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To Greece

Hitler Prepares His Plans

page 157

Hitler Prepares His Plans

IN November 1940 Hitler had told Mussolini that without safeguards from Yugoslavia no successful operation was possible in the Balkans. Months had therefore been spent trying to persuade her to join the Tripartite Alliance. Although Yugoslavia declined his ‘invitations’, Hitler remained confident that he could control the situation. On 13 December he issued his directions for the occupation of northern Greece; on 22 March 1941, as a result of British support to Greece, he had to order the occupation of the whole country. And, as a reward for his persistence, Yugoslavia, on 25 March, adhered to the Tripartite Pact.

The overthrow of the Yugoslav Government by a military coup d'état on 27 March was therefore a threat to German security in the Balkans. Mr. Churchill had visions1 of a Balkan front and General Papagos suggested2 that the British should move forward from the Aliakmon to the Metaxas line.

To Hitler it was a complete surprise: ‘The Yugoslav coup came suddenly out of the blue. When the news was brought to me on the morning of the 27th I thought it was a joke.’3 Well aware that the British position was now stronger he acted swiftly, determined that there should be no threats to his flank and rear when he attacked either Greece or Russia. The German High Command was hurriedly assembled and told that Yugoslavia must be destroyed ‘militarily and as a national unit.’4 She had to be attacked with such ‘unmerciful harshness’ and such ‘lightning-like’ speed that Turkey would remain inactive and the way be cleared in the southern provinces for an additional thrust into Greece which, like Yugoslavia, had to be overwhelmed in the shortest possible time.

To bring this about he decided to use ten more divisions in the Balkan campaign, bringing the total up to twenty-eight, of which twenty-four had already been detailed for service in Russia. Among them there were, however, seven of his nineteen panzer divisions and three of his twelve motorised divisions, all essential if his

1 See p. 115.

2 See p. 134.

3 Churchill, Vol. III, p. 144.

4 Ibid. Quotation from minutes of the meeting of the German High Command.

page 158 generals were to employ on the plains of Russia the principles of mechanised warfare. If they were used in Greece it would be impossible because of the limited railway system of the Balkans to transfer these divisions to the Russian front in less than two months. He had therefore to tell his Commanders-in-Chief that, ‘The beginning of Operation Barbarossa will have to be postponed up to four weeks as a result of the Balkan operations.’1

That night, 27–28 March, the orders for the campaign in Yugoslavia were drawn up and changes made in the plans for the attack upon Greece. On 6 April both Greece and Yugoslavia would be attacked. In the north-west the Italian Second Army could at least cover the border of Italy and Yugoslavia. Second Army (Field Marshal Weichs) would strike south from Austria into Yugoslavia. The Hungarians would move in to occupy the Banat, their ‘lost province’ to the north-west of Belgrade.

Twelfth Army2 (Field Marshal List), which was now assembled in Rumania and Bulgaria, would attack both Greece and Yugoslavia. Thirtieth Corps3 would deal with the Greek divisions in eastern Macedonia. Eighteenth Corps4 would attack the Metaxas line, one force clearing the Rupel Pass and another entering Yugoslavia by the Strumitsa Pass and then turning swiftly south past Lake Doiran. They would then cross the Macedonian Plain, taking Salonika and threatening the Aliakmon line.

The other three formations of 12 Army would strike westwards into Yugoslavia. The capital, Belgrade, was the objective for two of them: XXXI Corps,5 which would move south-west from Temesvar in Rumania, and Panzer Group 1,6 which would strike north-west along the main highway from Sofia. The third and most southern was XXXX Corps,7 whose orders were to move in two columns to Skoplje and Veles in the Vardar valley, thereby cutting the main line of communications between Salonika and Belgrade. Their next task was to thrust westwards until they had linked up with the Italians at the northern end of Lake Ochrida. They would then have prevented any attack by the Yugoslavs upon the Italian flank and prevented that concerted action by the Allies which Eden and Dill had, so patiently, been attempting to arrange. Moreover, it would also be possible for Field Marshal List to switch some divisions south through Monastir towards Amindaion, Kozani and Larisa. This thrust to the rear of the

1 N.D. 1746 PS.

2 Two panzer, one motorised, one mountain and six infantry divisions.

3 164 Inf Div, 50 Inf Div.

4 2 Pz Div, 2 Mtn Div, 6 Mtn Div, 72 Inf Div, 125 Inf Div, 12 Army flak, artillery and engineer formations.

5 SS Div Reich, Inf Regt ‘Grossdeutschland’, Brigade ‘Hermann Goering’.

6 HQ Staff, XI and XIV Corps, 5 Pz Div, 11 Pz Div, 60 Mot Div, 4 Mtn Div, 198 Inf Div.

7 9 Pz Div, SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Div, 73 Inf Div.

page 159 Aliakmon line by XXXX Corps and that across the Macedonian Plain by XVIII Corps were those which were most directly to concern the New Zealand Division.