Military history

BALKAN PRELUDE

Before Barbarossa could get under way in the spring the southern flank, which lay in the Balkans, had to be secured and built up. By the third week in February 1941, the Germans had massed a formidable army of 680,000 troops in Rumania, which bordered the Ukraine for three hundred miles between the Polish border and the Black Sea.58 But to the south, Greece still held the Italians at bay and Berlin had reason to believe that British troops from Libya would soon be landed there. Hitler, as the minutes of his numerous conferences at this period make clear, feared that an Allied front above Salonika might be formed which would be more troublesome to Germany than a similar one had been in the First World War, since it would give the British a base from which to bomb the Rumanian oil fields. Moreover, it would jeopardize Barbarossa. In fact, the danger had been foreseen as far back as December 1940, when the first directive for Operation Marita had been issued providing for a strong German attack on Greece through Bulgaria with troops assembled in Rumania.

Bulgaria, whose wrong guess as to the victors in the first war had cost her dearly, now made a similar miscalculation. Believing Hitler’s assurances that he had already won the war and bedazzled by the prospect of obtaining Greek territory to the south which would give her access to the Aegean Sea, her government agreed to participate in Marita—at least to the extent of allowing passage of German troops. An agreement to this effect was made secretly on February 8, 1941, between Field Marshal List and the Bulgarian General Staff.59 On the night of February 28 German Army units crossed the Danube from Rumania and took up strategic positions in Bulgaria, which the next day joined the Tripartite Pact.

The hardier Yugoslavs were not quite so accommodating. But their stubbornness only spurred on the Germans to bring them into camp too. On March 4–5, the Regent, Prince Paul, was summoned in great secrecy to the Berghof by the Fuehrer, given the usual threats and, in addition, offered the bribe of Salonika. On March 25, the Yugoslav Premier, Dragisha Cvetković, and Foreign Minister Aleksander Cincar-Marković, having slipped surreptitiously out of Belgrade the night before to avoid hostile demonstrations or even kidnaping, arrived at Vienna, where in the presence of Hitler and Ribbentrop they signed up Yugoslavia to the Tripartite Pact. Hitler was highly pleased and told Ciano that this would facilitate his attack on Greece. Before leaving Vienna the Yugoslav leaders were given two letters from Ribbentrop confirming Germany’s “determination” to respect “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Yugoslavia at all times” and promising that the Axis would not demand transit rights for its troops across Yugoslavia “during this war.”60 Both agreements were broken by Hitler in what even for him was record time.

The Yugoslav ministers had no sooner returned to Belgrade than they, the government and the Prince Regent were overthrown on the night of March 26–27, by a popular uprising led by a number of top Air Force officers and supported by most of the Army. The youthful heir to the throne, Peter, who had escaped from the surveillance of regency officials by sliding down a rain pipe, was declared King, and though the new regime of General Dušan Simović immediately offered to sign a nonaggression pact with Germany, it was obvious in Berlin that it would not accept thepuppet status for Yugoslavia which the Fuehrer had assigned. During the delirious celebrations in Belgrade, in which a crowd spat on the German minister’s car, the Serbs had shown where their sympathies lay.

The coup in Belgrade threw Adolf Hitler into one of the wildest rages of his entire life. He took it as a personal affront and in his fury made sudden decisions which would prove utterly disastrous to the fortunes of the Third Reich.

He hurriedly summoned his military chieftains to the Chancellery in Berlin on March 27—the meeting was so hastily called that BrauchitschHalder and Ribbentrop arrived late—and raged about the revenge he would take on the Yugoslavs. The Belgrade coup, he said, had endangered bothMarita and, even more, Barbarossa. He was therefore determined, “without waiting for possible declarations of loyalty of the new government, to destroy Yugoslavia militarily and as a nation. No diplomatic inquiries will be made,” he ordered, “and no ultimatums presented.” Yugoslavia, he added, would be crushed with “unmerciful harshness.” He ordered Goering then and there to “destroy Belgrade in attacks by waves,” with bombers operating from Hungarian air bases. He issued Directive No. 2561 for the immediate invasion of Yugoslavia and told Keitel and Jodl to work out that very evening the military plans. He instructed Ribbentrop to advise HungaryRumania and Italy that they would all get a slice of Yugoslavia, which would be divided up among them, except for a small Croatian puppet state.*

And then, according to an underlined passage in the top-secret OKW notes of the meeting,62 Hitler announced the most fateful decision of all.

The beginning of the Barbarossa operation” he told his generals, “will have to be postponed up to four weeks.

This postponement of the attack on Russia in order that the Nazi warlord might vent his personal spite against a small Balkan country which had dared to defy him was probably the most catastrophic single decision in Hitler’s career. It is hardly too much to say that by making it that March afternoon in the Chancellery in Berlin during a moment of convulsive rage he tossed away his last golden opportunity to win the war and to make of the Third Reich, which he had created with such stunning if barbarous genius, the greatest empire in German history and himself the master of Europe. Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, the Commander in Chief of the German Army, and General Halder, the gifted Chief of the General Staff, were to recall it with deep bitterness but also with more understanding of its consequences than they showed at the moment of its making, when later the deep snow and subzero temperatures of Russia hit them three or four weeks short of what they thought they needed for final victory. For ever afterward they and their fellow generals would blame that hasty, ill-advised decision of a vain and infuriated man for all the disasters that ensued.

Military Directive No. 25, which the Supreme Commander issued to his generals before the meeting broke up, was a typical Hitlerian document.

The military putsch in Yugoslavia has altered the political situation in the Balkans. Yugoslavia, in spite of her protestations of loyalty, must be considered for the time being as an enemy and therefore crushed as speedily as possible.

It is my intention to force my way into Yugoslavia … and to annihilate the Yugoslav Army …

Jodl, as Chief of the Operations Staff of OKW, was told to prepare the plans that very night. “I worked the whole night at the Reich Chancellery,” Jodl later told the Nuremberg tribunal. “At four o’clock in the morning of March 28, I put an aide-mémoire into the hand of General von Rintelen, our liaison officer with the Italian High Command.”63

For Mussolini, whose sagging armies in Albania were in danger of being taken in the rear by the Yugoslavs, had to be told immediately of the German operational plans and asked to co-operate with them. To make sure that the Duce understood what was expected of him and without waiting for General Jodl to concoct the military plans, Hitler dashed off a letter at midnight of the twenty-seventh and ordered it wired to Rome immediately so that it would reach Mussolini that same night.64

DUCE, events force me to give you by this quickest means my estimation of the situation and the consequences which may result from it.

From the beginning I have regarded Yugoslavia as a dangerous factor in the controversy with Greece … For this reason I have done everything honestly to bring Yugoslavia into our community … Unfortunately these endeavors did not meet with success … Today’s reports leave no doubt as to the imminent turn in the foreign policy of Yugoslavia.

Therefore I have already arranged for all necessary measures … with military means. Now, I would cordially request you, Duce, not to undertake any further operations in Albania in the course of the next few days. I consider it necessary that you should cover and screen the most important passes from Yugoslavia into Albania with all available forces.

… I also consider it necessary, Duce, that you should reinforce your forces on the Italian-Yugoslav front with all available means and with utmost speed.

I also consider it necessary, Duce, that everything which we do and order be shrouded in absolute secrecy … These measures will completely lose their value should they become known … Duce, should secrecy be observed, then … I have no doubt that we will both achieve a success no less than the success in Norway a year ago. This is my unshaken conviction.

Accept my heartfelt and friendly greetings,

Yours,
ADOLF HITLER

For this short-range objective, the Nazi warlord was again right in his prediction, but he seems to have had no inkling how costly his successful revenge on Yugoslavia would be in the long run. At dawn on April 6, his armies in overwhelming strength fell on Yugoslavia and Greece, smashing across the frontiers of BulgariaHungary and Germany itself with all their armor and advancing rapidly against poorly armed defenders dazed by the usual preliminary bombing from the Luftwaffe.

Belgrade itself, as Hitler ordered, was razed to the ground. For three successive days and nights Goering’s bombers ranged over the little capital at rooftop level—for the city had no antiaircraft guns—killing 17,000 civilians, wounding many more and reducing the place to a mass of smoldering rubble. “Operation Punishment,” Hitler called it, and he obviously was satisfied that his commands had been so effectively carried out. The Yugoslavs, who had not had time to mobilize their tough little army and whose General Staff made the mistake of trying to defend the whole country, were overwhelmed. On April 13 German and Hungarian troops entered what was left of Belgrade and on the seventeenth the remnants of the Yugoslav Army, still twenty-eight divisions strong, surrendered at Sarajevo, the King and the Prime Minister escaping by plane to Greece.

The Greeks, who had humiliated the Italians in six months of fighting, could not stand up to Field Marshal List’s Twelfth Army of fifteen divisions, four of which were armored. The British had hurriedly sent to Greece some four divisions from Libya—53,000 men in all—but they, like the Greeks, were overwhelmed by the German panzers and by the murderous strikes of the Luftwaffe. The northern Greek armies surrendered to the Germans and—bitter pill—to the Italians on April 23. Four days later Nazi tanks rattled into Athens and hoisted the swastika over the Acropolis. By this time the British were desperately trying once again to evacuate their troops by sea—a minor Dunkirk and almost as successful.

By the end of April—in three weeks—it was all over except for Crete, which was taken by the Germans from the British in an airborne assault toward the end of May. Where Mussolini had failed so miserably all winter, Hitler had succeeded in a few days in the spring. Though the Duce was relieved to be pulled off the hook, he was humiliated that it had to be done by the Germans. Nor were his feelings assuaged by Italy’s disappointing share in the Yugoslav spoils, which Hitler now began to divide up.*

The Balkans was not the only place where the Fuehrer pulled his muddling junior partner off the hook. After the annihilation of the Italian armies in Libya Hitler, although reluctantly, had finally consented to sending a light armored division and some Luftwaffe units to North Africa, where he arranged for General Erwin Rommel to be in over-all command of the Italo–German forces. Rommel, a dashing, resourceful tank officer, who had distinguished himself as commander of a panzer division in the Battle of France, was a type of general whom the British had not previously met in the North African desert and he was to prove an immense problem to them for two years. But he was not the only problem. The sizable army and air force which the British had sent to Greece from Libya had greatly weakened them in the desert. At first they were not unduly worried, not even after their intelligence reported the arrival of German armored units in Tripolitania at the end of February. But they should have been.

Rommel, with his German panzer division and two Italian divisions, one of which was armored, struck suddenly at Cyrenaica on the last day of March. In twelve days he recaptured the province, invested Tobruk and reached Bardia, a few miles from the Egyptian border. The entire British position in Egypt and the Suez was again threatened; in fact, with the Germans and Italians in Greece the British hold on the eastern Mediterranean had become gravely endangered.

Another spring, the second of the war, had brought more dazzling German victories, and the predicament of Britain, which now held out alone, battered at home by nightly Luftwaffe bombings, its armies overseas chased out of Greece and Cyrenaica, seemed darker and more hopeless than ever before. Its prestige, so important in a life-and-death struggle where propaganda was so potent a weapon, especially in influencing the United States and Russia, had sunk to a new low point. *

Hitler was not slow or backward in taking advantage of this in a victory speech to the Reichstag in Berlin on May 4. It consisted mostly of a venomous and sarcastic personal attack on Churchill as the instigator (along with the Jews) of the war and as the man who was masterminding the losing of it.

He is the most bloodthirsty or amateurish strategist in history … For over five years this man has been chasing around Europe like a madman in search of something that he could set on fire … As a soldier he is a bad politician and as a politician an equally bad soldier … The gift Mr. Churchill possesses is the gift to lie with a pious expression on his face and to distort the truth until finally glorious victories are made of the most terrible defeats … Churchill, one of the most hopeless dabblers in strategy, thus managed [in Yugoslavia and Greece] to lose two theaters of war at one single blow. In any other country he would be court-martialed … His abnormal state of mind can only be explained as symptomatic either of a paralytic disease or of a drunkard’s ravings …

As to the Yugoslavian coup which had provoked him to such fury, Hitler made no attempt to hide his true feelings.

We were all stunned by that coup, carried through by a handful of bribed conspirators … You will understand, gentlemen, that when I heard this I at once gave orders to attack Yugoslavia. To treat the German Reich in this way is impossible …

Arrogant though he was over his spring victories and especially those over the British, Hitler did not fully realize what a blow they had been to Britain nor how desperate was the predicament of the Empire. On the very day he was addressing the Reichstag, Churchill was writing President Roosevelt about the grave consequences of the loss of Egypt and the Middle East and pleading for America to enter the war. The Prime Minister was in one of the darkest moods he was to know throughout the war.

I adjure you, Mr. President [he wrote], not to underestimate the gravity of the consequences which may follow from a Middle-East collapse.66

The German Navy urged the Fuehrer to make the most of this situation. To further improve matters for the Axis, the newly appointed premier of IraqRashid Ali, who was pro-German, had led an attack against the British airbase of Habbaniya, outside Bagdad, and appealed to Hitler for aid in driving the British out of the country. This was at the beginning of May. With Crete conquered by May 27, Admiral Raeder, who had always been lukewarm to Barbarossa, appealed to Hitler on May 30 to prepare a decisive offensive against Egypt and Suez, and Rommel, eager to continue his advance as soon as he had received reinforcements, sent similar pleas from North Africa. “This stroke,” Raeder told the Fuehrer, “would be more deadly to the British Empire than the capture of London!” A week later the Admiral handed Hitler a memorandum prepared by the Operations Division of the Naval War Staff which warned that, while Barbarossa “naturally stands in the foreground of the OKW leadership, it must under no circumstances lead to the abandonment of, or to delay in, the conduct of the war in the Mediterranean.”67

But the Fuehrer already had made up his mind; in fact, he had not changed it since the Christmas holidays when he had promulgated Barbarossa and told Admiral Raeder that Russia must be “eliminated first.” His landlocked mind simply did not comprehend the larger strategy advocated by the Navy. Even before Raeder and the Naval Staff pleaded with him at the end of May he laid down the law in Directive No. 30 issued on May 25.68 He ordered a military mission, a few planes and some arms to be dispatched to Bagdad to help Iraq. “I have decided,” he said, “to encourage developments in the Middle East by supporting Iraq.” But he saw no further than this small, inadequate step. As for the larger, bold strategy championed by the admirals and Rommel, he declared:

Whether—and if so, by what means—it would be possible afterward to launch an offensive against the Suez Canal and eventually oust the British finally from their position between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf cannot be decided until Operation Barbarossa is completed.

The destruction of the Soviet Union came first; all else must wait. This, we can now see, was a staggering blunder. At this moment, the end of May 1941, Hitler, with the use of only a fraction of his forces, could have dealt the British Empire a crushing blow, perhaps a fatal one. No one realized this better than the hard-pressed Churchill. In his message to President Roosevelt on May 4, he had admitted that, were Egypt and the Middle East to be lost, the continuation of the war “would be a hard, long and bleak proposition,” even if the United States entered the conflict. But Hitler did not understand this. His blindness is all the more incomprehensible because his Balkan campaign had delayed the commencement of Barbarossa by several weeks and thereby jeopardized it. The conquest of Russia would have to be accomplished in a shorter space of time than originally planned. For there was an inexorable deadline: the Russian winter, which had defeated Charles XII and Napoleon. That gave the Germans only six months to overrun, before the onset of winter, an immense country that had never been conquered from the west. And though June had arrived, the vast army which had been turned southeast into Yugoslavia and Greece had to be brought back great distances to the Soviet frontier over unpaved roads and run-down single-track railway lines that were woefully inadequate to handle so swarming a traffic.

The delay, as things turned out, was fatal. Defenders of Hitler’s military genius have contended that the Balkan campaign did not set back the timetable for Barbarossa appreciably and that in any case the postponement was largely due to the late thaw that year which left the roads in Eastern Europe deep in mud until mid-June. But the testimony of the key German generals is otherwise. Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, whose name will always be associated with Stalingrad, and who at this time was the chief planner of the Russian campaign on the Army General Staff, testified on the stand at Nuremberg that Hitler’s decision to destroy Yugoslavia postponed the beginning of Barbarossa by “about five weeks.”69 The Naval War Diary gives the same length of time.70 Field Marshal von Rundstedt, who led Army Group South in Russia, told Allied interrogators after the war that because of the Balkan campaign “we began at least four weeks late. That,” he added, “was a very costly delay.”71

At any rate, on April 30, when his armies had completed their conquest of Yugoslavia and Greece, Hitler set the new date for Barbarossa. It was to begin on June 22, 1941.72

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!