Tito and his partisan forces, numbering about 200,000 men, were becoming an increasing problem for the Germans and their allies so in 1944 a seventh major operation was launched to eliminate him and his forces. Codenamed Operation Rösselsprung, it was the biggest and most concerted anti-Tito German operation of the war.
The plan was to destroy Tito and the core of the partisan leadership through a surprise and intense attack by elite German units followed up by ground troops. German military intelligence was able to decipher partisan transmissions and to detect Allied air markings in Drvar, and consequently could amass where Tito’s base was located without directly pinning down the location of his cave outside of the town. He was believed to have been surrounded by 350 personal guards and a wider group of 800 partisans. In the surrounding area were an additional 12-16,000 men.
Through his own network of spies and informers Tito soon learnt of the German plans and he began strengthening his own defences.
This is how the attack unfolded:
25 MAY 1944:
Shelling started. Germans dropped 600 elite paratroopers into the vicinity of Tito’s hideout, backed up by ground troops mainly from of the 7th SS Panzerdivison “Prinz Eugen”, in a bid to encircle the partisans. Luftwaffe planes provided air support.
During the drop, the paratroopers sustained heavy fire from small guns and many were killed as the gliders missed their intended landing zones or crashed. Those who survived made their way to the centre of Drvar, where the whole town picked up arms to fight. However, superior weapons and training meant the Germans eventually gained control of the town.
Germans troops were attacked on their flank by members of the Young Communist League of Yugoslavia, who had finished a conference in Drvar the day before and remained in the area. Though armed with pistols and a few rifles, the youths engaged the paratroopers. A mile away another group of 130 students also joined the battle and while they suffered heavy losses their actions were enough to hold up the Germans.
With Drvar largely secured, German troops, armed with photos of Tito, went door to door in search of news of his whereabouts.
Heavy defensive fire at the foot of the hills made German commanders realise that something important was being defended, so all efforts were redirected to a cave where Tito and 20 of his key staff had taken refuge. The Germans got within 50m of the cave entrance but were repelled, suffering heavy casualties. As the Germans regrouped for another attack on the cave, the partisans in the surrounding areas counter-attacked and the close combat prevented the Luftwaffe from being effective.
Tito and his small group began their escape from the cave by climbing down a rope through a trapdoor in the platform at the mouth of the cave. The group split up and following a creek leading away from the Unac, the small groups climbed the heights to the east and withdrew toward the village of Potoci.
More German paratroopers were dropped in and another assault was made on the cave. However, with intensive resistance from partisan troops and both sides taking heavy casualties the attack was again repelled.
The German officer in charge ordered a general retreat to the town’s cemetery. He was wounded by a grenade blast and had to be flown out via the aircraft that was supposed to fly out the captured Tito. At roughly the same time, his partisan counterpart in Drvar, was also wounded by German machine gun fire.
The Germans had consolidated their position in the cemetery, although they were surrounded by the partisans.
Escorted by elements of the 3rd Krajina Brigade, Tito made his way to Potoci, where he linked up with a battalion of the 1st Proletarian Brigade. Also at Potoci, he met staff of the Allied military missions, who possessed the only surviving radio. Tito had been in favour of continuing the attack on the SS paratroopers, but after realising that German ground forces were attempting to encircle the area he changed his plans and reorganised his forces accordingly. For his part, Tito and his companions were then escorted towards Kupres.
The final partisan attack was launched against the cemetery, breaching the walls in several places, but the paratroopers held on.
German warplanes attacked the partisan troops withdrawing from Drvar. Ground forces also moved in.
German ground forces arrived in Drvar and relieved the 500th SS Parachute Battalion.
Tito, his staff and his escort continued toward Kupres, travelling on foot and horseback, as well as on the wagons of a narrow-gauge logging railway. During this trek, one of the members of the Soviet mission was wounded by shellfire.
The Germans re-organised their forces and concentrated a ground operation on the area where Tito and two partisan corps headquarters (1st Proletarian and 5th) were believed to be hiding out. Tito, however, was gone.
Tito escaped with British help to Bari and could continue his movement, after a short interruption, from Vis. Operation Rösselsprung only briefly interrupted Tito’s insurgency, but had no effect on the direction of the insurgency as a whole. While the operational victory can be seen on the German side in penetrating the area and “clearing” the ground and capturing some material, strategically Tito created a myth of invincibility by surviving the raid that was aimed at capturing or killing him.