By its intervention in the Balkans in 1940-41 Britain actually opened a second front several months before the first frontin Russiahad come into being. That this strategic move was largely abortive and had little immediate effect on the execution of Operation BARBAROSSA seems only incidental. The Axis Powers enlarged their area of responsibility by occupying territories whose economic potential was of some importance, but whose strategic advantages they were unable to exploit. Resenting occupation by Italian forces, Greek and Yugoslav nationalists were soon to rise against their conquerors. From that time through the end of World War II, the Balkan sore in the Axis flank refused to heal.
Actually, Germany had little choice in the matter of launching the campaigns in the Balkans. Once Mussolini had committed the blunder of thrusting his blunt sword across the Albanian border into Greece and had suffered bitter reverses, Hitler felt obliged to rescue his brother-in-arms. Aside from reasons of prestige, Hitler's hand was forced by the British occupation of Crete and other Greek islands as well as by subsequent Russian and British political activities in the Balkans. The threat to Germany's southern flank in the impending invasion of Russia could either be eliminated by a lightning offensive or neutralized by creating a defensive belt of security in the Balkans. The former solution, which Hitler decided to adopt, had the advantage that only relatively small forces were tied down. Had the Germans adopted defensive methods, they would probably have had to commit more forces in the Balkans in the long run. A minimum force of three divisions would inevitably have been needed in Albania to support the Italians. Sooner or later the British would have succeeded in drawing Yugoslavia into the war on their side. If
this had happened while Germany was engaged in hostilities with the USSR, an extremely dangerous situation might have developed.
Assuming therefore that the Germans were forced to execute the Balkan campaigns before they invaded Russia, the next step is to analyze the connection between these military operations.
In order to avoid any unnecessary delay in launching Operation BARBABOSSA, the two campaigns in the Balkans and the seizure of Crete had to be carried out with utmost speed. In many instances during the Yugoslav campaign divisions could not be fully assembled, and advance echelons had to jump off while the rear elements were still on the move to the concentration areas. The haste with which Crete had to be seized led to a number of improvisations in the preparation and execution of this airborne operation. Many of the deficiencies could have been avoided, had the Germans not been so pressed for time.
Even before the German victories in Yugoslavia and Greece had been fully achieved, some of the units had to be redeployed to Germany to be refitted in time for Operation BARBAROSSA. Some of the corps headquarters, GHQ units, and, above all, the mechanized divisions committed in the Yugoslav campaign were indispensable for the start of the invasion of Russia. In some instances units were stopped in mid-action and redeployed to the zone of interior. Because of the poor roads and defective railways in the Balkans, these movements interfered with the smooth execution of the military operations.
The insistence on speedy redeployment made it impossible to completely disarm the enemy forces or comb out the mountain areas in which some of the stragglers found refuge. Many weapons were hidden and stocks of military supplies vanished before they could be seized. The early rise of resistance and partisan movements in the Balkans was facilitated by the haste with which military operations in this theater had to be brought to an end.
Because of the annual spring floods in eastern Poland and western European Russia, 15 May was the earliest possible date for the start of the invasion of Russia. No postponement was mentioned before the Yugoslav revolt, which had an immediate effect on the plans for Operation BARBAROSSA. As early as 27 March Hitler estimated that the campaign against Yugoslavia would delay the invasion by about four weeks. This estimate was based on the diversion of forces for the assembly against Yugoslavia. Headquarters staffs, divisions, and GHQ units that were on the way to the concentration areas for Operation BARBAROSSA or whose departure was imminent had to be diverted. Those units had to be replaced by others whose departure was delayed because they were not ready for commitment. However, of the two corps headquarters and nine divisions that were diverted to the Yugoslav campaign, all but three infantry divisions were replaced from the Army High Command reserves by the time Operation BARBAROSSA got under way.
?Another factor considered in calculating the delay was that all. units, in particular the armored and motorized infantry divisions, would have to be refitted after the Balkan campaigns. This rehabilitation, which was estimated to take a minimum of three weeks for the mobile Units, had to be performed within Germany in the vicinity of major repair shops and spare parts depots.
The plans for the invasion of Russia were modified in accordance with this estimate. On 7 April Field Marshal von Brauchitsch issued an order in which he explained that Operation 25 necessitated changes in the preparations for the Russian campaign postponing it between four and six weeks. The new target date was to be 22 June. Subsequent conferences between Hitler and his military advisers confirmed this new date for D-day, and it was adhered to in the end.
Actually, only part of the delay was caused by the campaigns in the Balkans. Operation BARBAROSSA could not possibly have started on 15 May because spring came late in 19-L1. As late as the beginning of June the Polish-Russian river valleys were still flooded and partly impassable as a result of exceptionally heavy rains
As soon as it became apparent that the Yugoslav campaign would be over within a relatively short time, the movement of forces destined
for the Balkans was stopped and reversed. As early as 14 April three corps and seven divisions were rerouted to their respective points of departure in Germany and Romania. The redeployment of mobile divisions employed in Yugoslavia started on 21 April when the 16th Motorized Infantry Division w as ordered to reassemble before entraining for Germany. Two days later three of the panzer divisions received similar orders.
While the campaigns in the Balkans were under way, the German Army hurriedly organized weak security divisions that were to be sent to western Europe and the Balkans for occupation duty. By the end of May five of these divisions had arrived in Yugoslavia and taken the place of all the combat divisions still remaining in that country. All but three of the German divisions employed in the Greek and (Crete campaigns were redeployed before the beginning of Operation BARBAROSSA. Only the 2d and 5th Panzer Divisions, which had advanced as far as southern Greece, were not available in time for the start of the invasion.
The considerable losses suffered by the Luftwaffe during the seizure of Crete, especially insofar as troop carrier planes were concerned, affected the strength of the German air power available at the start of the Russian campaign. Moreover, since the German parachute troops had been decimated in Crete, the number of men qualified to carry out huge-scale airborne operations at the beginning of the invasion was insufficient.
As previously mentioned, the timetable for the attack on Russia did not allow for exploiting the strategic advantages the Germans had gained in the eastern Mediterranean. Even before the seizure of Crete had been accomplished, VIII Air Corps was ordered to redeploy its forces to Germany for refitting. While the ground personnel proceeded directly to their new bases in Poland, the flying units returned to Germany as soon as they could be released from participation in the Crete campaign. The movement along extended and
complicated lines of communication had to be accomplished with maximum speed since it had to be completed in less than three weeks.
The German operations in the eastern Mediterranean in the spring of 1~)41 were successful in diverting world attention from the build-up in Poland. Coinciding with Rommel's advance in the North African desert, the German campaigns in the Balkans seemed to indicate that Hitler s plans of expansion were directed toward the eastern Mediter-
ranean. The airborne of Crete seemed to confirm the opinion that Hitler was bells on taking Suez by a combined air, sea, and ground operation. While the Russians were far from pleased to see the Balkans under German domination, they must have followed the diversion of German strength with Ore it interest. The complete surprise achieved by the German invasion of Russia on 22 June may be partly attributed to the fact that the Balkan operations drew attention from the preparations that took place in Poland during April and May 1941.
To form an unbiased opinion of the true relationship between the campaigns in the Balkans and the invasion of Russia is far from easy. German military authors state that the diversion in the Balkans had hardly any influence on the course of the subsequent campaign, since Germany's casualties were relatively low and the expenditure of materiel and supplies insignificant. They agree that the invasion of Russia might have started three weeks earlier if there had been no Balkan campaigns. This delay of three weeks might appear of decisive importance considering that the sudden start of severe winter weather turned the tide when the Germans stood in front of Moscow. To them the validity of this theory seems at least doubtful considering the fact that the German offensive in Russia in 1941 collapsed because of the conflict over the strategic concepts that broke out between Hitler and the Army High Command in the summer of that year. That controversy over the strategy to be adopted after the initial successes had been achieved cost the German Army several precious weeks. Additional time and a lot of manpower were wasted by Hitler's insistence on making Leningrad and the Ukraine his principal objectives until he finally Greed to a drive on Moscow before the outbreak of winter. The three creeks lost by the execution of the Balkan operations therefore seem of minor significance.
On the other hand, postwar publications by authors of other nationalities stress that the British intervention in Greece and Crete, and even more the Yugoslav revolt, led to the postponement of Operation BARBAROSSA to 22 June, while they de-emphasize the effect of the spring floods.
In the light of the gigantic struggle that was to begin a few weeks after their conclusion, the campaigns in the Balkans may be considered as the Wehrmacht's last blitz victories before the Germans met their fate in Russia.