The Nazi Invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece
Axis military efforts in the Balkans, compared with the rest of Europe, had not gone well. Italy had invaded Greece in October 1940 but was pushed back into Albania. Germany then put pressure on Yugoslavia to join the Axis, as Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria had done earlier. Prince Regent Paul of Yugoslavia relented and signed the pact on March 25, 1941.
However, nationalist forces violently opposed the idea and carried out a coup. That led Hitler to view Yugoslavia as a hostile state he decided to bomb Belgrade in retribution. On April 6, 1941, the Axis Powers (Hungary, Italy, led by Germany) invaded Yugoslavia, killing thousands of civilians and soldiers and capturing another quarter million Yugoslav forces were unable to stop the bombardments or the advance of ground forces. The invasion ended with the unconditional surrender of the Royal Yugoslav Army on April 17.
On the same day, Axis forces invaded Greece through Bulgaria but initially was met with stiff resistance from Greek and British forces. Although the Axis ultimately succeeded in controlling the Balkans, the setbacks did delay Germany’s invasion of the USSR, which may have undermined Hitler’s quest to conquer Russia.
James Bonbright, Second Secretary in Belgrade (1941), describes his time within the city as it was targeted by the initial wave of attacks from the Nazis and what it was like living in the bombarded capital, including his everyday struggle for food and water. Herbert Brewster, Clerk in Embassy Athens (1940-42), discusses the tense atmosphere that permeated Athens in the time he was there.
Peter Jessup interviewed James Bonbright beginning in March 1986. Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed Herbert Brewster beginning in 1991. You can read other Moments on World War II.
“Unhappily for them, it was the death warrant and Hitler made it perfectly clear that he wasn’t going to accept this”
James Cowles Hart Bonbright, Second Secretary, Embassy Belgrade, 1941
Q: How much in the atmosphere was there that war was inevitably descending?
BONBRIGHT: It was pretty evident all the time. All winter the pressures kept mounting. The atmosphere was very bad. The government of the Prince Regent was leaning more and more towards the Axis, despite all our efforts and the efforts of the British legation….
Things came to a head in March, on the 25th. To our dismay, they [Yugoslavia] signed the Axis Pact. The reaction, however, rather surprised us, it was so strong, and two days later a revolt took place under the leadership of an Air Force General Simovich, who threw out the previous government and canceled the adherence to the Axis Pact.
In all my life I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a spontaneous roaring reaction to any event. The people poured into Belgrade from the towns all around it. Everybody in town was out on the street. I’ve never seen such jubilation. This was obviously very deeply felt. Unhappily for them, it was the death warrant for them, and Hitler made it perfectly clear that he wasn’t going to accept this.
Q: It was, in a way, an intense expression of nationalism, wasn’t it?
BONBRIGHT: Yes, I think so. These were very active days for us, and we were doing our best to keep in touch with the government and give them such moral support as we could. But in the end, April 5th, the British legation informed us that the German attack was expected on the next day. This information came from intercepts made of military messages….
“The whole city was a sitting duck”
Q: The British went to the coast because they could be evacuated by naval ships?
BONBRIGHT: Yes, a destroyer picked them up down there somewhere. I don’t think they were able to stop in Greece I think they went on to Egypt. If they got to Greece, it was for a very brief time. Yes, the Germans must have been down already towards Greece and Crete.
The next morning the British news proved to be correct. Around 7:00 o’clock the first waves of German bombers came up and down the Danube and flew over the city. There was practically no defense. There was a little anti-aircraft firing for a while, a handful of fighter planes went up and got into some dog fights, but they were put out of action in no time at all. I can’t say it was really any defense. Of course, as soon as any air defense was dissipated, anti-aircraft was inconsequential.
There was nothing to prevent the German planes from flying as low as they pleased. The whole city was a sitting duck. A day or two before the invasion, the government had declared that Belgrade and Ljubljana and Zagreb as open cities in hopes that they would not be bombed. This was a gesture which many Germans ignored. The only real meaning it had was in connection with Belgrade. There was never any danger of either Zagreb or Ljubljana being bombed. The Croatian Ustashi movement [an ultra-nationalist, terrorist organization] was already going strong, and they, of course, were far from being a danger to the Germans.
There was a heavy bombardment in the morning and another one around 11:00 that same morning and a third one around 4:00 that afternoon, and then one more the following morning, and that was it. It was plenty….
Most of the bombing was in the residential and business sections. There were no possible military targets there. A few large bomb shelters had been dug, and some of these were hit. Of course, many, many people were sheltered. The whole city was on fire practically, and there was a very strong wind blowing, which looked as though the fire would do even more damage than the bombs. Oddly enough, the fires didn’t spread all that much after the first day or so….
The guesses [on fatalities] ranged from 3,000 to 20,000 we thought that the first one was too low and the second one was too high. The German legation themselves, I think, estimated about 7,000, which may have been about right. They ought to know.
Anyway, as far as the first attack, we were all pretty well confined to our homes. When things eased off momentarily, we all headed for town to the Minister’s [equivalent of a head of mission] residence, where we found him and Mrs. Lane safe, but it had been a close call. They lived in a row of townhouses, and the house on one side of them had been hit, and the explosion pulled the wall out of part of the Minister’s house. It was still habitable, but not really in very good shape. It was decided then that it was a poor place for them to be, and they went out to Dedinje and took up [there]….
It was a good time to move, because the morning after that…the house on the other side of the Minister’s residence was hit, pulling out that wall. So he would have been in a bad way. It looked as though they were aiming for him, we thought. [That] was on Easter Sunday, April 6th.
After we got the Minister started packing up and out, I drove down to the middle of the city to have a look at the damage, and it was very, very considerable — tangled wires, poles in the streets, a lot of fire, a lot of broken glass. I was luckily able to help a few people move away from the center out further to the outskirts of the city.
“We lived on dried beans and rice and a salad made of dandelion greens”
I also wanted to see what was going on in the Foreign Office, to see if there was anything there we could do. I ran there into Stoyan Gavrilovich, who had been a good friend of ours, and he was the top sort of political career man and well-liked. But the place had gone crazy. Nobody was in charge everybody was going his own way as best he could….
I had gotten to Dr. Gavrilovich, and I was happy to give him a ride. I didn’t tell anyone this at the time, but he did not ask to be taken to his home where his wife and children were. I took him to the home of his girlfriend. We got her out of her house, and she had some family out on the outskirts somewhere. I took her out there and we dropped her off. As a result of this — I can think of no other reason — long after, I received a commendation for aiding the government, obviously written by my friend Gavrilovich.
Everything pretty well stopped of a normal time and for a few days there we spent most of our time scrounging around for food and water. Electricity, of course, was out. We all had put in our houses a limited supply of dried beans and rice, those sorts of staples, and luckily there was a roadside spring which was only a couple of miles from our house. There we filled up these big five-gallon demi-jugs of good water and filled all our tubs and anything that would hold water for the houses. So that helped.
For greenery and vegetables, of course, we had nothing, no meat, nothing. So for quite a while, we lived on these dried beans and rice and a salad made of dandelion greens, which were all over our garden by the thousands. They were a welcome addition to the diet, but I’ve never looked at one since with any desire to taste it. They’re not my favorite.
“The Yugoslav uprising upset the German timetable — That delay may have been an important gain for the Russian defense”
Q: At this time were roads south and west clogged with people fleeing in anticipation of the Germans, or were they just staying there?
BONBRIGHT: They were out in the country. They didn’t have much warning. There was no place for them to go. At the end, when the troops got closer, of course, people from towns in the way, there was some influx of refugees, but I don’t think it was anything like what it was in France.
The Germans did a little harassing. They never stopped trying to take our automobiles away from us, even though we had the American flag and had papers attesting to the source. But by screaming loudly and demanding to see a superior officer and constant protests to the German minister in the town, they finally let us alone pretty much.
Eventually — it wasn’t too damn long either — it was about a month we were there like that, then the Army disintegrated in the field, so Colonel Fortier came back after only a couple of days from the staff. The government, they got down to the coast and some of them, including my friend Gavrilovich, were evacuated by the British destroyer. So Fortier came back, and there we were. Not much to do.
I used to go every day to the meeting of these colleagues, where there was a lot of talk and absolutely nothing accomplished. Finally, the Germans got sick of having us around.
Q: As they had in Brussels.
BONBRIGHT: Yes. They wanted us to get out. This was quite understandable, I think.
I should say here that I’ve wondered many times since what would have happened if General Simovich had not led a revolt that overthrew the Axis Pact. In the long-run, of course, he would have lost the war, just as other countries of that area did.
But physically, they would probably not have taken the beating that they took from the German Air Force. From our point of view, there is one very clear and definite advantage that came out of it: the Yugoslav uprising upset the German timetable. They launched their invasion of Russia about June  and we always thought that they had planned to start it sooner.
This diversion created delays for them, not only the troops that were sent in to Yugoslavia, but when they came in, they had to be taken out again and got into the pipelines, so to speak. That following winter, that delay may have been an important gain for the Russian defense.
“We burned all of our cables, we disposed of things, that was one of our big chores”
Herbert Daniel Brewster, Clerk, Embassy Athens, 1940-1942
Q: How did we react when the Germans came through, defeated the Yugoslavs and came down? What did the Embassy do?
BREWSTER: The Germans move went through Yugoslavia and arrived at the Greek border April 6, 1941. It took them 22 days to make it to Athens and raise the swastika on the Acropolis.
With their very fast move through and with the British retreating, we were by that time looking at the job of taking over British interests. It was obvious that we would be doing that as long as we could.
It was a hectic wartime period. We burned all of our cables, we disposed of things, those were our big chores. The Germans came through. One sidebar on it is that the British left 80 cars down on the beach at Varkiza as they pulled out on the ships. The Embassy had thirteen people and we were able to sequester one car apiece. It was my first vehicle — a 1937 Ford convertible. I did not know how to drive but I got an Embassy driver who helped me learn fast. But that was April 27 and we were closed down by June 10th.
We were closed down because the United States closed down the Italian Consulate General in Chicago, and the Italians equated Athens with the consulate general. They said, “You do that and we will kick you out.” And so we left. This was six months before Pearl Harbor.
Q: In the meantime, did we have much to do with the German occupying army or the Italian occupiers?
BREWSTER: With the Italians. The Germans went right through and turned over matters to the Italians administratively, so we did have some actions with the Italians at that point. They were the ones who communicated the order to close down it may have come from Rome.
So everybody there [in the embassy]…went to Rome and then waited for eight weeks for visas to go through the occupied Balkans to Istanbul and Cairo, respectively….Burton Berry came to Istanbul and opened a listening post there for the Balkans.
Q: Before you left Greece, during the time of the occupation, what was the attitude of the Greeks?
BREWSTER: They were mourning the Greek-Albanian front campaign, which was still going on. There were heavy losses in that battle. You were in a war situation. When the British left, many soldiers hid in Greek homes and were around and the Italians were trying to round them up. Many preferred to stay there or didn’t get away in time.
In fact I was on a trolley one day and because I looked like someone who could very well have been a British soldier who had gotten lost, there was someone in the back making signs to me to get off, get off. Finally I did get off, and he came around and said, “They are looking for you I know that man, he’s with the secret police and they are after you”. (They had some Greeks who were working with the other side.)
Nothing happened from it, but it was the sort of atmosphere you were in. It was tense.
The Nazi Invasion of the Balkans & Yugoslavia – A Costly Victory
In early 1941, Adolf Hitler could look at a map of Eastern Europe and think that his plans were progressing nicely. The invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa, was coming in a few short months, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria had joined the Tripartite Pact, and Yugoslavia’s government signed on to the same on March 25 th , 1941.
Perhaps the only problem was the Italians’ stalled invasion of Greece from Albania, which began in October 1940. In fact, the Greek Army had counter-attacked and were pushing the Italians well back into Albania. But plans were already in place for the German military to sweep in from Bulgaria and take care of what the Italians couldn’t. Hitler knew he needed to control Mediterranean ports if the North Africa Campaign was to be won.
But two days after Yugoslavia signed the Tripartite Pact, there was a coup d’état by the mostly Serbian military who favored solidarity with Greece and closer ties to the rest of the Allied nations. Now, Hitler felt personally wronged and began a new plan for a simultaneous invasion of both Yugoslavia and Greece, which began on April 6 th , 1941.German lines of attack into Yugoslavia and Greece, April 6th, 1941.
Known as the Balkan Campaign, the German invasion of these two countries happened relatively swiftly and with great success. However, Hitler came to blame the necessity for these actions, because the Italians couldn’t conquer Greece alone, for the failure of Operation Barbarossa and the loss to Russia.
Destroyed Yugoslavian Renault NC tank. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de
Yugoslavia, though dominated government and military by the people of Serbia was also comprised of the Slovenian and Croatian people. All these people now have their own nations as well as the other small nations of former Yugoslavia. Even before the German invasion, Croats and Slovenes began rebelling against Serbian rule. Croatia formed its own government and aligned with the Nazis. Huge portions of Yugoslavia’s army mutinied when the invasion commenced.
The invasion began with a massive aerial bombing of Belgrade in which tens of thousands of civilians were killed.
Very little organized resistance met the Germans outside of ethnic Serbs fighting in Serbia. So despite having 700,000 troops, though many poorly trained and equipped, before the invasion, Yugoslavian resistance crumbled very quickly and ended in just 12 days.
German Panzer IV of the 11th Panzer Division advancing into Yugoslavia from Bulgaria as part of the Twelfth Army. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de
Yugoslavia did have a compelling strategy if faced with an overwhelming German invasion: retreat from all fronts except the Southern, advancing on the Italian positions in Albania, meet up with the Greek army and build a substantial Southern front. But due to the rapid fall of the country and inadequate gains against the Italian Army, this move failed and Yugoslavia surrendered to Germany.
The Greeks fared somewhat better due in large part to a kingdom far less divided, and to substantial support from British Imperial forces, including from Australian, New Zealand, Palestine, and Cyprus.
Greek soldiers retreating in April 1941. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de
The British, however, were not able to commit nearly enough troops to the defense of Greece and the deployment of over 60,000 men was heavily criticized and seen as a largely symbolic gesture of support to fight a “gentleman’s war” of honor that was sure to be lost.
The Greeks had a formidable front line defense along their Northeastern border with Bulgaria called the Metaxas Line. Similar to the Maginot Line in France, it featured pillboxes and other fortifications. But the Greeks, who had the bulk of their army fighting the Italians in Albania to the West, were not nearly prepared to defend it well. They did so anyway, despite British requests to form a shorter, more concentrated line further into the Greek mainland.
German artillery firing during the advance through Greece. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de
Germany’s blitzkrieg warfare pushed, front by front, down the East side of Greece, gradually defeating the underequipped Greeks and Numerically inferior British over several weeks. They reached Athens on April 27 th .
The Reich’s road to victory on the Greek mainland (Crete didn’t fall until June 1 st , 1941) would have been much slower had things fared better for the Allies to the North and West. The swift collapse of Yugoslavia was not anticipated and German forces sweeping in across that border were in a position to flank the Greeks and British fighting to the East and the Greek army fighting the Italians to the West.
Devastation after the German bombing of Piraeus.
The Greeks, reluctant to concede to the Italian army they had been fairing so well against, wouldn’t pull back their front until it was too late and the Germans advancing from Yugoslavia flanked them and forced their surrender.
There is an unconfirmed legend that when the Germans entered Athens and marched to the Acropolis to raise the Nazi flag, an Evzone soldier (elite Greek infantry) named Konstantinos Koukidis lowered the Greek flag and refused to surrender it to the German officer. He wrapped himself in the flag and jumped off the Acropolis to his death.
With stories like this, a long recent history of enduring occupation by outside nations like Venice and the Ottoman Empire, and actions from Germany like allowing the Greek army to surrender to them and not Italy and to disband and go home instead of being taken as prisoners, allowed Greece to save pride.
German paratroopers land in Crete. By Wiki-Ed – CC BY-SA 3.0
According to the 1995 book Greece 1940-41: Eyewitness, by Maria Fafalios and Costas Hadjipateras, on the eve of the Germans entering the capital, Athens Radio aired this message:
”You are listening to the voice of Greece. Greeks, stand firm, proud and dignified. You must prove yourselves worthy of your history. The valor and victory of our army have already been recognized. The righteousness of our cause will also be recognized. We did our duty honestly. Friends! Have Greece in your hearts, live inspired with the fire of her latest triumph and the glory of our army.
Greece will live again and will be great because she fought honestly for a just cause and for freedom. Brothers! Have courage and patience. Be stout-hearted. We will overcome these hardships. Greeks! With Greece in your minds, you must be proud and dignified. We have been an honest nation and brave soldiers”.
In the so-called Independent State of Croatia, the Ustasa leadership instituted a reign of chaotic terror so extensive that German and Italian troops essentially had to administer the countryside. The Ustasa regime murdered or expelled hundreds of thousands of Serbs residing in its territory. In rural areas, Croatian military units and Ustasa militia burned down entire Serbian villages and killed the inhabitants, frequently torturing men and raping women. In all, Croat authorities killed between 320,000 and 340,000 ethnic Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina between 1941 and 1942.
By the end of 1941, Croat authorities had incarcerated about two-thirds of the approximately 32,000 Jews of Croatia in camps throughout the country (Jadovno, Kruscica, Loborgrad, Djakovo, Tenje, Osijek, and Jasenovac. The Ustasa murdered between 12,000 and 20,000 Jews in the Jasenovac system of camps, located roughly 60 miles from the Croat capital, Zagreb. In two operations—August 1942 and May 1943—Croatian authorities transferred about 7,000 Jews into German custody. The Germans deported these Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Approximately 3,000 Croat Jews evaded these deportations, largely because they were exempted from the deportations due to intermarriage or other reasons, or because they managed to flee to the Italian-occupied zone of Yugoslavia.
Generally rejecting or evading German demands to transfer Jews from these areas, Italian authorities instead assembled some of the Jewish refugees in a camp on the island of Rab off the Adriatic coast. Italian authorities removed a few hundred Jewish refugees in the Italian zone to refugee camps in southern Italy. After the Italian government surrendered to the Allies in September 1943, the rapid Allied occupation of southern Italy liberated these Jews. After the Italian surrender, the Germans occupied the Italian zone of Yugoslavia. Yugoslav Partisans liberated some 3,000 Jews from Rab before the Germans could occupy the island, and assisted them in avoiding capture.
Croat authorities also murdered virtually the entire Roma (Gypsy) population of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, at least 25,000 men, women and children, between 15,000 and 20,000 of them in the Jasenovac camp system.
Central Europe and the Balkans, 1940–41
The continued resistance of the British caused Hitler once more to change his timetable. His great design for a campaign against the U.S.S.R. had originally been scheduled to begin about 1943—by which time he should have secured the German position on the rest of the European continent by a series of “localized” campaigns and have reached some sort of compromise with Great Britain. But in July 1940, seeing Great Britain still undefeated and the United States increasingly inimical to Germany, he decided that the conquest of the European part of the Soviet Union must be undertaken in May 1941 in order both to demonstrate Germany’s invincibility to Great Britain and to deter the United States from intervention in Europe (because the elimination of the U.S.S.R. would strengthen the Japanese position in the Far East and in the Pacific). Events in the interval, however, were to make him change his plan once again.
While the invasion of the U.S.S.R. was being prepared, Hitler was much concerned to extend German influence across Slovakia and Hungary into Romania, the oil fields of which he was anxious to secure against Soviet attack and the military manpower of which might be joined to the forces of the German coalition. In May 1940 he obtained an oil and arms pact from Romania but, when Romania, after being constrained by a Soviet ultimatum in June to cede Bessarabia and northern Bukovina to the U.S.S.R., requested a German military mission and a German guarantee of its remaining frontiers, Hitler refused to comply until the claims of other states against Romania had been met. Romania was compelled to cede southern Dobruja to Bulgaria on August 21 (an act that was formalized in the Treaty of Craiova on September 7) but its negotiations with Hungary about Transylvania were broken off on August 23. Since, if war had broken out between Romania and Hungary, the U.S.S.R. might have intervened and won control over the oil wells, Hitler decided to arbitrate immediately: by the Vienna Award of August 30, Germany and Italy assigned northern Transylvania, including the Szekler district, to Hungary, and Germany then guaranteed what was left of Romania. In the face of the Romanian nationalists’ outcry against these proceedings, the king, Carol II, transferred his dictatorial powers to General Ion Antonescu on Sept. 4, 1940, and abdicated his crown in favour of his young son Michael two days later. Antonescu had already repeated the request for a German military mission, which arrived in Bucharest on October 12.
Though Hitler had apprised the Italian foreign minister, Galeazzo Ciano, of his intention to send a military mission to Romania, Ciano had not apprised Mussolini. So, since the latter’s Balkan ambitions had been continually restrained by Hitler, particularly with regard to Yugoslavia, the sudden news of the mission annoyed him. On Oct. 28, 1940, therefore, having given Hitler only the barest hints of his project, Mussolini launched seven Italian divisions (155,000 men) from Albania into a separate war of his own against Greece.
The result was exasperating for Hitler. His ally’s forces were not only halted by the Greeks, a few miles over the border, on Nov. 8, 1940, but were also driven back by General Alexandros Papagos’ counteroffensive of November 14, which was to put the Greeks in possession of one-third of Albania by mid-December. Moreover, British troops landed in Crete, and some British aircraft were sent to bases near Athens, whence they might have attacked the Romanian oil fields. Lastly, the success of the Greeks caused Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, who had hitherto been attentive to overtures from the Axis powers, to revert to a strictly neutral policy.
Anticipating Mussolini’s appeal for German help in his “separate” or “parallel” war, Hitler in November 1940 drew Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia successively into the Axis, or Tripartite, Pact that Germany, Italy, and Japan had concluded on September 27 (see below Japanese policy, 1939–41) and he also obtained Romania’s assent to the assembling of German troops in the south of Romania for an attack on Greece through Bulgaria. Hungary consented to the transit of these troops through its territory lest Romania take Hungary’s place in Germany’s favour and so be secured in possession of the Transylvanian lands left to it by the Vienna Award. Bulgaria, however, for fear of Soviet reaction, on the one hand, and of Turkish, on the other (Turkey had massed 28 divisions in Thrace when Italy attacked Greece), delayed its adhesion to the Axis until March 1, 1941. Only thereafter, on March 18, did the Yugoslav regent, Prince Paul, and his ministers Dragiša Cvetković and Aleksandar Cincar-Marković agree to Yugoslavia’s adhesion to the Axis.
Meanwhile, the German 12th Army had crossed the Danube from Romania into Bulgaria on March 2, 1941. Consequently, in accordance with a Greco-British agreement of February 21, a British expeditionary force of 58,000 men from Egypt landed in Greece on March 7, to occupy the Olympus–Vermion line. Then, on March 27, 1941, two days after the Yugoslav government’s signature, in Vienna, of its adhesion to the Axis Pact, a group of Yugoslav Army officers, led by General Dušan Simović, executed a coup d’état in Belgrade, overthrowing the regency in favour of the 17-year-old king Peter II and reversing the former government’s policy.
Almost simultaneously with the Belgrade coup d’état, the decisive Battle of Cape Matapan took place between the British and Italian fleets in the Mediterranean, off the Peloponnesian mainland northwest of Crete. Hitherto, Italo-British naval hostilities in the Mediterranean area since June 1940 had comprised only one noteworthy action: the sinking in November at the Italian naval base of Taranto of three battleships by aircraft from the British carrier Illustrious. In March 1941, however, some Italian naval forces, including the battleship Vittorio Veneto, with several cruisers and destroyers, set out to threaten British convoys to Greece and British forces, including the battleships Warspite, Valiant, and Barham and the aircraft carrier Formidable, likewise with cruisers and destroyers, were sent to intercept them. When the forces met in the morning of March 28, off Cape Matapan, the Vittorio Veneto opened fire on the lighter British ships but was soon trying to escape from the engagement, for fear of the torpedo aircraft from the Formidable. The battle then became a pursuit, which lasted long into the night. Finally, though the severely damaged Vittorio Veneto made good her escape, the British sank three Italian cruisers and two destroyers. The Italian Navy made no more surface ventures into the eastern Mediterranean.
The German attack on Greece, scheduled for April 1, 1941, was postponed for a few days when Hitler, because of the Belgrade coup d’état, decided that Yugoslavia was to be destroyed at the same time. While Great Britain’s efforts to draw Yugoslavia into the Greco-British defensive system were fruitless, Germany began canvasing allies for its planned invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece. Italy agreed to collaborate in the attack, and Hungary and Bulgaria agreed to send troops to occupy the territories that they coveted as soon as the Germans should have destroyed the Yugoslav state.
On April 6, 1941, the Germans, with 24 divisions and 1,200 tanks, invaded both Yugoslavia (which had 32 divisions) and Greece (which had 15 divisions). The operations were conducted in the same way as Germany’s previous blitzkrieg campaigns. While massive air raids struck Belgrade, List’s 12th Army drove westward and southward from the Bulgarian frontiers, Kleist’s armoured group northwestward from Sofia, and Weichs’s 2nd Army southward from Austria and from western Hungary. The 12th Army’s advance through Skopje to the Albanian border cut communications between Yugoslavia and Greece in two days Niš fell to Kleist on April 9, Zagreb to Weichs on April 10 and on April 11 the Italian 2nd Army (comprising 15 divisions) advanced from Istria into Dalmatia. After the fall of Belgrade to the German forces from bases in Romania (April 12), the remnant of the Yugoslav Army—whose only offensive, in northern Albania, had collapsed—was encircled in Bosnia. Its capitulation was signed, in Belgrade, on April17.
In Greece, meanwhile, the Germans took Salonika (Thessaloníki) on April 9, 1941, and then initiated a drive toward Ioánnina (Yannina), thus severing communication between the bulk of the Greek Army (which was on the Albanian frontier) and its rear. The isolated main body capitulated on April 20, the Greek Army as a whole on April 22. Two days later the pass of Thermopylae, defended by a British rear guard, was taken by the Germans, who entered Athens on April 27. All mainland Greece and all the Greek Aegean islands except Crete were under German occupation by May 11, the Ionian islands under Italian. The remainder of Britain’s 50,000-man force in Greece was hastily evacuated with great difficulty after leaving all of their tanks and other heavy equipment behind.
The campaign against Yugoslavia brought 340,000 soldiers of the Yugoslav Army into captivity as German prisoners of war. In the campaign against Greece the Germans took 220,000 Greek and 20,000 British or Commonwealth prisoners of war. The combined German losses in the Balkan campaigns were about 2,500 dead, 6,000 wounded, and 3,000 missing.
German airborne troops began to land in Crete on May 20, 1941, at Máleme, in the Canea-Suda area, at Réthimnon, and at Iráklion. Fighting, on land and on the sea, with heavy losses on both sides, went on for a week before the Allied commander in chief, General Bernard Cyril Freyberg of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, was authorized to evacuate the island. The last defenders were overwhelmed at Réthimnon on May 31. The prisoners of war taken by the Germans in Crete numbered more than 15,000 British or Commonwealth troops, besides the Greeks taken. In battles around the island, German air attacks sank three light cruisers and six destroyers of the British Mediterranean fleet and damaged three battleships, one aircraft carrier, six light cruisers, and five destroyers.
Both the Yugoslav and the Greek royal governments went into exile on their armies’ collapse. The Axis powers were left to dispose as they would of their conquests. Yugoslavia was completely dissolved: Croatia, the independence of which had been proclaimed on April 10, 1941, was expanded to form Great Croatia, which included Srem (Syrmia, the zone between the Sava and the Danube south of the Drava confluence) and Bosnia and Hercegovina most of Dalmatia was annexed to Italy Montenegro was restored to independence Yugoslav Macedonia was partitioned between Bulgaria and Albania Slovenia was partitioned between Italy and Germany the Baranya triangle and the Bačka went to Hungary the Banat and Serbia were put under German military administration. Of the independent states, Great Croatia, ruled by Ante Pavelić’s nationalist Ustaše (“Insurgents”), and Montenegro were Italian spheres of influence, although German troops still occupied the eastern part of Great Croatia. A puppet government of Serbia was set up by the Germans in August 1941.
While Bulgarian troops occupied eastern Macedonia and most of western Thrace, the rest of mainland Greece, theoretically subject to a puppet government in Athens, was militarily occupied by the Italians except for three zones, namely the Athens district, the Salonika district, and the Dimotika strip of Thrace, which the German conquerors reserved for themselves. The Germans also remained in occupation of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Melos, and Crete.
Balkan Campaign, Spring 1941
Yugoslavia was a member of the Axis alliance with Germany. However, in late March 1941, the Yugoslav government was toppled by an anti-German military coup. In addition, an attack on Greece by Italy (Germany's ally) in October 1940 was turned back. A Greek counterattack threatened Italian positions in the Balkans. Germany then decided to intervene in the Balkans in order to secure a southeastern flank for military operations against the Soviet Union.
D-Day’s forgotten Greeks
The invasion of Normandy was famous for the huge multinational Allied force that landed on the beaches of northern France. Although the vast majority of the military personnel involved were American, British or Canadian, representatives from 13 Allied countries took part in the events of 6 June 1944. One of the smaller forces was a Greek naval contingent who provided two warships to assist the landings.
An Exiled Navy
Greece had had a tortured war by 1944, which began when Italy invaded the country in October 1940. The Greek Army had managed to halt the Italians but their success forced Nazi Germany to intervene. German forces invaded Yugoslavia and Greece in April 1941 and both countries were overrun within a month. Greece was occupied and divided between Germany, Italy and Bulgaria while the Greek government was forced into exile.
After the German occupation of Greece, the Royal Hellenic Navy often had to perform escort missions with antiquated vessels such as RHN Georgios Averof, an armoured cruiser that had been commissioned in 1911
Nevertheless, determined military opposition against the occupation developed in the form of the Greek Resistance while the exiled Greek Armed Forces regrouped in the Middle East under British command. Three Greek brigades and a special forces unit were created during the war and they fought with distinction during the North African and Italian campaigns.
Even more impressive was the survival and contribution of the Royal Hellenic Navy. During the German invasion of 1941, the navy had lost over 20 ships within a few days but a substantial number of vessels were saved. This included a cruiser, six destroyers, five submarines and several support ships. This fleet was subsequently expanded with more vessels, including minesweepers, that were provided by the Royal Navy. In time, the Royal Hellenic Navy numbered 44 ships and over 8,500 personnel, which made it the second-largest Allied navy in the Mediterranean theatre. Despite Greece being under a brutal occupation, it’s navy accounted for 80 percent of all non-Royal Navy operations in the Mediterranean Sea.One of the larger Greek naval ships was the destroyer RHN Vasilissa Olga, which served in the invasions of Sicily, mainland Italy and the Dodecanese Campaign
Greek warships that served under the Royal Navy were crewed by competent sailors, naval officers and Merchant Marine reservists. They gained considerable experience and respect from serving not just in the Mediterranean but also in the Arctic, Atlantic and Indian oceans by escorting Allied convoys. Consequently, when plans were drawn up for D-Day, the Greeks were unhesitatingly included.
Kriezis and Tombazis
The Royal Hellenic Navy would be directly involved in Operation Neptune, which was the codename for the largest seaborne invasion in history on 6 June 1944. 6,939 vessels were in the Allied armada along with 195,700 naval personnel. The Greek naval presence consisted of just two corvettes – RHN Tombazis and RHN Kriezis – but they still had to carry out a significant mission.
The two vessels were Flower-class corvettes, which were small, lightly-armed warships that were primarily used for escorting convoys. They had been transferred to the Royal Hellenic Navy from the Royal Navy in 1943 and had just completed escorting Atlantic convoys when they were called upon to take part in Neptune.RHN Kriezis and RHN Tombazis were British-built Flower-class corvettes. This pictured example from c.1942-43 is HMCS Regina of the Royal Canadian Navy. The two Greek ships would have looked very similar in appearance
The ships’ captains had received detailed instructions in April 1944 and were largely based in Portsmouth until the invasion date was confirmed. On 5 June 1944, the corvettes received a secret signal that Operation Overlord was going to commence .
The Greeks were tasked with escorting other warships and landing vessels to Gold Beach where the British 50th Infantry Division would land. This was a dangerous task because the Germans had sown vast minefields in the English Channel and minesweepers would first have to pave safe channels for the invasion fleet.
An aerial view of Gold Beach during the landings of the British 50th Infantry Division
Kriezis and Tombazis departed from the Isle of Wight with other ships in the early hours of 6 June and sailed under radio silence. The waters of the English Channel were stormy but the Greek ships were among the first to follow the minesweepers through a safe channel.
At 05.30am the convoy emerged out of the minefield and began bombarding the French coast and the first waves of landings at Gold Beach began at 07.25am. Throughout 6 June 1944, the Greek ships provided covering fire for the landing forces and they were attacked by the Luftwaffe at dusk. The ships’ anti-aircraft guns saw off the attack with no casualties and they continued to escort landing and merchant ships back and forth across the Channel for weeks.Royal Marine commandos land on Gold Beach, 6 June 1944. The Royal Hellenic Navy escorted troops like these across the English Channel
For example, Kriezis escorted three convoys to Normandy from both Portsmouth and Falmouth while Tombazis escorted vessels from Portsmouth to Normandy and between Cornwall and Southampton. After a short period of repair work in mid-June, the ships went back to work with the Kriezis escorting nine American convoys while the Tombazis conducted anti-submarine patrols off Cherbourg.
The Royal Hellenic Navy’s contribution to D-Day and the subsequent campaign in Normandy lasted until August 1944. Although their contribution was small, their willingness to be at the forefront of the invasion speaks volumes for their determination to liberate not just Greece, but the rest of occupied Europe as well. It was noticeably fitting that sailing among the vast fleet on 6 June were two vessels that hailed from the cradle of democracy in order to free democratic Europe from the tyranny of Nazism.
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Hitler's Personal Grudge Against One Country Helped Russia Beat Nazi Germany
In war and peace, it's important to have good leaders.
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of five articles providing critical analysis as to how Germany Might Have Won World War Two.
Key point: Hitler's ambitions outpaced Nazi Germany's capabilities.
In our last installment, we discussed how Germany could have forced Britain to accept one of his peace offers and keep the United States out of the war. In this article, we shall examine how Germany might have not only avoided total defeat at the hands of the Red Army, but even might have achieved a measure of victory against her much larger and more powerful Soviet adversary, which was over forty times larger than Germany at its greatest extent.
Don’t invade Yugoslavia and Greece in April 1941.
In actual history, Yugoslavia agreed to join the Axis powers in late April 1941 but days later a coup brought new leadership to power more sympathetic to the Allies. While the new Yugoslav leaders promised the Germans to remain aligned with the Axis as previously agreed while remaining neutral in the war, Hitler viewed the coup as a personal insult and vowed to make Yugoslavia pay, diverting German Panzer divisions from Poland and Romania to invade Yugoslavia and Greece. This ended up delaying the planned German invasion of USSR by five and a half crucial weeks from May 15 to June 22, 1941. In retrospect, there was no military necessity for Hitler to invade Yugoslavia in April 1941. He could have merely sent a few German infantry divisions to reinforce Albania to prevent it from being overrun by Greek troops but he feared potential British reinforcements in Greece, which could threaten his southern European flank. Of course, had Britain and France not still been at war with Germany, it is unlikely that Italy would have invaded Greece in 1940–1941 and risked a British Declaration of War so in that case Operation Barbarossa could have kicked off on May 15, 1941 as originally planned, greatly increasing the chances of a German capture of Moscow in 1941. Combined with Hitler’s subsequent decision to divert his two central Panzer Armies to capture Soviet armies on their northern and southern flanks, this five and a half week delay to the start time of Operation Barbarossa proved fatal to German prospects for victory in the war. Even if Hitler hadn’t pursued a Moscow-first military strategy as his generals wisely advised, invading Russia five and a half weeks earlier might well have been sufficient to enable the Germans to capture Moscow by November 1941, albeit at considerable cost in men and material.
Don’t halt the advance on Moscow of the two Panzergruppen (tank armies) of Army Group Center for two crucial months.
While many historians view the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 as Hitler’s biggest blunder, evidence from Soviet archives uncovered following the Soviet collapse in 1991 suggests it was successful in preventing a Soviet invasion of Poland and Romania, which had been planned for July 1941. As it turned out, Hitler was correct in his assessment that his invasion of the Soviet Union was necessary as a preemptive attack against Soviets who were planning to attack Germany. In preparation for his planned invasion of Europe, Stalin had, between August 1939 and June 1941, overseen a massive military buildup of the Red Army increasing its total active-duty manpower from 1.5 million to 5.5 million. This expansion more than doubled their total numbers of divisions from 120 to 303 divisions including an increase in the number of Soviet tank divisions from from zero to sixty-one tank divisions as opposed to only twenty total Panzer divisions available in the German Army at the time of Operation Barbarossa. By June 1941, the Red Army boasted seven times more tanks and four times more combat aircraft than invading German forces. The first objective of this planned Soviet invasion of Europe was to occupy Romania to cut off Germany from its access to Romanian oil fields to immobilize the German armed forces and force their capitulation. Then after conquering Berlin and forcing a German surrender, the Red Army was to occupy all of continental Europe to the English Channel, which noted British author, Anthony Beevor, states that Stalin seriously considered doing at the end of the war as well. Viewed in this light, Operation Barbarossa was not a mistake at all but rather an operation which succeeded in destroying the over 20,000 Soviet tanks and thousands of combat aircraft concentrated at the border to invade German territory and postponed the Red Army subjugation of Germany and Europe by nearly four years. Soviet defector, Viktor Suvorov in his groundbreaking book Chief Culprit goes so far as to credit Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union as saving Western Europe from being conquered by the Red Army.
Rather, Hitler’s biggest mistake with regards to his war against the Soviet Union was his decision in early August 1941 to divert the two Panzer Armies of Army Group Center to help Army Group North and Army Group South to overrun and encircle Soviet armies on the flanks of its advance resulting in a two month delay in advancing on Moscow when the Soviet capitol was open for the taking. If Hitler had pursued a Moscow first strategy, he could have captured Moscow by the end of August or early September at the latest. He might even have pushed the Red Army back to the Archangel Volga Astrakhan line by October 1941 or by summer 1942 forcing Stalin to accept an armistice recognizing most of Germany’s hard won gains. In his excellent book Hitler’s Panzers East, R.H.S. Stolfi estimated that would have taken away up to 45 percent of the Soviet industrial base and up to 42 percent of her population making it extremely difficult for the Soviets to recover and take back lost territory. While the Soviets could have relocated many of their industries east of the Urals as in actual history, their industrial production would have been much more crippled than it was in actual history without U.S.-UK military industrial assistance. Had the Germans captured Moscow before winter 1941 and held it through the Soviet winter late-1941, early-1942 counteroffensive, Stalin might have requested an armistice on terms much more favorable to Germany than the ones he offered in actual history. Those terms might have included the transfer of much, if not all, of the oil-rich Caucasus region to Germany in exchange for the return of their all-important capitol city to Soviet control. With the Soviets so gravely weakened, Japan likely would have joined the fight to take their share of the spoils and occupy Eastern Siberia as Japanese Army generals had wanted to do all along. Thus, if Hitler had allowed his generals to capture Moscow first, the Germans likely have won the war.
Manufacture three million thick winter coats and other winter clothing for the German army before Invading the Soviet Union.
Due to Hitler’s rosy predictions for a swift Soviet collapse and an end to the war in the East by December 1941, Germany failed to produce winter clothing for his invading troops. According to some accounts, as many as 90 percent of all German casualties from November 1941 to March 1942, totaling several hundred thousands, were due to frostbite. Only in late December 1941 did the Nazi leadership admit their mistake and urgently collect as much winter gear from German civilians to send to German troops as possible.
Allow national independence and self-rule for all of the Soviet territories liberated by German forces.
Perhaps the biggest key to winning their war against the Soviet Union (other than not fighting the United States and the UK, of course) was for the Germans to not only be seen as liberators from Soviet Communist control, as they initially were when they invaded the Soviet Union, but to actually be liberators from Soviet Communist oppression. The Germans should have used nationalism to rally the people of Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic States to fight not for the Germans or against Stalin but rather to liberate their own countries from Soviet captivity. They should have allowed self-rule for all of these liberated nations just as Imperial Germany had granted them after defeating the Russian Empire in March 1918 as part of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In actual history, the Germans captured 5.6 million Soviet troops and captured Red Army Lieutenant General Vlasov offered to lead a Russian Liberation Army to help fight the Soviets while other leaders offered to lead Ukrainian and Cossack Liberation Armies but Hitler would not allow them to be used in combat on the Eastern Front, believing them to be unreliable. If the Germans had treated the citizens of liberated Soviet territories and Soviet Prisoners of War (POW’s) fairly, millions of additional captured Soviet soldiers might have volunteered to fight on the German side. As it turned out, Stalin ended up using the nationalism of Ukraine and other Soviet republics to defeat the Germans instead of the other way around which represented a major missed opportunity for Germany that helped ensure they lost the war.
Armistice and surrender [ edit | edit source ]
The Axis victory was swift. As early as 14 April the Yugoslav high command had decided to seek an armistice and authorised the army and army group commanders to negotiate local ceasefires. That day the commanders of the 2nd and 5th Armies asked the Germans for terms, but were rejected. Only unconditional surrender could form the basis for negotiations they were told. That evening, the high command sent an emissary to the headquarters of Panzer Group Kleist to ask for armistice, and in response General von Kleist sent the commander of the 2nd Army, von Weichs, to Belgrade to negotiate terms. He arrived on the afternoon of 15 April and drew up an armistice based on unconditional surrender. ⏦]
On 16 April, a Yugoslav delegate arrived in Belgrade, but as he did not have authority to sign the document, he was given a draft of the agreement and an aircraft was placed at his disposal to bring in authorised representatives of the government. Finally, on 17 April, after only eleven days of fighting, the pre-coup Foreign Minister Aleksandar Cincar-Marković and General Milojko Janković signed the armistice and unconditionally surrendered all Yugoslav troops. It came into effect the follow day (18 April) at noon. ⏦] At the signing, the Hungarians and Bulgarians were represented by liaison officers, but they did not sign the document because their countries were not at war with Yugoslavia. ⏦] The Italian representative, Colonel Luigi Buonofati, signed the document after noting that "the same terms are valid for the Italian army". ⏧]
The insistence of the Yugoslav Army on trying to defend all the borders assured their failure from the start. After the surrender, Yugoslavia was subsequently divided amongst Germany, Hungary, Italy and Bulgaria, with most of Serbia being occupied by Germany. The Italian-backed Croatian fascist leader Ante Pavelić declared an Independent State of Croatia before the invasion was even over. ⏨]
Beginning with the uprising in Serbia in July 1941, there was continuous resistance to the occupying armies in Yugoslavia, mainly by the Partisans and to a lesser extent by the Chetniks, until the end of the war. [ citation needed ]