Messerschmitt Bf.109G-14 Unit: 2. Lovacko Jato, 1. Zrakoplovna Skupina Zagreb-Lucko, April 1945. On 16th April 1945 Josip Cekovic defected to Falconara region (Italy) 12 kilometers westward of Ancona. This airplane was captured by Americans.
Dornier Do.17Z-2 Unit: 19. Bombardersko Jato, 1. Zrakoplovna Skupina Zagreb, spring 1945.
Breguet Br.19-8 Unit: 6 Sqn ‘Anti-guerilla’, 2 Group Circa 1943.
Macchi MC.202 Serie XII Unit: 2./Kro.JGr 1 Pilot – CO of 2./Kro.JGr 1 Capt (later Maj.) Josip Helebrant.
From late August through early September 1942, bitter fighting along the Novorossiysk front involved the 15th Koatische. /JG as never before, with its pilots averaging 20 escort missions every day. On September 3, Starc and Oberfelclwebel (Sergeant Major) Stjepan Martinasevic were flying cover for an Fw.189, when they were bounced by eight Ratas. Two of the attackers were damaged and the rest driven off. The twin-engine, twin-boom, three-place Focke-Wulf-189 was the war’s finest reconnaissance aircraft, able to execute a circle so tight that Allied interceptors could not follow it. Although armed with five 7.92mm MG 17 machine-guns, more often than not, the Uhu, or “Owl; simply out-ran its pursuer. The Fw.189 was also extraordinarily rugged, sometimes returning to base from the thick of combat minus an entire tail.
Three days after escorting this “Flying Eye” of the German Army, Starc and Helebrant were assigned anti-shipping duty over the Black Sea. There, they strafed a 100-ton tanker, blasting it with concerted cannon fire, until the vessel erupted into a flaming inferno, capsized, and sank in minutes. On September 8, Helebrant was back over the Novorossiysk front with Martinasevic, when they intercepted a reconnaissance aircraft escorted by 11 Chaika fighters. Martinasevic dispatched a Soviet “Seagull;’ then joined Helebrant in destroying the Polikarpov R-5. As some indication of Soviet military obsolescence, this 680-hp, wood double-decker from 1930 was the standard reconnaissance model of the Red Air Force, which equipped over 100 of its regiments with the antique airplane into 1944.
What the Russians lacked in quality, they strove to compensate with quantity, as four Croatian pilots observed while patrolling the road between Gelendzhik and Novorossiysk. During their clash with 5 Chaikas and 14 Ratas, Oberstleutnant Dzal destroyed one of either type, while Fähnrich (Officer Candidate) Tomislav Kauzlaric shot down an 1-16. On October 24, Helebrant and Starc each brought down a pair of Lavochkin fighters over the Tuapse area, raising their unit’s score to 150 confirmed “kills:” In November, the pilots were returned to Croatia for extended rest after a full year of virtually non-stop flight operations. These comprised 3,698 sorties-2,460 of them combat missions-for the confirmed destruction of 178 enemy aircraft, plus 33 “probables.” Six Croatian pilots had been lost in action, together with five ground crew men in Soviet raids.
During mid-February, the men of 15th Kroatische./Jagclgeschwacler 52 returned to the Eastern Front in the company of fresh recruits and new planes. But the situation had changed dramatically over the previous three months. The Axis initiative that had rolled irrepressibly across Russia since the first day of Operation Barbarossa had stopped at Stalingrad, where Croatian casualties were very heavy. And U.S. aid to the Soviets was now apparent in the appearance of American aircraft. On April 15, 1943, Oberleutnant Mato Dukovac fired on a Bell P-39 fighter that “flamed like a torch before abruptly falling away.”
The Aircobra’s streamlined, aerodynamically efficient design had been occasioned by placement of a 1,200-hp Allison V-1710-85, liquid-cooled, V-12 engine behind the cockpit. This peculiar arrangement enabled a 37-mm M4 cannon to fire 30 rounds of high-explosive ammo through the propeller hub at the rate of 140 rounds per minute. It was supplemented by a 12.7-mm machine-gun installed in each wing; two more were mounted in the upper engine cowl. Regardless of this formidable armament, the rear-mounted engine proved to be vulnerable to attacks from above and behind. Almost any hit on the fuselage from an attacking enemy fighter was virtually guaranteed to disable the cooling system, destroying the engine. In crash-landings, the pilot was liable to be crushed by the hot, heavy engine falling forward on his back.
The all-metal fighter’s unconventional layout allowed no space in the fuselage for a fuel tank, which was transferred to a necessarily smaller tank in either wing, thereby restricting the P-39’s operational radius. Moreover, its single-speed supercharger confined optimal performance to beneath 12,000 feet, a serious limitation, as modern aerial combat took place at increasingly higher altitudes. By 1942, virtually all bombers carried out their runs far beyond the Aircobra’s reach. Performance was further compromised by 265 pounds of armor plating, which was appropriate for a ground-attack role, but detracted from Bell’s original fighter conception. An innovative tricycle undercarriage and hinged “automobile doors” on either side of the cockpit contributed to the aircraft’s unorthodox design.
Despite its numerous drawbacks, the P-39 was just 10 mph slower than the Messerschmitt-109, handled very well, and was the best fighter available to Soviet pilots, who referred to it affectionately as Kobrastochka, “dear little cobra:” Aleksandr Pokryshkin, the Allies’ second highest-scoring ace, accounted for 58 Axis aircraft in a P-39, the highest score ever gained by any pilot with a U.S.-built aircraft. The 4,773 Aircobras President Roosevelt sent to beleaguered Soviet pilots critically helped them make up the severe losses they suffered since June 1941.
Five days after Dukovac’s first encounter with an American Kobrastochka, he was escorting German Stuka dive-bombers and Ju.88 medium-bombers in the company of three other Gustavs, one piloted by the redoubtable Cvitan Galic, when they ran into 25 Soviet fighters and gigantic flying boats. In the engagement that ensued, Dukovac downed a LaGG-3, as Galic went after a Chyetverikov MDR-6, with its 63-foot, 7.75-inch wingspan. Only 27 of the big, twin-engine, highwing flying boats had ever been built, so Galic felt privileged to claim this rara avis, which disintegrated in flames toward Novorossiysk. Continuing escort duty produced more residual “kills” on May 8, when Dukovac and his wingman, Felclwebel Bozidar Bartulovic, each destroyed a LaGG-3 while protecting a Fieseler Storch.
The Fi.156 was famous for its unprecedented STOL characteristics, making it the war’s outstanding liaison and medivac aircraft. Its very low landing speed combined with a long-legged undercarriage containing oil and spring shock absorbers that compressed about 18 inches on landing enabled the “Stork” to set down in a variety of otherwise impossible terrain. It could hover in place, almost like a helicopter, or even fly backwards against a head wind. Under normal conditions, the Fi.156 took off in less than 150 feet and landed in 60. Wings could be folded back along the fuselage, allowing it to be transported by trailer, aboard covered trains, or towed behind a vehicle. Flying their high-performance Messerschmitts, the Croatian pilots found escorting the 100-mph Storch a challenging, but rewarding experience.
Despite the debacle at Stalingrad, Axis morale held firm. There was no rout, and the Eastern Front stood badly dented, but unbroken. Positions from the vicinity of Leningrad in the north, down through Smolensk and Taganrog to the Sea of Asov in the south stiffened, frustrating all Soviet attempts to break through, while the Red Air Force lost more than 2,000 warplanes in combat above Kuban. These defensive successes were generally regarded as prelude to a renewed Wehrmacht offensive that would regain the initiative in summer. But news of the Italo-German loss of North Africa in early May struck some observers as the Axis death knell. On the 14th, two pilots of the 15th Koatische.I JG 52 defected to the Soviets, setting down their Bf.109s behind enemy lines at Byelaya Glina airfield, northeast of Krasnar.
A month and one day later, another Croatian pilot landed at Byelaya Glina. Over the next two years, defections took place in direct ratio to the decline of Axis fortunes. While much has been made of them by Allied historians, the actual number of deserters from the unit represented a small fraction of its total strength. Most who defected simply wanted to end the war on the winning side, and were largely indifferent to ideological concerns. Those who did give political consequences any thought had been deceived by Communist propaganda promises of a free Croatia or, in the case of Slovenian airmen, an independent Slovenia. These trusting souls were to be sadly disappointed with the postwar fate of Eastern Europe, and many fled to the West after the Iron Curtain fell on their respective homelands.
A case in point was the first Balkan airman, Nikola Vucina, who flew over to the Soviets on May 4,1942. Horrified by the bloodshed and slavery visited upon Yugoslavia by the Red Army, he fled in an ancient Polikarpov Po-2 Kukuruznik (“Corn”) trainer to Italy in 1946.
Mato Dukovac, Croatia’s top-scoring ace with 45 kills, lived to regret his defection by flying to Italy in another biplane, a stolen British De Havilland “Tiger Moth;’ less than a year after his September 20, 1944 desertion. Dukovac became increasingly anti-Jewish after his wartime experiences, so much so, he volunteered to fight the newly created state of Israel as a captain in the Syrian Air Force, flying American T-6 Texan trainers outfitted with ground-attack rockets and 110-pound bombs during the Arab-Israeli Conflict of 1948.
The attitude of most Croatian pilots was summarized in June 1944, when one of their officers, Oberst Franjo Dzal, offered them the alternatives of fighting on, going to Germany for advanced training, or joining the partisans. According to Savic and Ciglic, “His words were greeted by whistles and shouts of disapproval’s”
The Croatian airmen continued to enjoy the clear-cut superiority of their Bf.109Gs throughout most of 1943. In early November, however, they began encountering growing numbers of an opponent with serious claims on the Messerschmitt’s predominance. This was the Lavochkin La-5, the Soviets’ first and only up-to-date fighter. While its performance fell off above 12,000 feet, the La-5 excelled at lower altitudes. It executed a smaller turning radius and higher roll rate than the German Gustav. Ivan Kozhedub, the leading Red Air Force ace, scored most of his 62 kills flying the La-5. With more of these dangerous machines filling Russian skies, outnumbered pilots of the 15th Kroatische. /JG 52 were hard pressed.
On November 7, Unteroffizier (Senior Corporal) Vladimir Salomon was shot down by a combination of Aircobras and La-5s. Successfully bailing out of his stricken Bf.109, he froze to death after parachuting into the Sea of Azov. Two weeks later, Felclwebel Zdendo Avdic and Dukovac were battling six LaGG-3s, when Avdic received a particularly painful wound in the right arm. He was horrified to observe that his severed hand still gripped the control column, which he manipulated with his left to make a perfect landing, albeit barely conscious from a prodigious loss of blood, five miles inside friendly territory. German grenadiers carried Avdic to a field hospital, where he eventually recovered.
By then, the unit had been stationed at Karankhut airfield, where adverse weather conditions grounded its pilots until early 1944, save on rare occasions. When conditions cleared in February, they faced greater numbers of enemy aircraft-many of them La-5s and P-39s-than ever before encountered. Flying against impossible odds, the squadron was decimated, and the 15th Kroatische./JG 52 disbanded, its survivors returning to Croatia in mid-March. During the previous five months, flying through foul weather and against overwhelming adversaries, five of the airmen were killed, and four had been seriously wounded. But between them they scored 77 confirmed “kills” and 8 “probables.”
In July, survivors joined the newly formed Hrvatska Zrakoplovna Skupina, the Croatian Air Force Group, for homeland defense against increasing incursions by Anglo-American bombers. The HZS was also no less preoccupied with quashing the various Communist and nationalist insurgent groups running rampant through the countryside. Fighting these rebels was nothing new. As long before as June 26, 1941, pilots of its predecessor, the Air Force of the Independent State of Croatia (Zrakoplovstvo Nezavisna Drava Hrvatska), had carried out the earliest anti-partisan raids in Herzegovina and suffered its first loss the following day, when an aged Potez Po-25 biplane was brought down by rebel ground-fire.
Increasingly fortified with Soviet arms, supplies, and propaganda, the Yugoslav underground movement grew steadily throughout 1941, when 15 aircraft were lost to the partisans. In June 1942, they absconded with a pair of French bombers-a Brequet-19 and Potez Po-25-from the Zegreb headquarters. The Yugoslav Royal Air Force had purchased its first Breguet-19s as far back as 1924, thereafter license building another 300 examples. Most of these were destroyed during the German Blitzkrieg of April 1941, but enough survived to flesh out the new Croatian Air Force. While randomly machine-gunning the residents of Banja Luka, the bandit Breguet was brought down by flak outside the village of Kadinjani. Its pilot committed suicide, while his gunner was shot trying to escape.
ZNDH commanders were deeply alarmed by the brazen theft of this World War I-style sesquiplane with cloth-covered wings and open cockpits, and spent all their energies searching for its companion. Meanwhile, the elderly Po-25 raided four towns in as many days, successfully eluding all efforts to intercept it, until the pokey Potez was finally spotted by the Luftwaffe pilot of a Focke-Wulf Fw.58. On July 7, his twin-engine Weihe (“Harrier”) trainer doubling as a reconnaissance-attack plane used its two MG 15 machine-guns to shred the stolen aircraft while parked near Lusci Palanka.
In summer, the ZNDH mounted its first, concerted offensive against the burgeoning insurgency with warplanes left over from the defeated Royal Yugoslav Air Force. All were antiquated and worn out, but the most useful among them were 7 Avia BH-33Es remaining from 38 destroyed while resisting the invading Germans, back in 1941. The 1927 Czech biplane’s physical appearance was somewhat strange for its upper wing, being shorter, for reasons never entirely understood, than the lower. An otherwise reliable, if entirely mediocre fighter, the Vickers machine-guns and low speed provided by its 580-hp Skoda L engine made it ideal for strafing partisans. They were themselves hamstrung by conflict between the Soviet-backed Narodnooslobodilacka Vojska Jugoslavije (“People’s Liberation Army of Yugoslavia”) and royalist-nationalist Chetniks, from the Serbian word seta for a “military company.”
According to Savic and Ciglic, “Often, groups of insurgents were at each others’ throats, rather than attacking their common enemy. There was even collaboration with the Axis on both sides.”
Shortly after the Wehrmacht conquest, the several resistance movements began to coalesce into a general insurgency until the Chetnik leader, Draza Mihailovic, realized that Josip Tito’s NVJ only wanted to “burn the country and the old order to the ground to better prepare it for Communism. This is the fight that the Communists wage, a fight which is directed by foreign propaganda with the aim of systematically annihilating our nation:” He was likewise mistrustful of the Anglo-Americans, whose “sole aim was to win the war at the expense of others:”‘ Favorably impressed by Germany’s invasion of the USSR, Mihailovic hoped to create a Greater Serbia in the manner of the Independent State of Croatia, when he learned that Hitler’s postwar intentions for the former Yugoslavia was its division along ethnic lines into various, similarly autonomous states. In the resulting civil war between Communists and Chetniks, the Croatian airmen sought to annihilate them both.
Mussolini sent their ZNDH its first modern aircraft in the form of 10 Fiat G.50 fighters, during late June 1943. Although eclipsed by other designs by then, the Freccia, or “Arrow,” could still intercept enemy bombers or ground-attack insurgent forces with success. Following the Duce’s overthrow in September, the ZNDH received something of a windfall when 60 Italian aircraft of various types were found at Mostar and Zadar airfields. They included three “Arrows” and six Fiat CR.42 biplanes no longer fit for aerial combat, but very effective in anti-partisan warfare.
While the rebels lacked any aircraft of their own, they took their toll on ZNDH men and machines through ground-fire and espionage. On October 7, the Commanding Officer of 1. Air Group, Mato Culinovic, an ace with a dozen “kills” to his credit, perished with his crew aboard a Dornier Do.17K medium-bomber that exploded while attacking insurgent forces west of Zagreb; saboteurs had installed a detonator activated when the bay doors were opened.
Shortly thereafter, 38 Morane-Saulnier M.S. 406c-1s from France’s defeated Armee de /Air arrived from Germany. It was with this inadequate fighter that ZNDH pilots were expected to intercept growing numbers of U.S. heavy-bombers protected by huge swarms of P-51 and P-47 escorts. Croat airmen were additionally hampered by a wholly inadequate early warning system and usually scrambled only as the enemy was overhead. Whenever the defenders did get airborne, they invariably found themselves hideously out-numbered by mostly superior aircraft.
From the close of 1943, USAAF and RAF bombers repeatedly violated Croatian airspace with impunity, as they overflew the Balkans on their way to targets in Austria. The ZNDH lacked sufficient strength to oppose these Allied intruders, until interceptor units of the Hrvatska Zrakoplovna Legija (Croatian Air Force Legion) were formed with Luftwaffe assistance on December 23. A month later, Mussolini’s Salo Republic contributed 12 new specimens of the Macchi M.C.202 Folgore. At 372 mph, the sleek “Lightning” lived up to its name. Croat pilots loved the Macchi for its superb handling characteristics and 3,563-feetper-minute rate of climb, but found that the two 7.7-mm Breda-SAFAT wing guns lacked punch. Only its twin 12.7-mm machine-guns in the engine cowling were effective by contemporary standards.
But HZL crews had little immediate opportunity to put the Folgore through its paces, because Allied raids on Austria by way of the Balkans fell off for the first quarter of 1944. They used the lull to gain additional training experience until April 1, when the unit was redesignated 1./Jagdgruppe Kroatien. The next day, an immense bomber stream of the 15th U.S. Air Force passed over Croatia on its way to attack the Austrian industrial city of Steyr. The ZNDH’s early raid alert system had not improved during the previous four months, and only two interceptors could be scrambled in time to confront the Americans returning from their mission. With hundreds of 12.7-mm M2 Browning machine-guns firing at them, the Folgore pilots dashed unscathed among the flight of B-24 heavy-bombers, one of which fell burning out of the sky.
In hopes of better positioning themselves to meet the foe, several dozen Croatian fighters were relocated from the unit’s base at Lucko to Zaluzani airfield outside Banja Luka. British intelligence learned of the move, and Numbers 1, 2, and 4 Squadrons in the South African Air Force’s Number 7 Wing were alerted. Their Spitfire Mk.IXs, some carrying a pair of 250-pound bombs apiece, appeared without warning over Zaluzani in a low-level attack that overtook the defenders on April 6. Twenty one ZNDH aircraft were destroyed on the ground, including a Folgore and all save 1 Morane-Saulnier, together with 16 Luftwaffe warplanes.
Of greater loss was the death of Cvitan Galic, who perished when the M.S.406, under which he took shelter during the raid, exploded and collapsed on him in full view of his horrified comrades. With 38 confirmed and 5 unconfirmed aerial victories, he was Croatia’s second-highest scoring ace. Yet another 21 ZNDH machines were caught parked in the open and destroyed by bomb-laden Spitfires six days later.
Despite these appalling losses, the 1./Jagdgruppe Kroatien dispatched two pairs of Morane-Saulniers and Fiat Freccias to patrol for damaged or separated B-24s. Instead, they were attacked by two Mustangs 6,500 feet above Zagreb. The decidedly inferior MS.406s and G.50s were no match for state-of-the-art P-51s, which shot down one each of the older French and Italian fighters in short order. If anything, it is to their credit that the other two pilots were able to successfully elude their technologically superior pursuers.
When provided with better aircraft, the Croatians went over eagerly to the offensive. They had always been outnumbered by their enemies, so a numerical advantage possessed by the Anglo-Americans meant little to them. Before the end of April, Unterofizier Leopold Hrastovcan flew his Macchi past escorting Mustangs to blast a four-engine Liberator that crashed outside the village of Zapresic. Several days later, Unterofizier Jakob Petrovic’s Folgore closed in on a British de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito fighter-bomber famous for its laminated plywood construction. “The Timber Terror;” as it was also known, fell trailing thick smoke toward the sea.
Petrovic and another comrade were evenly matched against two USAAF P-38s on May 1, when one of the “Fork-Tail Devils” was shot down and the other driven off, badly damaged. While pilots of the 1./Jagdgruppe Kroatien continued to score against Anglo-American intruders for the rest of spring and throughout summer, war on the homefront was spreading across the Balkans.
In mid-summer, 15 long-distance R-series Stukas were dispatched to Croatia, where they pounded Red Army columns at the southeastern border. They joined eight Ju.87D-5 dive-bombers delivered to the Antiteroristicka jedinica Lucko, an antiterrorist unit based near Zagreb, at Lucko, the previous January. In an unexpected assault on September 20, partisans captured Banja Luka, over-running the airbase at Zaluzani airfield. Thinking fast, many ZNDH crews jumped into their Dornier bombers, engines started just after propellers cleared hangar doors, to machine-gun waves of partisans, and got away at the last, possible moment. Once airborne, they circled back around to provide suppressive fire, enabling their comrades’ escape. A few days later, the city and airbase were recaptured in a powerful counterattack launched by Croat and German troops.
Further Croatian requests for specialized aircraft from the Luftwaffe were answered in mid-September with the arrival of a dozen Fieseler Fi.167A-0s. They were indeed purpose-built, but not for any antipartisan role. The big biplane had been originally designed in 1938 to serve aboard the German Navy’s projected aircraft carrier for reconnaissance and torpedo bombing. Graf Zeppelin was never completed, however, and the few examples already produced were put to use flying coastal patrols in Denmark before being transferred to the ZNDH. Like its more famous Fieseler, the Storch, the Fi.167 was endowed with extraordinary STOL characteristics, capable of landing almost vertically anywhere. With a maximum take-off weight of 10,690 pounds, its short-field and outstanding load-carrying capabilities made it an ideal transport flying ammunition, food, medical supplies, or evacuating wounded to and from Croatian Army garrisons besieged by Tito’s insurgent armies.
On October 10, while on a mission to a Croatian position near Sisak, a lone Fi.167 flown by eight-kill ace, Bozidar “Bosko” Bartulovic, was jumped by five P-51 Mk IIIs of the RAF’s 213 Squadron. Bartulovic’s rear gunner, Mate Jurkovic, used his 7.92-mm MG 17 machine-gun to score a lethal hit on one of the attacking Mustangs before the Fieseler, too, was destroyed by the other four, thereby achieving perhaps the last and certainly most remarkable aerial victory in biplane history. Both Bartulovic and Jurkovic parachuted to safety. Some of the remaining Fi.167s were installed with a single 2,200-pound bomb used effectively against otherwise impenetrable rebel positions.
Beginning in December 1944, things began looking up for the Croats. As a measure of the high regard with which he held them, Goering equipped two ZNDH squadrons with the Luftwaffe’s best piston-driven fighter. The Kurfurst, or “Elector Prince;’ was the last and fastest in a long operational line of the Messerschmitt Bf. 109 series, which had begun 10 years earlier. Optimized for high altitudes, a nine-foot-wide chord, three-bladed VDM 9-12159 propeller converted the 1850/2000 PS output of the new Messerschmitt’s DB 605DB/DC power plant into thrust. As such, the fully loaded aircraft was able to top 445 mph at 22,500 feet, while enjoying an extraordinary rate of climb at 4,820 feet per minute. Armament comprised twin, 13-mm MG 131 machine-guns in the nose with 300 rounds each, plus a single, engine-mounted MK 108 cannon firing 65 30-mm rounds.
Thus equipped with the Kurfurst, ZNDH pilots evened the playing field against their Western opponents. What the Croat interceptors still lacked in numbers, they made up for with a fighter at least the equal of the American Mustang or British Spitfire, and a highly effective bomber-buster, the K-4’s real function. Both German and Croat fliers took advantage of the airplane’s high performance to avoid enemy escorts and go after the USAAF B-17s and B-24s.
The ZNDH also made do with much older machines. On December 31, a Dornier Do.17E paid a surprise New Year’s Eve visit to the RAF’s 148 Squadron base at Grabovnica near Cazma, where the old medium bomber dropped its 1,100-pound payload on the airfield, causing numerous casualties among partisan defenders. Supply dumps were wrecked, and a four-engine Handley-Page Halifax heavy-bomber was destroyed.
On March 24, 1945, ZNDH aircraft grounded at Lucko airfield, for lack of petrol, were incinerated during a napalm attack delivered by RAF Mustangs of Numbers 213 and 249 Squadrons. Defensive flak shot down a P-51 from the former Squadron, but three Messerschmitts, one Morane-Saulnier, and a Focke-Wulf 190 were ruined. Several other aircraft were damaged. The day before, the Croats won their last aerial victories, when Mihajlo Jelak and 15-“kill” ace, Ljudevit Bencetic, flying Bf-109G-10s, claimed two British P-51s between them. Jelak was hit by enemy fire but managed to safely crash-land his wounded Gustav. With Communist forces overrunning Zagreb, Bencetic addressed his crews at Lucko airfield for the last time. They had performed their duties splendidly, he said, and flying with them was the greatest personal honor he had ever known, but they were released now from their loyalty oath and at liberty to return to their homes.’
As Bencetic returned the final salute of his men, a pair of aged Rogozarski R-100 trainers flown by Lieutenants Mihajlo Jelak and Leopold Hrastovcan were attacking a railway bridge spanning the Kupa River with 50-pound bombs. Destroying it would delay the enemy’s advance toward Karlovac, allowing time for the city to be evacuated. As Hrastovcan’s biplane circled for another pass, it was hit by ground fire and crashed near the foot of the bridge, where he was dragged from the wreckage and shot to death.
Fighting against 12-to-1 odds, Croat airmen continued to score hits on the enemy. Their final flight operation occurred on April 15, 1945, when a Dornier Do.17Z medium-bomber, covered by a pair of Messerschmitt-109Gs, raided the partisan airfield at Sanski Most, destroying two Communist warplanes, damaging several others on the airfield, and machine-gunning ground personnel to escape with damage.
The last ZNDH remnants in the 1st Light Infantry Parachute Battalion had joined up with the Croatian Army’s Motorized Brigade as early as the previous January, from which time they were in constant action south of Zagreb against an advancing partisan army. The few surviving paratroopers were still fighting in Austria a week after the German surrender, refusing to lay down their arms until May 14, 1945.
During the immediate postwar period, Tito assumed a magnanimous pose, extending “general amnesty” to all opponents. But his apparent generosity was a ruse luring war-weary servicemen to their doom. Every ZNDH airman the Communists could lay their hands on was imprisoned and tortured, often for many years. Bozidar Bartulovic, the Fieseler biplane pilot, whose rear gunner shot down an attacking Mustang, had bailed out when a 0.50-caliber bullet partially shattered his skull and shot away his right eye. After long-term recovery at a Zagreb hospital and later graduation from officers’ training school, he was arrested and sent to a POW camp until his release in 1946, then rearrested and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. Upon his release, Bartulovic fled to Munich, Germany.
Many of his comrades fared far worse. All high-ranking ZNDH officers were rounded up and shot.