The euphoria soon wore off as the grim reality of their position began to set in on the Serbs. Just three days after the coup, the new government timidly announced it would abide by the Tri-Partite Pact after all.
It was already too late. Hitler had reacted to the news of the coup with an awesome, eardrum-bursting blast of blind fury, then issued Directive 25 not merely to invade but to completely destroy Yugoslavia. “The tornado is going to burst upon Yugoslavia with breathtaking suddenness,” he vowed.
At the main planning session with high-ranking henchmen, Hitler made another statement that was to doom a country. The officer taking down the minutes felt compelled to underline it: “The beginning of Operation Barbarossa will have to be postponed up to four weeks.”
“Belgrade those last two days of peace was a weird place,” Robert St. John would remember. “A heavy, depressing atmosphere hung over the city.” He went to the train station to see the German legation depart but noticed the military attaché was not there. One of the officials made a remark that left him pondering the meaning. “We’ll be back soon. Probably very soon. And when we come we’ll bring a few souvenirs for you boys.”
St. John would not be there to see them when they returned. He was ordered to report the next day, Palm Sunday, April 6, 1941, at 3 pm for an immediate expulsion order. Back in his hotel for his last night in Yugoslavia, he got a new head scratcher, a call from the Associated Press office in Berlin cryptically suggesting he not go to bed. “We think up here it would be an excellent night for you [to be] listening to the music from the Berlin broadcasting station.”
St. John dutifully kept vigil all night. Finally, at 4 am German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop suddenly came on the air. St. John could not make out what he was shouting about, but Ruth Mitchell, at home, did. “The bombs fall and already now this instant Belgrade is in flames.”
St. John phoned a Yugoslav colleague. “War! War! War is here, St. John,” the Yugoslav responded.
With another American reporter, St. John rushed to the balcony of his hotel room. “We heard the planes before we saw them,” he would later describe. “At first it was just a faint drone. Like a swarm of bees a long way off. Then louder, louder! LOUDER!”
The Yugoslav military attaché in Berlin learned of the sledgehammer blow about to fall but had been, foolishly and fatally, disbelieved in Belgrade. Now more than 300 Luftwaffe aircraft—dive bombers, medium bombers, fighters— were heading in to commence one of the war’s worst terror bombings, codenamed bluntly and brutally Operation Punishment.
St. John and his colleague quickly tore down the stairs as explosions shook the hotel to wait it out in the crowded, panic-filled lobby. At home, Ruth Mitchell was sheltering under the stairwell while bombs were falling scarcely 20 yards away. “The effect was almost inconceivable,” she would write. “It wasn’t the noise or even so much the concussion. It was the perfectly appalling wind that was most terrifying. It drove like something solid through the house: every door that was latched simply burst off its hinges, every pane of glass flew into splinters, the curtains stood straight out into the room and fell back into ribbons.”
The only Yugoslav aircraft to get airborne were, ironically, Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters supplied earlier by Germany. Those not brought down by the far more experienced Luftwaffe sometimes were by mistaken antiaircraft fire from the ground. The Luftwaffe struck around the clock in waves every two to four hours. St. John used one lull to pick his way through the rubble for the U.S. Legation.
He passed a truck stacked with dead, the ramp down with legs sticking out. He went through Terrazia Square, scene of the celebrations he had witnessed then had run from just 10 days before. “Pieces of peoples’ bodies,” he saw. “Jewelry and groceries and clothing out of shop windows. Glass and stone. Chunks of bombs and jagged pieces of tin roofing.”
St. John was certain the Germans had dive bombed the square in revenge for the celebrations there. One body riveted his attention, that of a young woman in an evening dress. “I looked down on her,” he recalled, “and wondered where she had been last night, to still have on an evening dress at five o’clock in the morning. Then I noticed her right leg. Half of it was gone. Sawdust trickled out of the stump. My lovely brunette had been blown out of a shop window.”
St. John finally reached the Legation followed soon after by Ruth Mitchell in her Chetnik uniform. “Where’s your horse? I asked her,” St. John later wrote. “She didn’t laugh.”
She had good reason. Along her own way through the devastation she had come upon a scene “which will haunt me while I live—a gaping hole where an air raid shelter had been and in the trees around legs and arms, many of them so pathetically, tragically, small, dangling from the branches.”
At the time he was to have been expelled, St. John was driving out of Belgrade during another air raid. At his side was a young Serbian girl who asked for his help and proved invaluable in hunting for food and lodging in the days ahead. King Peter was again at the wheel amid the motorized mob. He would never see his capital again.
“The vehicles on that road leading out of Belgrade were a strange sight,” St. John later recorded. “There was everything in the parade that man had ever invented to run on wheels, from the crudest kind of oxcart you ever saw, up to some diplomatic limousines fancy enough for an Indian Maharajah …
“The people we felt really sorry for were those who had everything they owned tied in bundles on the end of sticks they carried over their shoulders. Instead of following the winding highway, these footloose people trudged across the fields because that way was shorter, even though they did have to struggle down through little valleys and then up steep hills. That ribbon of people is still one of the most vivid pictures of the whole war.”
The absence of panic made St. John wonder if Americans would react the same way. He doubted it. “The difference, I suppose,” he reflected, “is that those poor Europeans, and especially people like the Serbs, are so used to war and destruction that they have got resignation in their bones. They just take it. There isn’t much else they can do.”
Ten miles out of the city St. John stopped on a hilltop for a final look. “We could see Belgrade,” he recalled. “Burning Belgrade. Belgrade already well on the way to becoming a city of silent people. Except that a lot of these men and women lying around in the streets were probably still moaning for help and a drink and something to stop the pain.
“We could see the smoke from dozens of fires. And up through the smoke the red flames. It looked as if there was another air raid going on. We were too far away to hear sounds distinctly, but what we did hear was a dull noise that was probably a brew of all the miseries of war mixed together. The noises of planes and guns and sirens and falling buildings.
“But what made us think the raid was going on in earnest again were the little dark dots in the sky and the puffs of white smoke, which we knew came from the shrapnel set up by the ack-ack guns as they tried so hard and generally so futilely to pin one on the bombers.”
In the late afternoon the Germans had been dropping incendiaries to light up the city for the night attacks. Ruth Mitchell had been among those fleeing on foot and from a village had the same, grim, view as St. John. “The great city on the Danube seemed to be one blazing bonfire. Great tongues of fire would burst suddenly, glare fiercely for a while and slowly sink away. Suddenly heavy clouds of smoke coiled upwards, billowing, writhing, twisting into the sky, reflecting on their black bellies the angry glare that must have been visible for hundreds of miles across the huge river and the limitless flat plain.”
When the air assault and slaughter ended after two horrific days, the city of Belgrade was in ruins and an estimated 17,000 were dead. Robert St. John, who had just come for a story, quickly decided it was hopeless to continue reporting so he had to get out of Yugoslavia.
Ruth Mitchell, who had found a cause, elected to stay. “I was full to the brim and running over with fury,” were her feelings. “I swore to myself that while there was breath in my body I would fight to save what those monsters of cruelty would leave of a people whose dream they could never understand.” But her personal crusade was to end before it could get started—and her real ordeal would begin.