The British in the Aegean September 1943

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A Bristol Beaufighter releases its bombs toward the further of two German flak vessels attacked by aircraft of No. 201 Group, south of the island of Kalymnos in the Dodecanese. Inadequate air support helped doom the British campaign in the Dodecanese. Imperial War Museum photo.

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In late June 1943, raiders from the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) landed on the south coast of Crete to strike at three airfields that could be used by the Luftwaffe during Husky. The mission was only a partial success. Explosive charges were placed against several aircraft and a fuel dump at Kastèli, but the Germans had abandoned Timbáki airfield while Heraklion was no longer in use as a major air base. A fuel dump was selected as an alternative target. In 1942 there had been similar operations on Crete and Rhodes.

Hit-and-run raids had an undeniable nuisance value, but little or no effect on the bigger picture. The North African campaign had ended with the surrender of the Afrikakorps in May. Operation Husky commenced two months later on 10 July. The Allies made rapid headway and with the Italians facing an invasion of the mainland, Mussolini was ousted on 25 July and replaced by Maresciallo Pietro Badoglio.

By August a British plan of action had been approved in anticipation of a suitably favourable development in the Aegean and the Balkans. Among the proposals were an emergency ‘walk-in’ in to Rhodes and other islands in the event of Italy’s collapse and the withdrawal of German forces, a quick Accolade against German opposition only, and a full-scale Accolade (though not before 1944). On 3 August the British Chiefs of Staff advised:

Should the Italians in Crete and the Aegean area resist Germans and deadlock ensue, our policy should be to help the Italians against the Germans wherever possible.

It was recommended that a force be made immediately available together with ships for use as troop transports. Mediterranean Air Command (formed in February under Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder) was approached for additional transport aircraft sufficient to lift a parachute battalion group. Four squadrons of American P-38 Lightnings were also requested. The latter were essential, for apart from Bristol Beaufighters, there were no fighters in the Middle East with the range to operate over the operational area. The paratroopers and their aircraft were to be in position by 14 August; the Lightnings were required to arrive in Cyprus by the 15th, and the seaborne element was to be ready to sail at any time after 18 August. Much depended on the destruction or containment of Luftwaffe units in the region, but this was achievable only if available bombers were released from all other commitments.

Faced with mounting pressure by the British to re-allocate resources to the eastern Mediterranean, an exasperated General Eisenhower finally relented. On 7 August, Allied Force Headquarters advised the Middle East that the required troops could be provided, though not before 14 August. Certain ships could also be released, but current requirements meant that no aircraft would be spared: no transports were available for parachute operations, and Lightning squadrons were fully employed in escorting the Strategic Bomber Force in attacks against Italian targets and were specifically required for Operation Avalanche – the Allied landing at Salerno, in Italy. In Eisenhower’s opinion, seemingly shared by both the Naval and Air commanders-in-chief in the Mediterranean, Accolade should have been abandoned. Eisenhower was assured that Accolade would take place only if conditions presented a reasonable prospect of success with the forces available and when the situation in Italy might allow the release of the all-important Lightnings. The target date of readiness was postponed to three days notice from 19 August, by which time Operation Husky had been concluded successfully and the Allied armies were about to push north into Italy.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Hitler and his Staff prepared for the inevitable as Badoglio’s government negotiated surrender terms with the Allies. At the same time in the Middle East, the British stood by to move into the Aegean. With Italy on the point of collapse, 8th Indian Division was embarked to undertake the capture of Rhodes and was to have sailed on 1 September. However, as a result of Quadrant on 26 August, the troop transports were released to India for the proposed operation against the Arakan (previously discussed during Trident), and 8th Indian Division was ordered to Italy. On 8 September, when the Italian armistice was announced, the force had been dispersed and with it went any opportunity for a rapid deployment. Furthermore, the Commander-in- Chief, Middle East was kept in ignorance of events and only learned about the armistice just before it was made public. Having anticipated Italy’s volte-face the Germans responded with countermeasures under the code name Achse (Axis), and moved swiftly to take over from the Italians in Crete, but were slower in reacting to the situation elsewhere. General Wilson decided therefore to act on recommendations of the Joint Planning Staff. The task of securing Rhodes was reallocated to 234 Infantry Brigade – 1st Battalion Durham Light Infantry, 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers (Faughs) and 2nd Battalion Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment having recently arrived in the Middle East from Malta. Italian cooperation was essential to British planning. A prerequisite to occupation was an unopposed entry into the port of Rhodes and the provision of an airfield either at Maritsa in Rhodes, or on the island of Kos. A military mission was to precede the expedition, while the SBS spearheaded the occupation of other islands including Kastellorizo, Kos and Samos. The British Prime Minister was a keen advocate of the plan, which was approved by him on 9 September: ‘Good. This is a time to play high. Improvise and dare.’

By then, events were already well underway. On 7 September the SBS commander, Major Lord Jellicoe, was dining with a fellow officer and his new bride at the St George’s Hotel in Beirut, when a military policeman arrived with orders for him to make his way to Raiding Force Headquarters near Haifa. There, Jellicoe was instructed to collect his battledress and field kit and present himself at Haifa airport, where an aeroplane was standing by for a dawn take-off for Cairo. On arrival, he was taken to Middle East Headquarters, shown to a room and seated with others around a large table. To his surprise, Jellicoe learned that the Italian armistice was taking effect that day and that it had been planned to try and occupy Rhodes with the assistance of the island’s Italian garrison. It was hoped that an agent of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) had forewarned the Italians, but no one had been able to contact him due to a breakdown in communications. It was proposed therefore to send a landing party by fast craft from Alexandria. Jellicoe recalled:

After about 20 minutes I really couldn’t contain myself any longer and I said, ‘I’m surprised at this. Would it not be much easier for a small party to drop in this evening, as clearly it should be done as quickly as possible.’ Why all of this was being done at the last moment; why the Italian armistice had not been anticipated; why our Raiding Forces had not been alerted, God alone knows.

It was decided that Jellicoe would parachute in to Rhodes, establish contact with the Italian governor, Ammiraglio Inigo Campioni, and ask for his support for a British take- over. Subject to the success of Jellicoe’s mission, Colonel D. J. T. Turnbull of General Headquarters was to follow up to discuss matters in detail. Major Count Julian A. Dobrski, a Polish SOE officer with the nom de guerre Dolbey, asked if Jellicoe spoke Italian. Jellicoe did not, and readily agreed to the multilingual Dolbey joining him as an interpreter. A wireless operator, Sergeant Kesterton, completed the ad hoc team. They took off in a Halifax that evening, but adverse weather conditions combined with an inadequate briefing prevented the crew from locating Rhodes.

The following night, Lieutenant Commander L. F. (Frank) Ramseyer, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR), and a landing party composed mainly of SBS under Major David G. C. Sutherland, arrived off Kastellorizo in two motor launches (349 and 357) to secure the island as a staging post for Aegean operations; a two-man team was parachuted into Kos to prepare the Italians there for the arrival of British troops, and a further effort was made to infiltrate Rhodes which had become a battleground between pro-Badoglio Italians and Generalleutnant Ulrich Kleeman’s Sturmdivision Rhodos. Major Jellicoe:

The next night [9th] we took off again. By that time they [the aircrew] had brushed up their geography … and we were dropped at Rhodes. Just before we dropped, Major Dolbey said to me, ‘I think I must make a confession to you. I said that I was parachute trained. I’m not. I’ve never actually dropped by parachute, so give me a push if necessary.’ … He dropped on to the main coast road near Lemnos, on the east of the island and broke his leg, his thigh, extremely badly. I was dropped, as was the wireless operator, Sgt Kesterton, on to the hills above [a few hundred yards away] and shot at quite fiercely. The shooting continued – we were behind rocks by then. We didn’t know who was shooting at us. I had a letter from General ‘Jumbo’ Wilson, C-in-C in Cairo, for the Italian commander, Admiral Campioni. I was told that in danger of capture by the Germans this should be got rid of. I had no idea whether they were Germans or Italians firing at us and there was nowhere to get rid of this letter – it was very rocky, hard ground. Of course, they were getting closer so I decided the only thing to do was to eat it which was not the most appetising meal I’ve ever had. And then I heard them approaching and I heard that they were shouting to each other in Italian. I shouted, ‘Amici! Amici!’, etc. Then, after a little bit of discussion and explanation I persuaded them to take me in their transport into Rhodes to Italian headquarters. All this had taken the best part of an hour or so and the major had already been found and taken in and there he was with Admiral Campioni. We had a long discussion with the Italian Admiral. We talked to him for a large part of the next hour or two. He was very enthusiastic to begin with and thought we were the precursor to substantial reinforcements. Although I said that we had further Raiding Forces standing by, I really couldn’t inflate their number. Accordingly I informed Campioni that in the next few days he could only expect some 200 reinforcements. Thereafter it would be some days before additional forces could reach Rhodes. As this sank in Campioni’s enthusiasm started to wane. All this time … Dolbey who had been speaking and interpreting so well and so nobly was in acute pain.

Dolbey, who had a compound fracture, was evacuated, first by fast craft to Symi, then by Italian seaplane to Kastellorizo and on to Cyprus. For the time being, Jellicoe and Kesterton remained in Rhodes and tried to stall Campioni, while in the Middle East frantic efforts were made to find enough landing craft to dispatch 234 Brigade. As this could not be achieved before 18 September, one battalion was stood by and ordered to embark in motor launches and RAF craft, while preparations continued for transporting the rest of the brigade. Jellicoe continues:

I stayed all the next day [10th], seeing, when I could, Admiral Campioni, getting messages through to Cairo, explaining the position and saying it was highly desirable that it was necessary to provide substantial reinforcements within a few days if Campioni was to be persuaded to hold out. The most, however, that I was able to promise him was a non- assault-loaded brigade within six or seven days. Of course, the sudden transfer from one side to the other was asking a great deal of the Italians. So, although I spent all the next day, whenever I could, talking to Admiral Campioni, and although he remained extremely friendly, at the end of it he was convinced it was not on as far as they were concerned. He sent me [and Sergeant Kesterton] off in an Italian fast craft with his chief of staff with all the maps of their minefields to Castelrosso [Kastellorizo], which, in fact, a squadron of mine had occupied that day.

In the haste to occupy the Aegean, Special Service troops, intelligence operatives and conventional forces were deployed by all available means. Poor communications, lack of coordination and the actions of a few who seem to have looked on the occasion as an adventurous outing sometimes resulted in an island being singled out by more than one interested party. On 8 September, Colonel L. F. R. Kenyon concluded his appointment on the General Staff of Force 292 and immediately joined the Aegean Mission as a representative of III Corps Commander, Lieutenant General Sir Desmond Anderson. The Mission had been instructed to visit Rhodes, and after arriving at Kastellorizo, Kenyon discussed the possibility with Group Captain Harry G. Wheeler, senior RAF Staff Officer in Force 292 (and soon to be appointed senior RAF officer on Kos). So it was that when Major Jellicoe arrived at Kastellorizo from Rhodes on 11 September, Wheeler and Kenyon were en route from Kastellorizo to Rhodes. Kenyon reported:

15. On arrival we heard some A. A. [anti-aircraft] fire, and saw a number of craft “swanning” about outside RHODES harbour (I found that on an air alarm craft were ordered out of the harbour). The ITALIANS replied to our signal by a refusal to allow us into the harbour. I suggested asking the ITALIANS to take off one officer in one of their own craft, and to this they agreed, and a M. A. S. [motoscafo armato silurante: Italian motor torpedo boat] shortly after came alongside. No question had arisen as to who should go, and I transhipped. WHEELER had some doubts as to the advisability of my visit, but these were solved by a large bomb which fell on RHODES. The commanders of both vessels had the same idea, and the R. A. F. launch drew off at speed to the East, while my M. A. S. went to the West.

16. I was met by an ITALIAN Naval Captain, who at once struck me as being a good fighter, and who gave immediate evidence of his intense dislike for the GERMANS. He spoke good English, and failed to conceal (or succeeded in conveying) his lack of confidence in the advice being tendered to CAMPIONI by the senior ITALIAN General in RHODES.

17. As I drove up to the [Governor’s] Palace, there was a fairly heavy air raid in progress. I was led through a number of kitchens, and was presented to CAMPIONI in a dark scullery. He seemed embarrassed, and led me to his state reception room upstairs.

He informed me that his military advice was that the troops, having been pushed off the anti-tank obstacle covering RHODES, could not survive another GERMAN attack. He understood that the BRITISH would reinforce in about 5 days time. He stated that the best he could do was to temporise with the GERMANS to gain time. This course was not possible if the enemy knew he had BRITISH officers with him, and as the place was full of spies, he wanted me to go.

At my request he then outlined the facts on which his military advice was given. The crux of the whole advice was the presence of the GERMAN tanks, which seems to have paralysed the entire ITALIAN command. But for this factor, he said, he could fight on, and so on.

I knew something of CAMPIONI’s record and personality, and formed the opinion, to which I still adhere, that in a difficult position, he was playing an in and out game, and halting between two policies. I was in some doubts as to whether the best course would be to compromise him thoroughly with the BRITISH, and so cut off his chances of making terms with the GERMANS, and increasing the fighting spirit.

He then intimated that I must really be off, as he was expecting some GERMAN officers at once, with whom he was going to “temporise”. He refused my suggestion that I should wait to hear the result of his Conference. He ordered an M. A. S. to take me to CASTELROSSO [Kastellorizo], and I was disguised in a long black cloak, and taken from the Palace to the port. By this time I was convinced that he was intending to capitulate, and that his main preoccupation was to get rid of me before the GERMANS learn of my presence, and insisted on his handing me over.

18. At the harbour I was entertained to a good and much needed English breakfast by my former contact, who now spoke much more frankly. He said the General had always wanted to surrender, but that there was considerable opposition from some of his officers. He said the troops were not good, and were shockingly led. For himself, he was going to set up in a small fort, and kill as many GERMANS as he could. My own view was that we could do nothing to influence the general situation, but that we might save something out of the wreck. I told him, therefore, that it was his duty to arrange the total evacuation or destruction of all craft in the harbour, and said that we should welcome him and the Naval craft particularly at CASTELROSSO or LEROS. He promised to do all he could; some craft appeared later at CASTELROSSO, and I believe more at LEROS.

19. A further message then came from the palace ordering me off at once, and I went in an M. A. S. which was later retained and did good service …

21. I wrote my report on the way back to CASTELROSSO, and an hour or two after its despatch, we got news of the ITALIAN capitulation.

That day, Sturmdivision Rhodos, numbering approximately 7,500 men, seized control of Rhodes and took prisoner 35,000–40,000 Italians, thus ending British hopes of an assisted take-over. Rhodes had been the first Accolade objective and involved considerable forces. Indeed, the very success of Aegean operations was dependant on acquiring the island, as explained by Colonel Kenyon:

It is significant that every plan, no matter how much the expected military opposition was written down, contemplated the capture of RHODES as a preliminary to any extension to the north; and that every plan was profoundly influenced by the necessity of capturing at the earliest stage a number of Advanced Landing Grounds, and by the great difficulties to be overcome if this was to be possible.

It therefore became necessary for the British to revise their planning and strategy. Future operations were to be on a reduced scale and, as it was essential to act quickly, they had to be improvised. German resources in the Aegean had been stretched by their deployments in Rhodes and Crete. It seemed possible that by a rapid move the Middle East forces might obtain control elsewhere in the region, and by doing so detract from recent enemy successes, enhance British prestige throughout the Middle East and act as a diversion for operations in Italy. In spite of the reluctance of Eisenhower to divert resources, there was hope in the British camp that, even with the limited means at their disposal, the occupation of other islands such as Kos, Leros and Samos could still succeed. The number of German aircraft in Greece and Crete did not yet represent a serious threat, and with British fighters operating from Kos the possibility of major German seaborne or airborne operations seemed slight. It was thought that with Italian co-operation British forces might maintain themselves in Kos and Leros until an attack could be launched on Rhodes from the Middle East. The task of reinforcement and supply was to fall largely on the Royal Navy.

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