History

The Magnificent Seven who Captured a Country

On 17 April 1941, Yugoslavia surrendered to Germany. The nation’s capital Belgrade had been single-handedly taken by Waffen-SS Captain Fritz Klingenberg and a squad of just six men five days earlier.

The highly unorthodox assault was a product of the military judgment, audacious courage and sheer luck of Waffen SS Captain Fritz Klingenberg. A 28-year-old graduate of the Bad Tölz officers’ academy, Klingenberg had gained a reputation as a headstrong, somewhat abrasive character.

During the French campaign the previous year, his former company commander had said of him, ‘Klingenberg is intelligent yet headstrong, loyal yet not above correcting his superiors, brilliant under pressure, yet arrogant to the point of insubordination.’

Klingenberg never boasted of his accomplishments. When later asked by students at Bad Tölz how he had captured the capital of a country, he simply said, ‘I was not too preoccupied at the time, and found something to do.’

Klingenberg had served his entire career in the elite 2nd Waffen SS Panzer Division Das Reich. The invasion of France had been his baptism of fire. He was awarded the Iron Cross Second Class for heroism during that action.

His platoon was pinned down by machine-gun fire when a Panzerkampfwagen Mark II light tank that had been supporting them struck a mine. The crew was trapped in the burning vehicle and raked by machine-gun fire. While his men rescued the tankers, Klingenberg raced across 100 meters of open ground, taking out the three-man French position with grenades. He did not receive so much as a scratch.

Because he always emerged unharmed from his many flirtations with death and court-martial, his men began to call him the Magician.

Klingenberg also gained a reputation as a first-class scrounger. Whatever his men needed, ammunition, food, water, etc. he managed to furnish. Klingenberg even held a school for scroungers, teaching men to steal essentials for survival.

Soon after arriving in Yugoslavia, he was promoted to captain and given command of a motorcycle reconnaissance unit, which was responsible for gathering intelligence quickly and maintaining communications with rear units. His men held the division record for complaints and theft reports. In fact, they were called Klingenberg’s criminals. But the Magician had taught them well for no allegations against his men were ever proved.

On one occasion, Klingenberg’s unit was to be inspected by the division for vehicle serviceability and to pass, he had to produce an additional dozen serviceable motorcycles. He found himself about six short, so he sent his men out on a foraging mission and they managed to collect the required equipment.

The only problem was that they ended up with six machines too many, freshly painted to hide their previous ownership. Klingenberg’s commanding officer turned a blind eye to the discrepancy. He did, however, inform Klingenberg that he was not willing to hang for the activities of his subordinate, and asked the captain to please be more careful.

Klingenberg’s next mission in Yugoslavia was to reconnoitre ahead of the main armoured unit, scouting for enemy activity and marking roads or obstacles on maps. Those intelligence-gathering missions were crucial for a successful German thrust into the region.

Although Belgrade was marked for capture, the bulk of Das Reich was tied up fighting rear-guard actions and trying to push through Yugoslavia’s narrow mountain passes. Meanwhile, the rest of the German army was so far behind that they were not even using the same maps. Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to bomb Belgrade prior to the final drive into the capital. Most of the government officials fled, and the Yugoslav army began to collapse.

On April 11, Klingenberg’s instructions were to reconnoitre and establish checkpoints, secure bridges and roads encountered, and then hold for reinforcements. Due to sabotage, the main avenues of approach to Belgrade were no longer viable routes. After several hours of observing the stricken city from across the Danube River, Klingenberg believed that Belgrade was his for the taking provided his unit arrived in time. He had only 24 hours to submit a report to his command, and a decision had to be made quickly.

Klingenberg saw a chance to probe more deeply into the city’s environs when one of his men found an abandoned motorboat tied to a tree along the banks of the swollen Danube. Taking only one sergeant and five privates, he negotiated the treacherous river. The trip was extremely dangerous, the currents raging from the runoff of melting snow in the mountains and from torrential rains.

The boat was overloaded, as well. Reaching the far side of the Danube, Klingenberg sent two men back to ferry more troops over before sunset. On the return trip, however, the boat struck a submerged obstacle and sank. Klingenberg’s Navy ceased to exist, leaving the captain and six of his men stranded. They were totally isolated, with limited supplies and ammunition.

The squad advanced along the road and encountered a few British-made vehicles manned by Yugoslav soldiers. They captured two trucks and a bus, along with some 20 enemy soldiers.

One of the men on the bus was an intoxicated German tourist who had been trapped in Belgrade since the invasion started. The tourist, who spoke Croatian, had been apprehended as a spy by the Yugoslav soldiers and was being taken to be executed. He was still drunk and unaware of his impending fate. When he sobered up, he thought that he was still among his group of partygoers until he was informed of the situation. Klingenberg used him as an interpreter, in which capacity the grateful German was most helpful.

The SS men continued on, using their prisoners and a few captured uniforms to get past several enemy checkpoints. They made good progress the first day without any of the enemy checkpoint guards becoming suspicious.

The Germans added the Yugoslav guards to the increasing number of prisoners they were collecting along the way. The population of Belgrade, after several days of bombing, was anticipating a long siege rather than an attack, and the lax security that Klingenberg encountered played directly into his hands.

Upon entering the outskirts of the city, the Germans became involved in a two-hour running firefight. They finally drove their captured vehicles into the city with many wounded prisoners aboard, including the hapless tourist. Miraculously, none of the SS men was wounded in the fight. They ended up in the city centre, all alone and surrounded by a wide-eyed, bewildered population.

The only SS casualty in Belgrade thus far was a private who had fallen and sprained his wrist. The Germans were amazed to find that no one attacked them in the city. The civilians went about their daily business as if nothing had happened.

Klingenberg ordered Sergeant Hans Hossfelder to raise the German colours, replacing the Yugoslavian national flag with the German ensign shortly after 5 p.m. on April 12. Under Klingenberg’s orders, his men began to strut about the city on patrol, giving the inhabitants the unmistakable impression that they were in charge.

The mayor of Belgrade came up to the Germans, complete with his entourage of city officials and in proper ceremonial dress. After asking what was going on, he inquired about the terms of surrender.

Klingenberg told the mayor that his was the point team of several SS tank divisions, and if he did not check in with his unit by radio with the information requested, the Luftwaffe would continue their attempts to level the city. He also said that the air attacks would be followed by an artillery barrage and armoured and infantry attacks that would spare no one.

The handful of troops looked at their leader as if he was mad. Their radio was damaged and could not transmit, only receive; their unit was a considerable distance away, and they were out of ammunition and food. Sergeant Hossfelder later told his captain that he was in the wrong business, adding that the Propaganda Ministry could surely find a use for him.

The mayor fell for the ruse, and after an hour-long conversation with Klingenberg, he began the necessary arrangements for the surrender of the city. Then, as if on cue, a group of German aircraft flew over the city on a reconnaissance mission, and Klingenberg took advantage of the moment. He looked up, pointing to the sky, and reminded the mayor that the clock was ticking. Klingenberg gave his word that if all instructions were followed, no further harm would befall the city or its inhabitants. The city officials seemed relieved to hear that.

The soldiers and city militia agreed to lay down their arms in exchange for the Germans’ ceasing additional attacks. The Yugoslav army stacked its arms in the city square, and Klingenberg had all of the men register with the mayor. Klingenberg then ordered the prisoners to quarter themselves in four of the largest hotels and posted a German guard to each building.

The handful of Germans had just captured more than 1,300 troops and a city with a population of over 200,000 without firing a single shot. The city had suffered considerable damage, but not enough to prevent the locals from continuing life and business as usual.

The Yugoslav soldiers based outside the city, unaware of what had happened to their capital, drove into Belgrade. On their arrival, they were ordered by their superiors to lay down their arms, abandon their vehicles and march to the hotels. All the Yugoslavians complied without hesitation.

Klingenberg and his men made themselves comfortable in the city’s finest hotel, making fake radio transmissions to reinforce the charade. They stockpiled bottles of wine and weapons, and two of the men disappeared with a couple of local women.

Meanwhile, Klingenberg consolidated his position, knowing that things could still go wrong. If the main force did not arrive soon, the game was up. He had his men recruit locals to help procure every map, police record and tax record in the city.

The chief of police was ordered to provide a list of all criminals in the city, stating their crimes, age and other pertinent information. Women with nursing skills were to report for duty immediately, and all doctors were called in as well. Every litre of gasoline was accounted for, and oil, medical supplies and other necessities were placed in special holding facilities.

The hospital was to be neutral ground, and all health care was to be maintained as a gesture of goodwill. Klingenberg even ordered the schools to remain open and placed no restrictions on daily business. He did, however, place an 8 p.m. curfew on the city; only citizens with a pass signed by him could legally venture outside their homes after that time.

The next day, April 13, more of Klingenberg’s men who had remained on the opposite side of the river followed their leader into the city. Seeing the German flag, they believed that the main force had somehow bypassed them. They were amazed to find the lost men in command of the primary objective, with the locals not hostile but actually accommodating. Hossfelder told the new arrivals what had transpired and warned them to play along. They flexed their military muscle by commandeering every vehicle they could find.

Finally, on the night of April 13, the forward elements of Das Reich entered the city expecting a heavy fight. They had disregarded radio transmissions they had received telling of the city’s surrender, believing it was an enemy hoax, possibly an attempt to lure German units into an ambush. Rumour had it that Klingenberg and his men had been captured, tortured and forced to release the codes required for proper radio communications.

The XLV Corps commander was so furious at not having received his intelligence summary that he had threatened to have Klingenberg court-martialed if he were found alive as a prisoner.

The first place he inquired for Klingenberg was at a brothel, figuring that he would find the renegade captain there. The corps commander’s fury soon subsided when he learned why his junior company commander had been negligent in his duties.

The rest of Das Reich and supplemental army Panzergrenadeir units entered Belgrade in force the following day, and instead of fighting their way into the city, they were greeted with wine and cheese. The Yugoslav prisoners were conscripted to reinforce the German defence in case of partisan attacks. When the mayor realised that he had been duped, he shot himself.

German Intelligence had projected before Belgrade surrendered that Yugoslav army casualties would number approximately 10,000 to 15,000 wounded and 2,000 dead after massive Luftwaffe and artillery bombardment and a subsequent fight to enter the city. Civilian casualties were predicted to be 10 times those figures.

Klingenberg was concerned for the welfare of his men, yet he was also worried about the fate of the civilians. He did not see the need for further bloodshed in the city, and his men were actually treated well by the civilians, who knew that they could have suffered a much worse fate.

At first, the German high command did not believe that the city had been taken. There was even word that Klingenberg would be shot for trying to fake such an exploit. Two days of radio transmissions were needed to convince Berlin that all was well. Lieutenant General Paul Hausser was ordered to inspect for himself.

When Klingenberg reported to his superiors to explain why he had not followed orders, he was drunk, unshaven and smelled of perfume. After several minutes, Klingenberg said, ‘What was I to do, give the city back?’

His indiscretions were overlooked, and the German battle plan, now obsolete, was stamped ‘completed.’ The drive into Greece was now ahead of schedule. Klingenberg could have followed the book and contributed to the total destruction of the ancient city and population of Belgrade had the Yugoslavians offered further resistance. History is better for his act of bravery and humanity.

Every man assigned to Klingenberg during the Belgrade operation received decorations for valour and promotions. For his daring exploit, Klingenberg was awarded the Knight’s Cross, and he became a favourite of the SS inner circle. The ‘Old Man,’ as he came to be known, was periodically sent to Bad Tölz as an instructor on tactics and battlefield initiative. On March 15, 1944, he became the only Bad Tölz graduate to assume command of the school.

When Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, commenced, Das Reich was hurled into the fray. Klingenberg later distinguished himself at Kharkov, Minsk and Kursk, earning many honourable mentions in the dispatches of General Heinz Guderian. He was eventually awarded the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross, presented in 1943.

As Germany’s situation deteriorated on all fronts, he was ordered to take command of the 17th SS Panzergrenadeir Division ‘Götz von Berlichingen’ on January 12, 1945, assuming the post nine days later.

Attached to General Max Simon’s XIII SS Corps, the 17th was defending the West Wall southeast of Saarbrucken against Maj. Gen. Wade H. Haislip’s XV Corps of the U.S. Seventh Army. The XIII SS Corps had its back to the Rhine, stubbornly defending the area between Neustadt and Landau. When resistance finally collapsed on March 22, Klingenberg was among the casualties, he had died leading his division in its last-ditch effort to stem the American tide.’ SOURCE: World War II magazine, June 2006. The article edited by Michael Walsh historian and author.

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5 replies »

  1. Wow, what a story! This is the stuff of movies. But I doubt if Hollywood would project an image of honour and bravery on the heroic and brilliant German soldier – that just wouldn’t fit the officially sanctioned narrative.

    Liked by 1 person

    • They shoot themselves in the foot. Hollywood is dying on its as cinemas close. A story like this, if objective even, would have crowds queuing around the block.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I knew of the Fritz Klingenberg’s exploits in Belgrade which were told to me by a friends father who was a Croatian fighting for the Axis forces during the war. But, Another story comes to mind as I was working in a German Club as a bartender in the mid eighties. One of the patrons was a former Waffen SS Viking soldier who manned an M.G. 34. You had mentioned Papa Hausser in the Klingenberg story. This gentleman at the German Club knew Felix Steiner and Herbert Gille of Viking and was very respectful of Hausser who was with Das Reich if memory serves me correctly He also relayed some wonderful if not bloodcurdling stories of the Ost Front. There are a few atrocity stories about the Viking division specifically in Lviv. But, the stories as usual rely on supposed witnesses who had miraculously managed to escape. There are no archival despatches to headquarters of this supposed crime but, this crap is flogged on us all time and time again. I suppose when you own all the Media and the publishing world as well as the propaganda factory known as Hollywood it is very easy to atke lying to new levels.

    Liked by 2 people

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