Middle East 1930 - 1947:
Aegean Islands (1943)
The involvement of British forces in securing the Aegean Islands in September 1943 was a risk, even the Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Winston CHURCHILL admitted so. In a cable, he used the words ‘Improvise and Dare’, which provides a context for the operations in the Aegean. Sadly, events did not go in favour of the British – the gamble failed. Inevitably, some men paid with their lives for this gamble, and many others faced incarceration.
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Chronology of Events
» Chronology of Events Aegean Islands
» British Troops in the Aegean (1943)
The islands in the Aegean were mainly Italian possessions, even though they lie between Greece and Turkey. Italy had gained possession of these islands in 1912 as a consequence of the Libyan War against the then Ottoman Empire. The context for the British involvement in the ill-fated operations stems from the Prime Minister’s military strategy focus on the Mediterranean. CHURCHILL’s view was to exploit what he called the ‘soft underbelly of Europe’, but was seen by the Americans as merely a stance to enhance the U.K’s. power and influence in the area.
At the Casablanca conference, the Allied nations agreed to continue to pursue the war against Italy pending the establishement of a second front by the invasion of France. On 10 July 1943, Allied forces invaded Sicily causing increased tensions in the Italian hierarchy, with MUSSOLINI being deposed as Prime Minister on 25 July. On 3 September, the new Italian government agreed to an armistice, which became public knowledge on 8 September. This consequences of this decision were not straightforward to implement as the majority of Italy was under German control. German forces rapidly disarmed Italian forces, except for some units that continued to support the Fascist elements still present in parts of Italy.
In the Aegean Islands, some garrisons resisted the German forces disarming them. Sadly, this ended with the Germans overcoming Italian resistance; and in more than one instance, Italian officers and soldiers were executed by German soldiers. The largest island in the Aegean, Rhodes, surrendered to the Germans.
It was at this stage that the British government decided to risk sending British troops to garrison key islands in the region. Significant British forces were landed on Kos and Leros. The Royal Navy enhanced its operations in the Aegean, both to disrupt the movement of German troops and materiel, and to support the British troops deployed in the area.
The British troops deployed in the Aegean Islands came from the 234 Infantry Brigade, which had served on Malta during the siege. After the siege was lifted, the brigade moved to Egypt, and then onwards to Palestine, to join the 10 Indian Infantry Division. Plans existed to deploy this division to capture islands in the Dodecanese, although these plans never came to fruitition. Force 292 was formed from elements released from the Headquarters, III Corps in Persia and Iraq. In the end, just one British battalion was deployed to Kos to strengthen the Italian forces on the island. Kos was invaded on 3 October 1943, and the Germans completed their occupation of the island by the end of that day.
The majority of 234 Infantry Brigade was sent to Leros. On 24 October, H.M.S. ECLIPSE hit a mine and sank within five minutes. At the time, she was conveying ‘A’ Company, 2 Bn. The Buffs and three senior officers travelling to Leros on a fact finding mission. 119 crew and 134 soldiers lost their lives in this tragedy. The anticipated invasion of Leros by German forces commenced on 12 November. Elements of the British forces on the island resisted well, but this was not consistent. In addition, command and control broke down. Fighting continued until 16 November, when the inevitable occurred, and British forces on Leros surrendered. Few personnel escaped captivity, although there are some remarkable stories from those who did. The General Officer Commanding British Forces in the Aegean finally evacuated the last island occupied by the British, Samos, on 20 November. This in effect ended the British military activity in the Aegean.
The German forces eventually withdrew from the Aegean Islands in November 1944, and they passed to Greek sovereignty.