WW2 – Balkan Catastrophe

In October 1940 the British command happened to withdraw some forces from North Africa to give aid to Greece, a rather moral one. The Greeks though proved to be inflexible beyond expectation, they had fought off advanced Italian divisions, driven them back, and close behind them entered Albania. The general situation in the Balkans was worsening week after week and the reinforcement of British expeditionary forces in Greece was becoming an urgent necessity. To the country of the Hellenes had been sent one of two brigades of the 2nd Armoured Division, two infantry divisions and a considerable part of aviation, 50,000 men altogether. A highland rifles brigade had to join them soon. In command was Gen. Henry Maitland Wilson.

Meanwhile, in effect of the German pressure on Yugoslavia, the autocratic, since a long time inclining to a fascist ideology government of that country had decided on 25 March 1941 to enter the sphere of the Tripartite Pact. Thus after Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary the Germans had to seize without a struggle yet another loot, especially valuable for its central position in Balkans. However, the political triumph occurred rather short-lived. On 27 March a group of senior officers staged a coup d’átat in Belgrade, displaced the regent, prince Paul, and revoked the agreements with fascist countries. It meant of course the war, to which the Yugoslav kingdom was not prepared just like any other country in Europe. The new government relied on external aid and confirmed itself in its otherwise proper decision with the Greek example. Unfortunately, those were the elements, which could not come true in strategic calculations.

Yugoslavia by that time had the forces of about 160,000 men making 16 infantry divisions, 2 cavalry divisions and some specialized units, old-fashionedly armed though. The air forces were weak, and the navy was not a match to the Italian Adriatic fleet. In case of war the command of the Yugoslav royal army planned to mobilize the forces as strong as 1,700,000 men.  Considering the poor economic conditions of pre-war Yugoslavia, it apparently would be mostly a crowd of often barefoot warriors, armed with old shotguns or just sticks, close by character to Abyssinian partisans. But it never came to the mobilization of that crowd, completely helpless in face of German armoured and aviation might. The time simply ran short.

The Germans struck on 6 April 1941 with the forces of their 12th Army deployed in Bulgaria; the commander-in-chief became Field-Marshal Wilhelm List. The Yugoslav command at once had committed the same error the Poles in September 1939 and the French in May 1940 had; instead to organize the defence on more suitable positions in country’s interior, which in case of Yugoslavia could be placed in inaccessible mountains, the defence of the whole country along the vulnerable frontiers had been accepted. Due to that mistake Yugoslavia suffered a literally thunderous defeat, the more so because alongside the German invasion also Italian, Bulgarian and Hungarian troops attacked from their frontiers. The 12th Army’s strike from Bulgaria broke within several days the defence, although very fierce in that sector, and led to the fall, on 13 April, of Belgrade, the capital of the country. The Germans without a fight seized the city, heavily destroyed by air bombardments on the first day of the war. In other sectors the Yugoslav army found itself in a state of complete rout. The Yugoslav kingdom was scattered as well. Its western area, Croatia, was producing its own, puppet separateness, patronized by invaders. Thus was created a monster called Independent State of Croatia, the chief of which became with Hitler’s grace a certain Ante Paveliæ. In Slovenia too the decentralizing tendencies were crystallizing, but the Italians, after the occupation of Ljubljana, scattered an emerging local government.

On 14 April morning a new chief of staff of the Yugoslav royal forces, Gen. Danilo Kalafatoviæ, issued directions, which stated:

«In result of defeat on all the fronts, in result of a complete disintegration of our troops in Croatia, Dalmatia and Slovenia, and after a comprehensive examination of our political and military situation we have come to the conclusion, that any further resistance is impossible and may only bring about the unnecessary bloodshed, without any prospect of a success; furthermore as neither our nation nor its military leadership wanted the war, we have resolved (…) to ask the German and Italian commands to cease the hostilities.»

Next day the Yugoslav government had convened in the town of Niksic in Montenegro the last session on the native soil. It was resolved, that concerning the German demand of unconditional capitulation the army would surrender, while the government and infant king Peter II would leave the country. It was assumed that this way Yugoslavia as a state would not be tied by the conditions of the capitulation and thus would not be regarded for a defeated country. Kalafatoviæ capitulated on 16 April.

Reportedly he expected that he would obtain for the conquered country a status similar to that of conquered France. Apparently he did not, just like the French, pay any attention to Czechoslovak or Polish experiences. German generals had simply ridiculed him. Instead they immediately started the dismemberment of the kingdom. Apart of Croatia, which with Bosnia and Herzegovina was separated as a petty pseudo-state, the carved Serbia with Belgrade got a status of something like a German colony, whereas Montenegro became an Italian protectorate; the Germans simply incorporated a part of Slovenia to the Reich, the whole Dalmatia and most the islands were incorporated to Italy, furthermore the Hungarians took the area between Tisa and Danube, whereas the Bulgarians took almost whole Macedonia.

The campaign in Yugoslavia lasted nine days. It consisted in systematic scattering and annihilation of Yugoslav groups, which failed to fight a single serious battle. About 350,000 prisoners of war were captured by invaders.

The liquidation of Yugoslavia took place simultaneously to the liquidation of the Greek resistance. On the same day, 6 April, the formations of German bombers attacked both Belgrade and the Greek port of Piraeus. A bad fortune would have it that a ship loaded with trotyl was hit there and the port literally blew up. The army troops meanwhile rushed from Bulgaria to Salonika and on 8 April seized that important Greek city.

The Greeks so far accurately observed the principles of neutrality towards Germany to avoid a provocation of an Italy’s dangerous ally. At long range it failed since the Germans could not indifferently look at the Italy’s shame. Upon a Yugoslav opportunity, Hitler decided to strengthen Mussolini’s authority seriously impaired by recent failures. Of course a major role played the necessity to secure the Balkan wing on account of an already planned new strike, which had to turn in the direction of Moscow. Whereas in the article of the German intervention the Greek army simply proved too weak. Actually it was extended to 600,000-men strength,  it was assisted by the British expeditionary corps, but the biggest part of those forces was engaged beyond the Albanian frontier. The Germans meanwhile struck from the very north, from Bulgaria across Yugoslavia, and with their armoured and mechanized divisions easily pierced through the weak Greek fortifications.

The Prime Minister of Greece was at the time Aléxandros Koryzis. A university professor and a theoretician, he met the king’s demand to assume, after the death of Ioánnis Metaxas, an overwhelming burden of duties of wartime Prime Minister, to which he was not prepared either professionally or psychically. The Greece’s defeat drove him to despair. On 18 April, when during the consultation of ministers the king addressed them with a question: who is responsible for army’s capitulation without a government’s consent? – Koryzis unexpectedly answered: me. The state’s defence and its internal affairs were in my hand. I have failed to observe them. Then he rose, kissed a king’s hand and left the meeting. On his return to home he told to his wife and children awaiting him with a dinner, that he would sit down to table when he wash his hands. He made for the bathroom, from where resounded a shot. He died before the door was broken open.

The German strike within a dozen of days broke a hard so far Greek defence. On 27 April invaders from the north entered Athens. Between 26 and 28 April the remnants of the army, whipped British expeditionary corps, king George II, royal court and government evacuated to Crete. The British had saved 43,000 men out of 57,000.  But the soldiers, like those from Dunkirk, lost all their equipment. Unfortunately, the biggest Greek island had to become the final stage of the defeat. The defence command actually gained three weeks, but it could undertake virtually no measures. British air forces had no possibility to deploy there appropriately equipped bases, so they were eventually completely withdrawn to Egypt. From there contemporary fighter planes could not reach the island located about 600 kilometres away. Thus the troops in Crete, armed mostly only with rifles and light machine weapons, possessed no air support. The Germans on the other hand, after they had seized Greek coastal airfields, enjoyed a complete ease in the air. They exploited it utterly.

On 20 May started a decisive assault on Crete, a unique operation of a sort during the Second World War. It was conducted fully and finished almost entirely by air and airborne forces commanded by Gen. Kurt Student. The Allied forces were commanded by a New Zealander Gen. Bernard Cyril Freyberg. He could not do too much, having about thirty battalions of poorly armed infantry. The Germans struck with two divisions transported by 500 aircraft and 80 gliders; 430 bombers and 200 fighters supported the landing.  An Australian correspondent of the London’s Times wrote about amazing capacity for organization of the Germans:

«To augment their activity both in the air and on the land the Germans had standing reconnaissance over Crete for twenty-four hours a day. (…) Never has wireless been used to such an extent as in Crete to control manoeuvres. Contact between land forces and aircraft reconnoitring or bombing above them was continuous. The land commander could order out one of the bomber formations to assist him if he needed bomber assistance immediately. He could ask one of the standing reconnaissance aircraft above him where and what the British were doing and get a reply immediately.  Those were the incredible and complete methods of a total war organized to a perfect degree.»

It may be added, that but bombers and fighters the Germans used there 50 reconnaissance planes.

On the British-Greek side during the battle of Crete might be noted only an improvisation, sometimes determination, but generally a clumsy guerrilla. In these circumstances the fate of the island was sealed. On 1 June at dawn the evacuation of Crete was completed. However the ships carrying people were frequently sinking, incessantly attacked from the air, so eventually over 10,000 British soldiers only were left to their fate,  it means exposed to an undoing or captivity.

Fuller wrote about the Greek campaign, that it so far as the British were concerned, was purely a political one. It should never have been fought, for though Britain had pledged her word to support Greece, to do so with a token force in order to «save face» in the eyes of the world, was in no sense a fulfillment of her pledge, and in every sense a betrayal of general Wilson’s army. Further (…), its repercussions in Africa were disastrous.

But inaccessibility of the Greek mountains and the valour of a Greek soldier certainly entitled the British leadership and command to calculate a better turn of the Greek campaign. So, Fuller, writing about a «purely political campaign», only partially is right. Certainly to London it was a political campaign, but the operational opportunities existed too. These calculations failed though; whereas the influence of the defeat on the African campaign proved to be actually disastrous.