Map of Bulgaria during World War 2. [Source: Gotsev D. sp. Macedonian Pregled, br.3 / 2004 (or. Гоцев Д. сп. Македонски преглед, бр.3/2004]
Even though Germany was the most powerful country in the Axis, many other countries formed the coalition. Bulgaria was one of them. The Tsardom of Bulgaria did not participate in the Great Patriotic War (they only sent a medical unit, as we will see) but they use many troops against partisans, so we can say that it did participate on it indirectly, as it freed many German units that were send to the Eastern Front. This is the summary of Bulgaria in World War 2.
Bulgaria had a population of 6.319.000 inhabitants and its area was 103.100 square kilometres in 1938. From October, 1918 on Tsar Boris the III was the Head of State and in 1939 Georgi Kyoseivanov (1940-9/9/1943: Bogdan Filov; 9/9/1943-14/9/1943: Petar Gabrovski; 14/09/1943-1/6/1944: Dobri Bozhilov and 1/6/1944-2/9/1944: Ivan Ivanov Bagryanov) was the Prime Minister. Despite Kyoseivanov was the Prime Minister, his government was little more than Tsar’s puppet. The regime has inclination towards fascism, especially when Filov was in charge.
After World War I, Bulgaria lost some territories as it was Germany’s ally and they lost the war. Bulgaria wanted those territories back and that was one of the reasons of the future Bulgarian Pro-Axis politics.
Just before the start of the war, Bulgaria was in a very difficult position. The war was about to start and, as the other countries in the region, Bulgaria had to decide which country to support. Elites and the military command wanted to support Nazi Germany while people preferred to support the Soviet Union. The Tsar would choose the fascist if he would be forced to support one or the other.
When Germany launched its offensive in Poland, Great Britain and France pressured Bulgaria, as they wanted a neutral Bulgaria. The Tsar declare neutrality on September 16th. France was defeated in June, 1940 and, then the Allies stopped pressuring Bulgaria, but pressure appeared from the other side.
Bulgarians entering Southern Dobrudzha, 1940
That month, Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Miniter, requested the return of the areas Romania got in 1919. It is important to notice that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact (Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) in August 1939, so the relations between them were not hostile at that moment. Finally, on September 7th, 1940 Hitler forced Romania to sign a treaty (Treaty of Craiova) in which Bulgaria got Southern Dobrudza, the same area Bulgaria lost in 1919.
In October 1940, Italy attacked Greece and, from the very beginning, it was a disaster. Even though Bulgaria was not part of the Axis yet, it allowed the entrance of some German engineers and Luftwaffe personnel. Eventually, Bulgaria acceded to the Axis Tri-Partite Treaty (Hitler demanded this some times before, but Boris did not agree) on March 1st, 1941, allowing the use of its military facilities and railway.
Bulgaria as belligerent
Using Bulgaria as a springboard, Nazi Germany quickly conquered Yugoslavia and Greece. Bulgaria, as it become an Axis member in March, was awarded with almost the entire Yugoslavian Macedonia, a little Serbian area and Greek Thrace (Bulgarian called it Belomorie). Even though the country did not take part in the offensive, Bulgarian Army entered both countries as soon as the clashes finished, as occupation unit.
Bulgaria lost World War I and due to that, its army was limited to 20.000 men, including internal forces and border guards. But as well as Germany, it started rearming from 1934 on. During the spring of 1941, the Bulgarian Armed Forces were composed by 230.000 men divided in:
- 16 infantry divisions
- 2 cavalry divisions
- 1 motorized brigade
- 7 air regiments (in 1940: Around 300 combat aircrafts, 10 seaplanes, 9 airfields; Some German and French aircrafts were received during 1941).
- Special and service units
- 4 old torpedo-boats
- 2 motor torpedo-boats
- 2 training sailing-ships
When Macedonia was given to Bulgaria, the manpower was used for the creation of the 5th Army. When its formation finished, the Armed Forces grew to:
- 21 infantry division.
- 2 independent cavalry brigades
- 2 brigades of border guards
- 1 armoured brigade
Repression and anti-Semitism
Bulgarian invasion of Macedonia (Yugoslavia), April 1941
When the Army entered Macedonia, at the beginning most of the people welcomed them, but the conquerors started a brutal policy of Bulgarization, so they lost people’s confidence. In Belomorie (Greek Thrace) the occupation was even more savage. Bulgaria started a Bulgarization there too, but people who did not accept it were deported or murdered. Many businesses and lands were confiscated and Bulgarians were sent to take charge of them. When the Greek revolted, the occupation forces executed as many as 15.000.
During the occupation, Hitler pressured the Tsar to apply some anti-Semitic laws. 11.000 Jews were sent from Macedonia and Greek Thrace to Treblinka, one of the Extermination camps used by the Nazis. Most of them were killed there. When the German asked for Bulgarian Jews, the Tsar sent them to labour camps but he did not deport them to Germany. Some sources stat that the Tsar and his wife Princess Goivanna of Savoy avoid any deportation, saving 50.000 Jews.
Fighting against Partisans
When Nazi Germany declared war on the Soviet Union, Bulgaria did not. The Germans wanted a Bulgarian legion to be used in the Eastern Front but the Tsar denied, as well as the joining of Bulgarian to the SS, but finally he sent a medical unit. Anyway, Bulgaria did not fight against the Soviet Union because the Tsar knew that people would revolted, as they have a good impression of Soviet people.
As soon as the Soviet-German War started, the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Workers’ Party (the Communist Party of Bulgaria) started organizing the partisan movement to fight against German occupation forces and Bulgarian regime. On June 26th, 1941 the First Bulgarian Partisan Detachment was formed in Upper Dzumaya. In June 1942 the Fatherland Front (it stipulated the relations with the Axis, the start of co-operation with Soviet Union and the Allies, the abolition of Bulgaria’s monarchist-fascist regime and the proclamation of popular-democratic rule) was founded, been crucial in the Liberation. From June 1941 to December 1942, the partisans carried out 520 actions.
The defeat of the 6th German Army in Stalingrad and the good job carried out by the Yugoslavian Army of National Liberation were the turning point of the partisan movement. The movement was reorganized into 12 partisan operational zones and a Partisan General Staff was created. The power of the movement grew and in mid-1944 its strength was: 20.000 partisans, 20.000 resistance members and 10.000 fighters of separate groups.
Of course, Bulgarian regime tried to destroy these partisan units but they were unable to do it even though the government rewarded for the heads of partisans. The Bulgarian Armed Forces fought against partisans not only in Bulgaria but in Yugoslavia too, participating in the repression. For example, two Bulgarian army regiments were used during Operation Schwarz (also named Fifth Enemy Offensive or Battle of the Sutjeska) to try to destroy the main Yugoslavian partisan units, but they were unable to achieve their goal.
Between 1941 and 1944, 9.150 Bulgarian partisans and over 20.000 members of the resistance were killed, 31.540 people were sent to concentration/extermination camps. From 1942 until September 9th, 1944 60.345 resistance/partisans-related Bulgarians were arrested and 12.461 were sentenced to death.
Fighting against the Allies
Bulgaria declared war on USA and Great Britain on December 13th, 1941 but the German defeat in Stalingrad changed governors mind quickly. Several diplomats started offering peace to the Allies but among the conditions to sign it, they wrote that Bulgaria would keep its territorial gains. Obviously, the Allies rejected the offer.
In 1943, the Allies started with the Strategic Bombing of Romanian oilfields. Bulgarian Air Force was too weak for attacking allies air raids but Bulgarian anti-aircraft units help Luftwaffe.
On August 28th Tsar Boris died when he was 49 years old, and his son Simeon replaced him as Tsar Simeon II. The bombing of Sofia started in late 1943. Those bombings threatened people and Bulgarians started to blame on the government for joining the Axis while the partisans continue growing. Bulgaria started again with the peace offers, but the Allies wanted an unconditional surrender, so they did not agree nothing.
On August 26th, 1944 the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Workers’ Party issued a directive explaining the armed uprising that had to be done. The Red Army was near the border and on September 2nd the Soviet Union sent an ultimatum ordering Bulgaria to kick out German troops from its country. The government collapsed.
Red Army entering Sofia, September 9th, 1944
Three days after the Soviet Union declared war on Bulgaria and three days after it, September 9th, 1944 the Fatherland Front took-over the government and established the first popular-democratic government with Kimon Georgiev as Prime Minister (that was the second time Georgiev was Prime Minister of Bulgaria; the first one from 19/05/1934 to 22/1/1935). Finally, one day after, September 10th, 1944 Bulgaria declared war on Germany. Later, it signed an armistice with the Allies on October 10th, 1944 but it lost all the occupied territories except Southern Dobruja, the territory Romania got in 1919 but was returned to Bulgaria in 1940.
Fighting against Axis
Bulgarian paratroopers entering Kumanovo, November 1944
The new rulers purged Nazis from the military and reorganized the army, including the incorporation of political officers. They fought against the German troops and their collaborators that where in Bulgaria and its occupied territories of Macedonia and Greek Thrace. On September 19th-20th, a general mobilization took place, mobilizing 450.000 soldiers (40.000 volunteers) that were distributed in: 16 infantry divisions, one cavalry division, 2 cavalry brigades, one armoured brigade and two brigades of border guards. On September 9th, Bulgaria had 196 tanks: 88 Panzer IV, 36 Škoda, 10 Praga, 20 light Horch armoured cards, 40 Renault T35s, 9 Vickers E and 14 Fiat CV-3. The Soviet Union gave some tanks to the Bulgarian Army want it took control of it (more information regarding Bulgarian Army tanks in (2)).
Since September 17th, the 1st, 2nd and 4th Bulgarian armies fought against the German troops that where retreating from Greece and the rest of occupied countries in the area. They liberated, among others, Kumanovo and Skopje. Bulgarian Air Force and Navy also took part in the actions against Germany. By the end of 1944, when the Red Army and the rest of Soviet allies were fighting along the Danube, a brand new 1st Army was formed. Before the end of the war, it participated in the liberation of Slovenia and finish its way in Austria in May 1945. Combating the Axis, 31.360 Bulgarian soldiers were killed or wounded.
After the World War 2
After the war, on September 15th, 1946 Bulgaria became People’s Republic of Bulgaria. In June 1990, the Bulgarian Socialist Party won the elections and one year after the country adopted a new Constitution, becoming a capitalist country again, even though the change did not improve the quality of people during 1990s.
Bulgarians entering a village in Greek Thrace, April 1941
Bulgarian troops advacing through Macedonia, October 1944
Bulgarian Panzer IV in March 1945. It has red stars not to be confussed with German Panzers IV
Sofia welcoming Bulgarian 1st Army after returning from Austria, June 17th, 1945
(1) “Bulgarian Armed Forces of WWII”. Bulgarian Armed Forces of WWII. 26 Aug. 2018 <http://members.tripod.com/~marcin_w/index-bul.html>.
(2) “Bulgarian Tanks in World War 2”. Tank Encyclopedia. 26 Aug. 2018 <http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com/ww2/bulgaria/bulgarian-tanks-in-world-war-2>
(3) Hans Johnson. “Bulgaria in WW2.” Armchair General. 26 Aug. 2018 <http://armchairgeneral.com/bulgaria-in-world-war-ii.htm>.