Operation Abstention was a code name given to a British invasion of the Italian island of Kastelorizo, off Turkey, during the Second World War, in late February 1941. The goal was to establish a base to challenge Italian naval and air supremacy on the Greek Dodecanese islands. The British landings were challenged by Italian land, air and naval forces, which forced the British troops to re-embark amidst some confusion and led to recriminations between the British commanders for underestimating the Italians.
After the attack on Taranto and the success of Operation Compass, an offensive in Cyrenaica, Libya from December 1940 – February 1941, the British conducted operations to neutralize Italian forces in the Dodecanese islands. Admiral Admiral Andrew Cunningham, the commander of the Mediterranean Fleet planned to occupy Kastelorizo, the easternmost Greek island in the chain just off the Turkish coast about 80 mi (70 nmi; 130 km) from Rhodes to establish a motor torpedo boat base. The operation was intended as a first step towards the control of the Aegean Sea. Despite isolation, Italian naval and air forces in the area were still capable of carrying out hit-and-run attacks on Allied shipping between Egypt and Greece.
The British planned to land a force of about 200 commandos, assisted by a 24-man detachment of Royal Marines to establish a beachhead on the island, to be followed 24-hours later by an army unit to consolidate the British position. On 24 February the commandos, transported by the destroyers HMS Decoy and Hereward and the marines, on the gunboat HMS Ladybird, sailed from Suda Bay. The second force, a company of Sherwood Foresters on board the armed yacht HMS Rosaura, escorted by the light cruisers HMAS Perth and Bonaventure, awaited developments in Cyprus. Before dawn, the commandos landed from ten whaleboats on Cape Nifti, south of the settlement, while the Royal Marines occupied the harbour. The landings were supported by the submarine HMS Parthian, which had previously made a reconnaissance of the landing points and acted as a beacon to the incoming ships.
The Italian garrison on Kastelorizo consisted of a small unit of soldiers and agents of the Guardia di Finanza in charge of a wireless station. The commandos ambushed an Italian patrol on the truck between Cape Nifti and the port, killing two soldiers and injuring another. The British surprised the garrison, seized the radio outpost and took 12 prisoners but the Italians managed to send a message to Rhodes, the main Italian air and naval base in the Dodecanese. A few hours later, aircraft of the Regia Aeronautica (Italian Royal Air Force) raided the harbour castle and the main hills of the small island, where the commandos were dug in. Ladybird was struck by a bomb and three sailors were wounded; already short of fuel, Ladybird was forced to re-embark the Royal Marines and make for Haifa, which cut the radio link of the commandos with Alexandria. After communications breakdowns and other mishaps, the follow-up force from Cyprus was diverted to Alexandria.
The Regia Marina (Royal Italian Navy) counter-attack began after sunset on 26 February, when the torpedo boats Lupo and Lince landed about 240 soldiers north of the port and used their 3.9 in (99 mm) guns to bombard British positions at the docks and the Governor's palace, killing three and wounding seven commandos. The Italian warships evacuated a number of Italian civilians who had gathered at harbour after learning of their presence in the port. The commandos retreated to their encampment at the landing point near Cape Nifti, though one company remained in the area of the local cemetery. The captain of Hereward was warned by the commandos and joined Decoy, about 40 mi (35 nmi; 64 km) off the coast. The commander ordered the warships to disrupt the Italian landings but the destroyers did not find the Italian ships. Hereward reported that the Italian surface action threatened the landing of the main British force embarked on Rosaura, which had already been compromised by the air attacks on the harbour. The landing was postponed and rearranged, to be carried out by the destroyers Decoy and Hero, after embarking the Sherwood Foresters company from Rosaura. The ships were ordered to Alexandria to reorganise; Admiral Renouf fell ill and was replaced by Captain Egerton, commander of Bonaventure, which complicated matters.
High seas forced the Italian Navy to suspend the landings until the morning of 27 February, as the Italian forces already ashore harassed the exhausted and isolated British commandos, who were equipped only for a 24-hour operation. The Italian squadron returned some hours later, reinforced with the destroyers Crispi and Sella and two MAS motor-launches from Leros,; these unloaded the remainder of the landing contingent and resumed bombardments, which made the Commandos' position untenable. When more British forces from Alexandria arrived in the early hours of 28 February, a platoon of the Sherwood Foresters found the landing point abandoned by the commandos; along with scattered equipment and ammunition were a dead soldier and two stragglers, who told them of the Italian counter-attack. Major Cooper of the Sherwood Foresters, who had sailed back to Decoy, concluded, after talks with the other commanders, that lack of naval and air support made withdrawal inevitable. The bulk of the landing party, isolated on a small plateau in the east end of Kastelorizo, was re-embarked by 03:00. Italian troops surrounded and eventually captured a number of commandos who had been left behind.
While covering the withdrawal, HMS Jaguar was attacked by Crispi, which had fired 20 shells on British positions at Cape Nifti, steaming from the south. The Italian destroyer fired two torpedoes at her British counterpart which missed and Jaguar replied with her 4.7 in (120 mm) main armament. Jaguar received a 40 mm hit on her searchlight that made its gunfire ineffective and the British force sailed back to Alexandria. The destroyers HMS Nubian, Hasty and Jaguar made a sweep between Rhodes and Kastelorizo but failed to intercept the Italian warships as they returned to base.
Cunningham described the operation as "a rotten business and reflected little credit to everyone" and laid blame on Renouf. A Board of Inquiry found that Hereward's commander made a misjudgement by rejoining Decoy, instead of engaging the Italian force without delay, which caused the failure of the main landing and the isolation of the commandos. British commanders had also been surprised by the Italian riposte, especially the frequent air attacks which were unopposed. In 2009, Vincent O'Hara wrote that the operation showed that the Italians dominated the seas around even their outlying bases and that this was not to be the last time that the British underestimated the Italians. The Italians retained control of the Dodecanese Islands until the armistice of September 1943. When Italy changed sides, British forces landed on the islands to support the Italian garrisons, in the Dodecanese Campaign (8 September – 22 November 1943). British and Italian troops were attacked and defeated by a German operation and the islands came under German control until the end of the war. Kastelorizo was not occupied but constant air attacks destroyed many of the homes and forced the Greek population to flee to neutral Turkey or to Palestine.
Order of battle
|Regia Marina | Royal Navy|
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