At the start of the 1930s, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia bought its first tanks from France. These were the older Renault FT and the slightly improved Renault-Kégresse tanks. While their combat value was limited at best, they served as a base for further development of the armored forces in Yugoslavia. By the time the Axis began their major offensive operation in the Balkans during April 1941, the aging Renault FT and Renault-Kégresse tanks represented nearly half of the armored strength of the Yugoslav Army.
The birth of the first Yugoslav tank formations
Following the collapse of the Central Powers during the First World War, much of the southern territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were absorbed by the newly created Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (Kingdom of SHS) during 1918. The newly created army of this Kingdom received a number of weapons from the Allied forces present in the Balkans. This shipment of weapons did not include Renault FT tanks, which were present in smaller numbers within the Allied Balkan forces. In September of 1919, the Kingdom of SHS Army officially requested that some of these be allocated to them. This request was not granted, as the Allies informed the SHS Army representatives that these were to be stationed in Bulgaria and Romania. This did not stop the SHS Army officials, which sent an additional delegation to France directly to ask for permission to receive these tanks. Eventually, these attempts proved to be futile, as the French Ministry of War stated (in November of 1919) that this was not possible. The Kingdom of SHS was instead reassured that, once sufficient numbers of Renault FTs were available, these would be allocated to them.
In early December of 1919, Louis Franchet d’Espèrey, the commander of Allied forces in the Balkans, officially allowed that an SHS group of 10 drivers and as many mechanics as possible be moved to the Bulgarian capital, Sofia to begin training and familiarisation with the 8 Renault FT tanks which were stationed there. On 12th December, by the direct orders of the SHS Ministry of War, the first Armored Company, equipped with 8 Renault FTs (which were still in Sofia) was to be formed. A military delegation was formed, which consisted of 6 officers and non-commissioned officers and 10 artillerymen in addition to 10 drivers and 3 mechanics. In February 1920, the French officially started to transfer these tanks to the SHS Army. The contingent of 8 Renault FTs consisted of 3 armed with machine guns, 4 with 37 mm guns and one radio (télégraphie sans fil – TSF) version.
It is important to note that the SHS and later Yugoslav Army did not use the term ‘tank’, but instead ‘Борна Кола’. This term could be translated as armored or even combat vehicle, depending on the source used. To avoid confusion, this article will use the term tank.
There is some disagreement in the sources on the precise date or even number of tanks of this type operated by the Yugoslav Army. The previously mentioned information was according to author N. Đokić (Vojni informator). Other authors, like Captain Mag. D. Denda and D. Dimitrijević, give a completely different account of how the first tanks were acquired. At the end of 1920s, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (the name was changed in 1929) took a loan of some 300 million French Francs for purchasing their first tanks. By doing this, the Yugoslav Army was able to acquire 21 Renault tanks. The first group of 10 tanks arrived in April, and the remaining on 11th July 1929. These included 10 Renault FTs and 11 improved Renault-Kégresse tanks (in many Serbian sources marked as ‘M-28’, ‘M.28’, or even as ‘M28’). Author B. B. Dimitrijević (Borna kola Jugoslovenske vojske 1918-1941) mentions that there is a possibility that the M-28 used by the Yugoslav Army had a stronger engine, but with no more information about it.
The precise number of Renault-Kégresse tanks acquired is not completely clear in the sources, ranging from 10 to 11 vehicles. The reasons why this version was bought and not the old FT is not mentioned in the sources. While they were almost identical to the older Renault FT model, the M-28 had a different suspension which necessitated the acquisition of additional spare parts. The M-28s were used to form the first tank company in the Yugoslav Army, stationed in Kragujevac during April 1930. It would be allocated to Sarajevo, where a tank training school was formed. The remaining Renault FTs would be used to equip another Tank Company, which was stationed in the capital, Belgrade. The French also provided a group of instructors to help train crews for these vehicles. The precise strength of these two companies is unclear. The first actual documents that mention these units’ peacetime compositions are dated from 1935. According to them, each Company contained 12 tanks. Each Company was further divided into four Platoons, each with 3 tanks.
However, author D. Predoević (Oklopna vozila i oklopne postrojbe u drugom svjetskom ratu u Hrvatskoj) indicates that the first 21 tanks were all actually Renault FTs. He also notes that, in 1935, an additional 20 tanks were bought. To complicate matters even further, both he and D. Babac (Elitni Vidovi Jugoslovenske Vojske u Aprilskom Ratu) state that the Yugosavian Army had 20 and not 10 M-28 tanks.
During the First World War, France employed tanks like the St-Chamond and Schneider CA 1 in an attempt to break the German lines. These designs were far from perfect and were plagued by a number of issues (limited firing arc, low armor thickness etc.). However, the most significant problem was the slow and expensive production. During 1916, in French military circles, the idea of using cheap and easy-to-produce light tanks began to take hold. By the end of 1916, after the first wooden prototype was completed and inspected, a production order for 100 vehicles was placed. This light tank received the simple Renault FT designation.
At the start of the following year, the first prototype was tested and, after some delays, production orders for 1,150 such tanks were placed. Of these, some 500 were to be armed with one 8 mm machine gun, while the remaining 650 were to be armed with a 37 mm gun. The Renault FTs were first used in combat during the French attempts to stop the large German offensive of 1918. It proved to be a successful vehicle, presenting a small target, having a fully rotating turret, and being available in great numbers. By August 1918, the French managed to produce more than 2,000 Renault FT light tanks.
After the First World War, the Renault FT became generally obsolete and was widely exported by the French Army, which was unwilling to sell their better designs. Those that bought the Renault FT were countries like Poland, the USA, Finland, Japan, Greece, and Yugoslavia amongst others.
In an attempt to somewhat improve the Renault FT’s overall driving performance, during the 1920s, the French army tested a new type of suspension. The completely redesigned Kegresse type suspension consisted of eight smaller road wheels, one return roller and larger idler and drive sprockets. It employed new metal and rubber band tracks. While it offered better driving characteristics, it was only built in limited numbers, mostly due to reduction in the budget of the French Army.
After the First World War, the Yugoslav Army was in desperate need of all kinds of weapons, ranging from ordinary rifles to artillery. In 1921, the first negotiations with Poland took place regarding this issue. In the following years, Yugoslavia bought a number of Polish weapons, including aviation bombs, rifle ammunition, artillery pieces, etc. In 1932, Poland and the Yugoslav Army signed an agreement for purchasing some 14 Renault FT tanks. While the Yugoslav Army later showed great interest in the 7TP tank, due to the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, nothing came from this.
Following the arrival of the first tanks, Yugoslav Army cycles began theorizing how to best employ them, about the further acquisition of more tanks and general organization. One of the Yugoslav Generals that advocated for forming Tank Battalions supported by Motorized Infantry placed under unified command was Milan Đ. Nedić. He made the first steps in proposing this plan in 1932. Two years later, the General Staff of the Yugoslav Army, together with King Aleksandar I Karađorđević, examined it. The plan for creating mechanized and armored units met with the approval of Army officials but, more importantly, also the King himself. For the realization of this plan, General Nedić was appointed as the chief of the General Staff in June 1934. His success was short-lived as, only a few months later, the King was assassinated in Marseille while visiting France. General Nedić was removed from his new position shortly after that. He was replaced by General Ljubomir M. Marić, who continued working on extending the armored formations.
The process of reorganization and modernization of Yugoslav forces was accelerated after the start of the Second Italian-Ethiopian war in 1935. France agreed to supply Yugoslavia with an additional contingent of 20 Renault FT tanks during 1935 and 1936 as military aid. The whole operation was held in secrecy by both sides. While the last tank arrived in 1936, it would take almost a whole year before they were actually allocated for troop use.
By September 1936, there were some 45 Renault FTs and 10 (or 11) M-28s available. That same month, from these vehicles, a Battalion of Armored Vehicles was formed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Pavao J. Begović. This unit is often mistakenly called the First Battalion, a unit which was actually formed later. The Battalion, when it was formed, had only a single Company which was stationed in Belgrade. This Company was used primarily for crew training, but was also used on a military parade held in honor of the king’s birthday in September of 1936. During the same year, a new regulation regarding the Battalion strength was adopted. According to it, the Battalion consisted of one Command unit, three Companies, and a reserve Company. The Command unit had 3 tanks, the same as the reserve Company. The three Companies each had 10 tanks, for a total of 36 tanks. In addition, there was also an independent support Company with 4 tanks. Only in March of 1937 did the Battalion reach full combat readiness with three Companies.
In 1938, the Battalion organization was once again changed. This time, each company was further reinforced with an additional platoon of M-28 tanks. This indicates that the M-28 were not used previously and were probably stored for some eight years. The Battalion strength was increased to 48 tanks in total.
Two years later, the Yugoslav Army bought 54 R35 tanks from France. Thanks to this, it was possible to form an additional Battalion. The original Battalion of Armored Vehicles was renamed the 1st Battalion of Armored Vehicles. The 2nd Battalion of Armored Vehicles was equipped with newly acquired R35 tanks. Most of the 1st Battalion personnel was relocated to the 2nd Battalion, which necessitated retraining the crew members. At the end of 1940, the number of tanks in each Battalion was noted to be 50 tanks. Other changes included that the Command unit did not have tanks and that the strength of each Company was increased to 13 tanks, with 11 more in reserve. Regarding the armament of the FT and M-28 tanks, one-third were armed with machine guns, while the remaining were armed with 37 mm guns. In addition, during this time, elements of the 1st Battalion were rearranged across three major cities. The Command unit with the 1st Company and the reserve Company were stationed in Belgrade (together with the 2nd Battalion). The 2nd Company was positioned in Zagreb (Croatia) and the last in Sarajevo (Bosnia).
Experience with the FT and M-28 tanks
The Yugoslav Army initiated a number of infantry and tank exercises in order to test the idea of cooperation between these two Army branches. One such exercise was held in hilly terrains in Šumadija (in Serbia). There, the Renault FT proved to be unsuited for supporting infantry due to its unsuitability for bad terrain. Its performance was so poor that the infantry commanders suggested to the High Command to urgently find more modern equipment. In September of 1939, huge exercises that should have included three tank Companies were to be carried out. However, after only a few weeks, this was canceled and never carried out on a larger scale.
There were other problems with the crew training and the mechanical reliability of tanks. For example, the Zagreb stationed Company lacked any proper firing range. For this reason, firing practice was rarely carried out. Mechanical problems with the Renault tanks were also a huge issue. The Renault FT was outdated and generally worn out, while the M-28 had problems with its rubber tracks.
Camouflage and Markings
The Renault FT and M-28 retained their original French dark green color, even those that were brought from Poland. Some of the vehicles received different types of camouflages, but which precise color is not listed in the sources.
The FTs were usually marked with French numbers between 66000 and 74000 but also with additional four-digit numbers or two Roman numerals. These were painted either on the front of the vehicle or on the suspension. The M-28s were only marked with two-digit numbers ranging from 81 to 88. But according to some older photographs, one vehicle has the number 79 painted on it. It is unclear why this is so (it could be a modern print error in the sources).
Prior to the war
In the years before the war, the reorganization and rearmament process of the Yugoslav Army was delayed. After the military plan dated 1938, the Yugoslav army was to be reinforced with 252 medium and 36 heavy tanks. Eventually, only 8 T-32 (Š-I-D) vehicles were brought from Czechoslovakia in 1936, with 54 R35 tanks from France in 1940. One of the many reasons why the armored development was slowed down was due to short-sighted military Generals, like Dušan T. Simović, who believed that the tanks were ineffective weapons. Also, Czechoslovakia was under German occupation and France was unwilling to sell modern equipment. While negotiations with the Soviet Union, the USA, and Great Britain were undertaken, nothing came from these. By the time the Axis attacked in April 1941, Yugoslavia could only muster less than 120 armored vehicles.
The April War
In March 1941, the government of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was negotiating with the Germans to join the Axis powers. A group of pro-Western Yugoslav Air Force officers, under the leadership of General Dušan Simović, staged a coup on the 27th of March 1941 in order to prevent this from happening. Hitler was furious after this event and ordered that Yugoslavia be occupied. For the upcoming invasion, the Axis forces included 30 German, 23 Italian, and 5 Hungarian Divisions. The Germans alone had some 843 tanks, including 400 modern Panzer IIIs and IVs. The attack was made on the 6th of April 1941, which started the so-called April war.
Opposing them, the Yugoslav Army could muster some 31 Divisions. However, during the attack, only 11 partially formed divisions were available. The lack of mobilization and the overextension of available forces essentially sealed the fate of the Yugoslav Army. When the Axis forces attacked, elements of the 1st Battalion were distributed to three operational bases in Belgrade, Zagreb, Skopje, and Sarajevo. At that time, the Battalion was commanded by Major Stanimir Mišić. To counter the Axis offensive, the scattered elements of these units received orders to move towards Velika Plana (south of Belgrade). But this order was unrealistic due to the rapid enemy advance, poor infrastructure connections, and slow mobilization. As Belgrade was under heavy enemy bombing raids, the Command unit and the reserve Company of this Battalion moved toward its place of gathering at Plana, but without its equipment. They awaited the remaining elements of the units and their own tanks to arrive. By 9th April, due to huge confusion, other units were unable to link up with them, so the personnel of the first Company tried to march to Bosnia, but were captured shortly by the advancing Germans.
The 1st Company was stationed in Skopje (Macedonia). It received orders on the night of the 6th to move toward the village of Pirova. On the way to that destination, one of the tanks broke down and had to be abandoned. The Company formed a defense line around Đevđelije. A German forward reconnaissance unit spotted the Yugoslav defense line. While they were also spotted by the 1st Company, the unit commander refused to open fire. Shortly after that, the 1st Company positions were bombed by German bombers, losing a number of tanks either damaged or completely destroyed. The German ground forces then attacked the 1st Company’s shattered positions. While some Renault FTs tried to fire back, they proved ineffective and nearly all would be lost. Only four tanks managed to escape and, on 8th April, together with other Yugoslav soldiers that survived the German attack in Macedonia, tried to escape to Greece, where the 1st Company effectively stopped to exist.
The history of the 2nd Company, which was stationed in Zagreb, is not completely clear. While it did not see any action, the precise location of its vehicles during the war is unknown. The main theory is that they never even tried to move from their base. The problem is that German documents after the April war do not mention any tanks being captured in Croatia.
The 3rd Company was evacuated from Sarajevo and transported to the Serbian village of Orašac, near Aranđelovac, on 9th April. Three days later, it was ordered to move towards Lazarevac to provide cover for the retreating Yugoslav forces. They failed to do so and ran out of fuel. The advancing Germans, in the meantime, captured the company’s fuel supply vehicles. The unit commander ordered that all vehicles’ 37 mm guns be sabotaged and made useless to the Germans and that the machine guns be taken with them. They tried to reach Sarajevo, but the commander decided that it was too dangerous to continue on and effectively disbanded the unit.
The new owners
After the brief April war, the Germans managed to capture some 78 (out of 120) Yugoslav armored vehicles. These were to be transported back to Germany. Following the uprising against the occupation after June 1941, the Germans were forced to allocate some of these vehicles to fight the Yugoslav Partisans. From the available stocks of captured Renault FTs, the Germans formed 6 Platoons with 5 vehicles each. These were initially engaged against the Partisan forces, supporting the German infantry formations. Due to their general obsolescence, the Renault FTs were mainly replaced with more modern French tanks, like the R35, Somua S35, and the Hotchkiss H35 and 39. Nearly all of the Renault FTs were used instead to equip over 30 auxiliary and improvised armored trains that were used to protect the vital supply lines of the Axis power in the Balkans. Each of these trains was reinforced with at least two Renault FT tanks. They would be used in this role up to the war’s end. It is also unclear but quite possible that the Germans introduced additional Renault FT tanks captured in France or elsewhere.
The fate of the M-28 tanks is not completely clear. The Germans managed to capture some of them, but how they used them is unknown. There was a video on Youtube of Montenegrin Partisans destroying some captured German equipment, including an M-28 tank. Sadly, this video is no longer available.
In Croatian service
After the collapse of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the Germans created the Independent State of Croatia. While it was their puppet state and ally, the Germans were quite unwilling to give the Croats any armored vehicles captured from the Yugoslav Army. Nevertheless, the Croatian military forces managed to operate an unknown number of (but likely only a few) Renault FT tanks. It is not clear how these came into their possession. They were likely captured by the Croats from the 4th Tank Company which was stationed in Zagreb. The use of this tank was possibly quite limited in any other role than perhaps crew training.
In Partisan hands
During the war, the Yugoslav Partisans managed to capture a great number of Axis-operated armored vehicles. Due to a lack of documentation, it is often difficult to identify which precise vehicle they captured and used. By the end of the war, a number of German armored trains with Renault FTs were captured. Their use after the war would be limited at best (if used at all). Today, one surviving Renault FT tank can be seen at the Belgrade military museum.
The Renault FT and M-28 were the first tanks operated by the Yugoslav Army. By the time these were acquired, in 1930, they were already obsolete. Poor training, a lack of crew and personnel, and mechanical problems due to their age led to poor combat performance when they were employed against the more modern German army. While they played an insignificant role during the 1941 war with Germany, their importance may be regarded more as the first steps in the development of the Yugoslav armored force in the following years.
1st Armored Tank Batallion of the Yugoslav Royal Army, April 1941.
A Renault NC2 Kegresse, one of the ten or more which were given to the Yugoslav Royal Army. They desperately fought the Wehrmacht during the Balkan campaign, in March-April 1941. They were very similar to the nine FT Kégresse already bought in 1928.
|Dimensions||5 x 1.74 x 2.14 m|
|Total weight, battle-ready||6.5 metric tons|
|Crew||2 (commander/gunner, driver)|
|Propulsion||Renault 18CV 35 hp|
|Maximum range||35 km|
|Armament||Main: 37 mm SA model 18 gun
Secondary: 8 mm Hotchkiss machine gun machine-gun
|Armor||8 to 16 mm|
- N. Đokić (2001) Vojni informator
- Captain Mag. D. Denda, Tank Units In The Army Of The Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1930-1940) Institute For Strategic Research
- Captain Mag. D. Denda, Yugoslav Tanks In The April War, Institute For Strategic Research
- N. Đokić and B. Nadoveza (2018) Nabavka Naoružanja Iz Inostranstva Za Potrebe Vojske I Mornarice Kraljevine SHS-Jugoslavije, Metafizika
- D. Babac, Elitni Vidovi Jugoslovenske Vojske u Aprilskom Ratu, Evoluta
- 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.
- D. Predoević (2008) Oklopna vozila i oklopne postrojbe u drugom svjetskom ratu u Hrvatskoj, Digital Point Tiskara
- S.J. Zaloga (2010) French Tanks Of World War I, Osprey Publishing
- S.J. Zaloga (2014) French Tanks of World War II (1), Osprey Publishing