‘”On the morning of Palm Sunday, while children slept their innocent sleep and the church bells were ringing for prayer to God, the German aeroplanes without warning let fall a rain of bombs on this historic town”’.
So wrote King Peter of Yugoslavia after the bombing of Belgrade 6th April 1941. ‘The King went on to describe the terror of the women and children who were machine-gunned as they fled from their homes by low-flying planes.’ (1)
Hitler termed this invasion Operation Strafgericht, a word that in English means Retribution or Punishment. To understand why Hitler labelled it like this, it is necessary first to know something of Belgrade's geography and then something of its history. Belgrade lies at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, and the modern visitor taking a stroll down its Sava shoreline passed the boats to the left and the restaurants to the right, can see without difficulty the strategic importance of the city. Anyone who controls Belgrade controls the river traffic from the far east of Europe to its west. In the days before air freight and autobahns this was of vital importance, as the Celts, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Huns, the Slavs, the Bulgars, the Hungarians, the Turks, the Austrians, the Serbs and the Nazis will tell you.
To the left in this image is the Sava River flowing westwards to Zagreb and Ljubljana. In the distance, the trees run along the shore of the mighty Danube that flows all the way from Romania to Germany.
The Fort built for the defence of Belgrade sits directly on this confluence, at Stari Grad, the old town, and some sort of military fortress has existed here since Roman times.
An army cannot function without supplies and communication. Belgrade, in its position on the rivers and the railways was necessary to Hitler for both. This image from my 1915 World Atlas shows the route of the Danube from Romania through Belgrade to Germany. The oil fields of Romania were the largest in Europe and ess-ential to the Nazi war machine. (4) Later on in the war, the Allies attempted to derail the industry by bombing the oil fields and disrupting the transport system that took it by river to Germany.
Next, let us take a look at the railways from my 2007 Heinemann Atlas.
In 1985 I took the 24 hour train trip from Athens to Belgrade and it is an easy connection from there all the way to Germany. The Germans needed control of the railways to supply their troops in North Africa. Every day 48 trains ran through Belgrade to Athens, there to load their supplies onto ships that crossed the Mediterranean to where Rommel and his army awaited them. (2)
Between the convenient rivers and the convenient railway, it doesn't take much imagination to understand why Hitler wished to punish the Yugoslavs for not rolling out the red carpet.
Enter the British.
The British had had connections in Yugoslavia for years before the war, particularly in Belgrade. Significantly, their Intelligence Service had been active during Germany's march towards war in order to monitor and assess the response it was provoking in the Balkans. The Yugoslav regent Prince Paul was something of an Anglophile. Like his nephew, the seventeen-year-old King Peter who was a descendent of Queen Victoria through his mother, Paul had been to school in England. Serbia, Bosnia and Macedonia were rich in bauxite, coal, iron ore, lead and zinc, and British mining engineers and businessmen had been working in Yugoslavia before the war. At least one of them, Captain Bill Hudson, fluent in Serbo Croat and allegedly one of Ian Flemming's inspirations for James Bond, was later used as part of Special Operations (7).
Britain wanted Yugoslavia as an ally.
Although the reasons would change as the war continued, in 1941 Yugoslavia was also the gateway to Greece and of great significance to the British defence of Greece which was to occur that April. 'The important thing, Eden [the British Foreign Secretary] said, was that the Yugoslavs should deny the passage of German troops, especially through the Monastir Gap, which would threaten the Greek flank.' (8)
Under the regency of Prince Paul from 1934, Yugoslavia had maintained a semi-peaceful relationship with Nazi Germany with the aim of not getting involved in war, but in February 1941, Hitler suddenly called upon the Yugoslav Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to throw their lot in with Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Japan, and on 25th March Prince Paul signed the Tripartite Pact (5). Two days later on a wave of public indignation, a military coup disposed him, made his nephew Peter the King, and General Dušan Simović of the Yugoslav Air Force the leader of a National Government.
Churchill, needless to say, watched all this with interest. Yugoslavia had "found its soul", he remarked. But 'The Fűhrer had at first refused to believe the news – "I thought," he said later, "that it was a joke."' (5)
We all know what happened next. Hitler lost his famous temper and ordered that Yugoslavia be wiped from the map 'with unmerciful harshness and the military destruction done in lightning-like fashion' (5). Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria and Italy invaded the country from all sides and dismantled it between them. Naturally, Germany claimed first rights to its natural resources, particularly the bauxite mines in Herzegovina, to the south east of Bosnia, because it needed aluminium for the construction of aeroplanes.
Nor was this the end. Christie Lawrence in Irregular Adventure recalls later in 1941 seeing half the sky in flames in the rural areas south of Belgrade. It was German terror tactics, the systematic destruction of Serbian villages in response to any show of resistance by the Yugoslavs to the Nazi occupation. ‘The total result of our revolution was that we killed about seven or eight thousand Germans and lost 125,000 men and women shot by them. Three towns and fifty-three villages ...were burned out, and our organization was virtually destroyed.’ (6)
The question is, what part had Britain played in the Belgrade coup d'etat that had precipitated this disaster and why? (8)
Britain, of course, had been kept well-informed of the political jostling in Belgrade prior to Prince Paul putting his pen to the poisoned Pact. 'In the six months prior to the coup, the British attitude toward Yugoslavia had changed from accepting Yugoslav benevolent neutrality, to that of pressing the Yugoslavs for more active support in the war against Germany.' (8) Romania with its all-important oil fields had already signed the Pact on 23rd November 1940 after Hungary on 20th November, Slovakia followed on 24th November and lastly Bulgaria on 1st March 1941. Aside from Ustasha-controlled Croatia, already loyal to the Nazis, only Yugoslavia remained. To the British, two things were clear, one, that Prince Paul should not sign the Tripartite Pact with Germany and two, if he did, 'subversive political action' should be placed that ultimately supported the military coup of March 27th.' The British planned to persuade the Yugoslav people and its political parties to exert pressure on Prince Paul and, failing that, to get rid of him. They succeeded only in the latter. They first persuaded several cabinet members to resign in order to destabilize the government, and the final step was to get the Yugoslav military involved in a coup.
As I read this article (8) I wondered, as I often do with British war history, how much British self-glorification was involved. In any event, whatever they might have been planning bore no fruit. It is true that the Yugoslav military was not prepared for war and collapsed in only eleven days. I have read that Ustasha fifth columnists also had a hand in it (3). Prince Paul, King Peter, General Simović and what would become the Yugoslav Government-in-Exile in Claridge's Hotel London fled the country. The Commando Captain Christie Lawrence who had been captured in Crete, jumped into Serbia from a German train in June 1941. During the twelve months he spent in the country, it seemed to him preindustrial, its remaining leaders confused and bewildered, wanting to help but not knowing what to do. Draža Mihailović, whom everyone had just run off and left, sounded forlorn and Lawrence had not even heard of Tito (6). It wasn't until May 1943 that Churchill parachuted a military party into the country to investigate the Yugoslav Partisans about whom he was beginning to receive rumours. During the Allied Invasion of Sicily in July 1943, the Partisans kept dozens of German Battalions occupied and out of Italy, which pleased Churchill. Of course.
1 - Balkan Essays Hubert Butler, the Irish Pages Press 2016 2 - Glenny, Misha: The Balkans 1804 - 2012 Penguin books 1999 3 - 1941 the Year That Keeps Returning, Slavko Goldstein New York Review BooksNov 05, 2013 4 - Romania's Age Of Oil (rferl.org) 5 - Maclean, Fitzroy: The Heretic: the life and times of Josip Broz-Tito. Harley and Brothers NY, 1957 6 - Christie Laurence Lawrence, Christie Irregular Adventure Faber and Faber 1947 7 - Deakin, FWD: The Embattled Mountain Oxford University Press 1971 8. soe-and-british-involvement-in-the-belgrade-coup-detat-of-march-1941.pdf (cambridge.org) From this article comes the notable quote from Sir Alexander Cadogan, the permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office, "All these Balkan peoples are trash."