territory. As its forces proved incapable of fighting these insurgents, the NDH was forced to call their Axis allies for aid. This led to nearly five years of continuous fighting and atrocities which would end in 1945 with the defeat of the Ustaše Regime by the victorious Yugoslav Partisan Forces.
Creation of Armored units and Organisation
The NDH leadership quickly began working on creating an army during April 1941. Its military organisation was divided into the politically driven and elite Ustaška Vojnica (Eng: Militia) and the Hrvatsko Domobranstvo (Eng: Croatian Home Guard/Defence), an army in a more traditional sense. Initially, both military formations lacked armored vehicles. This was, to some extent, resolved by the delivery of vehicles from the Axis. The more favored Ustaše forces managed to form their first armored unit, the so called Poglavnikov Tjelesni Zdrug (sometimes written as Sdrug), PTS (Eng: Defence Brigade). In 1942, this unit’s strength was increased to two (possibly three) companies with less than 6 vehicles each. A part of these were stationed for most of the war in Zagreb to act as a personal guard for the NDH leadership.
During 1943, some of the Ustase armor was used to form the Brzi Ustaski Zdrug (Eng: Fast Brigade). This unit was divided into two tank battalions supported by two mechanized battalions. At the start of 1944, two PTS companies were merged to form a single Oklopni Sklop PTS. This unit’s strength in October 1944 was 4 light tanks and 11 tanks. By the end of the war, the PTS was reorganized into a division (PTD) mostly armed with Italian armored vehicles.
The Domobranstvo formed its first Laka Oklopna Satnija (Eng: Light Armored Company) unit only in 1942. In 1944, the Germans promised larger deliveries of armored vehicles to reinforce the Domobranstvo. For this reason, the Domobranstvo formed an armored command unit that would serve as the foundation of the new armored formation. In reality, this was never formed to the extent the NDH hoped for. During the same year, smaller armored platoons were formed with a few vehicles each. These would be attached to Mountain Brigades or, in some cases, to Infantry Divisions.
Acquisition of Armored Vehicles by the NDH
The NDH Army wanted to create its own armored units. In order to speed up the whole process, at the start July 1941, a decree was issued which required that all available personnel that were part of pre-war Yugoslavian armored units be relocated to Zagreb. Once there, they were to serve as a foundation for the newly formed 1st Mechanized Battalion (Automobilski Bataljon). While the available personnel had some experience with operating armored vehicles, the problem was that there were no such vehicles available.
Based on some photographs, at this time, the NDH managed to acquire at least one R35 and an unknown number of Renault FT tanks. When and how these were acquired is not clear, but what is clear is that all of these were taken from the Yugoslavian Army. As these were either obsolete or not available in sufficient numbers, another solution was needed. There is a possibility that the Germans provided the NDH with a small number of R35s in 1944, but the sources are not clear on this matter.
Given the fact that the former Yugoslavia lacked any major manufacturing capabilities necessary for the production of armored vehicles like tanks, the NDH was dependent on the goodwill of its allies to acquire these instead. The main suppliers of armored vehicles operated by the NDH during the war were the Germans and Italians, with some limited cooperation from Hungary.
Following the conclusion of the brief April War, the NDH military top brass asked the Germans to allow the acquisition of some of the tanks left over from the defeated Yugoslav Army. The Germans, on the other hand, while promising to deliver such equipment, never actually intended to fulfill the promise. While some quantities of small arms weapons were given, actual delivery of tanks was constantly being delayed.
While the Domobrani was having trouble acquiring tanks, its counterpart, the Ustaše, were somewhat more successful. They proceeded to contact the Italians for aid, asking for a group of M13 tanks and AB 41 armored cars. Given that the Italians needed more and more tanks due to the engagements in North Africa, they instead provided the Ustaše with at least 6 CV.33 and 4 CV.35 light tanks. The precise numbers are unclear, as the total may have been up to 15 such vehicles. These vehicles arrived in late 1941 together with a number of Italian instructors. Once these vehicles were ready for service, they would be allocated to the PTS.
At the end of 1941, the Domobranstvo, after a number of attempts, managed finally to convince the German to sell them some tanks. This purchase included four older Panzer I Ausf. B tanks, which were referred to simply as Krupp by the NDH crews. Some 12 French tank turrets armed with a 47 mm gun, which were intended to be used to reinforce armored trains, were also obtained. Lastly, some 15 Sd.Kfz. 222 armored cars were also allegedly received in early 1942. Interestingly, it is unknown if these armored cars were ever delivered, as there is no actual proof of them being used by any NDH force during the war.
While still unwilling to sell more advanced tank designs, the Germans were, on the other hand, eager to get rid of the obsolete and captured vehicles. In May 1942, a contingent of 16 older Polish TK tankettes (serial numbers V-2505 to 2520), together with 4 more that lacked the upper superstructure, were handed over. Why these four vehicles lacked their superstructures is not clear, but it is believed that these vehicles were primarily intended for crew training. In NDH service, these were known by the crews as Ursus, which was their manufacturer. While sources mentioned that these were TKS tankettes, actual photographs on the other hand show only TK3 models. It is more likely that the Germans would sell the older version first, given that the TKS was a slightly improved model. Given the lack of information, it is possible that some were of the later version.
During 1942, NDH Army officials visited Hungary in an attempt to acquire additional armament and weapons. During October 1942, the Hungarians agreed to sell 10 (possibly even 15) 35M tankettes to the NDH. These were actually copies of the Italian CV.35 light tanks. They had different armament and some of them had a box shaped command cupola placed on top of the superstructure.
After the Italian capitulation in September 1943, NDH ground forces participated in the disarmament of a number of formerly allied units around cities like Karlovac and Jastrebarsko. They even supported the Germans, who were doing the same with other Italian units. Unfortunately for the NDH, the Germans simply took everything they managed to get their hands on. In the end, the NDH was left with only a limited number of vehicles, including AB 41 armored cars, Fiat armored trucks and some L6/40 light tanks.
Given the huge vacuum that was created with the withdrawal of the Italians, the Germans realized that they needed NDH forces to contain ever-increasing Partisan attacks. For this reason, the NDH began receiving a number of tanks. This included L6/40 light tanks, Semoventi L40 da 47/32, Hotchkiss H39s, and possibly even Renault R35s and Somua S35s. The precise number of such vehicles received is almost impossible to determine due to lack of information During July 1944, the PTS had in its inventory at least 26 L6/40 tanks.
Some sources, such as S. J. Zaloga (Tanks Of Hitler’s Eastern Allies 1941-45), note that, during late 1944, the Germans provided the NDH with 20 Panzer III Ausf. N, 10 Panzer IV Ausf. F and 5 Ausf. H. While some Croatian crew members were, at that time, sent to Germany to be trained to operate these vehicles, there is no proof (according to Serbian sources) that these were ever actually delivered or used by the NDH. The previously mentioned German tank types were used on this front by German units, such as Panzer Einsatz Kp. 3, which had some 18 Panzer III and IVs. The sources may have misidentified German and NDH unit formations. Another explanation is that the photographs of Croatian crews training on the Panzer IVs were mistaken as donated vehicles.
However, there is a chance that some vehicles did manage to get into NDH service. In late 1944 and early 1945, there are a few sources mentioning NDH forces operating vehicles described as Tiger tanks. This was a quite common misnaming of German tanks in Yugoslavia during the war. While this vehicle was certainly no real Tiger, it is unknown which precise type it was. One possible solution is that it was a Panzer IV, but without any proper proof, this is only a speculation. According to a 1997 interview of an NDH Army official, Dinko Šakića, two ‘Tiger’ tanks were acquired from the Germans in a rather unusual way. According to him, Croatian soldiers accidentally detached a rail wagon with two German tanks, with the sleeping crews inside of them. After, the German Command in Zagreb was informed. After a short negotiation, the Croatians managed to ‘convince’ (essentially bribe) the Germans to hand over these vehicles. These two tanks were destroyed by their own crews in May 1945. Dinko Šakić, unfortunately, does not mention a better description of these two vehicles. Of course, this whole story (given the long period of time) may be exaggerated or even invented.
Limited domestic production
Given the general lack of significant production capabilities of pre-war Yugoslavia, the NDH Army simply could not produce completely new vehicles, such as tanks. However, there were still available resources and skilled workers who could make some improvised armored vehicles based on available trucks or car chassis. Interestingly, the NDH even managed to locally build one aircraft, the Modli J.M. 8.
Once such vehicle was the so called Oklopni samovoz, which could be translated simply as armored car. These were trucks (of an unknown type) that received armored bodies and a small machine gun-armed rotating turret on top. It could carry some 15 soldiers which could fire their own weapons using small firing ports. An unknown number of these vehicles were built and they were used from 1942 onwards. There is a possibility that other improvised armored trucks (possibly even of Italian origin) were used, as Partisans reports from the battlefield mention them on a few occasions.
Another unusual vehicle used was the armored truck known simply as Partizansko oklopno vozilo (Eng: Partisan armored vehicle). While the two vehicles built are generally regarded to be of Partisan origin, author D. Predoević (Oklopna vozila i oklopne postrojbe u drugom svjetskom ratu u Hrvatskoj) gives another explanation. He explains that, while the Partisans managed to capture Ljubija on 17th May 1942, they only remained there until 10th June, when they were forced to retreat. It may have been impossible to complete these two vehicles from scratch in this short period of time. A possible explanation is that the Partisans captured NDH vehicles that were under construction with available parts. While there may be some truth in this, due to the lack of information about their precise history, it is impossible to say for sure.
On some internet websites, there is a picture from an old NDH newspaper. On it is a picture of what is described as a Veliki Hrvatski tenk (Eng: Huge Croatian Tank) next to several motorcyclists. This tank is an improvisation, probably based on an unknown type of fully tracked tractor. The origin or the story of this vehicle are unknown. A similar vehicle was built by the Germans based on a Leichter Raupenschlepper Famo tractor chassis. Based on this, there is a chance that this vehicle may be of German origin, but it is unclear.
In addition, during 1943, an ever increasing number of improvised armored trains and wagons were beginning to be employed by the NDH. While these were mostly hasty improvisation armed with any weapon that was available, some were armed with tank turrets.
A hybrid vehicle (a combination of an Italian M42 tank and a Panzer 38(t) turret) is a complete mystery. On the few existing images, it bears the marking of the Ustaše. The problem is that the NDH never operated any Italian M-series tanks. It is possible that this was a German modification for some reason given to the NDH. Given the general lack of information about this vehicle, all of this is speculation at best.
A Brief NDH Armored Formation Combat History
The tanks used in NDH during the war were never operated in great numbers. In most cases, these were dispatched in smaller numbers to support various infantry formations in attacking designated targets. It is also important to note that the two resistance movements (the Partisans and Četniks) usually referred to all of the NDH forces as Ustaše, regardless of the real organization. In addition, the NDH archival documentation of the usage of armor from 1944 onwards is chaotic at best.
The use of NDH armored vehicles began at the end of 1941. A Platoon of NDH tanks (unknown precise type, but likely CV.35s) was used against the Partisans around Ozren in mid-December 1941. The Partisans managed to defeat the NDH forces and capture one tank. The tank was sabotaged and abandoned, giving the NDH forces a chance to evacuate the damaged vehicle.
In 1942, for example, during the Kozara operation, the NDH employed over 7 tankettes against the Partisans, losing two in the process alongside their crews. After June 1942, the NDH began to employ improvised armored vehicles based on truck chassis. At the end of 1942, a Platoon equipped with TK tankettes attacked a Partisan position near the village of Voćin. The Partisans easily repelled the attack, capturing one tankette in the process.
Interestingly, in early 1943, several Croatian crew members (equipped with TK tankettes) attempted to cross over to the Partisan side with two tankettes. Shortly after their escape, a group of NDH forces sent to prevent this caught up with them. After a short skirmish, the tankettes were recaptured. Four of the deserters managed to escape, while one was captured, with another one being killed. As the war began to turn against the Axis powers, more and more Croatian soldiers began to desert, which caused NDH Army officials to introduce a series of measures (harsh military courts, better security, etc.) in order to prevent this. The same year, some 10 NDH tankettes were present at the Partisan siege of the city of Lika.
In 1944, the NDH armored formations were somewhat reinforced with Italian equipment. But ever-increasing Partisan attacks, which were now heavily supported by the Allies, began to take a toll on the Croatian forces. Once again, the slow destruction of the NDH forces led to further losses in men and materials. For example, the NDH garrison defending Daruvar simply abandoned their positions and surrendered to the Partisans, including their two H39 tanks and one CV.35 light tank in September 1944. In fighting around Klošte, the Partisans captured at least 7 NDH tanks. At the start of December 1944, despite the intended combat strength of some 224 tanks, the PTS had 35, the Ustaše 26 and the NDH Domobranstvo had some 24 tanks.
During 1945, the combat strength of the NDH armored formations consisted of around 70 tanks and armored cars. Given the general confusion of the last year of the war, the overall usage and numbers (even types) of the NDH tanks employed is difficult to determine. During early 1945, the Partisans’ aim was the liberation of Bosnia, after which it was planned to proceed with expelling the enemy from Yugoslavia. In March, heavy fighting was carried out in Bosnia, where some NDH armored vehicles were employed. The 373rd Croatian Infantry Division, which was forced to evacuate from Bosnia in April 1945, had at least one L6/40 tank and some 7 anti-tank versions of this vehicle in its inventory.
On 18th April 1945, during the battles on the Syrmian Front (German defence line in the Northern Yugoslavia) at Pleternica, four possible NDH tanks (one H39 and three L6/40) managed to temporarily push back the Partisans. The next day, tanks from the Partisan 2nd Tank Brigade, which was equipped with Soviet T-34-85 tanks, managed to retake the previously held positions. The four enemy tanks were unable to do much and were forced to retreat.
By May 1945, it was obvious that the war was lost. Ustaše formations were desperate to escape from the vengeful Partisans and the Yugoslavian population which had to endure years of political and ethnic terrors. They, together with a mix of other Croatian and Axis units, were trying to reach Austria and surrender to the Western Allies. Unfortunately for them, all would be returned to Yugoslavia and given as prisoners to the Partisans. Many of these would be killed during their march back to Yugoslavia. The leader of the NDH, Ante Pavelić, who managed to escape, would die in 1959 from the wounds after an assassination attempt two years prior.
Camouflage, Symbols, and Markings
The armored vehicles employed by NDH forces did not receive any special camouflage. Instead, these vehicles kept their original camouflage patterns, depending on their country of origin.
Regarding symbols, the NDH vehicles usually received a Croatian red and white chessboard marking, which was painted either on the front or, more commonly, to the sides. The vehicles operated by Ustaše received a large capital letter “U”. While it was usually just a simple white letter, sometimes a more ornate background was added. Regardless of the way it was displayed, it was usually painted on the front or sides of the vehicle. In rarer cases, crews would add other symbols, such as a skeleton head.
Numerical markings were usually applied to Italian light tanks. These ranged from 50 to 60 and were painted to the vehicle’s sides. The improvised armored cars received simple single-digit markings. In later parts of the war, in the lower front of the vehicles, the letters U. O. and two to three-digit numbers were painted.
- Captain Mag. D. Denda, Yugoslav Tanks In The April War, Institute For Strategic Research
- B. B. Dimitrijević, (2011) Borna kola Jugoslovenske vojske 1918-1941, Institut za savremenu istoriju.
- B. B. Dimitrijević and D. Savić (2011) Oklopne jedinice na Jugoslovenskom ratištu 1941-1945, Institut za savremenu istoriju, Beograd.
- B. B. Dimitrijević (2016) Ustaška Vojska Nezavisne Države Hrvatske 1941-1945, Institut za savremenu istoriju, Beograd.
- D. Predoević (2008) Oklopna vozila i oklopne postrojbe u drugom svjetskom ratu u Hrvatskoj, Digital Point Tiskara
- A. T. Jones (2013) Armored Warfare and Hitler’s Allies 1941-1945, Pen and Sword
- S. J. Zaloga (2013) Tanks Of Hitler’s Eastern Allies 1941-45, Osprey Publishing