The Yugoslavian military fought hard, but had no real chance against the combined might of the German and Italian militaries. With the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) pounding both Belgrade and numerous military targets around the country, the German army made rapid progress on the ground. The Italian Ninth Army was confronted by the 3rd Yugoslav Army of the 3rd Army Group, who in accordance with war plan R-41, attacked the Italians in the southwest in an attempted link up with British and Greek forces in order to form a united front. This was to be the only true offensive action undertaken by Yugoslavian forces during the war. After good initial progress, the Yugoslav offensive began to falter, and Italian and German forces took control of this sector of the country forcing the Yugoslavians to fall back.
Italian armor had much greater success operating against the enemy on the relatively open topography of Yugoslavia then they had achieved in the mountains of Greece and Albania. With the Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica Italian dominating the skies above, the Yugoslavian forces below took a severe pounding. Outgunned in both the air and on the ground, the Yugoslavian resistance began to crumble in less than two weeks of fighting.
With the German capture of Belgrade and the Italian 2nd Army’s seizure of Ljubljana, combined with the hundreds of thousands of Yugo POW’s taken, the Yugoslavians were forced to surrender on April 17th. The Axis grip on the Balkans was tightening.
General Wilhelm List, commander of the German 12th Army, focused the first phase of his assault against Greece on the neutralization of the Metaxas Line; a string of fortifications and forts similar to the French Maginot Line. The German 12th initially met stiff resistance from the Greek defenders of these outposts, but over the next few days were able to bypass, surround, and then lay siege or waste to position after position.
By April 9th the Germans had made several deep advances against the Metaxas Line, and now had the Eastern Macedonian Field Army cut off from the rest of the Greek forces. In three quick days the Germans had dissected the undermanned defenders with surgical precision, and forced the surrender of the entire Eastern Macedonian Field Army.
The seeds of defeat on this front were sown in the weeks prior when General Papagos refused to reposition elements his troops away from the Albanian theater in order to better defend against the coming German onslaught. This decision was maddening to both British officers and many of Papagos’s own men as well. Papagos had several of his top officers, who had feared that their forces would be cut off once the Germans attacked and had complained bitterly to him about the need to reorganize their national defense, removed prior to the Italian’s March offensive. Thus 15 Divisions remained in Albania facing the Italians while only 6 Divisions were left to confront List’s German forces in Bulgaria. The ‘backdoor’ was in essence left wide open for the Germans to walk in.
It seemed to some that Papagos realized perhaps that the Greek and British forces stood little chance at holding the German juggernaut at bay, and he now seemed not as focused on winning the war then losing both ground and face to the Italians. British General Wilson was one of the many who were puzzled over this decision not to redeploy sufficient Greek troops prior to the German intervention, scorning the failure of this policy as “the fetishistic doctrine that not a yard of ground should be yielded to the Italians”.
As the Germans began their breakthrough around the Metaxas Line, the Italians began to push their attacks against the Greek positions in Albania. It would be on this day, April13th 1941, that Italian forces reached the Korista Plain. The fortunes of war had changed once again, and it was now the Greek soldier who was mired in disarray and facing a crisis of moral. Months of war had worn down the Greeks, and the Herculean effort to hold the Italians from breaking through into the Kalpaki Valley just weeks prior had taken a hard toll on the men. On April 12th General Papagos reluctantly gave the order for his forces in Epirus and Macedonia to retreat as the looming threat of encirclement by the Germans had finally helped to force his decision.
On April 11thth 1941, Italian forces reached the summit of the now pulverized Hill 731. This object of obsession was now in Italians hands, even though nearly all of its former strategic value had passed.
There was no other fighting force in the world like the German Military of 1941, and as it raced across Greece its performance gave further credence to the already legendary reputation it was building. On April 10th German and Italian forces linked up after Hitler’s troops captured Skopje, Monastir, and Florina in succession. Greek and British forces were continuously being forced back, and with the German breakthrough at the Clisura defile on the 16th, the Greek Central Macedonian Force now found themselves outflanked.