Axis Invasion of the Balkans: Military Campaign (April-May 1941)


Figure 1.--Here we see German occupation troops. We at first thought they were in southern Italy, but I think they may be in Creece, perhaps 1941 or 42. Perhaps our European readers will know better how to locate it. I'm not sure what is going on here. The boys may be identifying the soldier's bicycle. The soldier who took this photograph took it back to Germany with him.

German Führer Adolf Hitler was by 1941 intent on his invasion of the Soviet Union. He thought he had the Balkans sorted out to provide a secure southern front. He had to be concerned with the vital Ploesti oil fields in Romania. Hitler forced the Yugoslav governent to adhere to the Axis. A popular revolt occured in Belgrade against joining the NAZI-dominated Axis. The revolt led by students overthrew the regency under Prince Paul. They installed the youthful King Michael and rejected the treaty that Prince Paul had signed with the NAZIs. Hitler was enraged with the coup. He decided to punish and cow the Serbs by desrtoying Belgrade by a Luftwaffe terror bombing. Wehrmact and Luftwaffe military units had already been positioned in the Reich and and allied states (Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria) for such an intervention, although the target was believed to be Greece. Hitler called the invasion, occupation and dismemberment of Yugoslavia “Operation Punishment” or “Operation 25.” Belgrade was subjected to Luftwaffe terror bombing for rejecting the alliance with the NAZIs. Unlike World War I, militart resistance in Yugodlavia quickly collapsed and in some areas the NAZIs were treated as liberators. Mussolini's actions at complicated Hitler's plans in the Balkans. The attack on Yugoslavia provided the excuse for attacking Greece as well. The quick collaose of the Yugoslave Army allowed the NAZIs to concentrate in Greece. The Wehrmact called the invasion and occupation of Greece “Operation Marita. Unlike Yugoslavia, the Wehrmacht had to fight in Greece, primarily because Churchill had rushed troops from Egypt to support his Greek Ally. Even so, Greece fell within only a few weeks. Hitler followed his Balkan victories with a successful, but costly parachute assault on Crete.

Yugoslavia--Operation Punishment (April 1941)

German Führer Adolf Hitler thought he had the Balkans sorted out to provide a secure southern front. He forced the Yugoslav governent to adhere to the Axis. A popular revolt occured in Belgrade against joining the NAZI-dominated Axis. The revolt led by students overthrew the regency under Prince Paul. They installed the youthful King Michael and rejected the treaty that Prince Paul had signed with the NAZIs. Hitler was enraged with the coup. He decided to punish and cow the Serbs by desrtoying Belgrade by a Luftwaffe terror bombing. Wehrmact and Luftwaffe military units had already been positioned in the Reich and and allied states (Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria) for such an intervention, although the target was believed to be Greece. Hitler called the invasion, occupation and dismemberment of Yugoslavia “Operation Punishment” or “Operation 25.” Belgrade was subjected to Luftwaffe terror bombing for rejecting the alliance with the NAZIs. Waves of Luftwaffe bombers and Stukas without warning began bombed the Serbian capital (April 6). Yugoslavia did not have a modern airforce or anti-aircradt defenses. A reader in Belgrade writes, "There is a monument to the Nazi air attack on April 9th at the start of operation Punishment. The gallant Serbian air force did all it could to defend Belgrade and shot down Nazi planes but there were too few Serbian Air Force personal and too few planes. The pilots were shot out of the sky one by one. Some survived and escaped to Britain and joined the RAF." There were no civil defense preparations. The Luftwaffe bombed Belgrade relentlessly for 4 days. No one know how many were killed. Estimates varied from 5,000 to 17,000 civilians. Belgrade, a beautiful and ancient center of Serbiam culture and history, was reduced to rubble. It is unclear what Hitler's plans for Yugoslavia were before tghe coup that rejected the Axis. Yugoslavia was a state centered n Serbia which had valiantly resisted the Central Powers in World War I. I was populated by Slavs which gave him anither reason to despise the Yugoslav state. After the coup, Hitler was determined to destroy Yugoslavia, especially Serbia. Military resistance in Yigoslavia, even in Serbia, quickly collapsed. Serbia had proven to be an important ally in World War I and the Serbian Army continued to fight even after the Central Powers overan Serbia itself. There was no effective resistance to the German invasion. The Wehrmact spearhead by Panzers swept through Yugoslavia from both the north and west. The reaction to the German invasion varied. In Croatia they found a sympathetic population that treated them like liberators.

Greece--Operation Marita (April 1941)

The Italian Duce, Benito Mussolini seized Albania while the world was focused on the NAZI dismemberment of Czechoslovakia (March-April 1939). Next Mussolini invaded Greece from his new bases in Albania (October 28, 1940). Tghe Greeks were greatly outnumbered, but within a month the Greek army had pushed the Italians back into Albania. Mussolini had taken both of these actions without consulting Hitler. At the time, Hitler's attempt to conquer Britain had failed and he was turning his attention east. Mussolini's actions were complicating his plans. The invasion of Greece had pushed a basically Fascist state into turning to the British. This destabilized what had been an essentially secure southern flank for the invasion of the Soviet Union into a potential military threat. Hitler was also unwilling to have his major Axis ally humiliated. An Allied Greece provided the potential for air bases that could threaten the Ploesti oilfields, Germany's major secure source of petroleum. (Inder the terns of the NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact (1939), the Societs were deliveeing oil to the Germans, but this was hardly secure and would of course end when the Germans invaded. Thus Ploesti was critical to the MAZI war effort. NAZI diplomacy had secured the cooperartion of (Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria). Bulgaria was especially important because it bordered on northeastern Greece and was essential to allow the Germans to get to Greece. Yugoslavia lay between the Reich and Greece. The Yugoslav coup rejecting the Axis provided the excuse for Hitler to order the attack. The NAZI attack began with the Luftwaffe terror bombing of Nelgrade (April 6). Unlike World War I, Yugoslav military resistance quickly collapsed, leaving Greece exposed. The Wehrmact called the invasion and occupation of Greece “Operation Marita. Unlike Yugoslavia, the Wehrmacht had to fight in Greece, primarily because Churchill had rushed troops from Egypt to support his Greek Ally. The British rushed a force including Commonwealth soldiers ( Australian and New Zealand) to Greece. The force was formed by weakened the Desert Army that was about to seize Italian-held Libya. The Greek-British forced were also quickly defeated. The Germans reached Athens and raised the swastika flag over the Acropolis (April 27). Greek, British and Commonwealth forces withdrawing from Greece, attempted a stand on nearby Crete. There they were reinforced by fresh New Zealand, British and Australian forces. Hitler ordered an airborn invasion of Crete. General Kurt Student's parachutists attacked (May 20). The assault was daring, but very costly. In the period before Barabrossa, the Germans were still accustomed to largely light casualties. The Crete invasion nearly failed but the British after heavy fighting had to abandon Crete as well. The invasion of Crete had two consequences. The Germans suffered such heavy losses that Hitler would never again allow a parachute assault. (Many military historians see the operation as aimed at the wrong island. Malta would have been a more strategically important prize.) The Allies were so impressed that they formed their own parachute units that would play important roles, most prominatey to support the D-Day invasion.

Crete--Operation Merkur (May 1941)

Crete is the large Greek island south of the mainland. A glance at the map shows the strategic importance of Crete. Air bases at Maleme and Heraklion and a naval base at Suda Bay are importabnt to controling the Eastern Mediterranean. The British after Mussolini attacked invaded Greece, occupied Greece (November 1940). This drew the attention of OKW to Crete because in brought the critical Ploesti oil fields within in range of British bombers. Fortunately for the Royal Navy, most of the key Mediterranean battles with the Italian Navy were fought before the Germans seized Crete. Greek, British and Commonwealth forces withdrawing from Greece after the stunning German campaign in the Balkans, attempted a stand on Crete. There they were reinforced by fresh New Zealand, British and Australian forces. Hitler ordered an airborn invasion of Crete. General Kurt Student's parachutists attacked (May 20). The ensuing battle linvolved 10-years of intense fighting. The German assault was daring, but very costly. In the period before Barabrossa, the Germans were still accustomed to largely light casualties. The Crete invasion nearly failed but the British after heavy fighting had to abandon Crete as well. The Allies retreated across the mountains to Hora Sfakion and other southern areas where they were evacuated to Egypt by the Royal Navy (May 30). The invasion of Crete had two consequences. The Germans suffered such heavy losses that Hitler would never again allow a parachute assault. (Many military historians see the operation as aimed at the wrong island. Malta would have been a more strategically important prize.) The cost of taking Crete was a factor in Hitler hesitating to launch an assault of Malta. The Allies were so impressed with the German paratroopers that they formed their own parachute units that would play important roles, most prominatey to support the D-Day invasion.

Consequences

Despite the stunning success of the German invasion, it proved to have been a strategic dissaster for Hitler and the NAZI war effort. The major impact was that the Balkans diversion delayed Operation Barbarossa by at least 6 weeks. If Hitler had started his invasion to of the Soviet Union May it seems highly likely that they would have seized Moscow if not have defeated the Red Army. As it was the Wehrmacht was stopped on the outskirts of Moscow in December, 1941. While German casualties, except for the assault on Crete. were relatively light, the Germans within months of seizing the Balkans found themselves confronted with a major guerilla war. Eventually more than a million men would be deployed into the Balkans--a major diversion of men and material from the major fronts where the War would be decided. The German parachute losses on Crete caused Hitler to reject future such attacks. Almost certainly a German parachure asssault on Malta wold have succeeded. This could have had amjor impact on the Dessert War. Another consequence was that the ethnic, political, and religious animosities were intensified by the War, turning Yugoslavia into the worst killing field of the War. The results of that are still being felt in the Balkans to this day.








CIH









Navigate the CIH World War II Section:
[Return to Main Balkans invasion page]
[Return to Main World War II country page]
[Biographies] [Campaigns] [Children] [Countries] [Deciding factors] [Diplomacy] [Geo-political crisis] [Economics] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[POWs] [Resistance] [Race] [Refugees] [Technology] [Totalitarian powers]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Return to Main war essay page]
[Return to CIH Home page]




Created: 12:35 AM 10/7/2004
Last updated: 7:12 PM 11/11/2014