Vienna, Austria March 25, 1941

On this date in 1941 in Vienna, the govern­ment of Yugo­slav regent Prince Paul signed a pro­to­col of ad­her­ence to the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Tri­par­tite Pact, there­by setting the stage for a com­plex guer­rilla war against Germans, Ital­ians, and their Yugo­slav allies, and within the Yugo­slav resis­tance forces them­selves. Not two days after aligning Yugo­sla­via with the Axis, ele­ments in the Yugo­slav mili­tary over­threw Prince Paul and pro­claimed his 17-year-old cousin, Prince Peter II, as king. The blood­less coup d’état—with the support of Britain’s clan­des­tine Special Oper­a­tions Exec­u­tive—reflected the broad majority’s anti-Axis atti­tude in the coun­try. A new cabi­net announced a policy of neu­trality, although a Yugo­slav delega­tion would soon arrive in Moscow to sound out a poten­tial Yugoslav-Soviet Treaty of Friend­ship and Non­ag­gres­sion. The treaty, dated April 5, 1941, was duly signed in Moscow the next morning.

In Berlin Adolf Hitler was furious and lost little time raining bombs on Bel­grade (Oper­a­tion Retri­bu­tion), the Yugo­slav capital, killing 17,000 civil­ians in a series of air raids—the largest num­ber of dead in a single day since the Euro­pean con­flict began in Septem­ber 1939. Out­matched in the air and on the ground, the Yugo­slav high com­mand surrendered on April 17 as the coun­try splintered—Croatia in the north of the coun­try, where local nation­alists had been stirred up by neigh­boring Italy, declared its inde­pend­ence as German bombs fell on Bel­grade. Not until three and a half years later, on Septem­ber 6, 1944, after smashing and occupying Roma­nia and declaring war on neigh­boring Bulgaria, did the Allies in the form of the Red Army set foot on Yugo­slav soil, pushing their way to the Dal­ma­tian coast and linking up with Yugo­slav Par­ti­sans, who for months had tied down a considerable number of German troops.

To the south of Yugoslavia, British airborne forces had descended on Greece (Septem­ber 24, 1944) and advanced on Athens, liber­ating the capi­tal on Octo­ber 13. On Octo­ber 19, Ger­man forces, holed up in Bel­grade for half a week, fled the ruined capi­tal, which was occupied by Soviet troops and Josip Tito’s Yugo­slav Army on Octo­ber 20.

That same week, Octo­ber 9–19, 1944, Brit­ish Prime Minis­ter Winston Chur­chill was in Mos­cow for dis­cus­sions with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The two men adopted the Percent­ages Agree­ment, whereby the two Allies divided the Balkan region into spheres of influ­ence. Under terms of the agree­ment, the Soviets would pre­dom­i­nate in Roma­nia, Bul­garia, and Hun­gary—Axis coun­tries where the Red Army had been or would soon be, while Great Britain would assume power in Greece. Both coun­tries would share in­flu­ence in Yugo­sla­via. Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt, upon learning of the agree­ments reached by Chur­chill and Stalin, announced that his administration would not be bound by the terms.

Yugoslavia in World War II

Yugoslavia in World War II: King Peter II of YugoslaviaYugoslavia in World War II: Hitler in Marburg an der Drau (Maribor), Yugoslavia, 1941

Left: King Peter II of Yugoslavia wearing the uniform of the Royal Air Force, January 1944. On March 27, 1941, Peter, then 17, was pro­claimed of age, ascended the Yugo­slav throne (empty since the assas­si­na­tion of his father King Alex­an­der in Mar­seille, France, in 1934), and par­ti­ci­pated in a British-supported coup d’état op­posing the Tri­par­tite Pact. Peter (reign: 1934–1945) was forced to leave the coun­try with the Yugo­slav govern­ment following the Axis in­va­sion by German, Ital­ian, Hun­garian, and Bul­ga­rian armies. He and his govern­ment minis­ters hop­scotched to Greece, then to Jeru­sa­lem in the British Man­date of Pales­tine, then to Cairo, Egypt, even­tually winding up in England in June 1941. There he and his minis­ters rubbed elbows with numer­ous other govern­ments in exile from Nazi-occupied Europe. The teen­age king com­pleted his edu­ca­tion at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity and joined the Royal Air Force. His uncle Prince Paul spent the war years under house arrest in South Africa.

Right: Hitler in the company of his press secre­tary and the chief of his chan­cel­lery crossing the Old Bridge (Stari most) in Mar­burg an der Drau (Mari­bor), occupied Yugo­slavia (in today’s Northeastern Slovenia), 1941.

Yugoslavia in World War II: Yugoslav Marshal Josip Broz Tito, 1942Yugoslavia in World War II: Tito and Churchill, Naples, Italy, 1944

Left: Partisan supreme com­mander Marshal Josip Broz Tito, 1942. Tito’s for­mi­dable com­mu­nist-leaning guerril­la force, con­cealed in rural vil­lages, the country­side, and moun­tain strong­holds, was a con­stant thorn in the side of the Wehr­macht (German armed forces), prompting numerous anti-Partisan operations and much bloodshed.

Right: Tito and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, keeping his dis­tance, pose for the camera in Naples, Italy, 1944. Chur­chill publicly called it his big­gest war­time blun­der—shifting British and tag-along U.S. sup­port from Yugo­slavia’s Gen. Draža Mihai­lovic (also spelled Draja Mihai­lovich) and his royalist resis­tance group called the Yugo­slav Army of the Home­land, better known as Chet­niks, to Tito and his Parti­sans. (In 1997 the world learned that the Allied switch of alle­giance away from Mihai­lovic was orche­strated largely by a con­firmed Soviet mole who had infil­trated both the British and the Amer­i­can covert intel­li­gence ser­vices to besmirch Mihai­lovic’s and the Chet­niks’ anti-German bona fides.) Mihai­lovic’s Chet­niks clashed with Parti­san and Wehr­macht units alike. The Parti­sans event­ually got the better of the Chet­niks and the Axis enemy. Mihai­lovic was cap­tured at his hide­out in March 1946, tried and con­victed of high trea­son and war crimes, and exe­cuted by firing squad in Bel­grade on July 17, 1946. Sixty-nine years later the Mihai­lovic ver­dict was over­turned by the Ser­bian supreme court on grounds it was politically and ideologically motivated.

Joining Axis Pact Unleashes Series of Yugoslav Tragedies