10th 1941, during the German invasion of Yugoslavia, part of the land it
claimed was the former Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia-Herzegovina
(Bosna i Hercegovina). The province was an ethnic and religious mix, with a
portion of the population being Catholic Croatian, a portion being Orthodox
Serbian, and a portion being Croatians of the Muslim faith. It was these
Muslim inhabitants of Bosnia that Himmler and the SS would target in their
recruitment of a Croatian SS Division (although a portion of the future
division's men would be Catholic Croatian as well).
The reasons for the recruitment in particular of Croatian Muslims by the SS
were many-fold. For one, Himmler was fascinated by the Islamic faith, and
thought Muslims to be fearless soldiers. Himmler also subscribed to the
propaganda theory that Croatians (and therefore the Croatian Muslims) were
not, in fact, Slavic people, but actually of Aryan (Gothic) descent, and
thereby acceptable to the racially "pure" SS. The fact that this ludicrous
theory would not hold up to any kind of serious scrutiny was conveniently
ignored. Finally, the Germans were hoping to rally the World's 350 million
Muslims to their side, in a struggle against the British Empire. The
creation of a Muslim, albeit European Muslim Division, was considered a
stepping stone to this greater end. Adolf Hitler approved of Himmler's idea on February 13th 1943. Prior to the
formation of the division, however, approval also had to be granted by the
Croatian government, as their citizens were to be recruited, and on Croatian
territory. The Croatian Poglavnik, Ante Pavelic, and his ministers had many
problems with the idea, but eventually agreed to the division's creation on
March 5th 1943. The divisional strength reached the required 26,000 men by
mid 1943, though not all men were volunteers (some being begged, bribed and outright kidnapped into service). Also, 2,800 of the men were Catholic
Croatians and not Muslim.
The new division was assigned the number "13", and originally named the "13
SS Frei.Gebirgs Division (kroatien). The full name "13
Waffen-Gebirgs-Division der SS 'Handschar' (kroatische Nr. 1)" was not given
until May, 1944. A "Handschar" (or Handzar in Croatian) is curved Turkish
sword - the Scimitar. This sword has historically been the symbol of Bosnia.
The Division was to have 2 Infantry Regiments (Waffen-Gebirgs-Jager
Regiments der SS 27 & 28 - kroatisches Nrs. 1 & 2), an Artillery Regiment
(SS-Gebirgs-Artillerie Regiment 13), a Reconnaisance Company, a Panzerjager
Company, a Flak Company, a Pioneer Battalion, and other support units; and
was designated an SS "mountain" division. The first commander (from March 9,
1943 till August 1, 1943) was SS Standartenfuhrer Herbert von Obwurzer.
Oberfuhrer (later Brigadefuhrer) Karl-Gustav Sauberzweig took over till June
1st 1944, when Desiderius Hampel (Oberfuhrer, later Brigadefuhrer) replaced
him. Hampel commanded the remnants of the division until its surrender on
May 8th 1945.
The uniform worn by the division was regular SS issue, with a divisional
collar patch showing an arm, holding a Scimitar, over a Swastika. On the
left arm was a Croatian armshield (red-white chessboard). Headgear was the
Muslim Fez, in field grey (normal service) or red ("walking out"), with the
SS eagle and death's head emblazoned. Non-Muslim members could opt to wear
the normal SS mountain cap. The oval mountain troop Edelweiss patch was worn
on the right arm.
The division departed for training in occupied France, where the full
complement arrived by September 1943. It was at Villefranche, during this
period of training, that the division became the only SS Division to mutiny.
Much has been made of this, however, while it is true that some German
officers were killed during the mutiny, the fact is that only very few
soldiers participated in the uprising. Fault can be squarely placed on 3
Communists, infiltrated into the ranks of the division, and a handfull of
malcontents. Not only did a great majority of the troops not participate in
the rebellion, but most either had no idea it was happening, or actively
helped to quash it. 14 soldiers were executed as mutineers.
By mid-February 1944, the division finished its training (some time was
spent at Neuhammer, Germany for training), and was sent back to Bosnia for
active service (against Communist Partisans). Its area of operation was
northeastern Bosnia, western Serbia, and southern Sirmium. The division
participated in several anti-Partisan operations (such as "Wegweiser",
"Save", "Osterei", "Maibaum", "Maiglockchen" etc.). Some successes were
achieved, and overall the "Handschar" showed itself as a competent
With the penetration of the Red Army up to the Croatian borders in late
1944, the Division was trasfered to southern Hungary, and became involved in
front-line fighting. Desertions plagued the Division from this point on, as
many of the Muslims decided to return to Bosnia to protect their homes and
families. The men who remained contiuned to fight valiantly against
overwhelming odds, and were slowly pushed westward out of Hungary into
Austria. The remnants of the division surrendered to British troops on May
In conclusion, one must say that the "Handschar" Division was certainly not
a top-of-the line, elite SS unit. However, when engaged in the areas and
battles its men were promised to fight in (that is, in Bosnia, against
Communist forces) the division fought well. Certainly, the majority of
claims in much of the WW2 literature that the "Handschar" was "bad, prone to
attrocities" etc, as claims by authors who have not studied the subject
fully, but rather parrot one another without proper research.
Men of the "Handschar" won 5 Knight's Crosses, 5 Crosses in Gold, and 1 Cross in Silver.
(Thanks to Mr. D.O for the text.)