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Operation Abstention: The Battle for Castellorizo 25-28 February 1941

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Castellorizo's Harbor

Castellorizo’s Harbor

Late February 1941, Italian and British armed forces fought a relatively minor, yet strategically important, battle over the small island of Castellorizo.  The clash was short, yet its outcome helped define the course of the war for both of its combatants in this region of the world.

The island of Castellorizo (Kastellorizo) lies within the Aegean Sea,  approximately a mile off the Turkish shore, and for decades was one of the many Isles comprising the Italian Dodecanese (Isole italiane dell’Egeo).  The Italian fleet first occupied the archipelago in 1912, and Italy acquired Castellorizo from France in 1921 via the Treaty of Lausanne.  This helped to strengthen the far eastern defensive perimeter of Benito Mussolini’s ‘New Roman Empire ’at the onset of the Second World War.

Castellorizo is small in size, with a total area of about 5 square miles.  The local population stood at approximately 1,400 in 1940.  During the Italian occupation, taxation without representation and restrictions levied against the Greek Orthodox Church made life tough on the local population, which no doubt fostered strong anti-Italian attitudes among some.  On the other hand, the Italian’s public works programs throughout the Dodecanese greatly improved the infrastructure of the islands, creating facilities to meet many essential needs including medical buildings, schools, and communication networks.  Trade between the Italian Dodecanese and Italy, and among the islands themselves, would continue to grow throughout the years, as did the Italian’s military strength in the region.

The necessity in commanding the Dodecanese islands to control the Aegean during a time of war had been appreciated by engaged military leaders for centuries; from antiquity to the dawn of the Second World War. At the turn of the twentieth century, possession afforded the Italians advantages during several conflicts; the multiple ports provided the Italian fleet anchorage for the blockade of Crete in 1897, and served as a forward base against the Turks during the Turco-Italian War (1911-12).

During the Second World War, maintaining command of the Aegean Sea once again took on a prominent importance.   The Dodecanese Islands, principally the Island of Rhodes, would furnish the Axis Powers with a distant outpost granting them the ability to employ a defensive screen to help check Allied activity in the Eastern Mediterranean.   By preserving dominion in the Aegean, along with the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian Seas, which together stretch like fingers emanating from the Mediterranean up to mainland Europe, the Italians and Germans would be able to stonewall Allied attempts to utilize these ‘sea lanes’ to unbalance the Axis’s role as ‘masters’ of the continent.

Map of the Aegean and surrounding area.

For these very same reasons the Allies, in particular Great Britain, coveted these vital land masses in the southern Aegean.  Furthermore, a belief held by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was that Allied possession of the Dodecanese could possibly usher in far greater benefits than just anchorage and aerodromes; acquisition had the potential to deliver a powerful political and symbolic statement to neutral Turkey, which Churchill hoped would act as a first step in the country’s induction into the Allied fold.

Churchill’s ambitious idea of opening a ‘new front’ in the war through a ‘Balkan alliance’ featuring Turkey was dependent upon persuading the neutral government to join the Allies.  Churchill envisioned that the dozens of new divisions that would be drawn from the armed forces of the Balkan ‘allies’ could be directed at the German and Italians, forcing the Axis to expended a great deal of manpower and supplies to counter this new threat on their flank.  Additionally, airfields in Turkey could be used by the RAF to threaten the critical Nazi oil supply originating from the rich Romanian oilfields.

However, by early 1941, Turkish President Ismet Inönü remained hesitant to embrace British overtures to join their cause.   The outcome of the war was far from decided, and in fact to many observers it appeared to be going the way of the Axis.  The British concluded that bold action would be required to sway the reluctant Inönü, and as far as Turkish concerns were focused, the seizure of the Italian Dodecanese and ultimate control of the Aegean Sea could be the move to accomplish this goal. 

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  1. vato_loco says:

    An excellent account of a little-known battle in the Aegean. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece. Thanks, Peleliu81.

  2. Yes the arrogance and effectice propaganda towards the Italians cost many many British soldiers lives in the furthe campain…
    The examples are many eg The Battle of Gazala where the briliiant Italian Panzer division Ariete stopped the British offensive and saved Rommel’s behind ! Or when the Italians kicked the ANZAC’s behind they always claimed they been beaten by the Germans !

  3. says:

    Thanks for the article. It was a good read.

  4. Good work, Peleliu! An Allied operation with little success it is, of course, little known. However, it should be considered that this was in a period when the British had some hope of improving their situation in the Med. The Greeks were holding the Italians in Albania, Crete was being built up as a British base, they had beaten back the Italians in North Africa and the Germans had still not shown up neither in Africa nor in Greece.

    Nevertheless, the cancellation of Operation Abstention, after the first set-back, was based on the need for more air and naval support. What were the British thinking – did they not expect the Italian forces based on Rhodes to react? Did they find the smaller Italian destroyers which showed up too overwhelming for the naval support they had planned?

    The British learned little from this unhappy adventure. Operation Agreement proves that.


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