Operation Fire Eater (ii)

'Fire Eater' (ii) was a British series of naval undertakings and special forces operations against the Dodecanese islands group under German-occupation in the south-western part of the Aegean Sea (June 1944).

The context for 'Fire Eater' (ii) was provided by the Dodecanese islands campaign, lasting from 8 September to 22 November 1943, which was an Allied (primarily British) attempt to capture the Italian-occupied Dodecanese islands group in the Aegean Sea following the Allied armistice with Italy of September 1943, and use them as bases against the German-controlled Balkans. Operating without air cover, the Allied effort was a costly failure, the whole of the Dodecanese islands group falling to the Germans within two months.

The Dodecanese islands group lies in the south-eastern Aegean Sea, and had been under Italian control since the Italo-Turkish War in 1911. During Italian rule, the strategically well-placed islands became a focus of Italian colonial ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean. Rhodes, the largest of the islands, was a major military and aerial base. The island of Leros, with its excellent deep-water port of Lakki (Portolago), was transformed into a heavily fortified aeronautical base, 'the Corregidor of the Mediterranean', as Benito Mussolini, the Italian leader, boasted. An early British attempt to contest Italian control of the Dodecanese, codenamed Operation Abstention, was thwarted in February 1941, when Italian forces recaptured the island of Kastellorizo from British commandos.

After the German defeat of Greece in 'Marita' during April 1941 and the Allied loss of Crete to the German 'Merkut' during May 1941, Greece and its many islands were occupied by the Axis powers. With the defeat of Axis forces in the North African campaign in May 1943, Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, envisaged operations to secure the capture the Dodecanese islands group and Crete in order to deprive the Axis powers of excellent forward bases in the Mediterranean basin and to apply pressure on neutral Turkey to join the war on the side of the Allies. This would promote the possibility of one of Churchill’s a favourite ideas, namely a 'route through the Dardanelles to Russia as an alternative to the Arctic convoys'. At the 'Symbol' conference in Casablanca during January 1943, approval was given and Churchill ordered his commanders to have plans ready for 27 January 1943.

The result was 'Accolade', which called for a direct attack on Rhodes and Kárpathos, the largest and second largest islands of the Dodecanese group. The plan called for the use of three infantry divisions, one armoured brigade and support units. Further consideration of landings on Crete were soon dropped, for this island was too well fortified and possessed a strong German garrison. The main problem faced by the planners was the difficulty of countering the air strength of Generalleutnant Alexander Holle’s (from 22 May General Martin Fiebig’s) X Fliegerkorps with the limited Allied air power in this theatre as the available British and US aircraft were based in Cyprus and the Middle East. This challenge was exacerbated by the demands of the forthcoming 'Husky' (i) invasion of Sicily. The Americans were sceptical about the the whole concept of 'Accolade', which they saw as aiming mostly at post-war political benefits for the UK and an unnecessary diversion from the Italian campaign. The Americans therefore refused to support it, warning the British that they would have to go it alone.

As an Italian surrender became increasingly possible, in August 1943 the British prepared to take advantage of a possible split between the Italians and the Germans in the form of a smaller version of 'Accolade'. For this, Major General D. Russell’s Indian 8th Division was assembled and US assistance, in the form of Lockheed P-38 Lightning twin-engined long-range fighter squadrons, was requested. As a result of the 'Quadrant' first conference at Quebec and the US refusal to assent to British plans, the forces and ships earmarked for 'Accolade' were diverted barely a week before the surrender of Italy in the Armistice of Cassibile whose terms were revealed on 8 September.

On the announcement of the armistice, the Italian garrisons on most of the Dodecanese islands wanted either to change sides and fight with the Allies or to return home. Anticipating the Italian armistice, German forces, based for the most part on the mainland of Greece, were rushed as rapidly as possible to many of the islands in order to seize control. The German forces were part of Generaloberst Alexander Löhr’s Heeresgruppe 'E'. The most potent of the German forces in the Dodecanese islands was Generalleutnant Ulrich Kleemann’s 7,500-man Sturmdivision 'Rhodos' (Assault Division Rhodes): the division was created during the summer of 1943 on Rhodes, which was the administrative centre of the Dodecanese islands group and possessed three military airfields. Because of this, Rhodes was each side’s principal military objective.

On 8 September 1943, the Italian garrison on the island of Kastelorizo surrendered to a British detachment, which was reinforced during the following days by ships of the Allied navies. On the following day, a British delegation, headed by Major the Earl Jellicoe, commander of the Special Boat Service, was dropped by parachute on Rhodes to persuade the Italian commander, Ammiraglio di Squadra Inigo Campioni, to join the Allies. Swift action by the German forces forestalled the Allies, however, for Kleemann attacked the 40,000-man Italian garrison on 9 September and had forced it to surrender by 11 September. The loss of Rhodes as a realistic target dealt a critical blow to Allied hopes. Many Italian soldiers in the Aegean Sea theatre were tired of the war and had become opposed to Benito Mussolini’s Italian Fascist régime, but Italian Fascist loyalists remained allied to Germany in the Greek campaign. German forces in Greece convinced 10,000 Italians in the Aegean island garrisons to continue to support their war effort.

Despite this setback, the British pressed ahead with the occupation of the other islands, especially the three larger islands of Kos ('Beneath'), Sámos ('Betray') and Léros ('Leopard' [iii]). The Germans were known to be overextended in the Aegean theatre, while the Allies enjoyed superiority at sea, and the air cover provided by the SAAF’s No. 7 Squadron at Kos was deemed sufficient. It was hoped that from these islands, and with the co-operation of the local Italian forces, an assault against Rhodes could be eventually launched. From 10 to 17 September, Brigadier F. G. R. Brittorous’s 234th Brigade, arriving from Malta, together with 160 men of the Special Boat Service, 130 men of the Long Range Desert Group, A Company of the 11/Parachute Regiment and the Free Greek Sacred Band detachments had secured the islands of Kos, Kálymnos, Sámos, Léros, Sími, Castelorizo and Astypálaia in 'Betray', supported by British and Free Greek warships. By 19 September, Karpathos, Kasos and the Italian-occupied islands of the Sporades group and the Cyclades group were in German hands. On 23 September, Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller’s 22nd Division, which was garrisoning Festung 'Kreta', was ordered to take Kos and Léros.

Appreciating the vital role of the Allies' only airfield at Kos, the X Fliegerkorps bombed it and the Allied positions of the island, from 18 September. The arrival of reinforcements gave the Germans 362 operational aircraft in the Aegean theater by 1 October. The British forces on Kos numbered about 1,500 men, 680 of whom were of the 1/Durham Light Infantry, the rest being mainly RAF personnel and about 3,500 Italians of the 10o Reggimento of Generale di Divisione Michele Scaroina’s 50a Divisione fanteria 'Regina'. On 3 October, the Germans effected their 'Eisbär' amphibious and airborne landings, and reached the outskirts of Kos town later on the same day. The British withdrew under cover of night and surrendered on the following day. The fall of Kos was a major blow to the Allies, since it deprived them of air cover. The Germans took prisoner 1,388 British and 3,145 soldiers, and on 4 October German troops committed a massacre in which the island’s governor, Colonello Felice Leggio, and nearly 100 of his officers were killed.

After the fall of Kos, the Italian garrison of Kálymnos surrendered, providing the Germans with the base from which to launch their 'Leopard' (iii) operation against Léros. This was initially scheduled for implementation on 9 October, but on 7 October, British warships intercepted and destroyed the German convoy headed for Kos. Several hundred men and most of the few German heavy landing craft were lost. German ground replacements were transported through Greece by rail, and it was not until 5 November that the Germans had assembled a fleet of 24 light infantry landing craft. To avoid interception by the Allies, they were dispersed among several Aegean islands and camouflaged. Despite Allied efforts to locate and sink the invasion fleet, as well as repeated shelling of the ports of German-held islands, the Germans suffered few losses and were able to assemble their invasion force, under Müller’s command, on 12 November.

The German invasion force comprised personnel from all branches of the Germany military, including veterans of the 22nd Division, one Fallschirmjäger battalion and one Küstenjäger amphibious operations company of Generalmajor Alexander von Pfuhlstein’s Division 'Brandenburg' special operations formation. The Allied garrison of Léros comprised most of the 234th Infantry Brigade with about 3,000 men of the 2/Royal Irish Fusiliers, 4/Buffs, 1/King’s Own Royal Regiment and the 2nd Company of the 2/Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment. It was on 5 November that Brigadier R. A. G. Tilney assumed command of the garrison, which also included about 8,500 Italians, mostly naval personnel, under the command of Contrammiraglio Luigi Mascherpa.

Léros had been subjected to attacks by the Luftwaffe beginning on 26 September, and these caused significant casualties and damage to the island’s defenders and their supporting naval forces. In the early hours of 12 November, the invasion force approached the island 9n two groups from the east and west. Despite failures in some areas, the Germans established a beach-head, while airborne forces landed on Mt Rachi, in the middle of the island. After repulsing Allied counterattacks and receiving reinforcements on the following night, the Germans quickly cut the island in two and the Allies surrendered on 16 November. The Germans suffered 520 casualties and captured 3,200 British and 5,350 Italian soldiers.

As the Aegean theatre was dominated by a multitude of islands, whose nature forced both the Allies and the Germans to rely on naval vessels for the delivery of the majority of their men, equipment and supplies, the naval element of the Aegean campaign was especially pronounced. Initially, naval presence on each side was small, most of the Allied shipping and warships having been transferred to the central Mediterranean in support of the operations in Italy, while the Germans had no significant naval strength in the Aegean Sea. The Germans had air superiority, however, and this caused the Allies many losses in ships. Vizeadmiral Werner Lange, the Admiral Ägäis, tried to reinforce the isolated German garrisons. to carry out operations against Allied garrisons, and to transport Italian prisoners of war to the mainland. Allied ships attempted to intercept this German naval traffic, resulting in heavy losses. On 23 September, the destroyer Eclipse damaged the torpedo boat TA 10 and sank the steamer Gaetano Donizetti, which had 1,576 Italian prisoners on board. Another disaster occurred a month later, when USAAF North American B-25 Mitchell twin-engined bombers and RAF Bristol Beaufighter twin-engined heavy fighters sank the cargo ship Sinfra], which was carrying 2,389 Italian prisoners, 71 Greek prisoners and 204 German guards, of whom just 539 were saved.

On 14 September, the first Allied loss occurred when the Free Greek submarine Katsonis was rammed and sunk by the submarine chaser UJ 2101. The Luftwaffe also intervened on 26 September, when 25 Junkers Ju 88 twin-engined medium bombers sank the Free Greek destroyer Vasilissa Olga and British destroyer Intrepid at Lakki bay in Léros. On 1 October the Italian destroyer Euro was sunk and on 9 October the British destroyer Panther was sunk and the British light anti-aircraft cruiser Carlisle was seriously damaged. At the same time, the short range of the 'Hunt' class escort destroyers Aldenham and Free Greek Pindos and Themistoklis prevented them from intercepting the German invasion convoy headed for Kos. Each side suffered further losses. After their loss of Kos and friendly air cover, the Allied navies concentrated on supply missions to the threatened islands of Léros and Sámos, mostly under the cover of night. From 22 to 24 October, the British destroyers Hurworth and Eclipse succumbed in a German minefield to the east of Kálymnos, while the Free Greek escort destroyer Adrias lost her bow but escaped into Turkish waters and, after completing makeshift repairs, reached Alexandria on the north coast of Egypt.

On the night of 10/11 November, the destroyers Petard, Rockwood and Free Polish Krakowiak bombarded Kálymnos, and Faulknor bombarded Kos, where German forces were assembling for the attack on Léros. The German convoy nonetheless reached Léros on 12 November, escorted by more than 25 ships, mostly submarine chasers, torpedo boats and minesweepers. During the subsequent nights, Allied destroyers failed to find and destroy the German vessels, limiting themselves to bombarding the German positions on Léros. With the fall of this island on 16 November, the Allied ships were withdrawn, evacuating the remaining British garrisons. By that time, the Germans had also used the Dornier Do 217 twin-engined bombers of Kampfgeschwader 100 armed with Henschel Hs 293 radio-controlled missiles, which scored two hits. One caused severe damage to Rockwood on 11 November and the other sank Dulverton two days later. The Allies lost six destroyers sunk and two cruisers and two destroyers damaged between 7 September and 28 November 1943.

After the fall of Léros, Sámos and the other smaller islands were evacuated. The Germans bombed Sámos with Junkers Ju 87 single-engined dive-bombers of the I/Stukageschwader 3 based at Mégara, prompting the 2,500-strong Italian garrison to surrender on 22 November. Along with the occupation of the smaller islands of Pátmos, Foúrnoi and Ikaríia on 18 November, the Germans completed their seizure of the Dodecanese islands group, which they held until the end of the war. Only the island of Kastelorizo off the Turkish coast was held by the British and was never threatened. The campaign for the Dodecanese islands was one of the last British defeats of World War II and one of the last German victories, and some have described the entire episode as a fiasco which was badly conceived, poorly planned and inadequately executed as a 'shoestring strategy'. The Germans' victory was based largely on their possession of air superiority, whose exploitation caused great losses to the Allies, especially in ships, and enabled the Germans to maintain the flow of supplies to their forces. The operation was criticised by many at the time as another useless Gallipoli-like disaster and laid the blame at Churchill’s door.

The British failure to capture and hold the Dodecanese islands group sealed the fate of Jews living there. Although Italy had passed the anti-Jewish law of the Manifesto of Race in 1938, Jews living on the Dodecanese islands (and Italian-occupied Greece) suffered much less than the Jews in the German- and Bulgarian-occupied zones of Greece, which culminated in March 1943 with deportations to the death camps in occupied Poland. The Italian surrender, the German takeover and the failure of the Allied offensive meant that the haven disappeared. Most of the Jews of the Dodecanese islands were murdered by the Germans: 1,700 of the 2,000 Jews of Rhodes were seized by the Gestapo in July 1944, and only some 160 of them survived, and of 6,000 Jews in the Dodecanese islands, about 1,200 survived by escaping to the nearby coast of Turkey.

Italian prisoners of war were transferred to the mainland by the Germans in overcrowded, unseaworthy vessels, which led to several accidents, of which the sinking of Oriap on 12 February 1944 was the most deadly. More than 4,000 Italians died when the ship sank in a storm. Other ships were sunk by British forces.

The revival of German fortunes in the eastern Mediterranean helped to restore General Francisco Franco y Bahamonde’s confidence in the German war effort, which had been shaken by the Allied landings in North Africa and Italy, and ensured the continued export of Spanish tungsten to German for several months.