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

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While Churchill dreamt of the possible political ramifications that could be wrought by securing the Aegean, his military commanders were focused on the potential strategic gains to be had in regards to the conduct of the war.  A first step in executing their plan was to gain a foothold in the Dodecanese that could support further, and presumably grander, endeavors.  Operation Abstention would be the spark that would begin the process, and the island of Castellorizo the target.  This small island would serve as the front-line in which each side’s regional aspirations would be determined.

Operation Abstention was slated for late February of ‘41, and would draw upon British and Commonwealth naval units emanating from Cyprus, Alexandria, and Crete.  The total force employed was quite impressive, and helps illustrate the importance that British leadership placed in the mission.  Firepower and support could be called upon from two cruisers, seven destroyers, one submarine, one gunboat, and for good measure, one armed yacht.

The responsibility of establishing a beachhead on the island would fall on the shoulders of 200 special commandos, who were to be transported on the destroyers HMS Decoy and HMS Hereward, along with a group of 24 marines, shuttled aboard a naval gunboat, the HMS Ladybird. These men would be asked to overwhelm and subdue the Italian garrison, establish a defensive perimeter, and prepare for the arrival of the second force slated for the next day.

Governor of the Italian Aegean -General Cesare De Vecchi- center on an inspection tour in the Dodecanese.  Admiral Biancheri stands to the left.

Governor of the Italian Aegean -General Cesare De Vecchi- center on an inspection tour in the Dodecanese. Admiral Biancheri stands to left of picture.

That second force sailing from Cyprus consisted of the light cruisers HMAS Perth and HMS Bonaventure, destroyer escorts, and the armored yacht/boarding vessel HMS Rosaura.  Carried among them was a company of Sherwood Foresters.   They would be tasked with securing and defending the island en masse, ensuring that the newly won Castellorizo remained in possession of the British Empire.   Shortly thereafter the Royal Navy planned on establishing a motor torpedo base in the islands harbor, which located less than 80 miles from Rhodes, would give the British a vital forward operating base in their quest to supplant the Italians as overlords of the Dodecanese.

Charged with overseeing Operation Abstention was Admiral Andrew Cunningham, one of the greatest naval officers of the war.  He set his ‘fleet’ carrying the first wave of attackers to sail on February 24th, and a few hours after embankment, the war vessels had moved stealthily into position off the shore of Castellorizo.  Shortly before first light of February 25th the order to begin operations was given, and the first echelon of landing forces aboard the destroyers set off for the islands port, thus commencing the British’s first substantial attempt at claiming the Aegean.

Google map view of Castellorizo

Google map view of Castellorizo

The British destroyers HMS Decoy and HMS Hereward proceeded unmolested into Megisti harbor; their unexpected arrival no doubt shocking the 35 man Italian Garrison.  The Italian force on Castellorizo was small in stature, and was comprised by a hodge-podge mix of soldiers and a handful of men of the Guardia di Finanza (basically heavily armed custom agents).  Duties for the garrison entailed basic security and the overseeing of a communications station.  The Italian’s defensive plan for Castellorizo counted on protection from forces stationed on nearby Rhodes; which was the primary base of Italian power in the Dodecanese.

The jolt of seeing the two huge enemy destroyers maneuvering into port quickly wore off, and a desperate firefight unfolded between the Italian troops taking up positions leading up to and around the harbor and the British commandos scrambling to disembark from the destroyers and move inland.

The British commandos carried the day, and over a third of the Italian force became casualties during this pointed encounter.   The British commandos were able to secure the port and take multiple prisoners, but their mission was not a complete success.  Before the radio station fell, the wireless operator was able to get off a warning to Rhodes with news about what had befallen the base; Italian reinforcements would be coming.

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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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