Operation Eisbär (v)

polar bear

This was the German seizure from the British and Italians of the island of Kos of the Dodecanese islands group in the Aegean Sea (3/4 October 1943).

On the announcement of the armistice between the Allied powers and Italy on 9 September 1943, the Italian garrisons on most of the Italian-held Dodecanese islands desired either to change sides and fight with the Allies or merely to return home. The Germans had anticipated the Italian armistice, however, and German forces, based mainly on the mainland of Greece, were despatched rapidly to many of the islands to keep them under Axis control. The most important such force was Generalleutnant Ulrich Kleemann’s Sturmdivision ‘Rhodos’, with a strength of about 7,500 men. This had been raised at the end of May 1943, and at this juncture was despatched to the island of Rhodes, which was the administrative core of the Dodecanese islands group, possessed three airfields, and was thus the primary military objective in the Dodecanese islands group for both the Allies and the Germans.

On 8 September, the Italian garrison on the island of Kastelorizo had surrendered to a small British detachment, which was reinforced during the following days by ships of the Allied navies. The next day a British delegation, headed by Major Lord Jellicoe, was dropped by parachute on Rhodes with the object of persuading the Italian commander, Ammiraglio di Squadra Inigo Campioni, to join the Allies. The speed of the German reaction completely pre-empted the Allied efforts, however. Without waiting for the Italians to decide, Kleemann attacked the 40,000-man Italian garrison on 9 September and compelled it to surrender by 11 September.

The loss of Rhodes dealt a heavy and indeed critical blow to British hopes for the speedy seizure of the Dodecanese islands group. Despite this setback, however, the British high command pressed ahead with the occupation of the other islands, especially the three large islands of Kos, Sámos and Léros.

The Germans were known to be overstretched in the Aegean, while the Allies enjoyed definite superiority at sea, and the air cover provided by two squadrons of Supermarine Spitfire fighters (Nos 7 and 74 Squadrons of the South African Air Force) now to be deployed to Kos was deemed sufficient to ensure Allied air superiority. The British hoped that, with Italian co-operation, an assault on Rhodes could eventually be launched from these islands.

The Germans were quick to respond, however, and by 19 September Kárpathos, Kasos and the Italian-occupied islands of the Sporades and the Cyclades groups were in German hands.

On 13 September 38 Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers operating from North African bases bombed the three airfields on Rhodes, effectively grounding the German aircraft located there, while Special Boat Section units landed on Kos, occupying the port and the airfield near the village of Antimachia. On 14 September two Bristol Beaufighter heavy fighters and a number of Spitfire fighters of No. 7 Squadron, SAAF, flew on to the airfield. On the night of the 14/15 September 120 men of the 11/Parachute Regiment were dropped by Douglas Dakota transport aircraft of No. 216 Squadron, RAF. The paratroopers were welcomed by the Italian garrison, whose men laid straw on the drop zone.

Within the overall concept of seizing the Dodecanese islands group, therefore, between 10 and 17 September Brigadier F. G. R. Brittorous’s 234th Brigade arrived in the area from Malta, together with Special Boat Section, Long Range Desert Group and Greek Sacred Band detachments to secure Kos, Kálymnos, Sámos, Léros, Simi and Astypálaia islands with the support by warships of the British and Greek navies.

From dawn on 15 September a standing patrol of two Spitfire fighters was maintained over Kos to cover to the transport aircraft and ships bringing stores and reinforcements. Among these were the first men of the RAF Regiment, who flew from the British Palestine with nine 20-mm Hispano-Suiza HS404 cannon for anti-aircraft defence, followed two days later by a second detachment, which brought up to strength one of the first of the RAF Regiment’s squadrons to be transported to the battlefield by air with all its weapons.

Overall British command was exercised at great range by Lieutenant General Sir Desmond Anderson, commander of the III Corps in Iran and Iraq. The German counter was planned by Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Südost’, who used one battalion of the 440th Grenadierregiment (stationed in Lésbos and Khíos) part of Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller’s 22nd Luftlande-Division (based in Crete) and a number of special forces units for the task of retaking the Aegean islands taken by the British during September.

Having identified the vital role of the Allies’ sole airfield on Kos, General Martin Fiebig’s X Fliegerkorps began on 17/18 September to bomb this facility and the Allied positions on the island. The Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters and Junkers Ju 88 medium bombers involved in this undertaking initially met with varying success, for the RAF gunners on the ground and the South African Spitfire fighters in the air gave a good account of themselves. Special light bombs rendered the airfield at Antimachia temporarily unserviceable and damaged the Dakota transport aircraft on the ground there, but the first detachments of the DLI were landed, although one Dakota came down in the sea and its occupants were rescued but interned in Turkey.

On the ground, the Allied force on Kos comprised the 1/Durham Light Infantry, 120 men of 11/Parachute’s A Company, a company of the Special Boat Section, and Royal Air Force (RAF) personnel under the overall command of the DLI’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel L.R.F. Kenyon. The force totalled about 1,600 British (although only 1,115 of these were combatants, in the form of 880 soldiers and 235 men of No, 2909 Squadron of the RAF Regiment) and about 3,500 Italians in the form of Colonnello Felicio Leggio’s 10th Reggimento of Generale di Brigata Michele Scaroina’s Italian 50th Divisione ‘Regina’, the island’s original garrison.

German bombing and strafing continued to harass the garrison over the next few days. The Luftwaffe flew 100 aircraft into the Aegean Sea area, bringing its strength to 362 aircraft by 1 October. While the German air cover improved, moreover, the Allies could rely on only a limited number of aircraft as a result of decisions made by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the theatre commander, about what he and other US leaders saw as a pointless 'sideshow' reflecting not the current military situation in the Mediterranean but British ambitions for post-war Greece to fall into the British sphere of influence.

The British land, sea and air commanders-in-chief in the Middle East were responsible for the Aegean Sea operation, but the disposition of forces was decided by Eisenhower, who decided that under no circumstances was the Dodecanese islands campaign to be allowed to influence, even in the slightest, the conduct of other campaigns in the Mediterranean. This meant that the Middle East Command could not look for permanent help from the forces in the Italian theatre, but must be prepared to improvise when temporary naval and air forces could be spared. Eisenhower’s decision, in which he had the loyal backing of his deputy, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, was a corollary of the beliefs of the US Chiefs-of-Staff that the Dodecanese islands operation typified British diversionary strategy which might well lead to some form of Balkan adventure.

The limited aircraft cover which could be provided for the Kos operation was wholly inadequate, and had a severely adverse effect on the British ability to defend the island. Over the weeks from 13 September to 3 October the Allied aircraft defending Kos suffered many losses from bombardment of the airfield and in air combat. By 26 September the No. 7 Squadron had been reduced to four serviceable aircraft, and on this day No. 74 Squadron RAF was flown onto Kos.

The defenders' position on Kos was never good, soon became serious and finally emerged as desperate, for the Italian anti-aircraft defence was negligible and the British force’s own resources meagre. To add to their troubles, the area the British had to hold round the airfield was too rocky to permit digging in, and there was no time to build blast walls before the Germans were upon them. The air attacks were so effective that the paratroopers suffered casualties so great that they had to be withdrawn on 25 September.

On 23 September Müller, commander of the 22nd Luftlande-Division in Crete, had been ordered to take Kos and Léros in ‘Eisbär’ (v), an undertaking sometimes known as ‘Polarbär’.

A concentration of shipping was observed on 1 October in the ports of Crete, and early on the following morning a convoy steaming to the north-north-easter was sighted to the south-east of Milos by British aircraft. Urgently needed supplies were landed on Kos by five Dakota aircraft, and during the unloading of these supplies there came the news that a modest German invasion fleet of 10 vessels was at sea. This flotilla carried a task force composed of Major Sylvester von Saldern’s Kampfgruppe 'von Salden' of the 22nd Luftlande-Division in Crete, as well as Brandenburg special forces elements from the mainland in the form of a single company of the Küstenjägerabteilung 'Brandenburg' and a single airborne company of the 4th Regiment 'Brandenburg of Generalmajor Alexander von Pfuhlstein’s Division 'Brandenburg', all under the command of Müller.

At 04.30 on 3 October the German landing on Kos began, and by 12.00 1,200 Germans, well-armed with light artillery and armoured cars, were ashore and in action. Dive-bombing by Junker Ju 87 Stuka aircraft added to the difficulties of the defence, and in the afternoon Antimachia was overrun. The main German convoy, which had been attacked from air, was estimated to have consisted of seven transports, seven landing craft, three destroyers and numerous caiques (local fishing craft) and other small craft. The principal landings took place at Marmari and Tingachi in the north central part of the island and at Camare Bay in the south-west of the island with subsidiary landings at Forbici and Capo Foco on the north-east and south-eastern tips of the island respectively.

Paratroops were dropped to the west and south of Antimachia. By 12.00 hours the Germans were reported as having landed 1,500 men. At about 13.30 a further small German paratroop landing, by one company of the Division 'Brandenburg' was made in the centre of the island, and more troops arrived by sea.

For the British forces the situation was reported as confused, but by 18.00 it was further reported as critical. The DLI, SBS and paratroopers fought gallantly but in the face of superior numbers and heavier equipment were forced to withdraw to positions covering the town and port of Kos and the airfield. That evening the Germans attacked the British positions in strength, further reducing the British position to a small area around the town of Kos. The German strength had been reinforced to an estimated 4,000 men by the evening of 3 October.

The organised resistance of the Italian and British forces had ended by 06.00 on 4 October, and the Germans took prisoner 1,388 British and 3,145 Italian soldiers. Colonnello Felice Leggio, the Italian commander of the island, and 90 of his officers were shot by the Germans in accordance with Adolf Hitler’s order of 11 September that Italian officers who had taken up arms against Germany were to be executed after being captured. A German communiqué of 5 October reporting the cessation of hostilities on Kos gave the number of prisoners taken as 600 British and 2,500 Italians, with more Italians coming in. A number of the British force escaped to neighbouring islands and were rescued in a number of nocturnal SBS undertakings.

The capture of Kos had disastrous consequences for British operations in the rest of the Dodecanese islands group. Deprived of air cover from the island, the Allies were in the long run unable to hold the other islands, while the Germans pressed their advantage, capturing Léros one month later in 'Leopard' (iii) and completing their conquest of the Dodecanese islands group by the end of November.