A German column advances into Yugoslavia German armored cars and transport vehicles in a Yugoslav town. Many of the vehicles have German flags displayed to prevent “friendly fire” attacks from the Luftwaffe, which dominated the skies above.
German conquest of the Balkans, 1941 Germany deployed six Panzer divisions and over 1,000 aircraft to lead their attacks, a combination the Allies were helpless to resist. Improvised Allied defense lines were soon outflanked.
Hitler intended to control south-eastern Europe and Italy’s Fascist leader Benito Mussolini saw Greece as an easy conquest. In April 1941 Hitler conquered Yugoslavia and Greece to secure Germany’s flank for the invasion of the Soviet Union. Mussolini was on the retreat in Albania and British troops and bombers were arriving in Greece, all too near Romania’s oilfields—threats Hitler could not ignore.
2.9 MILLION - The tonnage of Romanian oil used by Germany in 1941. This was a vital resource to be defended at all costs.
Even before the German failure in the Battle of Britain Hitler was planning to fulfil his long-held ambition to destroy the Soviet Union and seize new territories for the German people in the east. This attack was scheduled for the summer of 1941 but first Hitler wanted to ensure that his southern flank was secure. In the winter of 1940–41 Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria were all pressured into, in effect, becoming allies of the Germans.
In the meantime, Benito Mussolini’s attack on Greece from Albania had gone badly wrong. By early 1941 half of Albania was in Greek hands. Hitler could not let his ally be humiliated in this way. Worse still, British air and ground forces were arriving to help the Greeks, which posed a potential threat to Germany’s vital oil supplies from Romania. Hitler’s only option was to attack Greece.
In March 1941 the Yugoslavian ruler Prince Paul signed the Tripartite Pact. He had reluctantly agreed to join the German bloc, but at the end of the month was overthrown in a coup. Hitler was furious and ordered his forces to invade both Yugoslavia and Greece as soon as possible.
Germany’s attack began on April 6, 1941, with the first of a number of air raids on the Yugoslav capital, Belgrade. All in all some 17,000 Yugoslav civilians died in these attacks. As well as being totally outmatched in the air, the Yugoslavian forces on the ground were weak and scattered throughout the country. They couldn’t compare with the attacking German troops.
Germany’s first ground advance into the country came from Romania on April 8 and was joined over the next few days by other units from Hungary and Austria plus an Italian force in the far north. They met little resistance. The Yugoslavs surrendered on April 17. The whole country was conquered at a cost of only 150 German dead.
Fighting for Greece
The Allied forces never established a coherent plan for the defense of Greece. British commanders wanted the Greek military forces to withdraw from their northernmost provinces and pull back from their gains in Albania to set up a defence line, the “Aliakmon Line,” in the mountains a little to the south. The Greeks, however, did not try to carry out this important strategy until too late.
Three Australian and New Zealand divisions, along with other British ground and air units, had been sent from North Africa to Greece—far too few troops to hold a determined German attack. However, their departure from the North African desert had left the remaining Allied Front vulnerable and given General Rommel the chance to make his first decisive move forward.
In Greece, the German troops were soon advancing rapidly. On April 21, with the northern half of the country already lost, the British command decided to evacuate Greece. The Germans entered Athens on April 27. By the 29th the Allied evacuation was complete; 50,000 troops had left. Thousands more were captured.
Airborne attack on Crete
The last stage in the campaign was a German attack on Crete. Many of the Allies from the mainland had been sent there but they had few heavy weapons. When German paratroops landed on the island on May 20 the garrison fought back. For a time it looked as if the enemy might fail but the Germans took the vital Maleme airfield and poured in reinforcements in transport aircraft.
Yet again the Allies evacuated. Over 11,000 men were captured and nine vital Royal Navy warships were sunk.
Germany had crushed Yugoslavia and Greece in little more than a month. The forces soon headed north to join the attack on the USSR which was not held up at all by the battle in the Balkans.