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Yugoslavia during the Second World War

Last modified: 2006-07-22 by ivan sache
Keywords: second world war | partisan | star (red) | anchor (white) | torches: 5 (red) |
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Historical outline

In the second half of the 1930s, the Yugoslav government was increasingly pro-German, under the rule of Prince Regent Pavle Stojadinović, the leader of a newly established party supporting the regime, the Jugoslav Radical Union, modeled upon the Italian and German ruling parties of the time. In 1935 Stojadinović was appointed Prime Minister and left the traditional allies of Yugoslavia (Small Alliance) for the Axis. In 1939 the links with Axis were somewhat loosened when Stojadinović resigned and some main Yugoslav issues were being slowly resolved. For instance, the Croatian Bannate was established by the Cvetković-Maček agreement.
Yugoslavia remained neutral during Italian attack on Ethiopia, German Anschluss of Austria, German breakup of Czeckosovakia and invasion of Poland. In 1941 Yugoslavia formally joined the Axis treaty, but after the signing of the agreement there happened great demonstrations all over Yugoslavia against it on 27 March 1941. General Simonić lead a coup, overthrowing the Regency and the Government.

The Axis forces attacked Yugoslavia on 6 April 1941 and defeated it within few weeks. Capitulation was signed on 17 April. The royal family and government fled to London, and the country was dissolved. Some parts of the country were directly annexed directly by the winners, the puppet Independent State of Croatia was formed and Serbia and Montenegro was ruled by a government of occupation. The Communist Party lead by Tito organized the struggle against the occupying forces, consolidating all the forces that opposed the Axis and forming the National Liberation Movement.

Željko Heimer, 22 November 2003

Occupied territories

After the breakdown of Yugoslavia in 1941, a puppet regime proclaimed the Independent State of Croatia. The flag was red-white-blue with a symbol of the leading pro-Nazi party Ustaša, a chequered red and white with letter U above in a wattle.

In Serbia, an "independent" regime led by general Nedić was established, and was as independent as in neighbouring Croatia. They issued money (Serbian dinars) and postage stamps, but I found no reference on flags, though the white eagle with the očila emblem was a frequent motif. I guess a version of the Serbian colours continued to fly.
Serbian units, known as četniks under General Mihajlović, were nominally the army of the Yugoslav government that had fled to London, and helped the Allies until 1943, but not uncommonly fighting together with Axis troops against Tito's partisans. They used black "Jolly Rogers" with texts 'Freedom or Death' or similar.
The Serbian Volunteer Corps (SVC) fought under German command against Communist partisans and Serbian četniks. Their flag was the regular Serbian flag with the SVC emblem in the middle.

Montenegro was nominaly declared an independent kingdom i personal union with Italy (former Montenegrin dynasty Petrović had many connections with the Italian dynasty), and as far as I know at least in the first days of the war the Montenegrin tricolour was used. They also issued postage stamps, but continued to use the former Yugoslav currency.

Macedonia was annexed by Bulgaria and the Bulgarian flag was used there.

Slovenia was annexed directly to the Third Reich, and as much as I know there was no separate flag, though there were postage stamps and money with the arms of Provinz Leibach (Province of Ljubljana) with an eagle bearing checkered crescent on breasts.

Bosnia and Herzegovina was totally incorporated into the Independent State of Croatia, and other parts of former Yugoslavia were joined to Hungary, Albania and Italy, where appropriate flags were used.

Željko Heimer, 14 October 1995


First flag and ensign

[Partisans' flag]

First partisans' flag - Image by Željko Heimer, 12 October 2003

The Communist Party lead by Tito organized the struggle against the occupying forces, consolidating all the forces that opposed the Axis and forming the National Liberation Movement. The symbol of the struggle was a five-pointed red star. Since the very beginning, the symbol was also used on the national tricolour flags carried by the partisan units. The red five-pointed star was initially used by the partisan fighters as the symbol of the liberation movement and the Communist revolution. The first official adoption of the symbol on the flags was in the Stolice meeting on 26 September 1941 where it was decided that the partisan units shall carry their national tricolour according to the ethnic composition of the units, with a five-pointed red star in the middle. The shape, size and the exact placement of the star were not specified in more detail until the end of the war, and there where numerous variations. The "fat" star was one of the most commonly used variations.
At the same time, it was decided that the general staff had to use a red flag with a red five-pointed star with a yellow border, placed near the hoist.

[Partisans' war ensign]

Partisans' war ensign - Image by Željko Heimer, 12 October 2003

The use of flags at sea started in early 1942. The first ensigns hoisted on the partisan boats and ships in 1942 consisted of the Yugoslav tricolour flag in the first two thirds of the flag length while the remaining third consisted of the three national tricolours of Serbia/Montenegro, Croatia and Slovenia. The Yugoslav tricolour flag was defaced with a red five-pointed star and a white anchor. Several flags of this type were preserved in the museum in Split. Until the 1990s the museum was named Pomorski muzej JAZU, the acronym being for the Academy of Arts and Sciences in Zagreb. I am not aware of the fate of the museum since then. Those flags were gradually replaced with other prescribed flags.

Flag and ensign of the Democratic Federal Yugoslavia

[Naval ensign, 1943]

Flag of the Democratic Federal Yugoslavia - Image by Željko Heimer, 12 October 2003

After the Jajce conference during which the new Yugoslav state was born on 29 November 1943 (see the date on the national coat of arms), the general staff of the National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia issued an order signed by Marshal Tito on the naval and merchant ensigns to be used by the ships of the Democratic Federal Yugoslavia (Naredba o zastavi ratne i trgovačke mornarice, Glavni štab NOVJ, 14 December 1943). The naval ensign was the Yugoslav tricolour with the red five-pointed star in the middle of the white stripe, charged with a white anchor.

[Merchant ensign, 1943]

Merchant flag of the Democratic Federal Yugoslavia - Image by Željko Heimer, 12 October 2003

The same order prescribed a merchant ensign similar to the naval ensign, but without the anchor, that is, the Yugoslav tricolour flag with the five-pointed red star in the middle of the white stripe.

Source: Pomorska enciklopedija VII: Zastava, Jugoslavenski leksikografski zavod, Zagreb, 1964.

The last two flags were de jure used until the adoption of the regulation replacing them with the new flags, which happened in 1949 for the naval ensign and in 1950 for the merchant ensign. However, the new national flag, with the large red star bordered in yellow, was adopted officially early in 1946, the flags used at sea might have been de facto replaced even before.

Željko Heimer, 12 October 2003

Coat of arms of the Democratic Federal Yugoslavia (1943)

[Coat of arms]

Coat of arms of the Democratic Federal Yugoslavia - Image by Željko Heimer, 15 October 2003

The coat of arms for the new state was devised by the artist Đorđe Andrejević-Kun, from Belgrade, around 1943. The coat of arms was officially adopted only in the 1946 Constitution, with a slightly different artistic representation. The five torches represent the five Yugoslav nations (Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Montenegrins and Macedonians; the [Bosnian] Muslims were recognized as the nation only in 1974 while the number of torches was increased to represent the number of Republics in 1963) and they burn by the joint flame of the Federation.

The date written on the ribbon of the emblem is 29 November 1943. As it is usual in the region, the month is written in form of Roman numeral, so the actual writing is 29.XI.1943.
That is the date of the second session of AVNOJ held in the Bosnian town of Jajce. AVNOJ was the Anti-fascist Council of National Liberation of Yugoslavia (Antifasisticko Vjece Narodnog Oslobodenja Jugoslavije), the organization that functioned as the parliament of the partisan movement. On the second session on the mentioned date the Council took several important decisions that are considered as the basis of establishment of the new, post-Second World War Yugoslavia. Among the decisions are the future federal organization of the state (that was, by the way, also the basis for the separation of the republics in the 1990s), the ban of the return of King Peter II from London until the free elections were made after the war to decide on the question of the kind of organization (republic vs. monarchy), giving the title of Marshal to Josip Broz Tito, etc..
Afterwards, the date was celebrated as the Day of the Republic.

Source: Symbol und Wirtschaft [suw50i]

Željko Heimer, 15 October 2003

Polish units in the partisan Yugoslav army

There were some Polish units in the Yugoslav Partisan Army. The most known was a battalion formed by the Polish ethnic minority in Bosnia. This unit was created in the village of Martince, Prnjavor county, on 7 May 1944 as the 5th Battalion of the 14th Middle-Bosnian Shock Brigade of NOVJ. In September 1944, it was renamed the 3rd Battalion. The unit fought in Bosnia and was disbanded in August 1945.

The batallion used a white-red bicolor flag, in proportion 1:2, with a dark red irregular star.

Source: Wojsko Polskie 1939-1945 by Stanislaw Komornicki, Zygmunt Bielecki, Wanda Bigoszewska, Adam Jonca; Warszawa 1984

It seems that it was a vertical flag, but in the book it is displayed horizontally. The red stripe seems to be standard red, whereas the star is dark red.

Grzegorz Skrukwa, 8 April 2002

This hand-made flag of the wartime was similar to other national flags used by Tito's Partisans during the war. They were basis for the flags granted to national minorities in post-war Yugoslavia.

Željko Heimer, 9 April 2002