|Part of the Mediterranean and Middle East theatre of World War II|
Location of the Dodecanese Islands (in red) in relation to Greece
| Kingdom of Italy
Republican State of Italy
|Commanders and leaders|
| Robert Tilney (POW)
Inigo Campioni (POW)
| Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller
|Casualties and losses|
6 destroyers sunk
1 cruiser crippled
3 cruisers heavily damaged
4 destroyers severely damaged
3 submarines sunk
4 submarines damaged
10 minesweepers and coastal defense ships sunk
15 landing craft
The Dodecanese Campaign of World War II was an attempt by Allied forces to capture the Italian-held Dodecanese islands in the Aegean Sea following the surrender of Italy in September 1943, and use them as bases against the German-controlled Balkans. Operating without air cover, the Allied effort failed, with the whole of the Dodecanese falling to the Germans within two months, and the Allies suffering heavy losses in men and ships. The Dodecanese Campaign, lasting from 8 September to 22 November 1943, resulted in one of the last major German victories in the war.
The Dodecanese island group lies in the south-eastern Aegean Sea, and had been under Italian control since the Italo-Turkish War in 1911. During Italian rule, the strategically well-placed islands became a focus of Italian colonial ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean. Rhodes, the largest of the islands, was a major military and aerial base. The island of Leros, with its excellent deep-water port of Lakki (Portolago), was transformed into a heavily fortified aeronautical base, "the Corregidor of the Mediterranean", as Mussolini boasted.
After the fall of Greece in April 1941 and the Allied loss of the island of Crete in May, Greece and its many islands were occupied by German and Italian forces. With the ultimate defeat of Axis forces in North African campaign in spring 1943, Winston Churchill, who at least as far back as the Gallipoli Campaign had a deep interest in the region, turned his sights on the islands. The British envisaged an operation to capture the Dodecanese and Crete, and thus not only deprive the Axis of excellent forward bases in the Mediterranean, but also apply pressure on neutral Turkey to join the war. This would serve a favorite idea of Churchill's, of a "route through the Dardanelles to Russia as an alternative to the Arctic Convoys." In the Casablanca Conference, the initial go-ahead was given, and Churchill ordered his commanders to lay out relevant plans on 27 January 1943.
The plans, codenamed "Operation Accolade", called for a direct attack on Rhodes and Karpathos, with forces totaling three infantry divisions, an armored brigade, and relevant support units. Landings at Crete, which was too well fortified and had a strong German garrison, were dropped. The main problem faced by the planners was the difficulty of countering the 10th Flying Corps (X Fliegerkorps) of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) because of a lack of air cover, since the American and British aircraft were based in Cyprus and the Middle East. This challenge was further exacerbated by the demands of the upcoming invasion of Sicily. The Americans were skeptical about the operation, which they regarded as aiming mostly at post-war political benefits for Britain, and an unnecessary diversion from the main front in Italy. They refused to support it, warning the British that they would have to go on alone.
As an Italian surrender became increasingly possible, in August 1943 the British started preparations to quickly take advantage of a possible Italian-German split, in the form of a scaled-down "Accolade". A force based on 8th Indian Division started being assembled, and American assistance in the form of P-38 Lightning long-range fighter squadrons was requested. As a result of the Quebec Conference, however, and the American refusal to assent to the British plans, the forces and ships earmarked for "Accolade" were diverted to other fronts, barely a week before the surrender of Italy on 8 September.
Fall of Rhodes
On the announcement of the Armistice (surrender), the Italian garrisons on most of the Dodecanese Islands either wanted to change sides and fight with the Allies or just return home. However, in anticipation of the Italian surrender, German forces, based largely in mainland Greece, had been rushed to many of the islands to gain control. The German forces were part of Army Group E commanded by Luftwaffe General Alexander Löhr. The most important German force in the Dodecanese was the 7,500-strong Assault Division "Rhodes" (Sturm-Division Rhodos) commanded by Generalleutnant Ulrich Kleemann. This division had been formed during the summer in the island of Rhodes, which was the administrative center of the Dodecanese Islands and possessed three military airfields. Because of this, Rhodes was the principal military objective for both the Allies and the Germans.
On 8 September, the Italian garrison on the island of Kastelorizo surrendered to a British detachment, which was reinforced during the following days by ships of the Allied navies. The next day, a British delegation, headed by Lord Jellicoe, was dropped by parachute on Rhodes, in order to persuade the Italian commander, Admiral Inigo Campioni, to join the Allies. The swift action of the German forces, however, pre-empted the Allies. Without waiting for the Italians to decide, Kleemann attacked the 40,000-strong Italian garrison on 9 September, and forced it to surrender by 11 September. The loss of Rhodes dealt a critical blow to Allied hopes. While the government of the Kingdom of Italy surrendered and many Italian soldiers in the Aegean were tired of the war and had become opposed to Mussolini, Italian Fascist loyalists remained allied to Germany in the Greek campaign, with General Mario Soldarelli rallying Fascist Blackshirts and Italian soldiers loyal to Mussolini to continue the war in support of Mussolini's aims, and German forces in Greece convinced 10,000 Italians in the Aegean to continue to support their war effort.
Despite this setback, however, the British High Command pressed ahead with the occupation of the other islands, especially the three larger ones, Kos, Samos and Leros. The Germans were known to be overstretched in the Aegean, while the Allies enjoyed definite superiority at sea and the air cover provided by two Spitfire squadrons (7 Squadron, SAAF and 74 Squadron, RAF) at Kos was deemed sufficient. It was hoped that from these islands, with Italian cooperation, an assault against Rhodes could be eventually launched. Thus, from 10 to 17 September, the British 234th Infantry Brigade under Major General F. G. R. Brittorous coming from Malta, together with 160 men from the SBS, 130 men from the LRDG, A Company, 11th Bn, Parachute Regiment and Greek Sacred Band detachments had secured the islands of Kos, Kalymnos, Samos, Leros, Symi and Astypalaia, supported by ships of the British and Greek navies. The Germans quickly mobilized in response. By 19 September, Karpathos, Kasos and the Italian-occupied islands of the Sporades and the Cyclades were in German hands. On 23 September, Lieutenant-General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller was ordered to take Kos and Leros. Müller was the commander of the 22nd Infantry Division garrisoning "Fortress Crete".
Battle of Kos
Having identified the vital role of the Allies' only airfield at Kos, X Fliegerkorps started carrying out bombing raids on it and the Allied positions of the island, from 18 September. At the same time, reinforcements in aircraft started arriving, giving the Germans 362 operational aircraft in the area of the Aegean by 1 October. The British forces on Kos numbered about 1,500 men, 680 of whom where from the 1st Bn, Durham Light Infantry, the rest being mainly RAF personnel, and ~3,500 Italians of the 10th Regiment of the 50th "Regina" Infantry Division. On 3 October, the Germans effected amphibious and airborne landings known as Operation Eisbär ("Polar Bear") and reached the outskirts of the island's capital later that day. The British withdrew under cover of night. They surrendered the next day. The fall of Kos was a major blow to the Allies, since it deprived them of vital air cover. The Germans captured 1388 British and 3145 Italian prisoners. On 3 October, German troops executed the captured Italian commander of the island, Colonel Felice Leggio, and 101 of his officers. This was done in accordance with Adolf Hitler's order of 11 September to execute captured Italian officers.
Battle of Leros
In the aftermath of the fall of Kos, the Italian garrison of Kalymnos surrendered, providing the Germans with a valuable base for operations against their next target, Leros. The operation, codenamed Operation Leopard, was originally scheduled for 9 October, but on 7 October, the Royal Navy intercepted and destroyed the German convoy headed for Kos. In addition to the loss of several hundred men, the Germans also lost most of their few heavy landing craft. The Germans were forced to bring in new ones by rail, and it was not until 5 November that they had assembled a fleet of 24 such light infantry landing craft. To avoid interception by the Allied navies, they were dispersed among several Aegean islands and camouflaged. Despite Allied efforts to locate and sink the invasion fleet, as well as repeated shelling of the ports of German-held islands (see naval operations section below), the Germans suffered little losses and were able to assemble their invasion force, under Generalleutnant Müller, for Operation Taifun ("Typhoon") on 12 November.
The German invasion force consisted of personnel from all branches of the Wehrmacht, including veterans from the 22nd Infantry Division, a Fallschirmjäger (paratroop) battalion, and an amphibious operations company (coastal raider, Küstenjäger) from the Brandenburger special operation units. The Allied garrison of Leros consisted of most of the 234th Infantry Brigade, ~3,000 men of the 2nd Bn, The Royal Irish Fusiliers, under Lieutenant Colonel Maurice French, the 4th Bn, The Buffs (The Royal East Kent Regiment), the 1st Bn, The King's Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster), and the 2nd company of the 2nd Bn, Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment, under Brigadier Robert Tilney, who assumed command on 5 November. There were also ~8,500 regular Italian soldiers, mostly naval personnel, under Admiral Luigi Mascherpa.
Leros had been subjected by the Luftwaffe to a prolonged aerial bombardment, starting on 26 September, which had already caused significant casualties and damage, both among the defenders of the island and amongst the supporting naval forces. In the early hours of 12 November, the invasion force in two groups approached the island from east and west. Despite failures in some areas, the Germans established a bridgehead, while airborne forces landed on Mt. Rachi, in the middle of the island. After repulsing the Allied counterattacks and being reinforced the following night, the Germans quickly cut the island in two and the Allies surrendered on 16 November. The Germans suffered 520 casualties and captured 3,200 British and 5,350 Italian soldiers.
Since the operational theater was dominated by a multitude of islands and the Allies and Germans had to rely on naval vessels for reinforcements and supplies, the naval component of the campaign was especially pronounced. Initially, naval presence on both sides was low, most of the Allied shipping and warships had been transferred to the central Mediterranean, in support of the operations in Italy, while the Germans did not have a large naval force in the Aegean. The Germans had air superiority, which caused the Allies many losses in ships. Vice Admiral Werner Lange, German Naval Commander-in-Chief of the Aegean, tried to reinforce the isolated German garrisons and carry out operations against Allied garrisons, while transporting the Italian prisoners of war to the mainland. Allied ships tried to intercept these, resulting in several tragedies. On 23 September, HMS Eclipse damaged the torpedo boat TA 10 and sank the steamer Gaetano Donizetti, which had 1,576 Italian captives on board. Another tragedy occurred a month later, when USAAF B-25 Mitchells and RAF Beaufighters sank the cargo ship Sinfra, which had 2,389 Italian POWs, 71 Greek POWs and 204 German guards on board, of whom only 539 were saved.
On 14 September, the first Allied loss occurred, when RHN Katsonis, was rammed and sunk by U-boat hunter UJ 2101. The Luftwaffe also intervened in force: On 26 September, 25 Junkers Ju 88s sank RHN Vasilissa Olga and HMS Intrepid at Lakki Bay, Leros, followed on 1 October by the Italian destroyer Euro, HMS Panther, and Carlisle (heavily damaged) on 9 October. At the same time, the short range of Hunt-class destroyers HMS Aldenham, RHN Pindos, and RHN Themistoklis prevented them from intercepting the German invasion convoy headed for Kos. Further losses on both sides followed; after the loss of Kos and friendly air cover, the Allied navies concentrated on supply missions to the threatened islands of Leros and Samos, mostly under the cover of night. On 22–24 October, HMS Hurworth and Eclipse sank in a German minefield east of Kalymnos, while RHN Adrias lost its prow. Adrias escaped to the Turkish coast, and after makeshift repairs, sailed to Alexandria.
On the night of 10–11 November, destroyers HMS Petard, Rockwood, and ORP Krakowiak bombarded Kalymnos, and HMS Faulknor bombarded Kos, where German forces were assembling for the attack on Leros. Nonetheless, the German convoy reached Leros on 12 November, escorted by over 25 ships, mostly subchasers, torpedo boats, and mine sweepers. During the subsequent nights, Allied destroyers tried to find and destroy the German vessels without success, limiting themselves to bombarding the German positions on Leros. With the fall of Leros on 16 November, the Allied ships were withdrawn, evacuating the remaining British garrisons. By that time, the Germans had also started employing the Dornier Do 217s of KG.100, with their novel Henschel Hs 293 radio-controlled missile, scoring two hits. One caused severe damage to HMS Rockwood on 11 November; one sank HMS Dulverton two days later. The Allies lost six destroyers sunk and two cruisers and two destroyers damaged between 7 September and 28 November 1943.
After the fall of Leros, Samos and the other smaller islands were evacuated. The Germans bombed Samos with Stukas (I. Group Stuka Wing 3 in Megara), prompting the 2,500-strong Italian garrison to surrender on 22 November. Along with the occupation of the smaller islands of Patmos, Fournoi and Ikaria on 18 November, the Germans thus completed their conquest of the Dodecanese, which they were to continue to hold until the end of the war. The Dodecanese Campaign is one of the last great defeats of the British Army in World War II, and one of the last German victories. The German victory was predominantly due to their possession of complete air superiority, which caused great losses to the Allies, especially in ships, and enabled the Germans to supply and support their forces. The operation was criticized by many at the time as another useless Gallipoli-like disaster and laid the blame at Churchill's door; perhaps unfairly so, since he had pushed for these efforts to be made far sooner, before the Germans were prepared.
In the context of the Holocaust, the British failure to capture the Dodecanese sealed the fate of the Jews living there. Although Italy had passed the anti-Jewish law of the Manifesto of Race in 1938, Jews living on the Dodecanese islands (and Italian-occupied Greece) experienced much less antisemitism than in the German and Bulgarian occupied zones of Greece, where harsher and harsher policies were implemented over time against the Jews, culminating in March 1943 with deportations to the death camps in occupied Poland. The Italian surrender, the subsequent German takeover and the failure of the Allied offensive meant that the safe haven disappeared and most of the Dodecanese Jews were eventually murdered by the Germans. In particular, 1,700 members of the ancient Jewish community of Rhodes (of a population of about 2,000) were rounded up by the Gestapo in July 1944 and only some 160 of them survived the camps. Out of 6,000 Ladino-speaking Jews in the Dodecanese as a whole, some 1,200 survived by escaping to the nearby coast of Turkey.
Italian prisoners of war were transferred to the mainland by the Germans in overcrowded unseaworthy vessels, which led to several accidents, of which the sinking of the SS Oria on 12 February 1944 was the most deadly. More than 4,000 Italians died when the ship sank in a storm.
In popular culture
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- Hans Peter Eisenbach (2009): "Fronteinsätze eines Stuka-Fliegers" Mittelmeer 1943 ISBN 978-3-938208-96-0, Helios-Verlag Aachen. The author describes the missions of I. Group StG 3 against Kefalonia in September 1943 and the missions of I./StG 3 (Megara) in the Aegean theatre of operations, including the battle of Leros. The book is based on the Flight Log Book of a Stuka Pilot from I./StG 3.
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