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British Blunder in the Dodecanese Islands

By Eric Niderost

Major George Jellicoe, head of Britain’s Special Boat Squadron, made a last-minute check on his parachute harness to see if all was ready. It was 10:40 p.m. on September 9, 1943, and Jellicoe was aboard a Halifax heavy bomber that was being buffeted by a strong wind. This was a rather unusual assignment for the 24-year old English aristocrat. The squadron was an elite formation, known for its no-holds-barred raids on territory occupied by the Germans. His assignment on this day had more of a diplomatic nature to it.

The British officer hoped the mission would not be aborted. The previous night a clammy mist shrouded the area, reducing visibility to such an extent the pilot was forced to cancel the drop. Jellicoe and his two companions were now about to parachute into Rhodes, the fabled Aegean island not far from the coast of Turkey. The major’s main mission was to persuade the commander of the Italian garrison to change sides and hand the island and its vitally important airstrips over to the Allies. It was going to be a tough sell, because German forces were already on Rhodes, even though they had not taken full control of the strategic island.

Satisfied his parachute was in order, Jellicoe calmly waited for the green light to jump, a signal that was only seconds away. Suddenly, the first person about to jump, an operative named Major Julian Dobrski, turned to Jellicoe with a startling piece of information. “Look, I am afraid I told a lie about having been parachute trained.” Dobrski sheepishly admitted. “I’ve never dropped. If I hesitate, please give me a push.” Jellicoe readily agreed, but when the signal was given, Dobrski exited without showing the least bit of fear. Soon it was Jellicoe’s turn, and he jumped into the inky, wind-swept void. It was the start of a campaign that was to have high stakes for both the Allies and their German opponents.

Rhodes is part of an archipelago known as the Dodecanese. The name derives from the Greek word for twelve, but in reality there are 15 principal islands. Small in size, they loom large in history. Along with mainland Greece and Asia Minor, they form one of the cradles of western civilization. St. John the Apostle lived on Patmos. As for Rhodes, it was a city-state in the time of Alexander the Great, and its people built the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

But the Dodecanese in more modern times reflected the turbulence and uncertainty of the 20th century. The Italians took over the islands after defeating Turkey in the Italo-Turkish War. Originally a temporary occupation, it became permanent when the Allies allowed Italy to keep the islands in return for entering the war on their side. The native population was largely Greek, and it wanted to be united with the Greek mainland, but Italy was not about to yield its colonies.

British Special Boat Squadron
Major George Jellicoe headed Britain’s Special Boat Squadron in the Middle East.

When France fell in 1940, the Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini, scenting German victory, wanted Italy to have its share of the spoils. The fascist leader was sure that Great Britain was finished, but his declaration of war proved a tragic error for the Italian people. The Italian armed forces, ill equipped and badly led, had little enthusiasm for a war that had been forced upon them. Defeat after embarrassing defeat followed, first in the North African desert, and later in Albania and Greece. By 1943, few Italians had any enthusiasm for the war, except for a few hardcore black-shirted Mussolini fascists. The Allied invasion of Sicily proved the last straw for many Italians. In July 1943, Mussolini’s government fell, and Il Duce was arrested. Marshal Pietro Badoglio replaced Mussolini as the head of Italy’s government on July 25, 1943, and he broached the idea of peace to the Allies almost immediately.

The news of a possible Italian surrender awakened British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s long-dormant hopes of action in the Aegean Sea. The former First Lord of the Admirality had bitter memories of the Gallipoli campaign in 1915, an unmitigated disaster that forced him to resign his office. Yet to say he wanted the balm of victory to sooth the wounds of past humiliations is an overly simplistic explanation. Certainly there was an element of that, but it is not the entire story.

Churchill’s mind instinctively sought out unique, innovative solutions to military and strategic problems. Although the Dodecanese campaign, known as Operation Accolade, ultimately would fail, the basic reasons the prime minster initiated the attempt were sound. They were far from fanciful or far-fetched. “When the tremendous events of the Italian surrender occurred, my mind turned to the Aegean islands, so long an object of strategic desire,” Churchill told General Maitland Wilson.

The British Bulldog hoped that British possession of the Dodecanese would persuade Turkey to abandon neutrality and come over to the Allied side. Turkey had already given clandestine permission for British boats to dock in their territorial waters during the day. This was an obvious violation of neutrality, and perhaps a subtle hint of how the Turks really felt. No one knew for sure, but physical possession of the Dodecanese would test Churchill’s theory once and for all.

If Turkey joined the Allies, British and American aircraft would have access to Turkish airfields. At that point, the Allies conceivably could undertake bombing missions against German forces in Greece. The Nazi war machine depended on products from Greece and the Balkans, such as chrome for armored steel manufacture and bauxite, a rock with high aluminum content. Turkish airfields certainly would put Allied bombers and long-range fighters within reach of Romania’s oilfields at Ploesti. Ploesti was Germany’s sole source of oil, which provided fuel for its tanks, aircraft, and ships.

 Churchill believed there were other advantages, as well. If Turkey declared war against Nazi Germany, Allied convoys might steam from the Aegean Sea through the Dardanelles to the Black Sea. It would be a much safer proposition than the northern route to Murmansk. The weather was often bad on that circuitous route. What is more, convoys had to run a dangerous gauntlet of German U-boats.

The prime minister had broached the subject of Rhodes and the Dodecanese as early as January 1943. But U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and his military advisors believed that Italy, not the Aegean, should be the focus of the main Allied effort. The Allies lacked sufficient resources to launch full-scale operations in Italy as well as in the Aegean Sea. Although the Americans understood Churchill’s logic, they regarded it as quixotic at best.

The U.S. Combined Chiefs of Staff ultimately gave Churchill a provisional green light for his Dodecanese offensive. But they did so with the caveat that he should not expect substantial military assistance for it from the Americans. The Americans eventually furnished some air support, but it was more of a token gesture than a real commitment.

While the Allies planned, debated, and occasionally dithered, the Germans acted with alacrity. The Germans were finding their alliance with Italy, frequently troublesome, was fast becoming a major liability. They knew that the Italians might well throw off the ties of friendship and cooperation that German Fuehrer Adolf Hitler and Mussolini had forged. Above all else, the Germans wanted to secure their vulnerable southern flank in the Balkans and eastern Mediterranean.

The Dodecanese, especially Rhodes with its three airfields, was very much part of the strategic equation. In January 1943 the Germans landed two batteries of 88mm anti-aircraft guns on Rhodes, supposedly to protect the airfields. The Italians, who were still in control of the island, readily agreed, but once the Germans had their proverbial foot in the door, the stage was set for eventual German takeover. As the months passed, more German units landed in Rhodes. The German 22nd Infantry Division, known as Grenadier Regiment Rhodos, and units of the 999th Light Africa Division all arrived on the island. Thus, the Germans had on Rhodes 7,500 troops to constitute Sturm-Division Rhodos.

Once his forces were assembled, General der Panzertruppe Ulrich Kleemann entered into a duplicitous game of wits with the Italian commander Admiral Inigo Campioni. He was not just a local official, but governor of the Italian Aegean islands, and his headquarters was on Rhodes. Kleemann’s ultimate objective was a German takeover of the entire island, but he had to keep up a friendly, even cooperative, facade to allay Italian suspicions.

Operation Polar Bear
A landing craft approaches Kos during Operation Polar Bear, the German amphibious and airborne assault to seize the island in October 1943.

The news of the Italian armistice threw Campioni and the other Italian military officials off balance. On the evening of September 8, Campioni asked Lt. Gen. Arnaldo Forgiero to contact Kleemann and urge the German not to do anything provocative that would make the Italians respond. Kleemann and Campioni later met face to face. In the course of their discussion, a heated argument broke out. Kleemann agreed to confine German troops within the Rhodes airfields. Tempers cooled and peace was restored; however, the Germans still wanted to take total control of Rhodes. These discussions were concurrent with the arrival on September 9 of the three British agents who parachuted into Rhodes under the cover of darkness.

On the Allied side, secret negotiations stalled because Jellicoe simply could not promise a major British or Allied commitment that would match the German menace. But swift-moving events took the matter out of everyone’s hands. Kleemann and the Germans staged a coup de main. They made an attack so swift and thorough that they gained control of the whole island in a short matter of time. The British negotiators managed to escape, but their mission was a failure. Some skirmishing occurred, but after a short resistance the Italians surrendered.

Rhodes, the great prize, had slipped from British hands, but the game was far from over. Italy surrendered to the Allies on September 8, 1943. The Italian surrender created a prisoner-of-war problem in the Aegean that both the British and the Germans scrambled to resolve. The British, trying to make up for lost time, captured seven islands: Kos, Kalymnos, Samos, Leros, Symi, Castellorizo, and Astypalaia. Kos, Leros, and Samos were the largest islands after Rhodes, but the first two were absolutely essential if a modified Operation Accolade was to succeed. The British started the campaign in an optimistic mood. The mostly Greek inhabitants of the islands welcomed the Allies, and the Italian garrisons were either cooperative or at least neutral. The Allies ardently hoped that many of the Italian soldiers would switch sides immediately and help the British in defending the Aegean Islands.

Kos was important because of its airfield. Arrangements were made for 74 Squadron, which consisted of Supermarine Spitfires, to be stationed there. These fighters would provide much-needed air cover for the ground troops coming into the island. Leros had a wonderful harbor, which also made it important in the general scheme of things.

The newly seized islands would be garrisoned by a disparate variety of troops, including the British 234th Infantry Brigade from Malta. Commanded by Maj. Gen. F.G.R. Brittorous, the brigade comprised the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, 4th Battalion of the King’s Own, 1st Battalion of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kents, and 4th Battalion Royal East Kent Regiment.

Other units in the operation included the Durham Light Infantry and a scattering of elite commandos. Some of the latter included 160 men of the Special Boat Service, 130 men of the Long Range Desert Group, A Company of the 11th Battalion, Parachute Regiment, and the Sacred Band. The Sacred Band was a Special Forces unit composed of Greek army officers. They took their name and inspiration from an ancient Theban fighting unit from classical times. Initial naval support included six British Royal Navy destroyers from the 8th Destroyer Flotilla, two Hunt-Class destroyers, a few submarines, and a few Hellenic Navy ships.

As Operation Accolade played out, its major shortcoming was a crippling lack of air cover. The Royal Navy did a splendid job of bringing in troops and supplies, as well as intercepting enemy shipping from Piraeus in mainland Greece and the Dodecanese. But The British supply base was in Alexandria, Egypt, which was 450 miles away from the Dodecanese islands. The long supply line was vulnerable because it was virtually devoid of fighter aircraft to protect the ships. At that stage of the war, the Luftwaffe controlled the skies over the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.

The Germans lost no time in taking as many islands as they possibly could, and they did so in a manner that was both efficient and brutally callous. Wehrmacht troops took Karpathos, Siros, Andros, Zea, and Navos very quickly, and standing orders ruled that no prisoners would be taken if the Italian soldiers showed even the slightest bit of resistance. The soldiers of the Italian Acqui Division on the island of Cephalonia initially refused to lay down their arms. Confused over the course of events, they requested clarification from Rome. Fighting erupted between the Germans and Italians. Although the Italians were successful in the opening rounds, the conscripts of the Acqui Division were no match for the veteran Wehrmacht Gebirgsjager. The German mountain troops had played a key role in the invasion of Crete two years earlier. In the clash of these Axis forces, the Germans lost 40 men and the Italians 1,300.

Outraged that their former allies would dare to resist, the Germans committed one of the worst POW atrocities of the war: They executed 5,155 Italians who had been guilty of nothing more than doing their duty as soldiers. The survivors were rounded up and packed into ships destined for concentration camps.

The Germans soon became aware that the British had taken several islands, particularly Leros and Kos, and were determined to expel them as quickly as possible. Army Group E ordered Lt. Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm Muller, the commander of the 22nd Infantry Division, to seize the two strategic islands without delay. The assault was codenamed Operation Polar Bear.

Operation Polar Bear
The 4,000 German soldiers who landed on Kos on October 3 faced 1,500 British infantrymen and airmen. Stuka dive bombers wreaked havoc on the British defense of the island.

Both sides appreciated the importance of the Kos airfield near the village of Antimachina. The British took pains to defend it. They brought in nine Hispano-Sulza antiaircraft guns from their bases in Palestine. South African Spitfires based on Kos were to furnish air cover. A standing patrol of two Spitfires flew every day beginning in mid-September. They came in handy, because the Germans began conducting air strikes in mid-September.

Swarms of Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Junkers 88s from the Luftwaffe’s Fliegerkorps X based in Greece attacked the islands. At one point, the Germans had upwards of 360 aircraft from which to draw. But their results were mixed, owing to the protection provided by the Spitfires and the antiaircraft guns. The German aerial assault lasted from September 13 to October 3. During that time the numbers of British and South African aircraft slowly shrank through attrition. Junkers 88s and other German aircraft were also lost, but the Germans could afford such losses, because they had a steady stream of reinforcements arriving to replenish them.

The British, and by extension the Allies, simply did not have those kinds of resources. By September 26, the hard-fighting, long-suffering South African Air Force contingent on Kos was down to four serviceable aircraft. The soil surrounding the airfield was hard and rocky, so it was almost impossible to dig slit trenches, and there was not enough time to build blast walls. There were 1,500 British troops on Kos. Of these, 680 were members of the 1st Durham Light Infantry, and the rest were Royal Air Force personnel.

There also were 3,500 Italian troops of the 10th Regiment of the 50th Infantry Division Regina on Kos. The Italians’ loyalty and fighting ability were often in doubt, though. Many were weary of the war and longed to return home. Those were usually the men who wanted to capitulate. They were not particular about to whom they surrendered; that is, as long as they were repatriated to Italy. Some genuinely espoused the Allied cause and fought well; however, there also were some diehard fascists in the regiment.

The Germans began their invasion of Kos at 4:30 a.m. on October 3. Operation Polar Bear initially succeeded well beyond the most sanguine of Teutonic hopes. By midday, 1,200 Germans had come ashore with equipment including light field guns and armored cars. The Luftwaffe lent a hand with dive-bombing Stukas, which kept the British defense off balance. The principal landings were at Marmare and Tingashi, in the north central part of the island, and Camari Bay in the southwest. Subsidiary landings occurred at Forbici and Cabo Foco.

Operation Accolade
The elite troops of the British Special Boat Squadron fought alongside the Durham Light Infantry and British paratroopers on Kos.

The Durham Light Infantry, Special Boat Squadron personnel, and British paratroopers fought with their usual courage. But as more Germans landed on Kos, the defenders were forced to fall back. By nightfall on the first day, 4,000 Germans were on the island, and with no relief force on the horizon to rescue them, the British garrison had to accept the inevitable. They surrendered the very next day, giving control of Kos to the Germans.

But the surrender at Kos had a heroic sequel. Captain Walter Milner-Barry and Lieutenant Alec McLeod managed to sneak into Kos a few hours before the surrender with elements of the Special Boat Squadron and the Levant Schooner Flotilla. The latter group was yet another irregular and highly unconventional unit that flourished in the Mediterranean campaigns. They specialized in covert operations, and this time their mission was to rescue as many people as they could from German captivity.

For 10 days, Milner-Barry, McLeod, and their handful of men went through the island, making contact with escaping British soldiers, Italian prisoners of war, and Greek resistance fighters under the very noses of German occupation troops. It was an extremely hazardous mission, because the Germans were not exactly in an amiable mood. In yet another war atrocity, the Germans executed 100 Italian officers. Among those put to death was Colonel Felice Leggio, the Italian commander at Kos.

Sympathetic Greek islanders gave two British officers and their team food. But otherwise, they had to depend on their own survival skills and a large amount of luck. There were moments of real hair-raising adventure, as when some panicking Italian prisoners of war made so much noise they attracted German mortar fire. But when a launch finally picked them all up, the tally was impressive. Ninety British soldiers, a large number of Italians, and some Greek partisans had escaped from German clutches thanks to their untiring efforts.

Operation Accolade
A pair of Bristol Beaufighters, designed for an array of missions including maritime strikes, attack a German naval vessel in the Aegean Sea.

The surviving records seem to show that Churchill was not as obsessed about the Dodecanese as some historians have suggested. Usually clear-headed and sometimes prescient, the prime minister recognized the importance of the Kos airfield and realized that the game was just about up when the island fell.

“I therefore propose to tell General Wilson that he is free, if he judges the position hopeless, to order the (Leros) garrison to evacuate by night,” Churchill wrote Roosevelt on October 10. General Henry Maitland Wilson was the general officer commanding in the Middle East command, so Churchill’s missive was anything but frivolous. Wilson was a competent soldier, but his rolls of fat and expanding waistline well merited the nickname “Jumbo.”

Churchill also sent a message to Field Marshal Harold Alexander. “We must save what we can from this wreck,” he informed Alexander. Yet Wilson and others seemingly ignored Churchill’s pessimism and soldiered on. Instead of withdrawing, they reinforced Leros with additional troops, supplies, jeeps, trailers and guns, which arrived by destroyers, submarines, and smaller surface craft. Machine guns, mortars, ammunition, and wireless sets were dropped by parachute. Although Churchill cannot be absolved from ultimate responsibility, Wilson and others seem to merit at least a share of the blame in these later stages. It was as if the military, once committed, did not want to abandon a project that had taken up so much of their time and effort.

Churchill still lobbied for more air support. Lt. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, who as of June 1942 was commander of U.S. forces in Europe (he was not appointed Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force until December 1943), sensing the prime minister’s growing anxiety about British troops clinging to a handful of islands, decided to lend support. The 14th Fighter Group was moved from its base in Tunisia to Gambit, Libya not far from Tobruk. One of their primary missions was, as far as was possible, to neutralize the Luftwaffe activity in the eastern Mediterranean.

The fighter aircraft were going to be available for only a few days in October; Eisenhower and the other Americans still felt that the Aegean was a sideshow. The fighter support was more a gesture of goodwill towards Churchill and the British than a permanent commitment. All parties were made to understand that after a few days, the American fighter planes would be withdrawn. They were simply urgently needed for the developing Italian campaign.

South African Spitfires based on Kos flew air cover for the British until the Germans captured the airfield. Throughout the campaign, the Luftwaffe continued to dominate the skies over the Eastern Mediterranean.

The 14th Fighter Group flew P-38 Lightnings. These were long-range, twin-boomed fighter aircraft for which German aviators had a healthy respect. One of their main duties was to provide adequate protection for Allied ship convoys sailing the Aegean waters. The P-38s also furnished much-needed air cover by flying patrols over the Dodecanese.

The early patrols were routine and, frankly, a little boring for the American pilots, who hoped to encounter German aircraft for a little action. Some pilots grumbled that the assignment had little or no merit. On October 9 the 14th Fighter Group’s luck was about to change. Fighter Command had assigned the group to protect a British convoy consisting of the cruiser HMS Carlisleand the destroyers Panther, Petard, Rockwoodand the Greek destroyer Miaolis.

The convoy was sailing through the straights between Scarpanto and Rhodes, their ultimate destination Alexandria. That morning, Major William Leverette led two flights of P-38s to rendezvous with the convoy at midday. Two planes developed engine problems and had to return to base, so Leverette was reduced to seven fighters. He led Red Flight’s four P-38s, while Blue Flight’s three airplanes rounded out the patrol.

It was almost noon when Leverette spotted the convoy, which was under attack at that very moment by a swarm of Stuka 87 and Stuka 88s. Before the P-38s were in firing range they could see the damage that the Stukas were inflicting on the hapless convoy. The Stukas were diving down like angry birds of prey, dropping their bombs with seeming impunity. One German bomb scored a direct hit on a destroyer, causing the British vessel to break apart and sink.

The Stuka pilots had little time to savor their triumph, because the avenging P-38s were on them a moment later. There were at least 30 Stukas and seven P-38s, but the Germans planes were no match for these forked- tailed furies. This is not to say they were defenseless, for they had wing cannons and a rear gunner, but by the same token, they were no Messerschmitt Bf 109s.

For the next few minutes the blue Aegean skies were filled with dozens of aircraft twisting, turning, gaining altitude then plunging downward, the pilots performing air pirouettes in a deadly ballet of life and death. It was less a dogfight than an unequal, one-sided slaughter. The P-38s had a field day, effortlessly downing German dive bombers with short, staccato bursts from their guns. Machine gun bullets, including 50-caliber slugs, tore into Stuka fuselages, soon causing the gull-winged aircraft to burst into flames and spiral down into the dark, wine-colored sea.

When it was over, no fewer than 16 German Stukas had been destroyed, and the surviving convoy ships made it to Alexandria safely. Major Leverette downed no fewer than seven Stukas, an impressive total by any standard. But after a few days the Americans withdrew their fighters.

Leros obviously was the Germans’ next target. The question was whether the British could hold on to the strategic island. Leros boasted an Italian naval base that was so heavily fortified that some aptly described it as Rock of Gibraltar. There were five major coastal batteries, 17 dual-purpose (coastal and antiaircraft) batteries, and three antiaircraft batteries on the island. Artillery included eleven 152mm guns, nine 102mm guns, six 90mm guns, and fifty-six 76 mm guns. The fortified positions usually featured three or four pen circular pits, underground ammunition magazines, a fire control and observation post, officers’ lodgings, and administration areas.

The batteries were located on the high points of the island, which afforded them splendid fields of fire and sweeping views of the fortresses. Little or no thought had been given to the possibility of air raids, and most of the batteries were exposed and vulnerable to air attack. Perhaps it was thought that those dual-purpose batteries, which included antiaircraft guns, would adequately protect the island. They may well have been right; After 50 days of intensive Luftwaffe bombings, most of the batteries were intact when the invasion finally took place.

Operation Accolade
German riflemen enter the city of Kos. With no reinforcements scheduled to arrive, the British surrendered on the second day of the German invasion.

Leros is 10 miles long and from one-to-five miles wide. It is divided into three distinct sections, the sections joined by the narrow waists of two isthmuses. The coast of the island is pock-marked by nine bays, each one boasting good landing beaches. Conventional wisdom maintained that the island was unsuitable for paratrooper drops. It was considered that the rocky heights that seem to dominate its geography were just too rugged for any such attempt.

Brig. Gen. Robert Tilney was the new commander of Fortress Leros. The British contingent of the Leros garrison included the Second Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Fourth Royal East Kent Regiment, First Battalion King’s Own Royal Regiment, B Company of the Second Royal West Kent Regiment, detachments of the Long Range Desert Group, a Special Boat Squadron, a detachment from the 28th Heavy Antiaircraft Battery, and part of the 3rd Light Antiaircraft Battery.

Since Leros had originally been an Italian Naval base, three-quarters of the 8,000 Italians on the island were naval personnel. Most were administrative workers as opposed to fighting men. The main land forces were the 1,200 men from one battalion of the 10th Regina Infantry Regiment, with a company of Blackshirts, assorted marines, and some other assorted personnel. Rear Adm. Luigi Mascherpa commanded the Leros Italian garrison. Marshal Badoglio had placed the admiral and his entire force under British control without reservation.

Tilney had a problem in trying to organize a defense, a classic dilemma of coastal defense. Should the defenders attack the enemy when he comes ashore, or pull back from the beaches and presumably hit him harder as he moves inland? Tilney decided on the former, basing his decision on the fact that the Germans controlled the air and occupied the neighboring islands of Kos, Levitha, and Kalymnos. Given that Kos was just 35 miles away from Leros, the short distance made it easy for the Germans to ferry troops to it.

The German invasion of Leros, codenamed Typhoon, began on at 4:40 a.m. on November 12, when German troops landed at Palma Bay and Pasta de Sopra on the northeast coast of the island. Another German force consisting of six naval ferry barges and two torpedo boats heading for Gurna Bay on the other side of the island were driven off by the Italian batteries Ducci and San Gregorio.

Other Wehrmacht units landed at Pandelli Bay, but the Germans initially had a tough time of it. The invaders tried another major landing in the northeast, and did manage to get a few soldiers ashore before all hell broke loose. Italian coastal artillery at Blefuti mounted an effective defense, raining shells down on the ships, landing craft, and torpedo boats just offshore. The Italian gunners sank two German transport barges and badly damaged others, forcing the landings to come to a halt. The handful of German soldiers who had been in the first wave found themselves stranded and without support. Defeated and with few other options available, 85 of them surrendered.

In the central part of Leros, the Germans managed to establish a few small bridgeheads, and once they established these footholds, it was almost impossible to dislodge them. German fallschirmjagers(parachute infantry) landed in the region of Mount Rachi in the center of the island, an event that profoundly altered the course of the battle. These paratroopers were from an elite unit known as the Brandenburg Division, and once they established a solid foothold in the center of Leros they divided the island into two halves. Counterattacks were launched to try and dislodge them, but all such efforts failed.

Operation Accolade
German fallschirmjagers jump from a Junkers Ju 52 transport aircraft into the center of Leros. They divided the island in half, thereby facilitating its conquest.

The fallschirmjagers paid a heavy price for their success; some estimates place their casualties at about half their total force. The Italian batteries were well served, and shot down a number of Junkers Ju 52s. This contributed to the Brandenburg Division’s overall losses. With the Brandenburg paratroopers firmly in control of the Leros center, the Buffs and a company of the King’s Own found themselves marooned on the island’s south side.

The British garrison fought courageously, but the superb fighting qualities displayed by the Italian gun crews deserve special mention. The Italian artillerymen downed many German aircraft, sunk German landing craft and other vessels, and resisted in many cases until overwhelmed or when all guns were put out of action. The Germans, once successful, had a nasty habit of shooting at least some Italian prisoners out of hand.

When the paratroopers landed, they tried to neutralize those gun batteries that had given them so much trouble. The Germans captured 211 Battery before dark on Sept 12, and, once taken, the battery commander, Lieutenant Antonio Lo Presti, was shot. Two sections of 763 Battery also were taken. The Ciano battery also fell once its guns were silenced. Following the same brutal pattern, as soon as Ciano was captured, the Germans executed all of the Italian officers in the battery.

November 13 saw a continuing pattern of hard-fought attacks and counterattacks, with neither side gaining the upper hand. Nevertheless it was plain that the momentum was with the Germans, not the British and Italian defenders. More German reinforcements landed, though it was unclear at first if these added men would finally tip the scales irretrievably towards the attackers. Yet the Germans weren’t having things all their own way. The British launched a number of determined counterattacks supported by Italian artillery. Their forces succeeded in regaining lost territory, silencing some of the enemy batteries, and capturing German prisoners.

German troops entered the town of Leros on November 15, and also took Alinda and Santa Marina. The Royal Navy lent a hand in the defense: A pair of British destroyers shelled German positions. They succeeded in sinking a number of German landing craft, but the crippling lack of Allied air cover was beginning to tell. The Luftwaffe sank the Dulvertonas its crew was attempting to ferry supplies to the beleaguered garrison. Seventy-eight sailors lost their lives.

A trickle of British reinforcements came in from Samos, including two companies from the Royal West Kent Regiment. They landed at Portolago Bay with their commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Ben Tarleton. British attacks were sporadic and badly coordinated, and even when they achieved some local successes, the overall picture still very much favored the German side. By the evening of November 15, the handwriting was on the wall. The tactically astute Germans had succeeded in cutting the island in half. Once again, the Italians showed courage and a fighting spirit that must have surprised their British counterparts, most familiar with their poor performance in the North African desert.

In the early morning hours of November 16, Battery 306 was destroyed by Luftwaffe attacks, but the Italians refused to surrender. When the Germans asked Mascherpa to capitulate with all Italian forces on the island, he flatly rejected the notion. Battery 127 on Mount Maraviglia was heavily attacked by German forces, but the artillerymen defended their post with courage and resolution. Captain Werther Cacciatori, commander of the battery, lost an arm in the heavy fighting.

Yet Tilney refused to give the Italians a large role in the defense. There were Italian infantry on the island, but apparently they were largely inert in the Leros battle. The Italians actually asked Tilney for a bigger role in the defense, but he rebuffed their offer. Did Tilney have lingering doubts as to their loyalty to the Allied cause, even after the artillerymen proved their worth? Or did he somehow believe that the Italians could not be relied upon? We will never know his reasoning.

But the situation was rapidly deteriorating and would soon be untenable. Tilney’s own headquarters was nearly surrounded, and the Germans seemed to bring in more and more reinforcements with every passing hour. It was clear further fighting would only prolong the agony, and therefore Tilney surrendered on November 16.

Operation Accolade
German armor rumbles through the capital of Rhodes. The British implored the commander of the Italian garrison to transfer control of the island and its airstrips to the Allies.

The Germans captured 3,200 British and 5,000 Italians. Actual battle casualties were relatively light. The British lost 600 dead and 100 wounded. The Italians suffered 300 dead and missing. In contrast, the Germans lost 512 dead and 900 wounded. With the fall of Leros the British evacuated Samos, their last major outpost, and other small islands in the area.

Was the Dodecanese campaign Churchill’s Folly, as many historians claim? It certainly was strategically sound, and not merely an attempt by Churchill to make up for the Gallipoli debacle of 1915. The plan to take the Aegean islands had much to recommend it, even if Turkey did not come into the war on the Allied side. Hitler really did fear an Allied thrust from the Aegean into the Balkans, threatening his vulnerable southern flank and above all his Romanian oil supply. The Dodecanese campaign was faulty not in concept, but in execution.

When it was clear American planners, and even some British, were dead-set against the idea, it should have been dropped. But Churchill forged ahead with an unrealistic scenario. He erred in his belief that the Italian campaign and the Dodecanese effort could go forward simultaneously. The immediate cause of the British failure in the Aegean was the lack of adequate air cover. The brief appearance of the P-38s showed what Allied control of the air might have achieved, but they were largely reserved for the invasion of Italy.

The Dodecanese campaign was Hitler’s last major success in World War II. Yet it was a pyrrhic victory. The German leader became obsessed with the Aegean, and as a result, major forces were tied up there that could have been more usefully engaged elsewhere, as in the Eastern Front. The occupation of Rhodes, Leros, and Keros served no real purpose in the context of the Eastern Front, where by late 1943 the tide of war had shifted to the Soviet Union. Germany’s days were numbered, and what occurred in the Aegean Sea would matter little as the Russians began their inexorable advance on Berlin.

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Our Magazines

Military History Magazine Cover

Military
Heritage

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There are moments in military history that forever alter the flow of human events. Times when the very landscape appears to shift. In the annals of military history magazines, this is one of those moments.

WWII History Magazine Cover

WWII
History

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It changed the world more than any other single event in history. There have been countless thousands of published works devoted to all or of it. But there’s NEVER been anything like THIS before.

WWII Quarterly Cover

WWII
Quarterly

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WWII Quarterly, the hardcover journal of the Second World War that is not available in bookstores or on newsstands, and can only be obtained and collected through a personal subscription through the mail.