With the exception of Turkey—which remained neutral—the Axis powers of Germany and Italy gained the allegiance of some of the Balkan states and then invaded and conquered the remainder in 1940 and 1941. This move ensured that the Axis powers had control over the eastern side of the Mediterranean, and it provided the security on the southern flank that was a prerequisite to a German invasion of the Soviet Union. With the rapid collapse of France between May and June 1940, Soviet leader Josef Stalin moved swiftly to secure gains promised him under the August 1939 Soviet-German pact. The Red Army occupied Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. This development was expected, but Adolf Hitler professed himself surprised by the subsequent Soviet moves in the Balkans.
In late June 1940, Stalin ordered the annexation of the Romanian provinces of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina. Bessarabia had been assigned to the Soviet sphere under the nonaggression pact, but northern Bukovina had not. Also, unlike Bessarabia, Bukovina had never been part of Imperial Russia, and it was the gateway to the Romanian oil fields at Ploesti, vital to the German war machine.
Italy also sought to take advantage of the defeat of France as well as Britain's weakness by opening new fronts in Africa and in Greece. In April 1939, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had ordered Italian forces to seize Albania. Then, on 28 October 1940, he sent his army into Greece from Albania, without informing Hitler in advance. Hitler most certainly knew of the Italian plans but did not act to restrain his ally, nor did he reproach him. Mussolini's decision, taken on short notice and against the advice of his military leaders, had immense repercussions. Not only did the Greeks contain the Italians, they also drove them back and began their own counterinvasion of Albania. That winter, the campaign became deadlocked, which caused Hitler to consider sending in German troops to rescue the Italians.
Meanwhile, Hitler acted aggressively in the Balkans to counter the Soviet moves and shore up his southern flank before the German invasion of the Soviet Union. In November 1940, he forced both Hungary and Romania to join the Axis powers and accept German troops. Bulgaria followed suit at the beginning of March 1941. Hitler took advantage of irredentist sentiment but also used hardball tactics to secure the allegiance of these countries. He pressured Yugoslavia, and in late March, under German threats, Prince Regent Paul reluctantly agreed to join the Axis powers.
Early in March 1941, meanwhile, honoring the pledge to defend Greece, British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill dispatched to that country two infantry divisions and an armored brigade. He hoped thereby to forestall a German invasion, but this step also forced the British Middle East commander, General Sir Archibald Wavell, to halt his offensive against the Italians in North Africa.
On March 27, elements in the Yugoslavian army carried out a coup in Belgrade that overthrew Paul and repudiated the German alliance. This move was motivated, above all, by popular sentiment among the Serbs against the alliance. Furious at the turn of events, Hitler ordered German forces to invade Yugoslavia. Marshal Wilhelm List's Twelfth Army and Generaloberst (U.S. equiv. full general) Edwald von Kleist's 1st Panzer Group, positioned in Hungary and Romania for the forthcoming invasion of the Soviet Union, now shifted to southwestern Romania and Bulgaria.
The German invasion of Yugoslavia began on 6 April 1941 with a Luftwaffe attack on Belgrade that claimed 17,000 lives. Eleven German infantry divisions and four tank divisions invaded from the north, east, and southeast. Other Axis troops, including the Third Hungarian Army, took part, but Hungarian Premier Pál Teleki committed suicide rather than dishonor himself by participating in the invasion of neighboring Yugoslavia. The invasion was conducted so swiftly that the million-man Yugoslav army was never completely mobilized. Yugoslavia surrendered unconditionally on 17 April.
Simultaneous with their move into Yugoslavia, the Germans came to the aid of the hard-pressed Italians by invading Greece. This move caught the Greeks with 15 divisions in Albania and only 3 divisions and border forces in Macedonia, where the Germans attacked. Also, the scratch British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in Greece was woefully unprepared to deal with German armor and the Luftwaffe, and between 26 and 30 April, it precipitously evacuated Greece. Many of the roughly 50,000 troops taken off were then landed on Crete. During the evacuation of Greece, British naval units were savaged by the Luftwaffe, with the Royal Navy losing more than two dozen ships to German air attack; many other vessels were badly damaged.
In May 1941, the Germans continued their push south by occupying the island of Crete in the eastern Mediterranean in the first airborne invasion in history. The invasion turned out to be the graveyard of German paratroop forces. Hitler saw the action only as a cover for his planned invasion of the Soviet Union, securing the German southern flank against British air assault and helping to protect the vital oil fields of Ploesti. The German invasion, conducted by parachutists and mountain troops carried to the island by transport aircraft, began on 20 May and was soon decided in favor of the attackers. Again, the Royal Navy suffered heavy losses, although it did turn back a German seaborne landing effort. Churchill's decision to try to hold Crete, unprepared and bereft of Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter support, ignored reality. But Hitler, by his aggressive Balkan moves, barred Soviet expansion there and secured protection against a possible British air attack from the south. These goals accomplished, he was ready to move against the Soviet Union.
From the very beginning of the Axis occupation, the Balkans were a theater for guerrilla warfare until the Red Army invaded in August 1944. In both Greece and Yugoslavia, there were Communist and non-Communist resistance groups, which often fought among themselves as well as against their Greek and Italian occupiers. In Greece, the lead was taken by the National People's Liberation Army (ELAS), which came to be dominated by the Communists, and the National Republican Greek League (EDES). In Yugoslavia, the Chetniks were led by former army officers. Soon, a rival resistance group, known as the Partisans, came to the fore, dominated by the Communists. As in Greece, these two groups would become bitter enemies, even to the point of fighting one another. Ultimately, the British, who oversaw Allied aid to the Yugoslav resistance, decided to back only the Partisans, a decision that helped bring Josip Broz (Tito) to power in Yugoslavia after the war. The Yugoslav resistance largely freed the country from German control.
When Italy left the war in September 1943, Germany had to provide the occupying forces on its own, severely straining resources in men and material. The Allies also conducted a number of commando raids in the Balkans, including the German-occupied islands of the eastern Mediterranean.
In late August 1944, the Red Army's 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts launched an offensive in Romania against Army Group Südukraine. Romania and Bulgaria soon capitulated and then switched sides, declaring war on Germany. In the case of Romania, these events occurred on 23 August and 4 September, and for Bulgaria, they took place on 25 August and 8 December 1944. In Greece, the Communists made three attempts to seize power: the first came during the 1943–1944 Axis occupation in anticipation of an early end to the war; the second occurred in Athens in December 1944; and the third effort came in the form of a bloody and prolonged civil war from 1946 to 1949. World War II in the Balkans was extremely costly in terms of human casualties, both directly—in actual military losses and civilian casualties resulting from warfare—and indirectly, stemming from shortages of food and other necessities.
In the immediate postwar period, the alignment of the Balkans actually worked out by and large along the lines of the agreement made between Churchill and Stalin at Moscow in October 1944. The Soviet Union dominated Romania and Bulgaria, whereas Greece ended up in the Western camp. Yugoslavia, which was to have been a fifty-fifty arrangement, freed itself from Moscow's grip in 1949. Thomas J. Weiler and Spencer C. Tucker
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Thomas J. Weiler and Spencer C. Tucker