AXIS FORTUNES RECOVER IN BALKANS

Belgrade, Yugoslavia April 6, 1941

At the tail end of February 1941 British Common­wealth forces from Nigeria captured Moga­dishu, capital of Ital­ian Somali­land (part of today’s Somalia), after Benito Mussolini’s armies had aban­doned any pre­tense of defending their East Afri­can colony. The Ital­ian colony in the Horn of Africa had threa­tened the south­ern en­trance to the Suez Canal in Egypt as well as the Middle Eastern oil fields and the Brit­ish sea route to India.

On this date in 1941, two days after it was aban­doned by the Italians, the Ethio­pian capital of Addis Ababa was occupied by Com­mon­wealth troops from South Africa—the first nation­al capi­tal lib­er­ated from the Axis. Ital­ian forces capitu­lated in Eri­trea on the Red Sea in a sep­a­rate cam­paign later that month. Mopping up oper­a­tions con­tinued until Novem­ber 1941, when all of Ital­ian East Africa fell under Allied control.

Mean­while in Europe, the Bal­kans weighed heav­ily on the minds of Mus­so­li­ni and his Axis part­ner, Adolf Hitler. Il Duce’s armies, having in­vaded Greece from Ital­ian-held Alba­nia in late Octo­ber 1940, were faring poorly against Greek forces. Should Italy fail after Hitler had rushed 50,000 Ger­man troops to bol­ster Italy’s posi­tion in the Bal­kans, the Greeks might per­mit Great Brit­ain to base troops on their soil—already 60,000 Brit­ish and Com­mon­wealth troops had rushed to Greece’s aid—there­by poten­tially com­pli­cating Opera­tion Barba­rossa, Hitler’s colos­sal sum­mer cam­paign against the Soviet Union.

So against the back­drop of Axis losses in East Africa, Axis armies from Hun­gary, Roma­nia, and Bul­garia, spear­headed by 33 Ger­man divisions and supported by 1,200 air­craft of the Luft­waffe, swept across the frontier into Yugo­sla­via and Greece on April 6, 1941, bringing both nations into the Axis orbit and forcing Allied troops into a painful Dunkirk-like evacu­ation of the Greek main­land. By April 29, 1941, the Allied pre­sence was gone. North of Greece, por­tions of Yugo­sla­via were placed under Axis occu­pa­tion, an­nexed by Italy (Cen­tral Dal­ma­tia and part of Slo­ve­nia), or formed into a new Fascist state, Croatia.

Three and a half years later, in Octo­ber 1944, the Ger­mans were forced to aban­don Greece, the same month they aban­doned Yugo­sla­via. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of Greeks died during the Nazi years along with a mil­lion Yugo­slavs, although most of the latter died at the hands of rival partisan groups.





Scenes from the German Balkans Campaign, April 1941

Yugoslav infantry unit surrenders, 1941 Damage to Yugoslavia's royal palace

Left: Starting on April 6, 1941, Axis armies invaded Yugo­sla­via from all sides. This photo shows a Yugo­slav infan­try unit sur­ren­dering on the first day of war.

Right: Operation Punishment (Unternehmen Strafgericht) was the code name for the Ger­man bombing of Bel­grade, Yugo­sla­via’s capital, which began on April 6, 1941 (Palm Sun­day), and con­tinued through April 10. Among the main tar­gets of the Luft­waffe was the Yugo­slav royal palace of King Peter II (seen here) in down­town Belgrade. Other targets included the war ministry, mili­tary head­quarters and barracks, the central post and tele­graph office, elec­trical power stations, and rail­way passen­ger and freight stations. As much as 50 per­cent of Belgrade’s housing was destroyed and as many as 17,000 res­i­dents killed, although a figure between 3,000 and 4,000 is more realistic.

Damaged Belgrade street, 1941 German armored cars enter Greece, 1941

Left: A street damaged by the Luftwaffe’s bombing of Bel­grade, April 1941. Ger­man Field Marshal Paul von Kleist said during the post­war Nurem­berg Trials: “The air raid on Bel­grade in 1941 had a pri­marily poli­tical-ter­rorist char­acter and had nothing to do with the war. That air bombing was a matter of Hitler’s vanity, his per­son­al re­venge,” on the Yugo­slav offi­cers who over­threw Yugo­slavia’s pro-Axis regent, Prince Paul. Luft­waffe Col. Gen. Alexan­der Loehr, who selected the targets his air­men attacked in the capi­tal, was caught and tried before a post­war Yugoslav military court on multiple war crimes charges. He was con­victed, con­demned to death, and exe­cuted by firing squad on February 26, 1947, in Belgrade.

Right: Armored cars of the 1st SS Division Leib­standarte SS Adolf Hitler advance into Greece during Operation Marita (Unternehmen Marita), April 6–30, 1941.

German artillery in Greece, 1941 Bomb damage to Piraeus, April 6, 1941

Left: German artillery firing during the advance into Greece, April 1941.

Right: Damage from the German bombing of Piraeus, Athens’ har­bor, on April 6, 1941. During the bombing, a ship carrying nitro­gly­cerin was hit, causing a huge explo­sion. The Battle for Greece was costly, especially for the Italians (13,755 dead, 63,142 wounded, and 25,067 missing) as con­trasted with German casual­ties of 1,099 dead, 3,752 wounded, and 385 missing. On the Allied side, the Greeks counted 57,183 casual­ties, among them 13,408 dead, and British and Common­wealth units over 900 dead, 1,250 wounded, and nearly 14,000 captured.

Yugoslavia During and After World War II


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