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

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The Italians had positioned their MAS launches inside Megisti to help guard the newly reclaimed harbor.  They were determined to have some firepower waiting inside the port area just in case the British decided to force an entry and landing with their warships once again.  The Italians did not have to wait long, as in the early morning darkness the British destroyer HMS Jaguar swung into the mouth of Megisti harbor with torpedoes armed and ready.  However, the Jaguar was not attempting to land more troops.  Instead, it was attempting a ‘hit and run’ attack on the Italians before the final British withdrawal.  Perhaps not wishing to get entwined in a shooting match in the confined area of the harbor, the Jaguar fired all four torpedoes from the mouth of the port and fled.  All missed the nimble MAS boats and slammed harmlessly into the shore.  But the action was not over for the Jaguar, nor for the Italian Regia Marina.

HMS Jaguar

HMS JaguarI

The Italian destroyer Crispi was on a patrol south of the island after earlier firing at least 20 rounds from her guns into British held areas of Castellorizo.  Peering through the gloomy darkness the ships lookout called out a sighting on two contacts, one identified as a ‘cruiser’.  The crew of the Crispi took immediate action and fired off two quick torpedoes at the nearest target, both of which missed running under the vessel.  The Crispi, believing she was outnumbered and outgunned against a cruiser, attempted to slip off into the darkness before her enemy could launch a retaliatory strike.  The Italian ship was immediately illuminated by a searchlight aboard the Jaguar, the vessel she had just fired upon.  Although it was the Jaguar who had ‘lit up’ the Italian warship with her light, it would be the Crispi who would fire her guns in anger first.

The Crispi recoiled in the water as her guns blasted away into the morning dimness at the British vessel.  She missed.  The HMS Jaguar responded in kind with her guns, and likewise missed her adversary.   The dueling destroyers were in such close proximity that each vessel opened up with their mounted machine guns, raking each other in fire.  The Italians blasted out the Jaguars searchlight, once again plummeting the adversaries into darkness.  The Crispi, who had sighted two enemy vessels before the firing started, took this opportunity to slip away into the obscurity, and with this action, the end of the battle for Castellorizo was complete.

The failure of Operation Abstention came as a complete surprise to the British.  Churchill’s dreams of Allied unity and power in the Aegean were dashed before they even started.  The shocked Prime Minister stated in disbelief “I am thoroughly mystified at this operation.”  Even the genius of Admiral Cunningham had not counted upon the Italians dealing his forces a loss in this endeavor; “A rotten business” is how the Admiral would refer to it during a post analysis of the operation.  Writer Vincent O’Hare assigned the blame of Abstention’s failure on the British’s tendency to underestimate their Italian foe, and summarized “…It would not be the last time the British suffered embarrassment in an operation where success depended upon a lack of Italian initiative.”

With the re-capture of Castellorizo so ended any serious British attempt of seizing the Dodecanese until the fall of 1943.  With the Italians signing of the Armistice with the Allies that September, both the Germans and British attempted to fill the vacuum of power left behind in the Dodecanese caused by the Italian capitulation.  British forces landed on Castellorizo shortly after the signing, and would stay in possession of the island for the remainder of the war.  The German Luftwaffe (air force) would inflict severe bombing damage, particularly in ‘43 and ‘44, on the islands infrastructure and inhabitants until the Nazi surrender in the spring of 1945.  By that time Castellorizo’s native population numbered less then 500, the rest having been evacuated to Cyprus and then Gaza for safety.

The events of the battle for Castellorizo during Operation Abstention remain practically unknown, even for many scholars of World War Two.  Information and accounts of the operation are scarce, and are often reduced to a footnote or blurb, if in fact mentioned at all in Western coverage of the War.  There are several reasons for this including; the relatively small size of the forces involved in the fighting, the initial limited nature of the operation, the peripheral positioning of the combat area, and western writers’ proclivity to focus subject matter almost exclusively on the Western Allies and or German forces.

Italian Garrison on Kastellorizo marches to cemetery during ceremony to honor those killed during Abstention Nov 1941

Italian Garrison on Kastellorizo marches to cemetery during ceremony to honor those killed during Abstention. – Nov 1941 Picture

Perhaps an additional reason for Operation Abstention lack of notoriety is the fact that the Italians won a quick and clean victory at the very onset of the operation, in effect dashing the British’s plans to expand their Dodecanese campaign into something more illustrious.  It was over before it began, and the entire endeavor was limited to this relatively small encounter when compared to some of the massive clashes during the war.  Churchill’s far reaching strategic vision for the region was dealt a further blow when the Americans joined as an active member of the Allies, as they showed practically no interest in his Aegean/Balkan agenda.  Without American support, concern in this area of the war was moved to the ‘back burner’ of Allied attention.

A successful conclusion of Operation Abstention for the British might have changed things.  There are innumerable instances displayed throughout the war that demonstrate the fact that gaining one foothold, for example claiming a bridgehead across a river or knocking out a strongpoint in a village which opens a crucially needed road, has lead to the turning of the tide of battle.  Resources are often rushed to that breakthrough point, and from there advances or gains can be realized and capitalized upon for the victors.

It is of course speculative to imagine what could have occurred had the British acquired their Dodecanese base of operation on Castellorizo in 1941.  What is not left to the imagination are the results of the outstanding job Admiral Luigi Biancheri achieved by orchestrating a quick and coordinated counter-attack utilizing the air, land, and sea forces he had at his disposal.  The Italian airmen, soldier, and seaman fought rapidly and effectively, and procured a notable strategic victory, even if the memory of this triumph has been swallowed up by the pure enormity of the Second World War.


TJ Nicoletti


NOTE:  Special thanks to Dennis Hussey for editing the article.  I appreciate the time and work you put into reviewing.  Thanks as well to Jeff Lesner for his editing work and content suggestions.  I could not have finished the article without the help of both of you.




Struggle for the Middle Sea:  Vincent O’Hare

The Naval War in the Mediterranean, 1940-1943:  Jack Greene and Alessandro Massignani

Referenced site excerpts from “L’Operazione ‘Abstention’ in Egeo” Part I and II:  Guido Ronconi

Crete, the Battle and the Resistance:   Anthony Beevor

Wikipedia and historical or military web sources.

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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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