Invasion of Yugoslavia: Waffen SS Captain Fritz Klingenberg and the Capture of Belgrade During World War II
When Germany’s forces slammed into the Balkans during the early spring of 1941, they encountered not only armed resistance but also difficultterrain and horrendous weather. The Italian military’s failure to make headway during the previous winter campaign in Greece, followed by the commitment of British forces to Greece’s aid, threatened Germany’s southern flank, compelling Adolf Hitler to intervene. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had sent 500,000 soldiers into the Balkans, and had lost 63,000 in the first six months of his effort. High elevations and mountain passes covered with snow until April and even May hindered German supply convoys and placed a great strain on mechanized units. Reinforcements could not be deployed as readily as needed. Rivers and streams had to be crossed, wounded soldiers and prisoners needed to be evacuated, airfields had to be captured or constructed, and lines of communication needed to be established. Victory sometimes depended on a secured, viable supply line more than a superior military force.
The intense fighting for the Balkans was unlike any that the Wehrmacht had previously faced. This was its first encounter with guerrilla fighters, winter fighting and mountainous terrain. All the key objectives had to be taken quickly, and cities were the primary targets. The Germans expected Greece to capitulate, placing the capital of Athens and Greek ports in German hands. Greek bases for the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine would solidify German control over the northeastern Mediterranean and assist in supplying the Afrika Korps. Greece would also serve as a staging area for interdiction of British shipping and would position German arms just a little closer to the Suez Canal.
In Germany’s path was Yugoslavia, which was largely pro-British — particularly the Serb and Gypsy contingents within the country. Fear that Yugoslavia’s Prince Paul might sway toward the Fascist camp prompted the Yugoslavian ambassador in Washington to send an impassioned plea to Belgrade, begging the prince not to give in to Hitler. Britain’s King George VI, along with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, sent messages to Prince Paul and Yugoslavian Prime Minister Dragisa Cvetovic. Churchill predicted that if Yugoslavia ‘were to become an accomplice in the assassination of Greece, her ruin will be certain and irrevocable.’
On March 20, Prince Paul formally announced that his country would join the Axis Tripartite Pact. Meeting with Arthur Bliss Lane, the American ambassador, Paul stated that, if he did not join the Axis, he could not count on Croat support in the invasion that was sure to come.
On March 24, 1941, Prime Minister Cvetovic and Foreign Minister Cincar-Markovic left for Vienna to sign the pact, departing in secret for fear of public reprisals. They signed the agreement on the 25th, then returned home. In Belgrade, they learned of a coup that had been initiated on the evening of the 26th. Military officers and anti-fascist troops seized air bases, aircraft and government buildings, toppling the weak Yugoslav government overnight. The revolutionary forces seized radio and telephone exchanges, the ministry of war building, police headquarters and the main post office. Cvetovic was arrested. Prince Paul was captured in Zagreb, where he was traveling by train, and was forced to abdicate, leaving the young King Peter as a puppet monarch.
The new government announced that it would remain faithful to the Tripartite Pact after realizing that Britain and the United States, although supportive, were in no position to assist them against a German attack. Hitler was not appeased, however. On the very day the coup took place in Yugoslavia, he ordered his high command to plan a full-scale invasion of the country. On April 6, 1941, German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop gave orders for the attack on Yugoslavia to roll forward.
Bulgaria was already allied to and occupied by the Germans, and many divisions passed through that country on their way to invade the countries to the south. In order for the Germans to secure their left flank and the supply routes necessary for further conquest, Yugoslavia had to be subjugated quickly. The 1st SS Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler and 2nd SS Das Reich divisions, along with mountain troops and additional armored and infantry units, were to thrust through Serbia. Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, was the most important objective, and to weaken the city the German high command planned a two-week bombardment followed by massive artillery and armored attacks. The Germans intended to employ five infantry divisions to occupy the city after its capture. Events proved, however, that even the best laid battle plans are sometimes pre-empted — and sometimes under most unusual circumstances.
Belgrade did suffer through several days of artillery attacks and three days of aerial bombardment, which served to soften up the Yugoslav capital. But the city was taken on April 12, 1941 — much earlier than the high command had anticipated — by a handful of troops low on ammunition and high on morale, led by a man who was not afraid to seize an opportunity when he saw it.
The highly unorthodox assault was a product of the military judgment, audacious courage and sheer luck of Waffen SS Captain Fritz Klingenberg. A 26-year-old graduate of the Bad Tölz officers academy, Klingenberg had gained a reputation as a headstrong, somewhat abrasive character. During the French campaign the previous year, his former company commander had said of him, ‘Klingenberg is intelligent yet headstrong, loyal yet not above correcting his superiors, brilliant under pressure, yet arrogant to the point of insubordination.’ Evaluations like that labeled Klingenberg more as a maverick than a competent military officer.
Klingenberg was not a hearty drinker or talker and never boasted of his accomplishments. When later asked by students at Bad Tölz how he had captured the capital of a country, he simply said, ‘I was not too preoccupied at the time, and found something to do.’
Klingenberg had served his entire career in the elite 2nd Waffen SS Panzer Division Das Reich, and the invasion of France had been his baptism of fire. He was awarded the Iron Cross Second Class for heroism during that action. His platoon was pinned down by effective machine-gun fire when a Panzerkampfwagen Mark II light tank that had been supporting them struck a mine. The crew was trapped in the burning vehicle and raked by machine-gun fire. While his men rescued the tankers, Klingenberg raced across 100 meters of open ground, taking out the three-man French position with grenades. He did not receive so much as a scratch.
Klingenberg’s direction of artillery during a battle was unique and impressive. Once, during the French campaign, he even called deadly 88mm fire down on his own position to rout an enemy counterattack. That action allowed the entire German column to press forward, taking advantage of confusion among the French. During another engagement, he called Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers down on his position to stop the enemy from retreating, which resulted in the capture of 55 prisoners. For that action, the acting battalion commander, Lt. Col. Hannes Eckhold, awarded the upstart captain the Iron Cross First Class. Klingenberg’s evaluations continued to reflect obstinacy mixed with courage and creativity. Because he always emerged unscathed from his many flirtations with death and court-martial, his men began to call him the ‘Magician.’Klingenberg also gained a reputation as a first-class scrounger. Whatever his men needed — ammunition, food, water, etc. — he managed to furnish. Klingenberg even held a school for scroungers, teaching men to steal essentials for survival. Soon after arriving in Yugoslavia, he was promoted to captain and given command of a motorcycle reconnaissance unit, which was responsible for gathering intelligence quickly and maintaining communications with rear units. His men held the division record for complaints and theft reports. In fact, they were called ‘Klingenberg’s criminals.’ But the Magician had taught them well — no allegations against his men were ever proved.
On one occasion, Klingenberg’s unit was to be inspected by the division for vehicle serviceability, and to pass, he had to produce an additional dozen serviceable motorcycles. He found himself about six short, so he sent his men out on a foraging mission; by hook or by crook, they managed to collect the required equipment. The only problem was that they ended up with six machines too many, freshly painted to hide their previous ownership. Klingenberg’s commanding officer turned a blind eye to the discrepancy. He did, however, inform Klingenberg that he was not willing to hang for the activities of his subordinate, and asked the captain to please be more careful.
Klingenberg’s next mission in Yugoslavia was to reconnoiter ahead of the main armored unit, scouting for enemy activity and marking roads or obstacles on maps. Those intelligence-gathering missions were crucial for a successful German thrust into the region.
Although Belgrade was marked for capture, the bulk of Das Reich was tied up fighting rear-guard actions and trying to push through Yugoslavia’s narrow mountain passes. Meanwhile, the rest of the German army was so far behind that they were not even using the same maps. Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to bomb Belgrade prior to the final drive into the capital. From August 6 to 10, more than 500 bombing sorties were flown against Belgrade, inflicting more than 17,500 fatalities. Most of the government officials fled, and the Yugoslav army began to collapse.
On April 11, Klingenberg’s instructions were to reconnoiter and establish checkpoints, secure any bridges and roads encountered, then hold for reinforcements. Heavy rains and melting snow had washed away nearly all soft surfaces, and bridges had been destroyed by retreating Yugoslav forces. The main avenues of approach to Belgrade were no longer viable routes, and the tanks would be hard pressed to continue without massive engineering support to clear those areas. After several hours of observing the stricken city from across the Danube River, Klingenberg believed that Belgrade was his for the taking, due to the confusion caused by the bombardments — provided his unit arrived in time. He had only 24 hours to submit a report to his command, and a decision had to be made quickly.
Klingenberg saw a chance to probe more deeply into the city’s environs when one of his men found an abandoned motorboat tied to a tree along the banks of the swollen Danube. Taking only one sergeant and five privates, he negotiated the treacherous river. The trip was extremely dangerous, the currents raging from the runoff of melting snow in the mountains and from torrential rains. The boat was overloaded, as well. Reaching the far side of the Danube, Klingenberg sent two men back to ferry more troops over before sunset. On the return trip, however the boat struck a submerged obstacle and sank. Klingenberg’s ‘navy’ ceased to exist, leaving the captain and six of his men stranded. They were totally isolated, with limited supplies and ammunition.
The squad advanced along the road and encountered a few British-made vehicles manned by Yugoslav soldiers. They captured two trucks and a bus, along with some 20 enemy soldiers. One of the men on the bus was an inebriated German tourist who had been trapped in Belgrade since the invasion started. The tourist, who spoke Croatian, had been apprehended as a spy by the Yugoslav soldiers and was being taken to be executed. He was still drunk and unaware of his impending fate. When he sobered up, he thought that he was still among his group of partygoers until he was informed of the situation. Klingenberg used him as an interpreter, in which capacity the grateful German was most helpful.
The SS men continued on, using their prisoners and a few captured uniforms to get past several enemy checkpoints. They made good progress the first day without any of the enemy checkpoint guards becoming suspicious. The Germans added the Yugoslav guards to the increasing number of prisoners they were collecting along the way. The population of Belgrade, after several days of bombing, was anticipating a long siege rather than an attack, and the lax security that Klingenberg encountered played directly into his hands.
Upon entering the outskirts of the city, the Germans became involved in a two-hour running firefight. They finally drove their captured vehicles into the city with many wounded prisoners aboard, including the hapless tourist. Miraculously, none of the SS men were wounded in the fight. They ended up in the city center, all alone and surrounded by a wide-eyed, bewildered population. The only SS casualty in Belgrade thus far was a private who had fallen and sprained his wrist.The Germans were amazed to find that no one attacked them in the city. The civilians went about their daily business as if nothing had happened. Klingenberg ordered Sergeant Hans Hossfelder to raise the German colors, replacing the Yugoslavian national flag with the German ensign shortly after 5 p.m. on April 12. Under Klingenberg’s orders, his men began to strut about the city on patrol, giving the inhabitants the unmistakable impression that they were in charge.
The mayor of Belgrade came up to the Germans, complete with his entourage of city officials and in proper ceremonial dress. After asking what was going on, he inquired about the terms of surrender. Klingenberg told the mayor that his was the point team of several SS tank divisions, and if he did not check in with his unit by radio with the information requested, the Luftwaffe would continue their attempts to level the city. He also said that the air attacks would be followed by an artillery barrage and armored and infantry attacks that would spare no one.
The other Germans looked at their leader as if he was mad. Their radio was damaged and could not transmit, only receive; their unit was a considerable distance away; and they were out of ammunition and food. Sergeant Hossfelder later told his captain that he was in the wrong business, adding that the Propaganda Ministry could surely find a use for him.
The mayor fell for the ruse, and after an hour-long conversation with Klingenberg, he began the necessary arrangements for the surrender of the city. Then, as if on cue, a group of German aircraft flew over the city on a reconnaissance mission, and Klingenberg took advantage of the moment. He looked up, pointing to the sky, and reminded the mayor that the clock was ticking. Klingenberg gave his word that if all instructions were followed, no further harm would befall the city or its inhabitants. The city officials seemed relieved to hear that.
The soldiers and city militia agreed to lay down their arms in exchange for the Germans’ ceasing additional attacks. The Yugoslav army stacked its arms in the city square, and Klingenberg had all of the men register with the mayor. Klingenberg then ordered the prisoners to quarter themselves in four of the largest hotels and posted a German guard to each building. The handful of Germans had just captured more than 1,300 troops and a city with a population of over 200,000 without firing a single shot. The city had suffered considerable damage, but not enough to prevent the locals from continuing with life and business as usual. Yugaslav soldiers outside the city, unaware of what had happened to their capital, drove into Belgrade only to be ordered by their superiors to lay down their arms, abandon their vehicles and march to the hotels. All the Yugoslavians complied without hesitation.
Klingenberg and his men made themselves comfortable in the city’s finest hotel, making fake radio transmissions to reinforce the charade. They stockpiled bottles of wine and weapons, and two of the men disappeared with a couple of local women. Meanwhile, Klingenberg consolidated his position, knowing that things could still go wrong. If the main force did not arrive soon, the game was up. He had his men recruit locals to help procure every map, police record and tax record in the city.
The chief of police was ordered to provide a list of all criminals in the city, stating their crimes, age and other pertinent information. Women with nursing skills were to report for duty immediately, and all doctors were called in as well. Every liter of gasoline was accounted for, and oil, medical supplies and other necessities were placed in special holding facilities. The hospital was to be neutral ground, and all health care was to be maintained as a gesture of good will. Klingenberg even ordered the schools to remain open and placed no restrictions on daily business. He did, however, place an 8 p.m. curfew on the city; only citizens with a pass signed by him could legally venture outside their homes after that time.
The next day, April 13, more of Klingenberg’s men who had remained on the opposite side of the river followed their leader into the city. Seeing the German flag, they believed that the main force had somehow bypassed them. They were amazed to find the ‘lost’ men in command of the primary objective, with the locals not hostile but actually accommodating. Hossfelder told the new arrivals what had transpired and warned them to play along. They flexed their military muscle by commandeering every vehicle they could find.
Finally, on the night of April 13, the forward elements of Das Reich entered the city expecting a heavy fight. They had disregarded radio transmissions they had received telling of the city’s surrender, believing it was an enemy hoax, possibly an attempt to lure German units into an ambush. Rumor had it that Klingenberg and his men had been captured, tortured and forced to release the codes required for proper radio communications. The XLV Corps commander was so furious at not having received his intelligence summary that he had threatened to have Klingenberg court-martialed if he were found alive as a prisoner. The first place he inquired for Klingenberg was at a brothel, figuring that he would find the renegade captain there. The corps commander’s fury soon subsided when he learned why his junior company commander had been negligent in his duties.
The rest of Das Reich and supplemental army Panzergrenadierunits entered Belgrade in force the following day, and instead of fighting their way into the city, they were greeted with wine and cheese. The Yugoslav prisoners were conscripted to reinforce the German defense in case of partisan attacks. Sadly, when the mayor realized that he had been duped, he shot himself.
On April 17, Josip Broz, better known as Tito, the trade unionist and leader of the ‘illegal’ Communist Party, acknowledged defeat in Yugoslavia and surrendered the country in name only. He fled into the mountains with his partisans, where, supported by the British, he waged a four-year guerrilla campaign against his country’s invaders. He would later become president of a Communist Yugoslavia, which nevertheless rejected association with the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact.Klingenberg persuaded the garrison commander to relinquish his maps and divulge the location of his minefields and gun emplacements, as well as the nearby anti-aircraft emplacements and adjacent auxiliary airstrip. Markers were placed that could be clearly seen from the air, and German transports were able to land, bringing food, ammunition and war correspondents. Klingenberg even had some of the prisoners repair the damaged runways and confiscated several obsolete aircraft.
German Intelligence had projected before Belgrade surrendered that Yugoslav army casualties would number approximately 10,000 to 15,000 wounded and 2,000 dead after massive Luftwaffe and artillery bombardment and a subsequent fight to enter the city. Civilian casualties were predicted to be 10 times those figures. Klingenberg was concerned for the welfare of his men, yet he was also worried about the fate of the civilians. He did not see the need for further bloodshed in the city, and his men were actually treated well by the civilians, who knew that they could have suffered a much worse fate.At first, the German high command did not believe that the city had been taken. There was even word that Klingenberg would be shot for trying to fake such an exploit. Two days of radio transmissions were needed to convince Berlin that all was well. Lieutenant General Paul Hausser was ordered to inspect for himself.
When Klingenberg reported to his superiors to explain why he had not followed orders, he was drunk, unshaven and smelled of perfume. After several minutes, Klingenberg said, ‘What was I to do, give the city back?’ His indiscretions were overlooked, and the German battle plan, now obsolete, was stamped ‘completed.’ The drive into Greece was now ahead of schedule. The cost of the entire Yugoslavian campaign to Germany was 558 wounded and 151 killed, with less than a dozen aircraft lost. More than 340,000 Yugoslavs were captured. The exact number killed will never be known.
The Germans left 10 of their infantry divisions, two SS units and one auxiliary SS unit, the 13th Waffen SS Handschar (or Scimitar) Division, as a garrison force of occupation in Yugoslavia. This unit was made up of Yugoslavs, primarily Bosnian Muslims, and they performed a counterpartisan role. The occupation of Yugoslavia consumed manpower and claimed resources badly needed for the future Eastern Front. More Germans died while assigned to garrison duty in Yugoslavia than had been wounded during the fighting to conquer it.
Every man assigned to Klingenberg during the Belgrade operation received decorations for valor and promotions. Hossfelder was given a commission as a second lieutenant and attended the SS officers school at Bad Tölz, where he later became an instructor. Today he lives in Munich as a retired school teacher.
For his daring exploit, Klingenberg was awarded the Knight’s Cross, and he became a favorite of the SS inner circle. The ‘Old Man,’ as he came to be known, was periodically sent to Bad Tölz as an instructor on tactics and battlefield initiative. On March 15, 1944, he became the only Bad Tölz graduate to assume command of the school.
When Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, commenced, Das Reich was hurled into the fray. Klingenberg later distinguished himself at Kharkov, Minsk and Kursk, earning many honorable mentions in the dispatches of General Heinz Guderian. He was eventually awarded the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross, presented in 1943. He became a personal favorite of Paul Hausser, commander of the II SS Panzer Corps until the Kursk-Orel operation.
Klingenberg was promoted to the rank of colonel on December 21, 1944. As Germany’s situation deteriorated on all fronts, he was ordered to take command of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division ‘Götz von Berlichingen’ on January 12, 1945, assuming the post nine days later. Attached to General Max Simon’s XIII SS Corps, the 17th was defending the West Wall southeast of Saarbrcken against Maj. Gen. Wade H. Haislip’s XV Corps of the U.S. Seventh Army.
The XIII SS Corps had its back to the Rhine, stubbornly defending the area between Neustadt and Landau. When resistance finally collapsed on March 22, Klingenberg was among the casualties — he had died leading his division in its last-ditch effort to stem the American tide.
Klingenberg’s actions in Belgrade fit in with the mystique surrounding the Waffen SS. Despite the atrocities correctly attributed to SS units and individuals, such acts of chivalry and valor as Klingenberg demonstrated were not uncommon among the real professionals. Klingenberg could have followed the book and contributed to the total destruction of the ancient city and population of Belgrade had the Yugoslavians offered further resistance. History is the better for his act of bravery and humanity.
This article was written by Colin D. Heaton and originally appeared in the January 1998 issue of World War II. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!