In the interwar period, the Yugoslav Royal Army made some attempts to acquire new armored vehicles. The country that offered the best chance to get this equipment was France for two reasons. First, the relatively good relations between these two countries and the fact that France had a large number of tanks available. Despite the French reluctance to sell newer designs, an agreement for the purchase of 54 Renault R35 tanks would eventually be made. These tanks would be the most numerous armored vehicles that the Yugoslav Royal Army managed to acquire before the Axis invasion in April 1941.
In the early 1930s, the Yugoslavian Royal Army began a process of reforming its two cavalry divisions with additional armor support in the hope of increasing its potential offensive capabilities. These two cavalry divisions consisted of two to three cavalry brigades with two regiments, one artillery squadron, a cycling battalion and other supporting units. It was planned to attach a motorized regiment to each division supported with armored vehicles like the light tanks or tankettes.
From the start, there was an issue with where to acquire this new equipment from. While France and Yugoslavia had good military cooperation, France was unwilling to sell its latest tanks and wanted to dispose of the older surplus models. Through the French, Yugoslavia had at its disposal around 56 older Renault-Kegresse M-28 and FT tanks, some having been bought and some received as military aid in the 1920-30s. Some of these FT tanks were possibly acquired from Poland.
With the outbreak of World War II, it was almost impossible for the Yugoslav Royal Army to acquire new armored equipment anywhere in Europe. But this did not discourage the Yugoslav Royal Army officials from continuing negotiations with the French Army about buying any available modern armor. The continuous insistence of the Yugoslav military delegations finally bore some fruit in early 1940, when the French Army agreed to sell 54 relatively modern R35 light tanks to Yugoslavia. These arrived in April 1940, just before the German invasion of the West which stopped any future hope of acquiring new vehicles from France.
The R35 tank
The Renault R35 was a French light tank developed during the early thirties to replace the aging FT tank. While the French army tested other heavier designs (Renault D1 and D2), a simpler and cheaper vehicle was deemed more desirable. Work on this tank began in 1933 at the French Army’s request for a new light tank design. Renault was quick to respond and presented its prototype to the French Army which, after a series of modifications (among which was increasing the armor to 40 mm and improving the running gear), placed an order for over 1600 tanks. While the R35 was well protected with 40 mm-thick cast armor, it was plagued with problems such as weak firepower (it had the same 37 mm gun as the FT), just two crew members, a lack of radio and slow speed. During its service life, a number of further modifications and tests were carried out in order to improve its firepower and mobility, all with limited success. Regardless, it was the most numerous French tank during the German Invasion of 1940. After the defeat of France, the Germans captured many R35 tanks and put them in use in various roles, either unchanged or modified for specific purposes, such as ammunition carriers or anti-tank vehicles. The R35 was also exported to Poland, Romania, Turkey and Yugoslavia.
R35 Unit Organization
Before the arrival of the R35 tanks, the Yugoslav Royal Army had at its disposal only one armored unit, simply called the Battalion of Fighting Vehicles (formed in 1936) equipped with FT and M-28 tanks. This unit is often mistakenly called the First Battalion. It is interesting to note that the Yugoslav Royal Army never adopted the term tank and instead referred to these vehicles simply as fighting vehicles (Боjна Кола).
On May 3rd, 1940, the Battalion of Fighting Vehicles was reformed into the 1st and 2nd Battalions of Fighting Vehicles. The 1st Battalion was equipped with the older tanks while the 2nd was supplied with all the acquired R35 tanks. These two Battalions consisted of three companies, each with three platoons. Beside a number of motorized vehicles (for ammunition and spare parts transportation), no infantry, artillery or anti-tank support elements were provided for these units. The 2nd Battalion was commanded by Danilo Zobenica. Prior to the war, the R35 was often used in larger military exercises together with the T-32 tankettes.
The R35 in Yugoslav service were painted in the French dark green and marked with four-digit numbers. Later in service, it appears that single and double-digit numbers were used for special purposes.
In some sources, mostly internet websites, it is wrongly indicated that the R35 tanks were given to the 1st Battalion. The reason for this wrong identification is the small painted sign (a burning grenade with a number 1) located on a small spare box on the vehicle’s left side. This is actually an original French sign that was simply never repainted.
The R35 in a Military Coup, March 1941
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 happening. They were supported by the R35 tanks of the 2nd Battalion of Fighting Vehicles, which were deployed at key locations in the capital Belgrade. The coup was successful. The R35 did not fire a single round and were used more as a psychological weapon.
During this coup, some R35 tanks had political slogans painted on the turret, for example, ‘For King and Country’ (За Краља и Отаџбину). The success of the coup actually doomed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and, only a few weeks later, the Axis forces attacked.
During the April War
The new government formed following the coup anticipated a potential Axis attack and began preparing for mobilisation, which proved to be too slow and inefficient. Elements from the 1st Battalion of Fighting Vehicles, with older armored vehicles, were deployed defending larger cities such as Sarajevo and Zagreb. The 2nd Battalion of Fighting Vehicles was mainly positioned defending the capital Belgrade, with one company (which one precisely is not known, it could be either 1st or 3rd) positioned in the city of Skopje. The 2nd Battalion’s new commander at the outbreak of war was Major Danilo Zobenica.
When the Axis forces attacked the Kingdom of Yugoslavia on the morning of 6th April 1941 (known today as the April War), the 2nd Battalion was ordered to move from Belgrade to Northern Croatia in hopes of preventing any possible enemy advance. They reached the Croation city of Đakovo on the 9th of April. Once there, this unit was mostly used to pacify Croatian rebels which were trying to disarm the Army unit stationed there. On the 10th of April, the Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska – NDH) was formed with the support of the Germans. This event deepened the already chaotic state of the Yugoslav Royal Army stationed in Croatia. It was already breaking down due to the desertion of Croat soldiers and rapid Axis advance. For this reason, some elements from the 2nd Battalion were quickly transferred via the Sava river to Bosnia.
On 13th April, parts of the 2nd Battalion reached Gračanica in order to support the 2nd Army stationed there. Once there, the high command of the 2nd Army ordered the formation of three motorized detachments equipped with 5 R35 tanks, 5 trucks and infantry support. Once formed, these units were to defend the area around Bosanska Posavina against Croatian rebels who were openly attacking the Yugoslav Royal Army. Due to general confusion and chaos, it appears that only one such unit with around 3 or 4 R35 tanks was formed. The unit was named the Fast Detachment of the Second Army and was commanded by Dragoljub Draža Mihailović (later commander of the Chetnik movement in Yugoslavia during the war). On the night of 13th/14th April, this unit began making its way from Gračanica to its designation area. On the road to Bosanska Posavina, they engaged Croat insurrectionist forces which were defeated. The Fast Detachment also engaged with smaller German forces with some success. This unit was lost in combat with the German forces near Sarajevo. The remnants of the 2nd Battalion stationed in Bosnia were destroyed or captured by the German 14th Panzer Division.
The 2nd Battalion company that was stationed in Macedonia was completely combat ready by the time of Axis attack. On the 6th of April, it was repositioned to Ježevo Polje in support of the Bregalnička Divizija. The following day, the Germans made an attack in this area but were repulsed. The same day, the 2nd Battalion company was ordered to withdraw toward Veles. Due to the heavy German offensive, all R35 tanks were lost or abandoned by their crews.
In Occupied Yugoslavia
During the period between April 1941 and May 1945, the R35 was used by all belligerent parties in occupied Yugoslavia, including the Germans, Croats and the two Yugoslav uprising groups, the Communist Partisans and Royal Chetniks, under different circumstances.
In German hands
After the April War, the Germans captured at least 78-80 Yugoslav armored fighting vehicles. These were to be transported out of occupied Yugoslavia by the end of 1941. Because of the emergence of the two resistance movements, these vehicles were instead distributed to German occupation units. At the end of June 1941, the R35 captured tanks were used to form the Panzer Kompanie zur besonderen Verwendung 12 (12th Tank Company for Special Purposes) reformed into Panzer Abteilung zb.V.12 in 1944. The R35 was actively used to combat the Yugoslavian resistance movements almost until the end of the war. Over the years, the numbers of R35 tanks dwindled due to losses and mechanical breakdowns. For example, Panzer Abteilung zb.V.12 had, at the end of October 1944, only six R35 tanks, with only a single vehicle being fully operational.
The Germans did some minor modifications on the R35 (and on other French tanks), such as removing the larger domed shape cupolas on top and replacing them with simpler split-hatch doors. It is also not clear if all the German-operated R35 tanks in Yugoslavia were ex-Yugoslav or also ones captured in France in 1940.
After the April War, the Independent State of Croatia made many requests to the Germans in order to receive captured Yugoslav armor to reinforce its newly formed army. While the Germans provided them with other captured military equipment, such as rifles and machine guns, they were initially reluctant to supply the Croats with captured tanks. Nevertheless, at least one R35 tank and a company of older FT eventually found their way into the hands of the NDH forces.
There is a possibility that the Germans provided the NDH with a small number of R35 tanks in 1944, but sources are not clear on this matter.
Back in Yugoslav Hands
During September and October 1941, the Partisans managed to capture several enemy tanks in Serbia. The first tank was captured on 8th September near the village of Vraževšnice. Two German tanks were captured a week later around the area of the cities of Kragujevac and Gornji Milanovac. Two more were found deserted near Gornji Milanovac on 16th October. The precise types that were captured are not clear, but at least one was a R35 tank.
Prior to its capture, the German crew sabotaged the guns on at least two of the tanks (the condition of the remaining captured tanks is not clear). For this reason, these tanks were instead armed with machine guns and hand grenades. At least two tanks were to be used in a joint Partisans and Chetniks attempt to liberate the city of Kraljevo, held by the elements of the German 717th Infantry Division. The German defenders were supported by tanks from Panzer Kompanie zu b.V.12, but no instances of tank to tank action were recorded. Even if these had occurred, the Yugoslav resistance’s tanks would be powerless to adequately fight enemy armor, being unable to use their sabotaged guns.
The tank crews consisted of both Partisan and Chetnik fighters. The R35 was commanded by Lieutenant Žarko Borušić. The attempt to liberate Kraljevo was made by the end of October 1941. The tank’s crew managed to somehow fool the German defenders and enter the city unopposed. The advancing infantry support was however stopped by the Germans and was unable to support the two tanks. The tank crews eventually managed to successfully escape the city.
This failed attempt to take the city, together with differing political views, would eventually lead to an open war between the two resistance movements. The Chetniks took possession of these tanks and killed the Partisan commander Srećko Nikolić (who was a commander of one of these tanks). The Chetniks then used two (of which one might have been an R35) tanks against Partisan forces that were holding the city of Čačak in November 1941. The Partisans managed to capture at least one tank (unknown type) from the Chetniks, possibly in late August 1941. This was then used and lost against the Germans during the latter’s attack on the territories of the Republic of Užice (part of Yugoslavia liberated by the Partisans in late 1941). The Partisans managed, in the later stages of the war, to capture even more R35 tanks. These were used against the German forces but also on parades in liberated cities, including in Kragujevac in May 1945.
After the War
A small number of R35 tanks (maybe only a few) did survive the war, but in what shape it is not known. Due to the R35 tank’s weak armor and main gun, the lack of spare parts and general obsolescence, the tanks were of limited use at best for the newly formed Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA). Some were possibly used as training vehicles, but it is unlikely that they were in use for a long time after the war and were probably scrapped. Unfortunately, no Yugoslav R35 tank seems to have survived to this day.
While the R35 represented the backbone of the Yugoslav Royal Army armored force prior to WWII, due to their small numbers, wrong tactical usage and crew inexperience, they proved no match for the well trained German Panzer units. They were used by nearly all major sides during the liberation war in Yugoslavia. While, ironically, the majority were used by the Germans, it was the Partisans who used them in many fights to liberate Yugoslavia from the Axis powers in 1945.
One of the R35 tanks used during the coup on the 27th of March. This tank had a political slogan ‘For King and Country’ painted on the turret. This illustration was produced by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet.
|Dimensions||4.02 x 1.87 x 2.13 m (13.2 x 6.2 x 7 ft)|
|Total weight, battle ready||10.6 metric tons|
|Crew||2 (commander/gunner, driver)|
|Propulsion||Renault V-4 gasoline 48 hp, p/w ratio 8.0 hp/t|
|Speed||20 km/h (12 mph)|
|Suspension||Horizontal rubber cylinder springs|
|Maximum range||130 km (80 mi)|
|Armament||Main: 37 mm (1.46 in) L/21 SA18
Secondary: Châtellerault or Reibel MAC31 7.5 mm (0.29 in) machine-gun
|Maximum armor||43 mm (1.69 in)|
D. Babac (2008), Elitni vidovi jugoslovenske vojske u Aprilskom ratu. Evoluta
B. Nadoveza and N. Đokić (2014), Odbrambena privreda Kraljevine Jugoslavije,
B. B.. Dimitrijević, (2011) Borna kola Jugoslovenske vojske 1918-1941, Institut za savremenu istoriju.
D. Nešić, (2008), Naoružanje Drugog Svetsko Rata-Francuska, Beograd
Bojan B. D. and Dragan S.(2011) Oklopne jedinice na Jugoslovenskom ratištu 1941-1945, Institut za savremenu istoriju.
D. Predoević (2008) Oklopna vozila i oklopne postrojbe u drugom svjetskom ratu u Hrvatskoj, Digital Point Tiskara
S. Zaloga (2014) French tanks of World War II (1), Osprey Publishing