As it was mentioned in Part II, the arming process effectively ran until the end of 1943. As the re-arm program (also known as “Barbara”) ran, the Bulgarian army – ever wary of the traditional Turkish danger – did run some excercises and improved its structure and training.
By the order no.37 from 29.9.1943 of the ministry of defense of Bulgaria (literally “Ministry of War” – Ministerstvo na vojnata), the armored regiment (estabilished earlier from the armored companies) was re-formed into the Armored brigade (Bronirana brigada). The SPG batallions of SO-75 (StuG) vehicles were also incorporated into this new unit.
In the meanwhile, the motorization of the Bulgarian army continued – the army bought 40 tracked Austrian Steyr RSO tractors and 40 2-ton “Maultier” (“mule”) German haltracks of the 3000S/SSM type (those were manufactured in Cologne by Ford-Werke AG, based on the Ford V3000S vehicle) – this is how this interesting conversion looked:
Finally, out of the earlier-ordered 97 Panzer IV’s (46 Panzer IV Ausf.G were provided until December 1942), the German army sold the Bulgarians the second half – 51 additional Panzer IV Ausf.H – in February 1944:
It’s worth noting that Bulgaria was probably the only nation, that was still using Panzer 35t for “frontline” service by early 1944. But at this point, the situation was already quite different, both politically and military wise.
On 28.8.1943, Bulgarian Tsar Boris III. died from “heart attack”. At this point, Bulgaria was still not really active in the war, save for some borderline skirmishes around Yugoslavia. Needless to say, Hitler was not happy about his and he “requested” Bulgarians to send 100 thousand men to the Eastern front. Tsar Boris III. did not comply to that “request”, but he died only days after the negotiations with Hilter, leading to many speculations that he was in fact murdered by Germans to have someone… more compliant sitting on the Bulgarian throne.
His 6-year old son (Simeon II.) formally succeeded him, but the power stayed with the pro-German council of regents, who ruled in his stead and the prime minister Dobri Bozhilov was effectively a German puppet. By 1944 however, it was clear to a lot of people that Germany is not doing well in the war. Catastrophic German losses on the Eastern front and triumphs of the Red Army did make many German allies question their loyalty. Such was the case of Bulgaria, where a resistance pro-Soviet organization, called “Fatherland front”, led by communists. The Front gained power and support throughout 1943 and 1944 and on 9.9.1943, there was an anti-nazi coup, conducted by many elements, mostly leftists communists, but also democrats. It succeeded, partially also because its supporters were well estabilished in the army units (including the armored brigade). The units managed to quickly secure Sofia and on 11.9.1944, Bulgaria declared war on Germany. Bulgarian units would finally see some action.
By the time of the coup, the armored brigade was at full strength – at least formally. The soldiers were relatively well trained, rested and well motivated to fight the Germans. The reason for this – apart from being tired of being German puppets – was also the dominant point of view, that (according to my own experience) still exists now in Bulgaria: the Russians were regarded as liberators (from the Turks) and as friends. In fact, I do believe that out of all the Slavic European nations, Bulgarians have the most positive relationship with Russia.
If there was a weakness in the Armored brigade combat capabilities, it would be the shape of older vehicles. While the German Panzers and StuG’s were in relatively good shape thanks to the spare parts from Germany, it was gradually more and more difficult to find spare parts for LT-35′s and LT-38′s (let alone the CV33′s and Vickers tanks) and these older light tanks were often in very bad condition. Nevertheless, when the order came to defend the homeland from Germans, the brigade sprang into action.
Armored Brigade composition
In early 1944, the Armored brigade was situated in the Sofie-Bozhuriste-Slivnitsa area. The brigade consisted at that point of the HQ unit, one tank regiment, one motorized infantry regiment, one artillery regiment, a batallion of scout armored cars, an anti-tank batalion, a batallion of engineers, an anti-aircraft unit, a transport unit and repair/rearm unit with workshops – altogether, the brigade counted 9950 men. The recon batallion consisted of 238 motorized units, of which 133 were recon motorcycles and 26 were Sdkfz 222 and 223 armored cars.
The motorized infantry regiment had 369 trucks, 206 of which were Steyr 440/640. The artillery regiment had 190 motorized units, 30 of which were the heavy halftrack 8 ton German Sdkfz 7 tractors.
The main force of the Brigade however was the armored regiment. It consisted at that point of 3 tank batallions (in Bulgarian “druzhina”). On 14.9.1944, the first batallion had 37 tanks and 11 trucks, the second batallion also had 37 tanks and the third had 35. 12 tanks were held in reserve and 13 were attached to the regimental HQ unit. The Brigade HQ itself had up to 9 tanks available. As mentioned above, there were spare parts problems – that’s why the Brigade repair workshops actually manufactured some spare parts on the spot, often in field conditions.
Action against Germans
After the coup, the brigade (commanded by general Stoyan Trendafilov) recieved orders to protect the capital city of Sofia from German attack from northwest from the Pirot-Nish area (Serbia). In the night, it was joined by the armored regiment under the command of colonel Marin Dikov, who was earlier stationed with his tanks near the center of Sofia, to prevent any nazi counter-coup attempts.
The order was given to advance on Pirot-Nish (direction west on Bela Palanka) in order to drive the Germans out. One of the first losses of the unit was the Škoda Š-35, lost after being hit by German AT cannon, when performing recon around the Pirot area. One of the Panzer IV tanks was also knocked out, but its crew was saved and it was successfully recovered and moved to workshop.
On 17.9.1944, the tank regiment was ordered to support the Bulgarian 35th Infantry regiment, because the infantry itself didn’t have the strength to push thru the German lines in the Bela Palanka-Nish-Pirot direction. The regiment got into some heavy fighting in that area. Due to poor recon in the Milin Kamyk area, the tank regiment (spefically 2nd Batallion under the command of lt.col.Alexander Bosilkov and 3rd Batallion under capt. Ivan Gyumbabov) ran into a minefield and the 7th company, armed with Panzer IV tanks, was practically wiped out. Due to the mines, heavy AT and artillery fire, the regiment lost 10 Panzer IV’s in that battle only. The company was was advancing in column travel formation and its guns were not even ready to fire, while the Germans had masked their AT guns very well.
They could not be recovered due to the artillery fire and considering there were no replacements to be had from the Germans, each such loss was irreplaceable for the Bulgarians. At least most of the crewmen made it out of the tanks alive. After such shock, the brigade was ordered to move to the Ponor-Blato-Velikhy Sukhodol area. Two tanks broke down during the march and by 20th of September, the regiment lost 11 tanks and 2 SPG’s in total. These long marches took their toll on the vehicles, but no further losses were reported and in order to take part in the following Bulgarian operation, the tank regiment was ordered to move to the Svozhe area (southwest of Pirot) – as shown here on the map (Sofia is in southeast corner):
On 10.10.1944, the Armored regiment, along with one batallion from 32nd Infantry Regiment, broke thru the German defenses near the town of Vlasotince, they captured the town intact and reached the right bank of the South Morava river, effectively getting into the back of the German units in the Nish area. As a result, the Germans started to retreat. The Bulgarians were not willing to let that happen and elements of the 1st Batallion (under the command of Marin Dikov) were allocated to assault the Germans quickly. On 14.10.1944, they ran into the 7th SS muntain division “Prinz Eugen” and there was some very heavy fighting, leading (along with the weariness from long marches) to further losses of tanks. The SS division was driven out and towns of Prokuplje and Kurshumlija were occupied, but the price was high.
The Brigade was quickly re-organized at that point. Formally, there were only two tank batallions now, but a bit later the 3rd batallion was re-formed from three light tank companies under Lt.Col. Ivan Momchilov. The next theater of operations for the Brigade was Podujevo. Difficult terrain and well dug-in Germans caused numerous losses. The repair crews could only do so much, despite working night and day and by the time the fighting was over, only 88 vehicles were operational. Many of the losses were caused by lack of parts, especially on the older tanks. While the Bulgarian army did reasonably well during its first serious operation, experienced German enemies were a tough nut to crack. After effectively defeating the SS division however, the Bulgarian 2nd Army, along with the armored brigade, did set its sights on Kosovo.
The Brigade was thrown into the heavy fighting around Podujevo and Kurshumlijska Banja next. The terrain was once again very difficult for tanks (only 82 vehicles “survived” this operation), but this is where the Czechoslovak light tanks shined. They actually did very well in the broken mountaineous terrain and this trait was fully used to the Bulgarian advantage. On 20.11.1944, the Brigade ran into Germans occupying Donje Ljupche. The area was bristling with AT-guns and the terrain was heavily mined. Lt.Col.Momchilov decided to bypass the defense by crossing the Kopaonik mountains. The slopes were hard for the tanks to cross, visibility was very low due to autumn mists, the tankers revved their engines and the vehicles were on the brink of overheating, while trying to climb up the sharp slopes – but the Bulgarians persevered. It was the light tanks that made this possible and the appearance of Bulgarian units behind the German lines shocked the defenders. Despite losing 4 tanks in this operation, the Bulgarians devastated the enemy and captured the area.
Next target was Pristina (Kosovo administrative center) and Mitrovica. After heavy fighting near Pristina, on 22.11.1944, the Brigade attacked Mitrovica. By that time however, the spare parts situation was catastrophic. While sources vary in their numbers, it is possible that in Mitrovica alone the Brigade lost around 20 tanks, which were effectively irrepairable, because there were no spare parts left. Either way, the campaign ended on 5.12.1944, when the Brigade was ordered to be demobilized and sent to Bulgaria, where it was disbanded.
When the whole campaign in Yugoslavia was over and all losses accounted for, Bulgaria irreversibly lost 20 tanks and 4 SPG’s. The Bulgarian 1st, 2nd and 4th armies fought in Yugoslavia – 287 thousand fighting men (some sources however claim as many as 455 thousand). To quote wikipedia now:
Southern and eastern Serbia and Macedonia were liberated within a month and the 130,000-strong Bulgarian First Army continued to Hungary, driving off the Germans and entering Austria in April 1945. Contact was established with the British Eighth Army in the town of Klagenfurt on 8 May 1945, the day the Nazi government in Germany capitulated. Then Gen. Vladimir Stoychev signed a demarkation agreement with British V Corps commander Charles Keightley.
One tank batallion was re-formed on 8.1.1945 under Lt.Col.Ivan Gyumbabov with 22 Panzer IV’s and 3 SPG’s (plus some trucks and recon). All the other tanks left from the Brigade were not fit for duty, because of their shape.
In March 1945, following vehicles were removed from the army lists: 32 Panzer IV’s, 13 Š-35 (Panzer 35t) and 3 Praga P-38 (Panzer 38t). In April 1945, more tanks were deactivated: 21 R-35 tanks, 3 “Vickers” tanks and 9 CV33/35 tankettes. Seven P-38′s were converted to ambulance and supply vehicles and 5 CV33/35 and 19 R-35′s were transferred to training units. In March 1945, before the Drava operation, the aforementioned batallion counted 25 Panzer IV tanks and the remaining StuG SPG’s were also transferred to the 1st Army.
In the following Mursk and Drava operations, in which the batallion took part in, some losses were replaced by captured tanks, notably the Panzer IV’s, StuG’s, but also some Jagdpanzer IV’s – but by then the war was practically over and Bulgaria was on its way to become one of the Soviet satellites.
After the war
Bulgarian army recieved their first T-34 tanks only after the war and when it came to tanks, it had to rely on captured or old vehicles up until the early 50′s (much like the armies of other Soviet soon-to-be satellites, such as Czechoslovakia). By 1946, the re-formed 1st Brigade was equipped with: 49 (in total) CV33/35, Panzer 35t, 38t and R-35 tanks, 57 Panzer IV’s of various versions (G,H,J), 15 Jagdpanzer IV’s and 5 StuG’s. By 1950, the Brigade still had 5 Panzer IV’s, the rest (65) were however T-34 tanks already.
Many of the old war tanks were actually converted into stationary posts on Greek and Turkish borders, probably in the 50′s. They stayed there until only recently, when some of them were recovered and they possibly can be seen (not sure if they are available yet openly) in the Jambol war museum (more pictures on this site):
Amongst them is probably the most original Bulgarian conversion – a Panzher IV with removed turret top and 76mm gun SU-76 gun instead of the original armament:
Epilogue: Bulgarian Panthers
The photo above was taken in November 1945 in Sofia. Right before the war ended, Bulgarian army allegedly recieved 15 captured Panthers from the Soviet army. It is not known how much (if at all) these Panthers served in the Bulgarian army, but at least one was used for training. It’s possible these vehicles were converted into stationary defenses in the Makaz pass between Bulgaria and Greece.
V.Shpakovskij, O.Ivanov: Bronetechnika Bolgarii 1935-1945
I.Pejčoch – Obrněná technika
Kalojan Matev – Bronetankova tekhnika 1935-1945
Various posts at Axis History Forum and valka.cz