Lying in the Aegean Sea off the south-west coast of Turkey, the Dodecanese are a group of 12 major and 150 minor islands, the most significant being Rhodes. Although mainly inhabited by Greeks, the islands were Turkish until 1912, when they were conquered by the Italians.
After Italy entered the Second World War on the Axis side in 1940, the Dodecanese became the principal German staging-post for the invasion of Crete, and Rhodes later became a strong forward-base, a malevolent presence in the central Mediterranean garrisoned by 35,000 Italian and 7,000 German troops, boasting two good airfields and a harbour. Airfields were also located on Scarpanto and Kos, and Leros had a seaplane base and a harbour suitable for small warships.
An enemy presence so close to Egypt forced the British to maintain forces in Palestine, and the islands remained an irritant to British planners. Winston Churchill cherished dreams of seizing the islands, and using them as a springboard for his cherished assault on the ‘soft underbelly’ of the Axis through the Balkans. Seizing the Dodecanese would also have helped the Allies supply the Soviet Union, and possibly even bring Turkey into the war on the Allied side.
Churchill’s ambitions were given added impetus in 1943 by Italy’s wavering commitment to the Axis cause, and in January a plan for a divisional-strength landing to occupy the islands, Operation Accolade, was prepared. But as the year wore on, and Allied forces landed on first Sicily and then mainland Italy, it had few supporters. In particular, most American decision-makers, including Eisenhower, believed that the operation was just British adventurism, carried out with more than half an eye on post-war influence.
The Americans duly refused to help, and Accolade was postponed – until the imminent Italian surrender offered a seductive opportunity for Britain to go it alone. Churchill wasted no time in resurrecting the plan, urging his Chiefs of Staff and Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, to improvise an invasion force.
‘Here is a business of great consequence, to be thrust forward by every means,’ he wrote. ‘This is no time for conventional establishments, but rather for using whatever fighting elements there are.’
The stage was thus set for what was intended to be a daring, improvised combined operation – but which turned out to be a poorly planned and under-resourced disaster.
The British coup
Italy surrendered on 8 September. The following day, a British Special Forces officer parachuted onto Rhodes to persuade the Italian garrison to change sides.
But the Germans had predicted the Italian surrender, and drawn up contingency plans: the island was taken over by its German garrison almost immediately, and by 11 September the main opportunity had passed. In the meantime, a dangerously reduced version of Accolade was under way, despite repeated American warnings that no assets from the US-controlled Italian Front would be forthcoming.
Instead, Malta was stripped of its garrison, the 234th Infantry Brigade, to provide the core of the tiny force, supported by a parachute battalion, small engineer and anti-aircraft detachments, and teams from the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) and Special Boat Squadron.
The operation began with an encouragingly bloodless occupation of six smaller islands, including Kos, Leros, and Samos, which was completed by 23 September. It was soon clear, however, that taking Rhodes and the other islands would be impossible. Stalemate followed.
The British garrisons were desperately vulnerable, marooned at the end of a long maritime supply-chain, and inadequately provided with air cover. Initially, just one South African Spitfire squadron was deployed to the islands. All other supporting aircraft had to make the long haul from North Africa or Italy, drastically reducing their flying time over the target.
The Long Range Desert Group
The LRDG was formed in 1940 by Major Ralph Bagnold. It was a deep-penetration reconnaissance unit, famed for travelling hundreds of miles behind Axis lines in the Western Desert and North Africa, gathering intelligence and sometimes raiding enemy rear-echelon units.
The LRDG never numbered more than 350 men, and many of its early volunteers were New Zealanders, although they were later joined by men from Britain and Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe).
It operated almost continuously between December 1940 and the end of the campaign in April 1943, after which its personnel left their famous modified Chevrolet trucks and were redeployed on covert reconnaissance missions among the Greek islands. The LRDG was disbanded at the end of the Second World War in August 1945.
Why was a small unit of highly trained covert reconnaissance specialists sent to fight a conventional battle? Because the British did not have enough regular troops to carry out Accolade, the operation was not expected to take long, and they were available.
German air support
The Germans, in contrast, enjoyed Luftwaffe support from Crete, just a few minutes’ flying time away, and brought in more aircraft from other theatres, until they had over 350 within reach of the Dodecanese.
From 18 September, the British fighter airfield at Antimachia on Kos was raided almost every day, and by the end of the month only four South African Spitfires were air-worthy. Nine replacement Spitfires were destroyed just as quickly. For those on the ground, it was 1940-1941 all over again: even the Luftwaffe’s Stuka dive-bombers made an appearance.
On 23 September, Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, the German commander on Crete, was ordered to retake the islands. He began with Kos, which was defended by the 1st Battalion, the Durham Light Infantry (DLI), and a company from 11th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, along with a few anti-aircraft guns and several thousand inadequately trained and equipped Italians.
With the airfield unserviceable, much of this force was in the eastern half of the island, defending the principal town, also named Kos. Most of the DLI’s heavy equipment had been left behind owing to the chronic shortage of specialised assault shipping, and proper defences could not be dug into the rocky ground.
At dawn on 3 October, German troops supported by artillery and tanks landed on beaches near the centre of the island, covered by a massive air attack, and supported by a company-strength airborne landing at Antimachia airfield.
The Germans swept across the island, engaging the British defences around Kos town. Above them, Stukas circled, engaging targets of opportunity in a leisurely manner eerily reminiscent of the ‘cab-rank’ tactics that would be used by Allied fighter-bombers over Normandy just eight months later.
The relentless bombardment forced the DLI to withdraw into the town, a manoeuvre which was completed by 17:00 hours, but at great cost: by nightfall just 200 defenders remained.
At 20:00 the garrison commander, Colonel L F R Kenyon, ordered his men to form small groups and make for the hills. By 06:00 on 4 October, all resistance had ceased, and Kenyon signalled to GHQ Cairo: ‘Kos town untenable. Intend to continue the fight somewhere else.’
The first battle was over. Fewer than 200 survivors were evacuated by SBS-manned schooners; 900 Allied soldiers and 3,000 Italians were taken prisoner, and 90 Italian officers were shot by the SS for changing sides.
German sights were now set on Leros, but a swift follow-up was ruled out on 6 October when a naval task-group formed around the veteran cruiser Penelope intercepted a German invasion convoy off Stampalia, drowning 400 soldiers and sinking large quantities of equipment.
With such inadequate air cover, the burden of supporting the troops fell on the Royal Navy, as it had at Crete more than two years before. But as in that campaign, isolated successes could not disguise the terrible vulnerability of the warships in the face of total enemy air-superiority.
Two destroyers had already been sunk in Leros Harbour on 26 September, and Penelope was herself damaged by a Stuka on the way back from the Stampalia action. Two days later, the cruiser Carlisle and four destroyers were swamped by dive-bombers in the Scarpanto Strait: Carlisle was badly damaged, and HMS Panther was sunk. October saw a relentless sequence of attacks on warships and improvised supply-ships, as desperate attempts to resupply the isolated garrisons continued.
Even so, to the incomprehension of the watching Turks, the British refused to withdraw, and the Leros garrison was even reinforced. By now, Churchill had instructed Wilson to evacuate if the position was hopeless, but Wilson wanted to wait until the moonless late November nights, which would make evacuation safer.
In the meantime, the Germans mopped up Italian detachments on the smaller islands, and defeated an incomprehensible raid on Levita by 48 LRDG men on 23 October, killing all but eight of the attackers.
On 12 November, the Germans launched Operation Taifun, the assault on Leros. The 3,000 or so British defenders were mostly drawn from the remaining three battalions of the 234th Brigade – 4th Buffs, 2nd Royal Irish Fusiliers, and 1st King’s Own Royal Regiment, supported by SBS and LRDG detachments, a few anti-aircraft guns, and a solitary troop of 25-pdr field-guns. Some 5,500 Italians completed the garrison, mostly administrative personnel from the naval base or artillerymen manning out-of-date coastal guns sited completely in the open.
Worse still, the British infantry were dispersed in penny packets on every beach around the island’s lengthy coastline. No transport was available to move them quickly to respond to trouble, and no provision was made to defend against airborne attack, despite the successful German use of paratroops on Kos.
The German invasion was no great secret, as the ships took five days to reach their jumping-off point, crawling through the islands by night, and lying up in defended anchorages by day. Finally, at 04:30 on 12 November, a German convoy appeared to the north of Leros.
Initial resistance was stiff. Six German landing-craft were sunk by British and Italian guns, and 500 German troops who attempted to land at Palma Bay were thrown back into the sea. A further landing at Pendeli Bay was driven back into a narrow beachhead, and held there. But at Grifo Bay two companies successfully got ashore and moved inland, scaling the dominant and supposedly impassable heights of Mount Clidi.
When the amphibious landing ran out of momentum, the Germans reinforced from the air. Waves of Junkers 52 transports flew unhindered over the island, dropping around 500 paratroops on the narrow neck of land which divides Leros in half.
The unfortunate Fallschirmjäger landed in a stiff breeze onto unforgiving rocky terrain under heavy fire, and the casualty rate was appalling. Despite this, a substantial number were able to dig in.
Poor communications prevented an effective British counterattack from developing before nightfall. By the end of the first day, the Germans were ashore in strength, and the British garrison had been cut in two.
During the night, the Germans managed to land reinforcements, despite efforts to intervene by British warships, one of which – the destroyer HMS Dulverton – was hit by a glider bomb and sunk early on the morning of 13 November.
Both sides consolidated during that day, the Germans landing further reinforcements by air and seizing the high ground of Mount Appetici, overlooking Leros town. But the Buffs counterattacked at Mount Clidi, and managed to take back the heights.
At dawn on 14 November, when the British put in a vital counterattack to retake Mount Appetici, everything was still to play for. But at this key moment, nothing went right.
A destroyer that was due to provide gunfire support did not appear. Poor communications meant that the attack was carried out by just three companies, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Maurice French of the Royal Irish Fusiliers. Daylight found them still clinging to the lower slopes, nowhere near their objective, and although they eventually reached the summit of Appetici, by then French’s force was far too small to hold it.
The remnants were soon driven off their hard-won prize by a determined German counterattack. They were pushed back down the slopes up which they had forced their way so painfully just a few hours before. French was killed, and the last forlorn hope of saving Leros faded.
During the remainder of 14 November, Luftwaffe aircraft eliminated the remaining British and Italian gun positions one by one, and stopped any counterattacks in their tracks. During the night, destroyers managed to bring in two companies of the Royal West Kents from Samos, perhaps 200 men, but the Germans managed to land 1,200 reinforcements, supported by heavy weapons, including a number of 88mm guns. The end was in sight.
Surrender on Leros
Early on 15 November, the British reinforcements were flung into a hastily prepared attack to throw the Germans off Rachi Ridge, from where they were threatening Fortress HQ, which was located in a tunnel under Mount Maraviglia. Although they achieved their objective, without reserves or air support they were unable to hold on.
The next day, the Luftwaffe made another 600 largely unopposed sorties. Confused and disorientated by the relentless bombardment, British troop movements were isolated and uncoordinated.
By midday, as the Germans prepared their final assault on Fortress HQ, the British defences were hopelessly mixed up. Unbelievably, in the south of the island, some troops were still patiently defending the beaches.
By 14:00 hours, the Germans had advanced from their strongholds on Mount Appetici and Rachi Ridge, and had linked up in Leros town, surrounding Fortress HQ. The British positions were overrun by 15:45, and the fortress commander, Brigadier R A G Tinley, opened negotiations.
At 17:30, he formerly surrendered to Müller, and the battle was over, although some scattered survivors were evacuated from the south of the island during the night. The remaining British garrisons in the Dodecanese had been withdrawn by 28 November.
For Germany, it was a pyrrhic victory, as an estimated 4,000 men had been lost, mostly in sunken landing-craft. But the Germans were to hold the Dodecanese until the end of the war.
For Britain, it was a humiliating defeat in an operation that should never have been attempted. Churchill came in for particular criticism, although he laid the blame for failure firmly at the door of the Americans.
The campaign cost the British Army 4,800 casualties, most of whom were taken prisoner. Given the chronic shortage of infantry replacements, which plagued the British in Normandy less than a year later, this was an unnecessary sacrifice.
Six British and Greek destroyers were sunk, along with two submarines and a number of smaller craft. Four cruisers were damaged, and the Royal Air Force lost 115 aircraft. The damage to morale cannot be calculated.
Lieutenant Ted Johnson took part in the fighting on Mount Appetici with the Royal Irish Fusiliers. ‘We were fighting for six days, but we had no air support and were completely outnumbered,’ he recalled years later.
There were lots of casualties in this fighting, and from the aerial attacks. My… company had been decimated, and… we were penned in by the Germans, who were at the bottom of the hill. We had… to take up this position, but it was a stony outcrop with little cover, so our position was not too hot. We were down to five men – three soldiers, another officer, and myself. We realised there was no point carrying on. We had no ammunition and no grenades left, so we destroyed our weapons, and walked down the hill with our arms up. I have to say it was the most shameful moment of my life.
Arriving in Germany after a nightmare 14-day journey across the Balkans and central Europe sealed in a cattle truck, Johnson found his interrogators knew more about the battle of the Dodecanese than he did. They apparently described it as a ‘ridiculous operation’, a judgement that is hard to counter.
Why did Accolade fail?
By September 1943, the Allies had carried out three ambitious and successful amphibious operations, far grander in scale than Accolade: Torch, the invasion of French North Africa; Husky, the invasion of Sicily; and Avalanche, the invasion of Italy. Why did Accolade fail so disastrously?
A clear causal chain is readily apparent:
1. No Allied cohesion. Without US support, the operation was a non-starter. The Americans ensured that no resources were diverted from the main theatre of operations – Italy – which was under Eisenhower’s command.
2. No specialist shipping. The British depended on US approval to divert specialised assault shipping, especially the vital ‘Tank Landing Ships’.
3. Poorly balanced force. Obsolescent or even captured tanks and other heavy weapons might have been found in dumps in North Africa, but without the ships, the British could only really land infantry.
4. Lack of air-superiority. Without the loan of air assets from Italy, the Germans had a virtually free rein over the Dodecanese.
5. Underestimation of the enemy. Why bother with aircraft and heavy weapons if the Wehrmacht was beaten? Planners failed to recognise its astonishing capacity to improvise a response and ‘come back from the dead’.
6. Refusal to recognise defeat. Accolade could have been abandoned earlier at minimal cost to British lives and prestige, either after the Germans turned Rhodes into an unassailable fortress, or by withdrawing the Leros garrison after the fall of Kos. This would have turned disaster into a mere setback..
Nick Hewitt is an historian at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, and a member of the Military History Monthly Editorial Advisory Board.