Hitler's Forgotten Blitz War: How Nazi Germany Conquered One Nation

Bomb-damaged buildings in Belgrade in April 1941. Bundesarchiv.
February 14, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: YugoslaviaBelgradeWorld War IIHitlerNazi Germany

Hitler's Forgotten Blitz War: How Nazi Germany Conquered One Nation

Yugoslavia fell early in the war, but it was Hitler's undoing.

“And I’m Father Christmas!” an irate British pilot responded when the young king identified himself. “Now come on, get out.”

 

After the king convinced the British of his identity, Simovic passed out on gin and had to be carried back on board for the flight to Athens. Aboard British aircraft now, this was the beginning for King Peter II of a long, sad road leading to Jerusalem, Cairo, London—and ending on a barstool in Los Angeles.

Robert St. John would make his own perilous escape from Yugoslavia. On a winding mountain road he passed troops building tank traps and reflected on the futility. More hopefully, he saw others, rifles on their shoulders, heading up into the forests to launch what became one of World War II’s epic guerrilla resistance movements.

He delivered his Serbian companion to her family, and his last memory of Yugoslavia was the sight of her in his rear view mirror waving proudly. At the coast he and three other journalists boarded a 24-foot sardine boat to sail down along the coast for Greece.

The only one with any experience at sea, however, was St. John, who had swabbed the deck of a Navy transport during World War I. The voyage soon turned into a desperate struggle against pelting rain and stiff wind, requiring bobbing and constantly bailing.

“Several times the combined force of the wind and waves tore the oars from our hands, and we had to risk drowning to grab them as they flew through the air and landed on the water,” St. John would be lucky to write later. The most dangerous moment came when an Italian warship spotted them and trained its guns. St. John and the others held up an American flag and, after several tense minutes, they were waved on.

After four days they reached the island of Corfu on April 20, 1941. From there St. John reached the Greek mainland only to be caught up in the German blitzkrieg there. After surviving more bombings he squeezed aboard what turned out to be the last British evacuation ship. From there it passed through Crete just before the German invasion, then went on to Alexandria, Cairo, Cape Town, and finally reached New York.

Back home he was advised to go easy on his remarks at an after-dinner lecture and rest in the country to forget and find perspective. “I didn’t make pleasant remarks in that lecture,” he concluded in his account of his experiences in Yugoslavia and Greece, From the Land of Silent People (1942).

“I didn’t go to the country to try to forget. Maybe I don’t have any perspective,” he wrote.

Ruth Mitchell also made her way to the coast, reaching Dubrovnik. Along the way she met British diplomats who offered to evacuate her. “I did think about it all that night…. But, of course, my choice had been made a long time ago, when I became a Chetnik,” she was, like St. John, fortunate to write later.

Italian forces arrived, and she gamely mapped their positions while preparing to rejoin the Chetniks. But the day before she was set to flee, on May 22, 1941, she was arrested by the Gestapo. Sentenced to death as a spy she was imprisoned in Belgrade, then in Germany. In the end she would sail from Lisbon aboard the last shipload of repatriated Americans, to reach New York on June 30, 1942, and later tell of her own eventual time in The Serbs Choose War (1943).

Ruth Mitchell proved luckier than the 6,028 officers and 337,684 soldiers of the Yugoslavian Army who also went, but stayed, in captivity. The poisonous ethnic hatreds that doomed Yugoslavia to swift, ignominious defeat and the decades of suffering that lay ahead were reflected in how fewer than two percent of those prisoners were Croats who refused the Nazis’ offer of release.

The last Yugoslavian casualty of the invasion did not die until 1970. He was the sad, boozebloated shell of the trim young man who, for a brief moment, had been the hope and idol of at least part of his country, King Peter II.

Driven out by Hitler then kept out by Tito, he could never adjust to exile or abandon the fantasy of one day returning to his throne. Fed up with his maudlin self-pity, his wife, a Greek princess, finally gave up on him and left. He ended his days in Los Angeles, destitute, despondent, drinking (the author’s late father, a used car dealer in Long Beach, had a repossessor working for him who knew the king in LA’s dingier establishments). When liver failure finally put him out of his misery at just 47, the King–for-ten-days made a final bit of royal history. He was the only king ever to die in the United States.

To borrow from Churchill, Yugoslavia’s swift surrender proved only the end of the beginning for what lay ahead. As brutal as they were, the German and Italian occupations paled in comparison to the reign of terror the Ustachi in Croatia launched against Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies. When the Communists defeated the Chetniks and took over, a Croat would finally be leader of all of Yugoslavia, but Tito’s rule proved more iron fisted, not least against his own people, than any Serb king could have imagined.

When Communism and the Cold War ended, so did Yugoslavia finally. The breakup, though, soon turned into a nightmare of war, ethnic cleansing, wholesale massacre, and systematic rape culminating in the 1999 NATO bombing campaign.

It would not be until 2000, when the Serbian strongman at the bottom of the turmoil, Slobodan Milosevic, was voted from office by his war-weary people and died in United Nations custody while being tried as a war criminal, did the ordeal that started that Palm Sunday finally come to an end. Ironically, separated, the parts of what became generically referred to as the former Yugoslavia became what they could never be as a whole—prosperous and democratic.

Ironically, in his furious determination to obliterate Yugoslavia, Hitler very likely brought about his own self-destruction. The cost of the invasion did, at the moment, seem cheap—151 dead, 392 wounded, 15 missing, but, as the well-known chronicler of the Third Reich’s rise and fall, William L. Shirer, noted, the real price was paid later. “The postponement of the attack on Russia in order that the Nazi warlord might vent his personal spite against a small Balkan country which had dared to defy him was probably the most single catastrophic decision in Hitler’s career.

“It is hardly saying too much to say that in making it that March afternoon in the Chancellery in Berlin during a moment of convulsive rage he tossed away his golden opportunity to win the war and to make the Third Reich, which he had created with such stunning if barbarous genius, the greatest empire in German history and himself the master of Europe.

“Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, the Commander of the German Army, and General Halder, the gifted Chief of the General Staff, were to recall it with deep bitterness but also with more understanding of the consequences than they showed at the moment of its making, when later the deep snow and subzero temperatures of Russia hit them three or four weeks short of what they thought they needed for final victory. Forever afterward they and their fellow generals would blame that hasty, ill-advised decision of a vain and infuriated man for all the disasters that ensued.”

John W. Osborn, Jr. is a resident of Laguna Niguel, California. He has previously written for WWII History on numerous topics such as the British Long Range Desert Group and Polish General Wladislaw Anders.

His article first appeared at the Warfare History Network.

Image: Bomb-damaged buildings in Belgrade in April 1941. Bundesarchiv.