The Greek High Command was fully aware that Germany would not permit its ally, Italy, to be embroiled in an embarrassing little war indefinitely. In mid-February 1941, therefore, the Greeks seized their last chance and opened an offensive that was intended to drive the Italians from Albania before the Wehrmacht could intervene. The offensive made […]
Category: Balkan Campaigns
During nearly the entire first year of World War II, Hitler’s primary concern with southeastern Europe was to avoid trouble in the area. By the late summer of 1940, however, his attitude had begun to change. The Soviet Union had annexed Bessarabia and northern Bucovina in June, and it clearly intended to reach farther south and west at the first good opportunity. Hitler, on the other hand, had started to think in terms of a conflict with the USSR. In such an eventuality he would need security on his deep southern flank, and above all he would need Rumanian oil. He would still have preferred to establish German hegemony in the Balkans without fighting, and he would probably have succeeded in doing so had Benito Mussolini not made his bungling attempt to invade Greece from Italian-occupied Albania on October 28.
The Italian attack was planned as a police action in the style of the German triumphal march into Czechoslovakia. Its general purpose was to show the world that Mussolini was not always dependent on Hitler: specifically, it was intended to match the action of the Germans, who three weeks earlier had unilaterally stationed troops in Rumania, then under a joint German-Italian guarantee. Hitler, who had been irritated by his Axis partner’s unexpected move, became furious when the collapse of the Italian offensive close to the Albanian-Greek border opened the way for the development he wanted least of all, British intervention in Greece. The British occupied Crete and Lemnos (Limnos) on October 31, and in the next few days they established air units in southern Greece within bombing range of the Rumanian Ploesti oilfields. On November 4, Hitler ordered the German Army High Command to begin preparing for an attack on Greece.
Faced with a delay of four or five months until good campaigning weather returned, the Germans sought to open the approaches to the northern Greek border by political means. In November, Hungary and Rumania adhered to the Tripartite Pact of the Axis ( concluded by Germany, Italy, and Japan in September). The Rumanian dictator, Gen. (later Marshal) Ion Antonescu, welcomed this insurance against the Soviet Union. Bulgaria, which was to provide the actual staging area for the operation against Greece, hesitated to commit itself in view of possible unfavorable Soviet and Turkish reactions. Hitler, knowing that Bulgaria as one of the defeated nations in World War I would find it difficult to refuse an opportunity to obtain revenge, was willing to move slowly. German army engineers began bridging the Danube River on Feb. 28, 1941, and on March 1, just before German troops crossed the Rumanian border into the country, Bulgaria signed the Tripartite Pact.
In the case of Yugoslavia, Hitler was prepared to accept limited adherence to the Axis, for all he required was the use of the Belgrade (Beograd) – Nis-Salonika railroad. (Rail connections through Bulgaria were poor.) The Yugoslav government resisted his overtures, but in mid-March, after having refused several earlier invitations, it suddenly changed its policy and offered to sign the Tripartite Pact. The ceremony was held in Vienna on March 25. A day and a half later, on the night of March 26-27, a military coup d’etat forced Prince Regent Paul into exile. Young King Peter II was declared of age, and Gen. Dusan Simovic formed a new government. While it did not denounce the recent adherence to the Tripartite Pact, it refused to ratify Yugoslavia’s signature.
On March 27, Hitler declared that he was determined “to destroy Yugoslavia as a military power and a sovereign state,” and he ordered the Wehrmacht staffs to complete military preparations at the greatest possible speed. Turning to their traditional protectors, the Russians, the Yugoslavs sent a delegation to Moscow on April 3. They failed to obtain a mutual assistance pact, however, and on April 5 were forced to accept instead a relatively meaningless treaty of friendship and nonaggression. The next day the German invasion began.
A rugged, mountainous terrain and wide-meshed, underdeveloped road and rail networks were Yugoslavia’s strongest potential defensive assets. Although these assets were to be important during the years of guerrilla warfare, they did not serve to improve the country’s very difficult strategic position in April 1941. To defend a land frontier of 1,700 miles the Yugoslav […]