German invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia
German conquest in the Balkans
6 - 30 April 1941
author Paul Boșcu, September 2018
After the Italians suffered a series of defeats against the Greeks, the German Army intervened in order to aid their ally. The Germans attacked Yugoslavia, were a pro-Allied government had been installed, and quickly subdued that country. At the same time they invaded Greece. Although the Greeks had British help they could not stop the German advance, who occupied Athens.

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The Italian defeat at the hands of Greece forced dictator Benito Mussolini to ask his German ally, Adolf Hitler, for help. In Yugoslavia, a pro-Allied coup compelled the Germans to act against that country. The German war machine advanced quickly into Yugoslavia, crushing any resistance. In Greece, despite the efforts of the Greek and British armies, the northern line of defense was breached, and German troops then proceeded towards Athens. Greece and Yugoslavia remained under Axis occupation until 1944-45.

Hitler did not lose a moment in attacking Greece, which had been reinforced by British troops on the command of the War Cabinet. In retrospect, the Commonwealth expedition to Greece was one of the worst British blunders of the war, stretching General Archibald Wavell’s forces far too thin, which did not allow him to fight effectively in either Greece or Libya.

The Greeks and British – who did not coordinate their responses effectively, as the Greeks wanted to fight for Thrace, Macedonia and Albania – were outmaneuvered by swift Panzer thrusts around Mount Olympus, forcing the surrounded Greek Army to capitulate. The swastika was hoisted over the Acropolis.

After gallant Australian and New Zealand defense at Thermopylae, full of historical echoes of an earlier defense of Western civilization, some 43,000 British Commonwealth forces were evacuated from eastern Peloponnesian ports to the island of Crete and elsewhere, although little heavy equipment could be saved.

Prince Regent Paul of Yugoslavia joined the Axis and signed the Germany-Italy-Japan Tripartite Pact, causing outrage in Belgrade. Allied successes in Greece, Albania and Libya encouraged the eighteen-year-old Prince Peter II of Yugoslavia to declare himself of age and overthrow Paul the following night, assisted by the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Hitler was rendered incandescent with rage by this coup.

Hitler had been instructing the German High Command to draw up plans for the invasion of the Soviet Union. Suddenly, his right flank in southeastern Europe looked as if it might house a hostile Graeco-Yugoslav-British bloc. He ordered that Yugoslavia be subjected ‘with merciless brutality’ to ‘a lightning invasion’.

Yugoslavia had no realistic prospect of effective action against Germany and Italy. It was a weak regime governing a divided country of feuding nationalities, which coveted a piece of Greece for itself. It is correct that here too British diplomatic efforts had some American support, but it was surely unrealistic to expect Yugoslavia to take the only step likely to be useful: a quick invasion of Albania from the north to throw the Italians out of that colony entirely, then joining up with Greek forces. The coup in Belgrade appeared to give some retroactive validity to earlier British efforts, but by then it was entirely too late.

On the day of the coup in Yugoslavia, Hitler, as already mentioned, immediately decided to attack that country as well as Greece. He knew and was reassured by German diplomats that Yugoslavia had no intention of helping Greece; it was simply that many in Belgrade objected to joining the Axis and assisting an attack on their own southern neighbor which was certain to put them completely in Germany's power. But the German leader felt relieved not to have to make even for a moment the concessions he had promised.

As ever, the military skills of the German General Staff proved capable of the new demands, and a new plan was swiftly drawn up to deal with both states. Hungary, Bulgaria and Italy would be expected to provide assistance, for which they would receive territorial rewards. The Croats and other ethnic groups in the region were encouraged to rebel against the Serb-dominated Yugoslav government. The German army included a large armored component within its overall deployment. The combined invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece would draw upon two German armies totalling 32 divisions.

The German Second Army, under the command of Maximilian von Weichs, was stationed in Austria and Hungary and, in tandem with the Italian Second Army, it would attack through Slovenia and Croatia and secure Bosnia. Resistance was not expected to be severe, as Croats and Slovenes had little sympathy for the Belgrade government.

The main German attack on Yugoslavia would be made by Panzer Group Kleist, the armored spearhead of General Wilhelm List's Twelfth Army. The XLI Panzer Corps would take the direct route to Belgrade from Timisoara in Romania; the XIV Motorised Corps and XI Corps would drive on Belgrade and central Serbia from Bulgaria; the XL Panzer Corps would also attack from Bulgaria to secure Yugoslav Macedonia, in preparation for the attack on Greece.

The German Twelfth Army, deployed in formation in eastern Bulgaria, crossed the border into Greece and captured the undefended province of Thrace, before turning westwards to assault the sector of the Metaxas Line running along the River Nestos. The XVIII Mountain Corps consisted of two mountain divisions, plus the 2nd Panzer Division. Its mission was to attack the Metaxas Line directly from the north.

The Yugoslav army was in no position to repel the German attack. Its small peacetime army of 150,000 men could be mobilized to approximately 1.4 million troops. But many of its conscripts were not in place when the Germans struck along the long Yugoslav border. Its equipment was also old and outdated.

The bulk of the Yugoslav army was deployed in central and northern Yugoslavia, but, apart from some isolated exceptions, the Yugoslav troops did not fight with much conviction.

Plans for the invasion of Yugoslavia were made to coincide with the attack on Greece. Just ten days into their new-found freedom, with only two-thirds of their thirty-three divisions mobilized, the Yugoslavs were subjected to a massive invasion from the north, east and southeast by over half a million Axis soldiers. It was a perfect example of German Staff work and efficiency. Zagreb fell on the fourth day, Belgrade on the sixth, Sarajevo on the ninth and Yugoslavia formally surrendered after eleven days, with King Peter and the Government escaping with only hours to spare.

Hitler opened the offensive with a surprise massive bombing of Belgrade in the hope that this might terrorize the population of Yugoslavia and paralyze its government. The formal resistance of the Yugoslav army was broken in a few days. German columns moved quickly to cut through and eventually round up an army that was too spread out to retreat southwards as it had in the fall of 1915.

Since the Yugoslavs had failed to mobilize, the German attack fell on a badly prepared opponent. The destruction of Belgrade, the center of Yugoslav communications, exacerbated the situation further. The Yugoslav high command had spread its forces along the entire length of its frontier; it even entertained illusions of attacking the Italians in Albania. However, the only chance for a sustained resistance lay in abandoning the entire northern half of the country, including territories gained at great cost in World War I.

The German Second Army found its progress even easier than expected, with whole Croatian regiments going over to the Germans without a shot being fired. On the second day of the Second Army's attack, the German Chief of Staff, General Halder, was able to report: 'Information gathered during the course of the day gives the impression that in the north of Yugoslavia the front is breaking up with increasing rapidity. Units are laying down their arms or taking the road to captivity, according to our airmen. One cycle company captures a whole brigade with its staff. An enemy divisional commander radios his superior officer that his men are throwing down their arms and going home.'

The capital, Belgrade, fell; Germans soldiers hoisted the swastika over the German embassy and the smoking city. With Belgrade’s fall, the Yugoslav Army collapsed into complete disarray. Fighting had already broken out between Croat and Serb units; the campaign turned into a complete rout. Mountain and infantry units took Zagreb with little resistance. Meanwhile, the German Panzers swung southwest to reach Sarajevo. Yugoslavia’s conventional military forces ceased to exist. The Wehrmacht had destroyed Yugoslavia in barely a week.

The Italians, who had long cast hostile and covetous eyes on the South Slav state, and who had been kept from attacking it the preceding year only by a timely German veto, hastened to repeat against Yugoslavia what they had unsuccessfully tried to do against France. With Yugoslavia falling apart, Italy could look forward to a substantial share of the booty, although necessarily deferring to Germany in the allocation of territory.

The government in Budapest decided to enter the war on Germany's side and proceeded to do so even in the face of the suicide - made in protest - of Prime Minister Pal Teleki. Hungary obtained a portion of the territories it had hoped to acquire, but having hitched itself to the German war chariot would find the traces difficult to slip. Bulgaria was also invited to help itself to appropriate slices of Yugoslavia and happily did so.

Total German losses amounted to 558 men, against 100,000 Yugoslav casualties and a further 300,000 taken prisoner. General Friedrich von Mellenthin observed that ‘only the Serbs were really hostile to us.’ Otherwise the Germans pacified Croatia – which was given its independence – Slovenia and Bosnia very quickly. Hitler had scored yet another lightning victory to follow those over Poland, Denmark, Norway, France, Belgium and Holland.

The victors divided the stricken country among themselves. Germany annexed a large area in the north and held the old core of Serbia under military administration. The Italians received a substantial piece in the northwest, much of the coast, and an addition to their Albanian colony. A puppet state of Croatia was created which at one time Hitler thought to place under Hungarian influence, then agreed to put under Italian control, and eventually tried to have the Germans direct themselves. Hungary received a share in the northeast and Bulgaria in the south. Violence continued throughout the occupation as various resistance groups fought the occupation and, sometimes, among themselves.

Within this welter of conflicting claims, massive population transfers were begun immediately, and confusion began to arise between arming, supporting, and opposing various elements in the new rivalry between Germany and Italy over Croatia. The bloodbath that was World War II Yugoslavia had begun, not ended, with the few days of fighting that preceded the unconditional surrender.

Hitler made good his promise to destroy the political basis of Yugoslavia. As early as 10 April, Zagreb's radio station broadcast a message proclaiming the formation of a 'free and independent Croatia' which was to be led by the brutal Ustase leader Ante Pavelic.

Following the surrender, 6,028 Yugoslav officers and 337,684 other ranks became prisoners of war, but almost 300,000 managed to slip away and avoid captivity. Many of these were Serbs who would form the nucleus of a resistance movement, divided between the Royalist Chetniks of Colonel Draza Mihalovic and the communist Partisans of Josip Broz, better known as Marshal Tito.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia unleashed the ethnic hatred that had only just been constrained during the brief existence of the Yugoslav kingdom. Millions were killed during the course of the Axis occupation. Both Germans and Italians acted with the greatest brutality, but were surpassed in cruelty by local ethnic groups. The Croat Ustase militias killed 250,000 people (mainly Serbs) in just three months; Bosnian Muslims murdered Bosnian Christians; and monarchist Serbs set upon communist Serbs. The killing in Yugoslavia only stopped after Tito imposed communist rule over the country, but the hatred and resentment remained.

The main German relief expedition for Italy was to attack Greece through Bulgaria from Romania. The weather in the mountains near the Greek-Bulgarian border made such an offensive impossible before the spring of 1941, and the Italians would have to hang on in Albania until then as best they could. Bringing up sufficient forces and equipment for such an operation would occupy the intervening months, since such forces had to be shipped across Hungary, built up in Romania, and then launched across Bulgaria into Greece.

This route had the added advantages of increasing German strength in Romania, ensuring the cooperation of Bulgaria, which would be suitably rewarded by a slice of Greece, isolating Yugoslavia completely, and making it most unlikely that Turkey could intervene.

No amount of assurances from Athens and no volume of evidence that the country was not becoming a base for British troops or long-range bombers could turn Hitler from his determination to occupy all of Greece. He was determined there would be no loose ends left on the flanks of his forthcoming attack in the East.

The German leadership had already made up its mind to invade the Soviet Union in summer 1941, so German interest in the Mediterranean lay in protecting the southern flank of the coming campaign against the Soviet Union. But the Italian disasters in Libya and Albania loomed as a serious threat to the stability of the region. The Germans thus had to secure Greece and Romania in order to protect the flank of their forces invading the Soviet Union.

The Italian attack on Greece with its quickly obvious setbacks appeared to offer the British an opportunity along with an obligation. The obligation was to try to provide some substance to the guarantee the British had given to Greece when Italy occupied Albania; the opportunity was the possibility of creating on the continent of Europe a Balkan front based in Greece and supplied from North Africa. And from that base, there might be the possibility of raids on the Romanian oil fields. Troops were thus diverted from North Africa to the Greek front.

In the first instance, the British only sent some air force units to Greece to assist the Greek forces fighting on the Albanian front. In the face of initial Italian domination of the air, this was of considerable help, even though numerically the British forces were never large. The British commander in the Middle East, General Sir Archibald Wavell, was husbanding all his resources and carefully collecting reinforcements for his planned offensive against the Italians in the following month. He could spare little equipment to remedy the desperate shortages of the Greek army.

The British began to inch their way into an army venture in Greece even as their troops chased the Italians over miles of North African desert. Some paratroopers were sent to Crete to replace a Greek army division being sent to the Albanian front. In an astonishing imitation of Italian incompetence, the British had hardly improved the island’s defenses by the time they were getting ready to meet a German invasion half a year later.

The Greeks did not want British troops on the mainland because they feared such a presence would serve to provoke a German attack; they did not recognize that it made no difference to Berlin whether the British presence was real or potential. The death of the Greek dictator, Ioannis Metaxas, on 29 January 1941, removed what was probably the last obstacle to a British reversal of policy. Always a realist as well as a patriot, Metaxas might have saved the British from a futile gesture which helped the Greeks little and cost the Allied cause much.

As it became clear that the Germans would attack Greece through Bulgaria, the Greeks looked at British aid differently, and the British revised their own priorities. Having moved the bulk of their forces and essentially all their supplies to the Albanian front, the Greeks were now interested in British land forces to help defend themselves against a German invasion.

The authorities in London, encouraged by excessively optimistic reports from Wavell as well as from the new British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and the Chief of Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir John Dill, who were in Greece in late February, ordered the land flank in central Libya to be held while troops and supplies were switched to Greece.

The diversion of effort by the British from completing the conquest of Libya to aiding the Greeks against Germany left the Italians with essentially all of Tripolitania as a base for the Germans.They would then hold on in North Africa and repeatedly threaten Egypt for more than two additional years. It was done in part to honor the political promises given to Greece, but it was also in part due to a complete disregard of the military and political realities in Southeast Europe.

The British, however, regardless of naval successes, simply did not have the land and air forces in the Mediterranean to hold against the German offensive into Greece. The successful transport of troops, therefore, only assured the loss of their equipment and many of the soldiers as well as the confidence of the Australian government, many of whose troops were involved.

The Greeks had fully committed themselves to the fighting in Albania. To the east of that front they held two major positions which could block a German advance from Bulgaria, but both were open to possible flanking moves through Yugoslavia. Moreover, the Greeks were defending forward in Macedonia up toward the Bulgarian frontier. Nevertheless, despite the hazards, the British agreed to the Greek defensive scheme.

The main focus of the Greek defenses in the north of the country was the Metaxas Line, which was designed to repel an attack from Bulgaria. Inherent in the Greek defensive plan was the belief that Yugoslavia would be able to defend its border with Bulgaria, and as a consequence the Metaxas Line ended at the Bulgarian-Yugoslav border, leaving Greek Macedonia vulnerable to attack down the mountain valleys from Yugoslavia.

The British had strong reservations about the Greek commitment to the Metaxas Line, and General Maitland Wilson would have preferred the Anglo-Greek armies to deploy the bulk of their troops behind the Aliakmon Line, which was shorter and easier to defend. This, however, would have meant abandoning the key port of Salonika to the Germans without a fight, and Greek attachment to the city prevented them from accepting the British plan.

Although the deployment of large numbers of troops behind the Metaxas Line was arguably a strategic mistake, the biggest problem facing the Allied forces was in the air. The Greeks had no effective air force to speak of, and the RAF had 192 craft, of which only around 80 could be flown at any one time. Nor were they the latest models which could have put up some sort of fight against the modern aircraft leading the Luftwaffe attack.

German Panzers struck at Skopje in southern Yugoslavia and across the southern flank of the Yugoslav Army; their objective was to outflank Greek positions. The Germans broke the Greek Third Army after fierce fighting and flanked Greek defenses. Initial attacks on the Metaxas Line in northern Greece only achieved limited success. However, the German drive through Yugoslavia forced the British and Greeks to retreat. The German advance engulfed the Greek rear areas in Albania. As the Germans rapidly pursued fleeing Allied forces toward Thermopylae, Greek generals in Albania deposed their commander and sought terms that did not include the Italians.

The defenses of the Metaxas Line included turret-mounted 37 mm anti-aircraft guns. And unlike the poor-grade fortress divisions that manned the Maginot Line, the Greek defenders were members of high-grade units. The Germans were thrown back when they attempted to cross the Nestos, suffering heavy casualties. The German mountain troops, fighting their way down the Rupel Pass, were also forced to retreat. The German breakthrough did not come on the Metaxas Line, however, but through the outflanking actions of the troops which had invaded Yugoslav Macedonia before turning south into Greece.

Lieutenant General Vieil's 2nd Panzer Division advanced into Yugoslavia, eliminating the Bregalnica Division and capturing Strumica. It then turned south down the Axios valley and entered Greece, encountering only limited opposition. An attempt to block the progress of the German Panzers at Kilkis was brushed aside, and after a dash of some 90 km (56 miles), the port of Salonika was in German hands. As a consequence, all the Greek troops holding the Metaxas Line were cut off from the rest of Greece. The Greek commander holding the line, General Konstantinos Bakopoulos, instructed his 70,000 men to lay down their arms.

The main axis of advance lay through the Monastir gap, which ran through the high mountains into Greece. Spring had not yet reached this region, and the Germans were forced to battle through snow and freezing temperatures. The Germans had to take the Klidi Pass, the main route into Greece. The SS troops faced Australians and New Zealanders of the British Expeditionary Force. German casualties mounted, but after two days of hard fighting the defenders were prised from their positions, and the Germans made their way into the heart of Greece. The Allied forces had to withdraw towards Thermopylae.

The German advance had been spearheaded by the 9th Panzer Division. The Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler, a reinforced motorized brigade that had won its spurs in the fighting in France, found itself engaged in a tough battle with Greek troops holding the Klisura Pass. The battalion commander, Kurt Meyer, sent two of his companies to attack the position from the flanks, while he led a detachment up the main road to the pass. During his advance, the Greeks let off a series of demolition charges and raked the advancing SS troops with machine-gun fire. Meyer and his soldiers were pinned down by heavy fire, seemingly unable to move. Meyer recounted how he solved this problem: ‘A feeling of nausea tightens my throat. I yell to Untersturmfuhrer Emil Wawrzinek to get the attack moving. But the good Emil just looks at me as if he has doubts about my sanity. Machine-gun fire smacks against the rocks in front of us. How can I get Wawrzinek to take that first leap? In my distress I feel the smooth roundness of my “egg” hand grenade in my hand. I shout at the group. Everybody looks thunderstruck at me as I brandish the hand grenade, pull the pin, and roll it precisely behind the last man. Never again did I witness such a concerted leap forward as at that second. As if bitten by tarantulas, we dive around the rock spur and into a fresh crater. The spell is broken. The hand grenade has cured our lameness. We grin at each other, and head forward to the next cover.’ The reconnaissance battalion overran the pass and next day captured the town of Kastoria.

The progress made by the Germans made the position of the British and Greek troops holding the Aliakmon Line untenable, and in order to avoid being outflanked, the British commander, General Maitland Wilson, ordered his troops to begin a withdrawal to new positions. An attempt to hold the Germans around Mount Olympus had to be abandoned, as the British were again in danger of being surrounded by the fast-moving Panzer columns. The next defensible line was across the isthmus around Thermopylae, where Wilson hoped to hold the German attack.

As in previous campaigns, the German Panzer divisions did the most damage, and the British tanks thrown into the fray were no match for them. The experience of the British 3rd RTR (Royal Tank Regiment) shows just how far behind the British were in this unequal contest. Before going to Greece, the 3rd RTR had been forced to exchange its already-poor A13 cruiser tanks for the older and slower A10 models, whose tracks were exhausted through operating in the desert. One officer in the regiment, Bob Crisp, revealed the machines' unreliability during an attack to counter a possible German advance: ‘Sleet battered my eyelids as the tank ploughed through cultivated mud and I ordered my tank commanders not to attempt any turns until they were on firm ground. The squadron nevertheless left behind a trail of broken-down tanks and when (after a freezing night) news came that the enemy armour report had been a false alarm and we went back we counted the toll of the purposeless advance. Five tanks were left lying with hopelessly broken tracks, two more had fractured pistons. There were no more spare parts so the tanks were destroyed.’

The German breakthrough towards central Greece spelled disaster for the Allies, and a conference was held in Athens to assess the situation, attended by King George and his Commander-in-Chief, General Alexandros Papagos, and the British generals, Archibald Wavell and Maitland Wilson. All parties agreed that the battle was lost and that the British Expeditionary Force should withdraw from Greece. From then on, the holding operations at Thermopylae and Thebes were conducted with the intention of gaining time for the British and Commonwealth forces to be evacuated to Crete and Egypt.

After the disasters in Norway and France, the British were now to be ejected from the mainland of Europe for the third time in less than a year. It was a bitter blow to the British, but far worse for the Greeks who would now face years of brutal Axis occupation.

Shortly after the decision to evacuate was made, the Germans struck westwards across the Pindus mountains, isolating the Greek forces facing the Italians in Albania. The Germans captured Yanina to the rear of the Greeks. One of the subordinate commanders from the Greek Army of the Epirus, General Markos Drakos, took it upon himself to surrender his forces to the Germans. The capitulation took place at Larisa, and 16 Greek divisions laid down their arms, leaving the way clear for the Germans to race southwards through western Greece.

Four days after the conference in Athens, King George and his government left the country, as organized resistance to the German invasion collapsed.

Given the Greek collapse, the British could not hold Thermopylae. Nevertheless, the defense of the pass slowed the German advance. As the Germans pushed past Thermopylae, they launched a paratrooper drop on the Corinth Canal to cut off the retreating British forces as well as to capture the canal intact to protect the Italian-Romanian oil link. However, the British crossed the canal before the attack and destroyed its bridges.

As the British held their positions along the Thermopylae line, the evacuations began. Under the command of Rear Admiral H.T. Baille-Grohman, the Australians and New Zealanders, falling back from Thermopylae, were evacuated from the small fishing ports of Rafina, Porto Rafti and Megara. The evacuation was going well, but a detachment of German paratroops was dropped behind the main bridge across the Corinth Canal. The defenders were too few in number to repel the Germans, although the charges on the bridge were blown and the bridge fell neatly into the canal. The Germans captured Corinth.

The Germans assembled makeshift boats and managed to cross the Gulf of Corinth at Patras. Reinforced by the 5th Panzer Division, they now began to advance into the Peloponnese. German soldiers marched into Athens.

The Germans had managed to secure yet another victory against the British and, for the moment, the myth of German invincibility remained secure. The Greek capital was now under German occupation and the swastika flew over the Acropolis.

The British position was becoming increasingly desperate, but most of the troops were able to retreat to the southern Peloponnese before the Germans cut them off. There they were evacuated by the Royal Navy, who managed to save just over 50,000 British, Australian and New Zealand servicemen. Only at Kalamata did the embarkation break down, leaving 7,000 troops stranded on the Greek shore. Most of the men were captured, although some managed to break out of the German encirclement, and with the aid of the local population evade capture.

For the British, one of the few heartening things in the whole campaign had been the attitude of the Greeks, who applauded their efforts whether in victory or defeat. A gunner colonel attached to the 1st Armoured Brigade described the Greek reaction to the departure of his men: 'We were nearly the last British troops they would see and the Germans might be on our heels; yet cheering, clapping crowds lined the streets and pressed about our cars, so as to almost hold us up. Girls and men leapt on the running boards to kiss or shake hands with the grimy, weary gunners. They threw flowers beside us crying: "Come back - You must come back again - Goodbye - Goodluck".'

Greece was to suffer fearfully under German occupation. In the first eighteen months, no fewer than 40,000 Greeks starved to death, and the population was reduced by some 300,000 in the course of the war. Olive oil became a major currency as inflation meant that a single loaf of bread could cost 2 million drachma. The Germans resorted to methods of violence to keep control, as when all the male inhabitants of Kalavryta in the northern Peloponnese – 696 people in twenty-five villages – were shot by the 117th Jager Division in reprisal for guerrilla actions.

The conquest of Greece and Yugoslavia opened a darker chapter in European history. The Germans extracted so much foodstuffs and raw materials from Greece that widespread famine broke out the following winter. That famine fueled the growth of resistance forces, since the Germans failed to complete the conquest in their rush to deal with the Soviet Union.

From the beginning, the German reply to partisan war was a policy of ruthlessness that led to hundreds of bloodstained Greek villages; it also resulted in the immediate shooting of thousands of Jews by the SS.

With control of Crete the Germans could threaten the eastern Mediterranean, bomb Egypt and Libya and protect the Corinth Canal, through which much of Italy’s oil was transported. Operation Merkur (Mercury) was launched against three airfields on the north coast of the island. This occasion marked the first mainly airborne invasion in military history, as the Germans used Fallschirmjäger (paratrooper) troops to attack the island. After 13 days of fighting the Germans emerged victorious.

Major-General Bernard Freyberg, nicknamed by Churchill ‘the Salamander’ because he had been through fire so often – wounded twelve times – was in command of the defense of Crete. He had 15,500 troops which had been evacuated (defeated and exhausted) from Greece, 12,000 troops from Egypt, 14,000 Greeks, little artillery and only twenty-four serviceable fighter aircraft to face the first wave of General Karl Student’s XI Fliegerkorps (airborne corps) of 11,000 fresh, crack paratroopers.

One of the airfields, Maleme, was taken from the New Zealand 5th Brigade albeit with heavy German losses. It was then hugely reinforced; between 20,000 and 30,000 German paratroopers landed on Crete, so the Germans could deploy reinforcements. Although Freyberg was forewarned by the cipher decrypts codenamed Ultra to expect the attack on the northern airfields, he was prevented from acting on the information too obviously, for fear of compromising its all-important source.

When Wavell met the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham, on board HMS Warspite in Alexandria six days into the invasion, the unanimous advice of the Staff was that Freyberg’s entire force would have to surrender, because if the Royal Navy suffered any further losses in evacuating them, the Allies could lose control of the eastern Mediterranean. The Germans would then take Syria and the Persian and Iraqi oil fields and cut off Britain’s oil supply. This prompted one of the great ripostes of the war, when Cunningham, who spoke last, said: ‘It has always been the duty of the Navy to take the Army overseas to battle and, if the Army fail, to bring them back again. If we now break with that tradition, ever afterwards when soldiers go overseas they will tend to look over their shoulders instead of relying on the Navy. You have said, General, that it will take three years to build a new fleet. I will tell you that it will take three hundred years to build a new tradition. If, gentlemen, you now order the Army in Crete to surrender, the Fleet will still go there to bring off the Marines.’

Churchill telegraphed from London: ‘Victory in Crete essential at this turning point of the war. Keep hurling in all aid you can.’ Wavell nonetheless ordered Freyberg to evacuate Crete without equipment, and over the following four nights, coincidentally the first anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation, 16,500 men were embarked. The Germans had lost 370 planes - 220 destroyed and 150 damaged - and were never to employ another airborne assault again. This was extremely fortunate in the case of Malta the following year, which was vulnerable to such an attack.

In the Balkans, German air superiority had played as significant a role as it had in the Blitzkrieg in Norway and Western Europe. The failure of the Allies was also due to the inability of the British to send to Greece the size of forces and the quantities of supplies which they had anticipated providing.

For Hitler, the Balkan campaign represented a diversion. In summer 1940 he had assigned the region entirely to Mussolini, while he himself dreamed of Lebensraum, vital space, at the expense of the Soviet Union. Hitler, of course, had hoped that the Italians could handle the Mediterranean by themselves; in addition, he hoped that there would be some degree of effectiveness in Italian policy. But he underestimated the extent of incompetent Italian military leadership. The Germans had to engage in damage limitation. That led to the reinforcement of North Africa by the Afrika Korps and to the sledgehammer assault on Greece and Yugoslavia.