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By Carl Savich
Thursday, April 6, 2006 marked the 65th anniversary of the bombing of Belgrade and the German-led invasion, occupation and dismemberment of Yugoslavia by Adolf Hitler and the Axis powers.
Adolf Hitler’s invasion, occupation, and dismemberment of Yugoslavia was called "Operation Punishment" (Fall Bestrafung) ordered by "Directive 25". The invasion and occupation of Greece was termed "Operation Marita". Hitler ordered under Directive 25 the total and complete destruction of Belgrade and Yugoslavia:
"In detail I order the following: a) As soon as the concentration of sufficient forces is concluded and meteorological conditions permit, all Yugoslav antiaircraft and Belgrade must be destroyed by continuous day and night air attacks.”
Hitler was determined to punish Yugoslavia for rejecting the New Order he was seeking to create in Europe with the March 27, 1941 coup. On March 27, Hitler declared:
“We are not going to wait for any declarations of loyalty by the new government, but to carry out all preparations for the destruction of the Yugoslav armed forces and of Yugoslavia itself as a national unit. . . . [I]t is especially important from the political point of view that the blow against Yugoslavia should be carried out with the utmost violence and that its military destruction should be effected with lightning speed…. No diplomatic inquiries will be made and no ultimatum presented....The attack will start as soon as the necessary supplies and troops are ready."
The directive of the German Military High Command, Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, the OKW, was as follows: “The German task is to attack Yugoslavia with the greatest possible concentration of forces, to smash its armed forces and destroy it as a state."
Hitler planned the destruction of Belgrade as punishment for the Serbian refusal to join the Nazi New Order in Europe. Like Warsaw, Rotterdam, London, and Coventry before, and Stalingrad and Sebastopol later, Belgrade would be destroyed by Luftwaffe bombing or air strikes. Waves of Luftwaffe heavy bombers and Stuka dive bombers bombed Belgrade, killing an estimated 2,274 civilians during the April 6-7, bombardments, while some estimates put the figure as 5,000 to 17,000 Serbian civilians killed. The National Library, with 300,000 manuscripts and books from the medieval period, was burned down. Over 1,300 Cyrillic manuscripts from the 12th through 18th centuries were destroyed, along with incunabula and printed works by Serbian authors and scholars from 1832 through 1941. Belgrade was reduced to rubble with hundreds of buildings damaged or destroyed.
Hitler made use of air bases in Hungary, Austria, Bulgaria, and Romania to bomb Yugoslavia and Greece. Hitler was determined to destroy Yugoslavia and Serbia. In all, during the German occupation of Belgrade, approximately 50,000 citizens of the city died.
Hitler sought to destroy the Serbian people and Serbia itself which he regarded as an obstacle to the emergence of a New Order in Europe. Pursuant to this objective, he detached Kosovo from Serbia and created a Greater Albania. Hitler created a Greater Croatia that included Bosnia-Hercegovina. Serbs, Jews, and Roma were targeted for extermination. Both Serbs and Jews were the victims of a planned and systematic genocide. Hitler wanted to make an example of Yugoslavia and Serbia. Defiance and opposition would not be tolerated in the New Order.
Hitler targeted both Serbs and Jews for destruction and elimination, as well as Gypsies, Roma and Sinti. The Nazi regime wanted to make Serbia "Juden frei", or Jew free, as well as “Zigeuner frei” or Gypsy free. Belgrade had a reputation as a tolerant, pluralist, and multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-religious community. The Nazi Chief of the Military Occupation Administration in Serbia, SS Gruppenfuehrer Harald Turner, even claimed that Serbia was the only country that was made Juden frei and Zigeuner frei by German occupation forces. This was not true. The Serbian population rallied to rescue Jews and Gypsies, who were welcomed in the Serbian resistance and guerrilla forces. But it showed the utter hatred and contempt Nazi Germany had for Serbia and for the Serbian people. This was due to the fact that Serbia refused to join the New Order in Europe, the European union of Nazi states under the leadership of Adolf Hitler.
The German occupation of Serbia was brutal. Serbian civilians were executed at random due to activities of the resistance movement. Serbian civilians were strung up and hanged from lampposts in Belgrade as an example of Nazi terror. Serbian civilians were randomly rounded up and executed and hung en masse to deter resistance. The Nazi bombing and invasion polarized the population that resulted in one of the largest anti-Nazi resistance movements in Europe.
The Nazi bombardment of Belgrade in 1941 was a traumatic and shocking event for those who witnessed it. Pulitzer Prize-winning Serbian-American poet Charles Simic recalled the bombing in A Fly in the Soup: Memoirs (2000) as follows:
“On April 6, 1941, when I was 3 years old, the building across the street was hit by a bomb at five in the morning and set on fire. Belgrade, where I was born, has the dubious distinction of having been bombed by the Nazis in 1941, by the Allies in 1944 and by NATO in 1999. The number of dead for that day in April in what was called by the Germans "Operation Punishment" ranges between 5,000 and 17,000, the largest number of civilian deaths in a single day in the first 20 months of war. The city was attacked by 400 bombers and more than 200 fighter planes on a Palm Sunday when visitors from the countryside swelled the capital's population. Whatever the true count is, Luftwaffe Marshal Alexander Lohr was tried for terror bombing and hung in 1945.Simic described life in Belgrade under German military occupation:
“The Germans are standing on the corner. We are walking by. ‘Don't look at them,’ my mother whispers. I look anyway, and one of them smiles. For some reason that makes me afraid.American photographer Ruth Mitchell, the sister of US aviation pioneer Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell, on assignment for a British publication, lived in Belgrade for over a year before the bombing. She witnessed the bombing and later described the event.
She was eating breakfast on that Sunday, April 6, in her house on Slavija Hill south of the Danube River when the bombardment began at 6:45 AM. She recalled: “Outside my windows, the dark-browed Serbian peasants, the men in somber black, the women in their bright embroidered clothes, passed unhurriedly but more silently, more grimly than usual to the early Sunday market. I watched them thoughtfully as I began to pour my tea and turned the short-wave radio knob.”
She heard a broadcast by German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop announcing that Hitler planned to punish the “clique of conspirators in Belgrade” and to “restore peace and security”. He announced that the bombing of Belgrade had already started although Mitchell could hear and see no evidence of this. The radio message was in German: “Die Bomben fallen und jetzt in diesem Augenblick steht schon ganz Belgrad in Flammen. [The bombs fall and already now this instant all Belgrade is in flames.]"
She heard “no sound but the jingling of milk carts in the streets and the shuffling of peasant feet. But it was coming, this raucously heralded doom.” Minutes later, she heard the first muffled explosions and heard the sound of the Stuka dive bombers. Some explosions occurred no more than thirty yards from her house, where she hid under the stairs with her cook:
“Bomb after bomb exploded all round us, some not more than twenty yards away. The effect was almost inconceivable. It wasn’t the noise or even so much the concussion; it was the perfectly appalling wind that was most terrifying. It drove like something solid through the house. Every door that was latched simply burst off its hinges, every pane of glass flew into splinters. The curtains stood straight out into the room and fell back in ribbons. With a weird, smooth sound like the tearing of silk, the neighboring houses began to collapse.”
The start time was 0515 for the attack. The first wave of bombing began with relays from bases in Austria and Romania with 150 bombers with fighter escorts flying at 15 minute intervals in three waves lasting 20 minutes. The bombing was for an hour and a half. The center of the city was targeted, where the government buildings were. Most of the Yugoslav aircraft were destroyed on the ground. Dive bombers flew at roof top level because there were no flak or anti-aircraft guns. Two German fighters were shot down while 22 Yugoslav fighters were downed, while 44 Yugoslav aircraft were destroyed on the ground. Coordination and control was not possible for the Yugoslav military command because one of the first buildings destroyed was the War Ministry building.
In the first bombing wave, there were more than 330 Axis warplanes, consisting of 74 dive bombers, 160 medium bombers, and 100 fighter aircraft. The Yugoslav Royal Air Force was made up of a total of 340 warplanes dispersed throughout Yugoslavia, many of which were destroyed on the ground when the air bases were bombed. By the end of the first day, Luftwaffe bombers had damaged or destroyed one-fourth of Yugoslavia’s warplanes. A Yugoslav defector from Croatia had given the German forces information on the locations of Yugoslav air bases across the country. On April 3, a Croat Air Force officer in the Yugoslav Air Force flew to Graz in Austria where he handed over to the German forces the highly classified plans of where Yugoslav air fields were dispersed. This treason was followed by another on April 8 when Croat troops in the Yugoslav Army attacked the Yugoslav First Army Group command in Vinkovci. The Yugoslav armed forces were not only unprepared for the Nazi assault, but were disorganized and disunited.
German propaganda policy was to create division in the Yugoslav armed forces by advocating the creation of an independent Greater Croatia, a Greater Hungary, a Greater Bulgaria, a Greater Italy, and a Greater Albania, all at the expense of Serbia. This was the salient feature of the German foreign policy strategy in Yugoslavia. The German government emphasized the fact that the Axis military operations were being conducted only against the Serbs. What resulted were large-scale resistance and guerrilla movements against the German occupation.
Yugoslavia and Greece were the only Balkan countries that opposed the Nazi New Order in Europe. Hungary, Albania, Romania, Italy, Austria, and Bulgaria were all a part of the Axis. These countries provided Hitler and the Luftwaffe with bases from which the attacks came. Long range bomber bases had been set up by the Third Reich in Wiener Neustadt in Austria and Sofia in Bulgaria. The fighter bases were in Arad, Deva, and Turnu-Severin in Romania. There were German air bases in Kaposvar, Hungary and Timisoara, Romania. Hitler had built up air bases and staging areas in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania in preparation for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. These forces were now tuned against Yugoslavia in a dry run of the invasion of the USSR. German military equipment, supplies, and troops had already been sent by rail to Bulgaria in the southern flank in preparation for Barbarossa.
The Luftwaffe had 1,570 aircraft at its disposal while Italy had 666 aircraft. The Axis had 2,236 aircraft available for the operation in total, consisting of 1,062 bombers, 885 fighters, and 289 reconnaissance aircraft. Yugoslavia had a total of 420 aircraft before the war, consisting of 60 Dornier Do-17 bombers, 47 Bristol Blenheim bombers, and 40 CM-79 bombers, 61 ME-109E fighters, 35 Hawker Hurricanes, 30 Hawker Fury fighters, and 6 Yugoslav-made Ikarus Ik-3. The Axis assembled 880 planes, including 280 bombers, Dornier Do-17, Junkers Ju-88, Heinkel He-111, and Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers; 280 ME-109F fighters, and 80 Me-110 fighters. The Axis used air bases in Albania, Hungary, Italy, Romania, Germany, and Bulgaria to attack Yugoslavia. In the ground war, Germany mustered 27 divisions while Yugoslavia had 24.
The alarm of the attack in Belgrade sounded at a quarter of seven. Many of the Yugoslav aircraft were obsolete and outmoded biplanes and the pilots lacked the training of the German and Axis pilots. But Yugoslavia did possess a number of state-of-the-art Messerschmitt ME-109 aircraft purchased from Germany before the conflict.
Mitchell described a second wave of bombing attacks against Belgrade:
“Again the bombs were falling, thick and fast, and on and on. Now far, then near, the Stukas shrieked and stooped...Mitchell described the “choking cordite fumes” that resulted from burning buildings and debris. She described the destruction of the police building in Belgrade, which was struck by German bombs:
“In one small second those heavy granite walls had been blown about the neighborhood in fragments. All the interior lay wrecked and naked to the eye, and the elevator, halfway up, hung loose, ridiculously helpless.She described how the War Ministry building was struck and destroyed. The US embassy in Belgrade was abandoned. The US was “neutral” at this time and was officially not in the war.
Fires were burning in the city as the incendiary bombs exploded:
“Soon I had to walk in the middle of the street, the heat too great on each side. Not a soul was doing anything to stop it, no one even turned to look. There was nothing that could be done. The water works had been the first German target: ‘Burn, Belgrade, burn!’”He was able to down a Luftwaffe bomber by shooting at it with his 7.9 mm guns.
Ruth Mitchell was able to leave Belgrade during a pause in the bombing sorties on that Sunday. She witnessed a Belgrade bomb shelter that had received a direct hit. She described the scene as a gaping hole with uprooted trees all around, the branches covered with “parts of human bodies, arms, legs, heads.” Mitchell recalled the attack on the air-raid shelter:
“Hurrying through a narrow choked passage, I came upon a sight I wish I might never have seen, for it will haunt me while I live.In the afternoon, the Luftwaffe dropped incendiary bombs on the city, which set off “towering fires”. She witnessed the bombing in the evening when Belgrade “seemed to be one blazing bonfire. Great tongues of flame would burst up suddenly, glare fiercely for a while, and slowly sink away. Germany had lit the great beacon of her ‘civilizing mission’ in the Balkans.”
Mitchell derided with contempt the German notion of a “civilizing mission” as a rationale for the bombing. This would be similar to the later “humanitarian intervention” rationale used by the US and NATO to bomb Belgrade in 1999. It was the same rationale: The ends justified the means. Adolf Hitler bombed Belgrade because he could. Bill Clinton bombed Belgrade because he could. Might makes right. Force prevails over every other consideration: “Only force rules.” As Hitler accurately noted: “The victor will never be asked if he told the truth.” Might creates its own reality on the ground. “Reality” for the victor is much different from the “reality” for the loser. The victor dictates or manufactures the “reality” at hand. Ruth Mitchell was the quintessential “advocacy journalist”, but for the Serbian position. She was a pro-Serbian advocacy journalist, a 1941 version of CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, who was an advocacy journalist for Bosnian Muslims and Albanians in the 1990s. Advocacy journalism did not originate with the 1992-95 Bosnian civil war. In all wars, there are advocacy journalists; in all wars, there are embedded journalists. She was the precursor of Christiane Amanpour, Anna Husarska, Cokie Roberts, and Georgie Ann Geyer in the 1990s. Bombing Belgrade did not originate with New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis either. The Serbs were Mitchell’s chosen “pet peoples” who could do no wrong. It is a condescending and patronizing attitude and always betrays self-interested motives and agendas. Wars come and go, but manipulation and deception and exploitation of human suffering do not change. Human nature does not change.
Mitchell witnessed the aftereffects of the bombing:
“We were without lights, but the house was on a little hillside with a free view over Belgrade. And Belgrade was burning.The Axis bombardment and air strikes went on for two days. The number of civilians killed was approximately 2,500. The exact number is not known. Estimates go as high as 17,000 for those killed and 50,000 wounded.
Like the bombardment of Guernica in 1937, Warsaw in 1939, Rotterdam and London and Coventry in 1940, the bombing of Belgrade in 1941 horrified the world, even the Nazis themselves. In his diary for April 7, Joseph Goebbels noted: “Horrifying reports of the air raid on Belgrade. This is the punishment they have earned.”
Ruth Mitchell wrote about the implications of the Belgrade bombing for the US and for US citizens as follows in 1943:
“The Serbs chose war. In spite of all the horrors they expected, this small race almost unanimously decided to oppose themselves against the greatest war machine of history. And in spite of the unexpected, unpredictable horrors that have befallen them, they still choose war….The 1941 bombing of Belgrade was a war crime. The organizers and leaders of the bombing were later arrested, tried, and sentenced for war crimes. Several of the organizers of the bombing were executed for war crimes. German Wehrmacht Field Marshal Ewald von Kleist commanded 1st Panzergruppe, which comprised XVIII and XL Panzer Corps, which spearheaded the assault on Yugoslavia in 1941. He was extradited to Yugoslavia in 1946 to face war crimes charges. He testified at his war crimes trial:
"The air raid on Belgrade in 1941 had a primarily political-terrorist character and had nothing to do with the war. That air bombing was a matter of Hitler's vanity, his personal revenge."One of the key prosecution charges was that the bombing was ordered without a declaration of war as mandated by international law. This resulted in unnecessary civilian deaths. Alexander Lohr, the commander of the Luftwaffe formations that bombed Belgrade, was tried and executed in Belgrade in 1946 for war crimes.
During the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, the bombing of Belgrade was discussed during the war crimes trial of Erhard Milch, Field Marshal of the Luftwaffe and Goering’s deputy. The session was for Monday, March 11, 1946. The questions were posed by Geoffrey Dorling Roberts, of the UK prosecution team. This is the relevant Nuremberg transcript:
“MR. ROBERTS: Whatever it reads in the translation, witness, would you agree that according to the entry in the diary, the Fuehrer was still looking for it, whether it was a reason or an excuse. Now I only want to ask you one more question on this aspect of the case.Luftwaffe Marshal, General der Flieger Alexander Löhr, was imprisoned in Yugoslavia from May 15, 1945 to February 26, 1946. He was tried on war crimes charges. He was found guilty of war crimes for the mass-murders of Yugoslav civilians and executed on February 26, 1946.