January 1942, near Caparde in the Independent State of Croatia (now in Bosnia-Herzegovina). In the center of the photo is Oberst Rolf, and right behind him Hauptmann Köller, and to the right an unnamed Croatian Major acting as liaison officer for the Croatian Home Guard. The Germans are probably from the 718. Infanterie-Division, while the Croatian might be from the 5. Infantry Division. The photo might be taken prior to Unternehmen Kroatien Süd-Ost (“Operation Croatia South-East”), 15-23 January 1942. The German division was involved in anti-partisan warfare together with the 342. Infanterie-Division and Croatian units during this short campaign. It was essentially a search-and-destroy operation designed to locate and eliminate partisan forces in and around Sarajevo, Zvornik, Tuzla and others locations in the region. It was launched during the cold of winter so as to hit the partisan forces when they would be weak from lack of proper winter clothing and protection.
The 718. Infanterie-Division was formed on 30 April, 1941 from various units of the Replacement Army. It was intended for service in the Balkan region and was designed as an occupation and security unit to meet those needs. This unit, like the 14 others of the 700-designations, had at least half of its manpower consisting of older reservists with little experience. Many of the officers hadn’t been in uniform since WW1. The “700” divisions consisted of two infantry regiments instead of three, the latter being the norm until the Volksgrenadier divisions were introduced, and it had fewer motor vehicles and heavy weapons.
After formation, the Division was transported to Croatia and Bosnia, where it took part in security operations, anti-partisan drives, reconnaissance missions, mopping up actions, training, and general occupation duties. One of the major tasks was to protect the local industry, major railroads, and bauxite mining, which was very important to the German war effort (bauxite being needed for the production of aluminium). The Division was renamed the 118. Jäger-Division in 1943. It surrendered to British forces in Austria in May, 1945.
The Croatian Home Guard was founded in April 1941, a few days after the founding of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) itself, following the collapse of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. It was done with the authorisation of German occupation authorities. The task of the new Croatian armed forces was to defend the new state against both foreign and domestic enemies. Its name was taken from the old Royal Croatian Home Guard – the Croatian section of the Royal Hungarian Landwehr component of the Austro-Hungarian Army. The NDH was a Fascist puppet state following the lead of Germany and Italy, its leadership targeting Serbs, Communists, Jews, Roma, and other “undesirables”. Following the anti-partisan actions, a Gestapo report to Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler, dated 17 February 1942, stated:
Increased activity of the [partisan] bands is chiefly due to atrocities carried out by Ustaše units in Croatia against the Orthodox population. The Ustaše [a Fascist Croatian movement] committed their deeds in a bestial manner not only against males of conscript age, but especially against helpless old people, women and children. The number of the Orthodox that the Croats have massacred and sadistically tortured to death is about three hundred thousand.
The fighting in Yugoslavia was extremely cruel, making even the Gestapo blanch. The Croatian and Serbian factions showed little mercy to each other. Still, German units got bogged down in anti-partisan warfare, the Germans worsening the situation by raising ethnic units like Muslim SS forces, contributing to the rising number of atrocities. The resulting resentment needed little prompting to be fanned into full-blown civil war 50 years later…