1941 – The Japanese Southern Road

As the oilfields of Borneo – and two weeks later, the oil fields of Sumatra – would fulfill a strategic objective on the Japanese Southern Road, other moves made on the Dutch East Indies chessboard were designed to address tactical concerns. As the Japanese closed in on Java and Sumatra, the Dutch, who had barely defended Borneo, were concentrating their resources, just as General Arthur Ernest Percival intended to do with his British Commonwealth assets in Singapore.

Just as IJA and IJN airpower was keeping pace with Tomoyuki Yamashita’s 25th Army on the Malay Peninsula, moving into abandoned RAF bases closer and closer to the front, the tactical plan for the ultimate battle in the Dutch East Indies required a network of airfields on other islands which were closer to Java and Sumatra. One such island was the major Dutch East Indies island of Celebes (now Sulawesi) to the east of Borneo and due south of the Philippines.

Offshore, the Celebes operation was supported by a naval force commanded by Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka which included the cruiser Jintsu, his flagship, ten destroyers, two seaplane tenders, and several minesweepers. An additional covering force under Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi included the cruisers Nachi, Haguro, and Myoko, and two destroyers. They were all part of the growing IJN presence in the nearly 3 million square miles of Dutch East Indies waters.

The IJN surface fleet in this area was divided generally into two operating groups. The Western Force under Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, commander of the Japanese Southern Expeditionary Fleet, was tasked with operations in the South China Sea, and had supported the campaign in Malaya and Singapore. The Eastern Force, commanded by Vice Admiral Ibo Takahashi, conducted operations from eastern Borneo, east through Celebes, Ambon, Timor, and eastward to New Guinea.

Operations ashore in Celebes were conducted entirely by the IJN Special Naval Landing Forces, and occurred simultaneously with the IJA and IJN landings on Tarakan. This ground action, which was a brief one that history treats almost as a footnote to the Borneo operations, is notable for including the first Japanese airborne operation in Southeast Asia. The latter was a precursor to tactics that were to be revisited a month later in Sumatra.

Under the command of Captain Kunizo Mori, 2,500 men of the 1st and 2nd Sasebo Special Naval Landing Forces conducted the initial amphibious landings near the northern Celebes cities of Manado (also spelled Menado) and Kema before dawn on January 11, overwhelming the outnumbered KNIL defenders.

Meanwhile, staging out of Davao, 28 transport variants of the Mitsubishi G3M medium bomber carried more than 300 paratroopers from the 1st Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force to a drop zone behind the invasion beaches. Landing at about 9:30 am on January 11, the paratroopers surprised the Dutch defenders, and began an assault on the airfield at Langoan and the seaplane base at Kakas.

The unexpected attack from above certainly reminded the Dutch troops of the use by the Germans of airborne troops in the conquest of their home country in May 1940. Indeed, Japanese tactical planners in both the IJA and IJN had made note of the successful use of German Fallschirmjäger, or paratroopers, as a spearhead during the Wehrmacht spring offensive of 1940, and had begun training their own airborne troops. Germany’s capture of the entire island of Crete, solely by airborne troops, in May 1941, must have been especially noteworthy as the Japanese planners pondered the island-studded map of the Southern Road. In retrospect, it is a wonder that the tactic was not employed on a wider scale.

A second airborne attack by the 1st Yokosuka on January 12 brought additional landing forces to Celebes, and assured the capture of the Langoan airfield. Though some of the Dutch troops managed to hide out in the mountains for about a month, northern Celebes was secured by the middle of the month.

With this, Captain Kunzio Mori’s 1st and 2nd Sasebo headed south. Just as Sakaguchi had leapfrogged down the Borneo coast from Tarakan to Balikpapan, Mori embarked from Manado and headed for Kendari, at the southeast corner of Celebes. His Special Naval Landing Forces, aboard six transports, were escorted by a task force commanded by Rear Admiral Kyuji Kubo, which included the cruiser Nagara, his flagship, eight destroyers, and support ships. As with the task force that had supported Mori at Manado, Kubo’s contingent was part of the IJN Eastern Force.

Mori went ashore under cover of darkness on the night of January 23–24, the same night that Sakaguchi had landed at Balikpapan. Within 24 hours, the defenders had been overcome, and the Japanese were in control of the strategically important airfield at Kendari.

Capturing airfields was a priority second only to the petroleum facilities in the Dutch East Indies, for they brought land-based Japanese fighters and bombers incrementally closer to future battlefields farther south on the Southern Road. The air base at Kendari was destined to be one of the most important. Centrally located within the Dutch East Indies, it would be an important refueling stop. It was also the base of operations for the devastating air attack on Darwin, Australia, which would terrify the land down under three weeks later.

Just as the airfields on Celebes were part of the Sumatra and Java strategy, other Dutch islands far to the east hosted airfields that would be useful in operations against Dutch- and Australian-administered New Guinea, which were scheduled for April. Centrally located between Celebes and New Guinea was 299-square-mile Ambon Island, part of the Molucca (now Maluku) Archipelago, 500 miles east of Celebes, 1,600 miles east of Palembang, and 250 miles west of New Guinea. The strategic importance of Ambon and the substantial, paved airfield at Laha on the island had been lost on neither the Dutch nor the Australians. They had agreed to jointly reinforce the island, but the first contingent of RAAF Hudson bombers had not touched down at Laha until December 7, 1941, less than 24 hours before the general outbreak of hostilities across Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

The Australians also sent troops, but they had few to spare. As we have seen, three of the four infantry divisions which comprised the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) were in North Africa helping the British fight the German Afrika Korps. Most of the 8th Division, except the 23rd Brigade, was helping the British defend Malaya.

The one brigade held back was given the precarious and impossible task of the forward defense of Australia itself. It was divided into what were known as the “Bird Forces,” having been given what the Australian Department of Veterans’ Affairs historical factsheet colorfully describes as “ominously non-predatory names.” Forward defense of Australia meant outposts on islands north of that country and east of Malaya which were astride important sea lanes between Japanese-held territory and Australia. It was Gull Force that was dispatched to Ambon, while Sparrow Force went to Timor, and Lark Force went to New Britain, far to the east.

Each of the Bird Forces was essentially a single battalion, roughly a thousand or fewer infantrymen, reinforced with artillery and support troops. Deployed in 1941 before the full weight of the immense Japanese offensive had been experienced, each was sent to do a job that should have been done by a force a dozen times larger.

Deploying about ten days after Pearl Harbor, the 1,100-man Gull Force, centered on the 2/21st Battalion of the AIF, arrived on Ambon, joining a Dutch garrison on the island that consisted of the poorly trained 2,800-man KNIL Molucca Brigade, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Kapitz. Gull Force was initially commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Leonard Roach, but he was replaced on January 16 by Lieutenant Colonel John Scott, who was no stranger to amphibious operations, having participated in the Gallipoli campaign during World War I. Scott arrived to find his new command in pitiful condition, with malaria and other diseases rampant in the equatorial heat, which still swelters in January.

Both USN and Koninklijk Marine flying boats operated out of Ambon, flying patrol missions, as well as frequent evacuations of civilians, but they were pulled out in mid-January, against the backdrop of increasing Japanese air attacks. Air defense of Ambon consisted of a few Brewster Buffaloes, which rose to meet IJN seaplane bombers that began visiting Ambon early in January at the same time as the offensive against northern Borneo.

The Buffaloes held their own for a while, but they were no match for the carrier-based IJN Zeros that first appeared over the island on January 24, the same day as the invasions of Balikpapan and Kendari. For the Ambon operation, the IJN brought in the carriers Hiryu and Soryu, both of which had been part of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s Pearl Harbor strike force. At Ambon, they targeted Dutch and Australian aircraft, compelling Wavell to make the decision to pull out the last of the Allied aircraft to preserve them to fight another day. When the invasion fleet was sighted at dusk on January 30, the Allied ground troops knew they would have to face the enemy with no air cover.

The fact that the IJN had used seaplanes and carrier-based aircraft to conduct operations against Ambon is, in itself, an illustration of why the Japanese needed to have airfields at locations across the sprawling Indies.

The remainder of the naval escort for the ten transport ships of the invasion fleet to which the Hiryu and Soryu were attached was largely the same contingent that had supported operations against Manado on January 11. Commanded by Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka, this force was comprised of his flagship, the cruiser Jintsu, as well as eight destroyers and support vessels. The same covering force under Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi that had supported Tanaka at Kendari also accompanied him to Ambon.

As in Borneo, the ground operation at Ambon was to be a joint operation between the IJA and the IJN Special Naval Landing Forces. The latter contingent included 820 men from the 1st Kure Special Naval Landing Force, while the IJA contingent of approximately 4,500 men was centered on the 228th Infantry Regiment, one of three regiments in the 38th Division, which had taken part in the conquest of Hong Kong. This joint force was known as the Ito Detachment and commanded by Major General Takeo Ito, who had commanded the entire 38th Division at Hong Kong, and who operated at Ambon under the banner of the division’s headquarters.

The first wave of IJA Ito Detachment came ashore during the night of January 30–31, with the IJN landing forces in the north, and the 288th mainly in the south. Ambon is nearly bisected by Ambon Bay, which cuts into the island from the southeast. The southern part contains the major population centers, while Laha airfield was across the bay on the northern part. Most of the defenders were located in these areas, but the initial Japanese landings were on the lightly defended north, and the least-defended area on the south side, well away from coastal guns guarding the entrance to Ambon Bay. Of course, established beachheads can be expanded more easily than landing troops under fire.

During January 31, the Japanese moved rapidly, reaching Australian-defended Laha from the north, and capturing Ambon City in the south by around 4:00 pm.

As the Allies shifted troops to face the landings, they left holes in their lines, which were exploited by the Japanese. A second wave of Ito Detachment troops came ashore at Passo (also written in some accounts as Paso) at the neck of the Laitimor Peninsula, effectively cutting the island in two. At the same time, the Japanese also snipped the telephone line which was the only way that the Allied troops could communicate with one another. The absence of communications isolated the various units and created confusion.

Kapitz ordered his men to continue fighting, which they did. However, shortly after midnight, the Japanese captured Kapitz, who had moved his headquarters close to Passo. For most of February 1, the action involved an Allied withdrawal, away from Passo and Ambon City, toward the southeast tip of the Laitimor Peninsula. These troops, with Colonel Scott still in command, had their backs to the Banda Sea, and realized that their position was essentially hopeless.

As this was ongoing, Admiral Tanaka ordered his minesweepers into Ambon Bay to clear the mines laid by the Koninklijke Marine, before they withdrew from Ambon earlier in January. This was in preparation for landing additional troops inside the bay. However, much to the immense joy of the troops fighting for their lives on the peninsula, one of the minesweepers struck a mine, blew up, and sank. Another was damaged.

Nevertheless, the jubilation that the Allied troops enjoyed at this juncture was certainly qualified by the pounding that was being dished out to them in the form of offshore naval gunfire and air attacks from the air wings aboard the Hiryu and Soryu. Throughout February 1, the naval bombardment also fell on the Australian and Dutch troops that were still trying to defend the airfield across the bay at Laha. On the morning of February 2, having encircled Laha, the landing troops, under Commander Kunito Hatakeyama, launched a ferocious assault aimed at dislodging the defenders. At around 10:00 am, Major Mark Newbury, commanding the joint force at Laha, decided that any further resistance would waste lives in an impossible situation, and ordered his men to surrender. Scott surrendered the defenders of the Laitimor Peninsula on February 3. About 30 Australian Diggers managed to successfully escape Ambon by canoe.

Newbury’s hopes of saving lives by his surrender were darkened when, over the ensuing two weeks, Hatakeyama randomly murdered around 300 prisoners at Laha. Newbury himself was killed on February 6. Scott survived the war as a POW, although most of the troops who surrendered on Ambon died in captivity. In 1946, witnesses and makeshift graves were located, and Hatakeyama was tried, convicted, and executed as a war criminal.

By the time that Ambon fell, Captain Kunzio Mori’s 1st and 2nd IJN Sasebo Special Naval Landing Forces had secured Manado in northern Celebes, and Kendari on its southeast corner. This left the airfield at Makassar on the southwest corner, the Celebes field closest to Java. His move on this final Celebes objective was supported by the same naval task force that had backed his landing at Kendari, this being commanded by Rear Admiral Kyuji Kubo, aboard the cruiser Nagara, with 11 destroyers – three more than at Kendari – and support ships.

Opposing Mori’s landing forces here was a 1,000-man Dutch garrison commanded by Colonel Marinus Vooren. Like so many in the KNIL officer corps, Vooren was born in Java of Dutch parents. He had spent only three of his 53 years in the Netherlands, so the Indies were his homeland. As February began, Vooren was overseeing the evacuation to Java of ethnic European women and children – most of them Indies-born – and waiting for Mori’s inevitable arrival. The only reinforcements coming the other way consisted of Lieutenant Colonel Jan Gortmans, who came in from Java to train Indonesian civilians to fight the Japanese as guerrillas.

On February 9, Mori’s 8,000-man Special Naval Landing Forces went ashore near the town of Makassar. Recognizing that resistance here was a lost cause, the Dutch withdrew northward into the interior, where the Japanese tanks would be ineffective, Vooren to Tjamba, and Gortmans to Enrekang, places that to this day barely show up on maps. They held out almost until the end of February, but when they found themselves in tactically untenable positions, they each surrendered. Gortmans was beheaded in captivity, but Vooren survived the war and remained in the Indies until 1958, when he retired to the Netherlands.



The Greco-Italian Conflict, 1940-1

Among the armour the Italians deployed in Albania were these L3/33 tankettes.

Italian artillery in action during the campaign in Albania.

There is no doubt that Mussolini was jealous of Germany’s annexation of Austria, so it came as no surprise when he asserted Italian control over Albania by sending in troops on 7 April 1939. This action prompted the Prime Minister of Britain, Winston Churchill, to offer to support the sovereignty of both Greece and Rumania should they be threatened and a month later a similar offer was made to Turkey. Not that that this was of any benefit to Rumania as in June, with Hitler’s encouragement, Bulgaria, Hungary and Russia stripped it off its frontier provinces. As a sign of things to come the governor of Albania began agitating the Greeks on behalf of the Cham Albanian minority in Greek Epirus. After the headless body of an Albanian bandit was discovered near the village of Vrina he blamed the Greeks and began arming some of the Albanian irregular bands. It was therefore just a matter of time before Mussolini made his next move against Greece.

Neither the Italian nor the Soviet Government received official notification of the entry of German troops into Romania. This was all the more surprising to Mussolini because Italy and Germany had given a joint guarantee to Romania. He was very indignant about being faced with a fait-accompli and decided to pay Hitler back in his own Coin by attempting to seize Greece Without giving official notice to Germany. Mussolini expected that the occupation of Greece would be a mere police action, similar to Germany’s seizure of Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939. On two preceding occasions Hitler had agreed that the Mediterranean and Adriatic were exclusively Italian spheres of interest. Since Yugoslavia and Greece were situated within these spheres, Mussolini felt entitled to adopt whatever policy he saw fit. ‘There was no reason why the man who had revived the Triage Nostrum concept should hesitate to demonstrate to the entire world that his twentieth Century Romans were as Superior to their Mediterranean rivals as their ancestor s had been to the Greeks 2,00 years ago.

In Mussolini’s opinion one of the main attractions of an attack on (Greece was that Italy would not have to depend on Germany s assistance for the execution of such all operation. On 15 October he decided to invade Greece, although he knew that the Germans would disapprove. The attack was launched on 28 October, and the almost immediate setbacks of the Italians only served to heighten Hitler’s displeasure. What enraged the Fuehrer most was that his repeated statements of the need for peace in the Balkans had been ignored by Mussolini.

The German military experts also disapproved the Italian plan of operations, but for other reasons. In their opinion any campaign in the Balkans would have to be executed in a manner similar to the one applied by the Germans in the campaign in Norway. The strategically important features would have to be seized in blitzkrieg fashion. In the Balkans these points were not situated along the Albanian border but in southern Greece and on Crete. The Italian failure to capture Crete seemed a strategic blunder, since British possession of the island endangered the Italian lines of communication to North Africa and assured Greece of a steady flow of supplies from Egypt. Moreover, the British bombers were now within range of the Romania oil fields that the Germans had secured at such great effort.

Hitler’s decision to intervene in the military operations in the Balkans was made on 4 November, seven days after Italy had attacked Greece through Albania and four days after the British had occupied Crete and Limnos. He ordered the Army General Staff to prepare plans for the invasion of northern Greece from Romania via Bulgaria. The operation was to deprive the British of bases for future ground and air operations across the restive Balkans against the Romanian oil fields. Moreover, it would indirectly assist the Italians by diverting Greek forces from Albania.

The plans for this campaign, together with the projects involving Gibraltar and North Africa, were incorporated into a master plan to deprive the British of all their Mediterranean bases. On 12 November 1940 the Armed Forces High Command issued Directive No. 18, in which Hitler outlined his plan for the conduct of future operations to the three services. He first mentioned that Vichy France was to be given an opportunity for defending its African possessions against the British and Free French. Gibraltar was to be seized and the straits closed, while at the same time the British were to be prevented from landing elsewhere on the Iberian Peninsula. German forces were to support the Italians in their offensive against Egypt, if and when the latter reached Mersa Matrull. The Luftwaffe, in particular, was to make preparations for attacking Alexandria and the Suez Canal. The Army was to ready ten divisions for the seizure of northern Greece, possession of which would permit German flying formations to operate against British air bases in the eastern Mediterranean and thus protect the Romanian oil fields.

One incident that the Greeks blamed on Italy was the torpedoing and sinking, with heavy loss of life, of their cruiser Helle by a submarine on 15 August 1940 when she was anchored off Tinos. Though taking no action against Italy, the President of the Greek Council, General Ioannis Metaxas, did ask what help Greece could expect from Britain; not that Churchill could offer much, other than naval support. The situation deteriorated further the following month when Italy sent three more divisions to Albania. This led Britain to discuss the possibility of a coordinated defence of Crete but the Greeks would not allow any landings on their soil without a declaration of war. Nor did the Italians have much luck either in their discussions with Germany. When they sought German support for an attack on Jugoslavia, Adolf Hitler was adamant that he did not want to see the war spread to the Balkans. As a result Mussolini switched his attention to Libya and on 13 September launched his forces on a drive into Egypt. Not that he turned his back on Greece entirely but, assured by the governor of Albania that there would be no difficulty in securing Epirus and Corfu if he decided to attack Greece, he drew up plans for the invasion. In preparation for this three more divisions were dispatched in September. Nevertheless, by October Mussolini had started to waver in his plans and it was only after Hitler sent a strong military mission to Rumania that he became aware of Germany’s true interest in the Balkans and finally resolved to proceed with his plans to invade Greece.

Thus it was at 3 am on the morning of 28 October that the Italian minister in Athens presented the Greek government with a note charging them with having systematically violated their neutrality, particularly with respect to their dealings with the British, by allowing their territorial waters and ports to be used by the British navy and their refuelling facilities to be used by the RAF. Metaxas’ immediate response was to reject these demands, with the result that 3 hours later the first Italian troops crossed the frontier into Greece.

The British response to this was to send a naval flotilla into the Ionian Sea on 29 October. It sailed as far as Corfu before returning to the west coast of Crete to await the arrival of a force charged with garrisoning Crete and setting up a naval refuelling base in Suda Bay. This force had been dispatched the same day from Alexandria carrying the 1st Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment. They arrived on 1 November and were followed soon after by what anti-aircraft, engineer and ancillary units the Commander in Chief of the Middle East, General Archibald Wavell, had reluctantly agreed to release. At that stage the only airfield was at Heraklion, 70 miles to the east, and too far away to provide air protection for the naval base so work began on another airfield for fighter aircraft at Maleme. Pleased with these moves, the Greeks withdrew the Crete Division from the island. However, their concern with the non-appearance of British aircraft prompted the British to arrange for the dispatch of Blenheims from 30 Squadron and Gladiators from 80 Squadron, though the Greeks forbade them from being stationed any further north than Eleusis or Tatoi to avoid provoking the Germans.

As it turned out the invading Italian forces were in for a rude shock. Expecting little resistance from the Greeks, the Italians launched their attack in the Epirus sector on the Greek Elaia–Kalamas River Line, with a flanking attack in the Pindus Mountains. Starting in the morning, 51 Divisione di Fanteria ‘Siena’ and 23 Divisione di ‘Ferrara’ backed by the Centauro Armoured Division thrust towards Elaia, prompting the Greeks to begin a slow withdrawal in that direction. On 2 November, despite being under bombardment from the air and artillery, the Greeks easily fought off repeated attacks, while the tanks of the 131 Divisione Corazzata ‘Centauro’ wallowed in the marshy terrain. More success was had to their right as the Littoral Group, after a slow advance along the coast, secured a bridgehead over the Kalamas River on 6 November. On their left flank the 3 Divisione Alpina ‘Julia’ pushed through the mountains to capture the village of Vovousa but was unable to secure the critical pass at the town of Metsovo. Unfortunately at this point disaster struck when their troops found themselves entirely cut off by the arrival of Greek reserves and were virtually wiped out in the subsequent fighting. However, by then the fight had gone out of the Italians and on 8 November their offensive came to a halt.

At this point the Greeks responded by launching a counter-offensive on 14 November. With in a week they had captured Koritsa and Leslovik and re-crossed the Kalamas River. To add insult to injury they not only regained their lost territory but carried the war into Albania, penetrating deep into the mountains in the northwest of Koritsa. In the south they took the port of Santa Quaranta, thus restricting the Italians to the port of Durrës and the size of the forces they could keep in the field. In the centre the Greeks made good progress towards Berat and by 10 January 1941 had secured Klissoura, though were still short of their goal of taking Tepelene. By now, however, the weather, with frequent blizzards, was taking its toll on their troops, with cases of frostbite common. This was not the only reverse Mussolini suffered. In North Africa the British launched their counter-offensive which not only drove the Italians out of Egypt but by January 1941 saw them in headlong retreat along the Cyrenaican coast.

The British were not slow to respond to the fighting in Albania but reacted in quite a different way. Noting the reluctance of the Italian fleet to force the issue at sea, Admiral Cunningham decided instead to launch an attack on the Italian battle fleet in Taranto harbour. Originally planned for Trafalgar Day, 21 October, the attack had to be deferred till 11 November thanks to a fire in the hangar of HMS Illustrious. The attack was carried out in two waves that night, two aircraft dropping flares east of the anchorage and bombing the oil storage depot, while Fairy Swordfish torpedo bombers, coming in from the west, attacked the main anchorage. As a result, two ships were hit and damaged for one aircraft lost. The second wave arrived at the harbour around midnight, hitting one additional ship, also losing one aircraft. By the end of the attack half of the Italian capital ships had been put out of action, two for at least six months. The success was not confined to this as later that night a raiding force sank another four Italian merchant ships in the Adriatic Sea.

The operations against Gibraltar and Greece were scheduled to take place simultaneously in January 1941, while the German offensive in North Africa was to be launched in the autumn of that year. The inversion of the British Isles was also mentioned in this directive, the target date of which was tentatively scheduled for the spring of 1941. The particular difficulty involved in the execution of some of these plans was that the German Army was supposed to conduct operations across the seas even though the Axis had not gained naval superiority in the respective areas. On 4 November even Hitler had voiced doubts as to the advisability of conducting offensive operations in North Africa, since Italy did not control the Mediterranean. That these doubts were well founded became apparent when, on 6 November, British naval fir forces inflicted a severe defeat on the Italian Navy at Taranto.

The German displeasure at the ill-timed Italian attack on Greece found its expression in a letter Hitler addressed to Mussolini on 20 November 1940. Among other things, he stated:

I wanted, above all. to ask you to postpone the operation until a more favorable season, in any ease until after the presidential election in America. In any event I wanted to ask you not to undertake this action without previously carrying out a blitzkrieg operation on Crete. For this purpose I intended to make practical suggestions regarding the employment of a parachute and of an airborne division.

After enumerating the psychological and military consequences of the Italian failure in Albania, the Fuehrer suggested a number of countermeasures to restore the situation. Spain would have to be induced to enter the war as soon as possible ill order to deny the British the use of Gibraltar and to block the western entrance to the Mediterranean. Every possible means would have to be employed to divert Russia s interest from the Balkans to the Near East. Special efforts would have to be made to arrive at an agreement with Turkey whereby Turkish pressure on Bulgaria would be relieved. Yugoslavia would have to be induced to adopt a neutral attitude or, if possible, be led to collaborate actively with the Axis in solving the Greek problem. In the Balkans any military operation that was to lead to a success could be risked only after Yugoslavia’s position had been fully clarified. Hungary would have to grant permission for the immediate transit of sizable German units destined for Romania. The latter country would have to accept the reinforcement of the German troops guaranteeing the protection of its territory. Hitler then continued by stating that he had decided to prevent any British buildup in northeastern Greece by force, whatever the risk may be.

In his reply of 29 November Mussolini expressed his regrets about the misunderstandings with regard to Greece. The Italian forces had been halted because of bad weather, the desertion of nearly all the Albanian forces incorporated into Italian units, and Bulgaria’s attitude, which permitted the Greeks to shift eight divisions from Thrace to Albania.

In December 1940 the German plans in the Mediterranean underwent considerable change when, at the beginning of the month, Franco rejected the plan for an attack on Gibraltar. Consequently, German offensive planning for southern Europe had to be restricted to the campaign against Greece. Upon insistence of the Luftwaffe, the entire country was to be occupied, not just the northern provinces. For this purpose the Armed Forces High Command issued Directive No. 20, dated 13 December 1940, which outlined the Greek campaign under the code designation, Operation MARITA. In the introductory part of the directive Hitler pointed out that, in view of the confused situation in Albania, it was particularly important to thwart British attempts to establish air bases in Greece, which would constitute a threat to Italy as well as to the Romanian oil fields. To meet this situation twenty-four German divisions were to be assembled gradually in southern Romania within the next few months, ready to enter Bulgaria as soon as they received orders. In March, when the weather would be more favorable, they were to occupy the northern coast of the Aegean Sea and, if necessary, the entire Greek mainland. Bulgaria’s assistance was expected; support by Italian forces and the coordination of the German and Italian operations in the Balkans would be the subject of future discussions. The Luftwaffe was-to provide air protection during the assembly period and prepare bases in Romania. During the operation the Luftwaffe was to neutralize the enemy air force, support the ground forces, and whenever possible capture British bases on Greek islands by executing airborne landings.

Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe was to assist the Italians in stabilizing the precarious situation on the Albanian front. This was to be accomplished by airlifting approximately 30,000 Italian troops and great quantities of equipment and supplies from the Italian mainland to Albania.

Even though Hitler had decided to attack Greece, he wanted to tread softly in the Balkans so as not to expand the conflict during the winter. If Turkey entered the war against Germany, the chances for a successful invasion of Russia would diminish because of the diversion of forces such a new conflict would involve. Moreover, at the beginning of December 1940 the British launched an offensive from Egypt and drove the Italians back to the west. Toward the end of the month the situation of the Italians in Libya grew more and more critical. By January 1941 their forces in North Africa were in danger of being completely annihilated. If that happened, Italy with its indefensible coast line would be exposed to an enemy invasion. To forestall such disastrous developments, German air units under the command of X Air Corps had previously been transferred to Sicily, and the movement of German Army elements to Tripoli via Italy was begun immediately. In February initial small contingents of German ground troops arrived in North Africa, and the critical situation was soon alleviated. The first German troops to arrive were elements of a panzer division under the command of General Erwin Rommel. Hitler ordered these forces to protect Tripoli by a series of limited-objective attacks, thus relieving the pressure on the Italian troops. The political objective of this military intervention was to prevent Italy’s internal collapse which would almost certainly result from the loss of her African possessions.

German Operations Against Yugoslavia – 1941 Part I

The Air Bombardment of Belgrade

The Luftwaffe opened the assault on Yugoslavia by conducting a saturation-type bombing raid on the capital in the early morning hours of 6 April. Flying in relays from airfields in Austria and Romania, 150 bombers and dive-bombers protected by a heavy fighter escort participated in the attack. The initial raid was carried out at fifteen-minute intervals in three distinct waves, each lasting for approximately twenty minutes. The weak Yugoslav Air Force and the inadequate flak defenses were quickly wiped out by the first wave, permitting the dive-bombers to come down to roof-top levels. Against the loss of but two German fighters, twenty Yugoslav planes were shot down and forty-four were destroyed on the ground. When the attack was over, more than 17,000 inhabitants lay dead under the debris. This devastating blow virtually destroyed all means of communication between the Yugoslav high command and the forces in the field. Although some elements of the general staff managed to escape to one of the suburbs, coordination and control of the military operations in the field were rendered impossible from the outset.

Having thus delivered the knockout blow to the enemy nerve center, the VIII Air Corps was able to devote its maximum effort to such targets of opportunity as Yugoslav airfields, routes of communication, and troop concentrations, and to the close support of German ground operations.

The Three-Pronged Drive on the Yugoslav Capital

Three separate ground forces converged on Belgrade from different directions. They were launched as follows:

First Panzer Group (Twelfth Army)

Early in the morning of 8 April, the First Panzer Group jumped off from its assembly area northwest of Sofiya. Crossing the frontier near Pirot, the XIV Panzer Corps, spearheaded by the 11th Panzer Division, followed by the 5th Panzer, 294th Infantry, and 4th Mountain Divisions, advanced in a northwesterly direction toward Nis. Despite unfavorable weather, numerous road blocks, and tough resistance by the Yugoslav Fifth Army, the 11th Panzer Division, effectively supported by strong artillery and Luftwaffe forces, quickly gained ground and broke through the enemy lines on the first day of the attack. The Yugoslav army commander was so greatly impressed by this initial German success that he ordered his forces to withdraw behind the Morava. This maneuver could not be executed in time because, as early as 9 April, the German lead tanks rumbled into Nis and immediately continued their drive toward Belgrade. From Nis northwestward the terrain became more favorable since the armored columns could follow the Morava valley all the way to the Yugoslav capital.

South of Paracin and southwest of Kragujevac Yugoslav Fifth Army units attempted to stem the tide of the advance but were quickly routed after some heavy fighting. More than 5,000 prisoners were taken in this one encounter.

Meanwhile, the 5th Panzer Division became temporarily stalled along the poor roads near Pirot. After the division got rolling again, it was ordered to turn southward just below Nis and cut off the enemy forces around Leskovac. When it became apparent that the Nis front was about to collapse, the 5th Panzer Division reverted to the direct control of Twelfth Army and joined the XL Panzer Corps for the Greek campaign.

On 10 April the XIV Panzer Corps forces were swiftly advancing through the Morava Valley in close pursuit of enemy units retreating toward their capital. On the next day the German spearheads suddenly drove into the southern wing of the withdrawing Yugoslav Sixth Army, which they overran during the early hours of 12 April. By the evening of that day the First Panzer Group tanks stood less than forty miles southeast of Belgrade. The two Yugoslav armies they had encountered were in such a state of confusion that they were no longer able to make any serious attempt to delay the German thrust or cut the German lines of communications that extended over a distance of roughly 125 miles from the point of entry into Yugoslav territory was subjected to a rain of bombs for almost one and a half hours. The German bombardiers directed their main effort against the center of the city, where the principal government buildings were located.

XLI Panzer Corps (Independent Force)

Timed to coincide with the armored thrust of the XIV Panzer Corps from the southeast, the XLI Panzer Corps drive led across the southeastern part of the Banat and toward the Yugoslav capital. This attack was spearheaded by the Motorized Infantry Regiment “Gross Deutschland,” closely followed by the 2d SS Motorized Infantry Division. After crossing the frontier north of Vrsac, advance elements entered Pancevo on 11 April. Having meanwhile advanced to within about forty-five miles north of Belgrade, the main body of XLI Panzer Corps met with only isolated resistance on the following day as it raced toward the enemy capital.

XLVI Panzer Corps (Second Army)

When the Luftwaffe launched its attacks on 6 April, the German Second Army was just beginning to assemble its attack forces along the northern Yugoslav frontier preparatory to its projected jumped on 10 April. In an effort to improve their lines of departure, some of the Second Army units took advantage of the interim period by launching limited-objective attacks all along the frontier zone. The troop commanders had to keep their forces in check to prevent major engagements from developing prematurely, which might subsequently have impaired the army’s freedom of action and jeopardized the conduct of operations.

The Army High Command was determined to seize intact the principal bridges in the XLVI Panzer Corps zone. Therefore, as early as 1 April, corps elements were ordered to capture the bridge at Bares and the railroad bridge about ten miles northeast of Koprivoica by a coup de Ann.

By early evening of 6 April, the lack of enemy resistance and the overall situation seemed to indicate that the Yugoslavs would not make a concerted stand along the border and the XLVI Panzer Corps was therefore ordered to establish bridgeheads across the Mura and Drava at Mursko Sredisce, Letenye, Zakany, and Barcs. The few local attacks carried out by the corps sufficed to create dissension in the enemy ranks. There was a high percentage of Croats in the Yugoslav Fourth Army units that were responsible for the defense of this area. Croat soldiers mutinied at several points of the Drava salient, refusing to resist the Germans whom they considered as their liberators from Serbian oppression. When strong German forces crossed the Drava bridge at Bares on the morning of 10 April and broke out of the previously established bridgeheads, the disintegration of the opposing Yugoslav forces had reached an advanced stage. Supported by strong air forces, the 8th Panzer Division, followed by the 16th Motorized infantry Division, launched the XLVI Panzer Corps thrust to Belgrade by driving southeastward between the Drava and Sava Rivers. By the evening of 10 April forward elements of the 8th Panzer Division, having met with virtually no resistance, reached Slating despite poor roads and unfavorable weather. Enemy pockets were quickly mopped up and the division drove on in the direction of the capital via Osijok, where the roads became even worse.

That the plight of the enemy was becoming more and more desperate could be gathered from the following appeal that General Simovic broadcast to his troops:

All troops must engage the enemy wherever encountered and with every means at their disposal. Don’t wait for direct orders from above but act on your own and be guided by your judgment, initiative, and conscience.

On 11 April the 8th Panzer Division reached the Osijek region, while the 16th Motorized Infantry Division farther back was advancing beyond Nasice. Numerous bridge demolitions and- poor roads retarded the progress of both divisions, whose mission it was to attack the rear of the Yugoslav forces that faced XIV Panzer Corps, and to establish early contact with the First Panzer Group.

At 0230 on 12 April, the 8th Panzer Division entered Mitrovica after two vital bridges across the Sava had been captured intact. The division continued its thrust with the main body advancing toward Lazarevac, about twenty miles south of Belgrade, which was the designated link-up point with First Panzer Group.

On the afternoon of 12 April, the XLVI Panzer Corps received new orders. According to these, only elements of the 8th Panzer Division were to continue their eastward drive to seize and secure the Sava bridge near the western outskirts of Belgrade. At 1830 the main body of the division turned southeastward and moved in the direction of Valjevo to establish contact with the left wing of First Panzer Group southwest of Belgrade. Simultaneously, the 16th Motorized Infantry Division, which had been trailing behind the 8th Panzer Division, turned southward, crossed the Sava, and advanced toward Zvornik. Thus both divisions were diverted from their original objective, Belgrade, in order to participate in the subsequent drive on Sarajevo.

Meanwhile, both the Second Army and the Army High Command were anxiously awaiting news of the fall of Belgrade. Of the three converging armored forces, XLI Panzer Corps was last reported closest to the capital, having reached Pancevo on the east bank of the Danube about ten miles east of the city. South of Belgrade resistance stiffened as the 11th Panzer Division, spearheading the First Panzer Group forces, neared the capital.

The fall of Belgrade

Since three separate attack forces were converging on Belgrade simultaneously, the Army High Command was not immediately able to determine which force was the first to reach the enemy capital. Toward early evening of 12 April, SS-Obersturmfuehrer (1st Lt.) Klingenberg of the 2d SS Motorized Infantry Division, finding all Danube bridges destroyed, took an SS patrol across the river in captured pneumatic rafts. The patrol entered the city unmolested, and at 1700 hoisted the Nazi flag atop the German legation. About two hours later the mayor of Belgrade officially handed over the city to Klingenberg who was accompanied by a representative of the German Foreign Ministry, previously interned by the Yugoslavs.

At Second Army headquarters, no word from the 8th Panzer Division elements, which were last reported approaching the western outskirts of Belgrade, had been received for twenty-four hours. Finally, at 1152 on 13 April the following radio message came through from the operations officer of the division:

During the night the 8th Panzer Division drove into Belgrade, occupied the center of the city, and hoisted the Swastika flag.

However, since better communications had existed between Second Army and First Panzer Group, the following flash was received shortly before the 8th Panzer Division message came in:

Panzer Group von Kleist has taken Belgrade from the south. Patrols of Motorized Infantry Regiment “Gross Deutschland” have entered the city from the north. With General von Kleist at the head, the 11th Panzer Division has been rolling into the capital since 0632.

Thus the race for Belgrade ended in a close finish with all three forces reaching their objective almost simultaneously. With the fall of the city, the First Panzer Group was transferred from the Twelfth to the Second Army, while the XLVI Panzer Corps was placed under the direct command of the panzer group for the next phase of the operation-the pursuit and final destruction of the remnants of the Yugoslav Army.

Secondary Attacks

Before and during the main drive on Belgrade a series of secondary attacks and small unit actions took place across the Austrian-Yugoslav frontier, where the terrain was unsuitable for motorized units. The following actions were of particular significance:

The “Feurzauber” Probing Attacks

Under the code designation “Feurzauber,” units composed of cadre personnel and recently inducted trainees were organized into several waves of special assault troops. The elements comprising the first wave consisted of four battalion staffs commanding nine rifle companies, two mountain artillery batteries, one self-propelled medium artillery battery, two mountain engineer platoons, four antitank companies, and three signal and four bicycle platoons. Additional waves were subsequently formed, involving altogether about two-thirds of a mountain training division plus some attached specialist troops.

Originally these units were merely to reinforce the frontier guards and cover the gradually assembling Second Army forces along the southern border of Carinthia and Styria. This purely defensive mission, however, did not satisfy the aggressive commanders of the special assault units. Between 6 and 10 April, they took upon themselves to conduct numerous raids deep into enemy-held territory and to seize and hold many strong points along the border, thereby contributing to the rapid success of the offensive proper.

The first wave of assault units moved south from Graz in the direction of the Yugoslav border on 27 March. One of them, designated “Force Palten” after the captain in command, was assembled near Spielfeld during the first days of April. Its original mission was to secure the frontier and the vital bridge across the Mura near Spielfeld. However, on the evening of 5 April the force started to attack bunkers and enemy-held high ground across the frontier. By the morning of 6 April several hills had been taken, and scouting patrols probing deep into the bunker line south of Spielfeld made contact with the enemy. They determined the enemy’s strength and disposition in the outpost area, and then broke contact. Most of the high ground remained in German hands as the enemy failed to counterattack. Then, toward 1600, mountain engineers destroyed isolated enemy bunkers without any preparatory artillery fire.

On 8 April, Captain Palten decided to personally lead a group of his raiders toward Maribor. He undertook this mission against orders from higher headquarters and despite the fact that virtually all bridges along the route of advance had been blown. Since there was hardly any enemy interference, troops and equipment could be ferried across the Pesnica stream on pneumatic rafts. The vehicles had to be left behind, and the men were forced to carry their equipment the rest of the way.

After forming raiding parties on the south bank of the stream, Captain Palten continued to move southward. During the evening he entered Maribor at the head of his force and occupied the town without opposition. Much to their disappointment, the raiders were ordered to withdraw to the Spielfeld area, where they had to sit out the remainder of the Yugoslav campaign performing guard duty at the border. Losses incurred by Force Palten were one killed and two wounded, while they captured more than 100 prisoners and much booty.

German Operations Against Yugoslavia – 1941 Part II

LI Corps

On 6 April the ELI Corps crossed the Yugoslav border at Murk and Radkersburg and seized both bridges across the Drava intact. During these probing attacks the 132d Infantry Division occupied the Sejanska stream and the 183d Infantry Division took 300 prisoners. A bicycle detachment of the latter entered Murska Sobota without encountering resistance. Since the Yugoslavs were giving ground all along the line, the corps wanted to exploit the situation. The Second Army, however, felt compelled to order both divisions to hold in place and consolidate their newly won bridgeheads. The two divisions would have to wait until their remaining elements had detrained in the assembly areas.

During the following three days the LI Corps expanded its bridgeheads, the 132d Infantry Division occupying Maribor and the 183d probing beyond Murska Sobota. Air reconnaissance reports indicated that the Yugoslav Seventh Army forces employed in this sector were withdrawing southward along the narrow mountain roads leading to Zagreb. Apparently only a thin security screen had been left in place to maintain contact with the German forces in the bridgeheads.

The Second Army thereupon ordered LI Corps to form flying columns composed of motorized elements and pursue the retreating Yugoslav forces in the direction of Zagreb. On 10 April cold winds and intermittent snowstorms hampered the movements of the advancing Germans, and flood waters interrupted the crossings at Maribor during the day. After regrouping its forces south of the Drava the LI Corps resumed its advance toward Zagreb at 0600 on 11 April. Plodding through difficult terrain during the afternoon, forward elements reached the southern exit of the mountain range northwest of the city by evening. A bicycle troop of the 183d Division wheeling eastward had, meanwhile, taken Varazdin, where it captured a Serb brigade, including its commanding general.

XLIX Mountain Corps

On 6 April, while the 1st Mountain Division was still on the approach march, the 538th Frontier Guard Division, stationed along the northwestern part of the Slovenian border, succeeded in seizing important mountain passes, hills, and tunnels in Yugoslav territory. During the night of 9-10 April the combat elements of the 1st Mountain Division, which had detrained only a few hours earlier, began to cross the frontier near Bleiburg. Advancing in the general direction of Celje the division spearheads stood about twelve miles northwest of the town by nightfall. After exhausting marches and some hard fighting the 1st Mountain Division took Celje on 11 April. Emissaries of the newly formed Slovenian Government asked the corps commander for a cease-fire. In anticipation of just such developments, Hitler had previously authorized field commanders to accept the surrender of individual units.

14th Panzer Division (XLVI Panzer Corps)

Early on the morning of 10 April, with dive-bombers clearing the route of advance, the 14th Panzer Division of XLVI Panzer Corps, split into two armored forces, broke out of the Drava bridgehead and advanced southwestward toward Zagreb, the state capital of Croatia. This attack preceded the XLVI Panzer Corps main attack toward Belgrade and was intended as a diversion.

Although large enemy concentrations had been spotted in front of the division, air reconnaissance revealed that these forces were rapidly withdrawing westward toward Zagreb. Though fierce at first, enemy resistance soon crumbled as German tanks came closer to their objective. However, extremely cold weather and snow-covered roads hampered progress to some degree. By 1930 on 10 April the lead tanks of the 14th Panzer Division reached the outskirts of Zagreb, after having covered a distance of almost 100 miles in one day.

In some instances Croat troops refused to fight, abandoned their weapons, deserted their positions, and either surrendered or simply went home. One German regiment surprised an enemy unit which was still in garrison and not yet fully mobilized. A regimental officers’ party just in progress was interrupted only long enough to consummate a quick surrender, whereupon the festivities continued as though nothing unusual had happened.

So rapid was the advance of the division that its radio communications with corps and army were temporarily interrupted. Reconnaissance aircraft had to be dispatched to ascertain its exact location and chart its progress. When the 14th Panzer Division entered Zagreb from the northeast it was welcomed by a wildly cheering pro-German populace. During the drive on the city more than 15,000 prisoners were taken. Among the 300 officers were twenty-two generals, including the commanders of First Army Group and Seventh Army.

On 11 April the newly formed Croatian Government called on its nationals to cease fighting and requested that they be immediately released by the Yugoslav Army. During the evening hours the first LI Corps elements entered Zagreb from the north and relieved the 14th Panzer Division.

Italian and Hungarian Operations

The favorable course of the military events along its front led the German Second Army to offer its assistance to the Italian Second Army assembling along Yugoslavia’s western border. On the early morning of 11 April the Germans were informed that the Italian V, VI, and XI Corps would be ready to attack toward 1200. To speed up the Italian advance and consummate the encirclement of the Yugoslav Seventh Army forces in the Ljubljana Basin, the German XLIX Mountain Corps was to conduct the diversionary attacks in the north while 14th Panzer Division forces were to cut the enemy’s route of withdrawal. As a preparatory step the German Fourth Air Force attacked Yugoslav columns and troop concentrations in the Ljubljana area. When the Italian forces finally jumped off, they encountered little resistance from the Yugoslavs, who were attempting to withdraw southeastward. A great number of prisoners and much booty were captured as entire divisions surrendered. About 30,000 Yugoslav troops concentrated near Delnice were waiting to surrender to the Italians who were moving southeastward in the direction of the Dalmatian coast.

On 12 April elements of the 14th Panzer Division linked up with the Italians at Vrbovsk. The line Novo Mesto-Slunj-Bihac-Livno was designated as the boundary between the German and Italian Second Armies south of the Sava. Occupation of the territory west of this line was assigned to the Italians. However, for the time being the German units on the extreme right wing of XLIX Mountain Corps were authorized to operate in the Italian zone.

Upon moving its command post to Maribor on 11 April, the German Second Army headquarters received a message from the Hungarian Third Army by which it was notified that Hungarian troops were crossing the Yugoslav frontier north of Osijek and near Subotica. On the next day the Hungarians pursued the retreating Yugoslav First Army and occupied the area between the Danube and Tisza Rivers, meeting virtually no resistance.

The Final Drive on Sarajevo

After the collapse of the border defense system and the fall of Belgrade the Yugoslav Army leaders had hoped to withdraw to the mountain redoubt in the interior of Serbia, where they intended to offer prolonged resistance. Fully aware of the Yugoslav intentions, General von Weichs, the Second Army commander, decided to launch and maintain a vigorous pursuit of the enemy forces withdrawing in the general direction of Sarajevo. Speed was now of the essence since the German Army High Command intended to pull out and redeploy as soon as practicable the motorized and armored divisions that had to be refitted for the Russian campaign.

As early as 12 April both the XLIX and LI Corps had closed up and regrouped their forces along the Sava River. Sarajevo, located in the heart of Yugoslavia, was to be the focal point upon which the German forces were to converge. Accordingly, Second Army reorganized its forces into two separate pursuit groups. Under the command of the recently arrived LII Infantry Corps headquarters, the western group consisted of four infantry divisions under the XLIX and LI Corps as well as the 14th Panzer Division, the formation that was to spearhead the drive on Sarajevo from the west. The eastern pursuit force, under the command of the First Panzer Group, was composed of six divisions, with the 8th Panzer Division leading the drive toward Sarajevo from the east. The Fourth Air Force, continuing to operate in support of the ground operations, was ordered to neutralize the anticipated enemy troop concentrations in the Mostar-Sarajevo sector.

On the afternoon of 13 April Second Army moved its command post to Zagreb to facilitate communication with the two pursuit groups and direct the mopping-up phase of the campaign from this central location. The boundary between the German Second and Twelfth Armies was the line extending laterally across Yugoslavia from Sofiya via Prizren up to and along the northern border of Albania.

By the evening of 13 April there was no longer any semblance of enemy resistance in front of XLIX and LI Corps. The main body of the German forces reached the Kupa River and some elements were quickly put across. The 14th Panzer Division, meanwhile, sped southeastward toward Sarajevo. As the division approached its objective, reports began to circulate that open hostilities had broken out between Serbs and Croats in Mostar. German planes were quickly diverted to this area where they blasted Serb troop concentrations for three hours. By 14 April the fighting between the Serb and Croat factions had gained momentum and had spread throughout Dalmatia. On that day the 14th Panzer Division reached Jajce, approximately fifty miles northwest of Sarajevo, while forward elements of the LI Corps, attempting to keep up with the armor, arrived at the Una after strenuous marches and established several bridgeheads across the stream.

In the zone of the eastern group, one armored division combed out the sector south of Belgrade, while two infantry divisions cleared the industrial region in and around Nis. The 8th Panzer Division led the way southwestward toward Sarajevo, closely followed by two motorized infantry divisions which were driving hard toward the heart of Yugoslavia, one via Zvornik, the other from Uzice. Among the vast amount of booty were seventy-five enemy aircraft still intact on the ground. During the operations on 14 and 15 April, prisoners were taken by the thousands. North of Nis the Germans captured 7,000; in and around Uzice, 40,000; around Zvornik 30,000 more; and in Doboj another 6,000.

On 15 April both pursuit groups of Second Army closed in on Sarajevo. As two panzer divisions entered the city simultaneously from. west and east, the Yugoslav Second Army, whose headquarters was in Sarajevo, capitulated. Leaving only security detachments in the city to await the arrival of the infantry forces, both divisions continued to race southward in close pursuit of fleeing enemy remnants.

Armistice Negotiations

In view of the hopelessness of the situation, the Yugoslav command decided to ask for an armistice and authorized the commanders of the various army groups and armies to dispatch truce negotiators to the German command post within their respective sectors. However, those from Yugoslav Second and Fifth Armies who asked for separate cease-fire agreements on 14 April were turned back by the German commanders because by that time only the unconditional surrender of the entire Yugoslav Army could be considered as a basis for negotiations.

Late on the evening of 14 April, a representative of the Yugoslav Government approached the First Panzer Group headquarters and asked General van Kleist for an immediate cease-fire. When the Army High Command was advised of this turn of events, it designated the Second Army commander, General von Weichs, to conduct the negotiations in Belgrade.

During the afternoon of the following day von Weichs and his staff arrived in Belgrade and drew up the German conditions for an armistice based on the unconditional surrender of all Yugoslav forces. The next day a Yugoslav emissary arrived in the capital, but it turned out that he did not have sufficient authority to negotiate or sign the surrender. Therefore, a draft of the agreement was handed to him with the request that competent plenipotentiaries be sent to Belgrade without delay in order to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. To expedite matters, a plane was placed at his disposal.

The armistice was concluded and signed on 17 April. (General von Weichs signed for the Germans, with the Italian military attaché in Belgrade acting on behalf of his country. The Hungarians were represented by a liaison officer who, however, did not sign the document since Hungary was technically “not at war with Yugoslavia.” Foreign Minister Cincar-Marcovic and General Milojko Yankovic signed for the Yugoslavs. The armistice became effective at 1200 on 18 April 1941, just twelve days after the initial German attack was launched.


The losses sustained by the German attack forces were unexpectedly light. During the twelve days of combat the total casualty figures came to 558 men: 151 were listed as killed, 392 as wounded, and 15 as missing in action. During the XLI Panzer Corps drive on Bel grade, for example, the only officer killed in action fell victim to a civilian sniper’s bullet.

The Germans took some 254,000 prisoners, excluding a considerable number of Croat, German, Hungarian, and Bulgarian nationals who had been inducted into the Yugoslav Army and who were quickly released after screening.

Küstrin 1945 Part III

Luftwaffe Gunner Josef Stefanski also came under heavy fire:

Later I was sent to a flak battery located on the west bank of the Oder near the Reichsgarten pub. There were two guns in the position, and from there we were able to shoot up two Soviet tanks coming up the Sonnenburger Chaussee. Several German dead were buried behind the Artillery Barracks at the Reichsgarten pub.

When we had run out of ammunition for our guns, or the guns had been hit by enemy fire, I was assigned as an infantryman in the Altstadt. We were accommodated in the Girls’ Middle School on Schulstrasse, which received a direct hit one day that buried twenty-eight of our comrades. We could only dig out seven men alive, and the remaining twenty-one could well still be buried under the rubble.

Meanwhile there were conflicting opinions over the conduct of operations between Headquarters 9th Army and Army Group ‘Weichsel’ on one side, and the Army General Staff (OKH) and the Armed Forces General Staff (OKW) on the other. The former wanted, with a new but limited attack, to facilitate a breakout by the garrison, to hold the line established on 23 March, and to put all the divisions available to the task of eliminating the 5th Shock Army’s bridgeheads in the Kienitz–Gross Neuendorf sector. However, the OKH and OKW, at Hitler’s insistence, wanted the fortress to be relieved and ordered an attack to be launched from the Frankfurt Fortress’s bridgehead on the east bank north-west of Küstrin, which, it was hoped, would shatter the communications and forces of the 69th Army and 8th Guards Army holding this sector. This latter plan was known as Operation Boomerang. It depended on getting the five divisions concerned across the single bridge at Frankfurt, a move that could not possibly have gone unobserved, thus eliminating the essential element of surprise. The controversy over this matter eventually was to contribute to the causes for Colonel General Heinz Guderian’s dismissal as Chief of the General Staff on the 28th of the month.

When Colonel General Gotthardt Heinrici took over Army Group ‘Weichsel’ on 22 March, the 25th Panzergrenadier Division was supposed to be about to move to the Frankfurt bridgehead in preparation for the attack on the east bank, although the Küstrin Fortress had just been encircled. Heinrici visited Führer Headquarters on 25 March and managed to persuade Hitler to change the plan to a reopening of the Küstrin corridor. The orders to SS-Lieutenant General Reinefarth commanding the Küstrin Fortress were to hold out at all costs, so the reopening of the corridor (with the added but unrealistic goal of reducing the Kienitz bridgehead) was an acceptable alternative to the original plan of attack for Hitler, although Heinrici regarded both proposed attacks as an unnecessary waste of manpower. The date for the revised attack was set for the 27th.

To conduct this attack General Karl Decker’s Headquarters XXXIXth Panzer Corps was given the 25th and 20th Panzergrenadier Divisions, the ‘Führer’ Grenadier Division, the ‘Müncheberg’ Panzer Division, the ‘1001 Nights’ Combat Team and the 502nd SS Heavy Tank Battalion. These formations had the task of breaking through the Soviet defences in the sector formed by the Küstrin–Berlin railway line as far as the Oder dyke on the Kalenzig meadows. The 20th Panzergrenadier Division and the ‘Führer’ Grenadier Division in the middle were to thrust through to Küstrin and, together with the forces on the flanks, enlarge the strip up to the line of the Küstrin–Berlin railway/ as far as the Oder near Neu Bleyen/ the Oder dyke at the Kalenziger Bunst/the Kalenziger Wiesen (meadows).

Officer-Cadet Corporal Fritz Kohlase recalled:

On the night leading to Monday [26 March] we lost our left flank protection about 150 metres away. The leader of the three-man section there was wounded. A warrant officer, who was a bit simple but also very brave, sorted out the men. As the enemy situation was not clear to him as a result of the changed circumstances, he simply crept over alone and orientated himself. All went well while he traced the enemy position, but he was spotted on the way back and shot through the thigh by one of his own men. While his comrades were taking him back to the dressing station, the Russians established themselves in the abandoned trench and took us under uncomfortable fire from the flank.

The infantry guns, the heavy machine guns, the Hoffmann section, the 88mm flak gun and my section still formed a long, narrow finger into the enemy, from which we were connected to the manor farm only by a trench from the flak position. Our battalion position in the manor farm area was itself only a part of a wedge reaching from Kuhbrücken to the north-west.

Night after night the Soviet units moved in closer, spending the day in quickly dug out scoops ready to take another jump forward the following night. With our [MG] 42 machine guns and the necessary supply of ammunition we were able to slow down their rate of advance. Nevertheless we were not able to sleep any more. Only during the day, crouched in our foxholes, could we take a short nap or sink into a light half-sleep in which any change in the position would immediately awaken us.

My section received no more cold rations on the last night, only a few canteens of drinking water. The Russians had worked their way forward to less than 100 metres from us and dug foxholes all around us. The night was as disturbed as if daylight had driven off the darkness.

The first serious plans for a breakout were developed in the fortress on 26 March, when even some of the SS officers close to the commandant began to feel uncomfortable with their situation. It was thought that a breakout had some chance of success while the encirclement at the junction of the two Soviet armies had still not been fully consolidated and the units there remained unfamiliar with the terrain. The increasing pressure on the small German-occupied strip along the west bank of the Oder, which was the only possible starting point for a breakout, called for haste.

At the time of the first brief closing off of the town at the beginning of February, any mention of breakout plans would have led to a court martial. Now, with the indication that the relief attack had been repelled, or at least had been unsuccessful, the situation had changed dramatically.

Reinefarth had reasons enough for delaying making a decision. The penalty for disobeying Hitler’s orders was quite clear, and while there was still a chance of the fortress being relieved, he could not claim to have been under pressure. Apart from this, should the ‘corridor’ reopen, even briefly, he could not guarantee reaching the German lines safely, even if he used a tank. The landing strip prepared weeks before for just such an emergency was still in reasonably good order, but could only have been used in daylight by a very skilful pilot and almost every metre of it was now under Soviet observation and even within range of light infantry weapons.

Officer Cadet Corporal Fritz Kohlase continued his account:

This Monday morning the Red Army units made a concentrated attack on the Alt Bleyen manor farm. Katyuschas opened fire, and were joined by guns and mortars. The opening blow was so strong that we could not see the flak position 75 metres away.

Because of the proximity of the enemy and his overwhelming superiority in numbers, we had no choice but to keep firing during the fire preparation so that he could not get up to attack. Within a short time four of our six machine guns were out of action with ripped barrels from lacquered ammunition. Our lives depended upon these machine guns. Replacements were needed. To get through the barrage only Fischer, Krell and I were available. The machine-gunners could not leave, so I had to go. I jumped out of the trench and dived into the wall of fire. Suddenly I received a blow, was lifted up and lost consciousness. When I came to, I carefully moved my arms and legs and felt my head and body. Nothing. My steel helmet lay several metres away. Now I crawled on until I reached the flak position, where a sentry pulled me into the trench. I sought out my platoon commander and the gun commander. Together we controlled the gun. It was ready to fire. The crew had so far had only a few wounded. The flak machine gun also began to fire. I took two of its four replacement barrels. Then the gun commander pushed me up out of the trench. This time I was scared and crawled back.

Then the storm began on the manor farm. First a Soviet storm troop broke into the trenches of our 1st Platoon, rolled it up and approached the company command post, threatening to split the battalion in two. The company headquarters troop was able to clear this breach in an immediate counterattack using sub-machine guns, hand grenades and Panzerfausts. The troops attacking the flak position were gunned down by the 88mm gun at point-blank range.

The battalion commander also sent the three self-propelled guns to our support. They drove right up to the Soviet rifle pits and turned, squashing all who lay there. Immediately the Soviet fire concentrated on our self-propelled guns. When one of them received a direct hit, the others turned back.

The firing slowly died down. The noise of combat could only be heard from the dyke road to Kuhbrücken. Here, between the parallel dyke roads to the southern hamlet of Alt Bleyen, a panzergrenadier battalion of the ‘Müncheberg’ Panzer Division was defending itself, together with an officer-cadet company and another dug-in 88mm flak gun, against the tank-supported enemy attack from the north. That afternoon the attackers were able to break through to the southern edge of Neu Bleyen. By evening nine destroyed enemy tanks stood in the area, the officer cadets were down to only a few men and the 88mm gun had been rendered unserviceable. The Russians had reached the dyke road between the manor farm and Kuhbrücken.

On this beautiful sunny Monday morning the Soviet artillery resumed firing at us, slowly increasing in intensity. This lasted several hours. Then the ground-assault aircraft appeared flying sometimes in threes, sometimes in sevens. They crossed over our battalion’s positions always in the same order: orientation, dropping bombs, firing with machine guns or rockets. Once one group was finished, another would follow. When the aircraft tipped over to attack, one could only pull one’s head in and trust to luck. The infantry guns were attacked the most. In the afternoon even phosphorus was dropped on them.

I was afraid that the Russians would overrun us when the ground-attack aircraft forced us to take cover. But, despite their superiority, the Soviet infantry did not dare to do so. Apparently they had not recovered from their bloody repulse that morning.

One had to be unbelievably cautious. My field cap was shot through several times when raised to see what would happen.

That afternoon, as the relentless fire from Soviet artillery and ground-attack aircraft continued and it became simply a matter of luck whether my foxhole would suffer a direct hit, I lost my last belief in a higher Being connected with human history. My belief no longer existed, driven out by the fearful development of air attacks on the civilian population and the knowledge that the Christian priests on our side prayed to the same God as the Allies for the success of their weapons.

The enemy attack had cost us a lot of ammunition. I had only two Very light cartridges for the coming night. For supplies we had half an iron ration and half a canteen of water per man. That afternoon supply containers were dropped on Küstrin again.

With darkness a runner from the company appeared. Because of the losses the division into platoons was cancelled and the number of sections reduced. Half an hour later I was shot in the chest during a short exchange of fire. I reported to my platoon commander, whom I found in the flak position, and went on through the trenches of the Hoffmann section over the dead bodies left from that morning. The Russians were dug in here close to our positions.

It was half dark in the dressing station in the cellars of the manor house. In the flickering of the Hindenburg Lights, the doctor told me: ‘That is not a shot in the lungs. You have been lucky. If you can walk, then get away. Alt Bleyen is about to be evacuated. Take the lead with the sergeant over there of all the walking wounded.’

It was pitch dark. We went slowly past the pond to the dyke road and then along the foot of the dyke, even more cautiously, our weapons ready for action in our hands. For a distance of several hundred metres the Russians were on one side of the dyke and on the other side were our men at long intervals. About 100 to 150 metres from the dyke there was a shallow, weakly occupied trench on the other side of the ‘corridor’ connecting the manor farm with Küstrin. This is where I saw out the rest of the evening. We expected hand grenades to come over the dyke at any moment, but everything remained quiet.

The survivors of Fusilier Battalion 303 were able to withdraw to Kuhbrücken during the night, but only by leaving behind the heavy weapons, including the three self-propelled guns. Together with the remains of other units, they took up new positions here as Combat Team ‘Quetz’.

When we reached the spider’s web of tracks in Kuhbrücken that night, we met Volkssturm men in the cottages there who believed the Alt Bleyen manor farm to be surrounded. Together with others they had been ordered to fight open the way back to the farm complex and get us out. They were mightily relieved not to have to clear the complex.

We went over the Kietz railway bridge to the main dressing station that had been set up in the cellars of the Artillery Barracks on the Island. The doctors could hardly keep their eyes open from sheer exhaustion. One instructed me to take the next wounded transport back to hospital, but when I told him where I came from he fell silent.

Then we were sent on into the Altstadt. We passed a large burning building, apparently stacked full of tins of preserves judging from the constant dull explosions emerging, crossed the Oder Bridge and finally reached the auxiliary hospital in the cellars of the Boys’ Middle School. I was allocated the lower bunk of a two-storey air-raid bed and immediately fell asleep.

Sapper Ernst Müller told a similar tale:

In the evening darkness of 26 March I noticed in leaving the cellar of the Potato Meal Factory that cartridges were on fire in front of the building between heaps of stick grenades. The culprit was apparently a ‘Sewing Machine’, an enemy aircraft dropping bombs. When I reported this, Captain Fischer ordered the fire to be extinguished using sacks soaked in the Oder. Later I was ordered to fetch some firemen. On my return I had just reached the Artillery Barracks when the stack of munitions blew up. The cellar of the Potato Meal Factory was on fire. A wall of fire prevented every attempt to reach those trapped in and behind the rubble. Several of them were burnt alive. Between twenty and thirty men lay buried in the rubble, among them Captain Dahlmanns, Second-Lieutenant Schröter and Corporal Grosch. Second-Lieutenant Schröter should not actually have been in Küstrin. He had been given the job of taking us to the front, and then should have returned to Armoured Engineer Replacement Battalion 19 in Holzminden, as his wound was not yet fully cured. The already mentioned Corporal Hans Dahlmanns thus lost his father, whom I knew as a good man, who had treated me in a fatherly manner. I was also present when Captain Fischer expressed his condolences to Corporal Dahlmanns upon the death of his father.

The German counterattack began at 0400 hours on 27 March and after a few hours got halfway to Gorgast and as far as the Wilhelminenhof farm and Genschmar before the German divisions were driven back to their start points with heavy losses. According to the 9th Army’s situation report of 27 March, 5 commanding officers, 68 officers and 1,219 men had been lost. The reasons given included minefields, heavy mortar and anti-tank fire with accompanying artillery fire, well-constructed strongpoints in the individual barns and lack of ground cover. In fact the Germans had given the Soviets far too much time in which to consolidate their positions in a greatly enlarged bridgehead.

On the northern flank, with flanking protection from the 1st Battalion of the ‘Müncheberg’ Panzer Regiment, the ‘1001 Nights’ Combat Team started the attack with three infantry companies and a total strength of 390 men and 49 Hetzers; by the end of the attack it was reduced to only 40 men per infantry company, having lost 51 killed, 336 wounded and 32 missing, and having had 25 Hetzers destroyed. According to Captain Zobel, the Hetzers were late getting into their start position, having first to negotiate a railway underpass, by which time the Soviet artillery had been fully alerted. One infantry company of this elite battle group reached as far as the western edge of Genschmar, but at daybreak came under such heavy artillery, tank and anti-tank fire from the Henriettenhof farm, Genschmar village, the southern edge of the Genschmarer See and the Wilhelminenhof farm (the latter having fallen to the Soviets in the meantime) that it was forced to withdraw.

Despite the XXXIXth Panzer Corps’ initial lack of success, on the same day at 1730 hours the ‘Führer’ Grenadier Division and part of the ‘Müncheberg’ Panzer Division made a fresh attack on the Wilhelminenhof strongpoint and the wood 700 metres north-west of it, making some progress before having to go over to the defensive.

In the fortress they waited hour by hour for a sign of salvation. The disappointment increased, as did the fire from the Soviet artillery, reaching at times as much as 1,000 shells per hour. Air attacks concentrated more and more on those structures still holding out, the old bastions. The Bastion Christian Ludwig containing the youth hostel was destroyed by three heavy bombs, the casemate used as a front-line cinema being partly destroyed, leaving buried under the rubble numerous soldiers who had sought shelter there. The already badly damaged town hall took another direct hit, the cellar collapsing and burying Volkssturm men lying there in an underground room with some of the lightly wounded. Only a few shattered men were saved by chance hours later. The fate of Johannes and Otto Dawidowski was described by a survivor:

On the morning of 27 March we were told to go from our accommodation in Wallstrasse to the company command post for new orders for the next day. One group of four Volkssturm men set off. We had hardly gone 100 metres when a sudden bombardment took us by surprise. The Russians were firing with heavy calibre weapons on the area we were in. At the same time aircraft were dropping bombs. We sought shelter under a high and thick wall where the Zorn firm stored its coal.

The Dawidowski brothers and another comrade from Drewitz sought cover under the third arch of the wall, while the fourth one of our group and other comrades went under another arch and in a somewhat deeper situated building. The coal-yard wall was under particularly heavy fire, and was swaying to and fro from the hits. Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion and a flash of fire. It was a direct hit on the third arch in the wall, exactly where the Dawidowski brothers and the other comrade were standing. This part of the wall collapsed. The men standing under it were buried under the falling masonry and were certainly killed instantly.

The shooting increased. It was no longer possible to get through to the company command post. Although the way back to the platoon accommodation was only about 100 metres, I did not get back until evening. There was no chance of looking for the dead and burying them, as next day the Altstadt was to be evacuated following the Russians coming in through the Kietz Gate. So the dead still lie today under this wall.


The operational plan was code named “THRUST” (German: STOSS). It concerned the occupation of West Berlin “within the scope of preventive actions following prior aggression by NATO outside the Central European area, for example an attack by Turkey on Bulgaria.” Berlin was to be occupied “while NATO was transporting its reinforcements from overseas and before the opening of military operations” along the intra-German and Czechoslovakian-German borders. In 1987, following the introduction of the new Soviet military doctrine, certain changes were made. The plan was re named “CENTER” (German: ZENTRUM), and West Berlin was now to be occupied only “following NATO aggression resulting in the violation of state [East Germany] borders.”

Following the political decision to occupy West Berlin, a “Berlin Group” field command would be formed out of the East German Army High Command, located in Wildpark West near Potsdam. The “Berlin Group” command was to direct over 32,000 East German and Soviet troops in operations against an estimated 12,000 Allied troops and 6,000 West Berlin police men. The equipment levels used in the Border’s Edge 86 exercise would be significantly raised in real operations – approximately 390 tanks, 450 guns and mortars, 400 antitank units, and 400 armored personnel carriers would be committed.

The plans envisioned splitting West Berlin into two sectors. The sector boundary ran from Konradshöhe in the northwest along the Autobahn ring road from Charlottenburg to Schöneberg, ending at Lichtenrade in the south. The area to the west of the divide was designated as Sector I, while that to the east was Sector II. These sectors did not correspond to, and should not be confused with, the British, French, and American occupation sectors. The occupation of Sector I was to be the task of the NVA’s 1st Motorized Rifle Division (minus its 1st Regiment), the 5th Regiment of Frontier Command North, the 34th and 44th Regiments of Frontier Command Central, an assault engineer battalion of the 2d Engineer Brigade, and four battalions of Potsdam’s paramilitary “Combat Groups of the Working Class.” The 3d Regiment of the 1st Motorized Rifle Division, flanked by the 5th Frontier Troop Regiment to its left, was to push from the west along Bundesstraße 5 toward Spandau, where the majority of the British Brigade’s facilities were located. The 34th Frontier Troop Regiment would move out of Kladow in the west toward the British military airport at Gatow. In the southwest, the 44th Frontier Regiment was to roll along Bundesstraße 1, penetrating the American sector at Zehlendorf, while the 1st Armored Regiment thrust directly toward the city center. The 2d Regiment of the 1st Motorized Rifle Division was to move out of Teltow in the south to ward Steglitz, thereby completing the occupation of Sector I.

Sector II, the eastern portion of West Berlin, would be occupied as follows: The Soviet 6th Independent Motorized Rifle Brigade, part of the Soviet Group of Forces in Germany, would roll past the Brandenburger Gate, proceed down the Avenue of the 17th of June to Ernst Reuter Plaza, and continue down Bismarck Street until it reached the Kaiserdamm Bridge. The 18th People’s Po lice Alert Unit and the 33d Frontier Troop Regiment were to provide flank protection. The 1st Regiment of the 1st Motorized Rifle Division would assault out of Pankow toward Tegel International airport, while the 38th and 40th Frontier Troop Regiments occupied Reinickendorf, part of the French sector. The 35th, 39th, and 42d Frontier Troop Regiments would close in on Neukölln and Kreuzberg, areas within the American sector. Support for these assaults would be provided by the 40th Artillery Brigade, an assault engineer battalion of the 2d Engineer Brigade, and propaganda detachments.

The two major assault thrusts, one from the east and one from the west, were to meet at the Kaiserdamm Bridge near Radio Free Berlin, thereby cutting the city in two. Tegel airport, in the French sector, was to be captured by two airborne companies while Tempelhof Airport in the American sector was to be captured by another. The 1st Battalion of the 40th Air Assault Regiment and parts of 34th Helicopter Transport Squadron would provide the necessary forces. Reserve forces included the 40th Security Battalion, the 19th People’s Police Alert Unit, and four battalions of the (East) Berlin “Combat Groups of the Working Class.” The 40th Signal Battalion was tasked with providing reserve assets for all communication requirements.

Any military worth its salt has prepared contingency plans for operations following the outbreak of war. The Soviet Union and its satellites always claimed that both the structure and planning of the Warsaw Pact revolved around a commitment to defeat the enemy on his own territory following enemy aggression. The initial scenario in the Border’s Edge exercises postulated aggression by NATO, provoking a countermeasure by the Warsaw Pact. Former NVA officers stand by the essentially defensive nature of Pact offensive plans. Yet oddly, little attention is paid to containing and defeating NATO offenses. In fact, East German intelligence evaluations concluded that NATO forces in West Germany lacked the structure and equipment for deep offensive operations in the eastern direction. In short, taken at face value, the NVA laid meticulous plans for execution of an operation for which the officially proclaimed premise, aggression by NATO, was evaluated as unlikely at best.

Operation Stoss – After Action Report

East German Attack Plans for World War 3

Mil Mi-8 NVA DDR

Planning the “Dash” I

KMS Prinz Eugen

KMS Scharnhorst

Although Scharnhorst and Gneisenau posed a considerable threat to the British while lying at Brest in 1941 and the repeated raids by the Royal Air Force were far too inaccurate to do any serious damage, Hitler felt the two units were too exposed, and ordered them to return. Operation ‘Cerberus’, the daylight dash through the English Channel in February 1942, was probably the Kriegsmarine’s greatest success, for it took the British completely by surprise, the two battle-cruisers and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen slipping past ineffectual air and sea attacks. Apart from slight damage to Scharnhorst from a magnetic mine during the final phase it had been a humiliation for the British and proof that audacity pays.

The two great grey ships appeared off the entrance to the French Atlantic port of Brest just after dawn. They were Germany’s 32,000-ton battleships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau returning from marauding raids against Allied shipping in the Atlantic.

They had sailed from Kiel at the beginning of 1941. Evading the British Home Fleet based at Scapa Flow, they had broken through the Denmark Strait into the Atlantic. For the next two months like gigantic pirates they roamed the Atlantic shipping lanes sinking more than twenty ships totalling over 100,000 tons. It was the first—and last—successful foray by German battleships against Allied merchant shipping in the Second World War. Then in early March they seemed to disappear into Atlantic mists.

At 7 a.m. on 22 March 1941, as sullen French dock workers watched, they tied up at the quai Lannion in Brest. It was nearly a year since France had fallen and the French Naval base had been taken over by German dockyard workers from Wilhelmshaven. They had returned to Brest because they were badly in need of repairs. The two-months’ cruise had revealed serious defects in Scharnhorst’s boilers. The tubes of the super-heaters, especially, had given constant trouble threatening a major breakdown. German dockyard engineers who examined her estimated ten weeks would be needed for repairs. When her Kapitän, Kurt Hoffmann, reported this news to Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, head of the German Navy in Berlin, the German Admiralty staff were shocked at the extent of the repairs necessary.

Her sister ship Gneisenau was also in need of minor repairs. The refit of both battleships went ahead quickly but no Frenchman was allowed to work on them, for French workmen in the repair depots ashore went as slow as they dared to hold up the work of the German conquerors. Throughout the dockyard and in the town, the inhabitants were not only surly and hostile, but some of them were in touch with French underground agents, who would pass the information about the repairs to Britain.

After the ships’ arrival eight depressing days passed with unceasing rain and frequent false air-raid alarms. Then on the evening of 30 March came the real thing. The wail of sirens was followed by the crash of bombs. The flak gun crews poured up a curtain of fire but their shells could not reach high-flying planes.

Ashore, many officers of the German Naval Staff were killed when the hotel where they were accommodated was hit and caught fire. The ships were undamaged but when the fragments of bombs were examined by German experts next day they made an important discovery. The RAF had dropped 500-lb armour-piercing bombs specially made to crash through the armoured decks of the warships. The Germans then knew that this was no routine dock raid. These bombs were direct evidence that the RAF knew they were there. Now the raids would never cease. They were right. The RAF started to come day and night when weather permitted.

At dawn on 6 April a RAF torpedo-bomber suddenly dived out of the clouds. It was a Coastal Command Beaufort from St. Eval in Cornwall, piloted by Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell, who made a most courageous and determined attack upon Gneisenau. She was tied up to the buoy against a wall at the north end of the harbour, protected by the curving mole. The little hills all around the harbour bristled with clusters of guns and moored near the mole as extra protection were three flak ships.

The battleship’s position appeared to be impregnable. Even if an aircraft managed to deliver a low level attack it would not be able to pull out in time and must crash into the high ground surrounding the harbour.

But Kenneth Campbell dived down to deck level and flew steadily past the blazing muzzles of the flak ships’ guns. He skimmed over the mole and dropped his torpedo at point-blank range towards Gneisenau’s stern. As he did so, the German flak gunners hit him and he crashed in flames into the water.

But he had done his job. Seconds later his torpedo exploded against Gneisenau on the starboard side aft. Water rushed in and she began to list heavily. A salvage vessel which came alongside to pump tons of water from her scuppers had difficulty keeping her from sinking.

The bodies of Campbell and his gallant aircrew, Sgts. Scott, Mullis and Hillman, were fished out of the harbour and brought on board the battleship. Their bodies were draped in flags and placed on the quarterdeck, where a guard of honour was mounted as a mark of respect.

While this chivalrous ceremony was taking place, the salvage crews managed to pump enough water out to right her, since she could not remain in danger at the buoy. RAF spotter planes were now informing the British about every move of the battleships. Another attack like Campbell’s on Gneisenau would probably sink her.

The following morning Gneisenau again entered dry dock where inspection confirmed that Campbell’s torpedo had wrecked the starboard propeller and shaft tunnel. This would need six months to repair. She would be out of action twice as long as Scharnhorst.

When the British heard about Campbell’s heroic act he was awarded the highest decoration for gallantry, the Victoria Cross. The citation said: “Despising heavy odds Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell went cheerfully and resolutely to his task. By pressing home his attack at close quarters in the face of withering fire on a course fraught with extreme peril, he displayed valour of the highest order.”

As a result of Campbell’s torpedo both battleships were now due for a long stay so the German Navy decided to put their static fleet to some use. A detachment of a hundred midshipmen were sent from Germany to the Brest battleships to complete their training. They were posted equally to both ships and, as anti-aircraft defence was most vital, this was their main task. It became a brutal battle training for these budding officers. For some it was very short.

On the night of 10 April, the sirens again wailed and the first bomb explosions could be heard above the roar of the flak guns. Suddenly there came a series of tremendous flashes and explosions and a red glow lit up Gneisenau‘s superstructure. She had been hit by three bombs and was on fire. The bombs killed fifty and wounded ninety of her crew, the heaviest casualties being among the flak crews and the young midshipmen. At the time of the raid many of the off-duty midshipmen were in their quarters between decks. Most of them were killed by fragments of other big bombs exploding on the quayside.

As ambulances drew up at the ship’s gangway and long rows of stretcher cases were taken to hospital, Captain Hoffmann went across from Scharnhorst to offer help. He ordered a working-party to fight the fires on the mess decks, but they had to flood one magazine before the fires were controlled and Gneisenau out of danger.

The Germans’ main concern was to conceal the extent of the damage from the French, but each battleship could only make ten coffins, and this meant tiiey would have to call in French carpenters to make many more. When the order was given the news of the German dead spread rapidly among the inhabitants of Brest.

After this they arranged for most of the crews to sleep ashore in barracks, leaving only flak gunners and a duty watch in the ship. This raid also decided the authorities in Berlin to step up the A.A. defences of Brest. They increased the number of 4-inch guns to 150 and smaller flak guns to 1,200, to make a murderous concentration of fire. Also the two battleships were moved closer together. The lock gates were closed and protected by nets against torpedoes fired by either intruding submarines or wave-skimming planes.

In Scharnhorst’s old berth, Hoffmann built a wooden and sheet-iron replica of her on the hull of an old French cruiser, Jeanne d’Arc. Nets hung from the battleships’ masts to the dockside with paint sprayed over them to make them resemble clumps of trees. On the roofs of the Naval College the surviving midshipmen erected wooden huts to make it look like a village.

A network of artificial smoke-generators which could shroud the port under a thick fog within a few minutes was installed around the harbour. This last precaution aroused protests from the Luftwaffe who maintained that the dense smoke would endanger their fighter operations. This artificial fog also nearly caused a collision between the two battleships when they came to leave harbour.

The flak and the fighters gave them protection during the day but in darkness it was a different story. As the RAF’s heavy bombing continued nearly every night it looked as though not only would the ships be damaged but most of their crews endangered. Although many of them were taken at night in lorries to barracks in Brest, many were still being killed ashore so it was decided to move them farther out to avoid the raids.

They were moved at night to La Roche fifteen miles from Brest near the sleepy little Breton town of Landerneau. Both places were on the main line to Paris and the railway was used a lot to move crews about.

Hidden in a small forest of birch trees near Landerneau, barracks were built for the crews of each ship. It was also planned to build extra ones for the crew of another German battleship, Bismarck, due in for a refit after her own Atlantic merchant shipping forays. Outside the dockyard at Brest the large buoys swung at their moorings awaiting her arrival.

While the other two German battleships were being repaired in Brest, Bismarck was sheltering in the German-occupied Norwegian port of Bergen. But on a moonless night—20 May 1941—she slipped out, escorted by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. At noon next day, when the news reached the Admiralty in Whitehall, the Home Fleet was ordered to sail from Scapa Flow to intercept the German ships south of the Denmark Straits.

At dawn on 24 May the two German ships were in action with the British fleet, which included the veteran battle-cruiser Hood and the battleship Prince of Wales on her maiden voyage. The Royal Navy had the worst of the battle. Hood, hit by Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, blew up. Prince of Wales was so badly damaged that she took no further part in the action. But smaller Royal Naval ships still shadowed the fast-steaming Bismarck.

In the afternoon the new aircraft-carrier Victorious was detached from the main force to attack her. When 825 Squadron of Swordfish rose from her flight deck to make a night attack on the German battleship, the leading plane was piloted by Lt.-Cdr. Eugene Esmonde.

At 11:30 p.m., when they were 120 miles from the carrier, Esmonde’s Swordfish squadron sighted Bismarck. Flying 100 feet above the waves in the darkness, they let go their torpedoes from less than 1,000 yards. As they banked away there was a roar followed by a flash and a curling plume of flame.

The Bismarck had been hit amidships.

The torpedo slowed her down, and after a three-day chase the Home Fleet again brought the Bismarck into action. This time she was alone. Four hours before the battle the Prinz Eugen had slipped away. The Bismarck sank under the guns and torpedoes of the Royal Navy.

It was on the night of 7 May that German naval officers at Brest, surreptitiously listening to the B.B.C. news, heard: “At 10:37 G.M.T. the German battleship Bismarck was sunk.”

The German Navy in Brest took the news of Bismarck’s sinking gloomily. Equally depressing was the lack of news of her escorting cruiser, Prinz Eugen. Had she too been sunk? Or had she escaped and was preserving radio silence in case her calls were intercepted by the pursuing Royal Navy? For five days there was silence. Then at dawn on 1 June a buzz of excitement went round the battleship crews. Prinz Eugen had appeared at the entrance to Brest Harbour.

She brought grim news. When her captain, Helmuth Brinkmann, made a report to Grand Admiral Raeder in Berlin about the fate of the Bismarck, he stated that the British battleships now had such good radar equipment that it could not be evaded.

The rest of the situation was also depressing. Despite German precautions, day and night raids on Brest docks became a familiar part of their daily life. Almost every day, the B.B.C.’s nine o’clock news reported that bombers had visited Brest to attack the German warships.

The British realized that this constant bombing might eventually cause the Germans to make a desperate dash home. A series of conferences was held between Admiralty and Air Ministry planners. As a result Coastal Command was ordered to establish three separate dusk-to-dawn radar reconnaissance patrols off Brest and along the Channel. They became known as “Stopper,” which covered from Brest to Ushant, “Line SE” from Ushant to Brittany and “Habo” from Le Havre to Boulogne. Fighter Command also organized daylight Channel sweeps known as “Jim Crow.”

On 29 April 1941 an Air Ministry letter to the three RAF Commands—Fighter, Bomber and Coastal—said: “Scharnhorst and Gneisenau may attempt to reach a German port up the Channel route during the period April 30th to May 4th inclusive. It is considered probable that the Straits of Dover will be navigated in darkness. It is considered unlikely that the enemy would attempt the passage of the Straits in daylight. But if this should be attempted, a unique opportunity will be offered to both our surface craft and air striking force to engage the enemy ships in force whilst in the Straits of Dover.” Bomber Command was instructed to have strike forces in readiness for the Germans leaving Brest.

At this stage, the RAF were well ahead of the Germans in their tactical appreciation. It was not until 30 May—a month after the Air Ministry had considered the possibility of a Channel break-out—that the German Naval Command West in Paris sent a memorandum to Grand Admiral Raeder in Berlin suggesting a contingency plan: “The possibility of bringing heavy ships through the English Channel should be carefully examined. The route is shorter than the Iceland passage. There are good escort possibilities, both air and sea. Enemy radar could be jammed. Superior enemy units would not be present and the passage would be in the close proximity of our own harbours to which ships could be taken in the event of breakdowns.”

Raeder reacted strongly against this suggestion. He drew up a formidable list of hazards: “1. The difficulty of navigation in narrow waters. 2. The battleships must be seen by the British. 3. The danger from mines, torpedo boats, torpedo-carrying aircraft and dive-bombers.”

But Raeder’s principal objection was that mine-sweepers could not clear a wide enough path for the ships to take avoiding action in the event of torpedo attack. He concluded, “The naval war staff therefore consider an unobserved and safe escape through the Channel to be impossible.” This view entirely coincided with that of his opposite number in London, First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound.

Raeder had good reasons for being cautious. For he had only five battleships—including the “pocket” battleships—to the Royal Navy’s fifteen. He had no aircraft-carriers, although the Graf Zeppelin was under construction—but never completed—whilst the British had six operational carriers.