During nearly the entire first year of World War II, Hitler's
primary concern with southeastern Europe was to avoid trouble in the area.
By the late summer of 1940, however, his attitude had begun to change. The
Soviet Union had annexed Bessarabia and northern Bucovina in June, and it
clearly intended to reach farther south and west at the first good opportunity.
Hitler, on the other hand, had started to think in terms of a conflict with
the USSR. In such an eventuality he would need security on his deep southern
flank, and above all he would need Romanian oil. He would still have preferred
to establish German hegemony in the Balkans without fighting, and he would
probably have succeeded in doing so had Benito Mussolini not made his bungling
attempt to invade Greece from Italian-occupied Albania on October 28.
The Italian attack was planned as a police action in the
style of the German triumphal march into Czechoslovakia. Its general purpose
was to show the world that Mussolini was not always dependent on Hitler: specifically,
it was intended to match the action of the Germans, who three weeks earlier
had unilaterally stationed troops in Romania, then under a joint German-Italian
guarantee. Hitler, who had been irritated by his Axis partner's unexpected move, became furious when the collapse of the
Italian offensive close to the Albanian-Greek border opened the way for the
development he wanted least of all, British intervention in Greece. The British
occupied Crete and Lemnos (Limnos) on October 31, and in the next few days
they established air units in southern Greece within bombing range of the
Romanian Ploesti oilfields. On November 4, Hitler ordered the German
Army High Command to begin preparing for an attack on Greece.
Faced with a delay of four or five months until good campaigning
weather returned, the Germans sought to open the approaches to the northern
Greek border by political means. In November, Hungary and Romania adhered
to the Tripartite Pact of the Axis (concluded by Germany, Italy, and Japan
in September). The Romanian dictator, Gen. (later Marshal) Ion Antonescu,
welcomed this insurance against the Soviet Union. Bulgaria, which was to provide
the actual staging area for the operation against Greece, hesitated to commit
itself in view of possible unfavorable Soviet and Turkish reactions. Hitler,
knowing that Bulgaria as one of the defeated nations in World War I would
find it difficult to refuse an opportunity to obtain revenge, was willing
to move slowly. German army engineers began bridging the Danube River on Feb.
28, 1941, and on March 1, just before German troops crossed the Romanian border
into the country, Bulgaria signed the Tripartite Pact.
In the case of Yugoslavia, Hitler was prepared to accept
limited adherence to the Axis, for all he required was the use of the Belgrade
(Beograd)-Nis-Salonika railroad. (Rail connections through Bulgaria
were poor.) The Yugoslav government resisted his overtures, but in mid-March,
after having refused several earlier invitations, it suddenly changed its
policy and offered to sign the Tripartite Pact. The ceremony was held in Vienna
on March 25. A day and a half later, on the night of March 26-27, a
military coup d'etat forced Prince Regent Paul into exile. Young King
Peter II was declared of age, and Gen. Dusan Simovic formed
a new government. While it did not denounce the recent adherence to the Tripartite
Pact, it refused to ratify Yugoslavia's signature.
On March 27, Hitler declared that he was determined "
to destroy Yugoslavia as a military power and a sovereign state, and
he ordered the Wehrmacht staffs to complete military preparations at the greatest
possible speed. Turning to their traditional protectors, the Russians, the
Yugoslavs sent a delegation to Moscow on April 3. They failed to obtain a
mutual assistance pact, however, and on April 5 were forced to accept instead
a relatively meaningless treaty of friendship and nonaggression. The next
day the German invasion began.
Campaign in Yugoslavia
A rugged, mountainous
terrain and wide-meshed, underdeveloped road and rail networks were Yugoslavia's
strongest potential defensive assets. Although these assets were to be important
during the years of guerrilla warfare, they did not serve to improve the country's
very difficult strategic position in April 1941. To defend a land frontier
of 1,700 miles the Yugoslav Army had a hypothetical maximum strength of 1,000,000.
Even if it had been able to call up that many men, it could not have armed
and equipped them. Since 1939 the army had been cut off from its principal
supplier of weapons and ammunition, the Skoda works in Czechoslovakia.
Nevertheless, the General Staff proposed to employ eight of its nine armies,
which at full strength were approximately equivalent to German corps, in a
linear defense of the entire frontier. In the first week of April, it rejected
a Greek plan to sacrifice most of the country for the sake of securing a strong
common front with the Greeks and the British in the south. Moreover, no matter
what the staff intended, deep-seated differences between the Serbian and Croatian
elements in the population threatened to divide both the army and the nation
as soon as war broke out.
When Gen. (later Field Marshal) Sir John Greer Dill, the
British chief of staff, visited Belgrade on April 1, he found the government
confused and almost apathetic. It seemed above all to wish to avoid provoking
the Germans in the forlorn hope that a conflict could still be avoided or
at least postponed. In the end, the only cooperation arranged between the
Yugoslav and Greek forces took the quixotic form of a projected joint offensive against the Italians in Albania.
For the Germans the operation against Yugoslavia, in full
swing 10 days after it was first ordered, was mainly an exercise in staff
virtuosity. The most difficult task was to shift the German Second Army, composed
of nine divisions under Col. Gen. (later Field Marshal) Maximilian von Weichs,
to the northern Yugoslav border. The divisions had to be moved by rail and
truck from France, Germany, and the Soviet border. The other major attack
force, consisting of the five divisions of the 1st Panzer Group under Col.
Gen. (later Field Marshal) Ewald von Kleist, was diverted from the assembly
for the attack on Greece.
The plan was for the Second Army to break through the Yugoslav
lines on a broad front north and northeast of Zagreb and to advance southward
between the Drava and Sava rivers toward Belgrade. The 1st Panzer Group was
to cross the border northwest of Sofia (Sofiya), Bulgaria, take Nis,
and thrust northward up the Morava Valley to Belgrade. A third force, the
41st Panzer Corps, taking the short route across the Romanian border from
the area south of Timisoara, was to converge on Belgrade from the northeast.
In the early morning hours of April 6, German planes bombed
Belgrade. They came in at rooftop level, and in an hour and a half killed
more than 17,000 of the city's inhabitants and almost completely destroyed
the Yugoslav High Command's communications with its forces in the field. The
1st Panzer Group crossed the border at daylight on April 8. While it encountered
the Yugoslav Fifth Army, one of the few fully mobilized Yugoslav units, rough
terrain and roadblocks proved to be the chief obstacles to its advance. After
taking Nis on April 9, it broke away rapidly to the north toward Belgrade.
In the meantime, another German force cut across southern Yugoslavia to divide
the country from Greece. The Yugoslavs had opened their Albanian offensive
on April 7, and for three days they made steady progress against the Italians.
The German Second Army launched local attacks on April 6,
but because some of its major elements were still on the way, it did not attack
in full strength until April 10. On that day, the Croat troops in the Yugoslav
Fourth and Seventh armies, stationed on the northern frontier, mutinied, and
by nightfall both armies had been dissolved. On the afternoon of April 10,
Second Army troops entered Zagreb, where a newly created Croat government
welcomed them as liberators. During the day, conceding by implication that
he had lost control of the situation, General Simovic called on all
Yugoslav units to engage the enemy "wherever they met him and by any means
without waiting for orders from higher headquarters.
German forces converged on Belgrade from three directions
on April 12. In the early evening an SS lieutenant from the 41st Panzer Corps
took a patrol into the capital, hoisted the swastika flag over the German
legation, and accepted the mayor's offer to surrender the city. On the morning
of the following day, Easter Sunday, German armored spearheads entered Belgrade.
The chief of the German Army General Staff noted in his diary that the campaign
was over: all that remained was the mopping up. The Second Army had three
columns moving westward and southwestward toward Sarajevo to block any attempt
to establish a front in the mountains, but it encountered only masses of troops
waiting to surrender. In some places fighting had broken out between Croat
and Serb units.
On April 14, Gen. Danilo Katafatovic took command
of the Yugoslav forces and opened negotiations for an armistice, which was
signed three days later. German casualties in the campaign totaled 558; those
of the Yugoslavs ran much higher. The Germans took 344,000 prisoners. The
Yugoslav Army had mobilized approximately 500,000 men, but many of them deserted
before the fighting ended. Others, following the national tradition, slipped
away to carry on guerrilla warfare. Chetnik (cetnici) units
had been organized before the invasion began, and later Partisan groups also
Campaign in Greece
The Greek High
Command was fully aware that Germany would not permit its ally, Italy, to
be embroiled in an embarrassing little war indefinitely. In mid-February 1941,
therefore, the Greeks seized their last chance and opened an offensive that
was intended to drive the Italians from Albania before the Wehrmacht could
intervene. The offensive made progress, but it was not sufficient. At the
turn of the month, German troops marched into Bulgaria, and a British expeditionary
force, which with earlier arrivals eventually numbered approximately 62,500
troops, began moving into Greece. Because of its fear of provoking the Germans,
the Greek government had previously been reluctant to accept large-scale British
The Greek Army, commanded by Gen. (later Field Marshal)
Alexander Papagos, had a total effective strength of 430,000 men. Unlike the
Yugoslav Army, it was fully mobilized and to some extent battle tested. Its
problem in countering a German attack was complicated by the psychological
and political necessity of defending the long northern frontier. The army
command believed that it could not voluntarily evacuate Albania, since to
do so would seem to concede victory to the Italians. On the other hand, it
was convinced that national morale would be equally damaged if it were to
give up the long tongue of Greek territory extending east of Salonika. There
the Metaxas Line covered the Bulgarian border. Built only for use in the event
of a war with Bulgaria, the line could not withstand a German attack, but
it had cost a great deal of money and in the popular mind had become a symbol
of national security. The British commander, Lt. Gen. (later Field Marshal)
Sir Henry Maitland Wilson (later 1st Baron Wilson of Libya and of Stowlangtoft)
lacked sufficient troops to close the gap between the front in Albania and
the Metaxas Line, and he therefore placed his forces in a short line facing
northeastward along the Vermion Mountains and the lower Aliakmon River. Apparently,
neither the Greeks nor the British had decided on a course of action if the
Germans attacked across the virtually undefended Yugoslav border, and it was
just there that one or two thrusts would outflank all three segments of the
The German Twelfth Army, under Field Marshal Wilhelm List,
executed the campaign in Greece. It had three corps headquarters commanding
12 divisions. In the assembly one corps was stationed southwest of Sofia,
to attack toward Skopje (Skoplje) in southern Yugoslavia and then southward
into Greece. The second was placed in the southwest corner of Bulgaria to
attack through and around the flank of the Metaxas Line toward Salonika, and
the third was moved close to the eastern end
of the Greek-Bulgarian border. The heavy concentration against the narrow
strip of territory east of Salonika resulted mainly from Hitler's desire to
defeat at the outset any British attempt to retain a foothold in northern
Greece or on the Aegean Islands, Thasos, Samothrace (Samothrake), and Lemnos.
The Twelfth Army attacked on April 6. The units moving toward
Skopje encountered the fully mobilized Yugoslav Third Army and became involved
in heavy fighting, as did those attacking the Metaxas Line frontally, but
everywhere the offensive made good progress. On April 9, Salonika fell, and
the Greek Second Army surrendered, thereby ending resistance on the Metaxas
Line and in all the territory east of Salonika.
The German corps advancing through southern Yugoslavia took
Skopje on April 7, and began turning south. On April 10, it attacked through
the Bitolj (Monastir) gap between the open flanks of the British line along
the Vermion Mountains, and the Greek front in Albania. The British immediately
began retreating toward Mount Olympus (Olymbos), and the next day the Greek
First Army decided to withdraw southward from Albania. When the Germans took
Metsovon Pass on April 21, the First Army's route of escape from the area
around and north of Ioannina was cut. The army surrendered the next day. The
British force retreated southward along the Aegean coast toward Athens (Athenai).
The Germans took the city and reached the Isthmus of Corinth on April 27,
and in three more days occupied the Peloponnesus (Peloponnesos). Most of the
12,000 British casualties were incurred during these last days, when the German
ground forces closed in, and the ships evacuating the troops were forced to
come toward shore without air cover. The Germans lost 1,100 men killed and
4,000 missing and wounded.
Greece was liberated by British troops from the Mediterranean
theater in late 1944.
Earl F. Ziemke
Historian, Office of the Chief of Military History
Department of the Army.
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