Last January, MHN.com published an article about a series of battles from history that were fought after the opposing sides had already agreed to suspend hostilities.
The piece included such dust ups as the Battle of New Orleans, which was waged between British redcoats and American troops in January 1815 — two weeks after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent. Then there was the Battle of Palmito Ranch – the final clash of the American Civil War that raged three days after the South had formally capitulated. Ironically, the skirmish ended in a Confederate victory.
One story that escaped us was a little-known yet surprisingly bloody clash at Poljana in modern-day Slovenia.
The forgotten fight between several thousand Axis troops and Yugoslav partisans stands out largely because it began on May 14, 1945 – a full six days after Germany’s complete and unconditional surrender to the Allies. interestingly, it unfolded amid (indeed because of) the bloodbath that marked the fall of Yugoslavia’s collaborationist regime.
By early May, the pro-Nazi puppet government in Zagreb had fallen placing the whole of Yugoslavia in the hands of the communist partisans. When word of the war’s end spread, contingents of Wehrmacht troops along with pro-Axis Croats, Chetniks, Slovenian and Montenegrins staged a mass retreat northwards from Yugoslavia towards the relative safety of Austria. The Balkan theatre had been a particularly brutal front — with peace at hand, Axis collaborators found themselves at the mercy of the partisan armies. The British on the other had, who most hoped might be more magnanimous in victory, were stationed just beyond Yugoslavia’s northern frontier.
Despite assurances by the partisan leader turned Yugoslavian ruler Marshal Tito that legitimate POWs would be treated humanely, suspected collaborators and war criminals were already being hunted down and massacred by the thousands in the streets and countryside throughout the Balkans.
Amid the turmoil, a force of 90,000 pro-Nazi troops and civilians banded together and made good their escape — their objective: the protection of Britain’s V Corps. Tens of thousands had already streamed into the former Third Reich and turned themselves over to the western Allies. More were on the way.
In order to stem the exodus, Yugoslavian army units rushed into the area with orders to seal the border and cut off the enemy’s escape.
On the morning of May 14, nearly a week after the official end of the war in Europe, a mixed column of German troops and their Balkans allies (as many as 30,000 in all) smashed through a cordon thrown up at the town of Poljana by Tito’s forces. The two armies clashed long into the night — the partisans responded to the onslaught with an artillery bombardment. More than 350 Axis troops were killed in the enfilade; Yugoslav casualties were estimated to be 100.
By the following morning, the partisans were reinforced by a column of 20 British tanks; the fugitives sought terms.
After a brief parlay in which the former Nazis were assured by the English that they would enjoy no special protection in Austria, the remaining Croats, Chetniks and others surrendered unconditionally to their estranged countrymen. It didn’t end there. Britain, which had already taken tens of thousands of other pro-Axis Yugoslavian troops into custody, handed the rest of their prisoners over at gunpoint to the Yugoslav forces at Bleiburg.
Thousands were massacred on the spot by the partisans; those that survived were marched off to detention camps. Thousands more died en route.
The event, known as the Bleiburg tragedy, stands as a bloody endnote to the wider calamity that was the Second World War.