Chetniks pose with German soldiers.
Yugoslavia was created after World War I when the Slav areas of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia) were attached to Serbia and Montenegro, which formed the core of the new state. The country was put together in the Pact of Corfu, creating the “United Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes,” which was dominated by the Serbs. The name was officially changed to Yugoslavia in 1929. Yugoslavia drifted toward association with Germany during the 1930s, but remained neutral in 1939. It sought to rely on French Army strength and Italian non-belligerence to keep it out of a general European war. Following a Serbian coup that brought a pro-British government to power, Germany and Italy invaded Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941. Yugoslavia’s 1.2 million strong Army offered almost no effective resistance against the invasion: fewer than 200 German soldiers were killed. In fact, the Army crumbled into component ethnic units in a matter of days, some of which fought each other rather than the invaders. Croats and Slovenes declared independence of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav government and made a separate peace with Adolf Hitler, as the country broke apart and succumbed to Axis occupation.
With Serbia and Croatia separated, Dalmatia was annexed to Italy and the Banat granted to Hungary. Important copper supplies from Serbia were simply expropriated and shipped to Germany, as Yugoslavia was territorially, administratively, and economically divided among the Axis: Germans, Italians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Croats, and Slovenes all took a slice. The result was chaos and rising guerilla resistance, though without any central movement and most often with internecine conflict. Over the following three years Serb nationalist and monarchist partisans, or Chetniks, took to the mountains and forested valleys to fight Germans and Italians. They also fought Serbian Communist partisans led by Tito, who vacillated between opposing the Germans after BARBAROSSA threatened extinction of his ideological homeland, and several offers he made to fight alongside the Axis against the Chetniks and any Allied troops who might land in the Balkans. Each Serbian movement also fought against the local Croatian fascist movement, the fanatic and brutal Uštaše whose atrocities and murderous polices were the main cause of the enlistment of Serbs in Chetnik or Titoist guerilla bands. In short, most Yugoslav partisans sought ethnic group or self-preservation from the invaders and from other Yugoslavs. Only a few embraced political ideologies, in either the Uštaše or Serbian monarchist and Communist partisan movements. Bosnian Muslims were similarly badly split, until pogroms against them by Chetniks and Uštaše compelled most Muslims to side with the Axis occupiers as a matter of self-defense. Eventually, Bosnian Muslims manned a full garrison division in the Waffen-SS. The British coordinated Allied policy in Yugoslavia. London supported the Chetniks at first, but later switched support to Tito’s Communists. The move remains highly controversial. It was mainly a response to growing Soviet criticism of Draza Mihailovic´, military leader of the Chetniks, and to mutiny by some Chetniks serving with the British in Egypt.
Local fascists set up a Nazi puppet state in Croatia, then pursued a vicious genocide that provoked a multisided civil war fought within the parameters of the larger conflict with Germany and Italy. By late 1941 ethnic Bosnian and Serb resistance to Uštaše brutality led to such effective partisan resistance that Italy and Germany sent troops into Croatia to subdue it. Italian commanders formed local alliances with the Chetniks to fight Communist partisans. Chaos ensued as five distinct military forces went to war inside Yugoslavia: Germans, Italians, Chetniks, Communists, and Uštaše, in addition to local bandit and guerilla groups. Major cities were occupied by the Axis, who also controlled air, land, and sea routes. However, partisans of all stripes occupied high places and came and went in mountain valleys almost as they pleased. Partisans secured a large section of Serbia during 1942, inland from the main Skopje-Kraljevo-Sarajevo road. The Wehrmacht kept only 30,000 men in Croatia and Serbia until Italian surrender to the Western Allies appeared likely. In response to partisan activity and to disarm the Italians and take over their zones, the Germans moved in another 220,000 from mid-1943, bringing the total German commitment to 250,000 men in 16 divisions, with two more divisions in Albania. Until the surrender of September 1943, Italians protected refugee Jews and Muslims inside Dalmatia, stopping depredations and massacres by the Wehrmacht and their Uštaše allies. Those defended were placed at great risk upon the surrender of Italy on September 9. Most of the 300,000 Italians in Yugoslavia were quickly disarmed by the Germans; several thousand were killed when they resisted. The rest were shipped as prisoners to labor camps in Poland, where many died. Others took to the hills and fought back against the Germans or surrendered to partisans instead. Many Italians fought alongside partisans against the Uštaše and Germans to the end of the war.
Small-scale supply drops by the VVS to Tito’s partisans began in February 1944, increasing that August to more substantial amounts as the Red Army approached through Bulgaria and Rumania. The Western Allies permitted the VVS to operate into Yugoslavia from an air base in southern Italy, a favor not returned by the Soviets when the Western Allies requested bases to supply the resistance in Poland later in the year. Renewed German military action in the late spring forced Tito’s partisans to retreat from western Bosnia and Montenegro. Tito set up a new HQ outside the country, on Vis in the Dalmatian Islands. He gave approval to a Soviet plan for Red Army units to cross into Yugoslavia from Rumania later in 1944. Tito’s central aim was to use the Soviet invasion as an occasion to totally defeat the Chetniks in Serbia and the remnants of the Uštaše in Croatia. Soviet military aid poured into Tito’s camps, including armor and artillery, until his partisans numbered several hundred thousand well-equipped regular soldiers. The VVS and Balkan Air Force provided air cover to Tito’s partisans, while more massive Red Army supplies arrived by ground. Yugoslavia was the only route through which German Army Group “E” in Greece and the eastern Mediterranean could be evacuated. The Germans started to withdraw on October 10, 1944, after Rumania and Bulgaria left the Axis and their armies switched sides to support Red Army thrusts deeper into German-occupied Central Europe. The Red Army’s “Belgrade offensive operation” was conducted from September 28 to October 20, 1944, which meant the guerilla phase of the war in Yugoslavia was over. Tito’s new divisions attacked in full force from the southwest, while two Soviet armies and a mechanized corps fought down from the northeast. The two Communist forces met outside Belgrade, then entered the city together. Tito proclaimed a new Yugoslav Republic in Belgrade on November 1. It was nearly wholly Communist in make-up, a portent of his hard rule to come.
Tito began a final offensive to drive the last foreign enemy from the country in March 1945. The Germans were pushed 50 miles west of the capital, where they dug in to keep open an escape corridor for the rest of Army Group “E.” It was decided that major Soviet operations into Austria should be launched out of Hungary rather than Yugoslavia. German Army Group “F” therefore remained in control of the northwest of the country, engaged by partisans until the final German surrender. The Red Army pulled out of Yugoslavia by May 15, 1945. Its losses there are officially counted as 8,000 men. With Stalin’s military support, British aid, and general Allied recognition, Tito was well-placed to establish his control over Yugoslavia in 1945. He moved to brutally and bloodily repress all Chetnik and Uštaše or other Croatian or Bosnian resistance, reuniting the “South Slavs” by force in a postwar federal state under his personal dictatorship. During or immediately after the war, some 1.5–2.0 million Yugoslavs were killed, the vast majority by other Yugoslavs.