Employment of Armored Fighting Vehicles by Bulgaria
- Published: 18 June 2010 18 June 2010
- Last Updated: 07 April 2012 07 April 2012
Part I: 1934 - June 1941
The Bulgarian Army’s first contact with armored fighting vehicles was in 1917, when a group of Bulgarian officers was sent to Germany to study captured Allied tanks. But because of the difficult economic situation, the first Bulgarian tanks were not bought until 1934. The war ministry decided to buy from Italy 14 Fiat-Ansaldo L3/33 tankettes, “Pavesi.” artillery tractors, antiaircraft guns and other military hardware for 174 million leva, on credit for 6 to 8 years. The L3/33 tankettes were purchased for 10,770,600 leva and were delivered to Bulgaria during the first months of 1935. Fourteen (14) heavy trucks were also obtained for the purpose of carrying the tankettes to the battlefield.
All of the Fiat-Ansaldos were sent to the 2nd Automobile Battalion in Sofia where they were used to form the 1st Tank Company, which became a component of the 1st Engineer Regiment. The Company’s officers all came from the Regiment. The commander of the 1st Tank Company was Major Boris Tenev Slavov, and the lower officers were Lieutenants Todor Stefanov Ivanov, Angel Stefanov Nerezov and Stojan Stojanov. The Company’s personnel complement consisted on 4 officers and 86 men. The Bulgarian Ansaldos were armed with the Schwarzlose 8mm machine gun.
A second tank company, under command of Major Slavov, was formed in 1936 with a strength of 167 men, but without tanks. On 4 September 1936 an agreement was signed between the Bulgarian war ministry and the British Vickers-Armstrong firm for the purchase of 8 Vickers 6-ton Mark E tanks in the single turret version, with one Vickers 47mm gun and one Vickers machine gun. The Bulgarians paid 35,598,000 leva for the tanks, spare parts and ammunition. The agreement was formally approved by the Bulgarian government on 4 October 1936. The Vickers tanks began arriving in early 1938 and were used to outfit the 2nd Tank Company, four tanks to a platoon. Later in the year the 2nd Tank Company participated in joint maneuvers with a motorized infantry division and motorized artillery.
Both tank companies were used on maneuvers in 1939 near the town of Popovo. On 1 January 1939, the two tank companies were incorporated into the 1st Tank Battalion under command of Major Todor Ivanov Popov. The 1st Company (Ansaldo) was commanded by Lieutenant Ivan Ivanov Gjumbabov and the 2nd Company (Vick.ers) by Lieutenant Todor Stefanov Ivanov. The Battalion consisted of a headquarters, two tank companies and a technical repair section, in all 173 men. Formally, the Battalion was subordinate to the Reserve Officer's School, but the 1st Company was located along the southern border in Kolarovo and Kharmanlijsko, and the 2nd Company in the rayons of Polski Trmbesh and Rusensko in cooperation with the 5th “Danube” Infantry Division.
In February 1940, the Bulgarian Army obtained from Germany at a low price 26 Skoda LT-35 tanks, followed by 10 more during the summer. These were used to form the 3rd Tank Company under command of Captain Alexander Ivanov Bosilkov. Beginning on 10 July 1940, the Tank Battalion, with the exception of 1st Company which was used in -the annexation of Dobrudsha from Romania, was assembled in the rayons of Lozen and Ljubimec on the Turkish border and engaged in maneuvers.
According to an agreement with Germany dated 23 April 1941, the Bulgarians obtained 40 Renault R-35 tanks, all of which on receipt were judged to be in poor technical condition and were consequently relegated to the training role. The Germans sold the Renaults to Bulgaria for 2,350,000 R.M. These tanks were used to form the 4th Tank Company. Bulgaria declared partial mobilization during the spring of 1941, and shortly thereafter the 2nd Tank Battalion was formed followed by the 1st Armored Regiment on 25 June 1941 in Sofia. The Regiment consisted of a headquarters, medical group, reconnaissance company, armored group, motorized infantry group, motorized artillery group, special motorized group and a maintenance workshop. The Regiment was quartered in the barracks belonging to the 1st Cavalry Regiment and was directly subordinate to Army Headquarters. The first commander was Major Todor Ivanov Popov.
Part II: July 1941 - Early September 1944
At the end of July, the 1st Armored Regiment, which was in reality a brigade and will be referred to as such hereafter, moved to new quarters at Camp Knjas Simeon, about 10 km west of Sofia. The brigade was critically short of radio equipment, and although the crews were very pleased with the Skoda tanks, such was not the case with the Renaults. Many essential components were missing from each of the Renault tanks and the brigade’s new commander, Lt. Colonel Geno K. Genov, believed this to be the result of sabotage in France from where the tanks were originally shipped. The brigade’s personnel were young and eager, but had not yet had the opportunity to do any practice firing with their tanks and artillery. By 15 August, the brigade had a total strength of 1,802 officers and men.
It was not until October that the chance finally came. The brigade’s armored regiment, along with other Bulgarian units, was sent to Nova Zagora where, on de-training, it moved by road to Yambol in east-central Bulgaria to participate in maneuvers. Many of the Renault tanks belonging to the 2nd Battalion's three companies broke down along the way due to mechanical defects and bad roads caused by heavy rain and mud, and the Battalion was virtually out of operation. The 1st Battalion’s two Skoda companies and Vickers company fared much better.
By the end of 1941, the brigade’s organizational structure had changed very little. The general shortage of sufficient numbers of tanks, armored cars and other motor vehicles prevented further expansion. Only the engineer company’s bridge column had been provided with any new equipment.
On 19 March 1942, two tank platoons from the brigade engaged in firing exercises. One platoon with 5 Skoda tanks fired their 3.7cm guns at targets between 200 and 400 meters distance while underway. The firing was to good effect, and Bulgarian and German observers were pleased with the results. A Renault platoon only used their machine guns. Although the gunnery was considered good, the crews handled their tanks with a pronounced lack of skill.
Several organizational changes had also taken place in the brigade by March 1942. The armored vehicles were now distributed as follows:
Brigade Staff: 3 Skoda LT-35 (one with radio)
Armored Regiment Staff: 2 Skoda LT-35 (one with radio)
I Tank Battalion
Staff: 2 Skoda LT-35 (one with radio)
1st Company: 17 Skoda LT-35 (4 with radios)
2nd Company: 17 Skoda LT-35 (4 with radios)
3rd Company: 8 Vickers Mk. E and 5 Ansaldo L3/33
II Tank Battalion
Staff: 1 Renault R-35 (with radio) and 3 Ansaldo L3/33
1st Company: 13 Renault R-35 (all without radios)
2nd Company: 13 Renault R-35 (all without radios)
3rd Company: 13 Renault R-35 (all without radios)
Reconnaissance Detachment: 5 Ansaldo L3/33
Additionally, the Vickers company was designated for employment in an antitank role rather than as a tank company. A motorized Flak battery with 15 20cm guns and 15 light machine guns had been added to the brigade. The Germans felt the brigade was making good progress, but still had some major shortcomings. The lack of radios for the Renault battalion, together with the fact that this tank was slower across country than the Skoda, would prevent the armored regiment from being employed as a unified force. For this reason it was recommended that the Renaults be replaced with either more Skodas or with heavier tanks mounting 7.5cm guns. Modern armored cars were still needed for the reconnaissance detachment, light mortars for the infantry regiment and more bridging equipment for the engineer company.
During the period 29-31 May, the brigade participated in limited maneuvers near Sofia in an effort to resolve some of the problems that had been apparent in earlier exercises. The armored units exhibited some improvement, but other formations, in particular the reconnaissance detachment, did poorly. The need for a full-time German Panzer officer to serve as an advisor and trainer to the brigade had become critical, and on 11 July 1942 Lt. Colonel Freiherr von Bülow arrived from Germany to take up this responsibility. Von Bülow’s greatest problem was to find a way to improve the tactical handling of tanks and the coordination between tanks, infantry and artillery. But at the end of August, during (large-scale maneuvers near Pernik (Dimitrovo) for major components of the Bulgarian armed forces, the brigade again fell short of expectation. The tanks and vehicles bunched together in forward assembly areas and camouflage was poor. In the advance through enemy positions, the Bulgarian tank crews moved too fast, getting far ahead of their supporting infantry and leaving themselves open to encirclement. A few days later, on 3 and 4 September, the second phase of this exercise took place and the brigade showed considerable improvement. The brigade again did well at the next field maneuvers held southeast of Nova Zagora from 14 to 20 October. By the end of the year, the total strength of the brigade had grown to 3,809 officers and men.
Toward the end of 1942, the Bulgarians became concerned with Germany’s delivery of weapons to Turkey, Bulgaria’s traditional enemy, and a plan was worked out between OKW and the Bulgarian War Minister on 5 January 1943 to equip 10 infantry divisions, one cavalry division and two armored brigades with modern German weapons. The German .organizational plan as put forward by OKW called for one armored regiment with one tank battalion in each of the armored brigades, but this structure was rejected by the Bu1garians in favor of two-battalion regiments. Initially, the Germans only intended to supply 12 Pz.Kpfw. IVand 20 StuG. III, so General Staff Colonel Heinrich Gäde, chief of the German training mission in Bulgaria since 1 January 1943, had to develop a new organizational form for the armored regiment based on it being fully trained and ready for action by 1 July 1943.
Gäde recommended that the Skoda tanks remain with the armored regiment, but that the Renaults be removed and used to form special army-level infantry support units. He believed the Renaults to be too slow, incapable of maneuver and inadequately armed to warrant a place in the new armored regiment. The eight Vickers tanks were to be used as armored observation vehicles for the brigade’s artillery formation, while the Fiat-Ansaldo tankettes were to be employed as armored ambulances and as ammunition carriers.
Gäde also recommended, on 29 January 1941, the forming of two to three assault gun batteries as army troops as a means of strengthening the offensive capabilities of the Bulgarian Army and because of the great impact on troop morale it would have. A total of 54 StuG. III assault guns were asked for, but later changed to 55.
The Gäde proposal would have produced an organizational structure for the armored regiment consisting of a Brigade HQ, an Armored Regiment with two tank battalions, each consisting of two medium tank companies and a light tank company. Additionally, each medium and light tank company was to have one Fiat-Ansaldo for the repair troop and one for the medical NCO. The total tank complement of the regiment would therefore have been:
12 x Pz.Kpfw. IVs
20 x StuG. IIIs
37 x Skodas
14 x Fiat-Ansaldos
Training for brigade personnel intensified during the spring of 1943 when 41 officers and 37 NCOs were sent to the German armored school at Wünsdorf, and a special course for the Pz. IVand StuG. III commenced on 12 April at the German combat school established at Niš in Serbia.
Meanwhile, Gäde’s recommended structure for the armored regiment was rejected by the Bulgarian War Ministry. Instead, they demanded retention of the Renaults, along with 5 StuG. III assault guns, as the regiment's second battalion, all of the Skoda tanks and the Pz. IVs as the first battalion and the remaining StuG. IIIs (15) to be organized as an assault gun detachment under the control of the brigade’s artillery regiment. This argument forced OKW in late March/early April to increase the number of Pz. IV (lang) tanks to be supplied to Bulgaria from 12 to 43. A new organizational layout for the armored regiment was developed and the Bulgarians got their assault gun detachment, but as an independent army-level formation. The Planned structure of the Armored Regiment submitted on 24 May 1943 consisted of a Brigade HQ, a Regiment HQ, I Tank Battalion (1st Medium, 2d Medium and 3d Light Tank Companies), II Tank Battalion ((4th Medium, 5th Medium and 6th Light Tank Companies), III Tank Battalion (7th Light, 8th Light and 9th Light Tank Companies) equipped with a total of 36 x Skoda, 43 x Pz. IV, and 38 x Renault tanks.
On 10 June 1941 the Bulgarian assault qun detachment was officially formed and a German officer, Captain Nebel, was appointed as training advisor. However, at the armored brigade things were not proceeding very well. For some months the commander, Lt. Col. Genov, had been offering excuses to the Germans for not increasing the tempo of training. Shortage of gaso1ine, bad weather and key personnel on leave were those reasons most commonly offered. Gäde complained repeatedly to the Bulgarian War Minister in an attempt to get the problem resolved, but had little success. The training problem was still evident at the end of August 1943 when the brigade and the assault gun detachment participated in maneuvers north of Sofia. Both units received poor ratings.
The Bulgarian War Ministry officially re-designated the 1st Armored Regiment as the 1st Armored Brigade on 1 October 1943, although it had always been referred to as a brigade by the Germans. The Renault tanks were transferred out of the Brigade to the town of Sliven in east-central Bulgaria where they were committed to the fight against partisans. A detachment of 10 of these Renaults was later assigned to the Bulgarian 29th Infantry Division stationed at Vranje in Serbia under the Bulgarian Occupation Corps, and used against Tito's Partisan forces.
The Brigade was reorganized to include three tank battalions, each with two Pz. IV companies and one Skoda company. The Pz. IV companies of the III Battalion were incorporated for training purposes into the Pz. IV companies of the other two battalions until such time as they could be outfitted with tanks. The engineer company was expanded to an engineer battalion with two engineer and one bridge construction company. The expansion of the signal company to a full battalion was planned, but not yet carried out. The manpower strength of the Pz. IV companies, which had a planned allotment of 14 Pz. IVs per company, was critical, there being on average only 55 officers and men in each. In November, Lt. Col. von Bülow was replaced as Brigade training advisor by Major Kahl.
Major Kahl headed the training group only temporarily until the arrival of its new chief, Colonel von Jungenfeldt. It was Jungenfeldt, against all opposition, who finally whipped the Brigade into shape.
The attitude of the Bulgarian soldiers by 1943 was one of hesitation. The people had always been pro-Russian in a general sense, a commonly shared Pan-Slavic sentiment, and with the increasing German defeats in the East, in Africa, in Italy and in the air, this attitude became more pronounced. It was most noticeable among the officers and was largely the reason for the underlying opposition to the intensification of training in the 1st Armored Brigade.
On 15 December 1943, the Germans listed the planned AFV strength of the Brigade as follows:
I Tank Battalion: 28 x Pz. IV and 16 x Skoda
II Tank Battalion: 28 x Pz. IV and 16 x Skoda
III Tank Battalion: (awaiting tanks)
Reconnaissance Detachment: 13 x Sd.Kfz. 222 and 7 x Sd.Kfz. 223
German AFV deliberies to Bulgaria to 31 December 1943
|Armored Car, Sd.Kfz. 222||13||13|
|Armored Car, Sd.Kfz. 223||7||7|
|Tank, Pz.Kpfw. IV (lang)||91||46|
|Tank. Pz.Kpfw. I||25||-|
|Tank, Pz.Kpfw. III||10||-|
|Tank, Renault R-35||10||-|
|Assault Gun, StuG. III L/48||55||25|
(1) delivery of the 46 Pz.Kpfw. IV (lang) had been completed by 3 September 1943.
(2) 10 Praga Pz.Kpfw. 38(t) may have been substituted against the order for the Pz.Kpfw. III tanks with these being delivered sometime in 1943.
Sofia was heavily bombed by the U.S. 15th Air Force on 10 January 1944, causing considerable damage and casualties. Worried that the raids would continue, the Bulgarians ordered the immediate transfer of the l1st Armored Brigade away from the city area. The Brigade staff and the infantry regiment moved to Ichtiman, the artillery regiment to Vakarel, the armored regiment to Novihan and the antitank detachment, reconnaissance detachment and engineer battalion to Samokov. Most of the Skoda 35(t) and 38(t) tanks were towed to Novihan (25 km from Sofia) by the Pz. IVs. A number of bombs fell on the barracks occupied by the I Assault Gun Detachment, killing7 men. The Detachment was transferred to Novoselze (24 km southeast of Sofia), and shortly thereafter put to work cleansing the area of communist partisans. Meanwhile, the II Assault Gun Detachment, which had been formed at Khaskovo in December 1943, was busy training its new recruits. The Bulgarian assault gun detachments consisted of a headquarters, headquarters battery with two assault guns and three assault gun batteries of three platoons with two assault guns in each platoon. Each battery commander was also assigned an assault gun. The 1st Armored Brigade took in 400 reservists during January and February in an attempt to fill up its seriously under-strength armored regiment.
In February 1944, the Germans delivered to Bulgaria 19 Hotchkiss H-39 and 6 Somua S-35 tanks against the order for 25 Pz.Kpfw. I tanks, since the latter were unavailable. These tanks were turned over to police .and border units, rather than regular army formations, and were used in the limited anti-partisan war going on inside the country.
Training continued during the late winter and spring of 1944, and on 10 May, as part of a general decree for all units, the 1st Armored Brigade was ordered to bring itself to full war strength within 5 days. On 1 June, Gäde sent a condition report on the Brigade to OKW. The armored regiment was at 70 to 75% of its war strength, but there were significant shortages in technical personnel. All other Brigade units were at 80 to 90% of war strength. Additionally, 85% of the Pz. IV tanks were capable of employment, with the remainder repairable in 14 days. Only 15-20 of the Skoda tanks were serviceable due to a shortage of replacement parts. Of the motor vehicles, 85 to 90% were ready for use. The training condition of the men was judged to be weak to passable. It was Gäde’s opinion that the Brigade would not be ready for action before the end of July. The Brigade’s TO&E called for three armored infantry battalions and two motorcycle infantry companies, but there were only two of the former and one of the latter. On 14 June, a recommendation was made that Colonel Genov be immediately replaced as Brigade commander. The Germans believed that Genov, as a close personal friend of the dead Bulgarian King Boris III, had only acquired his position as commander through personal influence, and now that the King was dead could be safely removed. From the beginning, the Germans considered Genov unsuited to command the Brigade, even though he was a former cavalry officer. In their opinion he possessed little technical knowledge and often displayed a cool and reserved attitude toward his advisors from the German training mission.
Finally, on 12 August 1944, the Brigade’s armored regiment was declared fully trained and, in the opinion of the German training staff, “all of the hard work had been worthwhile and the Brigade is as well trained as can reasonably be expected.” Most of the German advisors were transferred elsewhere, leaving behind only a 13 man liaison command (D.V.K. 162) under a Lt. Irmscher.
German weapon deliveries to Bulgaria continued right on through the summer of' 1944, but as Bulgaria’s “friendship” with Germany began to rapidly deteriorate in August, these deliveries stopped. In late August two trains with weapons and equipment, six ammunition trains and a number of Pz. Is and IVs were en-route to Bulgaria. Only at the last minute, on 25 August, was this shipment diverted, being sent instead to needy German units in the Balkans.
Combat ready, the Brigade now became a source of considerable worry for the German command in Sofia. A top secret (Geheime Kommandosache/Chefsachen) plan was prepared to put the Bulgarian armored formations out of action by using a special unit called “Verband Collins”. The Collins formation had the task of preventing the Bulgarians from employing their tanks and assault guns against German troops. Verband “Collins” was composed of German armored vehicle instructors from the combat school at Niš, in Serbia. On being alerted at Niš, they were to proceed to the special German Army camp at Plovdiv in Bulgaria, then divide into four strike groups as follows:
1st Group - deploy in Plovdiv area against the II Assault Gun Detachment (25 StuG. IIIs),
2nd and 3rd Groups - deploy in Plovdiv and Pasardjik (Note: this is misspelled in the original document) against the 1st Armored Brigade (88 Pz. IVs),
4th Group - deploy in the Sofia area against the I Assault Gun Detachment (25 StuG. IIIs).
Orders were to take action against the armored vehicles by either removing critical parts or by destroying them. But events in early September moved so swiftly that plan “Collins” was never put into effect.
Part III: September 1944 - May 1945
Between 0700 and 1100 hours on 5 September 1944, the Bulgarian 1st Armored Brigade passed through the control point on the outskirts of Sofia headed for the Serbian border. Manning the control point were German military police belonging to 3rd Company of Feldgendarmerie Detachment 698 (mot. ) who counted 62 Pz. IVs, other tanks and armored cars, 835 trucks and command cars, some of which were towing artillery, 160 motorcycles and 4 fuel tankers. The Brigade took up positions a few kilometers outside Sofia along the Sofia-Niš road to block the movement of German forces in either direction. Germans were apprehended, disarmed and told to assemble at the German school in Sofia.
Bulgaria declared war on Germany during the late afternoon of 8 September 1944 and placed her armed forces at the disposal of Marshal F.I. Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front. During the next few weeks, the Bulgarian military was purged of royalist factions, including the replacement of most higher officers with those loyal to the new communist regime. General Trendafilov, a reserve officer who had taken part in overthrowing the pro-German government, became the new commander of the Armored Brigade.
The Brigade was assigned to the Bulgarian 2nd Army and ordered to take up positions along the Bulgarian-Serbian border, which was accomplished by nightfall on 28 September. The plan, as worked out between the Soviet, Bulgarian and Yugoslav forces, called for using the Bulgarian 1st, 2nd.and 4th Armies in an offensive against German units in the Leskovac-Niš area and in eastern Macedonia. To the north and west, Soviet and Partisan forces were to liberate Belgrade and drive the Germans out of central and northern Serbia.
The attack into Yugoslavia began on 28 September along a 600-kilometer front. As General K. Stanchev’s 2nd Bulgarian Army began advancing from its assembly area southwest of Pirot toward the Leskovac-Niš area, the Germans moved in the 7th SS Mountain Division “Prinz Eugen” and made it responsible for the defense of Niš from Zajecar in the north to Leskovac in the south. On 30 September, forward elements of the Bulgarian 2nd Army, along with Partisan units, defeated a mixed force of Chetniks and Serbian Frontier Guards and seized Vlasotince/14 km ESE of Leskovac.
During the first week of October, “Prinz Eugen” was able to muster enough manpower in Leskovac to launch a counterattack against Vlasotince, which was retaken on the 6th. With the attack on Niš temporarily stalled, the Bulgarian 2nd Army brought up the Armored Brigade and ordered it to break through at Vlasotince and at Bela Palanka further to the north. On 8 October, the Brigade entered action for the first time, pushing an artillery-supported tank spearhead into the German positions southeast of Bela Palanka. By mid-afternoon, the attack had been turned back by the 2nd Battalion of SS Regiment 13, and the Bulgarians withdrew their tanks.
During the 9th and l0th of October, the Bulgarians brought up reinforcements and regrouped. On the l0th, after extensive artillery preparation and attacks by fighter-bombers, the Bulgarian Armored Brigade struck the front with a 60 tank spearhead pushing through the German positions all the way to the banks of the Morava River. Vlasotince was recaptured by 21 Bulgarian tanks and supporting infantry after hard fighting. The Germans had several 5 cm antitank guns defending Vlasotince, and these were completely overrun by the Bulgarian tanks. The German infantry, 3rd Battalion/SS Regiment 13, were forced back to Ravna Dubrava after suffering heavy losses.
All along the front the Germans began pulling back toward Niš and the bridges leading to the west bank of the Morava. A combat group of the Armored Brigade with 12 Pz. IVs attacked German positions around Bela Palanka during the morning of the 12th, but lost 5 tanks in the process, two of which were destroyed by German 8.8cm Flak guns being used in an antitank role. Further to the southwest, the main body of the Armored Brigade was in support of the 15th Brigade of the Partisan 47th Division, which took Leskovac at 1100 hours on 12 October. The Armored Brigade’s reconnaissance battalion then crossed the Morava, followed late in the evening by the Brigade’s other units. Moving along the west bank of the Morava, the Brigade pushed through Brestovac and by the morning of the 14th was positioned on the heights overlooking the little village of Merosina where the 7th SS Division had just established its combat headquarters after evacuating Niš on the same day. The Brigade’s tanks and artillery opened fire and totally destroyed the closely parked vehicles belonging to “Prinz Eugen” as well as all of the village houses in which the Division’s staff were quartered. “Prinz Eugen” lost all of its staff vehicles as well as the divisional radio trucks. The Armored Brigade then sent its infantry forward into the village, but this attack was repulsed with heavy losses. As the day wore on, previously scattered units belonging to “Prinz Eugen” began arriving in the village and a counterattack was mounted. The Bulgarians were driven off and the Germans were able to withdraw to the northwest toward Kraljevo.
With the shattered remnants of the “Prinz Eugen” Division withdrawing across country to the northwest, the road was now open for the Armored Brigade and other Bulgarian 2nd Army units to begin the “liberation” of Kosovo, as called for in 3rd Ukrainian Front’s general plan. German Army Group E, withdrawing from Greece, knew that if an enemy breakthrough into Kosovo succeeded, the main evacuation route Skopje – Pristina – Mitrovica - Kraljevo would be severed and all German forces to the south would be cut off. With this threat in mind, Army Group E hastily assembled an improvised force under Colonel Langer, consisting of several infantry companies, a bicycle company, an antitank company and one horse-drawn artillery battery. Langer’s task was to block and hold the Prepolac Pass some 36 kilometers north of Pristina, thus preventing the Bulgarian Armored Brigade from driving into Kosovo and cutting the critical evacuation route.
Meanwhile, the Armored Brigade had moved southwest along the road Prokuplje-Kursumlija, arriving in the latter town on 17 October where it established its headquarters for the next few weeks. From Kursumlija, the Brigade sent its motorcycle reconnaissance companies to the south on the road to Rača, while the rest of the reconnaissance detachment, under Major Dimitrov with a total of 12 armored cars, was sent south on a parallel road toward Kuršumlijska Banja/18 km NNE of Podujevo. It was here at Kuršumlijska Banja that the Armored Brigade ran into Colonel Langer’s blocking force. Fighting broke out and an infantry regiment belonging to the Bulgarian 4th Division, which was supporting the Armored Brigade, was badly mauled. Their progress blocked, the Bulgarians moved their 6th Division forward by truck into this already congested area. But these reinforcements did not help. The Brigade could not move forward, nor could it move laterally because of the steep embankments along both sides of the road. Colonel Langer held his positions for three weeks, and in doing so postponed the Bulgarian advance into Kosovo which allowed the Germans enough time to make full use of the evacuation route.
The Armored Brigade renewed its attack on the German positions at Prepolac on 1 November, with the main effort commencing on the 3rd. On the 4th of November, the Bulgarian 4th Infantry Division broke through the German defensive positions at the adjacent Merdare Pass. The next day the Armored Brigade, which had managed with great difficulty to bring several tanks into action on the high ground around the Prepolac Pass, broke the defenses held by the German 734th Jäger Regiment and drove toward Podujevo with 60 tanks. The Brigade took Podujevo on the 5th, but lost a number of tanks to Luftwaffe Flak guns which were defending the town. Six of these knocked out tanks were observed the next day in the immediate vicinity of the train station. From Podujevo, the Brigade struck southwest along the road to Pristina in pursuit of the withdrawing German forces. Meeting unexpected resistance, the Brigade pulled back and went into readiness positions around Podujevo. Two spearheads were formed for simultaneous attacks in the direction of Pristina and Mitrovica, and for the next two weeks the Brigade made little progress. The Pristina spearhead lost 12 tanks in close combat with the German 16th Grenadier Regiment northwest of the town. On November 21st, the entire Brigade was assembled in Belopol/16 km north of Pristina and attacked and took the town. After taking Pristina, the Brigade moved northwest and assembled in Vucitrn/23 km NW of Pristina in preparation for the attack on Kosovska Mitrovica, which fell on the 22nd.
By early November, German intelligence had been able to interrogate a number of Bulgarian prisoners and examine captured documents. The Armored Brigade had commenced operations against their former German ally with the same organizational composition it had in July 1944, with only a few minor changes. The motorized infantry battalions were organized as follows:
I Infantry Battalion (mot.)
1st Heavy Machine Gun Company
3rd Infantry Company
6th Infantry Company
II Infantry Battalion (mot.)
2nd Heavy Machine Gun Company
4th Infantry Company
5th Infantry Company
III Infantry Battalion (mot.)
(served as a replacement battalion for the other two).
The heavy machine gun companies had two machine gun platoons, each equipped with four heavy machine guns. Each of the infantry companies had 165- 170 men, 9 light machine guns, 3 heavy machine guns, 12 machine pistols and 13 trucks to provide mobility. The engineer company had been increased to a battalion, with a mine detector platoon, an engineer assault platoon and a military bridge platoon. The Flak Detachment only had two batteries: one heavy and one light.
The liberation of Kos. Mitrovica signaled the end of operations in Yugoslavia for the Armored Brigade and for the other formations of the Bulgarian 2nd Army. Toward the end of November and during early December, the Bulgarian forces were assembled in liberated Serbia prior to their return home. On 7 December, a German Commander-in-Chief Southeast Enemy Situation map gave the following dispositions for Bulgarian forces in Yugoslavia:
2nd Army with:
8th Infantry Division
4th Infantry Division
6th Infantry Division
12th Infantry Division
24th Infantry Division (remnants)
26th Infantry Division (remnants)
I Assault Gun Detachment
South of Belgrade in Central Serbia
1st Army with:
1st Guards Infantry Division
2nd Guards Infantry Division
2nd Cavalry Division
1st Infantry Division
2nd Infantry Division
10th Infantry Division
14th Infantry Division
29th Infantry Division
II Assault Gun Detachment
Between 17 September and 23 October 1944, the Bulgarian Armored Brigade lost 47 tanks, including 30 left behind due to breakdowns during the road march in mid-October from the Niš area to Kursumlija. More tanks were lost in the attack on Podujevo and another 12 near Pristina. However, the total loss for the Brigade through 22 November 1944 is not known.
Another unknown quantity concerns the use of the two Bulgarian assault gun detachments, although on 28 October the II Assault Gun Detachment was in support of the Bulgarian 6th Infantry Regiment in action against the Luftwaffe 11th Field Division. Nothing further is known.
The employment of Bulgarian armor in the closing months of the war remains unclear. What is known is that during January 1945 the Bulgarian 1st Army was assembled in southwest Hungary and deployed along the Drava River. At the end of February the Bulgarians had one tank battalion in reserve to this army. The battalion was equipped with 35 Skoda, Praga and Maybach/4 tanks, of which 25 were serviceable.
There seems little doubt that this battalion was from the Armored Brigade, but it is not officially identified as such. On 6 March, the German 2nd Panzer Army launched a major offensive against Bulgarian units on the north bank of the Drava River as part of Operation “Frühlingserwacht”, Germany’s last big attack of the war and an attempt to recapture the Hungarian oil area to the southeast of Lake Balaton. In the vicinity of Donji Miholjac, the Bulgarian 3rd Infantry Division was driven back, but the next day General V.M. Lubenov regrouped his forces, which had been reinforced by the tank battalion and an infantry regiment from 1st Army reserves. With the tank battalion at the point, Lubenov counterattacked on 7 March against the combined forces of the German 104th Jäger Division and the 297th Infantry Division. The tanks made some initial progress, but five were soon knocked out in close combat with German infantry and the counterattack ended in failure. Over the next few days the Soviets brought up their 133rd Corps (two divisions), and the front was quickly stabilized in this area. The Bulgarian tank component remained with the 1st Army to the end of the war, but apparently did not again participate in significant operations.
The OKH Lagekarte for 26 April 1945 shows the Armored Brigade in the line between the Bulgarian l0th and 12th Infantry Divisions, as part of 1st Army’s III Corps, opposite the German 13th SS Mountain Division “Handschar” about 25 km north of Varaždin. Situation maps for: the period 1-15 April for the same area do not show the Armored Brigade, so it is possible that the Brigade's main body did not join the single tank battalion until the second half of April.
At least it can be said that the Bulgarian Armored Brigade, for all its problems with training in 1943 and the firrst half of 1944, did see a fair amount of action in Serbia during October and November 1944. The Brigade never had to face an enemy armored unit, and for this reason it was probably never really put to the test, but it was feared, and greatly so, by the German infantry in the valleys and mountains of Serbia and Kosovo in the fall of 1944.
Microfilmed German military records in possession of the U.S. National Archives:
Microcopy T-77, roll 883 (OKW records), frames 5631963 and 9270.
Microcopy T-78, roll 450 (Fremde Heere West records), frame 6426548.
Microcopy T-78, roll 459 (Fremde Heere Ost records), frames 6437275-305.
Microcopy T-311, roll 185 (Army Group E and F records), frame 650 and daily report entries for 5-22 November 1944.
Microcopy T-311, roll 186 (Army Group E and F records), frames 846, 884, 912, 989 and 1035.
Microcopy T-311, roll 189 (Army Group E and F records), frames 823, 1205 and 1313.
Microcopy T-311, roll 196 (Army Group E and F records), frames 456 and 760.
Microcopy T501, roll 293 (German Military Mission-Bulgaria records), frames 002-278.
Microcopy T-501, roll 294 (German Military Mission-Bulgaria records), frames 487, 490-91 and 528.
Microcopy T-501, roll 295 (German Military Mission-Bulgaria records), frames 519-51.
Microcopy T-501, roll 353 (German Military Mission-Bulgaria records), various frames.
Bajtos, Ivan. “Bulgarian AFV 1934- 1944”. Unpublished manuscript.
Gosztony, Peter. “Der Krieg zwischen Bulgarien und Deutschland 1944/45”, in: Wehrwissenschaftliche Rundschau, January 1967.
Hoppe, Hans-Joachim. Hitlers eigenwilliger Verbündeter. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1979. Pages 67, 134,167,179, 201, 209, 221 and 234.
Grechko, A.A. (ed. ). Liberation Mission of the Soviet Armed Forces in the Second World War. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975. Pages 166-208.
Kumm, Otto. Vorwärts Prinz Eugen: Geschichte der 7. SS-Freiwilligen-Division “Prinz Eugen”. Osnabrück: Munin-Verlag, 1978. Pages 256-94.
Mitrovski, Boro, Venceslav Glišić and Tomo Ristovski. The Bulgarian Army in Yugoslavia 1941-1945. Belgrade: Medunarodna Politika, 1971. Pages 215-56.
Schmidt-Richberg, Erich. Der Endkampf auf dem Balkan. Heidelberg: Scharnhorst Buchkameradschaft, 1955. Pages 48-50, 65, 75, 78 and 102.
AppendicesArmored Fighting Vehicles acquired by Bulgaria 1934-1944
Italian Fiat-Ansaldo L3/33 Tankette
14 purchased from Italy in 1934 and delivered during the first half of 1935.
British Vickers 6-ton Mark E Tank
8 ordered from England on 16 September 1936. 4 delivered on 4 January 1938 and 4 on 25 July 1938.
Czech. Skoda Lt-35 (Pz.Kpfw. 35(t)) Tank
26 delivered in February 1940.
10 more delivered in the summer of 1940, these having been produced for Afghanistan as the model S-II-a (T-11).
French Renault R-35 Light Tank.
40 delivered in April 1941.
Czech. Praga Pz.Kpfw. 38(t) Light Tank
10 delivered in 1943 against an order for 16. By 15 July 1944, the balance of 6 had still not been delivered.
German Sd.Kfz. 222 Light Armored Car
5 delivered in early 1943. 8 delivered during the second half of 1943.
German Sd.Kfz. 223 Light Armored Car
7 delivered during the second half of 1943.
German Pz.Kpfw. IV (lang) Medium Tank
The original arrangement in January 1943 called for Germany to deliver a total of 12, but this was changed in late March/early April 1943 to a total of 43 and then again in the fall of 1943 to 91. Up to 3 September 1943, a total of 46 had been delivered. 42 more were delivered during 1944 for a total of 88.
German StuG. III L/48 Assault Gun
The original arrangement in January 1943 called for Germany to deliver a total of 20, but this was later changed to 55. Up to 31 December 1943, 25 had been delivered, and 30 more were delivered during 1944.
French Hotchkiss H-39 Light Tank
19 delivered in February 1944.
French Somua S-35 Medium Tank
6 delivered in February 1944.
Bulgarian Armored Brigade 1 July 1944
with escort section (mot.)
Armored HQ Company (mot.), with signal and engineer platoons
Armored Repair Company (mot.)
I Tank Battalion
Medium Tank Company, 15 x Pz. IV
Medium Tank Company, 15 x Pz. IV
Light Tank Company, 16 x Skoda Pz. 35(t)
II Tank Battalion
(as I Battalion)
III Tank Battalion
Medium Tank Company, 15 x Pz. IV
Medium Tank Company, 15 x Pz. IV
Light Tank Company, 16 x Praga Pz. 38(t)
Infantry Regiment (mot.)
HQ Company (mot.), with signal, engineer and motorcycle platoons
I Infantry Battalion (mot.), with signal platoon (mot.)
Infantry Company, with 9 x light MG, 2 x heavy MG
Infantry Company, with 9 x light MG, 2 x heavy MG
Infantry Company, with 9 x light MG, 2 x heavy MG
Heavy Weapons Company
Mortar Platoon, with 4 x 8cm mortars
Antitank Platoon, with 3 x 5cm antitank guns
Machine Gun Platoon, with 8 x light MG, 1 x heavy MG
II Infantry Battalion (mot.)
(as I Battalion)
III Infantry Battalion (mot.)
(as I Battalion)
Armored Reconnaissance Battalion
with signal platoon
Armored Car Company, with 18 x armored cars (Sd.Kfz. 222 and 223)
2 Motorcycle Rifle Companies, each with 18 x light MG and 4 x heavy MG
Heavy Weapons Company (mot.)
Mortar Platoon, with 4 x 8cm mortars
Antitank Platoon, with 3 x 3.7cm antitank guns
Armored Repair Company
Armored Artillery Regiment
HQ Battery, with observation and signal platoons
I Armored Artillery Battalion, with signal platoon (mot.)
3 Light Artillery Batteries (mot.), each with 4 x 10.5cm howitzers and 2 x heavy MG
II Armored Artillery Battalion, with signal platoon (mot.)
2 Heavy Artillery Batteries (mot.), each with 4 x 15cm howitzers and 2 x heavy MG
Antitank Detachment (mot.)
with signal platoon (mot.)
2 Antitank Companies (mot.), each with 9 x 5cm antitank guns and 3 x light MG
Heavy Antitank Company (mot.), with 6 x 7.5cm antitank guns and 3 x light MG
Flak Detachment (mot.)
with signal platoon (mot.)
Heavy Flak Battery, with 6 x 8.8cm guns, 2 x light MG
Medium Flak Battery, with 9 x 3.7cm guns, 2 x light MG, 1 x heavy MG
Light Flak Battery, with 12 x 2cm guns, 4 x light MG
Engineer Battalion (mot.)
with signal platoon (mot.)
2 Engineer Companies, each with 9 x light MG
Military Bridge Company (94 meters, 16-ton capacity), with 8 x light MG
Signal Company (mot.)
Ordnance Company (mot.)
Rations and Pay Company (mot.)
Motor Transport Repair Company (mot.)
Medical Company (mot.)
Field Hospital Section (mot.)
Ambulance Section, with 12 ambulances
Military Police Company (mot.)
Field Post Office Section (mot.)
3 Medium Motor Transport Sections, with a 60-ton capacity each
Light Motor Transport Section, with a 40-ton capacity
Total Brigade Strength: 9,340 officers, NCOs and men.
Total Weapon Strength:
8 heavy field howitzers
12 light field howitzers
27 Flak (antiaircraft) guns
36 antitank guns
192 heavy machine guns
378 light machine guns
245 machine pistols
[Special Note: this article was originally published in several parts in Tankette Magazine (Romford, Essex, England) in 1986.]