The Invasion and Battle for Yugoslavia
|The Invasion and Battle for Yugoslavia
The Luftwaffe opened the assault on Yugoslavia by conducting asaturation-type-bombing raid on the capital in the early morning hours of6 April. Flying in relays from airfields in Austria and Romania, 150bombers and dive-bombers protected by a heavy fighter escort participatedin the attack. The initial raid was carried out at fifteen-minuteintervals in three distinct waves, each lasting for approximately twentyminutes. Thus, the city was subjected to a rain of bombs for almostone-and-a-half hours. The German bombardiers directed their main effortagainst the center of the city, where the principal government buildingswere located.
The weak Yugoslav Air Force and the inadequate flak defenses were quicklywiped out by the first wave, permitting the dive-bombers to come down toroof-top levels. Against the loss of but two German fighters, twentyYugoslav planes were shot down and forty-four were destroyed on theground. When the attack was over, more than 17,000 inhabitants lay deadunder the debris. This devastating blow virtually destroyed all means ofcommunication between the Yugoslav high command and the forces in thefield. Although some elements of the general staff managed to escape toone of the suburbs, coordination and control of the military operationsin the field were rendered impossible from the outset.
Having thus delivered the knockout blow to the enemy nerve center, theVIII.Armeekorps was able to devote its maximum effort to such targets ofopportunity as Yugoslav airfields, routes of communication, and troopconcentrations, and to the close support of German ground operations.
The Drive toward the Yugoslav Capital
Three separate ground forces converged on Belgrade from differentdirections. They were launched as follows.
Early in the morning of 8 April, the 1.Panzergruppe jumped off fromits assembly area northwest of Sofiya. Crossing the frontier near Pirot,the XIV.Panzer-Korps, spearheaded by the 11.Panzer-Division, followedby the 5.Panzer-Divison, 294.Infantry-Division, and 4.Gebirgs-Division,advanced in a northwesterly direction toward Nis. Despite unfavorable weather, numerous roadblocks, and tough resistance by the Yugoslav 5.Armee,the 11.Panzer-Division, effectively supported by strong artillery andLuftwaffe forces quickly gained ground and broke through the enemy lineson the first day of the attack. The Yugoslav army commander ordered hisforces to withdraw behind the Morava. This maneuver could not be executedin time because, as early as 9 April, the German lead tanks rumbled intoNis and immediately continued their drive toward Belgrade. From Nisnorthwestward, the terrain became more favorable since the armored columnscould follow the Morava valley all the way to the Yugoslav capital.
South of Paracin and southwest of Kragujevac, the Yugoslav 5.Armeeunits attempted to stem the tide of the advance but were quickly routedafter some heavy fighting. More than 5,000 prisoners were taken in thisone encounter.
Meanwhile, the 5.Panzer-Division became temporarily stalled along thepoor roads near Pirot. After the division got rolling again, it wasordered to turn southward just below Nis and cut off the enemy forcesaround Leskovac. When it became apparent that the Nis front was about tocollapse, the 5.Panzer-Division reverted to the direct control ofTwelfth Army and joined the XL.Panzer-Korps for the Greek campaign.
On 10 April the XIV.Panzer-Korps forces were swiftly advancing throughthe Morava Valley in close pursuit of enemy units retreating toward theircapital. On the next day, the German spearheads suddenly drove into thesouthern wing of the withdrawing Yugoslav 6.Armee, which they overranduring the early hours of 12 April. By the evening of that day the1.Panzergruppe tanks stood less than forty miles southeast of Belgrade. Thetwo Yugoslav armies they had encountered were in such a state ofconfusion that they were no longer able to make any serious attempt todelay the German thrust or cut the German lines of communications. Thesecommunication lines were extended over a distance of roughly 125 milesfrom the point of entry into Yugoslav territory.
Timed to coincide with the armored thrust of the XIV.Panzer-Korps fromthe southeast, the XLI.Panzer-Korps drive led across the southeasternpart of the Banat and toward the Yugoslav capital. This attack wasspearheaded by the Infantrie-Regiment (mot) “Grossdeutschland” closely followed by the 2.SS-Infantrie-Division. After crossingthe frontier north of Vrsac, advance elements entered Pancevo on 11April. Having meanwhile advanced to within about forty-five miles northof Belgrade, the main body of XLI.Panzer-Korps met with only isolatedresistance on the following day as it rolled toward the enemy capital.
When the Luftwaffe launched its attacks on 6 April, the German 2.Armeewas just beginning to assemble its attack forces along the northernYugoslav frontier preparatory to its projected jump on 10 April. In aneffort to improve their lines of departure, some of the 2.Armee unitstook advantage of the interim period by launching limited-objectiveattacks all along the frontier zone. The troop commanders had to keeptheir forces in check to prevent major engagements from developingprematurely, which might subsequently have impaired the army’s freedom ofaction and jeopardize the conduct of operations.
The Army High Command was determined to seize intact the principalbridges in the XLVI.Panzer-Korps zone. Therefore, as early as 1 April,corps elements were ordered to capture the bridge at Bares and therailroad bridge about ten miles northeast of Koprivoica by a coup deAnn.
By early evening of 6 April, the lack of enemy resistance and the overallsituation seemed to indicate that the Yugoslavs would not make aconcerted stand along the border. The XLVI.Panzer-Korps was thereforeordered to establish bridgeheads across the Mura and Drava at MurskoSredisce, Letenye, Zakany, and Barcs. The few local attacks carried outby the corps sufficed to create dissension in the enemy ranks. There wasa high percentage of Croats in the Yugoslav Fourth Army units that wereresponsible for the defense of this area. Croat soldiers mutinied atseveral points of the Drava salient, refusing to resist the Germans whomthey considered as their liberators from Serbian oppression. When strongGerman forces crossed the Drava bridge at Bares on the morning of 10April and broke out of the previously established bridgeheads, thedisintegration of the opposing Yugoslav forces had reached an advancedstage. Supported by strong air forces, the 8.Panzer-Division, followedby the 16.Infantry-Division (mot), launched the XLVI.Panzer-Korpsthrust to Belgrade by driving southeastward between the Drava and SavaRivers. By the evening of 10 April forward elements of the 8.Panzer-Division,having met with virtually no resistance, reached Slatingdespite poor roads and unfavorable weather. Enemy pockets were quicklydestroyed and the division drove on in the direction of the capital viaOsijok, where the roads became even worse.
That the plight of the enemy was becoming more and more desperate couldbe gathered from the following appeal that General Simovic broadcast tohis troops: “All troops must engage the enemy wherever encountered andwith every means at their disposal. Don’t wait for direct orders fromabove but act on your own and be guided by your judgment, initiative, andconscience.”
On 11 April the 8.Panzer-Division reached the Osijek region, while the16.Infantry-Division farther back was advancing beyondNasice. Numerous bridge demolitions and poor roads retarded the progressof both divisions, whose mission it was to attack the rear of theYugoslav forces that faced XIV.Panzer-Korps, and to establish earlycontact with the 1.Panzergruppe.
At 02:30 on 12 April, the 8.Panzer-Division entered Mitrovica after twovital bridges across the Sava had been captured intact. The divisioncontinued its thrust with the main body advancing toward Lazarevac, abouttwenty miles south of Belgrade, which was the designated link-up pointwith 1.Panzergruppe.
On the afternoon of 12 April, the XLVI.Panzer-Korps received new orders.According to these, only elements of the 8.Panzer-Division was tocontinue their eastward drive to seize and secure the Sava bridge nearthe western outskirts of Belgrade. At 18:30 the main body of the divisionturned southeastward and moved in the direction of Valjevo to establishcontact with the left wing of 1.Panzer-Gruppe southwest of Belgrade.Simultaneously, the 16.Infantry-Division (mot), which had beentrailing behind the 8.Panzer-Division turned southward, crossed theSava, and advanced toward Zvornik. Thus both divisions were diverted fromtheir original objective, Belgrade, in order to participate in thesubsequent drive on Sarajevo.
Meanwhile, both the 2.Armee and the Army High Command were anxiouslyawaiting news of the fall of Belgrade. Of the three converging armoredforces, XLI.Panzer-Korps was last reported closest to the capital, havingreached Pancevo on the east bank of the Danube about ten miles east ofthe city. South of Belgrade resistance stiffened as the 11th PanzerDivision, spearheading the 1.Panzergruppe forces, neared thecapital.
The Fall of Belgrade
Since three separate attack forces were converging on Belgradesimultaneously, the Army High Command was not immediately able todetermine which force was the first to reach the enemy capital. Towardearly evening of 12 April, SS-Obersturmführer Klingenberg of the 2.SS-Infantry-Division (mot), finding all Danube bridges destroyed, tookan SS patrol across the river in captured pneumatic rafts. The patrolentered the city unmolested, and at 17:00 hoisted the Nazi flag atop theGerman Legation. About two hours later the mayor of Belgrade officiallyhanded over the city to Klingenberg who was accompanied by arepresentative of the German Foreign Minister, previously interned by theYugoslavs.
At 2.Armee headquarters, no word from the 8.Panzer-Divisionelements, which were last reported approaching the western outskirts ofBelgrade had been received for twenty-four hours. Finally, at 11:52 on13 April the following radio message came through from the operationsofficer of the division: “During the night the 8.Panzer-Division droveinto Belgrade, occupied the center of the city, and hoisted the Swastikaflag.”
However, since better communications had existed between 2.Armee and1.Panzergruppe, the following report was received shortly before the8.Panzer-Division message came in: “Panzergruppe von Kleist” has takenBelgrade from the south. Patrols of Infantrie-Regiment “Grossdeutschland”have entered the city from the north. With General von Kleist at the head,the 11.Panzer-Division has been rolling into the capital since 06:32.”
Thus the race for Belgrade ended in a close finish with all three forcesreaching their objective almost simultaneously. With the fall of thecity, the First Panzer Group was transferred from the Twelfth to theSecond Army. The XLVI Panzer Corps was placed under the direct commandof the panzer group for the next phase of the operation – the pursuit andfinal destruction of the remnants of the Yugoslav Army.
Before and during the main drive on Belgrade a series of secondaryattacks and small unit actions took place across the Austrian-Yugoslavfrontier, where the terrain was unsuitable for motorized units. Thefollowing actions were of particular significance:
The “Fürzauber” Attacks:
Under the code designation “Feurzauber,” units composed of cadrepersonnel and recently inducted trainees were organized into severalwaves of special assault troops. The elements comprising the first waveconsisted of four battalion staffs commanding nine rifle companies, twomountain artillery batteries, one self-propelled medium artillerybattery, two mountain engineer platoons, four antitank companies, andthree signal and four bicycle platoons. Additional waves weresubsequently formed, involving altogether about two-thirds of a mountaintraining division plus some attached specialist troops.
Originally these units were merely to reinforce the frontier guards andcover the gradually assembling Second Army forces along the southernborder of Carinthia and Styria. This purely defensive mission, however,did not satisfy the aggressive commanders of the special assault units.Between 6 and 10 April, they took upon themselves to conduct numerousraids deep into enemy-held territory and to seize and hold many strongpoints along the border, thereby contributing to the rapid success of theoffensive proper.
The first wave of assault units moved south from Graz in the direction ofthe Yugoslav border on 27 March. One of them, designated “Force Palten”after the captain in command was assembled near Spielfeld during thefirst days of April. Its original mission was to secure the frontier andthe vital bridge across the Mura near Spielfeld. However, on the eveningof 5 April, the force started to attack bunkers and enemy-held high groundacross the frontier. By the morning of 6 April, several hills had beentaken, and scouting patrols probing deep into the bunker line south ofSpielfeld made contact with the enemy. They determined the enemy’sstrength and disposition in the outpost area and then broke contact.Most of the high ground remained in German hands as the enemy failed tocounterattack. Then, toward 16:00, mountain engineers destroyed isolatedenemy bunkers without any preparatory artillery fire.
On 8 April, Captain Palten decided to personally lead a group of hisraiders toward Maribor. He undertook this mission against orders fromhigher headquarters and despite the fact that virtually all bridges alongthe route of advance had been blown. Since there was hardly any enemyinterference, troops and equipment could be ferried across the Pesnicastream on pneumatic rafts. The vehicles had to be left behind, and themen were forced to carry their equipment the rest of the way.
After forming raiding parties on the south bank of the stream, CaptainPalten continued to move southward. During the evening he entered Mariborat the head of his force and occupied the town without opposition. Muchto their disappointment, the raiders were ordered to withdraw to theSpielfeld area, where they had to sit out the remainder of the Yugoslavcampaign performing guard duty at the border. Losses incurred by ForcePalten were one killed and two wounded, while they captured more than 100prisoners and much booty.
On 6 April the LI Corps crossed the Yugoslav border at Murk andRadkersburg and seized both bridges across the Drava intact. During theseprobing attacks, the 132rd Infantry Division, occupied the Sejanska streamand the 183rd Infantry Division took 300 prisoners. A bicycle detachmentof the latter entered Murska Sobota without encountering resistance.Since the Yugoslavs were giving ground all along the line, the corpswanted to exploit the situation. The Second Army, however, felt compelledto order both divisions to hold in place and consolidate their newly wonbridgeheads. The two divisions would have to wait until their remainingelements had detained in the assembly areas.
During the following three days the LI Corps expanded its bridgeheads,the 132rd Infantry Division occupying Maribor and the 183rd probing beyondMurska Sobota. Air reconnaissance reports indicated that the YugoslavSeventh Army forces employed in this sector were withdrawing southwardalong the narrow mountain roads leading to Zagreb. Apparently, only a thinsecurity screen had been left in place to maintain contact with theGerman forces in the bridgeheads.
The Second Army thereupon ordered LI Corps to form flying columnscomposed of motorized elements and pursue the retreating Yugoslav forcesin the direction of Zagreb. On 10 April cold winds and intermittentsnowstorms hampered the movements of the advancing Germans, andfloodwaters interrupted the crossings at Maribor during the day. Afterregrouping its forces south of the Drava the LI Corps resumed its advancetoward Zagreb at 06:00 on 11 April. Plodding through difficult terrainduring the afternoon, forward elements reached the southern exit of themountain range northwest of the city by evening. A bicycle troop of the183d Division wheeling eastward had, meanwhile, taken Varazdin, where itcaptured a Serb brigade, including its commanding general.
XLIX Mountain Corps:
On 6 April, while the 1st Mountain Division was still on the approachmarch, the 538th Frontier Guard Division, stationed along thenorthwestern part of the Slovenian border, succeeded in seizing importantmountain passes, hills, and tunnels in Yugoslav territory. During thenight of 9-10 April the combat elements of the 1st Mountain Division,which had detained only a few hours earlier, began to cross the frontiernear Bleiburg. Advancing in the general direction of Celje the divisionspearheads stood about twelve miles northwest of the town by nightfall.After exhausting marches and some hard fighting, the 1st Mountain Divisiontook Celje on 11 April. Emissaries of the newly formed SlovenianGovernment asked the corps commander for a cease-fire. In anticipation ofjust such developments, Hitler had previously authorized field commandersto accept the surrender of individual units.
Early on the morning of 10 April, with dive-bombers clearing the route ofadvance, the 14.Panzer-Division of XLVI.Panzer-Korps, split into twoarmored forces, broke out of the Drava bridgehead and advancedsouthwestward toward Zagreb, the state capital of Croatia. This attackpreceded the XLVI.Panzer.Korps main attack toward Belgrade and wasintended as a diversion.
Although large enemy concentrations had been spotted in front of thedivision, air reconnaissance revealed that these forces were rapidlywithdrawing westward toward Zagreb. Though fierce at first, enemyresistance soon crumbled as German tanks came closer to their objective.However, extremely cold weather and snow-covered roads hampered progressto some degree. By 1930 on 10 April the lead tanks of the 14.Panzer-Division reached the outskirts of Zagreb, after having covered a distanceof almost 100 miles in one day.
In some instances, Croat troops refused to fight, abandoned their weapons,deserted their positions, and either surrendered or simply went home. OneGerman regiment surprised an enemy unit which was still in garrison andnot yet fully mobilized. A regimental officers’ party just in progresswas interrupted only long enough to consummate a quick surrender,whereupon the festivities continued as though nothing unusual hadhappened.
So rapid was the advance of the division that its radio communicationswith corps and army were temporarily interrupted. Reconnaissance aircrafthad to be dispatched to ascertain its exact location and chart itsprogress. When the 14.Panzer Division entered Zagreb from thenortheast, a wildly cheering pro-German populace welcomed it. During thedrive on the city, more than 15,000 prisoners were taken. Among the 300officers were twenty-two generals, including the commanders of First ArmyGroup and Seventh Army.
On 11 April the newly formed Croatian Government called on its nationalsto cease fighting and requested that the Yugoslav Army immediatelyrelease them. During the evening hours, the first LI Corps elementsentered Zagreb from the north and relieved the 14.Panzer-Division.
Italian and Hungarian Operations
The favorable course of the military events along its front led theGerman Second Army to offer its assistance to the Italian Second Armyassembling along Yugoslavia’s western border. On the early morning of 11April the Germans were informed that the Italian V, VI, and XI Corpswould be ready to attack toward 1200. To speed up the Italian advance andconsummate the encirclement of the Yugoslav Seventh Army forces in theLjubljana Basin, the German XLIX.Gebrigs.Korps was to conduct thediversionary attacks in the north while 14.Panzer-Division forces wereto cut the enemy’s route of withdrawal. As a preparatory step the GermanFourth Air Force attacked Yugoslav columns and troop concentrations inthe Ljubljana area. When the Italian forces finally jumped off, theyencountered little resistance from the Yugoslavs, who were attempting towithdraw southeastward. A great number of prisoners and much booty werecaptured as entire divisions surrendered. About 30,000 Yugoslav troopsconcentrated near Delnice were waiting to surrender to the Italians whowere moving southeastward in the direction of the Dalmatian coast.
On 12 April elements of the 14.Panzer-Division linked up with theItalians at Vrbovsk. The line Novo Mesto-Slunj-Bihac-Livno was designatedas the boundary between the German and Italian Second Armies south of theSava. Occupation of the territory west of this line was assigned to theItalians. However, for the time being, the German units on the extremeright wing of XLIX.Gebrigs.Korps were authorized to operate in theItalian zone.
Upon moving its command post to Maribor on 11 April, the German SecondArmy headquarters received a message from the Hungarian Third Army bywhich it was notified that Hungarian troops were crossing the Yugoslavfrontier north of Osijek and near Subotica. On the next day theHungarians pursued the retreating Yugoslav First Army and occupied thearea between the Danube and Tisza Rivers, meeting virtually noresistance.
The Final Drive on Sarajevo
After the collapse of the border defense system and the fall of Belgrade, the Yugoslav Army leaders had hoped to withdraw to the mountain redoubtin the interior of Serbia, where they intended to offer prolongedresistance. Fully aware of the Yugoslav intentions, General von Weichs,the Second Army commander, decided to launch and maintain a vigorouspursuit of the enemy forces withdrawing in the general direction ofSarajevo. Speed was now of the essence since the German Army High Commandintended to pull out and redeploy as soon as practicable the motorizedand armored divisions that had to be refitted for the Russian campaign.
As early as 12 April both the XLIX.Armeekorps and LI.Armeekorps had closed up and regrouped their forces along the Sava River. Sarajevo, located in theheart of Yugoslavia, was to be the focal point upon which the Germanforces were to converge. Accordingly, Second Army reorganized its forcesinto two separate pursuit groups. Under the command of the recentlyarrived LII Infantry Corps headquarters, the western group consisted offour infantry divisions under the XLIX.Korps and LI.Korps as well as the14.Panzer-Division, the formation that was to spearhead the drive onSarajevo from the west. The eastern pursuit force, under the command ofthe First Panzer Group, was composed of six divisions, with the 8.Panzer-Divisionleading the drive toward Sarajevo from the east. The Fourth Air Force,continuing to operate in support of the groundoperations, was ordered to neutralize the anticipated enemy troopconcentrations in the Mostar-Sarajevo sector.
On the afternoon of 13 April 2.Armee moved its command post to Zagrebto facilitate communication with the two pursuit groups and direct themopping-up phase of the campaign from this central location. The boundarybetween the German 2.Armee and 12.Armee was the line extending laterallyacross Yugoslavia from Sofiya via Prizren up to and along the northernborder of Albania.
By the evening of 13 April, there was no longer any semblance of enemyresistance in front of XLIX.Armeekorps and LI.Armeekorps. The main body of theGerman forces reached the Kupa River and some elements were quickly put across. The 14.Panzer-Division, meanwhile, sped southeastward toward Sarajevo.As the division approached its objective, reports began to circulate thatopen hostilities had broken out between Serbs and Croats in Mostar.German planes were quickly diverted to this area where they blasted Serbtroop concentrations for three hours. By 14 April the fighting betweenthe Serb and Croat factions had gained momentum and had spread throughoutDalmatia. On that day the 14.Panzer-Division reached Jajce,approximately fifty miles northwest of Sarajevo, while forward elementsof the LI.Korps, attempting to keep up with the armor, arrived at the Unaafter strenuous marches and established several bridgeheads across thestream.
In the zone of the eastern group, one armored division combed out thesector south of Belgrade, while two infantry divisions cleared theindustrial region in and around Nis. The 8.Panzer-Division led the waysouthwestward toward Sarajevo, closely followed by two motorized infantrydivisions which were driving hard toward the heart of Yugoslavia, one viaZvornik, the other from Uzice. Among the vast amount of booty wasseventy-five enemy aircraft still intact on the ground. During theoperations on 14 and 15 April, prisoners were taken by the thousands.North of Nis the Germans captured 7,000; in and around Uzice, 40,000;around Zvornik 30,000 more; and in Doboj another 6,000.
On 15 April both pursuit groups of Second Army closed in on Sarajevo. Astwo panzer divisions entered the city simultaneously from. west and east,the Yugoslav Second Army, whose headquarters was in Sarajevo,capitulated. Leaving only security detachments in the city to await thearrival of the infantry forces, both divisions continued to racesouthward in close pursuit of fleeing enemy remnants.
In view of the hopelessness of the situation, the Yugoslav commanddecided to ask for an armistice and authorized the commanders of thevarious army groups and armies to dispatch truce negotiators to theGerman command post within their respective sectors. However, those fromYugoslav Second and Fifth Armies who asked for separate cease-fireagreements on 14 April were turned back by the German commanders becauseby that time only the unconditional surrender of the entire Yugoslav Armycould be considered as a basis for negotiations.
Late on the evening of 14 April, a representative of the YugoslavGovernment approached the 1.Panzergruppe headquarters and askedGeneral van Kleist for an immediate cease-fire. When the Army HighCommand was advised of this turn of events, it designated the 2.Armeecommander, General von Weichs, to conduct the negotiations in Belgrade.
During the afternoon of the following day von Weichs and his staffarrived in Belgrade and drew up the German conditions for an armisticebased on the unconditional surrender of all Yugoslav forces. The next daya Yugoslav emissary arrived in the capital, but it turned out that he didnot have sufficient authority to negotiate or sign the surrender.Therefore, a draft of the agreement was handed to him with the requestthat competent plenipotentiaries be sent to Belgrade without delay inorder to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. To expedite matters, a plane wasplaced at his disposal.
The armistice was concluded and signed on 17 April. (General von Weichs)signed for the Germans, with the Italian military attache in Belgradeacting on behalf of his country. A Hungarian liaison officer who,however, did not sign the document since Hungary was technicaly “not atwar with Yugoslavia.” Foreign Minister Cincar-Marcovic and GeneralMilojko Yankovic signed for the Yugoslavs. The armistice became effectiveat 12:00 on 18 April 1941, twelve days after the initial German attackwas launched.