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, which in August 1940 absorbed neigh­boring British Somali­land, 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, April 6, 1941, two days after it was aban­doned by the Italians, the Ethio­pian capital of Addis Ababa was occupied by the British Army’s 11th (African) Divi­sion com­posed primarily of colonial troops from East and West Africa. Addis Ababa thus earned the dis­tinc­tion of being the first national capital liberated from the Axis. Ital­ian forces capitu­lated in Eritrea, Ethiopia’s northern neighbor facing the Red Sea, in a sep­a­rate cam­paign later that month. Mopping up oper­a­tions con­tinued until Novem­ber 1941, when all of Ital­ian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana) fell under Allied control.

Meanwhile, in Southeastern Europe the Balkans weighed heavily on the minds of Musso­lini and his Axis partner, Adolf Hitler. The Duce’s armies, having invaded Greece in late October 1940 from Italian-held Alba­nia, which lay north of Greece, were faring poorly against Greek defenders. (The vain­glo­ri­ous Italian dic­ta­tor struggled mis­er­ably to dupli­cate on the east side of the Adriatic Sea Hitler’s swift take­down of the Low Coun­tries and France in Western Europe earlier that year.) 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

Balkans Campaign: Yugoslav infantry unit surrenders, 1941 Balkans Campaign: 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.

Balkans Campaign: Damaged Belgrade street, 1941 Balkans Campaign: 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.

Balkans Campaign: German artillery in Greece, 1941 Balkans Campaign: 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