Kingdom of Yugoslavia

Kingdom of Yugoslavia armor

Partisan armor

A Brief History of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia

Following the defeat of the Central Powers and the end of the First World War, the Balkan Slavic nations joined together to form a new kingdom in December of 1918. This was the Kraljevina Srba Hrvata i Slovenaca (Eng: The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes – SHS), ruled by the former Serbian King Peter I Karađorđević. The foundations of this new kingdom were to be based on the principles of equality between these three nationalities. In reality, this was never fully achieved, as the Kingdom was politically and ethically divided almost from the start.

King Peter I Karađorđević Source: Wiki

During the 1920s, there were huge political and economic crises that threatened the existence of this new Kingdom. The political conflict between Croatian and Serbian politicians ultimately culminated in the assassination of several Croatian Peasant Party members, including the leader, Stjepan Radić, by a Serbian politician in 1928. In an attempt to politically stabilize the country and at the same time increase his own power, the new king, Aleksandar Karađorđević, led the country into a dictatorship by abolishing parliament on 6th January 1929. 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.

Following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with its old borders marked by the red line, most of its southern territories were absorbed by the new Kingdom of SHS. Source: www.quora.com
In an attempt to stabilize the kingdom, Yugoslav King Alexander Karađorđević abolished parliament on 6th January 1929. Source: Wiki

The new Kingdom of Yugoslavia also faced external threats from its neighbors, mostly Fascist Italy, over territorial disputes. In an attempt to further destabilize Yugoslavia, in the early 1930s, Italy financed the Croatian Ustaše (the precise meaning of the name is unknown, but could be roughly translated as insurgent) revolutionary organization. Their main aim was the liberation of the Croatian people from Yugoslavia, by all means necessary, even violence. Due to active police actions, this organization’s activities were considerably limited in Yugoslavia. But, thanks to outside support, the Ustaše participated in the assassination of the Yugoslav king, Alexander Karađorđević, in Marseille in 1934. This assassination backfired to some extent for the Ustaše. Not only did it not lead to the breakup of Yugoslavia, but, during the following years, under the leadership of regent Prince Pavle Karađorđević, the Yugoslav political relations with Italy also improved. This led the Italian authorities to effectively remove their support from the Ustaše and even arrested some of its members.

Prince Pavle Karađorđević ruled over Yugoslavia after the death of King Alexander Karađorđević. Source: Wiki

In the following years, the whole of Europe slowly slid into chaos. In 1936, the Spanish Civil war broke out, and both Germany and Italy started the occupation of foreign European territories (Albania, Austria, and Czechoslovakia), which eventually led to the start of the war. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia tried to remain neutral as long as possible. By early 1941, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was mostly surrounded by the Axis and under pressure from the Allies to choose a side. Germany, under Adolf Hitler, was generally uninterested in this part of Europe, focusing instead on the master plan, the conquest of the Soviet Union. Poor political decisions by the Yugoslavian authorities and the Italian invasion of Greece ultimately brought this part of Europe into the Second World War.

Development of Tank Use

Following the collapse of the Central Powers during the First World War, much of Europe was in a chaotic state. Redrawing new borders led to a number of small conflicts, mostly in Eastern Europe. The French peace forces that were stationed in the Balkans had some FT tanks. While the newly created Kingdom of SHS received all kinds of weapons from the Allies, these did not initially include tanks. In September 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 the FT tanks 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 refused to supply these vehicles under the excuse that they themselves lacked tanks. The French were somewhat accommodating, allowing a small group of officers and mechanics to be trained in-tank use though.

While it took some time before the first tanks would be acquired, in the military circles of SHS and later the Yugoslavian Royal Army, a discussion of their potential use began in earnest. Like in other armies, there were two major groups advocating for and against the use of tanks.  Given that all neighboring countries possessed some armored units, it was obvious that the Yugoslav Royal Army had to act soon.

Finally, in 1929, the first tanks were acquired. Given that the Yugoslav Royal Army was heavily influenced by the French, it should not come as a surprise that the Yugoslav armored doctrine was heavily based on the French one. The tank was not considered the main breakthrough weapon, but instead a support weapon for the infantry. Of course, during the following years, all kinds of new doctrines and ideas about the tank’s use were theorized by the Royal Army military circles. During the 1930s, great interest was shown in increasing the numbers of tanks and even implementing larger mechanization of cavalry units. Unfortunately, the rather poor performance (due to many reasons which are not always obvious) of tanks during the Spanish Civil War greatly influenced military thinking about their use in Yugoslavia.

In the years before the war, the reorganization and rearmament process of the Yugoslavian Army was continuously delayed. After the military plan from 1938, the Yugoslavian Army was meant to be reinforced with 252 medium and 36 heavy tanks. This was never achieved, mainly due to a lack of funds, the outbreak of war in Europe, and the incompetence of the military top, which constantly delayed the acquisition of such vehicles.

History of Armored Vehicle Development      

Armored Cars

The first use of armored vehicles by the Serbian Army, which would later serve as the nucleus for the new Yugoslavian Royal Army, dates back to 1918. The Serbian forces that were present on the Salonika Front received a few French Peugeot armored cars. These appear to have been temporarily given by the Entente, as their use after the war is not clear. In 1919, some captured ex-Austro-Hungarian armored cars were used in border skirmishes with Austria and suppressing some smaller military uprisings.

The French Peugeot armored car on the Salonika Front. Few of these were operated by Serbian crews. Source: en.topwar.ru

During the 1920s, the Yugoslav Royal Army had two Automitrailleuse White armored cars in its inventory. When precisely these were acquired is not mentioned in the sources.

Two Automitrailleuse White armored cars were in service with the Yugoslav Royal Army. Source: Wiki

In 1940, in order to supplement the strength of the Eskadron Konjičke škole (Eng. Cavalry School Squadron), which used the previously mentioned armored cars, two domestically-built armored trucks were built. These had a simple shape, with the rear storage bin being fully protected and a small cupola on top of it. The front driver’s cabin was initially unarmored.  During the war, these were noted to have received additional armor protection for the driver’s cabin.

One of the two modified armored trucks used by the Cavalry School. Squadron Source: Paluba.Rs

Besides the previously mentioned vehicles, the Yugoslavian Royal Army employed one more armored car. Unfortunately, not much is known about it, as there are no photographs or any other source of it. This armored car is often simply referred to as SPA, without any explanation of its origin. In addition, two yet-to-be-identified armored cars were also used. Based on the surviving picture, these appear to actually be mock-up training vehicles.

Unknown and unidentified armored cars in Yugoslav Royal Army service. Based on their appearance, they may have been simple mock-up training vehicles, with no real armament. Source: Axishistory.com

Tanks

It is important to note that the SHS and later Yugoslav Army did not use the term ‘tank’, but instead ‘Борна Кола’. This term can be translated as armored or even combat vehicle, depending on the source used. To avoid confusion, this article will nevertheless use the term tank.

Like most armies after the Great War, the Royal Yugoslav Army’s first tank was the FT, and its slightly modified Renault-Kégresse ‘cousin’  (in many sources marked as ‘M-28’, ‘M.28’, or ‘M28’). The first group of 20 or so FT and M-28 tanks arrived in Yugoslavia in 1929. These were acquired from France, with whom the Kingdom of Yugoslavia had a rather good military relationship. By 1936, the number of FT and M-28 tanks was increased to 45 and 10 (or 11).  Of these, some 14 tanks were acquired from Poland in 1932.

A Yugoslavian M-28 at a parade held in Belgrade in 1930. Only a small number of these tanks were ever produced by the French and only 10 to 11 were sold to Yugoslavia. Source: www.srpskioklop
A Renault FT in Yugoslav Royal Army Service. Source: The tank “Renault Ft-17” in photos Magazine

In 1940, the Yugoslav Royal Army armored formations were greatly improved with the purchase of some 54 R35s from France. Thanks to the acquisition of these tanks, another armored battalion would be formed.

Camouflaged R35 followed by infantry on a military exercise near Belgrade in early 1940. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tankettes  

In an effort to equip its cavalry divisions with armored vehicles, the Yugoslav Royal Army approached the Czechoslovakian weapon manufacturer Škoda. In 1936, an agreement was signed for the acquisition of 8 Š-I-d tankettes (known in Yugoslavian service as T-32). All eight vehicles arrived in August of 1937.

Despite their small numbers, the T-32s were some of the best-armored vehicles employed by the Yugoslav Royal Army. Source: srpskioklop.paluba.info

After initial experiences with the T-32, the Yugoslav military leadership asked Škoda to develop better armored and armed vehicles with a more reliable suspension. In 1939, Škoda presented an improved tankette designated Š-I-J (‘J’ for Jugoslavsky/Yugoslav) to the Royal Yugoslav Army, which expressed willingness to acquire 108 such vehicles, but nothing would come from this.

The improved Š-I-J was armed with a 47 mm gun and had a new suspension. While a production order for 108 vehicles was initially placed, nothing would come from this. Source: forum.warthunder.com

Unfulfilled Orders

Besides the previously mentioned armored vehicles, Yugoslav Royal Army officials tried to acquire other designs. For example, negotiations with Poland were undertaken for the purchase of 7TP tanks. Due to the German invasion of Poland, nothing came from this. France was also unwilling to sell more thanks, and it too would be soon conquered by the Germans. Negotiations with the Soviet Union, the USA, and Great Britain were undertaken, to no avail. Despite political tensions, Yugoslavia bought a number of weapons from Italy. Prior to the outbreak of the war, in 1941, Yugoslavia placed an order for some 54 AB 40 armored cars, but none would make it.

In May of 1937, a Yugoslav delegation visited Czechoslovakia. During this visit, the Yugoslav delegation asked Czechoslovakia Army representatives for a new design based on their requirements. This vehicle, designated as Š-II-j (later changed to T-12), was to be powered by a diesel engine and be armed with a 47 mm gun. In 1940, the prototype was presented to the Yugoslav Royal Army officials, who, while impressed, delayed placing a production order. In the end, this project would be abandoned as well.

The Š-II-j was specially designed by Yugoslavian Royal Amry requirements but despite this, it would not be adopted. Source:  www.armedconflicts.com

Attempts at Domestic Production

In November 1939, representatives from the Jasenica factory approached the Yugoslav Ministry of War with a proposal for an armored tracked towing vehicle. The maximum speed of this vehicle was to be 37 km/h and 24 km/h when towing a trailer. If needed, the representatives of this company offered to produce similar vehicles under license. The Ministry of War was initially interested in such a design and placed an order for 500 vehicles. Due to its price and general lack of funds, this order would soon be canceled. The Ministry was instead more interested in the domestic production of tanks. While the Jasenica officials were willing to try, nothing would come from this.

Organization

The first FT and M-28 tanks were used to form tank companies stationed in Belgrade and Sarajevo during 1930. With the increased number of these tanks in September 1936, the Bataljon Bornih Kola (Eng. Battalion of Armored Vehicles) was formed. This unit is sometimes wrongly described as the First Battalion. This 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 had 10 tanks each, a total of 36 tanks. In addition, there was also an independent support company with 4 tanks. Only in March 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-28s, reaching a combat strength of 48 tanks.

In 1940, with the newly acquired R35 tanks, the Yugoslav armor was reformed. Thanks to this new influx, the 2nd Battalion of Armored Vehicles was formed, equipped with the new tanks. The Battalion of Armored Vehicles was renamed the 1st Battalion of Armored Vehicles. At the end of 1940, the battalions were noted to contain 50 tanks. Other changes included a command unit that did not have tanks and the strength of each company was increased to 13 tanks, with 11 more in reserve.

The T-32s were used to form the Eskadron Bornih Kola (Eng. Squadron of Fast Combat Vehicles). In order to supplement the strength of this unit, two armored cars, together with two indigenously armored trucks were attached to it. These were primarily positioned near the capital, at Zemun. Their mission was to provide protection for the capital from any potential assault from the north and even against an airborne assault.

Camouflage and Markings

The Yugoslavian armored vehicles used a mixture of camouflages, depending on their country of origin. The Renault FTs (including the one brought from Poland),  M-28s, the two armored cars, and R35s retained their original French dark green color. Some FT tanks received more elaborate camouflages which appear to have been a combination of dark brown, olive green, and sand yellow. The T-32s also retained their original three-tone camouflage of brown, green, and ochre.

The M-28 with a painted camouflage. Source: D. Babac, Elitni Vidovi Jugoslovenske Vojske u Aprilskom Ratu
A colored picture of a T-32. Note the four-digit number painted on its rear superstructure. Source: www.armedconflicts.com

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. According to some older photographs, one vehicle had the number 79 painted on it. It is unclear why this was so. The R35s were marked using four-digit numbers. Later in service, it appears that single and double-digit numbers were used for special purposes. Regarding the T-32, some sources mention that it did not receive any numerical marking, but some old photographs show that four-digit numbers were painted on the rear hull.

The left-side vehicle has the number 79 painted on its side and front. Source: www.tankarchives.ca

While the Yugoslav Royal Army did not adopt any form of unit symbols, an exception was the R35 tanks from the 2nd Fighting Battalion. These vehicles used a burning grenade with a number 1, usually painted on the superstructure slides. Sometimes, this leads to the wrong misidentification of this unit as the 1st Fighting Battalion.

On the left, the painted sign with the number 1, right above the first return roller. The person in the picture is the young King Petar II. On the right, the French painted sign is often misinterpreted as the mark of the 1st Battalion. Source: www.srpskioklop.paluba.info

War with the Axis and the Downfall of Yugoslavia

Wanting to emulate the rapid German successes in Europe, Benito Mussolini ordered an attack on Greece in October 1940. Very soon, Greek forces managed to stop the Italian attack and even went on their own counter-offensive. With this setback, together with the losses suffered in North Africa, Mussolini had no choice but to seek help from his German ally. Hitler was not very interested in the Mediterranean theater, being more preoccupied with the plans for the invasion of the Soviet Union. But, worried by the possibility of a second front being opened to the south in Greece by the British while the German forces were assaulting the Soviet Union, he reluctantly decided to send German military aid to help the Italians. For the planned occupation of Greece, Hitler counted on the Kingdom of Yugoslavia either joining the Axis or at least remaining neutral.

While the Yugoslavian Regent Prince Pavle Karađorđević was generally open to cooperating, joining the Axis to avoid a potential war with the Germans and their allies seemed the only real option. In March 1941, negotiations with Germany on this matter were underway. While Prince Pavle Karađorđević and his government thought that joining Axis was a good idea, many high-ranking Army and Air Forces officers were firmly against it. While not clear, these officers may have been supported by the British government. On 25th March 1940, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, under pressure, agreed to join the Axis. Two days later, pro-Western Yugoslav Air Force officers, under the leadership of General Dušan Simović, staged a coup. They succeeded in overthrowing the government and placed the young Petar II Karađorđević on the throne as the new King of Yugoslavia.

General Dušan Simović staged a coup, that succeeded in overthrowing the government and placed the young Petar II Karađorđević on the throne as the new King of Yugoslavia. Source: Wik
One of the R35 tanks was used during the coup, on 27th March. This tank had the political slogan ‘For King and Country’ painted on the turret. Source http://www.srpskioklop.paluba.info/

Hitler was furious about this and ordered an immediate invasion of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The new Yugoslavian government was aware of the potential German attack, but was basically incompetent and could not do anything about it. This could be best seen in its unrealistic defense strategy of defending most of Yugoslavia with some 31 divisions. This defensive line was simply poorly positioned and overstretched. The mobilization was slow and ineffective. By the time of the Axis attack, only around 11 partially formed divisions were available.

Opposing the Yugoslav Royal Army were the Axis forces, which 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 6th April 1941, which started the so-called April War. The Germans attacked through Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and former Austria into northern Yugoslavia, quickly defeating any form of resistance. The Yugoslav Royal Army was plagued with a lack of manpower, desertion, poor coordination, and poor leadership, to name a few. The few armored formations were scattered through various bases. For example, the 1st Battalion was distributed into four operational bases in Belgrade, Skopje, Sarajevo, and Zagreb. Its small units could simply do little to oppose the numerical and tactical superiority of the enemy. By 17th April, the war was over, and the Yugoslavian government and its king, seeing what was happening, decided to flee the country, abandoning the people to their fate. Most Yugoslav armored vehicles were abandoned and captured by the advancing enemy in various states of mechanical conditions. The Germans lost only 8 tanks, 2 armored cars, 2 assault guns, and four half-tracks.

A map of the Axis advance through Yugoslavia. Source: Wiki
A German armored column passing burning and abandoned Yugoslav trucks. Source: Paluba.Rs
One T-32 was left abandoned in Belgrade and was later captured by the advancing Germans. Source: http://srpskioklop.paluba.info/skodat32/opis.htm
An abandoned Renault FT somewhere in Macedonia. The photograph was taken on the 13th of April. Source: B. B. Dimitrijević and D. Savić Oklopne jedinice na Jugoslovenskom ratištu 1941-194

With the collapse of the later Kingdom of Yugoslavia, its territories were divided between the Axis allies. Slovenia was divided between Germany, Hungary, and Italy. Macedonia was divided between Bulgaria and Italy. Italy also took Montenegro. Northern Serbia was partitioned between Croatia and Hungary. The fascist puppet state Nezavisna Država Hrvatska, NDH (Eng: Independent State of Croatia), was declared on 10th April 1941. The new state received a significant territorial expansion, annexing most of western Yugoslavia, including Bosnia, parts of Serbia, and Montenegro. Lastly, what was left of Serbia was placed under German occupation.

Division of Yugoslavian territories between the Axis powers. Source: Wiki

Start of the Resistance 

Following the conclusion of the short April War and the division of the territories of the former Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Germany left over the security tasks to its allies, Italy and the NDH. All major armored formations were shipped out. Most of the Yugoslavian tanks would also be shipped out, with a few older vehicles remaining or even given to the Croats.

It seemed that there would be no great need for engagement of large military and armored units and that this part of Europe was secured. But the sudden uprising in the former Kingdom of Yugoslavia caused huge confusion among the Axis occupying forces. The Italian and especially the NDH were quite brutal in suppressing any attempts of resistance, but this backfired badly. Seeing its allies simply as incapable of stopping the resistance, the Germans began to send back armored formations, initially in small numbers, which would increase in years to come.

While initially used in more direct fights against the Partisans, the Renault FTs were quickly removed from this role due to their obsolescence. Source: Bojan B. D. and D. S avić Oklopne jedinice na Jugoslovenskom ratištu 1941-1945.

The Yugoslavian resistance was mainly carried out by two movements. These were the Royalist Chetniks and the communist Partisans. The Chetniks were led by General Draža Mihailović and the communist Partisan movement was led by Josip Broz Tito. While these two initially coordinated their efforts, the political and military disagreements would lead to an open war between them and to even more chaos and confusion. This would lead to years of heavy fighting and suffering for the Yugoslavian people until May 1945, when the Partisans emerged victoriously.

Sources