The Mutiny of the 13th SS Handschar Division at Villefranche de Rouergue
|Symbol of the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar
The Munity in Villefranche-de-Rourgeue is the name for the events that took place on September 17, 1943, in Villefranche-de-Rouge, a small town in occupied France when several members of the pioneer (engineering) battalion of the 13th SS "Handjar" division revolted against their German superiors, with the aim of joining the Allies or the French resistance movement. The rebellion was quickly and bloodily suppressed but after the war the inhabitants of the city celebrated the rebels as heroes and martyrs. After the disintegration of Yugoslavia, it was the subject of various interpretations and various theories about motives, goals, and organizers.
|The original memorial to the "Yugoslav combatants" in Villefranche unveiled in 1952
The Handzar Division was a "volunteer" SS division whose majority were Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) from the territory that was then officially part of the NDH and for which the official name "Croats of the Muslim Faith" was used. The purpose of the division's existence was both to help the Axis forces in the fight against partisans in the area of today's BiH, and to set a positive example to other Muslim nations in Europe and the Middle East to join the Axis against the Allies. The division was formed in the summer of 1943 and then sent for training to France. Its battalions were deployed in the departments of Aveyron and Lozere.
|Members of the division during their training
According to available testimonies, the leader of the uprising was Ferid Džanić, a former Home Guard lieutenant who, according to some sources, spent some time in the Yugoslav partisans before joining the "Handžar Division". His collaborators in planning and leading the uprising were Luftija Dizdarevic, Nikola Vukelic, and Bozo Jelinek. Most historians hold that Džanić and his comrades were either members or sympathizers of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia "inserted" into the ranks of the "Handžar" division in order to gather intelligence or sabotage its activities. In any case, after arriving in Villefranche, Džanić started coming to the local Hotel Moderne, where he eventually gained the trust and came into contact with members of the local resistance movement. After exposing the idea of raising a rebellion to them, he asked for contact with the allied forces and asked for help. Help was promised to him, but it was never realized. The revolt came seven days after the capitulation of Italy when it was thought that the Allies could use it as an opportunity to deliver a final blow to the Axis Powers.
After midnight On September 17, the rebels broke into the bedrooms of German officers, took their weapons, and captured them. They then told part of the men that British and French troops would land in southern France and persuaded them to join the rebellion. Part of the rebels deployed around the city as guards. Around 4:10 a.m., rebels shot German officers and non-commissioned officers. However, Imam Halim Malkoć and Dr. Schweiger managed to escape; they devised a plan to return control of the battalion to German hands. Malkoć came to the rebellious soldiers and told them that the news of the arrival of the Allies was a lie; to which the soldiers, (some even weeping) took up arms, swore allegiance to Hitler again, and set out to quell the rebellion. At around 7 o'clock, Dizdarevic and Dzanic were killed and Vukelic was captured. After only seven hours the rebellion was quelled.
|SS Handschar Imam Halim Malkoč addressing members of the division
Immediately after the uprising, Vukelic, Mujo Alispahic, Meho Memisevic, Philipp Njimac, Ivan Jurkovic, Alija Beganovic, Mustafa Moric, Sulejman Silajdzic, Jusuf Vucjak, Zemko Banjic, Efraim Basic, Ismet Cefkovic and Uzeir Mehicic were shot. Jelinek managed to escape and join the French resistance movement to obtain the rank of an officer; then he was decorated with the Legion of Honor. By the end of the month, German authorities had carried out a purge among the men. There are various figures on the executed insurgents - from 14, over 78 to 150. Of all the members of the division, 825 of them were confiscated weapons and transferred to the Todt Organization as forced labor in Germany; 265 of them who refused to do so were sent to the Neuengamme concentration camp where dozens died by the end of the war. Himmler awarded both Malkoč and Schweiger the Iron Cross Second Class for thwarting the mutiny. Five soldiers were also decorated.
|Members of the division on operations during May 1944
When Villefranche-de-Rouergue was liberated in 1944, the local population decided to pay tribute to the mutineers by naming one of its streets Avenue des Croates (Bosnian Muslims were seen by the local population as Croats of Islamic faith) and commemorating "the revolt of the Croats "every 17 September. Cohen states that after the war, the Yugoslav government requested it be changed to "the revolt of the Yugoslavs" in order to obscure the mutineers' ethnicity; this request was refused by the French. The Villefranche-de-Rouergue uprising was originally commemorated in the city with a monument designed by Croatian sculptor Vanja Radauš.
The munity in Villefranche was not the only revolt of the 13th SS Division. In October 1944, 100 members of the division in Cerna in present-day Croatia, led by Imam Abdulah Muhasilović, left their positions and went to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where they eventually surrendered to the partisans.