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Operation Accolade: Churchill’s Folly and the Dodecanese Campaign

The war within the war between the United States and Great Britain regarding strategy against the Axis (concentration of force for the Americans versus peripheral for the British) intensified during the summer and fall of 1943. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s fervid imagination produced a smorgasbord of anything-but-northern-France amphibious operations, ranging from Norway to the Dodecanese Islands off the western coast of Turkey. But where Churchill saw krumkake and baklava, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall smelled and saw lutefisk and mageritsa and, at the Quadrant Conference in August, made it clear that if the British wanted assaults elsewhere, especially the Dodecanese, they were on their own. The prime minister decided to counter this American obstinacy with Churchillian obdurateness. In other words, the British would go it alone with an amphibious assault of the Dodecanese. On Sept. 18, 1943, Operation Accolade was launched. Almost two months later, on Nov. 17, it ended, a spectacular failure and textbook example of British military inadequacy, of German swift response and tactical superiority, and of Churchill at his worst.

“Not one American soldier is going to die on [that] goddamn beach.”

Gen. George C. Marshall to Prime Minister Winston Churchill

Churchill’s focus on the Dodecanese was a combination of wishful thinking, delusion, and desperation. He believed that Allied possession of the Dodecanese would cause Turkey to abandon its neutrality and throw in with the Allies, allowing them to launch an offensive from Turkish Thrace. Churchill also believed that with Italy now an ally, Italian troops on the islands would rally around arriving British troops and repulse any German counterattack. And finally, he was desperate to do something – anything – to retain for Britain, however briefly, the whip hand of strategic initiative.

HMS Eclipse

The destroyer HMS Eclipse (H08) was sunk by a mine during the ill-fated Dodecanese campaign on Oct. 24, 1943. She was one of six Allied destroyers sunk between Sept. 7 and Nov. 28, 1943. Imperial War Museum.

Gen. Sir Henry “Jumbo” Maitland Wilson, Commander in Chief Middle East, needed infantry for the assault, and it was infantry that he lacked. Most of his troops were garrison quality, ill-equipped for the demands of pitched battle. His best fighters were a variety of special operations units including the Special Air Service (SAS), Special Boat Squadron (SBS), Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), No. 1 Demolition Squadron, PPA (Popski’s Private Army), and Special Interrogation Group, all organized and trained for hit-and-run missions. That this combination of wildly disparate forces lacked cohesion, coordination, and above all training for their Accolade role to seize and hold territory boded ill.

Things were little better regarding air assets. The closest British airfields were 300 miles away; well out of range of Spitfire fighters, while the Luftwaffe had squadrons on Crete and in the Dodecanese. The one Spitfire squadron that was able to operate out of the captured island of Kos was soon overwhelmed. To assist and supply the Accolade forces, the Royal Navy ran an aerial gauntlet where the Luftwaffe had total air supremacy, with predictable results. One after another, the Germans began retaking the dozen British-held islands.

“I am slowly becoming convinced that in his old age Winston is becoming less and less well balanced!”

With the situation deteriorating, on Oct. 7, Churchill wrote directly to President Franklin Roosevelt, requesting an infantry division for an assault on Rhodes, the largest and most heavily defended island, and also hectored theater commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower for support. The American response was use of a handful of P-38 Lightning squadrons for four days.

If a panicking Churchill was a pain in the neck to the Americans, his Dodecanese obsession was driving Chief of the Imperial General Staff Gen. Sir Alan Brooke to the brink of madness. In his Oct. 8 diary entry he wrote: “I am slowly becoming convinced that in his old age Winston is becoming less and less well balanced! I can control him no more. He has worked himself into a frenzy of excitement about the Rhodes attack, has magnified its importance so that he can no longer see anything else and has set his heart on capturing this one island even at the expense of endangering his relations with the President and with the Americans, and also the whole future of the Italian campaign.”

Operation Accolade

German Fallschirmjäger prepare to be flown to Leros from Crete, Nov. 11, 1943. The Battle of Leros, which saw the Germans recapture the island, was the end of the Dodecanese campaign. Bundesarchive photo

The beginning of the end for Accolade started on Nov. 12, with the German assault on Leros, the last of the British-held islands. Four days later, the British commander surrendered. Not only had Churchill achieved none of his goals, he gave Germany its last major victory in the war and, as Brooke predicted, further alienated the Americans.

Not only had Churchill achieved none of his goals, he gave Germany its last major victory in the war and, as Brooke predicted, further alienated the Americans.

Amazingly, Churchill still refused to admit defeat. On November 24, at the Cairo Conference, Churchill renewed his demand for an attack on Rhodes. Grasping his lapels, Churchill thundered at Marshall, “His Majesty’s Government can’t have its troops standing idle. Muskets must flame.” Marshall replied, “Not one American soldier is going to die on [that] goddamn beach.” Churchill never raised the subject again.

Surrender of Rhodes

Maj. Gen. Wagner, commander of German forces in the Dodecanese, and two of his staff officers come alongside the destroyer HMS Kimberley on a motor launch which the Germans had captured from the British a few months previously. The Kimberley took Wagner to the island of Symi in the Aegean, where the unconditional surrender of German forces in the region was signed, May 18, 1945. The failure of the British Dodecanese campaign resulted in German control of the islands until the end of World War II. Imperial War Museum photo

The Dodecanese campaign later became the basis for Alastair Maclean’s 1957 bestselling thriller The Guns of Navarone, and the 1961 movie of the same name starring Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony Quinn.

The Dodecanese campaign later became the basis for Alastair Maclean’s 1957 bestselling thriller The Guns of Navarone

YouTube has a French language newsreel clip of the Wehrmacht assault on Kos in November 1943 that can be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcDSsdxZobY.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...