Eighty years ago, the Balkans slip further towards instability


 The Balkans were taking centre stage, as the battle lines were drawn for the European conflict to widen yet again. In purely military terms, things went from bad to worse for Italy, the Axis power actively waging war in the region. On the diplomatic plane, the balance of power was clearly shifting towards the Axis. The collapse of France had created a brief vacuum; Britain did not possess the military resources or credibility remotely to fill this; Germany was the ultimate decision-maker even though the local political conditions in each country obscured this reality.

The Greek counter-offensive against the Italian invasion gathered pace. The city of Koritza fell to the Greeks. In celebration a Te Deum for the victory was sung in the city’s cathedral, it was a victory of Orthodox over Catholic Christianity. So long as the Greeks were fighting in regions of mixed religions they could depend on large support from their co-religionists. The Italian army could do little to halt the Greek advance into Albania at a military level, but as the Greek army moved into ever-more Muslim districts, it began to look like just another foreign invader. British involvement was still restricted to small-scale air force participation, but it was never very probable that Hitler would allow Mussolini’s failure to conquer Greece to leave a potential foothold for more serious British intervention in the Balkans. It was beginning to look like only a matter of time before German bailed out its Fascist partner.

Few believed that the extension of the Axis as an alliance system in the Balkans was anything but a German project in which Italy was no more than a passenger. In quick succession Hungary and Rumania joined the Axis, albeit as manifestly junior partners. They were simply bowing to Germany’s unarguable predominance throughout Europe. They could only guess where this might take them ultimately but they had little choice. The region’s most notable stand-out at this point was Bulgaria which resisted powerful pressure to join the Axis. The grounds given were ludicrously improbable but deeply suggestive. Bulgaria claimed that it would only join if the USSR did. Bulgaria was trying to sit on a fence, in the desperate hope that one of two unlikely possibilities would save its bacon. If Greece were somehow to emerge as a serious military power in the region, Bulgaria hoped that it might be rewarded for not helping Italy. If the USSR were to switch to an active diplomatic policy in the Balkans, Bulgaria could dream of some status as an ally.

Whilst Bulgaria succumbed to diplomatic pipedreams, Rumania experienced the hideous reality of Fascism blended with Balkan domestic politics. General Antonescu’s conservative military regime had allied with the Hora Sima’s Fascist Iron Guard to consolidate its power when it deposed King Carol, but the ambitions of the Iron Guard were far from satisfied. The Iron Guard set out to exact vengeance for the murder of its former leader Codreanu on the orders of King Carol. 76 political detainees  in Jilava military prison were killed out of hand along with a former prime minister, General Argeseanu, who they blamed for Codreanu’s death. As well as being a piece of run-of-the-mill Balkan vendetta culture, the killings served as a challenge to Antonescu. None of this made for any great stability and the position was further complicated by divisions in the Germany side: foreign minister von Ribbentrop backed Antonescu but the SS favoured the Iron Guard.

The precariousness of wartime air travel in that era made itself felt yet again, showing how chance could shape careers and perhaps campaigns. The Wellington carrying Air Marshal Owen Boyd to his new posting as deputy to the beleaguered AOC Middle East Arthur Longmore was forced down by Italian fighters in Sicily and Boyd was taken prisoner. Boyd had been Churchill’s pick for the job and his capture meant that Longmore’s preferred candidate, Arthur Tedder got the job in his place. Tedder was soon to replace Longmore and build a great reputation as the allied air commander in the theatre.