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Invasion of Yugoslavia: Waffen SS Captain Fritz Klingenberg and the Capture of Belgrade During World War II

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When Germany’s forces slammed into the Balkans during the early spring of 1941, they encountered not only armed resistance but also difficultterrain and horrendous weather. The Italian military’s failure to make headway during the previous winter campaign in Greece, followed by the commitment of British forces to Greece’s aid, threatened Germany’s southern flank, compelling Adolf Hitler to intervene. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had sent 500,000 soldiers into the Balkans, and had lost 63,000 in the first six months of his effort. High elevations and mountain passes covered with snow until April and even May hindered German supply convoys and placed a great strain on mechanized units. Reinforcements could not be deployed as readily as needed. Rivers and streams had to be crossed, wounded soldiers and prisoners needed to be evacuated, airfields had to be captured or constructed, and lines of communication needed to be established. Victory sometimes depended on a secured, viable supply line more than a superior military force.

The intense fighting for the Balkans was unlike any that the Wehrmacht had previously faced. This was its first encounter with guerrilla fighters, winter fighting and mountainous terrain. All the key objectives had to be taken quickly, and cities were the primary targets. The Germans expected Greece to capitulate, placing the capital of Athens and Greek ports in German hands. Greek bases for the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine would solidify German control over the northeastern Mediterranean and assist in supplying the Afrika Korps. Greece would also serve as a staging area for interdiction of British shipping and would position German arms just a little closer to the Suez Canal.

In Germany’s path was Yugoslavia, which was largely pro-British — particularly the Serb and Gypsy contingents within the country. Fear that Yugoslavia’s Prince Paul might sway toward the Fascist camp prompted the Yugoslavian ambassador in Washington to send an impassioned plea to Belgrade, begging the prince not to give in to Hitler. Britain’s King George VI, along with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, sent messages to Prince Paul and Yugoslavian Prime Minister Dragisa Cvetovic. Churchill predicted that if Yugoslavia ‘were to become an accomplice in the assassination of Greece, her ruin will be certain and irrevocable.’

On March 20, Prince Paul formally announced that his country would join the Axis Tripartite Pact. Meeting with Arthur Bliss Lane, the American ambassador, Paul stated that, if he did not join the Axis, he could not count on Croat support in the invasion that was sure to come.

On March 24, 1941, Prime Minister Cvetovic and Foreign Minister Cincar-Markovic left for Vienna to sign the pact, departing in secret for fear of public reprisals. They signed the agreement on the 25th, then returned home. In Belgrade, they learned of a coup that had been initiated on the evening of the 26th. Military officers and anti-fascist troops seized air bases, aircraft and government buildings, toppling the weak Yugoslav government overnight. The revolutionary forces seized radio and telephone exchanges, the ministry of war building, police headquarters and the main post office. Cvetovic was arrested. Prince Paul was captured in Zagreb, where he was traveling by train, and was forced to abdicate, leaving the young King Peter as a puppet monarch.

The new government announced that it would remain faithful to the Tripartite Pact after realizing that Britain and the United States, although supportive, were in no position to assist them against a German attack. Hitler was not appeased, however. On the very day the coup took place in Yugoslavia, he ordered his high command to plan a full-scale invasion of the country. On April 6, 1941, German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop gave orders for the attack on Yugoslavia to roll forward.

Bulgaria was already allied to and occupied by the Germans, and many divisions passed through that country on their way to invade the countries to the south. In order for the Germans to secure their left flank and the supply routes necessary for further conquest, Yugoslavia had to be subjugated quickly. The 1st SS Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler and 2nd SS Das Reich divisions, along with mountain troops and additional armored and infantry units, were to thrust through Serbia. Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, was the most important objective, and to weaken the city the German high command planned a two-week bombardment followed by massive artillery and armored attacks. The Germans intended to employ five infantry divisions to occupy the city after its capture. Events proved, however, that even the best laid battle plans are sometimes pre-empted — and sometimes under most unusual circumstances.

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