In the history of the Second World War, it is not often pointed out that the persons who may have literally turned the tide of the War and ensured the defeat of Adolf Hitler on the Eastern Front, may have been a group of Balkan diplomats working to stave off German invasions of their respective nations. Diplomats working for Rumania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Greece, taken together, had the dramatic effect on Hitler's plans and timetables of delaying his planned Operation Barbarossa invasion of the USSR until well after the Spring of 1941, and into June, 1941, about a month later than he'd anticipated.
The first stage of the drama probably really did belong to some military personnel. Those personnel were in the military of Greece, a nation that was technically defeated in the short run by the Axis in World War II. But they won a big victory in the long run, as their fight forced a delay in the beginning of the biggest fight of World War II: Hitler's invasion of Russia.
In October, 1940, Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy, declared war on Greece. At the start, it appeared the two nations were not evenly matched. Mussolini had a huge navy and air force, as well as mechanized columns in his army.
In contrast, Greece, the world's oldest democracy, also had some of the oldest weaponry in modern times with which to defend itself. With virtually no navy or air force, and a largely non-mechanized armed forces, Greece seemed certain to go down to defeat before Mussolini's forces.
Yet, precisely the opposite happened. Mussolini's forces proved ineffective against the Greeks, especially in the mountainous areas. The Greeks not only succeeded in defending their homeland from Mussolini's invasion, but actually drove the Italians back into Albania.
Coming in to support Greece, the British Naval Air Arm attacked the Italian fleet at anchor at Taranto, in an aerial surprise attack that presaged and even inspired the later Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Heavily-laden, obsolescent British torpedo bombers attacked the Italian fleet at anchor, sinking half of it. Later, at another British naval engagement with the Italian Fleet off Cape Matapan, another huge Italian naval defeat ensued.
The British Navy shelled Italian port cities, including Genoa, avenging some of the air raids against other parts of Europe by Italy's ally, Nazi Germany. The British also countered the Italian threat to bomb the Acropolis or Athens in Greece with the promise to hit Rome with the Royal Air Force (RAF) if such were to occur.
Simultaneous to Mussolini's failed invasion of Greece, the British, in landing forces in Greece to assist their campaign against Axis forces, began to build up a new military presence on the Continent. Hitler came to feel threatened by the British in Greece, since RAF planes could now hit his oil supplies at the Ploesti fields in Rumania, a nation he was pressuring, along with Hungary, into joining the Axis.
But the Rumanians played a game of diplomacy of their own, with the numerous delays they gave Hitler about eventually joining the Axis. And, on top of that, the Bulgarians, Turks, and Yugoslavs threw Hitler's timetables a monkey wrench--and, in the end, a fatal one. They caused Hitler to not only have to invade Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Greece, but, in the delays prior to those invasions, they forced Hitler to postpone his planned Spring invasion of Russia, until late in June, 1941. That meant that, once he was in Russia, Hitler had a lot of ground to cover before he could get to Stalingrad, Leningrad and Moscow, prior to the onset of the deep Russian winter.
That Russian winter had defeated Napoleon, and the Balkans' intrigues, spun by skillful and adroit diplomats, had the effect of crucially delaying Hitler's Wehrmacht's invasion of Russia. For, by stalling for time, and coming up with new ruses for delaying agreements, reforming governments, staging demonstrations, and finally forcing diversion parts of of the Nazis' Russian invasion forces to the Balkans, the Balkans' diplomats were the unsung heroes of World War II. Their actions, consciously or unconsciously at the time, turned the tide of World War II. Barbara Jelavich chronicles key events in the excerpts from her book that follow: I have emphasized certain dates as needed to bring out the precious days that were slipping through Hitler's fingers as he dallied in the Balkans under the influence of manipulative Balkan diplomats. Frustrated in the end by diplomatic failures in the Balkans, he moved to invade in support of Mussolini's failed military. It was a fatal mistake.
While the Balkan military personnel had their part to play, the biggest delays to Hitler's plans were the result of the actions of civilians, those Rumanian, Bulgarian, Yugoslav and Greek diplomats.
Excerpts from History of the Balkans by Barbara Jelavich. (New York: Cambridge UP, 1983. 227-238):
"Meanwhile, the Greek government had taken a highly courageous decision. When delivering an ultimatum to Athens before the declaration of war, the Italian leaders had expected the Greeks to surrender at once or to collapse after a short war. Not only did Metaxas stand firm and reject the Italian demands, but the Greek army put up a surprising resistance. In fact, one month after the invasion began, the last Italian soldier had been driven from Greece, and the Greek army was fighting in Albania. The Greek military adopted intelligent tactics and exploited the rugged mountain terrain. The Italian army, with its heavy mechanized equipment, was effective only in the valleys. The Greek troops remained in command of the heights, and they had the advantage of mobility. The weather was also unusually bad for the time of the year, and the Italian operations soon bogged down in rain, snow and mud. The Greek army was able to make use of the large amounts of war materiel that its enemy abandoned while retreating.
"Although no other Balkan state openly joined Greece in the fighting, Turkey did give diplomatic assistance by warning Sofia that if Bulgaria entered the war, it would also intervene. This action, which checked Bulgaria, meant that Greece could move troops from the Macedonian to the Albanian front. More important, however, was the aid received from Britain. Metaxas did not want to provoke a German intervention; he wished only to repel the Italian invasion. He was aware that once a British army arrived in Greece, this force would constitute a grave danger to Germany. He therefore requested only air and naval assistance, not an expeditionary force. On November 11, in their major action in support of Greece, British planes, operating from an aircraft carrier, succeeded in sinking half the Italian fleet anchored in the port of Taranto. Metaxas wanted to avoid using not only a British force, but also Albanian aid. Zog was at this time in London, and with British assistance, some cooperative action might have been organized.
"Nevertheless, the Greek government maintained its previous hostile attitude toward the Albanian national objectives.
"Metaxas thus carried through a highly rational policy. Although he believed that the West would win in the end and that Germany and Russia would eventually fight, he had attempted to keep his country out of a war from which little could be gained. Howver, when Italy attacked, he organized a strong resistance. He had no illusions that Greece could defeat the Axis. A traditional nationalist, he argued that: 'Greece is not fighting for victory. She is fighting for glory, and for honor. She has a debt to herself to remain worthy of her history. ..There are times in which a nation, if it wishes to remain great, gains by being able to fight, even if it has no hope of victory.'
"Despite the fact that the Greek army was able to defend its own territory, it was unable to drive the Italians from Albania. During this entire period Metaxas was very careful about his relations with Germany; Hitler appears to have admired the Greek resistance. In January 1941, however, Metaxas died and was replaced by Alexander Koryzis. To support its own strategic interests in the Meditteranean and Africa, the British government wanted to send an expeditionary force; it therefore assured the Greek government of far more assistance than it could actually deliver. The new premier changed the Greek policy and welcomed the British army. Only 58,000 of the promised 100,000 British troops ever arrived, and only part of the war materiel was delivered. Of the soldiers sent, only 35,000 were combat troops. However, the arrival of the British force had a deadly significance for the German war plans. British aircraft based in Greece could bomb the oil fields of Ploesti and interrupt the German supply lines. A British stronghold on the Continent had great implications for general Mediterranean and North African strategy (Jelavich 227-9).
''Hitler had decided that it would be necessary to defeat Russia before an invasion of Britan could be undertaken. He wished to commence the action in May 1941 . . . (Jelavich 232).
[Instead, as we'll see in what follows, delay by Balkans diplomats, as much as military actions, resulted in Hitler's armies and air forces still being tied down in the Balkans instead of invading Germany in that May of 1941. In fact, during the time when Hitler had originally hoped to be entering Russia--May, 1941--he was instead battling the British Navy and army on Crete, the last of the Greek army and a band of Yugoslav guerillas. It was to be another month--a crucial month--before Hitler could invade Russia. That month meant that, like Napoleon, Hitler would arrive in the area around Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad, not in the warm weather months, but during the cold Russian winter. That crucial month's delay was to mean the difference between success and failure of the strategically critical German invasion of Russia. And it was to mean the difference between victory and defeat for the Allies in World War II.--mcs].
"With this decision taken, the German diplomats proceeded to develop the Tripartite Pact as an anti-Soviet coalition, although. . . it had originally been designed as an alliance against Britain and the United States. Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania joined at once. The allegiance of Bulgaria was particularly important., since the German plans called for the launching of the invasion through this country. Yugoslavia was expected to remain neutral.
"The Bulgarian reaction was, however, strongly influenced by the dismal performance of the Italian troops in Greece. At the beginning of the war Boris III had adopted a policy of neutrality. Bulgarian interests, unlike those of the other Balkan states, were favorably affected by the Nazi-Soviet pact, since the agreement united the two powers having a primary position in the country. The last war had been fought in alliance with Germany . . . The Soviet interests in Bulgaria were aided by the presence of a strong Communist element in the political system...In September, 1939, the Soviet government offered to conclude a pact of friendship and mutual assistance; Boris refused on the basis that Bulgaria at this time was a part of no diplomatic system and had not signed similar treaties with other powers . . .
"As long as Germany and Russia acted together, the Bulgarian government faced no real choices . . . Under German prodding, the Romanian government agreed to cede to Bulgaria the southern part of Dobrudja, which in September 1940 resulted in negotiations between the two Balkan states . . . Although the Axis gained credit with public opinion for this action, the Bulgarian government hesitated to join the German camp openly. When Hitler spoke with Boris in November about adhering to the Tripartite Pact, the king attempted to delay a decision. He argued that Bulgaria was not prepared for war and that he feared the Turkish and Soviet reaction. Bulgaria would sign later. At this time, the Soviet government again pressed its desire for the conlcusion of a mutual assistance pact. In November 1940 Arkadi I. Sobolev arrived in Sofia on a special mission. In return for an agreement, he offered Bulgaria lands in Thrace that were in Turkish and Greek possession. He made no objections to Bulgaria's joining the Tripartite Pact, declaring that the Soviet Union might also join.
"At first, Boris was able to reject both the German and the Soviet approaches. He excused his failure to join the Axis by reiterating the possible Turkish reaction and Bulgarian public opinion. The Italian defeat in Greece, however, also influenced his decision.
"Although Bulgaria did not sign the Tripartite Pact, the government did not oppose the entrance of small numbers of German troops, their presence was, however, publicly denied. In December several thousand soldiers, mostly in civilian clothes, arrived with the task of preparing for the attack on Greece. The Soviet government, of course, learned of the action at once.
" This gradual occupation of a region that it considered as within its sphere drew a strong protest . In January 1941 note was delivered to Berlin plain emphasizing that Bulgaria was part of the 'security zone of the U.S.S.R.' and that 'the appearance of any foreign armed forces on the territory of Bulgaria and of the Straits: would be regarded as 'a violation of the security interests of the U.S.S. R.' The Bulgarian Communists were now supporting a policy of strict neutrality and the avoidance of war.
'Despite the obvious Soviet disapproval, the Bulgarian government continued to strengthen its ties withn the Axis...Changes in its frontiers were more likely to be achieved in agreement with Germany than with any alternate available ally. The Bulgarian position was made much easier when in February 1941 the government signed a nonaggression pact with Turkey; Bulgaria would no longer need to fear an attack from this direction should war break out with Greece. In the same month an agreement on military passage that did not obligate Bulgaria to fight was signed with Germany.
On March 1, the final step was taken, and Bulgaria finally adhered to the Tripartite Pact. In return for the signature, an outlet on the Aegean between the Struma and Maritsa rivers was assured . . . As could be expected, the Soviet government protested almost at once . Boris broke diplomatic relations with Britain in this same month. Although his country was still not at war, Boris III had chosen the Axis camp.
In February 1941, with the entrance of British troops into Greece, Hitler took the final decision to implement Operation Marita. However, before this campaign coujld be launched, he had to be absolutely certain of the Yugoslav attitude. Despite the fact that Yugoslavia was in the Italian sphere, the German government carried the main burden of the negotiations. Prince Paul and his ministers were asked to join the Tripartite Pact, and they were informed about the intended campaigns against the Soviet Union and Greece. In return for the signing of the agreement, they were offered the port of Thessaloniki. The country could remain neutral; it would not have to participate in the fighting, or even allow a passage of German military forces.
"The German demands placed the Yugoslav leaders in a very difficult position. Although they were in touch with the British, Greek and Turkish governments, it was obvious that no assistance could be won from them. Formal diplomatic relations had finally been established with the Soviet Union, but there was little hope of effective assistance from this state. A refusal to sign the agreement would obviously lead to war, and the military aspects of the problem were grim indeed. Yugoslavia could not defeat Germany alone; the Yugoslav guns and munitions were of Geman origin, so replacements could not be obtained. Faced with these unpleasant alternatives, the Yugoslav diplomats, like their Bulgarian counterparts, attempted to win time. They proposed the substitution of a simple nonaggression pact for the more compromising Tripartite Pact. The German government, however, remained adamant, insisting on an outright Yugoslav adherence to the Axis camp. Some concessions were offered. When objections were made to the Article III of the treaty, which might have obligated Yugoslavia to fight the United States or perhaps even Russia, the Germans agreed not to insist upon this stipulation.
"In a meeting held on March 21, the Yugoslav leaders discussed the possible alternatives. It appeared clear that either the pact had to be signed or the country would face a war that it could not win....the document, dated March 25, had both public and secret sections . . . After the announcement of the signing of the agreement, there was much excitement in the country. Rumors circulated concerning the extent of the secret arrangements and the obligations that had been assumed. On the night of March 27, a group of officers, led by General Dusan, took over the government. The conspirators declared the seventeen-year-old Peter to be of age and formed a government. Prince Paul was at the time on a train bound northward. When he heard the news, he returned to Belgrade and resigned. ...The majority of the ministers....did not want to provoke a German attack.
"Despite the Yugoslav hesitations, Hitler made up his mind as soon as the news came from Belgrade. Demonstrations were taking place in Belgrade that were clearly against the pact. Hitler decided to invade the country no matter what policy the new government adopted. The plans for Operation Marita were thus altered to include Yugoslavia. The diplomatic preparations for the conquest then commenced. The Hungarian, Romanian and Bulgarian governments were all approached. Since Yugoslav lands could now be partitioned, the territorial demands of these states could be satisfied. . .
In planning the invasion the German command expected to meet the major resistance in Serbia. Croatia and Slovenia were not to be bombed; instead, attempts were made to gain Croation collaboration. On April 3, Macek received a representative from Ribbentrop offering assistance in separating Croation from Yugoslavia. When the Peasant Party leader refused, German support went to the Ustasa movement. Indeed, immediately after the arrival of the German army in Zagreb, an independent Croatian state was proclaimed on April 10 and a Ustasa regime installed.
"The campaign commenced on April 6 , with the main burden carried by the German and Italian forces. Hungarian troops entered the Vojvodina, and later, after the fighting was over, Bulgarian soldiers took over occupation duties in Macedonia and Thrace. The Yugoslav army collapsed with a rapidity that surprised even the German command. Its main forces had been concentrated on the border; when these were defeated, there was little possibility of further resistance. The original plan of a retreat to Thessaloniki and a possible evacuation, as had happened in World War I, was thwarted by the fact that the main German thrust came from Bulgaria, so that the avenues of escape were cut off. In additiion, the Croation and Slovene units put up little if any resistance. Serbia thus paid the price for the bitter national conflicts that had continued since 1918. On April 14 and 15 the king and most of the government left for Greece. An armistice was signed in Belgrade on April 17.
" The Yugoslav resistance in fact weakened the Greek defenses. Lacking the necessary money for a complete defensive system, the Greek government had concentrated on fortifying the border with Bulgaria. The Vardar valley was thus left unprotected, and the German troops swept through this open doorway. On April 18 the Greek premier, Koryzis, committed suicide and was succeeded by Emmanuel Tsouderos, who attempted to continue the fighting. An armistice was signed, however, by General George Tsolakouglou on April 20 , without the authorization of the government.
"The British Expeditionary Force was quickly evacuated. By the time the Bulgarian army had gone into action. Relations with Yugoslavia were broken on April 15, and Skopje was occupied on April 19 . After the conclusion of the campaign on the peninsula, German parachute troops in May[May 31-June 1, 1941, to be exact--mcs] captured Crete.
"Meanwhile, the preparations for Operation Barbarossa continued. Although relations between Berlin and Moscow were still amicable on the surface, signs of disagreement between the two states multiplied. On April 5 , after receiving news of the Belgrade coup, Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with the Yugoslav representative in Moscow, the principle significance of which was its symbolic assertion of Soviet approval of Yugoslav resistance. On April 13, in an action that was very disadvantageous to Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact. This document allowed the Soviet government to turn its attention to the West...
"Despite this setback, Germany secured the assistance of its other allies...On June 12 Antonescu was informed of the plans in detail; the Roumanian army was then mobilized. On June 18 the German position in the Balkans was strengthened when a nonaggression pact was signed with Turkey that assured its continued neutrality . . . Operation Barbaraossa started on June 22. . . (Jelavich228-238)."
And so, we see the web of intrigue that was spun by these diplomats, ambassadors and statesmen, officially all civilians, was the pivotal factor in the delay of Hitler's planned Spring, 1941 invasion of Russia until June 22, 1941. That late start was to be decisive in Hitler's defeat in the Eastern campaign.
Thus we see the lines have blurred: the unsung heroes of World War II were men who didn't carry guns, but briefcases; who used words, rather than bullets, to achieve the delays that resulted in Hitler's ultimate defeat. They were not the classic image of the "hero"; but so many instances of heroism that have occurred in our world, have featured "unlikely" heroes. That, however, doesn't make them any less heroes.
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