Published: 11 February 2012Last Updated: 07 April 2012by Allen Milcic
Soon after Independent State of Croatia’s Poglavnik Ante Pavelic called for Croatian volunteers to fight on the Eastern Front on July 2nd 1941, enough naval officers and men came forward to form the Croatian Naval Battalion (Hrvatski Pomorski Sklop). This unit originally had all-together 343 members, of which 23 were officers, 220 NCO’s and 100 sailors.
It is interesting to note that Italy had vetoed the forming of a Croatian national Navy that would serve in the Adriatic Sea. The Croatian government and military establishment hoped that the unit, serving under the Kriegsmarine on the Eastern Front, would gain valuable experience and become the nucleus of a future Croatian Navy that would, at some point, be able to serve in its own national waters.
The unit’s official title became ‘Hrvatski Pomorski Sklop – Crno More’ (Croatian Naval Battalion – Black Sea), but was more commonly known as the “Croatian Naval Legion” (Hrvatska Pomorska Legija), and it became a part of the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) on or about July 3, 1941. The first commander was Frigate Captain Andro Vrkljan, and he was later replaced by Battleship Captain Stjepan Rumenovic.
The Naval Legion was sent for training to Varna, Bulgaria, on the Black Sea. Upon arrival in Varna on July 17th 1941, the Croatian Legionnaires received their uniforms and started with training on German minesweepers and submarine hunters, as they were to be the future crews of these types of ships in the Black Sea. The training during this period, over and above the required naval training on the boats, consisted of infantry training, signals training, rowing, and German language instruction. German Admiral Schuster was one of the dignitaries that paid a visit to the Croatian Legionnaires during their training in Bulgaria.
Training was completed on September 22nd 1941, and on the same day the Legion set off for the Soviet Union, where they arrived on the 30th of September 1941. The German military designation for the Legion was 23.Minesuch-Flottilla, or 23rd Minesweeping Flotilla. The boats initially assigned to the Legion were mostly motorized sailing boats and converted fishing boats; newer, better equipment to be provided at a later date.
At the end of September 1941, the Legion was stationed in the small Ukrainian town of Geniscek. The town was fortified shortly after the unit arrived and patrolling commenced – both shore patrols and patrols along the coastline. A report from this period indicated that the Croatian sailors were “eager to do battle”.
An attack on Geniscek in late 1941 by the Soviets was destroyed thanks to Luftwaffe intervention. At the time only the Croatian Legion, a squad of Romanian cavalry and a small German garrison were present to defend the town. The Winter was passed in digging bunkers, and keeping warm. During this period Captain Vrkljan of the Legion was travelling with a German inspection team throughout the region. Amongst other adventures, the inspection team fought as infantry in the town of Teodozija during a Soviet attack. During these long, cold, boring Winter months, the Soviets attempted to destroy the troop moral by continuously dropping propaganda leaflets, which, among other things, poked fun at the Germans for having a bad Christmas, and trying to convince them that only surrender will bring about the possibility of ever having another good one. All leaflets ended with “Long live Moscow! Down with Hitler”. The Croatian Legionnaires used the leaflets in their stoves.
At the begining of April 1942, the ice in the Geniscek harbour finally began to loosen, and the Croatians prepared to depart from Geniscek. Being well liked by the locals, the Town Council of Geniscek named a street “Hrvatska” (Croatia) in their honour.
By mid-April 1942 the ice was almost gone, and the Croatian ships could once again set sail. Mines were ordered placed around the harbour entrance as a defense against possible Soviet attack, however, in a catastrophic accident during the laying of the mines, 25 Croatians were killed and 2 boats destroyed. On May 25th 1942, the Croatian naval flotilla sailed out of Geniscek. They had manned their positions in this small town for 8 months, and had defended it from all attacks with poise and courage, and had sustained minimal losses.
In August of 1942, the Legion was at Mariupol. The Legion at this time had 31 MFK’s (Motorfischkuter), and 35 other motor boats under their command. Including the command ship “Tovaris” (captured from the Soviet navy) and other smaller boats, the Legion was 130 boats strong. The Legion’s commander, beside his Croatian crews, also commanded 200 German sailors that had been assigned to the Legion (lead by Ensign Plautz), and some 200 + Ukrainian volunteers.
Just prior to New Years Eve, 1942, the Legion transfered their ships to new crews, and were sent to Croatia for a well-deserved rest. Further training in Germany followed, and after this the unit was transferred back to Varna where they arrived in mid-1943. Here they received 12 new ‘submarine hunting’ vessels from Germany (100 ton displacement), registered as UJ2301 – UJ2311, plus UJ2314, and the unit was officially redesignated the Unterseeboot-jagerflotille 23 or 23rd Submarine-Hunting Flotilla.
In March of 1943 a Croatian volunteer coastal artillery unit, consisting of two batteries, was also attached to the Legion, bringing the total manpower to over 1,000 men.
In September of 1943 Fascist Italy capitulated, thereby ending the moratorium on the Croatian Navy in its home waters. In October of 1943 the Legion was ordered to return to Croatia for duty, and this was done in 4 phases, the final group leaving the Black Sea on May 21, 1944. Initially transferred to Trieste, the Legion was then broken up – some men were assigned to various Kriegsmarine ships serving in the Adriatic, while a majority reported for duty with the Navy of the Independent State of Croatia. The coastal artillery batteries remained as part of the Kreigsmarine, and as of February 1944 was stationed at Split.
The Croatian Legionnaires wore regulation Kriegsmarine uniforms and rank insignia, with only the red-white checkerboard shield of Croatia with the title ‘Hrvatska’ on their left arm to distinguish them. The coastal artillery wore German field grey, with the arm-shield.
Research by Allen Milcic
Reference material on this unit
– None known at this time –