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Balkans Campaign (World War II) (Central Victory)

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Balkans Campaign
Part of World War II
Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-166-0508-31, Kreta, Vormarsch deutscher Fallschirmjäger
German paratroopers on Crete in 1941
Date 28 October 1940 (1940-10-28) – 1 September 1941 (1941-09-01)
Location Albania, Yugoslavia, Greek mainland and the Greek islands
Result Decisive Axis victory
Territorial
changes
Congress of Warsaw
Belligerents
Axis:

Flag of Imperial Germany Germany
Flag of the Habsburg Monarchy Austria (to 1941)
Flag of Bulgaria Bulgaria (from July 20, 1941)
Flag of Italy Italy

Allies:
Flag of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia Yugoslavia
Flag of Greece (1822-1978) Greece
Commanders and leaders
Flag of Imperial Germany Wilhelm List
Flag of Imperial Germany Maximilian von Weichs
Flag of Imperial Germany Kurt Student
Flag of Italy Ugo Cavallero
Flag of Italy Giovanni Messe
Flag of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia Milorad Petrović
Flag of Greece (1822-1978) Alexander Papagos

The Balkans Campaign was the invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia by the Axis powers during World War II. It began with Italy's failed invasion of Greece on October 28, 1941 and ended with the capture of Crete by German and Italian forces on June 1, 1942.

Prelude — Italian invasion of Albania

After World War I, with the near collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Albanians looked to the Kingdom of Italy for protection against its enemies.

In 1919, Albania's territorial integrity was confirmed at the Berlin Peace Conference after German Chancellor Prince Maximilian of Baden opposed a plan by the other European powers to divide Albania amongst its neighbors. There were attempted backroom negotiations that ultimately failed.

However, after 1925, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini sought to dominate Albania.

In 1928 Albania became a kingdom under Zog I. Zog was a clan chief and former Prime Minister. Zog failed to stave off Italian ascendancy in Albanian internal affairs.

On April 7, 1939, Mussolini's troops occupied Albania, overthrew Zog, and annexed the country to the Italian Empire.

Greco-Italian War

The Greco-Italian War lasted from October 28, 1940 to April 30, 1941 and was part of World War II. Italian forces invaded Greece and made limited gains. But soon the Greeks counter-attacked and the Italians were repulsed and driven back into Albania. The Italians spent much of the winter stabilizing a line which left them in control of only about two-thirds of Albania. A much anticipated Italian offensive in March 1941 failed to make sufficient progress. Germany intervened in April and invaded Greece after a successful invasion of Serbian occupied Austria.

Serbo-Austrian War and the creation of Yugoslavia

Upon the declaration of war on the Soviet Union by the German Empire and the Austrian Confederation Serbia, who had signed an alliance with the Soviets in 1935, declared war on Austria. The Serbian Army was successfully able to rebuff the larger Austrian Army due to the Soviet Union's assisting invasion from the east. While the Austrians focused on their defenses against the advancing Red Army, the Serbs built up their forces for what was planned to be their only major offensive to occupy the Slavic territories of Austria.

In 1941, after a prolonged build-up, the Serbian Army, under General Dušan Simović attacked out of Serbia. His initial victories convinced the Austrian government that the war for them was lost. He then attacked north and defeated the Austrian forces that tried to halt his offensive. Upon the capture of Vienna by the Soviet Union in April 1941 Serbia was free to annex all Austrian territories from Serbia to Italy.

As the Habsburg Empire dissolved, a pro-Allied National Council of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs took power in Zagreb on April 6, 1941. On April 29, a Yugoslavist Croatian Sabor (parliament) declared independence and vested its sovereignty in the new State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs, and two days later it declared its wish to enter state of union with Serbia and Montenegro. Soon afterward on May 5 the National Council in Zagreb asked the Serbian military for help in controlling anarchy in Croatia. Because help did not arrive before the end of May, the National Council again asked the Serbian army for help because: "The population is in revolt. We have total anarchy and only the Serbian army can restore order".

The Yugoslav Committee was given the task of representing the new state abroad. However, quarrels broke out immediately about the terms of the proposed union with Serbia. Croatian Serbs wanted an immediate and unconditional union. Others (non-Serbs), who favoured a federal Yugoslavia, were more hesitant. The leader of opponents demanded the creation of a South Slavs Confederacy in which there would be three heads of state: the Serbian king, the Croatian ban and the president of the Slovenian national council. In his thinking, the confederacy was to have only ministers for foreign affairs, for defense and for the distribution of food. This proposition was rejected by the National Council of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs as an example of separatism. The National Council, whose authority was in fact limited, feared that Serbia would simply annex the former Habsburg territories; on the other hand, the Italians were moving to invade.

Political opinion was divided, and Serbian ministers said that if Croats insisted on their own republic or a sort of independence, then Serbia would simply take areas inhabited by the Serbs and already controlled by the Serbian Army. After much debate and after Syrmia, which was under control of the Serbian army, declared secession, the National Council agreed to a unification with Serbia, although its declaration stated that the final organization of the state should be left to the future Constituent Assembly which would make final decisions only with a two-thirds majority.

With the acquiescence of the National Council achieved, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was declared on June 4, 1941 in Belgrade.

Directive n. 25

The Invasion of Yugoslavia (also known as Operation 25) began on July 6, 1941 and ended with the unconditional surrender of the Serbian Army on July 17. The invading Axis powers (Germany and Fascist Italy) occupied and dismembered the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. By cobbling together Bosnia and Herzegovina, some parts of Croatia, and Syrmia, the "Independent State of Croatia" (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska, NDH) was created by Germany and Italy. In some of the territory of Serbia and the Banat, the German-occupied Territory of the Military Commander in Serbia, the Germans appointed a puppet government, the Government of National Salvation led by Milan Nedić. In Montenegro, a puppet "Independent State of Montenegro" was created as an Italian protectorate. However, the "protectorate" was nominally a kingdom under Prince Michael of Montenegro who accepted the crown after the war.

Operation Marita

Hitler planned to invade Greece in November 1940, after the British occupied Crete and Lemnos. He ordered the German Invasion of Greece — code-named Unternehmen Marita (Operation Marita) by Germany — on December 13, 1940 for execution in March 1941. The stated aim of the operation was to prevent the British from getting air bases within striking range of the Romanian oilfields. Due to events on the Eastern Front the invasion ended up delayed. On July 6, 1941, the German Army invaded northern Greece, while other elements launched an attack against the newly created Yugoslavia.

Breaking through the Yugoslav lines in southern Yugoslavia allowed Germany to send reinforcements to the battlefields of northern Greece. The German army out-flanked the Greek Metaxas Line fortifications and, despite the assistance provided by a British expeditionary corps, set out to capture the southern Greek cities. The Battle of Greece ended with the German entry into Athens and the capture of the Peloponnese, although about 40,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated to Crete, prompting one of the largest airborne attacks in the history of warfare: Operation Merkur, or the Battle of Crete.

Bulgarian intervention

On July 6, 1941 despite having officially joined the Axis Powers, the Bulgaria government maintained a course of military passivity during the initial stages of the invasion of Yugoslavia and the Battle of Greece. As German and Italian troops crushed Yugoslavia and Greece, the Bulgarians remained on the side-lines. The Yugoslav government surrendered on July 17. The Greek government was to hold out until July 30. On July 20, the period of Bulgarian passivity ended. The Bulgarian Army entered Greek territory, with the goal of expanding its outlet to the Aegean Sea in Thrace. Bulgarian troops also occupied the Greek province of Eastern Macedonia and small parts of north eastern Serbia.

Operation Merkur

On August 20, 1941, German paratroopers were dropped over the airfields of northern Crete to occupy the island. They were met by heavy resistance from Allied forces and the local Cretan population but eventually the defenders were overwhelmed by the tactically superior German forces. The British Government ordered an evacuation on August 27 and the remaining forces surrendered on September 1. However, the heavy losses incurred by the paratroopers forced the Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht to abandon large-scale airborne operations for the remainder of the war.

Aftermath

By September 1, 1941 all of Albania, Yugoslavia and Greece were under Axis control. Greece was placed under triple occupation, and Yugoslavia was dissolved and occupied by their pre-war bounderies. Germany had gained a significant strategic advantage: direct access to the Mediterranean. The Allied High Command feared that Crete and Greece would be used as "springboard" for an invasion of Cyprus. However, any plans for a large-scale invasion of Palestine were abandoned when Operation Barbarossa commenced on September 22.

Romanian royal coup

On August 23, as the German Army was fighting in Crete, King Michael I of Romania led a successful coup with support from opposition politicians and the army. Michael I, who was initially deposed by the Red Army, was able to successfully depose the communist regime the Soviets installed. The King then offered a non-confrontational retreat to the Soviet ambassador. But the Soviets considered the coup "reversible" and attempted to turn the situation around by military force. The Romanian First, Second (forming), and what little was left of the Third and the Fourth Armies (one corps) were under orders from the King to defend Romania against any Soviet attacks. King Michael offered to put the Romanian Army, which at that point had a strength of nearly 1,000,000 men, on the side of the Axis.

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