D-DAY's 50th Anniversary
Part #1: An unforgettable day in 1944
Date: Original composed on February 23rd, 1994.
I am Zvonko Springer, born in 1925 in town of Osijek, Eastern Slavonia in Croatia. In the panel of ELDERS in MEMORIES OF 1944 you will find my story under the title 'THE CROATIAN SOLDIER'. As the part of my story, I would like to tell more about 'An Unforgettable Day in 1944'. It happened a day in early summer mid of June 1944 and few days after my 19th birthday.
It was short before midnight and we were sleeping on the floor of a cattle-wagon. We were on our way to a military parade in the capital of the "Independent State of Croatia" (short "NDH"). NDH was created in 1941 after the German Army attacked former Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The NDH's leader was Dr. Ante Pavelic, a quisling and fascist who made NDH an ally of the Axis (Hitler's and Mussolini's). NDH declared the war against the Allied Forces too. It had its regular army called "Hrvatski Domobran" (Croatian Home guard) too. I graduated from the secondary school in summer 1943. Soon after, by end of October 1943 we were called to army service and stayed in army barracks in Zagreb. One evening, during the regular daily roll call, German soldiers encircled the barracks. Soon after that shock we were escorted to the railway station and boarded a train. There were some 1200 recruits who were horded into cattle (wholly enclosed) wagons.
The third day we passed through Vienna and this was the first time we learned something the direction of our travel. The fourth night we left the wagons at STOCKERAU railway station. Stockerau is a small town northwest of Vienna and its name would be of significant in my future. It was pitch dark, rainy and windy night with freezing temperatures. Early November 1943, our group of 20 young man (by plain fortune 12 of us were from Osijek) started the training for an artilery officer. Now, in June 1944 and few days after the Allied Forces landed in Normandy, we were coming home for our first (and only) leave. We stayed several days at Neusiedel on Neusiedler Lake in eastern Austria where the officer trainees assemble from different camps. They had several days of training with the German parade marching step (very hard and difficult). We didn't have to suffer this training because we had heavy artilery (riding) boots on which couldn't match with the ones of our comrades.
The train full of young expectant officers stopped at Bregana station. This station is on the border between Slovenia and Croatia some 30 km from Zagreb only. There were three trains waiting to continue their travel early next morning. Closest to the station was one with wagon full of kerosene barrels and few tank wagons with some fuel too. At both ends were posted flat wagons with mounted 'Vierlings' anti-aircraft automatic guns each having four barrels. These were dreaded most by low flying aircrafts or attacking infantry. The guns served by German soldiers. Our train that was in the middle as on the outer side was a train loaded with coal and some other material. Open meadows were beyond the few empty rail tracks and opposite the station. Night was mild and quite - we left wagon doors open to catch some evening breeze. We did not have any arms because those who join in the parade would get rifles in Zagreb only.
Short before midnight out of nothing machine guns opened fire to followed by the noisy clank of the antiaircraft guns. Soon the sky was red of burning fuel, barrels flying into air and exploding spraying fire all around. Above this din we heard calls: "Partisans attack" or "Get out of wagons" or "Run for safety". However one could hear the sound of an aircraft flying at low level above the station too. I jumped out of our wagon, squirmed under the near wagon loaded with coal and looked back. The night was ablaze with fire of ignited and exploding kerosene and fuel. Some coal on open wagon started to burn too and our train was just amid this inferno.
I got up under the shelter of a wagon and started running towards openness of the adjacent meadow. With head I run for my life as fast I could in those heavy boots. Suddenly I stumbled over a rail, lost balance and hit my chest at another rail. The impact on the chest bone took out all my senses for few moments. I couldn't breathe or feel anything and just lay there rooted. Then I saw the tracer bullets from the assaulting aircraft - they were coming straight at me. The noise was paralyzing, flames and sparks everywhere, more explosions and more bullets coming my way. I cannot move! I heard somebody calling my name and "Peggy is hit" or "Zvonko is dead". ('Peggy' was my nickname) I couldn't move or give any sound out of my lungs. Then from somewhere two pals came to me, pulled me up and farther away from that place into the meadow. We lay there for a while and gradually I could breathe again and speak with a croaking voice.
We spent the rest of the night in a barn sleeping in fresh hay. Next morning we got out with sunrise and returned to the station. What havoc was there! Few coal loads were still smoldering and about half of the German fuel train was burned out and twisted ruin. Germans collected their dead comrades from burned wagons. I never saw a human body reduced to such charred lump before. The stench was repulsive and horrid - I would never be forgotten. Our train was pulled out by one of our comrades whose father taught him how to drive a loc. We boarded the wagons and were on the way to Zagreb soon. The parade at Zagreb was not to be because we all were dirty and shaken too much. I got my travel order and left Zagreb by train for my hometown Osijek the same day.
We arrived at Slavonski Brod (half way to Osijek) at the afternoon. We had to get out of the train rather far out from the station. American Flying Fortresses bombarded Brod the same morning. The station got several hits, many craters and fires on our way along the tracks many of which twisted and long stretches destroyed. We learned about an air raid on Osijek of the same morning. The Fortresses flew to Ploesti (Rumania, important fuel refinery) but hit a strong defense. On their return several of them discharged their bombs on Osijek and Brod (both had smaller refineries and some industries). I knew of an air raid on Osijek refinery, which devastated the Lower Osijek (down river of Drava). What can I expect of my home? This thought plagued me walking through Slavonski Brod station.
At late afternoon I reached Osijek after we boarded another train on the other side of Brod station. In my way home I passed several still smoldering or damaged houses. At last I saw our street with trees and all houses undamaged. I rang the doorbell after entering garden front. My parents' dog, a Doberman called "Peggy", came out first barking and with flashing teeth. Who is this oddly smelling and dirty looking uniformed man? I was home at last! The leave would be a rather short one. Soon I would return to Stockerau and take part in the World War II tragic end.
Thus ends the Introduction to the "Unforgettable day in 1944" on which I was initiated to the calamities of a war. The very worst part of my life would follow several months later.
Part #2: An unforgettable day in 1944
Date: Original composed on March 5th, 1994.
Subject: Answers to Rosewood School
THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
The Nazi German Army started the war against the Kingdom of Yugoslavia on the 6th April 1941. The war was over there within 10 days and some parts were occupied by Germany, Italy (Germany's ally) and Hungary. Dr. Ante Pavelic, a fascist and German 'Quisling' declared an "Independent State of Croatia" (short "NDH") on 10th April 1941. NDH state territory was much larger that the one of present (new) Republic of Croatia. It included large parts of present Bosnia & Hercegovina too. NDH had a fascist regime which had its political army named "Ustasas" and a regular army of "Domobran". Here are the answers now:
Q.1: How old were during the war?
A.1: I was 16 years old when the war started in Yugoslavia. Graduated from the secondary school in July and called into regular army service in October 1943. I surrendered to the Tito's Yugoslav Army on 15th May 1945 which was a week after the WWII's truce came into effect. I left the POW's camp on 15th August as one of the few who survived the "Croatian Death March". I was then 20 years old!
Q.2: Were you in a city that was bombed?
A.2: Yes, in several cities and places. During my officer's training in Stockerau near Vienna (Austria) I have made the first hand experience of heavy bombardment of Floridsdorf (refinery near Vienna) and Vienna itself. In Croatia, I saw badly ruined cities like Slavonski Brod (industries, refinery and important railway station) and my hometown Osijek (refinery, some industry). Most of the destruction was caused by haphazard bombardment. These were mostly the American Flying Fortresses (FF) damaged on their way to Ploesti (Rumania, a very alrge and important refinery for the Germans). On their way back to their bases in Italy, they discarded their deadly burden at any near city they were flying over.
Q.3/4: If so could you hear the bombs? Could you feel the bombs?
A.3/4: Yes, I did hear them! I have seen them coming down too! I still remember well the thunderous explosions, outbursts of fires, ground trembling, fires and blazing hot draughts, destruction and damages to buildings, dead people and animals, crying and screaming persons, dazed and injured living beings. Yes, an air raid is very bad for anybody or anything caught in.
Q.5: How far did the bombers have to come during the raids?
A.5: Mostly American Flying Fortresses ("FF") raided targets in Austria by daylight. They flew in from airfields in England or France (later) and few times from airfields in Italy too. British aircraft had bases in England flew mostly the night air raids. Strikes on Ploesti in Rumania came from airfields in Italy (since 1944) during daylight only. You will have to take a map to find out the actual flying distances. They all were to the outermost flying range of the Allies' aircraft.
Q.6: Did you go to an air-raid shelter?
A.6: A few times, yes. I have experienced several air raids staying out- side sheltered in the best way I could find. A few times I was out at an AA machine-gun station. What could we do to high flying FFs? We looked at FFs and have seen when bombs came down. There were very few air combats but volleys of the AA defense were more often successful. Several FFs either exploded in the air or turned off trailing a dark plume of fire of which few crushed somewhere before reaching a safe airfield.
Q.7: Did you have a family? Did they experience the war and the bombing?
A.7: My parents were living in Osijek throughout the war. I have a sister 3 years younger. Father was a layer and worked all the time. As from Christmas of 1944, Osijek became a frontier town. The war front line was along the rivers Drava and Danube. Tito's Armies liberated most of the eastern part of ex-Yugoslavia by late 1944. The German Army units were retreating from Greece and joined the Croatian Army in the defense of regions in Bosnia & Herzegovina, of the Adriatic Coast and the Croatian territory itself. Tito's Armies started the spring offensive early April 1945. All my closest relatives have had war and bombing first hand experiences. For the population of a city is the life very dangerous when the war front line passes just along its threshold. River Drava flows some 25 km along the long stretched town Osijek.
We had a Doberman, she-dog about 5 years old in 1941. Peggy, that was her name, had a fantastic hearing sense. There was a good shelter in the basement of my parents' house. Peggy barked at mother some 20 minutes be fore the air raid sirens announced the arrival of airplanes. The dogs in particular and many other animals are rather sensitive to sound frequencies say of airplanes, explosions (even far away) and tremors in general. Peggy run to the shelter well before anybody else went there. She was an excellent pre-warning system.
Q.8: Did I know any Jewish people who escaped the Nazis' regime?
A.8: Dr. Pavelic's fascist regime followed the Nazi's laws exterminating all political pponents and racial outcasts like Jews, Gypsies or those of orthodox faiths. My mother wore for a while the "yellow star" marking her as being of Jewish origin (which I didn't know until then in May 1941). My father had to document his Aryan origin (it has to be for four generations!) after which my mother received the permit to get rid off the "yellow star". In the meantime, many of her relatives, friends and acquaintances disappeared or taken away and never return. My mother's parents and brother hid for a while and abducted by Himmler's SS units sometime in May 1943. My grandparents, uncle and many others never returned alive! This was the final raid in Croatia on Nazis' foes whether racial or of other faith or because of some political reasons.
Q.9: What were your feelings at the time of war?
A.9: I was not prepared either mentally or physically for such an onslaught of war troubles and distresses that followed. Yes, I was scared and frightened very often, disoriented and lost in my daily works and thoughts. The worst part of my life so far started early in 1945. I was an artillery officer on the front line in my hometown Osijek. The Croatian retreat westwards started around mid of April in which soldiers and civilians hoped to reach Allied Forces to surrender. No one expected anything good neither from the Tito's communist lead armies nor Russians, Bulgarians and Hungarians armed forces. The later joined the Red Army which "liberated" Vienna on 13th April! I left Osijek with the Howitzer Battery on 15th April and Osijek is about 500-km eastwards of Vienna. Most of us in this exodus never reached the Allies and had to surrender to Tito's soldiers. The rest of the story is a tragedy that happened after the WWII was over and peace returned to Europe again. I experienced the outmost fear, learned to fight for my life and probably saved its last spark in me. I believe that it isn't the place and time to tell you this part of my story.
Part #3: An unforgettable day in 1944
Date: Original composed Wed, April 6th, 1994.
To: email@example.com / Kate M. Roberts
Subject: Questions of Sixth Graders from Starkville, Missisippi, USA.
Question: How did it feel to be made to fight for Germany?
Answer: I graduated from the secondary school end of July 1943 at which time I was 18 years old. In May 1943 Himmler (Germany's worst hangman) came to Croatia to extirpate all remaining Nazi's foes. All the remaining Jews in hiding, Gypsies and other political adversaries of the regime were abducted and sent to concentration camps. Most of them never returned including my mother's parents and brother who vanished in Auschwitz camp. By mid 1943 there were very few and small signs about the Nazi Regime doom but the END of WAR was rather far and veiled in the unknown future.
About a week after the graduation ceremony, we had our farewell dinner party. We ate quite well (despite food rationing) and drank a lot of plum-brandy (national drink) and few good wines. Later, we walked quite tipsy along the main street towards the town center. We stopped several times en route, sat down on a curbstone shouting bad words or singing risky rhymes to the passers-by. "Here comes fresh canon fodder"; "Fu.. Alumnus' freedom"; "We want peace, not war"; "We don't fight but want to study" etc. Soon, police officers turned up (who knew some of us) and tried to appease us, stop shouting and move on.
We were despairing, hopeless and scared of the future with the many unknowns of war times. All our prospects and beliefs were overshadowed by likely misfortunes, deadly injuries or even death. None of us had any experience of its own about looking into "the eyes of death". What is it a looming death like? How is it to be injured? What is a front line and how do you fight? For whom do you struggle? What are your goals and for whom to sacrifice your life? We were so young, inexperienced and without any responsibilities.
Several of us had gone through troubles and political unrest since the war started here two years ago. Few of us lived with various anxieties and had concerns for our own families of which one did not dare to talk about. My parents were of a "mixed" marriage because of mother's ancestry (see before). Deep in my consciousness persisted mother wearing the "yellow star" for a while and the disappearance of many friends and relatives.
The regime's enemies were the Western Nations and the Communists (known as "Partisans") led by Tito in our own country. The later were attacked and battled with German and Italian Armed Forces, Ustasas and Domobrans units as well as with Cetniks (Serbs loyal to exiled young King Peter II). I was brought up in middle class family (burger). My father was a layer of liberal political judgment. He abhorred any kind of dictatorship: Fascism or Nazism or communism. Often I asked myself what for shall I fight or against whom? I didn't have any option and couldn't make any choice! I just ha to follow the path of destiny and stay alive for an unforeseeable future.
The epilogue to aforementioned "feelings" came few months later. By end of October 1943 we were called to join in 'NDH' armed service. Few thousands of graduates converged in Zagreb (capital) and we quartered in the largest army barrack on Ljubljanska road. We kept our civilian clothes and could go to town from time to time. We had to spend the nights in the barracks always. Then, one evening early November, when we all turned in, all of a sudden shouting and commands for a call out. When we came out on the yard there were sentries all around in German uniforms! We were led to the railway station shouting and cursing obscenities but it didn't help.
After the fourth night spent in closed a wagon, we got out into rain and cold wind at the darkened Stockerau railway station. Stockerau is some 25-km westwards of Vienna where I stayed for about 11 months. Twenty of some thousand recruits were send to the "Jaeger Kaserne" (Hunter's barracks) to be trained for artillery officers (on horse-drawn howitzer guns). These 11 months were a save heaven for us far away of any war activities except a few harassments by Allies' bombers as from mid 1944. Early October, we returned home to Zagreb and were promoted to lieutenant-juniors in December 1944. For Christmas 1944, I came back home in Osijek seconded to a Howitzer Battery of 100mm bore. Thus started the fight of a Croatian soldier for an improper cause but for its own life.
I was NOT FIGHTING for the Nazi Germany at all! I had to join in with my comrades in arms to safe our lives and those of our families for a rather unpredictable future though.
Part #4: An unforgettable day in 1944
Date: Original composed on Fri, April 22nd, 1994.
To: firstname.lastname@example.org / Debbie Abilock, Hillsborough, CA /
Subject: Aaron Dawes' question: reflects upon Hitler and Stalin.
Question: What are your reflects upon Hitler and Stalin?
Answer: The names like "Hitler" or "Stalin" meant to us the Dictator's name of the one oppressive regime: Fascist's or Nazism's or Communist's system. It was definitely fatal to mention these names in public in the context of say a dispute or joke or satire or parable. Even, in one's own family the elders kept "their tongue knotted" in front of the youngsters. We HAD TO BE MEMBER of the respective political youth organization, otherwise one got himself into troubles. These would extend towards one's own family too. Thus, parents were AFRAID of they children's uncontrollable talks at school or at any other gatherings. One DID NOT MENTION these dictators' name at all - they did exist for us as the synonym of the fateful REGIME only.
One cannot avoid the fate becoming a soldier forced to fight for an oppressive regime and against his own convictions. My father was a layer of liberal political judgment and he abhorred any kind of dictatorship: Fascism or Nazism or Communism. Often I asked myself what for shall I fight or against whom? I didn't have any option and couldn't make any choice! I just had to follow the path of destiny and stay alive for an unforeseeable future. Epilogue: Few months later we were called to join into regular armed services. Few thousands of graduates converged in Zagreb (capital) and we quartered in a large army barrack there. We kept our civilian clothes and could go to town from time to time. We had to spend the nights in the barracks always. Then, one evening early November, when we all turned in, all of a sudden started shouting and loud commands for a call out. When we came out on the yard there were sentries all around - in German uniforms! We were led to the railway station shouting and cursing obscenities but it didn't help.
Early October, we returned home to Zagreb and were promoted to lieutenant-juniors in December 1944 and I came back home in Osijek shortly before Christmas. I was seconded to a Howitzer Battery of 100mm bore. Thus started the fight of a Croatian soldier for an improper cause but for its own life. I was NOT FIGHTING for the Nazi Germany at all! I had to join in with my comrades in arms to safe our lives and those of our families for a rather unpredictable future though.
Part #5: An unforgettable day in 1944
Date: Original composed on Thu, May 12th, 1994.
To: email@example.com / Guillermo Rivas, Canada /
Subject: Guillermo's questions
Q.1: Why are in the Panel of Elders?
A.1: Early in October 1993 started the ELDERS network at SJUVM.STJOHNS.EDU. It enables e-mail communication between "Whizkids over 60". At that time and even now I am the only senior online in Austria and in Continental Europe too. My e-mailbox is with the Department of "Computer Science and System Analysis" at the Faculty for Natural Sciences of the University in Salzburg. There, I am a guest-student (because I have an academic degree already) in its 6th year of study at COSY.
I sent, as an introduction to the ELDERS' subscribers, a brief story of my life. It contained a short reference to my involvement in WWII as a Croatian soldier. Tom Holloway, the co-owner of ELDERS invited me to join the "Project Memories of 1944" part of "Project Chatback". Later, I also have sent him the Historical Summary from my unpublished manuscript titled: "RE-EDUCATION or Four Months in the Life of a Young Man". Thus, I got my name "The Croatian Soldier" in the Panel. My life story is a rather complex one. It's difficult to follow it up for somebody not acquainted with the Croatian history. It started in the far past of the 6th century and continues turbulently into the presence.
Q. 2: What impact did the war have on you?
A.2: This question is even more difficult to reply in brief. Yes, it had tremendous impact on a young man around his twenties. He was at the threshold of death several times. He had experienced moments when a step aside would bring him the eternal peace as well as the end to all sufferings. I didn't make that step! Only God Knows why I was spared and stayed alive. My psyche and psychic conditions certainly changed. And physically I was ruin when relieved from a POWs' camp. I was a War Prisoner of Tito's Yugoslav Liberation Army as from May 15th 1945. This part of my life was a rather dramatic, sorrow and tragic story. It's part of the greater one in which many thousands of POWs lost their lives in the aftermath of WWII. For myself it happened to be my second birth. Through it I have got another chance to start a new life since.
Recently, I wrote something about the mood of Secondary School graduates in summer of 1943. Shortly after the graduation we were called to the Army service. Thus, we participated in the last stages of WWII too. Few of us survived it. Here is part of that text:
..."We were despairing, hopeless and scared of the future with the many unknowns of war times. All our prospects and beliefs were overshadowed by likely misfortunes, deadly injuries or even death. None of us had any experience of its own about looking into "the eye of death". What is it a looming death like? How is it to be injured? What is a front line and how do you fight? For whom do you struggle? What are your goals and for whom to sacrifice your life? We were so young, inexperienced and without any responsibilities. Several of us had gone through troubles and political unrest since the war started here two years ago. Few of us lived with various anxieties and had concerns for our own families of which one did not dare ... to talk about."
Q.3: What did you think of Hitler at that time?
A.3: First, consider the name ADOLF HITLER as a synonym for a fascist's regime. This regime was oppressive as any of the worst dictatorships. It wasn't Hitler only who ordered and executed by himself all those horrible and terrible matters like Holocast. Hitler was the person whose leadership was claimed by those who did all the outrageous acts. One shouldn't forget that WWII was a Global War too. Any war results in cruelties and disgrace of humans, in many dead and mutilated and displaced and anxious peoples. This can happen to anybody alive, of any age (from children to elders) or of any race or social or political group.
For a better understanding please read the following:
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND A summary
After a military Coup d'Etat on 27th March 1941 against the Tripartite Agreement between the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's fascist regime the operation "Penal Court". It began with an air raid on Beograd on the morning of 6th April. Hitler had to order the attack on Yugoslavia to help the Italian Army after their disaster in Greece and Albany in 1940. Simultaneously with the assault on Yugoslavia from former Austrian territory, the German Armies marched in from Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. From the later the attack started on Greece at its eastern flank.
The Yugoslav Army capitulated on 17th April and after that various parts of the country were occupied by different army commands. The Germans were in Serbia and Slovenia, Italians in Dalmatia and Monte Negro, Bulgarians in Macedonia and Hungarians in Vojvodina. The later tried to enter in Croatia but were expelled soon. On the 10th April 1945, the Croatians, following their success to get some autonomy in the late Kingdom of Yugoslavia in August 1939, declared their independent state.
Thus so called "Nezavisna Drzava Hrvatska" (short "NDH") was formed and entered into alliance with the Nazi regimes soon after. Dr. Ante Pavelic, as the head of this state, was a Quisling using the Croatians' old national republican feelings and their desire for independence as the cover for his dictatorship and thus he followed the Nazi's aims too. About the same time, Italians wanted their Prince of Spoleto to become the new King of Croatia. This was turned down soon after, although disputes about the NDH territory went on particularly about Dalmatia and its islands. The NDH territory included the territory of ex-Banovina of Hrvatska (County of Croatia) with parts of Bosnia, Herzegovina and most of Dalmatia.
The regular army of NDH was the "Domobran" (traditional Home guard). Pavelic's political and police force were the "Ustasas", and whose army units were the "Ustaska Vojnica", corresponding to the German SS-units and the Waffen-SS respectively. The German operation "Barbarossa", against Stalin's Russia started two months later as originally planed, for that reason on 22nd June 1941. Already in July, more or less simultaneously, started first raids against the occupation powers on ex-Yugoslavia territory. The underground Communist party of Yugoslavia under leadership of its General Secretary, Josip Broz Tito, organized these. Retaliation by the occupation forces followed in various places. Also the Ustasa's regime started with executions of many haphazardly and also of imprisoned hostages. This was the beginning of a general prosecution of political opponents too.
For the Ustasas these were all kinds of political enemies particularly Communists, Serbs and Cetniks. The later were faithful to the young king Peter II and thus fought against Germans and Ustasas. They joined Tito's Partisans first, but some time later turned against them. Also were prosecuted Orthodox believers (mostly Serbs) as well as Jews and Gypsies following Nazi's extermination laws.
The war events followed by social and political changes proved a profound experience for a 16 years old boy from a well known family living in Osijek a large town on the right bank of Drava River in the eastern part of Slavonia and the NDH territory respectively. The town's population consisted of many different nationalities Croatians, Serbs, Hungarian and German minorities. There were many Jewish families mostly in merchant and intellectual circles and they were the first to fell the Nazis' political reprisals. The Jews had to wear the yellow David's star. Also those ones in so called "mixed" marriages, where one partner was of Jewish faith or origin. One was surprised to see a person who one knew as a Roman Catholic to wear that yellow star. Later after a passed law required that at least one partner had to prove his Aryan origin. In such a case the other partner did no longer have to wear the yellow star. By then many acquaintances and relatives had disappeared or were abducted never to return.
During the summer of 1941 all students and schoolboys over 15 years of age were called to join the youth organization called "Ustaska mladez" to show the acceptance of the new regime and to be ready to fight for the newly won "independence". One of the options was to join the paramilitary youth service. The young members of this one helped in the much abduction of the regime enemies. They were escorting them to concentration camps or even to the executions somewhere in Lika, as rumors spread around soon. But, one could join a youth labor service as the other option. With my father's help and with his foresight, I joined such a labor group in Vocin. I stayed there and worked hard construction work for two months. In autumn of 1941, we returned to our schools and I could proceed with my studies at the secondary school in Osijek Old Town despite my mother's Jewish relation. At the end of July 1943, I graduated from the secondary school and from then on we were all waiting to be called into the army service at a short notice. Shortly before, in May 1943, the Nazis (Himmler came personally to Zagreb) made their final raid on Jews and Gypsies living in NDH. My mother's parents and some nearest relatives were also deported.
We all felt that they would never return.
For some time one had been hearing a lot about Tito's Partisans. They fought off several offensives from the combined German, Italian and Ustasa's armed forces during 1942 and early 1943. A big reward was promised for capturing Tito dead or alive. The Partisans could not be considered as a regular army of an internationally accepted state. This caused awful atrocities and lead to many massacres. These also resulted in much causality among civilians and sorrow spread because of the many who died in the war itself. Besides, there were many victims of the fratricidal fights and political turmoil too.
Domobrans became known as an unreliable army in fighting Tito's Partisans. The later called themselves Peoples' Liberation Army (short NOV). In September 1943 the Italian Government capitulated relieving, to a certain extend, the pressure on NOV. Tito declared in November of 1943 at Jajce, that the AVNOJ (short for the Antifascist Committee of Peoples' Liberation of Yugoslavia) was the Supreme representative of the future state of Yugoslavia.
After a few months of nervous waiting, in autumn of 1943 all school graduates had to join the regular army service. By the end of October, we all turned up in Zagreb. After few weeks spent in barracks there, the German soldiers surprised us during an evening call. They surrounded the barracks and lead us later to the railway station. After the fourth night on a train, we arrived at Stockerau, a small town near Vienna. It was early November 1943 then and a group of twenty chosen recruits took to Hunter's barracks at the east of Stockerau. There we were trained for artillery officers. From these twenty recruits a dozen came from Osijek by mere coincidence.
Our training went on until about mid September 1944 including for two weeks of home leave in June 1944. After our return from our leave, we brought with us two "castrated" radios in which the short wave was cut off and sealed on the back cover. However, there was a simple trick that we learned how to bridge the gap with a piece of wire without touching the seal. We could listen to the BBC news with great caution only. We knew about the progress of the Allied Forces in France, the invasion in the South of France, the Liberation of Paris etc.
Since the unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hitler on 20th July 1944 rumors started also about the surrender of the Croatian "Handzar Division" at the West Front. The German execution squads executed the remaining Croatian soldiers in this unit. We also heard about the futile attempt of a Domobran general Vokic. He offered to the British Army a free access to the northern Croatian coast of the Adriatic Sea. Churchill liked this idea but Tito bluntly refused it. By this time of the war, Tito had rather good relations with the British and with the Americans already.
All this brought us a rather difficult situation in Stockerau and we had some difficult time waiting there. We expected our deportation somewhere at any time, but the waiting was over abruptly as some ten months before. We were transported back to Zagreb with the ominous feelings to be involved in real combats of the last phase of the World War II. By the end of the 1944, the renamed Yugoslav Peoples' Army (short JNA) liberated the territories of Macedonia, Serbia (Beograd on the 20th October), Monte Negro and Dalmatia.
Russian Armies liberated Rumania and Bulgaria, helped Tito to recapture Beograd from the Germans. According to Tito's orders Russians had to stay beyond the left banks of the rivers Danube and Drava. From there they continued the fighting on there way through Hungary and further up to Austria. In the meantime about 500.000 German soldiers were in retreat northwards and to the West from Greece, through Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia. They were flooding into Croatia leaving in their wake most of the heavy and motorized armor.
By mid December 1944 we were promoted to lieutenant-juniors in Zagreb. I got the order to take over my duty with the 1st Howitzers Battery supposed to be in position somewhere near Osijek. With two comrades with similar orders, we traveled on a train from Zagreb reached Vinkovci the next day. There, I expected to meet a "link" who would take over to Partisan side. For some unknown reasons, the "link" did not turn up, most probably because the front line was not close enough to Vinkovci. The JNA did not continue its offensive westwards through Srijem at the speed which one anticipated. Srijem is the region between the rivers Danube and Sava.
When we arrived at Vinkovci there was no military command so we decided to continue towards Osijek. We walked most of the 40 km from Vinkovci to Osijek northwards. We arrived at Osijek a day short of Christmas Eve and found the town as deserted as we left Vinkovci. Nobody knew where the front line was to be because and everybody fled expecting JNA would advance into Srijem that fast. Situation would be rather precarious after Srijem and Vinkovci fell to JNA.
Few days after Christmas 1944, the military command including the town's officials returned to Osijek. The exceptions were those who either went over to join the Partisans or remained still in hiding. Osijek became a town on the frontier, which extended down river Drava to its confluence into Danube. Several days after Christmas 1944 too, the 1st Battery returned to Osijek and two of us had to join it. Some few weeks later, the German Army succeeded in its hard trial and opened a bridgehead over Drava and upstream of Osijek near Donji Miholjac. Their advance reached up to Harkanyi on the Hungarian side.
The Spring Offensive started by the JNA with aim to liberate the rest of the Yugoslavia. It commenced early April 1945 at the northern front. At the south front, it was already well underway along the Adriatic coast some time earlier. Trieste was liberated on the 2nd May 1945. The JNA advanced through central parts of Herzegovina and Bosnia at a slower pace partly due to the mountainous terrain there. The German and Croatian armed forces kept a kind of front line there too, thus enabling the retreat of their units northwestwards in the direction towards Austria. Their main aim was to reach the advancing Allied forces somewhere in Slovenia or possibly in Carinthia latest.
About two thirds of the Germans could get through but for the rest of some 150.000 remained the captivity in Tito's Yugoslavia as the final verdict. The Croatian armed forces started their retreat from Osijek on the 13th April 1945. This retreat swelled up soon to general peoples' exodus. The Croatians feared reprisals by the Partisans whom they fought for about four years. Nobody counted the numbers of peoples but some estimated about one third of the Croatian population was on the move then. Of this 1.5 million souls on the move there were about 200.000 armed. This was the situation early May of 1945. Dr. Pavelic and his government, officials and other political supporters fled from Zagreb as from 3rd May. JNA units liberated Zagreb on the 8th May.
This left most of Croatian population behind except those who choose to retreat through Slovenia on there a way to Austria. Everybody expected to get through to the American or British armed forces before being caught by the Partisans or JNA units, or captured from Russians or Bulgarians. The later two armies were along the left bank of the river Drava already. Nobody in this exodus expected anything good from the victorious armies particularly from those under Communist leadership. At the beginning the British allowed and accepted the surrender of the armed Serb Cetniks, withdrawing side by side with their worst foes the Ustasas. Then came White Gardists from Slovenia and the Cossack's units, who fought under German command against Russian army. The German Army surrendered since the day of Armistice of the 8th May already. They expected to be treated as Prisoners of War as stipulated by the Geneva Conventions.
Next came the Croatian civilians and some Domobran units as well as their counterparts of the Ustaska Vojnica. Last not least were in the retreat the remaining or late coming Ustasas some of who were the worst ones and called the "butchers". The later, lead by their "colonels" Boban and Luburic were known as the most merciless and fearsome fighters. These "black" Ustasas, because of their black uniforms, fought their way westwards killing off anybody who was in their way. These were either that who wanted to return and surrender to the JNA or those who prevented their fast progress towards the safety of a surrender to the Allied Forces. Thus many lost their lives by their own kin and became post-war victims during the first few weeks of the Peace in Europe.
From the front of the retreating Croatian column rumor spread that the British were turning over captured Croatians to the JNA units. Some of these units did also cross Drava already and penetrated the Austrian part of Carinthia. There they confronted the British units near Klagenfurt on the 8th May already. The Croatians and other captives repatriated by the British were massacred near Bleiburg by JNA units on 13th May. This terrible news spread like wildfire stopping many Croatians in their further marching westwards. Those still at this side of Drava south bank surrendered to the JNA around the 15th May. Some more, most of them Ustasas, would try their luck proceeding further upriver beyond Dravograd and Prevalje, opposite of Bleiburg. Few of the later ones succeeded to surrender to the British whose commanders changed their attitude because of their "bad experience" with JNA of Bleiburg.
My personal account describes the period from 13th April 1945 the day the 1st Battery started the retreat from Osijek. The following battery withdrawal went along the river Drava's right bank westwards through Slavonia and the northern part of Croatia, proceeding into Slovenia after the 8th May and arriving short of Dravograd on 14th May. At the night of 14th May, in a hopeless situation, it remained the only chance to stay alive to return and surrender to the JNA units. This happened at the midnight of the 14th May. The next day of the 15th some 40.000 Prisoners of War were herded up in a camp at Slovenjgradec.
On the 17th started the long and deadly march in which I was a captive. I had to walk some 500 km, most of it barefoot, in 17 days only. This is longest path No. 2 of the total 4 so-called "Croatian Death Marches". To talk about this theme was a TABOO in ex-Yugoslavia.) At last, a small group of former Domobran officers reached Osijek on 2nd June. A period of varying life conditions as a POW followed. There was one of the possibilities to undergo a "re-education" before deserving to join the JNA units. It was a lie and political farce of the new political regime: Tito's and communist's dictatorship.
After some less dangerous and trying events I joined some former and other Domobran's officers in a POW camp in Kovin, at Far East of Yugoslavia. On 3rd August 1945 the General Amnesty and Pardon was proclaimed and the prisoners could return to their homes. The account ends with 15th August 1945, on the day when I returned home at Osijek after four months of absence. Then for some time, the Peace was restored in Europe already.
Part #6: Questions on the WWII
Date: Original composed on Sun, Oct 30 1994
To: firstname.lastname@example.org \ Nicole Collins\
Subject: Answers to Nicole's questions
My answers might cause some interference with the ones from other authors on this panel. I'm the only one who was on "THE OTHER SIDE" of front lines during WWII. True, you wouldn't be familiar with geographical and historical facts about the states of the South of Europe or on the Balkan Peninsula.
You'd need geographic and political maps of the Balkan to find some places I'll mention too. Also, a good book could help to understand the History of States in this region from, say, late 19th into the 20th century. I wonder whether something of these features would be accessible to you at all. Please, check it with your teacher and in the libraries before you ask more information about. Note also, that my native language is CROATIAN.
Q1: What is your name?
A1: ZVONKO - being the short form of "Zvonimir".
Q2: What country were you living in during the war?
A2: In "Kingdom of Yugoslavia" until Apr 10th 1941. From then onwards in "Nezavisna Drzava
Hrvatska" (= Independent State of Croatia, short "NDH") until the end of WWII. Later, it became known as Marshall Tito's "Federal National Republic of Yugoslavia" (short "SFRJ".
Q3: How old are you?
A3: I'm born June 1925 in Osijek, a large town near the confluence of river Drava in Danube. I was 16 years old when German Armies attacked Yugoslavia on Apr 6th 1941.
Q4: Did you have an occupation during the war? What was it?
A4: I was student of the 7th class at the "Real Gymnasium" (= Secondary school) in Osijek during school year 1941/42. I graduated the Higher Matura (= baccalaureate) in July 1943 and was called to the army service in October 1943.
Q5: When and how did you first hear about the possibility of a war starting in Europe?
A5: We moved to a house my parents bought in summer 1936. My father bought our first radio - a huge box - made by "Telefunken" the same year. My father, a well-known advocate in Osijek, cautioned us about a looming European War since 1936, so far I could remember. (Hitler came to power in 1933 and revoked the Treaty of Versailles of May 7, 1919. Mussolini attacked Ethiopia in 1935. By September 1937 Hitler and Mussolini joined in "The Axis Pact". The "civil war" started in Spain in July 1936 and ended in February 1939).
Q6: How did you get most of your information on the war?
A6: Mostly from my father who was well-informed about political and economical developments in Europe. Also, from local newspapers and radio news. (Note: One cannot compare present news media's proficiency and potency with the one of some 55 years ago!)
Q7: Explain what you think played a big part in starting the war.
A7: Judging from my present knowledge and experience, the "seeds" for WWII were laid by the Treaty of Versailles (May 7, 1919). The victorious Powers of WWI set borderlines for several new countries in Europe by the wrong ways. They were wrong from political and geographical and national points of view. Also, the Council of Nations (in Geneva) was inapt or incapable or weak to master the political circumstances occurring during 1920s and 1930s too.
Q8: If any describe what kind of impression of Mussolini you were given from the media. What about Hitler?
A8: Sorry, I don't understand this question. What kind of opinion should one have about Mussolini or Hitler? We, at least in my family and many of our friends, knew well that both were FASCISTS and DICTATORS. Europeans learned quite a lot from their history - but not enough to prevent these two fanatics to get to such powers. However, there were many that sympathized and lobbied for Mussolini and Hitler too. Consider some states' policies like of England (Treaty of Munich - Sep 30, 1938) or USA (large business and industry interests, late entry into WWII only Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, etc.) or Russia (Hitler/Molotov "Bargain of Poland").
Q9: List some of the subjects most talked about during the war. Why were they important?
A9: Let me list some: despotism and dictate; political oppression and persecution; lack or shortage of merchandises and commodities; hunger and different anxieties; terror, mutilation and fear of death.
Q10: If it did, explain how the war played a big part in your life.
A10: Yes, it did play a BIG part in my life. I cannot answer these because of my rather complex life history. One would one need too many explanations to understand this. Also, it would a very long answer, a very personal one though. I learned MORTAL FEARS, experienced INSTINCTS of survival, felt Scythe's hush over my body - survived the intended MASSACRE of CROATIANS. (Was it not an "ethnical cleansing" in 1945 already?)
Q11: If any, what relatives or friends did you have in other countries at the time of the war? What relations were they to you? How did they describe their situation? What happened to them?
A11: Yes, the relatives and close friends of our family lived mostly in Croatia (Yugoslavia).
There were few in Austria too. ALL OF THEM - who were either detained for political reasons or abducted to concentration camps for their origin - DIED sooner or later during WWII.
Q12: List some things that people did to remember or honor people taking part in the war.
A12: I don't remember anything like. We were "ON THE WRONG SIDE" of political and military front lines.
Q13: Describe what you consider a climax in the war. Why was this a climax?
A13: The defeat of Rommel's Africa Corps and the Battle of Stalingrad. And last not least, the "D-DAY" becoming the reality! I was certain then, that the WWII could end within a reasonable time and that the Western Allied Forces would the winners.
Q14: Describe the view of the war you think you were given by the media.
A14: This, I cannot explain in brief. Consider that the media were NOT FREE at all. The Information Ministries were strictly acting according the regime's policy and needs only. In a tyrannical and oppressive regime there isn't any place for free news or free speech.
Q15: If there was one, describe a point in the war that made you think it was going to end soon. Did it really? What were your feelings and reactions about this?
A15: The news about Allied Forces' landing in Italy and in Normandy later. However, war ended a year later only. For me, even, 8 days in May 15, 1945.
Q16: What do you remember most vividly about the war? Why?
A16: I was a teenager without any life experience facing novel and radical circumstances. From the very beginning of WWII in our country, I faced anxieties and fears, fatal and irreversible situations. I knew that soon or later I'd be involved in the war. What would it be being hurt or mutilated or caught as a POW? How is it waiting on once own death? What is the DEATH? Yes, there were so many ideas and illusions not to be or which couldn't be fulfilled due to this dreadful war.
Q17: Explain who you saw as a hero in the war? What about it now?
A17: Did I see what? Oh, no - during a war you don't see heroes. One meets a real friend or gets help from somebody alive but it last mostly for a short time or just for brief instant. One couldn't even be conscious of it - probably only much time later.
Q18: Were there a lot of refugees coming into your country at the time of the war? How did the Government react? How did the people around you react? Why?
A18: During the Croatians' retreat westwards, there were some 1.2 million of people + their livestock on the move. Many thousands died and some more never returned to their homes anymore. Tito's Army or his Government didn't bother at all for the peoples whom they fought
Against. Sorry, I cannot answer this question better - it's a rather painful and sad story about.
Q19: Describe what kind of prejudice you saw around you. What was your interpretation of why this was happening?
A19: Prejudice was part of fascists' system but the one of communists was not better either. Why was this happening? Oh, how I could answer this? Better put that question to the politicians and economists, leaders and preachers who guide their HERDS to the unknown DESTINY and to some new historical catastrophes. Did any sheep ask the shepherd where he leads them at any time?
Q20: Describe and explain your impression of why the war started.
A20: Why does a war start? Read history books and you'd learn more how and why wars do start. IMHO, the WWII started because of there wasn't any farsightedness to stop or change the conditions that led to FASCISM, NAZISM, COMMUNISM and any other kind of Radicalism. It's most unfortunate that the human race had few wise and prophetic geniuses. The MASSES didn't recognize them as such at their times or didn't follow them at all.
Q21: Describe any certain event that heightened the prejudice in your country during the war. Why did it have this effect?
A21: There are always the same events caused by: resentment and envy, weakness and aversion, goodwill and hatred. These causes are as old as the human race and apply to my country as well during WWII too.
Q22: If there was one, describe a time that you remember doing some thing because of the war that you now regret.
A22: Yes, I remember the day the German Army marched through my hometown Osijek. Many people cheered and some had the band with a "swastika" on their upper arm. Fascinated and mesmerized by this event, I made a paper armband with a swastika at home secretly. Suddenly, my cousin entered my room and found me with that caustic band on my upper arm. The same instant, I recognized how foolish and stupid I was and tore it off. I never wore any of this after - I'm still ashamed of it now. (My cousin had to flee, first to Italy and lives in Israel now.)
Q23: Describe some of the attitudes that were changed because of the war.
A23: The relatively free market system was abolished introducing the so-called "socialistic" state controlled marketing. The System prohibited any private enterprise. State ruled and owned the agriculture and the industry, all lands and resources, houses and flats. The main objective for a sane society is based upon the family. This had to make way for a better form favored by the System, which was the General Society. The people moved from their native lands (more than 70% lived outside of cities!) flocking into town trying to find some work there. This resulted in the greatest housing crisis and dissatisfaction after the WWII ended.
Q24: List some things that you and other people did to get the war off your mind or comfort yourself.
A24: I buried into my subconscious most of my rather traumatic experiences during the WWII. I forgot my happy childhood - I hardly talked to anybody about it. I had many nightmares too but never did I talk about them, even to my dearest ones. My wife did learn about few of these deep buried experiences - rarely we exchanged more than few sentences about those events in 1945. It was a TABOO theme under the SYSTEM in ex-Yugoslavia. Now, the change came with the start of War against Croatia in 1991. Subsequently, Croats won their freedom and sovereignty. The Republic of Croatia is a worldwide-recognized state now. The Croats have the chance to rule in their own way there - this happened again after 9 centuries at last.
Email Zvonko Springer at : email@example.com