Operation Retribution (1941)
Operation Retribution (German: Unternehmen Strafgericht) also known as Operation Punishment, was the codename used for the German bombing of Belgrade, the capital of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, in April 1941. The operation commenced on 6 April and concluded on 10 April, resulting in paralysis of Yugoslav civilian and military command and control, widespread destruction largely in the centre of the city, and significant civilian casualties. The bombing of Belgrade was combined with air attacks on a large number of Royal Yugoslav Air Force airfields and other strategic targets across Yugoslavia. The commencement of the bombing coincided with the German-led Axis invasion of Yugoslavia, which resulted in the surrender of Yugoslav forces on 17 April.
After the 1938 Anschluss (union) of Germany with Austria, Yugoslavia shared a border with Germany and came under increasing pressure as her neighbours fell into line with the Axis. In April 1939, Yugoslavia gained a second frontier with Italy when that country invaded Albania. Between September and November 1940, Hungary joined the Tripartite Pact, Italy invaded Greece, and Romania also joined the Pact. From that time, Yugoslavia was almost surrounded by Axis powers or their satellites, and her neutral stance toward the war was under tremendous pressure. On 14 February 1941, Adolf Hitler invited the Yugoslav Prime Minister Dragiša Cvetković and his foreign minister Aleksandar Cincar-Marković to Berchtesgaden and requested that Yugoslavia also join the Pact. Two weeks later, Bulgaria joined the Pact. The next day, German troops entered Bulgaria from Romania, closing the ring around Yugoslavia.
Further pressure was applied by Hitler on 4 March 1941, when the Yugoslav Regent, Prince Paul, visited Berchtesgaden, but Prince Paul delayed a decision. On 7 March, British troops began landing in Greece to bolster the defences of their Balkan ally against the Italians. Hitler, wanting to secure the southern flank of his impending invasion of the Soviet Union, demanded that Yugoslavia sign the Pact, and the Yugoslav government eventually complied on 25 March 1941. Two days later a military coup d'état was carried out by a group of Royal Yugoslav Air Force and Yugoslav Royal Guard officers, led by Brigadier General Borivoje Mirković. Prince Paul was deposed and replaced by the 17-year-old King Peter II who was declared to be of age.
On the same day as the Yugoslav coup d'état, Hitler issued Directive 25, which stated that the coup had changed the political situation in the Balkans. He ordered that "even if Yugoslavia at first should give declarations of loyalty, she must be considered as a foe and therefore must be destroyed as quickly as possible."
Hitler decided that Belgrade would be bombed in "retribution" for the coup against the government that had signed the Pact. In order to carry out Hitler's orders, on 27 and 28 March 1941 Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring transferred about 500 fighter and bomber aircraft from France and northern Germany. The commander of Luftflotte IV, Generaloberst (General) Alexander Löhr, allocated these aircraft to attack the Yugoslav capital in waves by day and night. Löhr issued his orders for the bombing on 31 March, but the decision to bomb Belgrade was not confirmed by Hitler until 5 April. Although Hitler ordered the general destruction of Belgrade, Löhr replaced these general directions with specific military objectives at the last minute.
On 6 April 1941, a massive air attack was unleashed on Belgrade and every airfield and installation of the Royal Yugoslav Air Force, without a declaration of war. Bombers and dive-bombers dropped 215–360 long tons (241–403 short tons) of bombs and incendiaries on the capital. The Luftwaffe units involved were commanded by Fliegerkorps VIII and included Kampfgeschwader (bomber wings) 2, 4 and 51, and Sturzkampfgeschwader (dive bomber wing) 77, with protection provided by the Jagdgeschwader 54 fighter wing.
The first wave of the assault, consisting of between 150 and 234 bombers and dive-bombers escorted by 120 fighter aircraft, descended on Belgrade at 07:00. In response, the Royal Yugoslav Air Force scrambled 20 Messerschmitt Bf 109s, 18 Hawker Hurricanes and six locally manufactured Rogožarski IK-3 fighter aircraft. Some Yugoslav Hurricane pilots engaged friendly Bf 109s as well as attacking Luftwaffe aircraft. About 50 Yugoslav aircraft were destroyed by the first wave of strikes. Later that day, three additional waves of German aircraft hit Belgrade, each consisting of about 100 aircraft. Bombing continued on 7 April.
The weak Royal Yugoslav Air Force and inadequate anti-aircraft defences of Belgrade briefly attempted to meet the overwhelming Luftwaffe assault, but were eliminated as threats during the first wave of the attack. Sources vary regarding the success achieved by the defenders. A U.S. Army study first published in 1953 states that the Luftwaffe lost two fighter aircraft, and shot down 20 Yugoslav aircraft and destroyed 44 on the ground, whereas other sources state that the Yugoslavs shot down 40 German aircraft over the two-day air battle. Dive-bombers in subsequent waves were able to operate at rooftop altitude.
According to the historian Professor Stevan K. Pavlowitch, the bombing of Belgrade lasted for three days, other sources state the air battle over Belgrade lasted just two days owing to poor flying weather on 8 April.
The most important cultural institution that was destroyed was the National Library of Serbia, which was hit by bombs and gutted by fire. Hundreds of thousands of volumes, rare books, maps, and medieval manuscripts were destroyed.
No. 37 Squadron of the Royal Air Force conducted two bombing raids on Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, in retaliation for the bombing of Belgrade. Operating Vickers Wellington bombers flying from an airfield in Greece, the squadron conducted raids on 6–7 April and 12–13 April, dropping a total of 30 long tons (34 short tons) of high-explosive bombs on railway targets and nearby residential areas. These raids were carried out despite the fact that Britain was not at war with Bulgaria until 12 December 1941.
The bombing of Belgrade paralysed communications between the Yugoslav military and its headquarters, and contributed decisively to the rapid collapse of Yugoslav resistance.
Civilian casualties were significant, but sources vary widely from 1,500 to 17,000 killed. According to the journalist William Stevenson, around 24,000 corpses were recovered from the ruins, and many were never found. The official casualty figure soon after the bombing was 2,271 killed, but other sources use 5,000 or 10,000, with later Yugoslav estimates ranging even higher. In contrast, Professor Jozo Tomasevich states that the higher estimates were downgraded following "careful postwar investigations", and indicates that a figure between 3,000 and 4,000 is more realistic.
Following the Yugoslav capitulation, Luftwaffe engineers conducted a bomb damage assessment in Belgrade. The report stated that 218.5 metric tons (215.0 long tons; 240.9 short tons) of bombs were dropped, with 10–14 percent being incendiaries. It listed all the targets of the bombing, which included: the royal palace, the war ministry, military headquarters, the central post office, the telegraph office, passenger and goods railway stations, power stations and barracks. It also mentioned that seven aerial mines were dropped, and that areas in the centre and northwest of the city had been destroyed, comprising 20–25 percent of its total area. Some aspects of the bombing remain unexplained, particularly the use of the aerial mines. In contrast to this report, Pavlowitch states that almost 50 percent of housing in Belgrade was destroyed. After the invasion, the Germans forced 3,500 to 4,000 Jews to collect rubble that was caused by the bombing.
Löhr was captured by the Yugoslav Partisans on 9 May 1945, escaped, and was recaptured on 13 May. He was intensively interrogated, after which he was tried before a Yugoslav military court on a number of war crimes charges, one of which related to his command of Luftflotte IV during Operation Retribution. He was convicted, sentenced to death and executed.
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