Germany Mounts the Balkan Offensive

To secure his southern flank and protect his source of oil, Adolf Hitler ordered German forces to invade Greece and Yugoslavia, conquering both countries and effectively bringing all nations of the Balkan region under Axis domination.

Summary of Event

At the outset of World War II, Adolf Hitler realized that, to succeed in conquering the major European nations and the Soviet Union, he would need to establish alliances with the various nations in southeastern Europe that were known collectively as the Balkans. The region was important strategically. Romania’s oil fields Oil fields;Romania were one of Germany’s principal sources for the fuel it needed to conduct military operations. Collectively, the Balkan states served as a buffer shielding Hitler’s Axis forces from the British, who had significant interests—and troop presence—in the Mediterranean. Balkan Offensive (1941)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Balkan campaign
[kw]Germany Mounts the Balkan Offensive (Apr. 6-30, 1941)
[kw]Balkan Offensive, Germany Mounts the (Apr. 6-30, 1941)
[kw]Offensive, Germany Mounts the Balkan (Apr. 6-30, 1941)
Balkan Offensive (1941)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Balkan campaign
[g]Europe;Apr. 6-30, 1941: Germany Mounts the Balkan Offensive[00180]
[g]Greece;Apr. 6-30, 1941: Germany Mounts the Balkan Offensive[00180]
[g]Yugoslavia;Apr. 6-30, 1941: Germany Mounts the Balkan Offensive[00180]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 6-30, 1941: Germany Mounts the Balkan Offensive[00180]
[c]World War II;Apr. 6-30, 1941: Germany Mounts the Balkan Offensive[00180]
Hitler, Adolf
[p]Hitler, Adolf;Balkan military campaign
Mussolini, Benito
Metaxas, Ioannis
Papagos, Alexandros
Karadjordjević, Paul
Simović, Dušan

From 1938 until 1940, Hitler relied on diplomacy to secure good relationships with Balkan nations, but in the fall of 1940 his ally, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, launched an ill-fated military campaign against Greece. Greek premier Ioannis Metaxas rallied his countrymen to resist the invaders; within months, the Greeks had beaten back the Italians and established a foothold in Albania northeast of their homeland. Fearful that there might be counterattacks from the Italians or reprisals from the Germans, Metaxas directed that Greek forces be stationed in Albania and established a strong defensive line across the northeastern border of his country.

Rebuffed and humiliated, Mussolini sought Hitler’s aid in repelling the Greeks from Albania and bringing all of the Balkans under Axis control. Despite being furious with Mussolini for creating political instability in the region, Hitler decided that he could not risk leaving Greece in such a favorable position. Although Greece was officially neutral with respect to Germany, the Greek government had strong ties to Britain. Hitler feared that the British might convince the Greeks to let them use their country as a jumping-off point for an Allied invasion of Germany from the south. By fall, 1940, Hitler was engaged in developing highly secret plans to invade the Soviet Union in the spring of 1941, but he decided that he could not do so without first protecting his oil supply and securing his southern flank. Therefore, in November, 1940, Hitler directed his generals to draft a plan for conquering Greece before proceeding with the Russian offensive.

The Germans’ Operation MARITA Operation MARITA called for the swift invasion of mainland Greece to begin in April. The plan depended, however, on Germany securing assistance from several Balkan nations in launching its military offensive. During the early spring of 1941, the Germans began serious negotiations with Hungary and Bulgaria to use those countries as staging areas for troops who would attack Greece. Combining promises of aid with strong-arm tactics designed to bully the governments of these nations into cooperating, Hitler managed to gain the necessary agreements. By March, his army and air force were moving from bases in Germany and in Romania, where they had been engaged in training missions for some time, into the territory of their new allies. Greece, recognizing its peril, appealed to the Allied nations for assistance but received little military aid. Only the British responded with direct support, sending ground troops and limited air support units to the region in March, 1941, to assist the Greek army in any future hostilities.

Two German soldiers patrol a small town in the Balkans.

(National Archives)

At the same time it was negotiating with Hungary and Bulgaria, the German government had also been in the process of securing a similar agreement from Yugoslavia. Governed by a regent, Prince Paul Karadjordjević, Yugoslavia was actually a federation of ethnically diverse states that had joined after World War I to protect themselves from Italian expansionism. Paul seemed to be ready to acquiesce to German demands when, on March 26, 1941, rebels led by General Dušan Simović overthrew his regency and established a new government. Revolutions and coups;Yugoslavia
Yugoslavian revolution of 1941 Convinced that the new leadership would be hostile toward the Germans, Hitler decided to take no chances on Yugoslavia’s allegiance: On the following day, he directed his field commanders to invade Yugoslavia simultaneously with their strike into Greece.

The double invasion began on April 6, 1941, although some preliminary skirmishes occurred in the week preceding the official launch of Operation MARITA. As they had done in fall of 1939 when invading Poland and in spring of 1940 when moving against France, the German army and air forces launched a blitzkrieg Blitzkrieg tactics against Yugoslavian and Greek forces. Combining tank and mechanized infantry attacks that swept away opposing forces with relative ease, the Germans managed to drive quickly toward Belgrade across the border from Bulgaria and into Salonika in northeastern Greece.

Much to the surprise of German military commanders and planners, the strong resistance expected from the large Yugoslavian army never materialized. Instead, members of various ethnic factions in the Yugoslavian armed forces sabotaged efforts to fight the invaders. Those of Serbian descent mounted a fierce resistance, but many Croatians decided that collaborating with the Axis Powers was in their best interest and hence did little to prevent the advance of German forces. Belgrade fell to the Germans on April 12. By April 15, the German army was on the outskirts of Sarajevo, and the Yugoslavian government capitulated; an unconditional surrender was signed on April 17.

At the same time, General Alexandros Papagos, commander of Greek forces, brought his troops back from Albania to mount a last-ditch effort to keep the Germans from invading the Greek peninsula. His efforts were futile, however, and even the assistance of troops from Britain, Australia, and New Zealand proved insufficient to stem the Germans’ advance. German ground forces, aided by air strikes that were virtually unimpeded by the ineffective and outmanned Greek air force, swept across the Greek mainland. German troops entered Athens on April 27. On April 30, hostilities came to an end, and the Greek government surrendered. The island of Crete remained a stronghold of resistance, however, so Operation MERKUR Operation MERKUR , an airborne invasion, was mounted almost immediately. German paratroopers landed on Crete in early May, and by June 1 the island had been subjugated and the British had been completely expelled.


The conquest of the Balkans brought an immediate short-term gain to Germany. With his southern flank secure, Hitler was able to launch an invasion against Russia in June, 1941, storming into a country with which he had signed a nonaggression pact only two years earlier. Though the Soviet leadership had foreseen this possibility, they had acted tentatively in the Balkan region, using only diplomacy to try to counter the Germans’ military actions. Their failure to convince nations such as Turkey and Bulgaria to disrupt Hitler’s plans had serious consequences, as the Russian population suffered three years of devastation during the Germans’ invasion of their homeland. The fall of the Balkans to Germany was a serious setback for the Allies as well. They were denied a secure base of operations from which to launch a southern offensive against the Axis Powers and instead were forced to make seaborne intrusions into Italy two years later, exposing their forces to greater risk and incurring greater loss of life and materiel than they otherwise would have.

The Balkan nations suffered both short-term and long-term effects. They were subjugated for nearly four years to Axis domination, but the freedom they enjoyed when finally liberated by the Allies was short-lived. Many of the nations fell almost immediately under Soviet hegemony, spending another forty or more years suffering economic deprivation and political repression. Furthermore, in Yugoslavia, the hatred built up between ethnic groups during the Balkan campaign and subsequent years of occupation continued to smolder under the surface during the years of communist rule, erupting a half-century later into one of the bloodiest civil wars of the twentieth century. Balkan Offensive (1941)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Balkan campaign

Further Reading

  • Blau, George E. Balkan Invasion! The German Campaign in the Balkans, Spring, 1941. Shippensburg, Pa.: Burd Street Press, 1997. Examines the political background that led to Hitler’s decision to invade the Balkans; offers extensive assessment of military operations in both Yugoslavia and Greece.
  • Gallagher, Tom. Outcast Europe: The Balkans, 1789-1989—From The Ottomans to Milošević. New York: Routledge, 2001. Focuses on the political dimensions of the conflict, outlining reasons Hitler felt compelled to fight against Yugoslavia and Greece to preserve resources vital to Germany.
  • Glenny, Misha. The Balkans, 1804-1999: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers. London: Granta, 1999. Extensive study of the history of the region; examines international political upheavals that led the Axis Powers to move in to stabilize the area and secure their interests.
  • Zapantis, Andrew L. Hitler’s Balkan Campaign and the Invasion of the USSR. Boulder, Colo.: East European Monographs, 1987. Discusses the Germans’ invasion of the Balkans in the context of Hitler’s overall strategy to secure this region before proceeding with his planned invasion of the Soviet Union.

World War II: European Theater

Bulgaria Joins the Tripartite Pact

Germany Invades Crete

Germany Invades Russia

Soviets Take Control of Eastern Europe