Italian military incompetence was also the reason Hitler had to send troops to North Africa… Germany’s participation in North Africa was not about German territorial expansion…
Why Germany Invaded Greece, Crete, North Africa and Yugoslavia
Keeping the lid on simmering tensions in the Balkans was a high priority for Germany during the war. Hitler told Italian Foreign Minister Ciano on July 20, 1940, that he attached “the greatest importance to the maintenance of peace in the Danube and Balkan regions.” The Germans were eager to prevent disturbance in the region, both to prevent further Soviet encroachment and to retain German access to oil from Romania. Impulsive Italian action against Yugoslavia could lead to Soviet intervention, and Italian action against Greece could let in the British through the back door.
In August 1940, German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop twice repeated to Italian Ambassador Dino Alfieri that Hitler wanted to keep peace in the Balkans. Despite these and other German warnings, Mussolini decided to attack Greece from occupied Albania on October 28, 1940. The Greek army was deemed to be weak, and Mussolini had expected a swift victory. Instead, the Greek forces fought valiantly, helped by good organization, knowledge of difficult terrain, and the superior motivation of troops protecting their homeland. The Italian campaign rapidly proved to be a fiasco, and what was supposed to have been an easy victory turned into a humiliation for Mussolini’s regime.
Within little over a week the Italians were forced to halt their offensive in Greece, and a week later the Italians were being pushed back over the Albanian border by a Greek counterattack. The Italian front finally stabilized about 30 miles within Albania. To make matters worse, the Italian fleet anchored at Taranto in southern Italy was severely damaged by a British torpedo attack in November 1940. Half of the Italian warships were put out of action, and Italian dreams of empire sank along with the ships. The balance of naval power in the Mediterranean was decisively altered with this highly successful attack.
The military situation in Greece could only be remedied with German help. This was a situation that both Mussolini and Hitler had hoped to avoid. Hitler had wanted the Balkans to remain quiet, but he could not ignore the threat now posed by intensified British military involvement in Greece. Hitler eventually decided in March 1941 that a major military operation would be necessary to evict the British from the whole of the Greek mainland. The German invasion of Greece to bail out Mussolini’s ill-fated invasion resulted in Greece’s surrender on April 23, 1941.
Hitler in his last testament in 1945 states his displeasure with Italy’s attack on Greece:
“But for the difficulties created for us by the Italians and their idiotic campaign in Greece, I should have attacked Russia a few weeks earlier.”
Hitler had unquestionably wanted Greece and the other Balkan countries to stay neutral during the war.
The remaining Greek, British and other Allied forces as well as the Greek government and King retreated to Crete. German airborne forces landed in Crete on May 20, 1941, and quickly seized control of the main airfields. A chaotic evacuation of British forces began on May 28, 1941, but more than 11,000 British troops were captured and nearly 3,000 British soldiers and sailors killed. The whole operation was a disaster for Great Britain. Churchill and his advisors conceded it had been a mistake to send troops to Greece in the first place.
Weary German paratroops of ll Sturm Regiment, Crete – Skartsilakis Dimitris Collection. Source.
Italian military incompetence was also the reason Hitler had to send troops to North Africa. Italy’s attempt to invade British-held Egypt from the Italian colony of Libya in December 1940 had been repulsed by a well-trained Anglo-Indian force of 35,000 men. Britain took 130,000 Italian prisoners and captured 380 tanks in this conflict. In April 1941, a force of 92,000 Italian and 250,000 Abyssinian soldiers was defeated at the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa by 40,000 British-led African troops. The Allies took control of Addis Ababa and the whole northeast part of Africa after this conflict.
Gen. Erwin Rommel arrived in Africa on February 12, 1941, with the assignment to rescue the situation in North Africa. Appointed to head the newly formed African Corps, Rommel was told to prevent any further Italian collapse in Libya. Building on his previous experience of combined air and armored warfare, Rommel’s troops took the key Libyan seaport of Tobruk in June 1942 and forced the British back deep into Egypt. Rommel was within striking distance of the Suez Canal, threatening a major British supply route with the potential to gain access to the vast oilfields of the Middle East.
Difficulties in supplying his troops by either land or sea eventually weakened Rommel’s position in North Africa. The British stood their ground at El Alamein, and the Allies recaptured Tobruk in November 1942. Rommel returned to Germany on sick leave in March 1943. Defeat in North Africa was complete when 250,000 Axis troops, half of them German, surrendered to the Allies in May 1943. The German invasion of North Africa had been designed to shore up Italian forces and later to possibly disrupt British oil supplies and gain access to Middle East oil. Germany’s participation in North Africa was not about German territorial expansion.
The German invasion of Yugoslavia was in response to an unexpected military takeover of that country. On the night of March 26-27, 1941, a group of Serb officers executed a coup and established military control of the Yugoslav government. Hitler stated in regard to the Yugoslavia coup:
“Although Britain played a major role in that coup, Soviet Russia played the main role. What I had refused to Mr. Molotov during his visit to Berlin, Stalin believed he could obtain indirectly against our will by revolutionary activity. Without regard for the treaties they had signed, the Bolshevik rulers expanded their ambitions. The [Soviet] treaty of friendship with the new revolutionary regime [in Belgrade] showed very quickly just how threatening the danger had become.”
The coup in Yugoslavia divided an already politically unstable country and provoked the Germans to denounce the illegitimate new government. Germany attacked Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941, and quickly defeated the Yugoslav military in 12 days. The defeat of Yugoslavia was made easier because Yugoslavia was not a nationally unified country, and large portions of its population did not support the new government. The Yugoslav army’s feeble resistance resulted in only 151 German fatalities during the brief campaign.
 Kershaw, Ian, Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941, New York: The Penguin Press, 2007, pp. 165-166.
 Ibid., pp. 130, 166.
 Ibid., p. 176.
 Ibid., pp. 177, 180.
 Fraser, L. Craig, The Testament of Adolf Hitler: The Hitler-Bormann Documents, p. 39.
 Evans, Richard J., The Third Reich at War, 1939-1945, London: Penguin Books, 2008, p. 155.
 Ibid., pp. 148-150.
 Ibid., pp. 467-468.
 Weber, Mark, “The Reichstag Speech of 11 December 1941: Hitler’s Declaration of War Against the United States,” The Journal of Historical Review, Vol. 8, No. 4, Winter 1988-1989, pp. 394-395.
 Keegan, John, The Second World War, New York: Viking Penguin, 1990, pp. 151, 155-156.