Operation Accolade

'Accolade' was a British unrealised plan developed in a number of forms for the capture of Rhodes as a first step in the seizure of the entire Italian-held Dodecanese islands group in the south-eastern part of the Aegean (1940/44).

The plan was developed from 1940 in a somewhat haphazard fashion, but took on additional impetus after the capitulation of Italy in September 1943, the object being the possible opening of physical communications with western Turkey through the port of Izmir to aid that country in the event of an invasion by German forces and also, it was hoped, as an inducement for Turkey to enter the war on the side of the Allies.

The Dodecanese islands campaign which the British undertook between September and November 1943 was an attempt to seize the Italian-held Dodecanese islands group, following the implementation of the armistice between Italy and the Allies on 9 September, for use largely as air and naval bases for further operations against the German occupying forces in the Balkans. This largely British effort failed, with all of the Dodecanese islands group falling to the Germans within two months and the Allies suffering major losses in men and ships during the fighting for Kos ('Beneath' and 'Polarbär') and Léros ('Leopard' [iii]).

The Dodecanese islands group had been under Italian occupation since the Italo-Turkish War of 1911/12, and as a result of their strategic location had become the centre of Italian colonial ambitions in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean. By some degree the largest of the islands, with an area of 541 sq miles (1401 km²), Rhodes had been developed as a major military and aerial base as the core of the Italian presence in the Dodecanese islands group. Possessing an excellent deep-water port at Lakki (Portolago), Léros had been transformed into a heavily fortified air and naval base. After the 'Marita' conquest of Greece by the Germans in April 1941 and the Allied loss of the island of Crete in the German 'Merkur' airborne operation during May, the entirely of Greece and its many islands was occupied by German, Italian and, to an altogether more limited degree, Bulgarian forces.

With the final defeat of the Axis forces in North Africa in the 'Vulcan' operation of April and May 1943, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had possessed a deep fascination in the Aegean region extending back at least to the Gallipoli campaign of World War I, resumed his earlier focus of the islands of the Aegean Sea. Unlike the Americans, who distrusted any concept that diverged from their strategic imperative of a stroke directly at the heart of Germany, the British saw a strategic advantage in the capture of Crete and the Dodecanese islands. This, the British believed, would deprive the Axis of excellent forward bases in the Mediterranean, but also apply pressure on neutral Turkey to enter the war on the Allied side. This latter coincide with one of Churchill’s favourite concepts, namely a 'route through the Dardanelles to Russia as an alternative to the Arctic Convoys'. At the 'Symbol' inter-Allied conference at Casablanca during January 1943, initial approval was given to the British concept, and Churchill instructed that the relevant plan was to be developed by 27 January 1943.

The resulting 'Accolade' involved a direct amphibious assault on Rhodes and Kárpathos, to the south-west of Rhodes, with forces centred on three infantry divisions and one armoured brigade. Plans for an assault on Crete, whose eastern tip lies to the south-west of Kárpathos, were abandoned as this island was too well fortified and had a strong German rather than Italian garrison.

The most significant problem faced by the 'Accolade' planners was the difficulty of countering General Martin Fiebig’s X Fliegerkorps of Fiebig’s own Luftwaffenkommando 'Südost' as the Allies could not provide adequate British and US air cover from their bases in Cyprus and the Middle East. Another factor militating against the development and later implementation of 'Accolade' was the greater emphasis being placed in the spring and early summer of 1943 on the Allied 'Husky' invasion of Sicily. The Americans were sceptical about the entire concept of 'Accolade' which, they believed, was based on the British desire to garner post-war political benefits for the UK, and an unnecessary diversion from the primary Mediterranean front in Sicily and then mainland Italy. The Americans therefore refused to support 'Accolade', informing the British that, should they wish to proceed, they would have to plan and undertake the entire operation without any US support.

As an Italian capitulation became increasingly possible, in August 1943 the British started preparations to take rapid advantage of a possible Italian divorce from the Axis partnership, and planned a scaled-down version of 'Accolade'. Assembly was therefore started of an assault force based on Major General D. Russell’s Indian 8th Division, and US support (in the form of Lockheed P-38 Lightning twin-engined long-range fighter squadrons) was requested. As a result of the 'Quadrant' inter-Allied conference at Quebec during August 1943 and the steady US refusal to agree to the British plan, the forces earmarked for 'Accolade' were diverted to other fronts during the first week in September 1943.

With the announcement of the armistice between Italy and the Allies, the Italian garrisons on most of the Dodecanese islands either desired to change sides and fight with the Allies, or just to return to their homes. But as they had foreseen Italy’s defection from the Axis partnership, the Germans had with considerable speed rushed forces, most of them based on the Greek mainland, to seize control of the Dodecanese islands from the Italians before there could be any Allied intervention. These forces were elements of Generaloberst Alexander Löhr’s Heeresgruppe 'E'.

The most capable German force in the Dodecanese islands was provided by the 7,500 men of Generalleutnant Ulrich Kleeman’s Sturmdivision 'Rhodos', which had come into existence on the island of Rhodes during the summer of 1943 in appreciation that with its the airfields Rhodes was the strategic as well as administrative centre of Axis power in the south-eastern part of the Aegean, and therefore of great importance to the Germans as much as the British.

On 8 September, the Italian garrison on the island of Kastelorizo surrendered to a British detachment, which arrived in 'Gander' and was reinforced during the following days by ships of the Allied navies. On 9 September a British delegation, headed by Major the Lord Jellicoe, was parachuted into Rhodes in an effort to persuade the Italian commander-in-chief, Ammiraglio di Squadra Inigo Campioni, to join the Allies. The British undertaking was effectively pre-empted, however, by the speed of the German seizure of the Dodecanese islands. Without waiting for Campioni to reach any decision, Kleemann attacked the 40,000-strong Italian garrison on 9 September, and by 11 September had compelled it to surrender. The loss of Rhodes to the Germans, who remained in control of the island to the end of the war, dealt a heavy blow to British hopes and played a highly adverse role in the British Aegean campaign between September and November 1943.