Staten Island Web logo

Pentagon, NATO studying Nazi quagmire in Yugoslavia - John Diamond AP.

Pentagon and NATO officials considering ground troop options for Yugoslavia are studying the history of Yugoslav resistance during World War II, when hundreds of thousands of German soldiers failed to pacify determined guerrilla opposition.

The Nazi campaign was called "Operation Punishment" reflecting Adolf Hitler's rage after Yugoslav partisans who overthrew their own government after Belgrade made a pact with Berlin. The campaign was well named - Yugoslav civilians were attacked with an intensity far beyond anything NATO would contemplate.

In the end, though, the Wermacht took plenty of punishment. And five decades later the campaign offers lessons for any force reckoning to do battle with the hardy "South Slavs" who plague the German army in a costly guerrilla war.

When NATO first studied ground troop operations last fall, Clinton administration planners cited the German experience as one reason to rule out ground troop as an option in the Kosovo crisis.

"We always look at historical campaigns - that's something we always do" when planning a deployment, said Maj. Shelly Stwellagen, an Army spokeswoman. But she cautioned, "History alone is not enough - you've got to look at the big picture."

After insisting for weeks that no plans for ground troops were in the works, top Clinton administration officials now concede that some contingencies were studied and that plans could quickly be activated if NATO decided on a ground assault.

U.S. lawmakers, frustrated with the continuing ethnic cleansing in the Kosovo province of Yugoslavia despite a three-week NATO air campaign, are pushing a resolution to authorize ground troops.

Pentagon planners said they were careful not to overdo the comparison of two markedly different armies fighting with different equipment in different political contexts. But the difficulty of the terrain and the stubbornness of the Yugoslav people remain powerful common denominators, they said.

The German invasion force of nearly 200,000 - a figure some U.S. officials have cited as necessary to invade Yugoslavia today - fluctuated after 1941 from a low of 60,000 to a high of 700,000. Through it all, the Germans were never able to quell multiple and dogged Yugoslav resistance forces.

An official U.S. Army history of the campaign, written in the early 1950's contained a warning for any future force contemplating challenging Yugoslavia on the ground.

"The success achieved by the (Yugoslav) guerillas against the Germans ... strengthened considerably the tradition of resistance to foreign occupational forces," the army historian concluded. " there is little doubt that a foreign invader today, whether from East or West, would be confronted with a formidable task of pacification following a successful campaign against the regular forces of the Balkan nations."

As Hitler planned "Operation Barbarossa," the German invasion of the Soviet Union, he wanted to secure his southern flank by neutralizing Greece. To do that he needed Yugoslavia's cooperation, and in early 1941 he thought he had it.

But Hitler badly misjudged the sentiments of the Yugoslav people.

A coup in March 1941 toppled Yugoslavia's royal government, setting a precedent that undoubtedly influences the thinking of Yugoslavia's current leadership: Governments that cave in to foreign pressure will be ousted from within.

Hitler, in a rage, ordered the carpet-bombing of Belgrade.

Hitler's War Directive No. 25 said, " The ground installations of the Yugoslav air force and the city of Belgrade will be destroyed from the air by continual day and night attacks." The strikes began 58 years ago this month, on April 6, 1941.

The Germans aimed specifically at killing civilians during the 48 hours of near-continuous bombing. Hitler wanted to spare Yugoslavia's factories for his own use. NATO, by contrast, claims it has been seeking to avoid civilian casualties while aiming at destroying Yugoslav military and weapon installations. The Germans used 1,000 attack and escort aircraft in those 48 hours. NATO has employed 700 - soon to be 1,000 - strike and support aircraft in three weeks of attacks.

Estimated death totals from the Nazi bombing range widely, but published German and American estimates put the total as high as 17,000.

The German ground invasion consisted of a dozen divisions - roughly 180,000 troops - supplemented by forces from its allies, Bulgaria and Italy. German forces completed the conquest of the Balkins in 11 days.

But the lighting conquest only began Germany's troubles.

Despite brutal tactics, summary executions and wholesale burning of villages, German forces assaulted guerrilla strongholds again and again, only to see the rebels slip into the hills and forests. By mid-1943, the U.S. Army history recounted, "It was obvious that more German troops would be required if the Balkans were to be held."

Total German forces peaked at 700,000 at the beginning of 1943, though many of those troops were either green or battle-weary veterans resting from the Russian front, many other were elite mountain troops desperately needed on other fronts. No precise casualty figures exist for German forces in Yugoslavia, but it is estimated to be well into the hundreds of thousands.

Belgrade fell to the westward-marching Russians on Oct. 20, 1944.

Staten Island WebŪ Forums Index.