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Balkan Campaigns

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 were formed.

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 assistance.

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 Greek-British front.

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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