Before the storm

In the end of October 1940 a beautiful Mediterranean autumn ruled in Rome and Athens. But to the Greco- Albanian frontier running through the wilderness of the Pindus plateau came a Balkan winter – cold, rainy, even snowy in upper parts of the mountains. In that frontier, which separated Greece from Italian- occupied Albania, since some time had been freezing soldiers of both sides: Italian, who by Mussolini’s will were about to march on Athens, and Greek, who were preparing to defend their country of the invasion. Italian soldiers expected a tourist march to Athens, after which they would promptly return to their homes. The commander of the Aquila Battalion from the 3rd Alpine Division (Giulia), Major Fatuzzo, on 27 October 1940 noted in his diary:

At 20:30 from the regiment comes the Order No.4: operation commence.


Pact of Steel

The war starts tomorrow. The rain is frenetic and incessant. Water gets to the tents encamped in a muddy terrain. It’s hard to sleep. Today is my son’s anniversary. Six years. A babe.


What do the soldiers think? I come out to the rain. I can hear voices. Not all of them are sleeping. Many of these boys are awaiting the dawn anxious what the war is like. Me too. [Cervi]


It was the fascism to instil them – ranks and files – with the romanticism of war and the idea of easy conquests. But such were the views of the one, who ordered them to attack Greece – the fascist dictator of Italy, il duce Benito Mussolini – and the one, who masterminded the invasion – Mussolini’s foreign minister and son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano. According to them Greece, ruled by corrupted gang of plutocrats and English agents, after one blow would fall like a house of cards. [Ciano]


Meanwhile hitherto revolting and politically split Greek society united around the higher goal, which was the defence of the Greece’s independence and sovereignty. So, when on 28 October 1940 Italian forces crossed the Greco-Albanian border, they met the defence, which surprised them. Because the whole nation stood against the invasion. While the border troops were waging heavy fights with the Italians’ assault grouping, in the whole country was carried out a general mobilization and soon first reinforcements rushed towards the frontier. There however they had to enter the mountains. Vehicles, trains, artillery were stalling. The words that soldiers were freezing, that they missed food and ammunition, spread throughout the mountain villages, where only oldies, women and children had remained – all the men capable to carry weapon went to the war. Greek women hastened with help to their soldiers. They carried baskets with bread, they dragged improvised sleighs with machine-guns through the snow, they harnessed themselves to the mountain howitzers. Where mules could not pass, they carved paths. An eyewitness of those contests, Greek officer, writer and historian Angelos Terzakis recalls

…black zigzags of their columns here and there on the white horizon. One can see black- clad women forcing their way through the snow. Around the noon November 30th the weather cleared up and Italian spotting planes appeared. On the slopes of Grammos an Italian air patrol detects one of those processions and opens fire from machine-guns. Eleven women fall cut by the series. Other women take their places in the column. [Terzakis]


This Greek «no» boldly thrown into invaders’ face was a significant factor in the cause of the repulsion of fascist conquests.

The great triangle of the Balkan peninsula covers about 500, and is mostly mountainous, split into many lands with varying relief, soil, climate, vegetation and animals, and therefore varying ways of human habitat. Balkans’ natural extension is Asia Minor, with which it constitutes the platform between Europe and Asia. Hence the capital role of Bosphorus and Dardanelles, through which runs the seafaring route linking the Mediterranean with the Black Sea. Balkan lands’ location in relatively open space and actually lesser access to the seas caused, that the peninsula for millennia has been a battleground of expansion and rivalry of various outer powers. In the ancient times Balkans were conquered by the Rome. Its descendant, the Byzantine Empire, for several centuries tried to hold the peninsula in its possession, although the migrations of nations, and particularly the settlement of the Slavic tribes, changed its ethnic composition and created basis for the establishment of new independent realms. The shaky Greco-Slavic balance was destroyed in 14th and 15th centuries by the invasion of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which at the peak of its conquests encompassed almost the whole area. Several centuries of the Turkish rule brought catastrophic consequences: wars, spread of Islam, cultural deformation, and economical and civilizational underdevelopment. Since the battle of Vienna (1683) the area of Turkey’s rule shrunk as it had been driven back by the Austrians, Russians and indigenous liberation movements. But it was not until 230 years later that it was limited in 1912 to a scrap of the European continent (East Thrace) by the effort of the Balkan nations themselves. However, new independent states – Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and Greece – emerged from the First Balkan War against Turkey antagonized and promptly started hostilities among themselves. The year 1913 brought a major fratricidal conflict, the Second Balkan War, in which the Bulgarians were defeated by allied Serbs, Greeks and Romanians, and which shaped divisions among Balkan peoples. Divisions even deepened and strengthened during the First World War.

In 1914-1918 Serbia and Montenegro, then Greece, and finally Romania were involved in war alongside the Entente, whereas Turkey and Bulgaria allied with the Central Powers. Formally neutral Albania was ravaged by both sides of the conflict. Bulgaria, defeated once again, ultimately lost her access to the Aegean Sea. Turkey, also defeated, faced a total disaster. She was saved by the democratic revolution and reforms carried out by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), discords among Entente powers, help from Soviet Russia and victory in war with Greece. Greece desired to restore the Byzantine Empire by reconquest of Asia Minor (1919-1922). This attempt resulted in Greek army’s defeat in the battle on the Sakarya River (1921) and a catastrophe to the Hellenic population, which had to abandon Asia Minor after having lived there over 3000 years.

Inter-war relations in the Balkan Peninsula were shaped by the Versailles treaty. Serbia, Montenegro and southern Slavic lands of the former Austro-Hungarian monarchy made a new country – the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (since 1929 – Yugoslavia), which together with Romania and Greece was interested in keeping its possessions. With time also Turkey joined them. This alliance became formal on 9 February 1934 when the four countries signed in Athens a political pact, so-called Balkan Entente. The pact foresaw mutual assistance of the parties in case of an aggression of a third Balkan country – presumably Bulgaria. Moreover Yugoslavia, Romania and Czechoslovakia created so-called Little Entente to protect themselves from Hungarian expansionism. Those pacts, which were supposed to preserve Versailles political status quo, constituted important links in the chain of France’s alliances. The Munich policy had ruined the Balkan security system. It increased instability through Italian occupation of Albania and annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia by Germany, which therefore reached the outskirts of the Balkans. She also increased her economic penetration of the region, which had been gradually transformed into a III Reich’s supply subsidiary. Democracies’ counteraction was weak. It did not halt German economic expansion, and guarantees accepted by Greece and Romania in spring 1939 brought a doubtful political effect. Only Turkey, afraid of Italian expansionism, after long negotiations signed on 19 October 1939 a mutual assistance treaty with France and Great Britain. The outbreak of the Second World War, and particularly France’s and Great Britain’s failure to fulfil their liabilities towards allied Poland, caused dismay in those political circles, which sought closer co-operation with the West. Balkan governments were waiting for the outcome of the contest in the western front; some of them desired territorial acquisitions, others wanted to defend their possessions, but all of them felt helpless in face of the powers’ strength.

Balkan countries represent a substantial manpower and possess valuable natural resources. But their pre-war economic development was poor and could not provide adequate armaments and supplies to the armed forces. Economy was dominated by primitive agriculture. Peasantry constituted more than the half of the population. For centuries of hard toil they had been reclaiming plough soil from rocks and marshes but the level of agricultural production remained low. Grain production, but Greece, barely covered domestic demand, and only Bulgaria had grain surplus for export. Substantial portion in export made other agricultural products like tobacco, fruits, olives and wine. Knowledge and exploration of mineral resources were inadequate. Yugoslavia mined copper, Greece – nickel, but the ores were exported raw or semi-raw. Food processing and textile industries were better developed, while steel production was virtually non-existent. In 1937 the whole area had produced 320,000t of steel; almost entirely in Yugoslavia. The total production of electrical energy in 1938 barely approached 3 billion kWh. Communication grid was also inadequate and on top of that the mountainous terrain caused additional problems. Both roads and railways had a lot of bridges and tunnels, what augmented the danger of their total paralysis in case of air raids. Some areas were deprived of railways at all. Therefore the motor communication played important role both in passenger and cargo transportation. However merely first steps were made towards its development. Sea communication was important only in Greece.

Political relations in the Balkans were troubled by religious differentiation. Catholicism dominates in western Yugoslavia and northern Albania, other lands are Orthodox Christian. Islamic pockets were scattered throughout the whole region. Protestantism was present too, but without major influence. The ethnic mosaic is even more colourful; generally speaking all the countries are multinational to some extent. Yugoslavia is basically comprised by three nations – Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, as well as a number of minorities like Macedonians, Bulgarians and Russians, Albanians, Greeks and Turks, Germans, Italians, Hungarians and Romanians, Jews and Gypsies. It must be mentioned, though without hazarding into thorough and detailed examination that among Balkan peoples existed numerous prejudices, tensions and conflicts well rooted in the past centuries of coexistence and mutual hostilities. Some nations pursued domination over their neighbours, other sought emancipation, and both streams made a fertile soil for all kinds of extremism, especially nationalism, chauvinism and fascism. The only political power, though small, capable to quickly prepare a defence were communists. Banned and persecuted in all the countries, they incorporated the secret communication channels and mechanisms required to organize resistance in occupied countries. Nevertheless,  many people tended to see in the non-aggression treaty between the USSR and Germany (23 August 1939) a kind of alliance between Moscow and Berlin. This tendency left many communists and their sympathizers disoriented and disappointed. They also acted as a tool in the hands of the Comintern, it means – the foreign policy of the USSR whcich became obviously clear after the end of the war.

Pre-war Balkan states were formally constitutional monarchies. At the eve of the Second World War though democratic institutions were merely a fig leaf for more or less open fascist dictatorships. In Yugoslavia king Alexander I in the spirit of the constitution of 1931 lifted democratic freedoms. After his death the country was ruled by great-Serbian chauvinists with Prime Minister Milan Stojadinoviæ. His régime clearly evaluated towards fascism and tried to impose Serbian hegemony over other Yugoslav nations. When Stojadinoviæ was eventually overthrown the power was seized by the regent, prince Paul, who ruled in name of infant king Peter II. He had secured an absolute influence on state affairs thanks to consensus with Dr. Vlatko Maèek, the leader of Croatian nationalists. In Bulgaria, after a series of coups in 1934-1935, political parties were banned and the whole power was concentrated in the hands of Czar Boris III.

In Greece in 1935 the republic was overthrown and the monarchy was re-stablished with King George II. Soon the king became just a decorative puppet as on 4 August 1936 Gen. Ioánnis Metaxas established his dictatorship in result of coup d’état. He banned political parties too.

In Albania self-appointed king Zog I had introduced his autocratic régime yet in 1928.

Substantial role in establishing and maintaining dictatorships played military. Armed forces were dominated by manpower, for which there was not enough weapon and equipment. Troops were equipped and trained for fight with similar enemies and were no match to the armies, which represented European standard. Balkan countries’ main combat force were land troops. Air forces and navy (but Greece) were auxiliary services. During the peacetime land forces were substantially expanded. In case of mobilization they would transform into infantry with average quantity of field and mountain artillery. Heavy, anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery were inadequate. Tank troops were virtually nonexistent, motorization made just first steps and transportation mostly sustained on horses, mules and even oxen. It was not until late 1930’s that air forces attracted more strategists’ attention and possessed mostly obsolete planes.

At the outbreak of the Second World War Balkan countries possessed mobilization stocks, which could meet urgent wartime needs. In case of a protracting conflict they would need to rely on import. Military industry existed only in Yugoslavia, but it had no adequate material and scientific basis. It was capable to manufacture only simple models of weapons by foreign licenses. Greece and Bulgaria did not have even that. Chances to switch civil industry to military production were none. Therefore it was vital to all the countries of the region, of course to different extend, to import weapons. Weapons were offered by Germany and partially by Italy. Not for free of course, but in return for political concessions and severance with the Anglo-French block. On the other hand France and Great Britain started their armaments relatively late and had no significant surplus. In this situation the fall of France in 1940 meant not only the collapse of the main partner of pro-Western countries, but also further degradation of their defence capabilities in the circumstances of growing disbelief in ability to oppose the III Reich. A Turkish writer and diplomat, Yakup Kadri Karaosmano•lu, who represented his country in Holland and saw there the German Blitzkrieg, in summer 1940 came back to Constantinople, where he found grave moods:

Upon our arrival to Istanbul friends and acquaintances deemed that we were more optimistic than it was worth. Back in the homeland everybody believed that the time came to refurnish the world, and lost any hope for rescue. What have we done to bind our fate with the fate of the Englishmen and the Frenchmen, used to say some civilian officials from the general staff, and ignorant diplomats. [Karaosmanoglu]


German economic penetration of the Balkans rapidly increased in late 1930’s. It caused antagonisms with British, French and even Italian concerns, being wiped out from their hitherto positions in the business. The most vigorous were activities of the biggest German chemical concern IG Farbenindustrie, which first subordinated chemical industry’s foreign trade of the Balkan countries, and then gradually pursued monopolization of their domestic markets. With time this concern became the representative of the whole German capital as well as associations of German industrialists and official German economic institutions, which sought subordination of Balkan markets to the needs of the German war economy. To the German leadership IG Farben meant in first place, that their war machine would be supplied with all kinds of chemicals, ammunition, explosives as well as many oil products. The latter attracted particular and growing attention. Because the lack of crude oil from deficient pits of the central Germany – only partially healed by production of synthetic fuels of coal – was the Achilles’ heel of the colossal German military machine. Luftwaffe’s warplanes needed high- octane gasoline. Kriegsmarine’s ships needed mazut and oils. Wehrmacht’s tanks and vehicles needed solar oil, fuel oil and petrol. German armed forces used millions of tons of fuel every year. And in 1939-1941 the biggest European supplier and exporter of crude oil was Romania. So Romania’s economic subordination to Germany was critical to the III Reich’s war machine. Hungary’s importance to that machine was no less. German aviation industry needed duralumin, which is composed by copper and aluminium. Within the first war years German aluminium works produced most of the quantity of this metal: gradually it reached two hundred thousand tons a year. [Baross] The primary raw material of this industry was the Hungarian bauxite. Therefore the Hungary’s dictator, landlocked Admiral Miklós Horthy, might nurse some anti-German feelings, but he had to provide Germany with bauxite. Yugoslavia in her turn was seen as the supplier of a range of non-ferrous metal ores. Absolutely indispensable in small quantities to enrich and harden steel alloys. Without them there would be no solid armour for tanks and submarine hulls. Hence the coquetry of the Belgrade régime, which nonetheless would constitute no obstacle in flirting with various renegades among Yugoslav nations, especially among Croatian and Macedonian nationalists, who would become a German «fifth column» in their own country.

Such were briefly economic sources of interest in the Balkans on the part of German concerns as well as Adolf Hitler and his war economic advisers. But in Hitler’s eyes Balkan peninsula also had a strategic importance. The bigger the longer Great Britain continued the war and gradually took over the strategic initiative in the Mediterranean – especially in its eastern part. In those circumstances subordination of the Balkans became the capital condition for the German land forces and Luftwaffe to get to the Rome-Berlin Axis’ vulnerable Mediterranean theatre. The main reason of Hitler’s interest in the Balkans came out from Barbaroßa – the plan to attack the USSR ripening since early autumn 1940. Therefore, through the economic and political pressure, at times balancing at the edge of black mail, Hitler – often supported but even more often surprised by his Italian allies – started the first stage of the conquest of the Balkans. Originally the Germans quite carefully strengthened their influence in Hungary and Romania. But in July 1940 it came to a serious conflict between the two countries. For Hungary spelled out her claims to Transylvania. Germany and Italy had to take a position in the conflict. In August, by the decision of so-called Vienna Award, they imposed on conflicting parties the solution, which served their own interests: they gave a large portion of the northern Transylvania to Hungary and the southern part of Dobruja to Bulgaria. They also approved the USSR’s incorporation of Bessarabia, since 1918 under Romanian occupation. Those were major territorial losses, which agitated Romania. King Charles II had to step out in favour to his son Michael. To the prime-minister was assigned General Ion Antonescu, who opened the way to the fascist régime, and in foreign affairs closely collaborated with Hitler. Soon, under the guise of training the Romanian army, the Germans deployed their troops in Romania and gained valuable initial positions for invasion on the USSR.

Germans’ penetration of Hungary and Bulgaria was carried out slower and more cautiously. Nevertheless they gradually created there a solid strategic rear for the war with the Soviet Union. This cautious, long-term policy was however disturbed in autumn 1940 by Italy’s attack on Greece. The Greeks’ resistance to the Italian invasion and their further successes in Albania caused German intervention and occupation of the Balkans. For the relatively low price (10,000 dead) the Germans had seized the whole south-eastern Europe and seriously menaced British positions in the Middle East as well as Soviet positions in the Black Sea. They had also secured possibility of unlimited exploitation of Balkan resources. This success, achieved within a short time and widely advertised by Göbbels’ propaganda, had to confirm the myth of the invincible German Wehrmacht. In fact it was a victory over weak opponents, who on top of that failed to co-operate and were internally undermined. To Yugoslavia and Greece the defeat was equal to national catastrophe. Terror and occupation divisions destroyed their economic markets and unleashed the rampage of class, ethnic and religious hostilities, which affected generations of people even for decades after the war. Since the summer 1941 though Balkan nations raised to the struggle with fascism. With time partisan fights assumed mass scale and transformed into regular war. It was the main and decisive force there till autumn 1944, when the Red Army approached the Balkans, and constituted an important theatre of the Second World War.