The Magician, Balkans, 11th April 1941 by David Pentland.
Hauptsturm fuhrer Fritz Klingenberg, and the men of 2nd SS Divisions Motorcycle Reconnaissance battalion stop at the swollen banks of the River Danube. The following day he and six men, a broken down radio, and totally unsupported were to capture the Yugoslavian capital of Belgrade.
Early in 1941, the mighty German Wehrmacht was stalled in the west at the English Channel, but Adolf Hitler and his generals were already putting the final touches on Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. At the same time, the Führer was planning on conquering North Africa to reach his dream of a Teutonic empire in the Middle East.
Success in these two huge endeavors hinged on the nations of the Balkans, and Hitler wooed Bulgaria, Rumania, and Hungary into his fold. Then, through only slightly veiled threats, Prince Peter of Yugoslavia agreed to become Hitler’s ally, signing a pact with the Third Reich on March 24, 1941.
In London, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was both furious and worried. Prince Peter had assured the British leader that Yugoslavia would remain neutral. So British agents in the capital of Belgrade coerced anti-Nazi Yugoslavian army and air force officers into launching an armed rebellion. Key points were seized in Belgrade, including the palace, where King Peter II was arrested and hustled off to exile in Greece.
General Dusan Simovic´, whose office in the Air Ministry had been the core of opposition to German penetration of Yugoslavia, took over the reins of government. When the sun set that day, the coup had been accomplished without bloodshed.
In Berlin, Hitler was fuming. He ordered his generals to “destroy Yugoslavia militarily and as a national unit.” He directed that the Luftwaffe bomb Belgrade with “unmerciful harshness.”
Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the diminutive, white-haired chief of the Abwehr who was in league with the British, learned of the forthcoming bombardment, code-named Operation Punishment, and secretly warned Yugoslav leaders. Consequently, Belgrade was declared an open city, for centuries a term meaning a place that was not going to be defended; therefore, it should be spared destruction.
On the morning of April 6, 1941, the Luftwaffe struck. In an action that lasted for three days and nights, Belgrade was devastated. Some 17,000 civilians were dead in the rubble. A sickening stench of death hovered over the once beautiful city of about a half-million population.
Hard on the heels of the massive Luftwaffe assault, German panzer and infantry divisions surged into Yugoslavia from three sides and raced toward Belgrade.
On the morning of April 12, a motorcycle assault company of the SS Das Reich Panzer Division approached the city along the northern bank of the Danube River at the eastern outskirts. The flood-swollen river seemed a barrier to the ravaged capital because the bridge over which the motorcycle vanguard had hoped to move had been blown up by the Yugoslavs.
Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Hauptsturmführer (SS Captain) Fritz Klingenberg could see the prize off in the distance, and he was determined to try to reach it even though he was far out in front with only a relative handful of men.
A diligent search turned up one motorboat, and in mid-afternoon, Klingenberg, along with a platoon leader, two sergeants, and five privates, scrambled into the small boat and headed for the far bank. Although nearly swamped by the raging river several times, the craft made the crossing. The SS men jumped onto the sandy shore, and Klingenberg waved his men onward, bound on a seemingly impossible task—capturing the sprawling capital with only himself and eight men.
Klingenberg banked on two factors—stealth and surprise. The Yugoslavs were still bogged down in confusion from the Luftwaffe bombing, and they wouldn’t be expecting to encounter a tiny band of German soldiers in the center of the city. The scenario unfolded almost precisely as the SS captain had envisioned.
Soon after leaving their motorboat, the SS group ran onto a contingent of twenty Yugoslavian soldiers. Shocked to encounter an enemy force in Belgrade, they surrendered without firing a shot. Minutes later, several military trucks loaded with soldiers approached the Germans, who fired a few rounds, and the mesmerized Yugoslavians capitulated.
The gods of war were still smiling on Klingenberg. One of the prisoners was an ethnic German who volunteered to be a guide and interpreter.
Taking over the captured trucks, Klingenberg and his eight soldiers headed for the Yugoslavian war ministry, but they found it an empty shell: the high command apparently had fled. So the SS men drove to the German legation, where the military attaché, who had remained during the Luftwaffe bombardment, greeted the newcomers enthusiastically. He was astonished, however, to learn that Klingenberg and only a few men had been masquerading as the entire potent Das Reich Panzer Division.
If the military attaché was stunned, no doubt Yugoslavian civilian authorities would also believe that an entire German division had penetrated the city. So Klingenberg launched a bold bluff. A Nazi swastika flag was run up the legation’s flagpole, and Klingenberg sent a Yugoslavian civilian to contact the mayor and tell him that Belgrade was in control of the Das Reich Division.
Two hours later, the mayor and several of his top officials arrived at the German legation to formally surrender. The trick had worked magnificently. It was not until the next day that panzers roared into Belgrade to back up Klingenberg and his eight men.
There was some confusion over who had captured Belgrade since three separate attacks were converging on the Yugoslav capital. The 8th Panzer Division, part of the German 2nd Army, was off the air for nearly 24 hours and then at 11.52 on April 15 the division's operations officer reported: "During the night the 8.Panzer-Division drove into Belgrade, occupied the city, and hoisted the Swastika flag".
However, the 2nd Army had better communications with Panzergruppe 1, who signalled before the 8th Panzer Division: "Panzergruppe von Kleist has taken Belgrade from the south. Patrols of Infanterie-Regiment 'Gross Deutschland' have entered the city from the north. With General von Kleist at the head, the 11 Panzer-Division has been rolling into the capital since 06.32".