Thursday, March 10, 2016


General Henry Maitland “Jumbo” Wilson was appointed commander in chief of the Middle East and, under orders from Winston Churchill, mounted an expedition to occupy the small Greek islands of Kos, Leros, and Samos in September 1943 with the object of creating a diversion during the Italian Campaign. The expedition was a bad idea, and Wilson’s forces sustained heavy casualties, for which Wilson was widely blamed.

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.

Maj. Gen. Wagner, commander of German forces in the Dodecanese, and two of his staff officers come alongside the destroyer HMS Kimberley on a motor launch which the Germans had captured from the British a few months previously. The Kimberley took Wagner to the island of Symi in the Aegean, where the unconditional surrender of German forces in the region was signed, May 18, 1945. The failure of the British Dodecanese campaign resulted in German control of the islands until the end of World War II. Imperial War Museum photo.

The islands of the southern Aegean Sea off the southwest coast of Anatolia were known through much of their history as the eastern or southern Sporades (“scattered”). The islands include Rhodes, Karpathos, Kassos, Haliki, Kastellorizo (Castlerosso), Alimia, Tilos, Symi (Simi), Nissyros, Kos (Cos), Pserimos, Astypalea, Kalymnos, Telendhos, Leros, Lipsi, Patmos, Arki, and Agnthonissi. Early in the twentieth century, the Young Turks revoked the historic privileges enjoyed by the islanders, who were part of the Ottoman Empire. Twelve islands (dhodkeka nisia) joined in a failed protest against the loss of these privileges, and the name of Dodecanese stuck as a term for all these islands, even though they exceeded 12 in number.

In 1912, as a consequence of the Italo-Turkish War, the Dodecanese Islands passed to Italian control. In 1941, the Germans joined their Italian allies in garrisoning the islands, which were inhabited chiefly by Greeks. The Italians had naval and air bases on Rhodes, the strategic key to the area. There was also an airfield on Kos, a seaplane base and naval batteries at Leros, and an air base on Scarpanto.

When Italy surrendered on 8 September 1943, the Dodecanese were occupied by two poorly equipped Italian divisions totaling 37,000 men; Italian morale was very low. The Germans had one division of 7,000 men, which was well equipped with tanks and artillery. The local Greek population was excited at the prospect of liberation by the Allied powers.

British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill ordered that operations be conducted against the Dodecanese Islands. He believed that success there would open the way to the Dardanelles and the Balkans. He also sought to induce Turkey to join the war and to remove the stain of Britain’s defeat in World War I at Gallipoli. The original plan for an invasion of the Dodecanese, prepared by the Middle East Command, was known as Operation MANDIBLES, but it was subsequently renamed Operation ACCOLADE. Churchill appealed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and to General Dwight D. Eisenhower for aid to liberate the Dodecanese. The Americans, who were preparing a landing on the Italian peninsula at Salerno, rebuffed him. Roosevelt also suspected that the British hoped to open a new front in the Balkans. Coincidentally, the Combined Chiefs of Staff meeting in Quebec ordered most of the landing ships in the Middle East to the Indian Ocean, which starved the operation of needed assets.

When Italy surrendered on 8 September 1943, three British operatives led by Major Lord George Jellicoe parachuted onto Rhodes. They contacted Italian authorities there and urged them to take the Germans prisoner. However, Admiral Inigo Campioni, commander of Italian forces in the Aegean, hesitated. The Germans, meanwhile, acted swiftly and soon subdued the Italians.

The British nonetheless proceeded with some landings, and by October 1943—with a force of 5,000 men and a small flotilla—they secured several islands, among them Kos, Samos, Patmos, and Leros. They were not able, however, either to gain air superiority or take Rhodes, and as long as the Germans were secure at Rhodes, the British could not hold the Dodecanese.

German Response
When Italy surrendered to the Western Allies on September 9, 1943, 7,500 Germans of the “Sturm-Division Rhodos” overwhelmed and disarmed the Italian Dodecanese garrison of 30,000 men. Winston Churchill, fixated as always on military activity in the Mediterranean, ordered in British and Greek commandos with an eye to forcing the Germans from the Dodecanese and from Crete. By mid-October some 4,000 British commandos were spread over eight small islands, though none landed on Rhodes. Elements of the German 22nd Infantry Division from Crete crossed to Kos (Operation IRON BAR) on October 3 to eliminate the only British airfield in the Dodecanese. They forced the isolated British garrison of under 1,400 men to surrender, took an additional 4,000 Italian prisoners, and summarily executed over 100 Italian officers.

Churchill’s advisers recommended withdrawal from the Dodecanese, but the Prime Minister pressed ahead with the campaign, essentially reinforcing failure. In his defense, he hoped to provoke Turkey into the war against Germany. He also saw the island campaign as a preliminary to a larger and long-cherished Balkan campaign, a proposal repeatedly rejected by American military and political leaders. The Germans assaulted Leros (Operation LEOPARD) on November 12, overrunning the British garrison of 3,000 men and taking prisoner another 8,500 Italian soldiers and sailors. The campaign was over by November 22. Elements of the British and Greek navies took serious losses, mostly from Luftwaffe bombing but also strikes by new radio-controlled missiles used by the Germans for the first time.

Operations and Units
On 3 October 1943, the Germans went on the offensive, attacking Kos. Heavy bombing of the island by Stuka aircraft reduced the British defenses, and soon the British force there surrendered. Churchill refused to consider a withdrawal, instead ordering that Leros and Samos be held at all costs. Indeed, the British reinforced Leros. On 12 November, the Germans attacked Leros with overwhelming force, taking it four days later. The British troops remaining in the Dodecanese then withdrew.

Among British units involved were the Long Range Desert Group, the Special Boat Squadron, the Raiding Forces’ Levant Schooner Flotilla, the King’s Own, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and the Durham Light Infantry. The Greek navy provided 7 destroyers to assist the more numerous British vessels. In the offensive, the British lost 4 cruisers damaged and 2 submarines, 6 destroyers, and 10 small coastal vessels and minesweepers sunk. The Royal Air Force flew 3,746 sorties and lost 113 aircraft out of 288 involved. The British army lost in all about 4,800 men, while the Italians lost 5,350. German casualties totalled some 1,184 men, 35,000 tons of shipping (between late September and late November 1943), and 15 small landing craft and ferries. The operation failed as a consequence of Campioni’s hesitation, German aggressiveness, non-cooperation by the Americans, and the inadequacy of British resources. Holding the islands, however, stretched German resources, ultimately tying down some 60,000 Germans who might have been better employed elsewhere.
After the war, the British governed the Dodecanese until 1947. The islands were then turned over to Greece.

Suggested Reading: Jeffrey Holland, The Aegean Mission (1988).


Italian bombing of the Grand Harbour, Malta.

Italian battleship Roma (Regia Marina, 1940)

By June 1940, Italy’s battleship strength increased. The Littorio and Vittorio Veneto were completed, the last two of the Cavour class were completing modernization, and work continued on the new Roma and Impero. So now, with these new additions and the surrender of France on June 24, the situation in the Mediterranean changed drastically from what it had been nine months before, from nine Allied capital ships against four Italian, to six Italian capital ships versus four British.
For Italy, control of the Mediterranean was essential. All its African and Middle Eastern objectives could be reached only across the sea, so the Italian Navy would play a pivotal role. The fleet itself was large, modern, and possessed a very good naval commando branch. However, despite its modern character, it lacked radar, sonar, and night fighting training. Its most serious deficiency, however, was the lack of aircraft carriers, which Mussolini believed were unnecessary.

Furthermore, the Italian Navy was not allowed to have its own air units, like the British Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. For air support, it had to rely on the Italian Air Force and there was no effective coordination between the two services. Italian fleet commanders requiring air support had to contact the Admiralty, which then passed on the request to the Air Ministry, which, if it approved, would then notify the respective air units. The result of this cumbersome arrangement was that very often the Italian fleet went into battle with no air support at all. While this would be an important issue throughout the Mediterranean campaign, it should not have been an issue for an invasion of Malta, only sixty miles from the Italian bases in Sicily.

Ample land forces for an invasion were available from among the forty plus divisions of the Italian army. Furthermore, the Italian merchant marine, with a total of 1,235 ships of approximately 3,500,000 tons, would provide sufficient shipping to transport and maintain an offensive, particularly one so close.

Italy hoped to acquire Tunisia and Corsica after the fall of France, but was denied these territories in the armistice. Mussolini’s choices for conquest were now limited to Malta, Cyprus, and Egypt. From the German point of view, the first move should have been against Malta, which was weakly garrisoned and close to Italian airfields. According to Admiral Ruge, “It was the only piece of hostile territory in the central Mediterranean, and, in view of the general situation, it should have been the primary objective for a vigorous assault by all Italian arms.” The Luftwaffe Field Marshal Albert Kesselring would later state, “Italy’s missing the chance to occupy the island at the start of hostilities will go down in history as a fundamental blunder.”

The Italian Navy also supported invasion and since 1938 it had maintained that the occupation of Malta was a primary and indispensable condition for fighting any war against Great Britain. When war seemed imminent, the navy had presented a plan for the conquest of Malta to the Supreme Command. But the Supreme Command gave up this idea due to its opinion that the war would be a very short one, and also because it was believed that the Italian Air Force would be able to neutralize the island’s military effectiveness.

Furthermore, Mussolini was a disciple of air power theorist Giulio Douhet, who believed that civilian populations could be bombed into surrender. Invasion, according to Douhet’s doctrine, was unnecessary. Bombardment alone would be sufficient and the Italian Air Force was deemed up to the task, with 2,500 to 3,000 aircraft, 1,500 of which were first-line aircraft ready for combat. There were 200 fighters and 350 bombers stationed only twenty minutes’ flying time from Grand Harbour.
The bombing of Malta was the first Axis mistake and not invading at the onset was the second. Still, invasion might not have been necessary if a successful blockade had been imposed. Malta produced only 30 percent of its own food, and 70 percent of what it imported came from Italy and its North African colonies. In addition to food, fuel and munitions had to be imported. A major difference between the situations in 1565 and 1940 was that, while the knights and Maltese had ample supplies for the campaigning season, in 1940 the island had over ten times the population and was vulnerable to starvation. In this respect, the situation was more akin to the Maltese revolt against the French in 1798-1800.

JUNE 11, 1940
On the morning of June 11, the dockyard workers were streaming to the harbor to begin their shift, which started at 7 AM. At 6:50 the island’s sole radar set, positioned on the Dingli Cliffs, detected numerous aircraft approaching from the north. They were fifty-five tri-motored Savoia Marchetti 79s bombers, escorted by eighteen Macchi C. 200 fighters. Some of the attackers dropped their loads on Hal Far, while others bombed the Grand Harbour area. One bomb scored a direct hit on a gunpost at the tip of Fort St. Elmo, killing six RMA soldiers, Malta’s first army casualties. Other bombs hit Msida and Pieta. The worst damage was in heavily populated Cospicua. A second raid by thirty-eight bombers struck again later that afternoon. Altogether, there were eight raids that day. Two hundred buildings were completely or partially destroyed. Civilians composed the great majority of the 36 killed and 130 injured. Casualties would have been more severe, but the Italians used fifty-kilogram bombs.

When the first raid hit, the dockyard workers were crowded by the main gate. When sirens wailed they first thought it was a drill. Then someone yelled, “Air raid! Come on, run!” The workers panicked and surged through the gate, rushing for shelter inside the dockyard compound. Here many found safety in tunnels dug centuries earlier by the knights to house their galley slaves. Others made the best of the partially completed deep rock shelter.

The residents of Cospicua did not have shelters to flee to. No air raid drills had ever been conducted and many were confused about what to do. Many also panicked and fled to the Corradino highway tunnel a half mile away. Neither was there a plan for evacuating people from bombed areas.

Thousands fled the Three Cities and Paola on their own. It is estimated that during the first two days of the war, between 60,000 and 80,000 people fled the Grand Harbour area. Many would return, but they would find it hard to ever feel safe in their homes again.

An old railway tunnel outside Valletta was reopened and turned into an immense dormitory that served many of the capital’s residents, as well as those of nearby Floriana in the years to come. Tunnels were also dug out of the solid rock, some within the dense fortifications left by the knights. Individuals armed with pickaxes excavated smaller family shelters. These would have two entrances to reduce the chances of being blocked by debris. Many urban residents used old wells, dug before the construction of city water lines, for shelter. Those living outside the cities used caves, and in the Paola area the underground Hypogeum of the Temple Builders provided shelter. In time, more public shelters were also constructed. Many, however, never went into the shelters. Venerina Castillo of Marsa, for example, said that if she were to die, she wanted it to be in her home, and not in a hole in the ground.

It is possible that, had the Italians launched a quick invasion at the outbreak, they might have seized Malta with little effective resistance. It is also possible that if they blockaded the islands and starved the inhabitants, the people may have reevaluated their relationship with the British, much as they had done with the Phoenicians and knights. But any goodwill toward Italy vanished with the bombing of Malta. Had the Italians struck only military targets it would have been different, but the first raids destroyed houses as well, homes that had been passed down over generations. Beloved churches were hit as well. After the first raid, the matter was settled. It was 1565 all over again, and the Maltese would make their stand beside the British, just as they had with the knights. Italy lost Malta with the first bomb dropped on a Maltese home.

Stunning as the first raid was, there was another shock of a more positive nature. This was the appearance of three stubby little biplanes that rose to meet the intruders. In a modern version of David versus Goliath, these aircraft charged into bomber formations and even traded fire with the more modern Italian fighters. The Maltese soon named them Faith, Hope, and Charity. But where did they come from?

In April 1940, the carrier Glorious left Alexandria for the North Atlantic in a hurry to support Norway operations and left behind some crated Sea Gladiators at the naval air station at Kalafrana. These were reserve aircraft for the carrier. Malta’s air officer, a New Zealander named F. H. M. Maynard, asked the navy to hand them over to the RAF for air defense. Although the aircraft were already assigned to another carrier, Cunningham approved four of them for Malta. A bureaucrat at the Admiralty actually inquired as to why he would allow Fleet Air Arm property to be taken over by the RAF. Despite such interservice rivalry, the four were assembled at Kalafrana and stationed at Hal Far, where the British succeeded in keeping their existence a secret. There were a dozen qualified pilots on Malta, although they were for the most part in administrative posts and had no fighter training. All volunteered and seven were chosen.

The Gladiator had a top speed under 240 mph, a fixed undercarriage, all-steel fuselage, and an 840-horsepower Bristol Mercury engine. It was a rugged aircraft, armed with four .303 machine guns. The pilots called them flying tanks, while the Maltese thought that on the ground they looked like donkey carts.

In the first few days, three of the planes were in action, with the fourth used for parts. Damage to the aircraft, plus the strain on those flying, led to a rotation of the pilots on three shifts of two pilots each, meaning that after the first week there were never more than two and often only one Gladiator in the air to meet the Italian raiders. During an attack they would climb to 20,000 feet and then swoop down into the bomber formation, using the dive to compensate for lack of speed. Officially, they were known as Station Fighter Flight Number 1.

The pilots of Faith, Hope, and Charity were adored by the Maltese, and their newspaper photos adorned the pious Maltese homes alongside pictures of Jesus and Mary. Of the three, Faith is on display in the National War Museum. Of the seven pilots, two survived the war, Peter Keeble was killed over Malta on July 16, 1940; two others were killed in action in Belgium and Greece in 1941; another was killed in 1942 flying out of Gibraltar; and Peter Hartley was shot down over Malta and badly burned on July 31, 1940.

The Italian air raids were sustained for a month and a half. There were 53 raids in June, followed up by another 51 in July. The raids tapered off afterward, but by the end of the year there were another 107 for a total of 211 Italian air raids against Malta in 1940, or an average of just over one air attack a day.

Malta could not rely on the Gladiators forever. Fortunately, the British finally awoke to the need to hold Malta in the wake of France’s defeat. The aggressive Churchill had always advocated holding onto Malta and began to forward whatever air units were available to the island. Britain wanted to get Hurricanes to Malta and the only way was by carrier. The first attempt at this was Operation Hurry. On August 2, 1940, the old carrier Argus flew off twelve Hurricanes, and all arrived safely. This was done despite the fact that the Battle of Britain had been underway since July 10. Such operations, however, were not without risk. Three months later, in Operation White, the Argus carried another twelve Hurricanes for Malta, but only four made it on November 17, 1940. After takeoff the planes encountered a strong headwind, and eight ran out of gas, seven pilots losing their lives.

Throughout the war, the British mounted a total of twenty-seven such operations, ferrying 764 aircraft to Malta in this way: 361 Hurricanes, 385 Spitfires, and 18 torpedo bombers. Of these, 718 reached Malta, 12 returned with the carriers, and 34 were lost. Not all stayed on Malta; 150 of the Hurricanes flew from the islands to North Africa to reinforce the Desert Air Force there. These reinforcements helped, but the air defense was always outnumbered by the enemy. From October 11, 1940, to February 10, 1941, the average number of fighters available for action was eleven.