After the liberation of Niš and Belgrade in October 1944, the withdrawal of the German Army Group “E” from Greece, in the direction of Thessaloniki-Skopje-Niš-Belgrade, was prevented. As the only possible direction of retreat from Greece remained through the valley of the Ibar and Western Morava, Kraljevo gained a very important strategic position. As a result of such a development of the situation, the German commander of the Southeast issued an order ordering the decisive defense of Kragujevac, Kraljevo and Čačak. The command over the defense of the bridgehead, called Kraljevački, was entrusted to Lieutenant-General Friedrich Wilhelm Müller, after whom the entire army group, which numbered 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers, was named. The most important task in the defense of the Kraljevo bridgehead was given to the notorious “Prince Eugene” division.

The 223rd Division of the 68th Corps, the 3rd Ukrainian Front of the Red Army, and the 2nd Proletarian Division of the 14th Corps of the National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia took part in the battles for the liberation of Kraljevo, on the side of the liberators, made up of: the 4th Montenegrin Brigade, the 3rd and 6th Serbian Brigades, and the newly established 2nd detachment “Jovan Kursula” composed mainly of local residents. The total number of the National Liberation Army of Yougoslavia units that participated in the battles around the Kraljevo was about 5,700 fighters.

The first battles for the Kraljevo bridgehead began on October 16th, 1944, with less intense skirmishes of the “Prince Eugen” SS division with units of the 3rd Serbian Brigade of the National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia near the town of Čukojevac, ten kilometers east of Kraljevo. Clashes of significant momentum began on October 22nd, when the General Staff of the National Liberation Army and Partisan Detachments of Serbia ordered that the 23rd Division be immediately sent to the Kraljevo sector with the task of carrying out an attack together with units of the Red Army and the 2nd Proletarian Division.

Intense fighting lasted until November 2nd, but vital traffic communications for the evacuation of Army Group “E” remained under German control, primarily because the bridgehead was very well fortified. In addition, the Red Army did not act as ambitiously as the Germans had predicted towards the German bridgehead. The bulk of the Red Army’s personnel and fighting forces remained in the operation to liberate Belgrade, and then all its units, except for the 68th Rifle Corps, were moved to the Budapest-Vienna direction. At the same time, the center of gravity of combat operations of the National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia units was transferred to the Srem Front.

After the successful withdrawal of the main part of the German Army Group “E” from Macedonia and from Kosovo and Metohija, the Kraljevo bridgehead lost its importance after November 17th, 1944. Already on November 25th, German troops began an organized withdrawal and systematic demolition of military, economic and traffic facilities from the wider area of Kraljevo. However, the plans were delayed and slowed down as the high water level west of Čačak destroyed the bridge. The German retreat from Kraljevo itself began on November 27th. That day and the following day, battles were fought on the approaches to the city, and in the evening of November 28th, the liberators reached the right bank of the Ibar, while Red Army units provided intensive artillery support. In the night between November 28th and 29th, the liberators forded the Ibar River and entered the abandoned city. After a little more than forty days of mostly heavy fighting led by the National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia units in cooperation with Red Army troops.

Darko Gučanin
historian, archivist
Director of the National Museum Kraljevo

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