- Renault FT and Renault-Kégresse in Yugoslav Service
- Renault R35 in Yugoslav Service
- Škoda Š-I-d (T-32)
- Škoda Š-I-j
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.
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.
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.
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 Yugoslav 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 Yugoslav 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 Yugoslav Army was continuously delayed. After the military plan from 1938, the Yugoslav 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
The first use of armored vehicles by the Serbian Army, which would later serve as the nucleus for the new Yugoslav 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.
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.
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.
Besides the previously mentioned vehicles, the Yugoslav 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.
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.
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.
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 Yugoslav service as T-32). All eight vehicles arrived in August of 1937.
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.
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 tanks, 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.
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.
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 protect the capital from any potential assault from the north and even against an airborne assault.
Camouflage and Markings
The Yugoslav armored vehicles used a mixture of camouflage, 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 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.
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.
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 Yugoslav 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.
Hitler was furious about this and ordered an immediate invasion of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The new Yugoslav 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 Yugoslav 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.
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.
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 Yugoslav 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 the engagement of large military and armored units and that this part of Europe was secured. However the sudden uprising in the former Kingdom of Yugoslavia caused huge confusion among the Axis occupying forces. The Italians 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.
The Yugoslav 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 even more chaos and confusion. This would lead to years of heavy fighting and suffering for the Yugoslav people until May 1945, when the Partisans emerged victoriously.
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