Operation Handcuff

This was a British unrealised plan to seize the Axis-occupied islands of Rhodes and Scarpanto in the eastern part of the Aegean Sea as part of ‘Accolade’ (1943/44).

Such a scheme had been entertained since a time as early as May 1943, and on several occasions a start had been made on the assembly of the troops, equipment and shipping which would be required. However, by the beginning of August 1943 the tactical scenario for the seizure of Rhodes had altered considerably from that originally envisaged, namely a combined assault with major forces, as the possibility of an armistice with Italy meant that Allied forces might be able to take over this Italian island against negligible resistance.

In overall control of the scheme was General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson’s Middle East Land Forces command, which would require support (especially in long-range fighters and landing craft) from General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Allied Forces in North Africa. These reinforcements were not forthcoming, and then the major formation allocated to the undertaking, Major General D. Russell’s Indian 8th Division, was transferred to the Italian campaign, so removing the only amphibiously trained formation available to the Middle East Land Forces.

Thus ‘Handcuff’ lapsed, giving the Germans an ideal opportunity to seize control of Rhodes at the time of the Italian armistice. So by 11 September 1943 the 7,000 German troops of Generalleutnant Ulrich Kleemann’s Sturmdivision ‘Rhodos’ already on Rhodes had seized control of this strategically sited island from its far larger Italian garrison. This was the spur that decided the Allies instead to seize Léros, Kos and several smaller islands off Turkey’s Aegean Sea coast between Kastelorizo in the south and Sámos in the north, an operation that went ahead with the express approval of Prime Minister Winston Churchill between 10 and 17 September 1943.

It was clear, however, that Rhodes was the key to this chain of islands off the south-west coast of Turkey, and that until the German garrison had been overwhelmed and the island brought into the Allied camp, any effective use of their Aegean Sea forces by the Allies was impossible. Plans were thus resumed for a combined operation against the island in October, but the whole scheme was thrown into disarray by the strength and vehemence of the German counterstroke against the Aegean Sea garrisons, which were overwhelmed after a fast build-up of German air strength in Rhodes, Crete and Greece, allowing German land and airborne forces to retake the islands without undue difficulty.

Kos fell to the amphibious and airborne landings of 'Eisbär' (v) on 3/4 October, Léros fell to the amphibious and airborne landings of 'Leopard' (iii) on 12/16 November, Sámos was evacuated on 19/20 November, and Kastelorizo was also evacuated on 28 November.

It was now decided that as Rhodes was the key to the Aegean situation, its capture in 1944 could be decisive in the conduct of the Balkan campaign and also draw a wavering Turkey into the war on the Allied side. However, the need for all available landing craft for the 'Shingle' landing at Anzio and later amphibious operations in Italy, northern and southern France, and other places meant that the Middle East Land Forces could not plan effectively and the scheme was finally abandoned.