Military history

SEVEN

Securing the Eastern Springboard

‘Crossroads of Europe’ is a catchphrase designation for the Balkans, conveying little more than unfamiliarity with the region by those who use it. The Balkans, spined and herringboned by some of the highest mountains on the continent, offer few highways, and none deserving to be called a path of conquest. No single power, not even the Roman Empire at its height, has dominated the whole region: cautious generals have consistently declined to campaign there if they could. It has been a graveyard of military operations ever since the Emperor Valens succumbed to the Goths at Adrianople in 378.

Yet, though the Balkans do not offer easy passage to conquerors, it is the fate of the peoples who inhabit them to be campaigned over. For, precisely because the region is a jumble of mountain chains and blind valleys, where even the rivers must negotiate defiles and gorges impassable by man or beast, it marks a natural barrier between European and Asian empires. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Islam was on the march, the Balkans were the battleground where Turk fought Habsburg. In the nineteenth, when Turkey had fallen sick, they offered the fronts on which her enemies – Austria, Russia and their satellites – drove the Ottomans back upon their Anatolian fastnesses. And possession of the coasts of the Balkans and their archipelagos – the Ionian islands, the Dodecanese, the Cyclades – have been contested by power-seekers even longer and more consistently; for, as Sicily does in miniature, and Malta on yet a smaller scale, the Balkans dominate the sea-passages and seas by which they are washed. Venice, greatest of Italian city-states, made herself mistress of the Adriatic by control not of her own lagoon but of the fortress harbours which run the length of the Adriatic’s Balkan shore – Zara, Cattaro, Valona – and the Ionian islands at its mouth. In her heyday, Venice also extended powerful tentacles into the eastern Mediterranean by her occupation of the Greek Peloponnese and its satellite islands of Naxos, Crete and Cyprus. The Turks, whatever the ebb and flow of their military fortunes, always assured themselves of an ultimate base of Balkan power by clinging to possession of the Bosphorus, channel of communication between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. In the face of bribes, threats and direct attack – by the Russians in the nineteenth century, the emergent Balkan states in the early twentieth, the British and French in the First World War – Turkey clung limpet-like to Istanbul (the Constantinople and Byzantium of old) in the sure knowledge that it was control of the ‘the Straits’ which in European eyes made her a power to be reckoned with and not, as she would become if she relinquished it, merely a Levantine appendage.

Because the Balkans form both a land barrier and a maritime base, or cluster of bases, at the point where Asia meets Europe and the Mediterranean the Black Sea, the strategy of any commander drawn into the area will tend to be both ‘continental’ and ‘maritime’, and the one will run at cross-purposes with the other. This, as Professor Martin van Creveld, the closest student of German war-making in the months between the fall of France and the inception of Barbarossa, has pointed out, is precisely the complication into which Hitler fell at the end of 1940. His Balkan policy thitherto had been to allow Italy to play the great power in its relations with the maritime and historically ‘Italian’ sphere of influence – Albania, Greece, Yugoslavia – while drawing the inland zone – Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania – into Germany’s. Hungary and Romania had fallen willingly under his sway, signing the Tripartite Pact and allowing German troops to be stationed on their territory; Bulgaria had proved more resistant, but for reasons of understandable caution, not hostility. Yugoslavia had successfully trodden a middle path, insisting on its neutrality but averting a breach with the Axis. Then Britain’s persistence in belligerence had upset his Balkan scheme. Having failed in his efforts to beat down her air defences in the Battle of Britain, as a preliminary to an invasion in which he did not fully believe, Hitler subsequently acquiesced in the Italian attack on Greece (of which he was probably forewarned at his meeting with Mussolini at the Brenner Pass on 4 October), because Britain, whose sole remaining continental ally was Greece, thereby came under increased strategic pressure from another direction. He had calculated that the offensive should diminish Britain’s capacity to prosecute its war in Egypt with the Italian Libyan army, and thereby strengthen the ‘pincers’ he was seeking to construct by drawing Spain and Vichy France into his anti-British alliance.

This complex, but also tentative, strategic design was compromised by the humiliating failure of the Italian offensive. Before the invasion of 28 October, Hitler was considering the dispatch of a German intervention force to North Africa and had actually sent a senior officer (Ritter von Thoma, whom the British would later know well as an opponent) to study the problem of deploying an ‘Afrikakorps’. Once the miscarriage of Mussolini’s invasion of Greece became apparent, however, Hitler felt constrained to rescue his ally – who had anyhow refused the help of an Afrikakorps – from humiliation, even though direct German intervention against Greece, which required the acquisition of bases in Bulgaria, would alarm the Russians at precisely the moment he was keenest to allay their anxieties (or even, had Molotov brought assurance of acquiescence in German continental hegemony to Berlin on 12 November, agree binding non-aggression terms with them). Mussolini’s Greek adventure thus had the direct effect of driving Hitler into heightening his war effort against Britain, though in her Mediterranean empire rather than against her coasts; it also had the indirect effect of committing him to a seizure of territory – useful but not essential to the launching of Barbarossa – which made any agreement of ‘spheres of influence’ between him and Stalin impossible. In that respect the Greek campaign was to be decisive in determining the future course of the Second World War.

Mussolini’s Greek venture

Mussolini’s venture into Greece was an operation Hitler was justified in believing ought to have succeeded. The Greek army was greatly outnumbered and was obliged to divide its forces so as to defend Thrace – the coastal strip at the head of the Aegean – against Bulgaria. On paper it should have been overwhelmed in the opening stage of the invasion; but Italy’s forces were also divided, by the garrisoning of Ethiopia and Libya, and it could therefore deploy only a fraction of its much larger army on the Albanian-Greek frontier. The Italian army of 1940 was not, moreover, what it had been in 1915. Then, committed to war on a single, equally mountainous front against Austria, it had fought courageously in one offensive after another, and not without effect. By October 1917 its efforts had impelled the Austrians to appeal for help to the Germans lest its twelfth offensive on the Isonzo succeed in breaking through. Under Mussolini, however, Italian formations had been reduced in size in order to increase their number, a typical demagogic act of window-dressing. The divisions which Mussolini launched into Greece on 28 October 1940 were therefore weaker in all arms, but particularly in infantry, than their Greek equivalents; they were also weaker in motivation. Mussolini’s reasons for seeking war with Greece went no further than a desire to emulate his German ally’s triumphs, settle trifling old scores with Greece, reassert Italy’s interest in the Balkans (he was piqued that Romania, an Italian client, had accepted German protection for its Ploesti oilfields earlier in October) and secure bases from which his British enemy’s eastern Mediterranean outposts might be attacked. None of these reasons counted for much with his soldiers. They began their assault through the Epirus mountains without enthusiasm; even the Alpini regiments, Italy’s best troops, appeared in poor heart. Their Greek opponents, by contrast, defended with a will. General John Metaxas, head of government, was enabled early in the campaign to transfer forces from Thrace to the Albanian front, thanks to Turkey’s warning to the Bulgarians that its thirty-seven divisions concentrated in Turkey-in-Europe would be used if Bulgaria tried to profit from Greece’s difficulty. In the meantime the Greeks allowed the Italian attackers to wear themselves out in frontal attacks on their mountain positions. When their own reinforcements arrived, they counter-attacked, on 14 November, and drove the invaders back in confusion. Mussolini summoned reserves from all over Italy, some of which were flown to Albania in German aircraft, but by 30 November the Greeks opposed fifteen of his divisions with eleven of their own, his whole invading force had been thrown back inside Albania and the Greek counter-offensive was still gathering strength.

Hitler, who had already ordered OKW on 4 November to prepare an operational plan for a German offensive against Greece, was by then committed to its launching. For all the diplomatic difficulties it would cause – affront to Yugoslavia, Greece’s neutralist neighbour, anxiety to Turkey, which was even more strongly determined to remain neutral, alarm to Bulgaria, which shrank from offending Russia by granting Germany the bases the Greek operation required – and for all the military difficulties the operation entailed, particularly those of committing mechanised formations to the least ‘tankable’ terrain in Europe, he now saw no means of avoiding the initiative, except at the price of conceding his British enemies strategic and propaganda advantages he could not allow them. Mussolini, for better or worse – and Hitler was never to waver in his loyalty to the founder of fascism – was seen by the world as his political confederate as well as military ally. Hitler was determined to rescue him from humiliation at the hands of the Greeks, all the more so because he rightly held the Greeks in high esteem as soldiers; he was also determined to deny the British long-term possession of bases on Greek soil, from which they could menace his extraction of Balkan resources – foodstuffs, ores, above all oil – essential to his war effort.

Thus far the Greeks had been careful not to grant the British anything more than short-range tactical facilities. The bases the RAF had set up since 3 November were located in the Peloponnese, on the Gulf of Corinth and near Athens, from which its aircraft could just support the battlefront in Albania. Greece had resisted requests for larger bases near Salonika which would have brought the Ploesti oilfields in Romania within range of its bombers. Hitler had good reason to fear the worst, therefore, from a consolidation of the Greek victory over Mussolini. South-eastern Europe provided half of Germany’s cereal and livestock requirements. Greece, with Yugoslavia, was the source of 45 per cent of the bauxite (aluminium ore) used by German industry, while Yugoslavia supplied 90 per cent of its tin, 40 per cent of its lead and 10 per cent of its copper. Romania and, to a marginal extent, Hungary provided the only supply of oil which lay within the radius of German strategic control; the rest came from Russia under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. If those oilfields, and the railways which carried ores and agricultural produce out of the Balkans to Germany, were brought under British bomber attack, his ability to prosecute the war would be seriously compromised. Moreover, he recognised the depth and antiquity of Britain’s penetration of the Mediterranean strategic zone. British admirals and generals had campaigned in the eastern Mediterranean for 150 years; Nelson’s reputation had been made by his victory at the Nile in 1798. The British had ruled the Ionian islands from 1809 to 1863, had possessed Malta since 1800, Cyprus since 1878, and maintained a fleet and an army in Egypt since 1882. In 1915 a British army had almost captured the Black Sea straits and between 1916 and 1918 sustained an offensive front against Bulgaria on Greek soil (the Salonika campaign). Moreover, the intimacy of their relationship with the Greeks was assured by their title as ‘lovers of liberty’, won by the help the British had given them in their war of independence against Turkey in the 1820s. Byron’s reputation as a romantic hero in both countries was a touchstone of their peoples’ common antipathy to tyranny.

However, Britain’s tentacles reached further than that. Although she had fought Turkey in the First World War and established a homeland for the Jews in Palestine after 1918 in the teeth of Muslim antipathy, she was also a historic protector of the Turks against Russia, in which cause she had fought the Crimean War of 1854-6, and a sponsor of Islamic nationalism by her foundation of the states of Iraq and Trans-Jordan. Her reputation as an exponent of self-determination for small nationalities also stood high in central and south-eastern Europe, where Yugoslavia in particular owed her existence partly to British support for the cause of Slav independence at the post-1918 peace conferences. Britain’s only clear-cut enmity in the Balkans was with Bulgaria, her opponent in the First World War, and that was offset by King Boris’s concern to placate Russia, which he could not afford to offend unless assured of full-blooded German support.

The ambiguity of a Balkan entanglement – which automatically involves an intrusive land power not only in the conflict between central Europe’s vital interests and those of Russia but at the same time in the maritime complexities of Mediterranean politics – therefore worked to divert and fragment Hitler’s strategic purpose in the winter and spring of 1940-1. His overriding aim – to attack and destroy Russia’s fighting power in an early Blitzkrieg campaign – was fixed by December 1940; his desire to rescue his toppling Italian ally from public humiliation and to circumscribe the activity of his irrepressible British enemy before he embarked on the Russian war – both in some sense residues of his vacillation of the autumn – drew him into a series of initiatives, some calculated, some adventitious, which were to end in his fighting a larger Balkan-Mediterranean campaign than he had ever intended when he first contemplated venturing southward.

‘Fox killed in the open’

In early January 1941, when he met with his commanders at the Berghof (7-9 January) and exposed to them the Barbarossa strategy in its entirety, the southern difficulty seemed to centre less on the Greeks than on the British. Though planning for Operation Marita (the invasion of the Balkans) was in full flow, he was still not contemplating the outright occupation of Greece. A mere seizure of bases in Greece from which the Luftwaffe might dominate the eastern Mediterranean seemed an adequate strategic solution of the situation in that sector. He was even optimistic that the Greeks, whose promised defeat by Mussolini in a spring offensive he was treating with sceptical (and as it turned out justified) caution, might bring the Italians to accept a bilateral peace treaty. The British, on the other hand, were demonstrating a determination to persist in defiance of Axis military superiority. Not only had they deployed air units to mainland Greece, and troops to Crete and some of the Aegean islands; they had also inflicted direct defeats on the Italians. On the night of 11-12 November a Royal Navy task force, centred on the aircraft carrier Illustrious, surprised the Italian fleet in its Taranto base in the heel of Italy and sank three battleships at their moorings by aerial torpedo attack. This success, following earlier surface engagements in July, confirmed the Royal Navy’s dominance over the Italian fleet, despite the latter’s superiority of numbers in the inland sea. Worse was to follow: on 9 December the British army in Egypt, commanded by General Sir Archibald Wavell, launched a counter-offensive against the Italian army which Marshal Rodolfo Graziani had led sixty miles inside the frontier from Libya in September. Conceived as a ‘five-day raid’, it achieved such success that Wavell decided to sustain his advance. In three days Lieutenant-General Richard O’Connor, his tactical commander, had captured 38,000 Italians, for a total loss of 624 British and Indians killed and wounded, overrun a large fortified enemy position and found nothing beyond it to bar his advance into Libya. At Bardia, the first town inside the Italian colony, General ‘Electric Whiskers’ Bergonzoli signalled to Mussolini in the aftermath of the British counter-attack, ‘We are in Bardia and here we stay’; but by 5 January Bardia had fallen to the Army of the Nile, as the 4th Indian and 7th Armoured Divisions had been grandiloquently designated by Churchill, and their spearheads were pressing on along the coast road towards the port of Tobruk. On 21 January Tobruk fell yielding another 25,000 prisoners; the port was to provide O’Connor’s army with logistical support for its continued advance. O’Connor now divided his forces: the remnants of the Italian invaders of Egypt were falling back on Tripoli, capital of Libya, along the Mediterranean coast road which veered north around the bulge of Cyrenaica; a direct route through the desert offered the prospect of cutting them off by a fast mobile thrust. O’Connor accordingly launched the 7th Armoured Division into the desert behind them and on 5 February it arrived out of the sands ahead of the fleeing Italians at Beda Fomm. ‘Fox killed in the open,’ O’Connor signalled in clear – to pique Mussolini – to Wavell; the hunting metaphor described a victory which brought the British 130,000 prisoners in the course of an advance of 400 miles in two months.

Churchill exulted in Wavell’s triumph. ‘We are delighted that you have got this prize,’ he wrote to Wavell. But the victory, though spectacular, was not really one of modern warfare. The Army of the Nile was little more than the sort of colonial ‘movable column’ with which the British Empire’s native enemies had been defeated in the campaigns of the nineteenth century. Its success was due not to its superiority over the Italian troops, who had fought bravely in defence, but to the incompetence of their leadership and, as in Greece, the attenuation of their means of making war, the result of Mussolini’s appetite for campaigning over a wider front than Italy’s resources could support.

Hitler’s efforts to check a British offensive had earlier been frustrated by Mussolini’s reluctance to accept help; now he would not brook refusal. ‘The crazy feature is’, he complained to his staff, ‘that on the one hand the Italians are shrieking for help and cannot find drastic enough language to describe their poor guns and equipment, but on the other hand they are so jealous and childish they won’t stand for being helped by German soldiers.’ On 3 February, rather than Manstein, he chose Rommel to lead an Afrikakorps willy-nilly to Graziani’s assistance, because of his proven ability to inspire soldiers; on 12 February the vanguards of the Afrikakorps, to consist of the 15th Panzer and 5th Light Divisions, began to arrive at Tripoli; by 21 February Rommel had his forces in position to begin preparing a counter-offensive.

Nevertheless Hitler’s determination to restore Axis prestige and consolidate Germany’s strategic position in the Balkans could not wait on a future desert victory. The British were profiting from their superiority in arms in the one strategic region where they still enjoyed freedom of action to puncture the imperial pretensions of Mussolini in humiliating detail. On 9 February their Mediterranean fleet had appeared off the Italian port of Genoa, and bombarded the harbour without suffering riposte; it was a foretaste of the defeat they were to inflict on the Italian fleet at the Battle of Cape Matapan (Tainaron) in Greek waters on 28 March. In East Africa, where Italian forces had seized undefended British Somaliland in August 1940 and made incursions into the Sudan and Kenya, the British counter-attacked. A British force based in the Sudan had entered northern Ethiopia and the colony of Eritrea, Italy’s oldest possession in East Africa, on 19 January; and on 11 February another British army, based in Kenya, began an offensive into southern Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland. British Somaliland was retaken without a fight on 16 March. Worse was to follow. During February the British had been in continuous conclave with the Greek government on the nature of the assistance it would be willing to accept as a guarantee against German intervention. Metaxas, the Greek dictator, had died on 19 January; General Alexandros Papagos, the army commander-in-chief, was less cautious in negotiating measures which might provoke Germany to action. A figure of four British divisions was eventually agreed as an acceptable contribution to reinforce the eighteen Greek divisions deployed on the northern frontier. Their advance guards – withdrawn from the desert army, which was thereby dangerously depleted – began to disembark on 4 March. It was the start of an ill-fated venture.

This initiative made up Hitler’s mind. Bulgaria, which on 17 February had secured a non-aggression pact with Turkey (overawed by Germany’s military might in a way Greece was not), acceded to the Tripartite Pact on 1 March. As a result the Wehrmacht’s ‘army of observation’ in Romania, which by 15 February had reached a strength of seven divisions, was free to begin bridging the Danube into Bulgaria and construct its attack positions for Operation Marita. In view of Britain’s deployment of the four divisions to Greece, Hitler now decided that Marita’s objects would not be limited to securing a strategic position in Greece from which the Luftwaffe might dominate the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean; they were to comprehend the occupation of Greece outright.

He was not prepared to risk the reopening of another ‘Salonika front’ from which Britain (with France) had harried Germany’s southern flank of operations in 1916-18. Here, as so often elsewhere in his conduct of the Second World War, Hitler’s strategic calculations were influenced by his experience and memories of the First, in which he had fought as a common soldier. Then the British had profited from their maritime mobility to sustain campaigns which diverted Germany’s armies from their war-winning task in the great theatres; he was not prepared to concede them the opportunity a second time.

During the spring of 1941 he was, indeed, attempting to play their own game back at them. His failure to persuade Franco and to pressure Pétain – who had dismissed the pro-German Laval from his government on 13 December – to join the anti-British alliance had closed the western Mediterranean to him as a forum of opportunity. In the eastern Mediterranean and its hinterland, however, he detected openings for the same sort of subsidiary campaigning and subversion as Germany, with and through its then Turkish ally, had conducted against British interests in 1915-18. For example, he had hopes of persuading the French administration of Syria and Lebanon to accept German military assistance, and so eventually the basing there of Luftwaffe units with which the Suez Canal and the oilfields of Iraq might be brought under attack. In Iraq itself, a former British mandate, the nationalist party was pro-German; his contacts with it were indirect, passing through the Mufti of Jerusalem, leader of another anti-British Arab party, but he could calculate on its dissidence to complicate Britain’s efforts to sustain control of the Middle East. Indeed, throughout the region Churchill’s difficulties resembled Mussolini’s in his African empire – those of straining to make over-stretched resources meet over-large responsibilities.

The threat that German interference in the Levant and Iraq offered to the British bulked so large in their assessment of risk in the spring of 1941 that it would prompt them to take possession of both areas later in the year. For Hitler, by contrast, any advantage he might win in either was likely to prove ephemeral and therefore did not merit any major investment of force. That was not the case with Greece, where Britain’s involvement had produced a direct and provocative challenge to his military control of the continent and, though they did not guess it, threatened the unhampered development of his campaign against Russia. It had in consequence to be crushed outright; he could not, for example, count upon any eventual success from Rommel’s counter-offensive in Libya (to be delivered in late March) which might oblige the British to re-embark the divisions they had just deployed from Egypt to the Greek mainland, even if that were its probable result. Operation Marita had to produce a direct and clear-cut victory.

During the first weeks of March he was working to complete the preliminaries essential to its launching, the last of which required concessions by Yugoslavia. For military reasons, which OKH had made clear to him in relentless detail, neither Albania nor Bulgaria provided suitable terrain or adequate logistical bases from which the Marita forces could operate. Albania was crowded with beaten Italian troops and could be reinforced only from the sea or by air. Bulgaria’s roads, bridges and railways were few and primitive. The Wehrmacht therefore needed to deploy troops along the southern Yugoslav railway system in order to open a third front at Monastir and on the Vardar river – traditional invasion routes – if the Greek army and its British confederates were to be overwhelmed with dispatch.

Yugoslav resistance

German pressure on Yugoslavia to accede to the Tripartite Pact, as Romania, Hungary and now Bulgaria had done, had been unrelenting since the previous October. With great courage the Yugoslavs had resisted. In their negotiations with Berlin they insisted that the Balkans would be best designated a neutral zone in the ongoing European war; in private, Prince Paul, the regent, an Anglophile who had been educated at Oxford and said he ‘felt like an Englishman’, did not conceal his sympathies for Britain’s cause. Moreover, as the husband of a Greek princess, he had no desire to co-operate in the defeat of his southern neighbour. During the winter and spring of 1940-1, as Hungary, Romania and finally Bulgaria began to fill with German troops, his ground for resisting German pressure shrank under his feet. His government nevertheless contested every demand that the Germans thrust upon them; eventually, on 17 March, in return for what must almost certainly have been a worthless assurance that Yugoslav territory would not be used for military movements, it terminated diplomatic resistance and agreed to join the pact. The signatures were entered at Vienna on 25 March.

Hitler exulted in the result – but too soon; incautiously as a former citizen of the Habsburg Empire with which the Serbs had played such havoc, he had failed to allow for the impetuosity of the Serb character. On the night of 26-27 March a group of Serb officers, led by the air force general Bora Mirković, denounced the treaty, seized the capital, Belgrade, next day, obliged Paul to resign as regent and then had the uncrowned king Peter, installed as monarch. Paul, who might have rallied support among the kingdom’s Croat population, which differed automatically with the Serbs in politics and was heavily penetrated by pro-Axis sympathies, accepted the coup as a fait accompli and went into exile. A government was set up under the leadership of the air force chief of staff, General Dušan Simović, who later headed the Yugoslav government in exile.

The Mirković coup still appears in retrospect one of the most unrealistic, if romantic, acts of defiance in modern European history. Not only did it threaten to divide a precariously unified country; it was also bound to provoke the Germans to hostile reaction, against which the Serbs could call on no external assistance whatsoever to support them. They were surrounded by states that were wholly inert, like Albania, or as threatened as themselves, like Greece, or actively hostile, like Italy, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, with all of which they had bitter and long-standing territorial disputes. If Croatia, which would shortly take its own independence under Italian tutelage, is added to the roll of the Serbs’ enemies, the behaviour of General Mirković and his fellow-conspirators of 27 March appears the collective equivalent of Gavrilo Princip’s firebrand assault on the Austro-Hungarian monarchy personified by Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. It ensured the extinction of the Serb national cause as if by reflex; it would also doom Serbia, as in 1914, to invasion, defeat and occupation and with it the peoples of Yugoslavia, of whom the Serbs had assumed the leadership in 1918, to an agony of protracted civil and guerrilla warfare for the next four years. Of none of this do Mirković, Simović or any of the other Serb patriots – reserve officers, cultural stalwarts and the like – who staged the 27 March coup seem to have taken the least reckoning. There is no doubt that they had been encouraged in their foolhardiness by the British and the Americans. Colonel William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, future head of the Office of Strategic Services and in 1941 President Roosevelt’s personal emissary to Belgrade, had arrived in the capital on 23 January bearing an exhortation about the preservation of national honour; Winston Churchill was meanwhile pressing his ambassador to ‘pester, nag and bite’ the Yugoslav government to stay outside the Tripartite Pact. But Western warnings and encouragement were ultimately beside the point. The 27 March coup was an autonomous Serb initiative, to be seen with hindsight as the last outright expression of sovereign defiance made by any of the small peoples who lay between the millstones of German and Russian power since Poland’s rejection of Hitler’s ultimatum in August 1939 and their subjection to Stalinism.

It was to be punished with vehemence and without delay. Hitler judged that the Serbs’ defiance simplified his strategic options in the approach to Marita. Diplomatically it put Yugoslavia in the wrong; for all the popular enthusiasm displayed for the coup – crowds cheering the Allied cause in Belgrade, whose streets were bedecked with British and French flags – the new government could with some reason be denounced as illegitimate. Militarily, it provided OKH with a solution of its logistic difficulties: the Yugoslav railway system, inherited from the Habsburg Empire, connected with those of Austria, Hungary, Romania and Greece (as Bulgaria’s did not), and thereby provided the Wehrmacht with a direct approach to its chosen battlefront in Macedonia. Hitler did not pause to seize the advantage he had been offered. ‘I have decided to destroy Yugoslavia,’ he told Goering, Brauchitsch and Ribbentrop, summoned post-haste to the Chancellery on 26 March. ‘How much military force do you need? How much time?’ The answers to these questions already lay in the files of contingency plans in army and Luftwaffe headquarters. In early afternoon he met the Hungarian minister to offer him a port on the Adriatic for his country’s part in the coming campaign, and then the Bulgarian minister, to promise him the Greek province of Macedonia. ‘The eternal uncertainty is over,’ he told him, ‘the tornado is going to burst upon Yugoslavia with breathtaking suddenness.’ Next day in more pensive mood he told the Hungarian minister (whose head of state, Admiral Horthy, had decided to decline the bribe of an Adriatic port), ‘Now that I reflect on all this, I cannot help believing in a Higher Justice. I am awestruck at the powers of Providence.’

The Yugoslav conspirators persisted in blissful ignorance of the opportunity Hitler felt they had offered him. They believed that they could placate Germany by declining to accept a British mission and that their coup could not be regarded as a repudiation of Yugoslav accession to the Tripartite Pact because the signature had never been ratified. In fact the terms stipulated that ratification was assured by signature, while in Hitler’s eyes the coup put them in the enemy camp in any case. On the day of the coup itself he issued Führer Directive No. 25: ‘The military revolt in Yugoslavia has changed the political position in the Balkans. Yugoslavia, even if it makes initial professions of loyalty, must be regarded as an enemy and beaten down as quickly as possible. . . . Internal tensions in Yugoslavia will be encouraged by giving political assurances to the Croats. . . . It is my intention to break into Yugoslavia [from north and south] and to deal an annihilating blow to the Yugoslav forces.’

Halder had directed OKH’s planning staff to prepare plans for such an offensive the previous October. The forces positioned for Marita easily sufficed for an invasion of Yugoslavia as well: the Second Army, stationed in Austria, would simply advance directly on Belgrade, while the Twelfth, positioned to attack Greece through Bulgaria, would now move into southern Yugoslavia before doing so; an Italian army would also attack from Italy towards Zagreb, capital city of the Croats, who were Italy’s clients, while the Hungarian Third Army would seize the trans-Danubian province of Vojvodina, where Hungary claimed rights.

Yugoslavia’s fate

The Yugoslav army, a million strong, was organised into twenty-eight infantry and three cavalry divisions; but it contained only two battalions of 100 tanks, and those antiquated. The whole army belonged, indeed, to the era of the Balkan wars of 1911-12 rather than to the modern world – its movements depended on the mobilisation of 900,000 horses, oxen and mules – and, moreover, it was not mobilised. Its General Staff – which General Sir John Dill, the Chief of the (British) Imperial General Staff, visited secretly immediately after the coup on 1 April – behaved, by his report, ‘as if it had months in which to make decisions and more months in which to put them into effect’. Though its deputy chief conferred with Papagos, the Greek commander, in Athens on 3-4 April, it refused to co-ordinate a joint strategy of concentrating its forces in the south to support the Greeks (and the British contingent arriving to join them) but insisted on lining the whole frontier (with Italy, Germany, Hungary and Bulgaria, a sector 1000 miles long) against the threat of invasion – as the Russians were also currently doing in their border zone.

‘He who defends everything’, in Frederick the Great’s chilling military aphorism, ‘defends nothing.’ The attempt to defend everything was the mistake the Poles had made in 1939, though with some excuse, since the economically valuable parts of their country lay in frontier regions. It was also the mistake towards which the Greeks were tending, divided as they were by their urge to protect the exposed salient of Thrace as well as the traditional invasion routes in Macedonia. But no country has perhaps ever as irrationally dispersed its forces as the Yugoslavs did in April 1941, seeking to defend with ancient rifles and mule-borne mountain artillery one of the longest land frontiers in Europe against Panzer divisions and 2000 modern aircraft.

The Yugoslav air force, which had masterminded the coup of 27 March, was overwhelmed in the opening hours of the German attack on 6 April; of its 450 aircraft 200 were obsolete and most were destroyed outright in an initial air offensive which also caused 3000 civilian deaths by a terror raid on Belgrade. The German army’s plan, with which those of the Italian Second and Hungarian Third Armies were integrated, nullified Yugoslav strategy from the start. It turned on throwing armoured columns down the valleys of the rivers – the Danube, the Sava, the Drava, the Morava – which penetrate the mountain chains on which the Yugoslavs had counted to protect their country’s heartland; the columns would then turn to converge and so envelop the Yugoslav formations they had outflanked. It proved brilliantly successful. As the official Yugoslav history of the war subsequently conceded:

Three initial attacks determined the fate of the Yugoslav army, on April 6 in Macedonia, April 8 in Serbia, and April 10 in Croatia. On all three occasions the Hitlerites breached the frontier defences, pushed deep into the interior and dislodged the Yugoslav defences from their moorings. After the breakthrough of the frontier defences, the Yugoslav troops were soon outmanoeuvred, broken up, surrounded, without contact with each other, without supplies, without leadership.

What the official history seeks to conceal is the active responsibility of much of the ‘Yugoslav leadership’ for the débâcle. Yugoslavia – originally, by the designation of the Allied peace treaties with Austria and Hungary in 1919, ‘the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes’ – was in no sense a nationally unified state. It had inherited all the tendencies that had racked the Habsburg monarchy’s Slav dominions before 1914 and sought to check them merely by imposing Serb dominance over those minorities which had always preferred Vienna to Belgrade. The invasion of 6 April was seized by the Croat and Slovene nationalists as an opportunity for secession; on 10 April the Croatian Ustashi, a group of extreme right-wing nationalists, proclaimed an independent state, and on 11 April the Slovenes did likewise: both would shortly accept Axis tutelage. Some of the Croat formations of the Yugoslav army mutinied and went over to the enemy in the opening stages of the campaign; the chief of staff of the (Croatian) First Army Group actually conspired with the Ustashi leadership in opening talks with the Germans on 10 April. These were the preliminaries of a collaboration which were to result in the cruellest of all the internecine wars that would torment occupied Europe during the Hitler years. Nevertheless, Yugoslavia’s Serb majority cannot escape its share of responsibility for the suddenness of their country’s defeat. All but one of the army’s divisions was under Serb command, and most of those divisional generals surrendered to the panic which the rapidity of the Wehrmacht’s onslaught induced. So feeble was the army’s resistance that the German invaders suffered only 151 fatal casualties in the course of the campaign; the XLI Panzer Corps lost a single soldier dead, though it was in the forefront of the advance to Belgrade. The only senior Serbian officer who resisted the disabling spirit of collapse was Draza Mihailovicü, deputy chief of staff of the Second Army, who took to the hills at the signing of the armistice with Germany on 17 April. There, with a band of fifty faithfuls, he founded the nucleus of the Chetnik movement, which consisted of Serbian freedom-fighters loyal to the crown. Until Tito’s communist Partisans emerged as a major force in 1942, the Chetniks sustained the principal guerrilla resistance against the regimes of occupation – German, Italian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, puppet Croatian – imposed on Yugoslavia.

In Greece, which the Germans also invaded on 6 April, the Wehrmacht met stiffer resistance. The Greek army was already mobilised, had fought a successful offensive against the Italians and was commanded by generals whose campaigning experience stretched back to the Graeco-Turkish war of 1919-22. Moreover, it was supported by a British expeditionary force of three divisions which had brought with it modern tanks and aircraft. Hitler regarded the Greek soldiers as the valorous descendants of Alexander’s hoplites and the Theban Sacred Band – a unique mitigation of his disdain for non-Teutons – and he so admired the bravery they had shown in their war with Mussolini that he instructed OKW, before the campaign began, to release from captivity all Greeks taken prisoner as soon as an armistice should be signed.

Neither Greek valour nor British arms would avail to postpone an armistice. The Greek plan was flawed, and neither advice nor deployments from Britain could avoid defeat. Papagos, the Greek commander, insisted on keeping four of his eighteen divisions on the Metaxas Line, along the Bulgarian frontier, and disposed three with the British formations – the 6th Australian and 1st New Zealand Divisions, with the 1st British Armoured Brigade – a hundred miles to the rear on the Aliakhmon Line hinged on Mount Olympus. He counted on the Yugoslavs to protect the left flank of both positions and had even arranged a scheme with the Yugoslavs to react to an Axis attack by opening an offensive into Albania against the Italians – who on 20 March had once again tried and failed to revive their own Balkan offensive – with the bulk of the Greek army, fourteen divisions. Professor Martin van Creveld describes the dispositions – without exaggeration – as ‘suicidal’. The defending forces were aligned in three separate positions which depended on their security on a fourth, entirely extraneous Yugoslav force protecting their flanks. ‘Should the Germans’, van Creveld observes, ‘succeed in breaking [the Yugoslavs] rapid and total disaster was inevitable. Yugoslavia and Greece would be cut off from each other, the Metaxas and Aliakhmon lines outflanked, and the Greek army in Albania attacked from the rear. After that it would be a small matter to mop up the rest of the Allied and Yugoslav forces separately.’

Collapse in Greece

The course of the campaign developed exactly as thus predicated. In two days of fighting, 6-7 April, the Germans broke the resistance of the Yugoslavs in Macedonia and forced the Greek defenders of the Metaxas Line, who had stoutly resisted frontal assault, to surrender on 9 April. They were thus freed to turn the left flank of the Aliakhmon Line, defended by New Zealanders, and press on down the ancient invasion route which leads from the Vardar Valley in Macedonia into central Greece. A detached force meanwhile unhinged the main body of the Greek army which in Albania was confronting the Italians, who were thus granted the opportunity to begin the decisive advance they had been unable to win by their own efforts in six months of fighting.

General George Tsolakoglu, commanding the Greek First Army on the Albanian front, was so determined, however, to deny the Italians the satisfaction of a victory they had not earned that, once the hopelessness of his position became apparent to him, he opened quite unauthorised parley with the commander of the German SS division opposite him, Sepp Dietrich, to arrange a surrender to the Germans alone. It took a personal representation from Mussolini to Hitler to bring about an armistice in which Italy was included on 23 April.

Elsewhere the Graeco-British front was collapsing concertina-like as one position after another was outflanked by the invaders. The Greek Prime Minister, Alexander Koryzis, committed suicide on 18 April, leaving the rest of the Greek government unable to agree with General Sir Henry Wilson, commanding the British expeditionary force, how best to sustain resistance. In fact the British had been in full retreat from the Aliakhmon Line since 16 April. Though they lacked the numbers and equipment to resist the Germans, they had the motorised transport in which to withdraw; the Greek army, like the Yugoslav, belonged to an earlier age of warfare and 20,000 of its soldiers fell into German hands in the wake of the British retreat.

The British made a stand at Thermopylae, where the Spartans had fallen defying the Persians 2500 years before, but were quickly hustled southward by German tanks. That day and every day they were harried by the Luftwaffe, which, by the report of The Timescorrespondent, was ‘bombing every nook and cranny, hamlet, village and town in its path’. It had destroyed Piraeus, the port of Athens, on the first day of the war with Greece, so that the fugitives had to head for the Peloponnese to find harbours for their return flight to Crete and Egypt. A German parachute drop on the Isthmus of Corinth on 26 April was timed just too late to cut them off. By then the British – most of them Australians and New Zealanders forming the Anzac Corps, whose predecessor had established the Antipodean military legend at Gallipoli only twenty-six years earlier – had passed through Athens and reached haven. Retreating though they were, ‘no one who passed through the city’, wrote a Royal Artilleryman, Lieutenant-Colonel R. P. Waller, would ever forget the warmth of the Athenians’ farewell. ‘We were nearly the last British troops they would see and the Germans might be on our heels; yet cheering, clapping crowds lined the streets and pressed about our cars, so as to almost hold us up. Girls and men leapt on the running boards to kiss or shake hands with the grimy, weary gunners. They threw flowers to us and ran beside us crying, “Come back – You must come back again – Goodbye – Good luck”.’

It would be three and a half years before British soldiers returned to Athens, then to participate in a grim and bloody civil war between the parties of left and right which had learned the politics of violence as guerrilla fighters against the German occupation. In April 1941, sunny and flower-scented in the memory of the soldiers who were leaving Greece with the taste of defeat in their teeth, that cold and bitter December would have seemed an unimaginable legacy of the whirlwind campaign they had fought against the Germans. The three British divisions which together with the six Greek divisions spared from the Albanian front had battled against eighteen of the enemy had, rightly, the sensation of having fought the good fight. The Greek campaign had been an old-fashioned gentlemen’s war, with honour given and accepted by brave adversaries on each side. In the aftermath, historians would measure its significance in terms of the delay Marita had or had not imposed on the unleashing of Barbarossa, an exercise ultimately to be judged profitless, since it was the Russian weather, not the contingencies of subsidiary campaigns, which determined Barbarossa’s launch date. The combatants had not felt they were participating in wider events. The Greeks, with British help, had fought to defend their homeland from conquest. The Germans had battled to overcome them and had triumphed, but in token of respect to the courage of the enemy had insisted that the Greek officers should keep their swords. That was to be almost the last gesture of chivalry between warriors in a war imminently fated to descend into barbarism.

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