Axis military efforts in the Balkans, compared with the rest of Europe, had not gone well. Italy had invaded Greece in October 1940 but was pushed back into Albania. Germany then put pressure on Yugoslavia to join the Axis, as Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria had done earlier. Prince Regent Paul of Yugoslavia relented and signed the pact on March 25, 1941.
However, nationalist forces violently opposed the idea and carried out a coup. That led Hitler to view Yugoslavia as a hostile state; he decided to bomb Belgrade in retribution. On April 6, 1941, the Axis Powers (Hungary, Italy, led by Germany) invaded Yugoslavia, killing thousands of civilians and soldiers and capturing another quarter million; Yugoslav forces were unable to stop the bombardments or the advance of ground forces. The invasion ended with the unconditional surrender of the Royal Yugoslav Army on April 17.
On the same day, Axis forces invaded Greece through Bulgaria but initially was met with stiff resistance from Greek and British forces. Although the Axis ultimately succeeded in controlling the Balkans, the setbacks did delay Germany’s invasion of the USSR, which may have undermined Hitler’s quest to conquer Russia.
James Bonbright, Second Secretary in Belgrade (1941), describes his time within the city as it was targeted by the initial wave of attacks from the Nazis and what it was like living in the bombarded capital, including his everyday struggle for food and water. Herbert Brewster, Clerk in Embassy Athens (1940-42), discusses the tense atmosphere that permeated Athens in the time he was there.
Peter Jessup interviewed James Bonbright beginning in March 1986. Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed Herbert Brewster beginning in 1991. You can read other Moments on World War II.
“Unhappily for them, it was the death warrant and Hitler made it perfectly clear that he wasn’t going to accept this”
James Cowles Hart Bonbright, Second Secretary, Embassy Belgrade, 1941
Q: How much in the atmosphere was there that war was inevitably descending?
BONBRIGHT: It was pretty evident all the time. All winter the pressures kept mounting. The atmosphere was very bad. The government of the Prince Regent was leaning more and more towards the Axis, despite all our efforts and the efforts of the British legation….
Things came to a head in March, on the 25th. To our dismay, they [Yugoslavia] signed the Axis Pact. The reaction, however, rather surprised us, it was so strong, and two days later a revolt took place under the leadership of an Air Force General Simovich, who threw out the previous government and canceled the adherence to the Axis Pact.
In all my life I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a spontaneous roaring reaction to any event. The people poured into Belgrade from the towns all around it. Everybody in town was out on the street. I’ve never seen such jubilation. This was obviously very deeply felt. Unhappily for them, it was the death warrant for them, and Hitler made it perfectly clear that he wasn’t going to accept this.
Q: It was, in a way, an intense expression of nationalism, wasn’t it?
BONBRIGHT: Yes, I think so. These were very active days for us, and we were doing our best to keep in touch with the government and give them such moral support as we could. But in the end, April 5th, the British legation informed us that the German attack was expected on the next day. This information came from intercepts made of military messages….
“The whole city was a sitting duck”
Q: The British went to the coast because they could be evacuated by naval ships?
BONBRIGHT: Yes, a destroyer picked them up down there somewhere. I don’t think they were able to stop in Greece; I think they went on to Egypt. If they got to Greece, it was for a very brief time. Yes, the Germans must have been down already towards Greece and Crete.
The next morning the British news proved to be correct. Around 7:00 o’clock the first waves of German bombers came up and down the Danube and flew over the city. There was practically no defense. There was a little anti-aircraft firing for a while, a handful of fighter planes went up and got into some dog fights, but they were put out of action in no time at all. I can’t say it was really any defense. Of course, as soon as any air defense was dissipated, anti-aircraft was inconsequential.
There was nothing to prevent the German planes from flying as low as they pleased. The whole city was a sitting duck. A day or two before the invasion, the government had declared that Belgrade and Ljubljana and Zagreb as open cities in hopes that they would not be bombed. This was a gesture which many Germans ignored. The only real meaning it had was in connection with Belgrade. There was never any danger of either Zagreb or Ljubljana being bombed. The Croatian Ustashi movement [an ultra-nationalist, terrorist organization] was already going strong, and they, of course, were far from being a danger to the Germans.
There was a heavy bombardment in the morning and another one around 11:00 that same morning and a third one around 4:00 that afternoon, and then one more the following morning, and that was it. It was plenty….
Most of the bombing was in the residential and business sections. There were no possible military targets there. A few large bomb shelters had been dug, and some of these were hit. Of course, many, many people were sheltered. The whole city was on fire practically, and there was a very strong wind blowing, which looked as though the fire would do even more damage than the bombs. Oddly enough, the fires didn’t spread all that much after the first day or so….
The guesses [on fatalities] ranged from 3,000 to 20,000; we thought that the first one was too low and the second one was too high. The German legation themselves, I think, estimated about 7,000, which may have been about right. They ought to know.
Anyway, as far as the first attack, we were all pretty well confined to our homes. When things eased off momentarily, we all headed for town to the Minister’s [equivalent of a head of mission] residence, where we found him and Mrs. Lane safe, but it had been a close call. They lived in a row of townhouses, and the house on one side of them had been hit, and the explosion pulled the wall out of part of the Minister’s house. It was still habitable, but not really in very good shape. It was decided then that it was a poor place for them to be, and they went out to Dedinje and took up [there]….
It was a good time to move, because the morning after that…the house on the other side of the Minister’s residence was hit, pulling out that wall. So he would have been in a bad way. It looked as though they were aiming for him, we thought. [That] was on Easter Sunday, April 6th.
After we got the Minister started packing up and out, I drove down to the middle of the city to have a look at the damage, and it was very, very considerable — tangled wires, poles in the streets, a lot of fire, a lot of broken glass. I was luckily able to help a few people move away from the center out further to the outskirts of the city.
“We lived on dried beans and rice and a salad made of dandelion greens”
I also wanted to see what was going on in the Foreign Office, to see if there was anything there we could do. I ran there into Stoyan Gavrilovich, who had been a good friend of ours, and he was the top sort of political career man and well-liked. But the place had gone crazy. Nobody was in charge; everybody was going his own way as best he could….
I had gotten to Dr. Gavrilovich, and I was happy to give him a ride. I didn’t tell anyone this at the time, but he did not ask to be taken to his home where his wife and children were. I took him to the home of his girlfriend. We got her out of her house, and she had some family out on the outskirts somewhere. I took her out there and we dropped her off. As a result of this — I can think of no other reason — long after, I received a commendation for aiding the government, obviously written by my friend Gavrilovich.
Everything pretty well stopped of a normal time and for a few days there we spent most of our time scrounging around for food and water. Electricity, of course, was out. We all had put in our houses a limited supply of dried beans and rice, those sorts of staples, and luckily there was a roadside spring which was only a couple of miles from our house. There we filled up these big five-gallon demi-jugs of good water and filled all our tubs and anything that would hold water for the houses. So that helped.
For greenery and vegetables, of course, we had nothing, no meat, nothing. So for quite a while, we lived on these dried beans and rice and a salad made of dandelion greens, which were all over our garden by the thousands. They were a welcome addition to the diet, but I’ve never looked at one since with any desire to taste it. They’re not my favorite.
“The Yugoslav uprising upset the German timetable — That delay may have been an important gain for the Russian defense”
Q: At this time were roads south and west clogged with people fleeing in anticipation of the Germans, or were they just staying there?
BONBRIGHT: They were out in the country. They didn’t have much warning. There was no place for them to go. At the end, when the troops got closer, of course, people from towns in the way, there was some influx of refugees, but I don’t think it was anything like what it was in France.
The Germans did a little harassing. They never stopped trying to take our automobiles away from us, even though we had the American flag and had papers attesting to the source. But by screaming loudly and demanding to see a superior officer and constant protests to the German minister in the town, they finally let us alone pretty much.
Eventually — it wasn’t too damn long either — it was about a month we were there like that, then the Army disintegrated in the field, so Colonel Fortier came back after only a couple of days from the staff. The government, they got down to the coast and some of them, including my friend Gavrilovich, were evacuated by the British destroyer. So Fortier came back, and there we were. Not much to do.
I used to go every day to the meeting of these colleagues, where there was a lot of talk and absolutely nothing accomplished. Finally, the Germans got sick of having us around.
Q: As they had in Brussels.
BONBRIGHT: Yes. They wanted us to get out. This was quite understandable, I think.
I should say here that I’ve wondered many times since what would have happened if General Simovich had not led a revolt that overthrew the Axis Pact. In the long-run, of course, he would have lost the war, just as other countries of that area did.
But physically, they would probably not have taken the beating that they took from the German Air Force. From our point of view, there is one very clear and definite advantage that came out of it: the Yugoslav uprising upset the German timetable. They launched their invasion of Russia about June  and we always thought that they had planned to start it sooner.
This diversion created delays for them, not only the troops that were sent in to Yugoslavia, but when they came in, they had to be taken out again and got into the pipelines, so to speak. That following winter, that delay may have been an important gain for the Russian defense.
“We burned all of our cables, we disposed of things, that was one of our big chores”
Herbert Daniel Brewster, Clerk, Embassy Athens, 1940-1942
Q: How did we react when the Germans came through, defeated the Yugoslavs and came down? What did the Embassy do?
BREWSTER: The Germans move went through Yugoslavia and arrived at the Greek border April 6, 1941. It took them 22 days to make it to Athens and raise the swastika on the Acropolis.
With their very fast move through and with the British retreating, we were by that time looking at the job of taking over British interests. It was obvious that we would be doing that as long as we could.
It was a hectic wartime period. We burned all of our cables, we disposed of things, those were our big chores. The Germans came through. One sidebar on it is that the British left 80 cars down on the beach at Varkiza as they pulled out on the ships. The Embassy had thirteen people and we were able to sequester one car apiece. It was my first vehicle — a 1937 Ford convertible. I did not know how to drive but I got an Embassy driver who helped me learn fast. But that was April 27 and we were closed down by June 10th.
We were closed down because the United States closed down the Italian Consulate General in Chicago, and the Italians equated Athens with the consulate general. They said, “You do that and we will kick you out.” And so we left. This was six months before Pearl Harbor.
Q: In the meantime, did we have much to do with the German occupying army or the Italian occupiers?
BREWSTER: With the Italians. The Germans went right through and turned over matters to the Italians administratively, so we did have some actions with the Italians at that point. They were the ones who communicated the order to close down; it may have come from Rome.
So everybody there [in the embassy]…went to Rome and then waited for eight weeks for visas to go through the occupied Balkans to Istanbul and Cairo, respectively….Burton Berry came to Istanbul and opened a listening post there for the Balkans.
Q: Before you left Greece, during the time of the occupation, what was the attitude of the Greeks?
BREWSTER: They were mourning the Greek-Albanian front campaign, which was still going on. There were heavy losses in that battle. You were in a war situation. When the British left, many soldiers hid in Greek homes and were around and the Italians were trying to round them up. Many preferred to stay there or didn’t get away in time.
In fact I was on a trolley one day and because I looked like someone who could very well have been a British soldier who had gotten lost, there was someone in the back making signs to me to get off, get off. Finally I did get off, and he came around and said, “They are looking for you; I know that man, he’s with the secret police and they are after you”. (They had some Greeks who were working with the other side.)
Nothing happened from it, but it was the sort of atmosphere you were in. It was tense.