The Croatian 369th Reinforced Regiment
The 369th Reinforced Infantry Regiment was a unit of the German Wehrmacht that fought on the Eastern Front in World War II. The regiment was raised from volunteers drawn from Croatia and was commonly referred to as the Croatian Legion (Hrvatska Legija).
When finally organized on July 16th 1941, the Regiment was given the title Verstarken Kroatischen Infanterie-Regiment 369, or 369th Reinforced Croatian Infantry Regiment. The Regiment had 3,895 officers, NCO's and men. As part of the Wehrmacht the men of the unit were to wear German uniforms and use German rank insignia. A Croatian armshield consisting of 24 red and white checkers with the title Hrvatska (Croatia) above it was to be worn on the left arm and on the left side of the helmet.
Order of Battle:
The Regiment consisted of
3 infantry battalion
1 artillery staff company
Each infantry battalion:
3 infantry companies
1 machine-gun company
1 anti-tank company
1 supply company
1 artillery battery.
The Regiment was termed "reinforced" because of the attached artillery which was not normally organic in a unit of regimental size.
Once fully organized, the Regiment was transported to Dollersheim in Germany where it was equipped and the men gave their oath to the Fuhrer, the Poglavnik, and to Germany and Croatia. This was followed by three weeks of training after which the Regiment was sent by train through Hungary to Dongena in Bessarabia. From there the Regiment set off on a 750km forced march through the Ukraine to reach the front lines. The march lasted 35 days with only one day of rest. After the 35 day march, the destination of Budniskaja in the Ukraine was reached and the Regiment received one week of respite. During the forced march, 187 members of the Regiment were sent back to Croatia for various health related reasons and two soldiers were executed for leaving their sentry positions. In Budniskaja, a group of experienced German NCO's joined the Regiment to assist in its final training and aclimatizing in the front lines.
On October 9th 1941, the 369th Regiment was assigned to the 100.Jäger-Division. On the 13th of October the Regiment participated in its first battle east of the Dnjeper River. From here on in battles were fought around the villages and towns of Petrusani, Kremencuga, Poltava, Saroki, Balti, Pervomajsk, Kirovgrad, Petropavlovsk, Taranovka, Grisin, Stalino, Vasiljevka, Aleksandrovka, Ivanovka, and Garbatovo. One particular aspect of the fighting during these battles that shocked the Croatians was the sheer numbers of surrendering Soviet troops. Literally thousands surrendered to the Croatians. It actually came to the point where the Regiment was so swamped they considered releasing some of their PoWs! Many of the Soviet soldiers, and especially the Russians and Ukrainians, prefered to surrender to the Croatians feeling that they would get better treatment from fellow Slavs.
After nearly a year in existance, In July of 1942, the Regiment fought towards the northeast, and then turned to the southeast along the Don River. Heavy losses were sustained by the Croats on the 25th, 26th and 27th of July in battles around the Collective Farm (Kolhoz) known as "Proljet Kultura" near the town of Selivanova. 46 Croatian soldiers were killed and 176 wounded. Much of the fighting was fierce hand to hand combat. A Croatian military cemetary was built next to the Kolhoz and the soldiers killed in action were buried there. On August 26th 1942, the first reinforcements arrived from the training battalion in Stokerau and the Regiment was sent to Glaskov for rest and refitting.
Between the end of August and the end of September 1942 the Regiment took part in various training and refitting duties behind the lines. On September 22nd 1942, Colonel Viktor Pavicic, until that time commander of the Croatian Military Academy, replaced Colonel Markulj as the CO of the Regiment. On September 24th 1942, Ante Pavelic made a visit to the Regiment to bestowe decorations upon various men of the unit and to lunch with General von Paulus of 6.Armee. Finally, on September 26th 1942, the Regiment received orders to move out. A forced march to the south-east through Gomcar and Gumnik followed. After a 14 hour march, the Regiment arrived in the fateful suburbs of Stalingrad. At 11:30pm of that same day, the 1st Battalion of the Regiment entered the front lines in Stalingrad itself. Early the next morning, the remaining portions of the Regiment also entered the front lines around Stalingrad. The 369th Regiment thus became the only unit of non-Germans to participate in the attack on Stalingrad. This was actually viewed as a great honor - a reward for its hard fought battles and excellent successes to this point. Some talk was even heard about re-naming the 100.Jäger-Division as the 100th German-Croatian Jager Division! None of this was to come to fruition though, as the streets of Stalingrad were to be the final resting place for the Regiment.
The Regiment's men participated in some of the hardest battles in the attempt to take Stalingrad. A typical day of fighting in Stalingrad for the men of the Regiment was described by the Commander of a platoon of the 3rd Company, Lt. Bucar:
"...When we entered Stalingrad, it was ruined and in flames. We took cover in trenches and bunkers, as the enemy was hitting us with artilley, Katusha rockets, and with aircraft. I was lucky not to lose any men, but the Second Platoon lost one man dead and 5 wounded, and the Third Platoon 13 dead and wounded. Around 6:00am, German Stuka aircraft bombed the area ahead of us, and an attack was ordered towards the northern part of the city. My platoon's mission was to, in conjuction with a German unit, clear the Freight Station, and then the railroad dike, and reach the Volga River. Night fell under constant bombardment. I didn't lose any men, but our transport unit was hit badly, and lost 10 men, 40 horses, and an equipment truck with ammunition..."
The Commander of the 2nd Battalion, Captain Ivan Coric, described the fighting in Stalingrad as follows:
"...During the night of 26/27 September, Russian aircraft flew extremely low, and bombed the area where my battalion was supposed to be encamped. However, expecting that this section might be hit, we had taken cover in ditches around the area. At 6:00am on the 27th of September, receiving fire from only one part of the city, I re-deployed my men in various deep ditches, and in covered areas. We remained in reserve until 1:00pm, when the Regimental commander ordered that my battalion move out towards the German 227th Regiment's positions. I requested that this move be postponed until dark as the Soviets were bombing the area with heavy artillery and Katusha rockets and I worried about the heavy casualties we would take moving in the open through this barrage. The Commander refused to consider my request, and at 2:00pm, under the heaviest of bombardments, I moved out with my Battalion towards the 227th Regiment, about 10km away. We moved in groups of 3-4 men, with myself and my Adjutant in the lead. After only a few hundred meters, we were hit by immense artillery fire, and my men began to die, one after another. Company Commander Tomas was wounded. About half way to the 227th, we were ordered to stop and for myself and my Adjutant to report to the Commander of the 227th Regiment. I arranged my men in ditches and cover in the surrounding area. The Commander of the 227th Regiment, Lt.Colonel Mohr, ordered my battalion to reinforce his weakened regiment, and for myself and my staff to remain in the vicinity of his HQ. Upon receiving these orders, and returning to my men, darkness had fallen. We moved out towards the positions of the 227th, crawling through ditches. Under a moonlight sky, Soviet airplanes easily noticed us and bombed us with Phosphorus bombs that burn upon explosion. Many of my men were in flames. It was a horrible sight. Healthy and wounded jumped in to try and save our burning comrades... My Battalion, now attached to the 227th Regiment, advanced with great difficulty, taking house by house. During the night of the 28th of September 1942, I was forced to leave my men due to a serious head wound I received from an airplane bomb. My Adjutant, Lt. Tomislav Jelic, was wounded in this explosion as well. I later heard that my men continued to fight heroically until the last man of the 2nd battalion had fallen."
By the 13th of October the 369th Regiment was down to one weak battalion and 2 weak independent companies consisting of only 983 men total out of the original Regiment, including all reinforcements arrived from Stokerau. Still on this day, the Regiment managed to advance a further 800 meters into the northern sector of Stalingrad.
On the 16th of October 1942, Colonel-General Sanne decorated Croatian Sergeant Dragutin Podobnik with the Iron Cross 1st Class for extreme heroism during the taking of the Red October factory on the 30th of September. Colonel Pavicic is also decorated with this medal for his excellent leadership of the Regiment.
During the remaining days of October 1942 the Regiment fought hard and its losses accumulated. The Red October factory was continously the center of fighting during this time. A Soviet counter-attack along the railway tracks near the Red October factory was just barely contained, and Russian civilians were even seen shooting Croatian and German soldiers, prompting an order to fire indescriminately on all civilians found in the battle zone. October 31st 1942 was spent defending Building number ten of the Red October factory.
On November 3rd 1942, the 369th Regiment had the following troops still available: 1 infantry company with 98 men and 8 light machine-guns, a heavy machine-gun company with 73 men and one operational heavy machine-gun, and an anti-tank company with 20 men and 6 cannon - only enough men to serve two! The total remaining Croatian soldiers was 191. Of this, only 4 were officers. This number does not include the artillery battery, whose men and weapons were scattered throughout various German units. On the 4th of November, a battalion of replacements arrived from Stokerau, but even these much needed men barely made the "reinforced regiment" a reinforced battalion!
On the 6th of November the remains of the unit were attached to the German 212th Infantry Regiment. Fighting continued in and around the Red October factory. On November 21st 1942, news of a Soviet attack on the flanks of the 6.Armee was heard. By November 25th 1942, the lines being held by the Regiment were so thinly manned that Soviet scouts were able to pass through poritions of the front into the Gemran rear. Every available man, including the sick and lightly wounded, were therefore sent to hold the line.
There were 5 officers, 9 NCO's and 110 soldiers left fighting at the end of November, 1942. Food was carefully rationed and consists of 120 grams of horse meat per meal along with some bread. Of the 3 daily meals, only one was considered large, and this consisted of only 1/2 of the required amount to sustain troops from day-to-day.
As December arrived, the few remaining Croatian soldiers were frozen, hungry and in the midst of a general lack of ammunition and weapons. The commanding officer, Colonel Pavicic, was by now living in his own world writing out irrelevant daily orders to troops and units that no longer existed. On the 17th of December, the Volga River froze over allowing the Soviets to open another front on that side of the city as well.
On Christmas Day, 1942, Lt. Korobkin wrote:
"...Today, December 25, 1942, around noon, the enemy attacked from Building number 4 into Building number 2 (Red October Factory), which is our left flank. The enemy fought his way into number 2. Our defenders are under constant fire from the 'small white house' accross from Building number 2. A cannon shot by the enemy has destroyed our heavy machine-gun. At the same time as this attack on our left flank, the enemy attacked our right flank. Despite cross-fire and artillery support, this attack was thrown back. This success is mostly due to the heroism of Corporal Ivan Vadlje. In the evening we received a message from Lt.-Colonel Eichler, congratulating us for holding out. When night fell, we took advantage of the dark, and counter-attacked on our left flank. Using hand grenades, we destroyed the enemy unit, and re-took our previous positions. Lt-Colonel Eichler, upon hearing of this success, sent us a new message, in which he says that the Grenadiers of the 212th Regiment are proud to have warriors like us Croats in their midst. Sergeants Ante Martinovic and Franjo Filcic were killed in this counter-attack. 12 men are wounded."
On January 10th, 1943, Colonel Pavicic, in his report to the 100.Jäger-Division, wrote:
"I must say that, in the period from September 27, 1942, when we arrived at Stalingrad, till today, my men have had only 4 days of rest. The last day of rest, on the 30th of December for 24 hours, was insufficient even for required sleep, as after 3 days and nights of constant battles in and around the Red October, they were so over-tired, that they slept like they were dead, and never even had time to wash, shave, or cut their hair. Immediately after this short rest, they were again thrown into the thick of battle, holding a small salient in our lines. They held this position until the 9th of January, 1943, when they were pulled back into our current position. We are under attack here again today."
On the 16th of January 1943, the Soviets launched an attack from three sides of the Croatian positions. They were pushed several streets back and a group led by Lt. Fiember was cut off. Under heavy attack, this group ran out of ammunition and was later over-run. Lt.Colonel Kuhlwein attempted to save young Fiember and his men by counter-attacking, but all of the men of this attack were killed, including Lt.-Colonel Kuhlwein. Lieutenants Zubcevski, Korobkin and Vadlja, with a few surviving soldiers, continued to battle against this Soviet attack and soon all three were seriously wounded. The German command then ordered that the last survivng Croats be pulled from the battle lines and be employed in digging fortification lines around the former Soviet Airforce Academy, which would serve as the last defense point of the unit.
Shortly after, Colonel Pavicic requested from the 100.Jäger-Division that he be replaced. As he has no more men, just a few wounded, he felt he was useless. He suggested that Lt.-Colonel Mesic (Commander of the artillery battery) replace him, and that he (Pavicic) be flown out of Stalingrad back to Stokerau where a German-Croatian Division was being formed to fight the partisans in the Balkans (This would be the 369th "Devil's" Division, see below). On the 20th of January 1943, Colonel Pavicic attempted to fly out of Stalingrad. It is a complete mystery what happened to him. Two possibilites exist, one that his plane was shot down and the other that he had attempted to leave without the orders of the Divisional Command and was executed in those last mad days of the Stalingrad pocket. The former is more likely the truth, as there is a witness (Sergeant Ervin Juric) amongst the surviving Croatians that claims to have seen the orders arrive for Pavicic from General Sanne.
On the 23rd of January 1943, 18 wounded Croatians were flown out of Stalingrad. They were the last Croatians to leave Stalingalive. Amongst these lucky souls was Croatian Sergeant Juric, who wrote and carried with him to safety the Kriegstagbuch (unit war diary) of the 369th Reinforced Regiment, thereby saving for posterity the ultimate memorial to these brave men. The only entry in the diary after January 23rd 1943 is "February 2, 1943, Stalingrad has fallen".
Lt.-Colonel Mesic remained in Stalingrad after January 23rd 1943 with the few surviving men of the Regiment. Most died in the desperate battles at the end. Mesic and a handfull of soldiers survived and surrendered to the Soviets. They were forced to walk with no warm clothes and no food, all the way to Moscow. Here, they were thrown into a fenced field where they had to dig holes in the snow for protection from the elements. They were fed once a day and in 1945, Mesic was sent to Yugoslavia where the Communists government had him liquidated.
The remnants of the 369th that had been evacuated by air from Stalingrad due to wounds, sickness, etc, were sent to Stockerau where they alongside the replacement battalion of the former Regiment, formed the core of a new Croatian infantry unit, the 369th Vrazja Division, or Devil's Division. There were approximately 1,000 of these former veterans of the original Croatian Regiment. They were all awarded a special honor badge called the "Croatian Legion Badge - 1941" shaped as a Linden leaf with the Croat checkerboard and the words "Hrvatska Legija - 1941" on it.