ONE OF THE most celebrated movie epics about the Second World War is Carl Foreman’s The Guns of Navarone, based upon the 1957 thriller of that title written by Alastair Maclean. It depicts the landing of a British special forces team on a Greek island in the Aegean Sea. After stupendous feats of derring-do, they contrive the undoing of its German defenders, and safe passage for the Royal Navy’s destroyers. Maclean’s heroic fiction was rooted in an extraordinary series of episodes in the eastern Mediterranean in the autumn of 1943 which deserve to be better known to students of the war. This is not, however, because the saga ended in a British triumph, which it certainly did not, but because it provides a case study in a folly which was overwhelmingly Winston Churchill’s responsibility. The story merits rehearsal and analysis, as an example of the consequences of the prime minister’s capacity for rash boldness. If the scale of the campaign was mercifully small, the blunders were many and large. They help to explain why strategists who worked closely with Churchill sometimes despaired of his obsessions.
Rhodes and the much smaller islands of the Dodecanese to the north lie a few miles off the coast of Turkey, and are inhabited by Greeks. Italy had seized them in 1912. Three years later, France and Britain endorsed this shameless imperialist venture as part of the price for Italian accession to the allied cause in World War I. The islands, which possessed few merits save their barren beauty and strategic location, had been garrisoned by Italian forces ever since. They first attracted Churchill’s attention in 1940. He believed, surely wrongly, that if the Allies could dispossess the Italians, such a visible shift of power in the eastern Mediterranean would induce Turkey to enter the war. At his behest, British commandos staged an abortive raid in February 1941. During the ensuing two years, the islands were recognised as beyond Allied reach. But as the Mediterranean skies brightened, Churchill’s Aegean enthusiasm revived. At Casablanca, he urged upon the Americans the importance of seizing Rhodes and the Dodecanese, and tasked his own Chiefs of Staff to prepare a plan. In addition to troops, landing craft would be necessary, together with American fighters. The twin-engined Lightnings and British Beaufighters were the only planes with the range to provide air support over the Aegean from North African bases. The utmost “ingenuity and resource,” urged Churchill, should be deployed to secure the Dodecanese.
Plans were made for two alternative scenarios: the first was a “walk in” to Rhodes with Italian acquiescence and the second was for Operation Accolade, an opposed invasion against German defenders. The priority of Sicily, however, meant that by late summer nothing had been done. John Kennedy wrote on August 13: “We shall have to shut down in the Aegean.” The War Office assumed that the invasion of Italy, together with the commitment to Overlord, rendered operations there implausible. Instead, however, impending Italian surrender imbued the prime minister’s Aegean ambitions with a new urgency. He remained convinced that an Allied coup there would precipitate Turkish belligerence. He ignored the irony that, because of the success of British deception plans designed to make Berlin suppose that the Allies might land in the Balkans, the Germans still deployed strong ground and air forces in the region.
The Americans were not interested in either the operation or the Turks as allies. They believed that British aspirations in the eastern Mediterranean were rooted in old-fashioned imperialism rather than contemporary strategy, and were resolutely opposed to any diversion of resources from Italy, never mind from Overlord. At the Quadrant conference in Quebec in August, they paid lip service to British enthusiasm for an Aegean initiative, but made it plain that whatever Churchill chose to do about Rhodes and the Dodecanese must be accomplished exclusively with the resources available to General Sir Henry “Jumbo” Maitland Wilson, now Middle East C-in-C in Cairo—“his jumbonic majesty,”776 as Macmillan referred to this large and unimaginative dignitary. In other words, the British were on their own. There would be no USAAF Lightning fighters and precious few landing craft. At a time when concentration of force upon the Allies’ central purposes seemed more important than ever before, U.S. leaders recoiled from an entirely gratuitous dispersal.
The prime minister was undeterred. He pressed Maitland Wilson to land on Rhodes anyway. The general, not one of his country’s great military thinkers but compliant to Churchill’s wishes, earmarked 4th Indian Division to execute Accolade. Then, however, it was decided that the Indians were needed in Italy. Maitland Wilson’s cupboard was left almost bare of fighting units. He cabled Eisenhower on August 31: “Any enterprise against Rhodes or Crete except an unopposed walk-in is now impossible.” The prime minister disagreed. The Germans were everywhere in retreat. On the Eastern Front, they had just suffered devastating defeat at Kursk. They had been expelled from Sicily. Italy was about to quit the war. On every front, Ultra signal decrypts revealed German commanders bewailing their flagging strength in the face of Allied dominance. Surely, in such circumstances, even small forces boldly handled could crush the residual German presence in the Aegean. While operations in the eastern Mediterranean were to be conducted on a modest scale, they held special lustre in the prime minister’s eyes, because speed, dash and a touch of piracy might yield an exclusively British triumph.
Urged on by London, Maitland Wilson resurrected Accolade, with such ragbag forces as he could scrape together. On September 9, the prime minister greeted news of the blossoming of his cherished project with a notation: “Good. This is a time to play high777. Improvise and dare.” Four days later, he cabled Maitland Wilson: “The capture of Rhodes by you at this time with Italian aid would be a fine contribution to the general war. Can you improvise the necessary garrison? … What is your total ration strength? This is the time to think of Clive and Peterborough, and of Rooke’s men taking Gibraltar …” The prime minister’s reference to “ration strength” was, of course, a goad designed to remind the C-in-C of the vast number of men under his command, scattered across hundreds of thousands of square miles, and mostly employed on logistical or garrison tasks. Churchill’s stirring appeal to the memory of historic imperial triumphs ignored the fact that now Maitland Wilson’s troops would face the German army.
A fundamental doctrinal divide persisted throughout the war: the British liked minor operations, while the Americans, with the marginal exception of MacArthur, did not. U.S. strategic thinking, like that of the Germans and Russians, was dominated by a belief in concentration of force. The U.S. Army undertook very few raids such as the British, and Churchill in particular, loved—Vaasgo, Bruneval, St.-Nazaire, Bardia, Dieppe and many more. Special forces absorbed a dismayingly high proportion of Britain’s most ardent warriors, volunteers attracted by the prospect of early independent action rather than deferred encounters within the straitjacket of a military hierarchy. Brooke deplored the proliferation of army and marine commando units. He believed, probably rightly, that their functions778 could have been as well performed by regular units specially trained for specific tasks. The mushroom growth of British special forces reflected the prime minister’s conviction that war should, as far as possible, entertain its participants and showcase feats of daring to inspire the populace. In this, elite “private armies” fulfilled their purpose. But they ill-served the wider interests of the British Army, which was chronically short of good infantrymen for the big battlefields. Too many of Britain’s bravest soldiers spent the war conducting irregular and self-indulgent activities of marginal strategic value.
Operations in the Mediterranean since 1940 had inspired the creation of a range of exotic units which basked in the prime minister’s support and were led by social grandees or inspired eccentrics, often both. The Special Air Service (SAS), Special Boat Squadron (SBS), Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), Popski’s Private Army, Special Interrogation Group and their kin provided much pleasure to the adventurous spirits who filled their ranks, and inflicted varying degrees of inconvenience upon the enemy. In the absence of more substantial forces, when Italy suddenly announced its accession to the Allied cause, Maitland Wilson turned to one of the “private armies,” the Special Boat Squadron, to make the first moves in the Aegean. While its raiders began landing piecemeal on every island they could reach, the Middle East C-in-C dispatched its commander as an emissary to the Italians, to urge that they should turn on their local Germans without delay, and without waiting for British troops.
Maj. Earl Jellicoe, son of the World War I admiral, led the SBS with notable courage and exuberance. On the night of September 9, Jellicoe, abruptly plucked from the fleshpots of Beirut, was parachuted onto Rhodes with a wireless operator and an Italian-speaking Polish officer, who served under the nom de guerre of “Major Dolbey” and had never jumped before. Dolbey broke his leg on landing. Jellicoe, finding himself under fire as soon as he hit the ground, felt obliged to swallow the letter which he carried from Gen. Maitland Wilson to the Italian governor, Adm. Inigo Campioni. When the shooting stopped, however, Italian soldiers transported the British party to Campioni’s quarters. There, with Dolbey interpreting amid acute pain from his shattered leg, Jellicoe set about persuading the governor to throw in his lot with the Allies.
At first, Campioni seemed enthusiastic. But when he learned that the British could hope to land only a few hundred men on Rhodes, while strong German forces were on the spot, his zeal ebbed. He was still prevaricating about active, as distinct from token, belligerence when the six-thousand men of the German assault division on Rhodes staged their own coup, overran the whole island and made prisoner its thirty-five-thousand-man Italian garrison. Jellicoe and Dolbey were fortunate that Campioni allowed them to sail away and avoid capture. Gen. Maitland Wilson wrote later that the admiral’s spirit “was clearly affected by the delay779 and by the fact that the Germans were there while we were not.” The unfortunate Italian had the worst of all worlds. Having disappointed the British, he was later shot by the Germans.
Possession of Rhodes and its excellent airfields enabled Hitler’s forces to dominate the Aegean. The only prudent course for the British was now to recognise that their gambit had failed, and to forsake their ambitions. Far from doing this, however, they set about reinforcing failure. If they could seize other nearby islands, they reasoned, these might provide stepping stones for an October landing on Rhodes, to reverse the verdict of September 11. This was a reckless decision, for which immediate blame lay with Maitland Wilson, but ultimate responsibility was Churchill’s, who dispatched a stream of signals urging him on. Not only did the British lack strong forces to fight in the Dodecanese, but an opposed assault on Rhodes would have required a bloodbath, in pursuit of the most marginal strategic objective. The Times of September 18 reported the launching of operations in the Dodecanese, and commented: “Presumably the Germans will try to oust the allies by landing parachutists, but it is hoped … that the allied forces will be sufficient to thwart the German efforts. Thus the situation in the Aegean becomes pregnant with possibilities.”
These were not, however, to the advantage of the British. What followed in September and October 1943 was a debacle, punctuated by piratical exploits and dramas, each one of which was worthy to become a movie epic. Patrols of the Long Range Desert Group, deprived of sands on which to fight since the North African campaign ended, began descending on the Dodecanese by landing craft, plane, naval launch, caique, canoe and boats of the superbly named Raiding Forces’ Levant Schooner Flotilla. A company of the Parachute Regiment was flown into Kos by Dakota transports. Men of Jellicoe’s SBS reached Kastellorizo in two launches, and thereafter deployed to other islands. Companies of the 234th Brigade, the only available British infantry force, were transported piecemeal to Kos and Leros as fast as shipping could be found to get them there.
A squadron of South African–manned Spitfires was deployed on Kos, which alone had an airfield. A British officer set up his headquarters there alongside that of the Italian garrison, their conspicuously hesitant new allies. An SOE officer landed on Samos, followed by several hundred troops. A general serving as military attaché in Ankara crossed from the Turkish coast. There were soon five thousand British personnel scattered through the archipelago. Command arrangements were chaotic, with almost absolute lack of coordination between army, navy and air force. But in those naïve early days, many of the newcomers relished the sensation of adventuring upon azure seas and islands steeped in classical legend. Amid barren hills, olive groves and little white-painted village houses, British buccaneers draped with submachine guns and grenades mingled with the local Greeks, breathed deep the Byronic air, pitched camps and waited to discover how the Germans would respond.
They were not long left in doubt. Hitler had no intention of relinquishing control of the Aegean. The Germans began to meet tentative British incursions by sea and air with their usual energy and effectiveness. Almost daily skirmishes developed, with RAF Beaufighters strafing German shipping, Luftwaffe planes attacking Kos, and LRDG patrols and elements of the SBS fighting detachments of Germans wherever they met them. An officer of yet another British intelligence group, MI9, was suddenly hijacked—and shot in the thigh—by pro-Fascist sailors on an Italian launch ferrying him between local ports. These men changed sides when they heard on the radio of Mussolini’s rescue from mountain captivity by Otto Skorzeny’s Nazi commandos. On several islands Germans, Italians and British roamed in confusion, ignorant of one another’s locations or loyalties. Two British officers being held prisoner found their Austrian guard offering to let them escape if he might come too. Captors and captives often exchanged roles, as the tides of the little campaign ebbed and flowed.
The prevailing theme was soon plain, however. The Germans were winning. In Greece and the Aegean they deployed 362 aircraft, many of which were available to operate in the Dodecanese. The South African Spitfire squadron on Kos was hacked to pieces in the air and on the ground by Bf-109s. RAF Beaufighters lost heavily in antishipping strikes which inflicted little damage upon the enemy. German bombing demoralised the British—and still more, their new Italian allies—as well as destroying Dakotas shuttling to Kos. The Royal Navy was dismayed by the difficulties of sustaining supply runs to tenuously held islands while under German air attack. British troops in the area were a hotchpotch of special forces, intelligence personnel, gunners, infantry and “odds and sods” lacking mass, coherence and conviction. The main force, the 234th Brigade, had spent the previous three years garrisoning Malta, where its soldiers gained much experience of bombing, hunger and boredom, and none of battle. In the fifth year of the war, when in almost every other theatre the Allies were winning, in the eastern Mediterranean Churchill contrived to create a predicament in which British forces were locally vulnerable on land, at sea and in the air.
On the morning of October 3, the 680 soldiers, 500 RAF air and ground crews and 3,500 Italians on Kos awoke to discover that German ships offshore were unloading a brigade-strong invasion force whose arrival had been unheralded, and whose activities were unimpeded. It was a tribute to German improvisation that such an operation could be staged with little of the training or specialist paraphernalia which the Allies deemed essential for amphibious landings. The Germans mounted the Kos invasion with a scratch force, supplemented by a paratroop landing, against which the RAF launched ineffectual air strikes. The British defenders lacked both mobility and the will to leave its positions and mount swift counterattacks.
The island was twenty-eight miles long by six wide, with a local population of twenty thousand. Its rugged hills, impervious to entrenchment, rose to a height of 2,800 feet. In two days’ fighting, 2,000 Germans supported by plentiful Stuka dive-bombers secured Kos for a loss of just 15 killed and 70 wounded. Some 3,145 Italians and 1,388 British prisoners fell into their hands, along with a mass of weapons, stores and equipment. Neither the Italians nor RAF personnel on the island showed much appetite for participation in the ground battle. It was a foolish delusion in London to have supposed that Italian troops, who for three years had shown themselves reluctant to fight the Allies, could any more readily be motivated to take on the Germans. The men of the Durham Light Infantry were outnumbered, inexperienced and never perceived much prospect of success. Churchill described the defence of Kos as “an unsatisfactory resistance.” While this was true enough, responsibility rested overwhelmingly with those who placed the garrison there. The worst victims were the Italians, who paid heavily for their brief change of allegiance. On Kefalonia, in the Ionian Islands, the Germans had already conducted a wholesale massacre of four thousand “treacherous” Italian troops who surrendered to them. On Kos, the victors confined themselves to executing eighty-nine Italian officers. A few dozen determined British fugitives escaped by landing craft and small boat.
In the days and weeks following the loss of Kos, Churchill in vain pressed Eisenhower to divert resources from Italy to recapture it. A game of hide-and-seek persisted on other islands, between Hitler’s units and British special forces. The Germans staged a further airborne landing on Astipálaia. Luftwaffe aircrew, accustomed to the depressed spirits of their countrymen who knew that the war was being lost, were amazed to find exuberant paratroopers in Junkers transports en route to a drop zone singing“Kameraden, today there is no going back.” At this late stage of the war, the obliging British had provided the Fallschirmjäger with a field on which there were still victories to be won.
The Long Range Desert Group, whose men were not organised, trained or equipped to fight as infantry, suffered heavily in desultory battles. The main British force left in the Dodecanese was now based on Leros, an island much smaller than Kos and twenty miles farther north. When the British commander there heard that German prisoners on nearby Levitha had overpowered their captors and seized control, he packed fifty LRDG men onto two naval motor launches, and dispatched them to retake it. Once ashore, the LRDG fought a series of little actions with the Germans in which four raiders were killed and almost all the others captured. Just seven escaped at nightfall, by courtesy of the Royal Navy. Levitha remained firmly in German hands.
Churchill was dismayed by the unfolding misfortunes in the Aegean, as well he might be. Brooke wrote on October 6: “It is pretty clear in my mind780 that with the commitments we have in Italy we should not undertake serious operations in the Aegean … [but] PM by now determined to go for Rhodes without looking at the effects on Italy.” Churchill chafed to travel personally to North Africa to incite the Americans to address themselves to Aegean operations. Cadogan wrote: “He is excited about Kos781 and wants to lead an expedition to Rhodes.” The prime minister tried in vain to persuade Washington that Marshall should fly to meet him in Tunisia, there to be persuaded of the virtues of the Aegean commitment. On October 7, he wrote personally to Roosevelt: “I have never wished to send an army into the Balkans782, but only by agents and commandos to stimulate the intense guerilla activity there. This may yield results measureless in their consequence at very small cost to main operations. What I ask for is the capture of Rhodes and the other islands of the Dodecanese … Leros, which at the moment we hold so precariously, is an important naval fortress, and once we are ensconced in this area air and light naval forces would have a fruitful part to play … I beg you to consider this.” He argued that operations in the eastern Mediterranean were “worth at least up to a first-class division.”783 The Americans disagreed. They transferred some Lightning squadrons to Libya, to operate in support of the Royal Navy in the Aegean. But, as other priorities pressed, after only four days these aircraft were withdrawn. Since the Germans were operating much superior Bf-109 single-engined fighters, it is anyway unlikely that the twin-engined Lightnings could have altered the local balance of airpower any more than did the RAF’s Beaufighters. But the British were bitter that they were left to fight alone.
In London on October 8, the Times said of the fall of Kos: “It cannot be expected that every allied venture will be successful: but there is no denying that the state of affairs in the Dodecanese is causing disquietude.” The paper asked pertinent questions about why stronger allied forces had not been committed. That day, Brooke wrote in his diary:
I am slowly becoming convinced that in his old age784 Winston is becoming less and less well balanced! I cannot control him any more. He has worked himself into a frenzy of excitement about the Rhodes attack, has magnified its importance so that he can no longer see anything else and has set his heart on capturing this one island even at the expense of endangering his relations with the President and with the Americans, and also the whole future of the Italian campaign. He refuses to listen to any arguments or to see any dangers! … The whole thing is sheer madness, and he is placing himself quite unnecessarily in a very false position! The Americans are already desperately suspicious of him, and this will make matters far worse.
All that Brooke said was true. That same day, October 8, Churchill wrote again to the Americans, addressing himself to both Eisenhower and the president: “I propose … to tell Gen. Wilson that he is free785 if he judges the position hopeless to order the garrison [of Leros] to evacuate … I will not waste words in explaining how painful this decision is to me.” But Leros was not evacuated, as it should have been. Churchill cabled Maitland Wilson on October 10: “Cling on if you possibly can … If after everything has been done you are forced to quit I will support you, but victory is the prize.”
On October 13, John Kennedy wrote: “It does seem amazing that the PM786 should spend practically a whole week on forcing forward his ideas about taking an island in the face of all military advice … Jumbo [Maitland Wilson] chanced his arm in occupying Kos and the other Aegean islands.” Churchill cabled Maitland Wilson on October 14: “I am very pleased with the way you used such poor bits and pieces as were left to you. Nil desperandum.” And again to Maitland Wilson, copied to Eden: “Keep Leros safely.” Churchill referred to Leros, absurdly, as a “fortress,” even less meaningful in this case than when he had used the same word of Singapore and Tobruk. The C-in-C, desperate not to disappoint the prime minister, persevered. Given the scepticism of Brooke, why did not the CIGS assert himself, and insist upon withdrawal from the Aegean? The most plausible answer is that, when he was fighting Churchill almost daily about much bigger issues, notably including the prime minister’s enthusiasm for an invasion of Sumatra, Leros seemed insufficiently important to merit yet another showdown. Win or lose, the campaign represented only a marginal drain on resources. Brooke could not hope to overcome the prime minister’s passions on every issue. Instead he stood back, and watched the subsequent fiasco unfold.
For five further bloody weeks, the British struggled on in the Aegean. The battles which took place in that period at sea, in the air and on land more closely resembled those of 1941 than most Allied encounters with the Germans in 1943. The Royal Navy’s cruisers, destroyers, submarines and small craft sought to sink German shipping and to bombard ports and shore positions, while subjected to constant air attacks by the Luftwaffe’s Ju-88s. With the loss of the field on Kos, the RAF’s nearest base was now three hundred miles away. Even old Stuka dive-bombers, powerless in the face of fighter opposition, became potent weapons when they could fly unchallenged.
There were many savage little naval actions in the narrow waters between the islands. On October 7, for instance, the submarine Unruly conducted an unsuccessful torpedo attack on a German troop convoy, then in frustration surfaced and engaged the enemy with its 4-inch deck gun until driven to submerge by the appearance of the Luftwaffe. Unruly later torpedoed a minelayer carrying 285 German troops. The cruisers Sirius and Penelope were caught by German bombers while attacking shipping, and Penelopewas damaged. The destroyer Panther was sunk on October 8, and the cruiser Carlisle so badly damaged by bombers that after limping back to port she never put to sea again. The Luftwaffe sustained constant attacks on Leros’s port facilities, so that British warships had to dash in, dump supplies, and sail again inside half an hour. The RAF’s antishipping skills were still inferior to those of the Germans, and Beaufighter strikes cost the British attackers more heavily than their enemies. Even when raids were successful, such as one by Wellington bombers on the night of October 18, the results were equivocal: the Wellingtons dispatched to the bottom ships carrying 204 Germans, but also 2,389 Italian and 71 Greek prisoners. By October 22, a total of 6,000 Italian prisoners had drowned when their transports succumbed to British air strikes, while 29,454 Italian and British POWs had been successfully removed to the Greek mainland, and thence to Germany.
The cruisers Sirius and Aurora were badly damaged by Ju-88s, while German mines accounted for several British warships, including the submarine Trooper, which disappeared east of Leros. Almost every ship of the Royal Navy which ran the gauntlet to the Dodecanese, including launches, torpedo boats and caiques, had to face bombs, heavy seas in the worsening autumn weather, and natural hazards inshore. The destroyer Eclipse was sunk on October 23, while carrying two hundred troops and ten tons of stores. The navy reluctantly decided that it could no longer sail destroyers in the Aegean during daylight, in the face of complete German air dominance. The RAF continued to suffer heavily—in a single day’s operations on November 5, six Beaufighters were destroyed, and four crews lost.
On October 31, the senior British airman in the Mediterranean, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, wrote: “We are being pressed787 to throw good money after bad. The situation is fundamentally unsound.” John Kennedy urged Alan Brooke on October 28 that “the price we were paying [for Leros was] too great788 and the return too small to justify retention.” Brooke professed to agree, but told Kennedy that at that day’s Chiefs of Staff meeting the decision had been made to hang on. It had now become too difficult to withdraw the garrison in the face of German air superiority. In his own diary, Brooke called Leros “a very nasty problem, Middle East [Command]789 have not been either wise or cunning and have now got themselves into the difficult situation that they can neither hold nor evacuate Leros. Our only hope would be assistance from Turkey, the provision of airfields from which the required air cover could be provided.” Such aid was not forthcoming.
The final act of the Aegean drama began on November 12, when the Germans attacked Leros. The British garrison there, some 3,000 strong together with 5,500 Italians, had had several weeks to prepare for the inevitable. Nonetheless, when the moment came, everything that could go amiss did so. Before the landing the 234th Brigade was commanded by a short, red-faced and heavily moustached officer named Ben Brittorous, who embodied almost every deficiency of the wartime British Army. Brittorous was obsessed with military etiquette, and harassed officers and men alike about the importance of saluting him. In his weeks on Leros, he made himself loathed by his troops, and made few effective preparations to meet a German landing. When the Luftwaffe started bombing in earnest, he retired to his tunnel headquarters, and stayed there until relieved of his command a week before the German descent, to be replaced by a gunner officer, Brig. Robert Tilney. Tilney, newly promoted to lead in battle men whom he knew only slightly, was less disliked than Brittorous, but also seemed to lack conviction. He immediately redeployed his three infantry battalions around the island, with the intention of repelling a German landing on the beaches. Not only did this plan spread the defenders thin, but the brigade was very short of radios and telephones, so communication between Tilney and his units was tenuous, even before the Germans intervened.
On November 11, Ultra informed the British that a landing on Leros, Operation Typhoon, would be launched on the following day. Some 2,730 German troops were committed, a force inferior in size to that of the defenders. Yet the RAF and Royal Navy found themselves unable to do anything effective to interfere with enemy arrangements. Bad weather frustrated planned British bombing attacks on the Luftwaffe’s Greek airfields. The commander of a Royal Navy destroyer flotilla in the area declined to brave a suspected minefield to attack the invasion convoy. The British official historian, Capt. Stephen Roskill, wrote later: “The enemy had boldly discounted790 any effective threat to the convoy by day, and by night he had concealed his vessels very skilfully; yet it seems undeniable that it should not have reached its destination virtually unscathed.”
Cairo, August 1942. Front row, left to right: Smuts, WSC, Auchinleck, Wavell; (back row, left to right) Tedder, Brooke, Harwood, Richard Casey
Arrival in Moscow: The bespectacled Molotov stands beside Harriman and Churchill in front of their Liberator.
A British fiasco is matched by a Soviet triumph. A scene on the beach at Dieppe after the disastrous August 1942 raid.
A British fiasco is matched by a Soviet triumph. Soviet troops advance towards their great victory at Stalingrad at the turn of the year.
Out of the desert at last. The British advance at El Alamein in November 1942.
Out of the desert at last. American war leaders at Casablanca in January 1943: Marshall and King sit on either side of Roosevelt, while behind them stand (left to right) Hopkins, Arnold, Somervell and Harriman.
Clockwise from top left: Politicians, admirable and otherwise: Bevan, Cripps, Attlee, Bevin and Beaverbrook
Churchill with General Anderson at the Roman amphitheatre at Carthage, where he addressed men of Britain’s desert army in May 1943
The agony of Italy: U.S. troops advance through characteristically intractable terrain.
Churchill’s folly in the Dodecanese. Beaufighters attack German shipping off Kos on October 3, 1943.
Churchill’s folly in the Dodecanese. German troops land on the island, to achieve one of their last gratuitous military successes of the war.
At Algiers in June 1943 with (left to right) Eden, Brooke, Tedder, Cunningham, Alexander, Marshall, Eisenhower and Montgomery
With Clementine in the saloon of his special train in Canada in August 1943
The “Big Three” at Tehran on November 30, 1943, Churchill’s sixty-ninth birthday, with the U.S. president visibly ailing
Churchill’s last major personal strategic initiative of the war, the Anzio landing of January 1944
While the German main body landed from the sea, Fallschirmjäger staged another superbly brave and determined air assault. RAF strikes against the landing ships were notably less effective than the Luftwaffe’s close support of the invaders. A fourth British battalion, landed to reinforce the 234th Brigade during the battle, failed to affect its outcome. Some of the island’s defenders fought well, but others did not. The limited scale of British casualties indicates that this was no sacrificial stand. On Leros, from battalions of five hundred men apiece, the Royal West Kents lost eighteen killed in action, the Royal Irish Fusiliers twenty-two, the King’s Own forty-five, the Buffs forty-two.
When the German parachutists landed, the defenders—in much superior numbers—should have launched an immediate counterattack on the landing zone before the invaders could reorganise. Instead, British infantry simply sat tight and fired from their positions. As the Germans advanced across the island, one British officer was dismayed to see men of the King’s Own fleeing for their lives in the face of mortar fire. At 1800 on the first day, call sign Stupendous of the Long Range Desert Group signalled bitterly from Leros: “Lack of RAF support absolutely pitiful791: ships sat around here all day, and Stukas just laughed at us.” The defence lacked mobility and, more important, motivation and competence to match that of the Germans. Jeffrey Holland, who served as an infantry sergeant on Leros, wrote later: “As the battle progressed, it was evident that the enemy792 had deployed … first-class combat troops, who demonstrated consummate skill, courage and self-reliance.” An SBS man wrote of one scene he observed: “We were amazed to see groups of British soldiers793 in open route order proceeding away from the battle area … The colonel stopped and interrogated them, and they said they had orders to retire to the south. Many were without arms, very dejected and exceedingly tired.”
Brigadier Tilney lost control of most of his force at an early stage, and was enraged to find units retiring without orders. He threatened two battalion commanders with court-martial, for refusing to order their units into attack. Jeffrey Holland wrote: “The Germans moved quickly from one position to another794, but never retreated; they seemed willing to accept a high rate of casualties. Their officers and NCOs exposed themselves to fire when directing an attack or defense. They seemed indifferent to the British fire which they sensed was tentative; neither well coordinated nor directed.”
Some courageous British counterattacks were launched, in which a battalion commanding officer and several company commanders were killed. At midnight on November 14795, Bletchley Park decrypted a German signal warning that the position of the invasion force on Leros was “critical,” and that it was essential to get heavy weapons ashore immediately, to swing the battle. The Germans on Leros experienced nothing like the walkover they had enjoyed on Kos. But the defenders, having failed to take the initiative at the outset, never regained it. The terrain made it almost impossible for men to dig in, to protect themselves from bombing. Too often in World War II, British troops perceived enemy air superiority as a sufficient excuse to reconcile themselves to defeat.
Maitland Wilson kept alive Churchill’s hopes of salvaging the battle, signalling on November 14 that British troops on Leros, though “somewhat tired,” were “full of fight and well fed.” To the end, the prime minister pressed for more energetic measures to support them. On the evening of the sixteenth, as he approached Malta en route to the Tehran conference, he signalled Air Chief Marshal Tedder: “I much regret not to see you tonight796, as I should have pressed upon you the vital need of sustaining Leros by every possible means. This is much the most important thing that is happening in the Mediterranean in the next few days … I do not see how you can disinterest yourself in the fate of Leros.” Tedder wrote scathingly afterwards: “One would have thought that some of the bitter lessons797 of Crete would have been sufficiently fresh in mind to have prevented a repetition … It seems incredible now, as it did then, that after four years’ experience of modern war, people forgot that air-power relies on secure bases, weather, and effective radius of action.”
At 1600 hours on November 17, the fifth day after the landing on Leros, Tilney surrendered. Some 3,000 British and 5,500 Italian soldiers became prisoners. Almost a hundred wounded men had been evacuated earlier. Several score bold spirits, including the inevitable and invincible Lord Jellicoe, escaped in small boats and eventually made their way to Turkey or small islands from which the navy rescued them. More than 3,000 British, Greek and Italian personnel were successfully evacuated from the nearby island of Samos before the Germans occupied this also. Including aircrew, the British lost around 1,500 killed in Aegean operations between September and November 1943—745 Royal Navy, 422 soldiers and 333 RAF. The Long Range Desert Group sacrificed more men in the Dodecanese than in three years of North African fighting. Five British infantry battalions were written off.
Hitler sent a congratulatory message to his Aegean commanders which was, for once, entirely merited: “The capture of Leros, undertaken with limited means but with great courage, carried through tenaciously in spite of various setbacks and bravely brought to a victorious conclusion, is a military accomplishment which will find an honourable place in the history of war.” The British on Leros had advantages—notably that of holding the ground—which should have been decisive, even in the face of enemy air superiority. It was shameful that the German paratroopers were able to overcome larger numbers of defenders who knew that they were coming.
Adm. Sir Andrew Cunningham, now first sea lord, castigated the army: “I am still strongly of the opinion that Leros798 might have been held,” he wrote later. Brigadier Tilney, a German POW until 1945, became principal scapegoat for the island’s fall. Blame, however, properly ran all the way up through the chain of command to Downing Street. It was no more possible in 1943 than in 1941 for warships to operate successfully in the face of enemy air superiority. German aircrew were more proficient at attacking shipping than their British counterparts. British troops on Leros, as so often earlier in the war, showed themselves less effective warriors than their opponents. Far from being an elite, the 234th Brigade was a second-rate unit which conducted itself as well as might have been expected in the circumstances. The best apology that can be made for its performance is that it would have served little purpose for men to display suicidal courage, or to accept sacrificial losses, in a campaign which was anyway almost certainly doomed, and at a time when overall Allied victory was not in doubt.
If the defenders of Leros had repulsed the German assault in mid-November, British prestige might have profited, but the balance of power in the Aegean would have remained unchanged, and the agony would have been protracted. The Royal Navy would still have been left with an open-ended commitment to supply Leros under German air attack. As long as Rhodes remained in enemy hands, the British presence in the Dodecanese was strategically meaningless. Far from Leros offering a launching pad for a prospective assault on Rhodes, as Churchill insisted, it was merely a beleaguered liability. The Royal Navy suffered much more pain than it inflicted in the Aegean campaign, and achieved as much as could have been expected. In all, four cruisers, five destroyers, five minesweepers, two submarines and assorted coastal craft were sunk or badly damaged. The RAF could not be blamed for the difficulties of conducting operations beyond the range of effective air cover, but its performance in the antishipping role was unimpressive. Some 113 aircraft were lost—the Beaufighter squadrons suffered especially heavily, losing 50 percent of their strength. Once the airfields on Kos were gone, and with them any hope of operating single-engined fighters, the British should have cut their losses and quit.
In London, the news from the Aegean caused dismay and bewilderment in what was otherwise a season of Mediterranean victories. Cadogan at the Foreign Office wrote on November 16: “Bad news of Leros799. Talk of, and plans for, evacuation brings back the bad days of ’40 and ’41. But it’s on a smaller scale of course.” A Times editorial on November 18 commented justly: “The fall of Leros should be a reminder800 that well-established principles of strategy cannot be neglected with impunity.” A week later, the newspaper said that “this lamentable episode” raised issues about “the broad strategy of our whole Mediterranean campaign … on which British public opinion will require reassurance.”
Britain’s Aegean commitment was trifling in the grand scheme of the war, but represented a blow to national pride and prestige, precipitated by the personal decisions of the prime minister. Once more, he was obliged to confront the limitations of his own soldiers against the Germans—and the vulnerability of British forces without the Americans. John Kennedy described the operation as “a justifiable risk. [Maitland Wilson] could not know how strongly the Boche would resist.” But four years’ experience of making war against Hitler should have inoculated the prime minister and his generals against recklessness. Ultra intercepts warned London that the Luftwaffe was reinforcing the eastern Mediterranean, before British troops were committed. Churchill repeatedly deluded himself that boldness would of itself suffice to gain rewards. This might be so against an incompetent or feeble enemy, but was entirely mistaken against a supremely professional foe who always punished mistakes. The daring of the prime minister’s commitment was unmatched by the battlefield showing of those responsible for carrying it out. In the Aegean, as so often elsewhere, the speed of German responses to changing circumstances stood in stark contrast to faltering Allied initiatives.
Kennedy wrote that “the PM on paper has full professional backing for all that has been done.” He meant that the Chiefs of Staff and Maitland Wilson formally endorsed the prime minister’s commitments to the Aegean. In truth, however, almost all the higher commanders had allowed his wishes to prevail over their own better judgement. Brooke, unreasonably, joined the prime minister in blaming the Americans for failing to provide support: “CIGS feels that the war may have been lengthened801 by as much as six months by the American failure to realise the value of exploiting the whole Mediterranean situation and of supporting Turkey strongly enough to bring her into the war.” Yet why should the Americans have sought to save the British from the shipwreck of an adventure which they had always made it plain they did not believe in? There is, moreover, no reason to suppose that additional U.S. air support would have altered outcomes. Likewise, the British official historian seems mistaken802 in lamenting the diversion from the Aegean in the first days of the campaign of six Royal Navy fleet destroyers to escort battleships home to Britain. If the destroyers had remained, they would merely have provided the Luftwaffe with additional targets. Even had the British successfully seized Rhodes, it remains unlikely that Turkey would have entered the war, or that Turkish military assistance was worth much to the Allies.
Some of the same objections could be made to Churchill’s 1943 commitment to the Aegean as to his earlier Balkan foray in 1915. The Dardanelles campaign, on which he impaled his First World War reputation, was designed to open the Black Sea route to arm Russia. Yet, even had the passage been secured, the World War I Allies were chronically short of weapons for their own armies, and had next to none to spare for shipment to the Russians. Likewise in 1943: even if Turkey had joined the conflict its army would have been entirely dependent on Anglo-American weapons and equipment. It was proving difficult to supply the needs of Russian, U.S., British and French forces. As the Americans anticipated, Turkey would more likely have become a hungry mouth for the Allies to feed than a threat to German purposes in the Balkans.
Churchill bitterly described the Aegean campaign as the Germans’ first success since El Alamein. On November 21, he told his wife, Clementine, in a cable from North Africa: “Am still grieving over Leros etc803. It is terrible fighting with both hands tied behind one’s back.” He was, of course, venting frustration that he had been unable to persuade the United States to support his aspirations. In his war memoirs, he described this as “the most acute difference I ever had with General Eisenhower.”804 He cabled Eden from Cairo, also on November 21, to suggest that if questions were asked in Parliament about the Aegean, the foreign secretary should tell the House defiantly that the hazards of the operation were foreseen from the outset, “and if they were disregarded it was because other reasons805 and other hopes were held to predominate over them. If we are never going to proceed on anything but certainties we must certainly face the prospect of a prolonged war.” This was lame stuff, to justify the unjustifiable.
Amazingly, at the meeting of the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Cairo on November 24, the prime minister renewed his pleas for an invasion of Rhodes. Marshall recalled: “All the British were against me806. It got hotter and hotter. Finally Churchill grabbed his lapels … and said: ‘His Majesty’s Government can’t have its troops standing idle. Muskets must flame.’” Marshall responded in similarly histrionic terms: “Not one American soldier is going to die on [that] goddam beach.” The U.S. Chiefs remained unwavering, even when Maitland Wilson joined the meeting to press the Rhodes case. The British, having lost to the Germans, now lost to the Americans as well. In a letter to Clementine on November 26, Churchill once more lamented the fall of Leros: “I cannot pretend to have an adequate defence of what occurred.”807 Indeed, he did not. The Aegean campaign represented a triumph of impulse over reason that should never have taken place. It inflicted further damage upon American trust in the prime minister’s judgement and commitment to the principal objectives of the Grand Alliance. It was fortunate for British prestige and for Churchill’s reputation that it unfolded at a time when successes elsewhere eclipsed public consciousness of a gratuitous humiliation.