Balkans campaign (World War II)

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As early as mid-April 1941, German mountain troops (Gebirgsjäger) of the 5th Mountain Division climbed Mount Olympus and hoisted the Reich war flag while the war was still raging in the lowlands. 1st Lieutenant Wolfgang Graf von Bullion (1. Mannschaft/II. Bataillon/Gebirgsjäger-Regiment 100) was the leader of the party that conquered the summit of Mount Olympus. Finally, on 27 April 1941, the German war flag (Reichskriegsflagge) was raised in Athens. Little did these soldiers know, one last bloody operation was to be completed: The Battle of Crete.

The Balkans campaign (German: Balkanfeldzug) of World War II, based on the plan "Operation Marita" (Unternehmen „Marita“), began with the Italian invasion of Greece on 28 October 1940. In the early months of 1941, Italy's weak offensive had stalled and a Greek counter-offensive pushed into Albania. Germany was, although reluctant, once again forced to aid Mussolini and Italy by obtaining transit of her troops through Romania and Bulgaria in order to advance into Greece from the North. Meanwhile, the British landed troops and aircraft to shore up Greek defences.

A British engineered coup d'état in Yugoslavia on 27 March 1941 caused Adolf Hitler to order the conquest of that country.

"Hitler wanted peace in the Balkans, which would enable him to obtain mineral oil, raw materials and food from the south-eastern states undisturbed and, if necessary, guarantee Germany secure flank protection against England and the Soviet Union. [...] Hitler was drawn into a costly Balkan war against his wishes."[1]

History

The capture of Belgrade on 12 April 1941 after only five days was considered a masterful military coup. All of Bosnia, with the capital Sarajevo, was ceded to the newly created Independent State of Croatia.
The Roupel Fortress was one of the most massive barriers in the Metaxas Barrier Line in northeastern Greece, named after Prime Minister Ioanis Metaxas. The fortress was dug into a rocky hilltop. The bunkers were not only massively built, but also well camouflaged against detection by nets and branches. Tank barriers made of dragon teeth were able to effectively block vehicle traffic – but they were unable to prevent the position from being bypassed by the Germans. The German stormtroopers didn't let that stop them. The attack claimed the lives of many German elite soldiers, but was ultimately victorious.
The air raid on the port of Piraeus (Luftangriff auf den Hafen von Piräus) by the Luftwaffe took place on the night of 6 April 1941 to interrupt the supply chain of the British and the allied Greeks. It became one of the most successful high-speed bomber raids of World War II. In contrast to the bombing of the Royal Air Force and the USAAF, the city of Piraeus and its civilian population were completely spared. According to the ship classification society “Lloyd’s Register” (LR), 22 registered ships were destroyed or damaged on the night of April 6th to 7th, 1941; the sunk ships had around 42,000 GRT. In addition, among other things, 60 barges and 25 motor gliders (three are known by name) were sunk. Some losses were attributed to the 20 Junkers Ju 88 A-4, some were sunk by mines of the 11 Heinkel He 111 H-6, others were damaged or destroyed by burning and/or exploding ships. In addition, an ammunition train on the harbor area was set on fire.
Victorious German soldiers in Athens on the Acropolis, 1941
The Balkan campaign in 1941;[2] In volume 2 of Der Neue Brockhaus – Allbuch in vier Bänden (F. A. Brockhaus / Leipzig, 2nd edition 1941/42) in the article "Greater Germany's War of Freedom" (p. 302) the German losses for the entire Balkan campaign are 1,151 fallen, 3,752 wounded and 525 missing reported. However, wounded soldiers who later died and missing soldiers who were declared dead could be counted among the fallen.
Female Wehrmacht helpers (Blitzmädel of the Signal Corps) in summer costume shopping in conquered Greece, 1941

Conquest of Yugoslavia

On 25 March 1941, the government of the Regent, Crown Prince Paul, signed the Tripartite Pact, joining the Axis powers in an effort to stay out of the Second World War and keep Yugoslavia neutral during the conflict. This was immediately followed by mass protests in Belgrade and a military coup d'état led by Air Force commander General Dušan Simović and his officers (predominantly Serbs), who proclaimed King Peter II to be of age to rule the realm. Upon hearing news of the illegal coup in Yugoslavia, Hitler called his military advisers to Berlin on 27 March. On the same day as the coup he issued Führer Directive 25, which called for Yugoslavia to be treated as a hostile state.

On 1 April, Yugoslavia redesignated its Assault Command as the Chetnik Command, named after the Serb guerrilla forces from World War I, which had resisted the Central Powers. The command was intended to lead a guerrilla war if the country was occupied. Its headquarters was transferred from Novi Sad to Kraljevo in south-central Serbia on 1 April 1941.

On 2 April, the German ambassador having already been recalled for "talks", the remaining embassy staff were ordered to leave the capital and to warn the embassies of friendly nations to likewise evacuate. That sent the unmistakable message that Yugoslavia was about to be invaded.

On 3 April, Hitler issued War Directive 26 detailing the plan of attack and command structure for the invasion as well as promising Hungary revanchist territorial gains. The same day, Hungarian Prime Minister Count Pál Teleki killed himself. Horthy, seeking a compromise, informed Hitler that evening that Hungary would abide by the treaty, though it would likely cease to apply should Croatia secede and Yugoslavia cease to exist. Upon the proclamation of an Independent State of Croatia in Zagreb on 10 April, this scenario was realized and Hungary joined the invasion, its army crossing into Yugoslavia the following day.

As a result, Belgrade was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe on 6 April 1941. On this day, the Luftwaffe's Operation “Criminal Court” (Unternehmen „Strafgericht“) began under the command of Alexander Löhr. On 8 April 1941, German units, spearheaded by the German 2nd Army with elements of the 12th Army, approached Belgrade in the Balkan campaign. On April 10, the Croatian capital Agram was liberated by the Wehrmacht. Belgrade was captured on April 12 by Panzer Group 1 (Panzergruppe 1), which was advancing from three directions.

On 17 April 1941 at 9 p.m., General Danilo Kalafatović, as representative of the Yugoslav Supreme Commander, signed the unconditional surrender of the Yugoslav armed forces to the victorious Germans in Belgrade; 6,298 officers and 337,864 non-commissioned officers and men of Serbian and Montenegrin descent became German prisoners of war. King Peter and his government left the country for England. Within a few days, Generaloberst Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist's tank divisions advanced through all of Yugoslavia despite poor roads. On 17 April 1941, von Kleist led a victory parade in Belgrade.

"When, as a result of British intrigues, the danger of sooner or later being drawn into war approached the Balkans, it was all the more important for me to do everything possible to protect Yugoslavia from such a dangerous entanglement. In this sense, our Foreign Minister, party comrade Ribbentrop, with his characteristic patience and brilliant perseverance, repeatedly pointed out in numerous meetings and discussions the advisability, indeed necessity, of keeping at least this part of Europe out of the unfortunate war. [...] It is therefore completely correct when Mister Halifax declares that it was not the German intention to bring about a war in the Balkans."Adolf Hitler in a speech on 4 May 1941

Strength and losses

  • Germany (337,096 Soldiers, 875 Panzer, 990 Aircraft)
    • 151 fallen
    • 392 wounded
    • 15 MIA
    • 40 Luftwaffe planes shot down
  • Italy (22 Divisions, 666 Aircraft)
    • 3.324 fallen or wounded
    • 10 planes shot down, 22 damaged
  • Hungary (9 Brigades, 6 Air Force Squadrons)
    • 120 fallen
    • 223 wounded
    • 13 MIA
    • 7 planes shot down
  • Yugoslavia (700,000 to 800,000 Soldiers, 150 to 200 Tanks, 450 Aircraft)
    • 10,000 to 30,000 fallen (depending on the source)
    • 345,000 POWs (transported to Germany)
      • including many ethnic Germans and Hungarians who were forced into the enemy's military service; they were immediately released from captivity.
    • 30,000 POWs (transported to Italy)
    • 49 planes shot down, 103 pilots and crew members
    • 210 to 300 aircraft captured
    • 3 destroyers and 3 submarines captured

German withdrawal and atrocities

With the withdrawal of Army Group E and its many foreign Wehrmacht volunteers from the Balkans, the Germans no longer have anything to counter the partisans' final offensive. In the summer of 1944, Tito's troops made their way back to central Serbia, and on 20 October 1944, Belgrade was conquered together with the armored troops of the Red Army that had advanced from Romania.

Now Tito's horrific violence comes into effect; his gangs have already murdered tens of thousands of Germans, as well as German-friendly locals, through sabotage, raids and massacres. Soldiers, civilians, employees of the Reichsbahn, Wehrmacht helpers (Hilfswillige) and many more. Tito gave the order to “put an end to the enemies once and for all time.” The mass slaughter of anti-communist opponents numbered in the hundreds of thousands; the Slovenian Landwehr soldiers handed over to the partisans by the British or the “Domobrani” of the Croatian Home Guard alone counted tens of thousands of victims who were buried in mass graves. It was only at a Central Committee meeting at the end of 1945 that Tito decreed: “Stop all this killing now.”

Thousands of German prisoners of war and ethnic Germans (Danube Swabians) also became victims of expulsion, executions and mass shootings in the “new Yugoslavia”. Or they die in forced labor. By 1947, dozens of German generals and representatives of the military administration were tried as "war criminals" in show trials, including Alexander Löhr and Harald Turner. They were shot, but mostly hanged.

Conquest of Greece

In the early hours of 28 October 1940, Italian leader Mussolini demanded that Greece surrender all its arms; the administration then gave what became known as the simple negative response of “No” (see Okhi Day), thereby siding with the Allies. Italian troops immediately began their campaign from southern Albania. However, they were checked by the Hellenic Army. A two-year period of fierce fighting in the Pindus mountains followed, in which Mussolini's forces were, like in Africa, defeated.

Mussolini begged Germany for help. Hitler and his generals realized that their strategic southern flank needed to be secured more effectively, but Hitler was once again disappointed that Mussolini involved Germany in another Italian fiasco. Nevertheless, German forces, whose ranks included some troops from Bulgaria and Italy, were reluctantly ordered to begin with the Balkan campaign on 6 April 1941.

Like the Maginot Line (Maginotlinie) on the Franco-German border, the Metaxas Line (Metaxas-Linie) was outflanked by German forces specifically when the Germans attacked Greece through Yugoslavia. There were few troops to defend the line as most of the Greek Army was fighting against the Italians on the Albanian front. German special forces used all available means to attack the well-protected positions of the Greek army.

The German XVIII Mountain Corps and XXX Army Corps attacked the Metaxas Line before dawn on 6 April, but they encountered fierce resistance under the leadership of Brig. General Konstantinos Th. Bakopoulos, and after three days of fighting they had only limited successes. The 2nd Panzerdivision XVIII Mountain Corps with an enveloping move crossed the Yugoslavian borders, overcame Yugoslav and Greek resistance and captured Thessaloniki on 9 April. The capture of Thessaloniki forced the Greek East Macedonia Army Section to surrender on 10 April 1941 and the Metaxas Line battle was over.

German General Wilhelm List, who led the attack against the Metaxas Line, admired the bravery and courage of these soldiers. He refrained from taking the Greek soldiers prisoner and declared that the army was free to leave with their war flags, on condition that they surrender their arms and supplies. He also ordered his soldiers and officers to salute the Greek soldiers. Meanwhile the Greek flag was flying. The German flag was only raised after the Greeks had withdrawn. Hermann Göring later testified in Nuremberg on 15 March 1946:

I have just described the very special situation in which the German Wehrmacht found itself at the outbreak of this war, and what tasks it had to solve, which had to be done with tremendous speed and with an equally great desired effect in order to achieve its original goal in time. The task was to penetrate – I can't remember the name now – the Metaxas Line in northern Greece before English troops, who had already landed near Athens, could come to support the Greek garrison at the Metaxas Line. So, on the one hand, a considerably smaller part of the German armed forces had to penetrate this line and the other part, which was planned, had to throw itself at the Yugoslav army and also here with forces that were in themselves inadequate in the shortest possible time – that was the prerequisite for the entire success – take out this army. Otherwise it could not only happen that the destruction of the Italian army would take place with complete certainty, but also that the German army, divided in this way, would advance into Yugoslavia with parts of its forces – Bulgarian support came considerably later – and with other parts of its forces would be able to defeat the strong Metaxas Line in time in order to prevent the English deployment there, even if it was divided, it could get into an incredibly difficult and critical and perhaps disastrous military situation. The Luftwaffe was therefore to be deployed in this part with the greatest emphasis in order to ensure that the Yugoslavian attempt to march against Germany and its allies came to a halt as quickly as possible.

Hellenic resistance (430,000 men and 20 tanks supported by 62,612 British, 100 tanks and 300 planes) on the mainland was fierce, often with bitter retaliation from the enemy. It also forced a delay in the German plans of Operation Barbarossa, thereby extending the campaign into the punishing Russian winter. Belgrade was conquered in April 1941, freeing more German forces for Greece. Meanwhile, the British, stationed in Greece, were building a defense at Thermopylae. This was overrun on 24 April 1941, whereupon the Allies had to initiate an amphibious evacuation operation in which 50,000 soldiers were shipped to Egypt.

On 27 April 1941, after only three weeks, the victorious Wehrmacht finally entered Athens. On 3 May 1941, the big victory parade of the Italians (who had hardly seen any action) and Germans under the patronage of Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm List took place in Athens (on 27 April 1941, after the victory and the raising of the German flag, there was already a small German one, German soldiers were welcomed with flowers by Greek women).

The British then occupied Crete and called it the "last greek stronghold", although the island inhabitants had not been told that Greece had honorably surrendered. The extremely heavy losses suffered by German paratroopers in the now necessary Battle of Crete foiled a planned German campaign in the Middle East against British-held Iraq and its oil fields. The Balkan campaign resulted in a long-lasting gang war (Bandenkrieg) in occupied Yugoslavia as well as in Greece, which the Wehrmacht was unable to control. It was fought by various partisan groups, with the Yugoslav “People's Liberation Army” under Josip Broz Tito being able to prevail despite the Operation Rösselsprung.

Similarly, in Greece, the communist “People’s Liberation Army” ELAS had the upper hand among the partisan units. In this case, however, the end of the war did not lead to communist rule, but rather to the Greek civil war due to the selfish intervention of British troops.

Greece's national budget was burdened by very high external debt in the 1930s. An Anglo-French-Italian financial commission was therefore promoted. During the Second World War, despite the British naval blockade, significant quantities of gold were shipped to Greece by the German Reich in order to curb catastrophic inflation and stabilize the Greek currency. Despite the shortage of supplies in Germany, there were food deliveries to Greece to combat the impending famine there, as well as deliveries of other German export goods. Through neutral Sweden, Germany contacted the British authorities and finally obtained the lifting of the blockade of Greek waters in favor of a Swedish ship loaded with German food, which could leave Trieste or Venice every month to reach Piraeus without the risk of being torpedoed.

Strength and losses (mainland battles)

  • Germany
    • Strength: 680,000 Soldiers, 1,200 Panzer und 700 Aircraft
    • 1,099 fallen
    • 3,752 wounded
    • 385 MIA
  • Italy
    • Strength: 565,000 Soldiers, 163 Tanks und 463 Aircraft
    • 13,755 fallen
    • 63,142 wounded
    • 25,067 MIA (such a high number can only be explained by thousands of deserted soldiers)
  • Greece
    • Strength: 430,000 Soldiers, 20 Tanks
    • 13,408 fallen
    • 42,485 wounded
    • 1,290 MIA
  • Great Britain
    • Strength: 62,612 Soldiers, 100 Tanks and 300 Aircraft
    • 903 fallen
    • 1,250 wounded
    • 13,958 POWs

German withdrawal and post-WWII

In the fall of 1944, the Wehrmacht managed a smooth withdrawal from mainland Greece. This was the start of the civil war between communist and royalist partisans, which raged until 1949 and cost the lives of around 125,000 Greeks. The modern Greek view of history is unaffected by this, but rather focuses on the far fewer victims that the partisan struggle against the German occupying forces cost in 1943/44. Similar shifts in the proportions of guilt underlay the Nuremberg trial against the German “Southeast Generals,” which ended at the beginning of 1948 with draconian punishments for their responsibility for shooting hostages. As the Nuremberg lawyer Klaus Kastner explains, Allied prosecutors and judges had no understanding or knowledge of the reality of the partisan struggle.

References

  1. Johann Wuescht: Jugoslawien und das Dritte Reich, 1969
  2. Die Wehrmacht – Soldatenatlas (1941) S. 13. (PDF-Datei)