Operation Cordite

This was a British beach reconnaissance of an area of the Italian-held island of Rhodes in the south-eastern part of the Aegean Sea by a Special Boat Service party as a precursor to the proposed amphibious assault of the same designation (March 1941).

Early in 1941, General Sir Archibald Wavell, the British commander-in-chief in the Middle East, proposed to bolster the protection of his command’s northern flank by the seizure of several of the Italian-held Dodecanese islands including Rhodes, the largest of the group, and the site of air bases from which Italian and German aircraft could raid Egypt and mine the Suez Canal.

The operation was scheduled for March or April 1941 and to be undertaken by Major-General J. F. Evetts’s 6th Division plus attachments delivered to the island by a naval force under the command of Rear Admiral H. T. Baillie-Grohman. To improve the chances of the plan’s successful implementation a deception operation was created and undertaken as ‘Cascade’. This had as its primary objective the weakening of the Italian garrison of Rhodes through persuading the Italians send troops from Rhodes to Kárpathos, which the British had ‘revealed’ as the object of a landing, and also persuading them to shift the main weight of their strength from the northern side of the island, where the proposed landings were to be made, to the southern side. This latter objective was to be achieved by allowing the Italians to ‘discover’ that the fictitious 1st SAS Brigade was being moved from Trans-Jordan to Cyprus, from where the undertaking was to be launched.

This notional brigade was largely the work of Lieutenant Colonel Dudley W. Clarke, head of the Advanced Headquarters ‘A’ Force, as the deception service of the Middle East command was know. In January 1941 Clarke began to fabricate the existence in the theatre of a British paratroop regiment in ‘Abeam’, on the basis of intelligence recovered the previous December: an Italian officer’s captured journal expressed a generally held fear of a British airborne assault. In the event it was to be two years before Allied paratroopers were deployed to North Africa, but Clarke planned to play of this expressed Axis fear by creating a fictional Special Air Service Brigade. Major Victor Jones, one of Clarke’s subordinates, organised the construction of a fleet of dummy gliders, and Clarke organised fake radio traffic and information leaks. He even dressed two soldiers in ‘1 SAS’ uniforms and set them to wander around Cairo, Port Said and Alexandria hinting at missions in Crete or Libya.

In the event ‘Cordite’ and a number of other such schemes had to be dropped when the focus of British attention was perforce shifted to the Western Desert, in which the first Germans forces arrived during February 1941, and also to Greece, which the German invaded in ‘Marita’ during April 1941 after the Balkan situation had deteriorated rapidly during the preceding month.