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YUGOSLAVIA JOINS THE TRIPARTITE PACT
Early in 1941, with France defeated and almost all of Western Europe under German occupation, Great Britain stood practically alone against Germany and Italy. At home it faced the invasion threat and the continuing German air attacks, and on the high seas the war against the U-boats; in the Middle East it conducted a campaign aimed at the destruction of the Italian armed forces in North Africa; and in the Balkans it attempted to shore up the Greeks against the Italians and to rally Yugoslavia and Turkey against the Axis. But it was precisely because of British victories against the Italians in North Africa and particularly Greek victories against Mussolini's armies in Greece that the Germans cast their eyes in the direction of the Balkans. For having decided at the end of 1940 to attack the Soviet Union on May 15, the Germans were eager to secure their southern flank.
At the beginning of the year, their attention was directed more toward Bulgaria than Yugoslavia. After succeeding in aligning Hungary and Rumania at the end of 1940, the German aim was also to have Bulgaria accede to the Tripartite Pact in order to complete the arc and be able to move troops into Greece to aid the hard-pressed Italians. Yugoslavia was to be kept neutral, with the possibility of a German-Yugoslav nonaggression pact playing a role in the German calculation.
The British, on the other hand, were most concerned lest the Germans succeed in getting to Greece through Bulgaria and were quite prepared to slow down their victorious drive in North Africa against the Italians in order to help the Greeks. Turkey and Yugoslavia played an important role in their considerations. For if a combined Greek-British force were to hold up a German-Italian advance in Greece, then Turkey and Yugoslavia, the British hoped, might be drawn in on the Allied side and a new "Balkan League" created.
To this end, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and General Sir John Dill, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, to the Middle East and also to Athens, where they arrived on February 22, 1941. The discussions with the Greek Government persuaded the British officials that the Greeks would fight on even if the Germans were to join the Italians. Plans were worked out for British forces from the Middle East to land in Greece.
Meanwhile, as the Italian military situation in Greece deteriorated, the Germans decided that not only Bulgaria but also Yugoslavia must join the Tripartite Pact. With this in mind, the Yugoslav Prime Minister, Dragia Cvetkovic, and the Foreign Minister, Aleksandar Cincar-Markovic, were invited to meet the German leaders. They saw Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop on the morning of February 14 near Salzburg and in the afternoon proceeded to meet Adolf Hitler in Berchtesgaden. On that occasion, Hitler told the Yugoslav statesmen that the best way to keep peace in the Balkans was for the Yugoslavs to join the Tripartite Pact. At the end of the conference, a possible meeting between Hitler and the Regent, Prince Paul, was discussed. Such a meeting took place in Berchtesgaden on March 4, at which time Hitler once again urged Yugoslavia's accession to the Tripartite Pact while Prince Paul reserved his position. A few days before, on March 1, Bulgaria had succumbed to German pressures and joined the Pact. On March 2, the German Army began to move from Rumania into Bulgaria.
The United States, not yet at war, watched these developments with great concern. As early as January 1941, Colonel William J. Donovan, who later headed the Office of Strategic Services, went on a special mission to Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia to ascertain for President Franklin D. Roosevelt the situation in those countries. He was in Belgrade from January 23 to 25 and visited the Regent, the Prime Minister, and several other Yugoslav officials. He explained to them the established United States policy of giving every possible assistance short of war to countries willing to fight for their independence.
The Soviet Union–which was of course intensely interested in Balkan affairs–had one overriding aim: to stay out of the war. Having signed a nonaggression pact with Germany in Moscow on August 23, 1939, the Soviets watched the struggle for the Balkans between Britain and Germany with deep apprehension. Only on June 24, 1940 had Yugoslavia and the USSR established diplomatic relations–until late 1939 a Czarist representative appeared on the Belgrade diplomatic list. Dr. Milan Gavrilovic was the Yugoslav Minister in Moscow and V. A. Plotnikov the Soviet Minister in Belgrade. When Gavrilovic in early February 1941 attempted to ascertain the Soviet Government's attitude toward German policy in the Balkans, he gathered that the Soviets were guided above all by a desire not to get involved in the war. Nevertheless, the Yugoslav Prime Minister asked Plotnikov for material help to shore up the weak Yugoslav Army, and when the Soviet Minister returned to Moscow late in February he took with him an extensive Yugoslav shopping list.
The British, German, Italian, Soviet and American Legations in Belgrade, particularly those three representing countries at war, were immensely active in the first weeks of 1941. Within the British Legation a small group was reporting to the highly secret Special Operations Executive (SOE) in London. The SOE had been created by Prime Minister Churchill on July 16, 1940, under the Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton, whom Churchill had instructed to "set Europe ablaze." A number of British officials who had known the Balkans well were in Belgrade during those early months of 1941. They included Tom Masterson, Hugh Seton-Watson, Julian Amery and others who were to play important roles in the SOE during the war.
From Athens, Eden and General Dill went to Turkey, where their discussions with the Turkish leaders were not encouraging from the British point of view. Turkey did not wish to be drawn into the war. Upon their return to the Greek capital, the British officials talked on March 2 with Ronald Ian Campbell, the British Minister in Belgrade, who had come to Athens. He returned to Yugoslavia with a letter from Eden to the Regent in which the latter was urged to join Britain and Greece in the defense of the Balkan peninsula. On March 7, the first British troops landed in Greece. How important the British regarded their return to the European continent can be seen by the fact that they were not deterred by the disturbing news which reached them just at that time that the Germans had started reinforcing the sagging Italians in North Africa.
On March 10, Churchill sent a telegram to Roosevelt informing him of the British decision to send troops to Greece. He added: "At this juncture the action of Yugoslavia is cardinal. No country ever had such a military chance. If they will fall on the Italian rear in Albania there is no measuring what might happen in a few weeks."
Far from falling on the Italian rear, the Yugoslav Government was slowly but inexorably moving in an opposite direction, toward following Bulgaria's example of joining the Tripartite Pact.
On March 21, 1941, the American Minister in Belgrade, Arthur Bliss Lane, was instructed to advise the Yugoslav Government that the U.S. was prepared to offer Yugoslavia all facilities under the recently enacted Lend-Lease Act and that the Yugoslav assets on deposit in the United States would continue at Yugoslavia's disposal as long as the country remained free and independent. The latter point was emphasized because U.S. authorities had inquired a few days earlier about the reasons for certain transfers of Yugoslav assets from the U.S. to neutral countries. The only possible interpretation was that these assets were being transferred in order to avoid their becoming blocked by the U.S. Government should Yugoslavia adhere to the Tripartite Pact.
On March 25, the Yugoslav Government, having succumbed to German pressure, signed the Pact in Vienna. On the next day, Churchill sent a telegram to the British Minister in Belgrade:
Do not let any gap grow up between you and Prince Paul or Ministers. Continue to pester, nag and bite. Demand audiences. Don't take No for an answer.... This is no time for reproaches or dignified farewells. Meanwhile ... do not neglect any alternative to which we may have to resort if we find present Government have gone beyond recall....
COUP D'ÉTAT AND AXIS ATTACK
On March 27, Serbian officers of the Yugoslav General Staff led a coup d'état against Prince Paul and the Cvetkovic Government. While the uprising had been in preparation for several months, the adherence to the Tripartite Pact provided the leaders of the coup with the final impetus. Indeed, the British SOE in Belgrade has claimed some small credit for persuading the initiators of the uprising to act fast. Prince Paul was relieved of his regency functions and sent into exile. The son of King Alexander was elevated to the throne as King Peter II a few months before his eighteenth birthday. He in turn appointed General Duan Simovic, commander of the Yugoslav Air Force, as Prime Minister.
Immediately following the coup d'état, the United States Government informed the new Yugoslav Government that lend-lease assistance was now available to Yugoslavia, and President Roosevelt, from a Carribean cruise, cabled King Peter his best wishes. Upon his return to Washington, the President received the Yugoslav Minister to the United States, Constantin Fotic, at which time, according to Fotic, Roosevelt called in the Lend-Lease Administrator, Harry Hopkins, to go over the list of Yugoslav requests which had arrived in the meantime.
Fotic writes that the President asked whether it would not be better for Serbia to become a homogeneous state by divorcing itself from its western provinces, and he quotes him as saying: "You will again be strong and won't waste your efforts in those endless domestic problems and discussions."
The news of the coup d'état in Belgrade was received with great satisfaction in England. Churchill was about to address the Conservative Central Council when the first telegram reached him, and he inserted a reference to the event in his speech, saying: "Here at this moment I have great news for you and the whole country. Early this morning the Yugoslav nation found its soul. A revolution has taken place in Belgrade...." Eden and Dill had reached Malta on their way back to London, but Churchill asked them to return to Athens. On April 1, General Dill actually went to Belgrade (in civilian clothes), where he found only confusion and the Yugoslav Government unwilling to receive Eden for fear of provoking Germany. The Yugoslavs were not prepared to sign any agreement with the British.
But they were interested in signing an agreement with the Soviet Union, and this suited the Soviet Government. On April 5, a pact of friendship and nonaggression was signed in Moscow by the Soviet Premier-Foreign Commissar, V. M. Molotov, and the Yugoslav Minister, Gavrilovic. It bound the two countries for five years to pursue a policy of neutrality and "strictest friendship" in the event one of them was attacked. In announcing the pact at 5 A.M. on April 6, Moscow radio said that the treaty had been signed the night before "after negotiations which had been taking place during the past few days." Pictures in the Soviet press showed that I. V. Stalin, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, who was to take over also as Premier a month later, attended the signing. On April 4, Molotov had informed the German Ambassador in Moscow that the Yugoslav Government had proposed a treaty of friendship and nonaggression and that the Soviet Government had accepted the proposal. When the German Ambassador requested reconsideration of the treaty, Molotov replied that Yugoslavia had signed a treaty with Germany (the Tripartite Pact) and therefore the Soviet Government thought it could conclude an agreement with Yugoslavia that was not as far-reaching as the German-Yugoslav treaty.
As soon as Hitler heard of the coup d'état in Belgrade he issued a directive (No. 25) which said that the "military Putsch in Yugoslavia has changed the political situation in the Balkans." It added: "Even if Yugoslavia at first should give declarations of loyalty, she must be considered as a foe and therefore must be destroyed as quickly as possible."
On April 6, 1941, Germany launched its attack with a ferocious air assault on undefended Belgrade, killing more than 5,000 civilians, and on the same day it invaded Greece from Bulgarian bases. Even though the Yugoslav Government had not renounced its adherence to the Tripartite Pact, German infantry and tanks crossed the Yugoslav borders from Austria, Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria. Italian planes joined in the attack. The United States took an immediate and forceful position, calling the invasion "barbaric." Secretary of State Cordell Hull said that the American people had the greatest sympathy for Yugoslavia, which had been so outrageously attacked. Hull's statement concluded: "This Government with its policy of helping those who are defending themselves against would-be conquerors is now proceeding as speedily as possible to send military and other supplies to Yugoslavia." President Roosevelt confirmed these sentiments with another personal message to King Peter dated April 8, 1941.
The British Government sent a similar message to the Yugoslav Government, calling the German invasion a "savage outrage" and welcoming Yugoslavia "as a resolute and powerful ally." The statement also said that "we will conduct the war in common and make peace only when right has been vindicated and law and justice are again enthroned."
On April 9, Churchill spoke in the House of Commons and deplored Yugoslavia's inaction when Greece was attacked by Italy and her refusal to enter, in January and February, into effective staff conversations with Greece, Turkey or Britain. He then recalled the slow encirclement of Yugoslavia and how the Yugoslav leaders were called "to Hitler's footstool." He hailed the change of government in Belgrade and said this of the Nazi leadership: "A boa constrictor who had already covered his prey with his foul saliva and then had it suddenly wrested from his coils would be in an amiable mood compared with Hitler, Göring, Ribbentrop and the rest of the Nazi gang." He concluded his statement by declaring that the Axis forces were encountering resistance in Yugoslavia and Greece and that "British and Imperial troops have not up to the present been engaged."
The Soviet Government remained silent even though, according to Minister Gavrilovic, it showed privately "utmost sympathy," for which the Yugoslav envoy expressed deep gratitude to Stalin. The Soviet media, at first, even refrained from mentioning the outbreak of hostilities. On April 9, Red Star spoke for the first time of fighting in Yugoslavia, adding that Germany was facing a serious enemy inasmuch as the Yugoslav Army's high morale and fighting spirit had been manifested repeatedly in action. On April 12, the Soviet Government officially rebuked Hungary for having moved troops into Yugoslavia and declared that this had created "a particularly bad impression in the Soviet Union." On April 16, in one of the last references to the fighting in Yugoslavia, Red Star said that the first stage of the operations in Yugoslavia could be considered completed with the fall of Belgrade, but "the German command in the southeast now faces a new task of advance into the interior of the country."
Yugoslavia, which in the face of the Axis aggression had declared war on Germany and Italy on April 7, immediately found itself in the deepest difficulties, not only due to the speed and power of the German attack but also because of the lamentable unpreparedness of the Yugoslav Army and the obvious unwillingness of a large part of the non-Serb, particularly Croat, elements to offer resistance. As early as April 10, the "Independent State of Croatia" was created by the German occupation authorities. On April 11, Italian and Hungarian troops crossed the Yugoslav borders.
Meanwhile, King Peter and the Simovic Government had fled to Montenegro with the intention of leaving Yugoslav soil. This hasty disposition to abandon the country brought to the British Government its first doubts about the adequacy of the Royal Yugoslav Government's will to fight. On April 13, Churchill sent a telegram to the British Minister in Belgrade:
We do not see why the King or Government should leave the country, which is vast, mountainous, and full of armed men. German tanks can no doubt move along the roads and tracks, but to conquer the Serbian armies they must bring up infantry. Then will be the chance to kill them. Surely the young King and the Ministers should play their part in this.
But by that time Campbell had lost all contact with the King and the Yugoslav Government, who went by air from Nikic to Athens on April 14 and 16 respectively. On April 17, two representatives of the Yugoslav General Staff and of the absent Royal Government capitulated to the Germans in Belgrade.
The American Minister, Lane, who had tried vainly to communicate with the outside world to obtain instructions, left the Yugoslav capital by car for Budapest on April 29 from whence he telephoned Washington. He then returned to Belgrade to close the Legation. On May 16, he and other Legation officials departed by Danube steamer for Budapest. A skeleton staff, including Karl Rankin and Peter Constan, remained in a consular capacity. When the U.S. requested that Germany close all consular offices in America by July 10, Germany retaliated by asking the United States to withdraw all its consular officials in Germany and the occupied areas by July 15. The American officers left Belgrade on that day, and the doors of the American Legation were not to reopen until almost four years later. The American Consulate in Zagreb, the only other U.S. consular establishment in Yugoslavia, ceased to operate at the same time.
Excerpted from Tito, Mihailovic And The Allies, 1941-1945 by Walter R. Roberts. Copyright © 1987 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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