Clash at Poljana – The WW2 Battle That Was Fought A Week After VE Day

When the Second World War ended, Germany's Balkan allies fled north to British occupied territory in Austria. Yugoslavian forces intercepted them along the border and a two day battle ensued. The clash took place nearly a week after Germany's surrender.

When the Second World War ended, many of Germany’s Balkan allies fled north to British occupied Austria. Yugoslavian forces intercepted them along the border and a two day battle ensued. The clash took place on May 14, 1945 — nearly a week after Germany’s surrender.

Last January, 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.

Poljana sits just south of the Austrian border in present-day Slovenia.

Poljana sits just south of the Austrian border in present-day Slovenia.

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.

7 comments for “Clash at Poljana – The WW2 Battle That Was Fought A Week After VE Day

  1. 9 October, 2013 at 10:23 am

    Poljana was more of a massacre than a battle, and in that regard a fitting continuation of the extreme brutality that had marked most of the internecine conflict in Yugoslavia.
    No-one had clean hands: definitely not the Ustashi; nor the Chetniks; but also not the Partisans. Yet western Allies had managed to convince themselves that Tito’s Partisans were the “good guys” who had done all of the anti-Fascist fighting, and that everyone else had collaborated with the Fascists. It was a very big and successful lie, deliberately spread by highly-placed Communist traitors in Britain’s MI6 and the hundreds of Soviet agents infesting FDR’s departments of State, Treasury and the OSS.
    Yes, it’s true that the Chetniks had eventually begun to collaborate with the Fascist occupation forces in some instances: but only after Britain’s Cambridge traitors had succeeded in getting all aid diverted from them to the Partisans, and after the Partisans had used those British weapons to concentrate on attacking Chetniks instead of Fascists.
    The desperate thousands trying to flee into Austria were not, for the most part, pro-Axis. They simply knew from bitter experience that Tito’s word could not be trusted, and that they would be murdered if they failed to escape from Yugoslavia.

    • 9 October, 2013 at 10:53 am

      Thanks so much for that. So, based on what you write, it would be inappropriate possibly even unfair to consider the Battle (or massacre) at Poljana as a part of World War Two per se. Instead it should be seen as a tragedy in the ongoing ethnic turmoil that marked a great deal of Balkan history.

  2. 9 October, 2013 at 11:54 am

    Whether to consider Poljana as part of WW2, or as part of the ongoing ethnic turmoil in Balkan history? I don’t think those are mutually exclusive compartments. The fracturing of Yugoslav society existed long before WW2, and of course remained (though forcibly suppressed) throughout Tito’s reign, to resurface with a bloody vengeance in the 1990’s. Yet the prolonged savagery in Yugoslavia 1941-45, culminating in the tragedy at Poljana, probably could only have happened in the context of Hitler’s destruction of the Yugoslav monarchy. And only the ideological passions released and fueled by WW2 could have led a Croat, Tito, to align himself with Serbs to unleash such bloodthirsty revenge on his own kith and kin (because most of those trying to flee at Poljana were Croats and Slovenes).
    But those are just my first reactions. There’s a book, “Shadows on the Mountain” by Marcia Kurapovna, waiting for me on my Kindle. Unfortunately, it is 3rd in line on my current to-read list. But it may just throw some fresh light onto this turgid tragedy. If so, I’ll add another comment.
    Thanks again for your most enjoyable blog: much appreciated.

  3. 2 December, 2013 at 7:28 pm

    Interesting comments indeed. Nevertheless, thousands more of this Earth perished. For that, I have remorse.

  4. Veritas
    31 July, 2015 at 12:19 am

    The West’s brutality in turning over POWs to those who would give them a bullet in the back of the head demonstrated the ack of understanding of their “allies.” It also helps to explain their inability to cope with enemies during the cold war and today.

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