Operation Abstention was a code name given to the British invasion of the Italian island of Kastelorizo, off Greece, during the Second World War, in late February 1941. The goal was to establish a base to challenge the Italian naval and air supremacy on the Greek Dodecanese islands.
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 Andrew Cunningham, the commander of the Mediterranean Fleet planned an occupation of Kastelorizo, the easternmost Greek island in the chain just off the Turkish coast. The island was some 80 mi (70 nmi; 130 km) from Rhodes and it was intended 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.
About 200 commandos, transported by the destroyers HMS Decoy and Hereward, and a 24-man detachment of Royal Marines on the gunboat HMS Ladybird, sailed from Suda Bay on 24 February. The plan was to establish a beachhead in the island, before the arrival 24-hours later of a Sherwood Foresters company to consolidate the British position. The second force was to sail from Cyprus on board the armed yacht HMS Rosaura, escorted by the light cruisers HMAS Perth and HMS Bonaventure. Before dawn, the commandos landed from ten whaleboats on Cape Nifti, south of the settlement, while the Royal Marines occupied the harbor. Previously, the submarine HMS Parthian had made a reconnaissance of the landing point.
The Italian presence at Kastelorizo consisted of a small and miscellaneous 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 took the garrison by surprise, 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 entrenched. Ladybird was struck by a bomb and three seamen wounded; already short of fuel, Ladybird was forced to re-embark the Royal Marines party 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) attack began after sunset on 26 February, when 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 retreat to their encampment at the landing point near Cape Nifti. 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 found no 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 HMS 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 two destroyers from Leros, Crispi and Sella and two MAS motor-launches, unloading the remainder of the land contingent and resuming bombardments, which made the Commandos' position untenable. When more British forces from Alexandria arrived on 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, a dead soldier and two stragglers left behind, who told them of the Italian counter-attack. The Sherwood Foresters' company commander, Major Cooper, who had sailed back to HMS Decoy, after talks with the other commanders, concluded 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 the 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.
The operation was described by Admiral Cunningham as "a rotten business and reflected little credit to everyone". 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. Some Italian sources claim that the British forces captured the Italian cryptograpic code but this was contradicted in 1957 by the former admiral Marc’Antonio Bragadin and British sources make no mention of capturing codes. The Italians retained control of the Dodecanese Islands until the capitulation in September 1943. As soon Italy changed sides, the British landed on the islands 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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