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Macedonia in World War II: Debar and the Skanderbeg Division

October 4, 2005

by Carl Savich

This brand new article from Serbian-American historian Carl Savich discusses little-known events in World War II-era Macedonia, and includes rare photos and details of the Albanian Skenderbeg Division and almost unknown Ljuboten Division. It is a must-read for all interested in the turbulent history of wartime Macedonia under fascist occupation, and includes interesting details regarding the history of Debar since Roman times.

Greater Albania and Illirida

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini created a Greater Albania during World War II. Western Macedonia, or Illirida, as the Albanians called it, was annexed to Greater Albania. Debar, Tetovo, Gostivar, Struga, and Kicevo were the key Macedonian towns and cities that were annexed. From June 29, 1941 to October 1944, Debar remained part of Greater Albania.The Italian occupation authorities delegated the civil authority and administration to the Albanian population. In Debar, Halil Alia was a key collaborator with the Italian and German occupation forces. All Albanian-inhabited territories, Western Macedonia (Illirida), Kosovo-Metohija (Kosova) and southern Montenegro were integrated completely into Albania proper. Albanian language schools, an Albanian press, and an Albanian radio network were established. An Albanian proxy governmental and political administration was created. Vulnetara, an Albanian paramilitary formation, was organized. Albanian police units were established by the Italian occupation forces.

Albanian became the official language as ‘Illirida’ became a part of Albania. The Albanian national flag, the double-headed black eagle on a red background, was raised in Debar and other cities and towns in Western Macedonia. The Albanian Lek was introduced as the official currency. Meanwhile, eastern Macedonia was occupied by Bulgarian military forces.

The Italian military intelligence service, OVRA (Opera Volantario per la Regressione Dell’ Autifasismo), formed an independent battalion in occupied Tetovo. The battalion was named “Ljuboten” and was a special unit made up of ethnic Albanians in the Tetovo region. The Ljuboten Battalion was financed from Tetovo municipal funds made available by Dzafer Sulejmani, the president of the Tetovo district under Italian occupation.

Gajur Derala, who had been born in Tetovo, was instrumental in the formation of the fascist Albanian Ljuboten Battalion in Tetovo. Derala had studied at the Yugoslav military academy before the war but had maintained contacts with Italian intelligence, OVRA. He subsequently fled to Albania and enlisted as a regular soldier in the Albanian army under King Zog. After the Italian occupation of Albania in 1939, he became an officer in the fascist Italian occupation forces. He became a committed fascist and swore his allegiance to Benito Mussolini.

Derala returned to Tetovo in 1941 as part of the Italian occupation forces. He joined the Ljuboten Battalion as a captain second class. Redzep Jusufi was also a key member of the Ljuboten Battalion. Jusufi had studied at Rome and Padua before returning to Tetovo to join the Battalion. Derala sought to form a Ljuboten Division and instructed hodza or Muslim cleric Bajrem Iljaziju from Gostivar to mobilize Albanian Muslims for the proposed division. This plan was not approved from Tirana so it was not carried out.

The Albanian recruits in the Battalion had no formal military training. What bound the Albanian recruits together was nationalism and an ideological commitment to creating a Greater Albania.

The Italian-created Albanian Axis/fascist Ljuboten Battalion was given the task of uncovering, questioning and annihilating any resistance to the occupation. After the surrender of Italy in September 8, 1943, the German forces retained this Albanian formation, allowing the unit to keep their Italian-issued uniforms and weapons. Members of the Balli Kombetar later joined the Ljuboten battalion. At the end of 1943, the Ljuboten unit was engaged in the attack on Kicevo in Macedonia. The German occupation forces used the Ljuboten Battalion, augmented by additional troops from the Balli Kombetar, to attack and dislodge partisan units in Kicevo. Kicevo was held by Petar Brajovic who commanded the partisan First Kosovo-Macedonian Brigade. The partisan forces intercepted the Ljuboten Battalion at Bukovici and decimated it.

The Italian occupation of Western Macedonia allowed the Albanian population to create an ethnic Albanian-ruled region. Albanian police and paramilitary units were formed as a proxy army by the Italian forces. The civil administration was entrusted by the Italians to Albanian leaders, and Albanian became the official language. The civil and police administration was taken over by ethnic Albanians; Albanian schools, newspapers, and radio stations were established. Debar was transformed into Dibra, an Albanian city in Greater Albania.

The German occupation forces retained the Albanian civil, political, military, and police control and administration of Western Macedonia. The Albanian national flag was flown, the official language was Albanian, and the Albanian Lek remained the official currency in Illirida. Rejeb Bey Mitrovica, however, was replaced by Fikri Dine as the Prime Minister of the Greater Albanian state occupied by the German Wehrmacht. The Albanian Minister of the Interior was Dzafer Deva, an Albanian Muslim from Kosovo. Mustafa Kruja and Mehdi Bey Frasheri also held high positions in the Albanian regime. Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who had replaced Reinhard Heydrich as the leader of the SD, was instrumental in setting up the Albanian Nazi Party, which replaced the Albanian Fascist Party that the Italian authorities had set up previously. Much of the civilian and military administration was exercised by ethnic Albanians during both the Italian and German occupations.

One battalion of the Skanderbeg Nazi SS Division was formed in Debar. A pioneer or engineer battalion from the Skanderbeg Division was based in Gostivar. In Tetovo, there were a total of 1,500 ethnic Albanian Waffen SS troops, members of the 1st Regiment of the Skanderbeg SS Division. What motivated the Albanian troops in Skanderbeg from Macedonia was the ideology of Greater Albania, the annexation of Western Macedonia, which they called Illirida, into a Greater or Ethnic Albania. These units fought against Macedonian and Kosovo partisan forces.

In Debar, there were 900 Albanian SS troops, in Gostivar, there were 1,000 Albanian SS troops, while in Struga there were 100. In Kicevo, there were 1,500 Albanian SS troops. The total number of Albanian SS troops in Western Macedonia was 5,000.

The Albanians made up the police force in Western Macedonia: In Debar, there were 16 members of the police force, in Gostivar 10, in Struga 11, in Tetovo 16, and in Kicevo, 5.

There were a total of 5,500 members of the Balli Kombetar in Macedonia, 2,000 of which were based in Tetovo. There were a total of 250 Albanian gendarme units, or armed police units, in Tetovo. An Albanian Battalion for Security made up of 800 members was based in Tetovo. In addition, there were 80 Albanian troops and border guards. The total number of Albanian police and paramilitary units in Tetovo during the German occupation was 4,646.

There were 300 German occupation troops stationed in Debar during World War II. There were 500 members of the Balli Kombetar in Debar. There were 200 Albanian gendarmes or police in Debar along with seven German Gestapo agents. The German Army only had 450 German troops and three Gestapo agents in Tetovo and a total of 2,180 troops and 34 Gestapo agents in all of Western Macedonia. Instead, the German occupation forces created a proxy army and police staff made up of ethnic Albanians, collaborationists who acted as the proxies for the German military forces. Like the Italian occupation forces had done before them, the German military was able to use the Albanian police and paramilitary forces as a proxy force.

Debar: Some History

Debar, known also as Bebar, Dibre-i-Bala and Dibra, is a small town located in central-western Macedonia, near the border with Albania proper. Debar was a key area of conflict during World War II and saw the deployment of the Skanderbeg SS Division.

Debar was referred to for the first time in the mid-2nd century in a map by Ptolemy as Deborus. In the time of the Byzantine Empire in the 11th century, in a charter of Emperor Basil II, Debar is recorded as a settlement in the Archbishopric of Bitola. In 1107, Bohemond of Antioch captured Debar during the First Crusade.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, Debar was at various times a part of Serbia, Bulgaria, and the Byzantine Empire. In 1449, Debar fell under the Ottoman Turkish Empire and was referred to as Dibri or Debra by the Turks. In 1502, Felix Petancic recorded the town as Dibri in his itinerary notes. In the 15th century, Gjergj Kastrioti, known as Skanderbeg, fought Ottoman Turkish forces in several major battles near Debar, which was an important frontline. Wealthy Turkish Agas and Beys lived in the town.

Economically speaking, Debar was an important urban center in the medieval era and was a key trading outpost which developed a crafts industry. Many merchants and travelers stopped in the town for lodging. There was a carsija or market bazaar in the town center, as was common in all Turkish towns. There were shops and stalls selling vegetables, fruit, and wares. It had narrow and curved streets and many inns, features which were also typical of Turkish towns.

The houses built in Debar had dolapi (wardrobe cabinets), minderlaci (closets), and chardaci (enclosed porches on the second story of Turkish houses). The town was divided into a Lower and Upper Debar. It was noted for its craftsmen, builders, and especially its woodcarvers. In fact, the ‘Debar School’ of Macedonian woodcarving became noted for its artistic excellence, and an amazing example of Macedonian woodcarving can be seen today in the nearby Monastery of St. Jovan Bigorski.

In the 19th century, there were rebellions against the Turks in Macedonia. In March 1822, Atanas Karatase and Angel Gacho led the Negush Uprising in which the town of Negush was seized. The Ottoman Turks retook the town and took away the women and children, who were resettled in other parts of Macedonia.

In the first half of the 19th century, Ami Boue (1794-1881), a noted German-born geologist who lived in France and was a naturalized Austrian citizen, traveled to the Balkans and sketched out detailed maps in his book La Turquie d’Europe, which was published in 1840 in Paris. Boue traveled to Debar and other parts of Macedonia and noted that Debar had a population of 4,200 in the early 19th century with 64 shops. By 1900, the population of Debar had increased to 15,500, which declined after World War I. In 1878, Albanian leaders from Debar participated in the Second League of Prizren in Kosovo, which enunciated a plan for the creation of an Ethnic or Greater Albania.

From June 29, 1941 to October, 1944, Debar and Struga were annexed to and made part of a Greater Albania created by Italy and Germany. From September 8, 1943 to November, 1944, German forces occupied the Italian areas once Italy surrendered. Debar thus came under German occupation at this time. The Italians integrated Debar into an Ethnic or Greater Albania in 1941 and placed the town under Italian and Albanian occupation and civil and military administration.

The Macedonian Slavic population fled the Albanian and Italian occupation, especially due to the terror and intimidation by local Albanian and Italian occupation forces. Macedonian refugees from Debar fled to Skopje which was under Bulgarian occupation. A refugee area for Macedonians fleeing from Debar was established in Skopje called Debarsko Maalo, or the Debar Neighborhood. Relatively unaffected by the earthquake of 1963, this neighborhood contains some of the best examples of classic Macedonian architecture and is a relaxing, tree-lined area complete with restaurants and cafˆšÂ©s.

Debar’s nearby towns and villages are Susica, Trnanic, Selokuki in the west, Krivci in the north, Vlasiki and Rajicki in the south, and Tatar Elevci in the east. The Radika and Crni Drim rivers flow near the town, which is surrounded by the Desat, Stogovo, and Jablanica mountains. There are nearby springs at Debarska Banja and gypsum crystal deposits.

Today, Debar has remained a volatile region of Albanian separatism and a base for Greater Albania ultra-nationalism. The KLA had bases around Debar in the late 1990s during the terrorist/separatist war in Kosovo-Metohija. The town’s proximity to the wild Albanian border has also made it a key place for cross-border arms smuggling since the early 1990’s.

Skanderbeg SS Division

The surrender of Italy on September 3, 1943 forced Germany to re-occupy Debar and Western Macedonia. The German forces wanted to recruit and enlist ethnic Albanians into proxy armies that would assist the German occupation. The Germans retained the Albanian “Ljuboten” battalion initially formed by the Italian occupation forces. The Waffen SS sought to incorporate the Albanian manpower of the region into Waffen SS formations, as a German proxy army to maintain the military occupation of the Macedonian and Serbian Orthodox Slavic populations.

In 1943, the German occupation authorities sponsored the formation of the Second League of Prizren, reviving the 1878 League. The Germans sought to use the racist, extremist, anti-democratic, anti-Orthodox, anti-Slavic agenda of the Greater Albania ideology to maintain and support their occupation of Kosovo and Western Macedonia.

In fact, Bedri Pejani, the president of the central committee of the Second League of Prizren, a militant and extremist Greater Albania ideologue, even wrote Himmler personally to request his assistance in establishing a Greater Albania and volunteering Albanian troops to work jointly with the Waffen SS and German Wehrmacht. Himmler read the Pejani letter and agreed to form two ethnic Albanian Waffen SS Divisions. Like Hitler and Mussolini, Himmler became an active sponsor of the Greater Albania ideology.

On April 17, 1944, Adolf Hitler approved the formation of the Albanian Skanderbeg SS Division after Reichsfuehrer SS Heinrich Himmler had requested it. The SS Main Office envisioned an Albanian division of 10,000 troops. The Balli Kombetar (National Front), the Albanian Committees, and the Second League of Prizren submitted the names of 11,398 recruits for the division. Of these, 9,275 were determined to be suitable for drafting into the Waffen SS. Of this number, 6,491 ethnic Albanians were actually drafted into the Waffen SS.

There was a battalion of Albanian Muslims from Debar which made up the Skanderbeg SS Division. A reinforced battalion of approximately 200-300 ethnic Albanians, the III/Waffen Gebirgsjaeger Regiment 50, serving in the Bosnian Muslim 13th Waffen Gebirgs Di
vision der SS “Handzar” or “Handschar” were transferred to the newly formed division. To this Albanian core were added veteran German troops from Austria and Volksdeutsche officers, NCOS, and enlisted men. The total strength of the Albanian Waffen SS Division would be 8,500-9,000 men.

Operation Fox Hunt

At the end of June, 1944, Enver Hoxha’s Communist Partisan units launched an offensive against Debar, where a strong German garrison was stationed along with Balli Kombetar troops. What resulted from the attack was the ascension of Fikri Dine to the post of Prime Minister of the German-sponsored Greater Albania. Dine was himself from the Debar area and was the leader of the Albanian clan chieftains in Debar. He took an active role in the German offensives against partisans in his own area of Debar in late 1943.

The German occupation forces accepted Dine with some hesitation but rejected his choice of Fuat Dibra as regent. On July 2, 1944, the German authorities forced the Albanian Parliament to elect Cafo Bey Ulqini, an Albanian Muslim from Kosovo. The Germans relied increasingly on Kosovo Albanian Muslims to run Greater Albania because they were the most fanatical and militant in creating a Greater Albania which Nazi Germany sponsored. The German occupation forces understood that the way to ensure Albanian loyalty and to recruit Albanian proxies was to advocate the annexation of Kosovo and Western Macedonia to a Greater Albania.

Consequently, the most committed supporters of the Nazi occupation forces were Kosovo Albanian Muslims and Balli Kombetar members. The three main German occupation leaders in Albania were SS leader Josef Fitzhum, Austrian troubleshooter Hermann Neubacher, and Martin Schliep of the German Foreign Ministry in Albania.

The new Dine administration alienated the German occupation forces by excluding Dzafer Deva from the new Cabinet. Deva was instrumental in the creation of the Nazi German-sponsored Second League of Prizren and was crucial in organizing the formation of the Skanderbeg SS Division. Deva was also a Kosovo Albanian Muslim who was committed to the Nazi cause because of his objective to create a Greater Albania.

The German forces saw the move as threatening the security of the German army in Greater Albania and of endangering German war aims. The German occupation provided the only stability and control in Greater Albania. Moreover, the removal of Deva threatened the formation of the Skanderbeg SS Division. The goal of the Dine regime was to create a viable military force under German control.

Meanwhile, Partisan units were operating in the Debar and Mati regions. Dine requested that the Germans provide him with weapons and tanks to create two mountain divisions. The Partisan resistance forces were gaining in strength as the German defeat became more and more certain with each passing day. By the end of July, German and Albanian nationalist Zogist forces attacked Mehmet Shehu’s first partisan brigade at Debar and drove them deep into Macedonia. The resistance forces, however, were weakened by an arms embargo that the British had imposed.

British liaison officers reported that the Debar engagement was directed primarily against German forces and convinced British headquarters based in Bari to re-supply the partisan forces.   By the end of July, British aircraft resumed weapons drops to the partisan forces around Debar. British RAF Beaufighter aircraft bombed Debar from August 10 to 11. The partisans were thus able to take the town.

The German forces and Dine planned a counteroffensive to retake Debar known as Operation Fuchsjagd or Operation Fox Hunt. The Germans launched the counterattack on August 18. The joint German and Albanian offensive was made up of two German regiments, the Skanderbeg SS Division, a nationalist formation from Debar under the command of Halil Alia, who was a close collaborator with the Italian fascist occupation authorities and the German Nazi forces, and 800-1,000 militia members allied to Abaz Kupi.

The Albanian units performed poorly because they were demoralized and poorly trained. The Germans could not muster enough troops themselves. The Germans called off the offensive on August 27. By August 30, the German and Albanian forces were compelled to retreat from Debar. The German and Albanian forces suffered an estimated 400 killed. They also were forced to abandon their equipment. The two-month battle over Debar was a defeat for the German and Albanian Axis troops. Operation Fox Hunt was a German/Albanian military disaster.

It was the last gasp of the German forces and their Albanian proxies to create a Greater Albania.

Partial Bibliography

Dzeletovic, Pavle. 21 SS. Divizija Skenderbeg (Beograd: Nova Knjiga), 1987

Fischer, Bernd. Albania at War, 1939-1945 (Purdue University Press), 1999

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