Operation Pitch (i)

'Pitch' was the British special forces operation within 'Abstention' to take and hold Kastelorizo island in the south-eastern part of the Aegean Sea (25/28 February 1941).

The object of taking the island was to allow the establishment of a base from which the Italian naval and air supremacy round and over the Dodecanese islands group could be challenged.

After the success of the 'Judgement' carrierborne air attack on the Italian fleet in Taranto harbour and the success of the 'Compass' land offensive into the Cyrenaica region of Libya from December 1940 to February 1941, the British attempted to neutralise the Italian forces in the Dodecanese islands group. Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, commanding the Mediterranean Fleet, planned an occupation of the very small Italian-occupied Greek island of Kastelorizo, the most easterly of the chain of islands just off the south-western part of the Turkish coast. The island lies some 80 miles (130 km) from Rhodes, the main land mass of the Italian Aegean holdings, and it was intended to establish a motor torpedo boat base. As such, the operation was foreseen as the first step toward gaining control of the Aegean Sea, which was seen as a highly desirable matter as the area’s Italian naval and air forces were well placed to carry out sporadic hit-and-run attacks on Allied shipping between Egypt and Greece.

About 200 men of No. 50 (Middle East) Commando, transported by the destroyers Decoy and Hereward, were to land in the island’s harbour, and were to be supplemented by a 24-man detachment of Royal Marines delivered by the gunboat Ladybird. The ships for 'Pitch' (i) departed Souda Bay on the north coast of Crete during 24 February.

The plan was to establish a beach-head into which a company of the Sherwood Foresters was to be delivered 24 hours to allow the consolidation of the British position. The Sherwood Foresters' company was to depart Cyprus on board the armed yacht Rosaura escorted by the Australian light cruiser Perth and British light anti-aircraft cruiser Bonaventure.

After an inhitial reconnaissance had been made by the submarine Parthian, the commandos landed before dawn on 25 February, and the Royal Marines party occupied the port.

The Italian strength on Kastelorizo comprised a small and miscellaneous unit of soldiers and agents of the Guardia di Finanza in charge of a wireless station. The British took the garrison by surprise, seized the radio outpost and took 12 men prisoner, but the Italians had managed to send a message to Rhodes, the main Italian air and naval base in the Dodecanese islands group. A few hours later, Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 and SM.81 medium bombers of the Regia Aeronautica attacked the harbour castle and the island’s main hills, on which the commandos were positioned, and Ladybird was struck by a bomb and three seamen wounded; already short of fuel, Ladybird was forced to re-embark the Royal Marines party and make for Haifa in Palestine, which cut the radio link between the commandos and the Mediterranean Fleet’s main base at Alexandria on the north coast of Egypt. After the loss of the communication link and other mishaps, the follow-up force from Cyprus was diverted to Alexandria.

The Regia Marina began the Italian counterattack at the break of day on 27 February, when the torpedo boats Lupo and Lince, under the command of Capitano do Vascello Francesco Mimbelli, Lupo's captain, landed about 240 soldiers in an area to the north of the port and used their 100-mm (3.94-in) guns to shell the British positions at the docks and the governor’s palace, killing three and wounding seven of the commandos. The captain of Hereward was warned by the commandos, and Hereward joined Decoy about 40 miles (65 km) off the coast. The naval commander ordered the warships to disrupt the Italian landings, but the British destroyers found no Italian ships. Hereward's captain reported that the Italian surface action threatened the landing of the main British force, which had in any event already been compromised by the Italian air attacks on the harbour, and the landing was therefore postponed and rearranged, to be carried out by the destroyers Decoy and Hero after they had embarked the Sherwood Foresters company from Rosaura. The ships were ordered to Alexandria to reorganise.

Rear Admiral E. de F. Renouf, in local command, now fell ill and was replaced by Captain H. J. Egerton, commander of Bonaventure, and this further complicated and already complex situation.

Adverse sea conditions forced the Italians to postpone their own counter-landing to the morning of the 28 February, despite the fact that the Italian forces already ashore were sorely harassing the exhausted and isolated British commandos, who were equipped for only a 24-hour operation. The Italian squadron returned some hours later, reinforced by Francesco Crispi and Quintino Sella, destroyers from the island of Léros, and two MAS motor launches, and then unloaded the balance of the land force and resumed a gunfire bombardment, which made the commandos' position untenable.

When more British forces from Alexandria arrived on 28 February, the Sherwood Forester’s company commander, Major Cooper discussed the situation with the other commanders, concluded that lack naval and air support made withdrawal inevitable, and as a result the bulk of the landing party, isolated on a small plateau on the eastern end of Kastelorizo, was re-embarked. Italian troops surrounded and finally took prisoner a number of commandos who had been left behind.

While covering the withdrawal, the destroyer Jaguar was attacked by Francesco Crispi, which fired two torpedoes at the British ship. The torpedoes missed and Jaguar started to respond with her 4.7-in (119-mm) guns, but a jammed searchlight made the gunfire ineffective and the British force departed for Alexandria. The destroyers Hasty, Jaguar and Nubian undertook a sweep between Rhodes and Kastelorizo, but failed to intercept the Italian warships as they returned to base.

A subsequent board of inquiry found that Hereward‍ '​s captain had erred by rejoining Decoy instead of engaging the Italian force without delay, and that it was this which caused the failure of the main landing and the isolation of the commandos. British commanders had also been surprised by the Italian riposte, most especially the frequent air attacks, which were necessarily unopposed.

The Italians retained control of the Dodecanese islands group until the time of the Italo/Allied armistice in September 1943. As soon Italy changed sides, the British landed on the islands in the Dodecanese islands campaign (8 September/22 November 1943), in which British and co-belligerent Italian troops were defeated in a number of German operations and the islands came under German control until the end of the war. Kastelorizo was not occupied, but constant air attacks destroyed many of the homes and forced the Greek population to flee to neutral Turkey or to Palestine.