Dodecanese, from the Greek, meaning “Twelve Islands,” is a group of islands in the Aegean Sea off the southwestern coast of Turkey. By the terms of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, the islands became possessions of Italy and were thus during World War II (after which, they became part of Greece). As part of the Mediterranean Sea naval operations, battles were fought on and among these islands during 1943. Important Axis installations included Italian air bases on Rhodes (the largest and most important of the islands), an airstrip on Cos, and a seaplane base with naval shore batteries at Leros. Germany had an air base at Scarpanto.
On the very day Italy concluded a separate peace with the Allies, September 8, 1943, a British officer was parachuted into Rhodes, charged with coaxing the 30,000 men of the Italian garrison there to turn against and take prisoner the 7,000 Germans on the island. Astoundingly, the vastly outnumbered Germans preempted this by attacking the Italians, who quickly surrendered—to the Germans.
Under British general Henry Maitland “Jumbo” Wilson and on orders directly from Winston Churchill, a British brigade of infantry was dispatched to join other small units already in the area, so that by the beginning of October, some 4,000 British troops were thinly deployed across eight of the Dodecanese, as well as the island of Samos to the north of the group. Unfortunately, lack of Allied air support (which was heavily committed to the ongoing Italian campaign), prevented the outnumbered British from gaining air superiority, and, surprisingly enough, the Germans were determined to hold the islands. On October 3, they attacked the British contingent at Cos, which quickly surrendered. At this point, Wilson and others advised Churchill to order a general withdrawal from the Dodecanese. Churchill, as usual, had a grander strategic motive for wanting to hold the islands. He thought the islands could be used as a springboard to an offensive in the Balkans, which might bring hitherto neutral Turkey (a nation that pressed a claim of sovereignty over the Dodecanese) into the war on the side of the Allies. This would infuse 40 fresh divisions into the cause. Nevertheless, both his British advisers and American allies objected, albeit to no avail. Ordering that Leros and Samos be held, Churchill resolved to carry on with plans to invade Rhodes.
In November, reinforcements arrived on Leros, bringing the number of British troops there to 2,500, half of the 5,000 now deployed throughout the islands. The Germans counterattacked on November 12, quickly overrunning the still-outnumbered British. Even Churchill now saw that he had no choice but to order a general withdrawal. The entire venture had been a disaster comparable in scale, although not in ultimate effect, to the Dieppe raid. British losses included 4,800 men (five battalions) and heavy naval losses. Six cruisers and 33 destroyers (including 7 belonging to the Greek Navy) had been committed to the campaign. Of these, four cruisers were badly damaged, six destroyers were sunk, and another four were damaged. Also sunk were two submarines and 10 coastal craft and minesweepers. Of the 288 British airplanes that fought, 113 were downed. German losses, in contrast, were disproportionately small: 1,184 men and 15 small landing craft.
Further reading: D’Este, Carlo. World War II in the Mediterranean, 1942–1945. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books, 1990; Horner, D. M., and Paul Collier. Second World War: The Mediterranean 1940–1945. London: Osprey, 2003; Whipple, A. B. C. The Mediterranean (World War II). Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1981.