Operation Abstention was the code name given to the British invasion of the Italian island of Kastelorizo, off Turkey, during World War II, on late February 1941. The goal was to establish a pivotal base to challenge the Italian naval and air supremacy on the Dodecanese islands.
After the attack on Taranto and the successful offensive of Cirenaica, Britain and its allies gained the upper hand along the Mediterranean. Confident that the neutralization of the Italian forces in the Dodecanese would be the next stage, the command of the Mediterranean Fleet planned the occupation of the tiny island of Kastelorizo, the easternmost of the chain, some 80 miles from Rhodes. The operation was intended as a first step towards the control of the whole Aegean Sea The Italians, however, were far from being on the brink of collapse. Their naval and aerial assets there were still capable of carrying out sporadic “hit and run” attacks on the Allied shipping between Egypt and Greece.
The leading force was composed by 200 commandos, who were transported by the destroyers HMS Decoy and HMS Hereward. A 24-men Royal Marines detachment was onboard the gunboat HMS Ladybird. The flotilla sailed from Suda Bay on February 24. The initial plan was to build-up a beachhead in the island for only 24 hours, before the arrival of a Sherwood Foresters company to consolidate the British garrison. This second force would come from Cyprus onboard the armed yacht HMS Rosaura and escorted by cruisers HMAS Perth and HMS Bonaventure. Before dawn, the commandos and the Royal Marines start the landing on the main port of the island, after submarine HMS Parthian made a previous reconnaissance of the coast. The Italian presence at Kastelorizo consisted of a small and miscellaneous unit of soldiers and agents of the Guardia di Finanza in charge of a wireless station. The British troops took the garrison by surprise, seizing the radio outpost. Twelve of the servicemen were taken prisoners. Before the commandos could overrun them, the Italians sent an alert to Rhodes, the main Italian air and naval base in the Dodecanese. Some Italian sources claim that the British forces captured the Italian cryptography code, but this assertion is dismissed by the Italian author Marc’Antonio Bragadin, a high ranking naval officer at the time. British sources make no mention of such issue.
Only few hours later, the Italian Regia Aeronautica appeared over the island. The bombers pinpointed the harbour, the castle, and the main hills of the small island where the commandos were entrenched. During one of these raids, HMS Ladybird was struck by a bomb, which resulted in three seamen wounded. The vessel, already short of fuel to continue her mission, was forced to reload the Royal Marines party and to make for Haifa. A consequence of the withdrawal of the gunship was the loss of the radio link of the commandos with Alexandria.
The Regia Marina show of force took place with the first light of 27th. The torpedo boats Lupo and Lince started the landing of about 240 soldiers north of the port, while their 3.9in guns pounded the British positions. Meanwhile, HMS Hereward, warned by the commandos ashore of the Italian naval activity, decided then to join the Decoy, at the time about 40 miles away from the coast. The Commander of the operation ordered the warships to disrupt the Italian landings, but the destroyer flotilla was unable to found the enemy warships. The Hereward reported to the Commander-in-Chief that the Italian surface action would made extremely dangerous the landing of the main British force from the Rosaura, already compromised by the air attacks on the harbour. Therefore, the garrison landing was postponed and rearranged. The disembarkment would be carried out by the destroyers HMS Decoy and HMS Hero, after transboarding the Sherwood Foresters company from the Rosaura. All ships were ordered to Alexandria to complete the reschedule. To make things worst, Admiral Renouf was listed as sick and replaced by Captain Egerton, commander of the cruiser Bonaventure. At the same time, the high seas also forced the Italian navy to suspend the landings until the morning of the 28th. The Italian forces already inland continued to harass the exhausted and isolated British commandos, who were equipped only for a 24-four hours action. The Italian squadron returned some hours later, reinforced with two destroyers from Leros, the Crispi and the Sella, an two MAS motor-launches, unloading the remainder of the land contingent and resuming the shelling. The pressure by air and sea made the British troops situation untenable. Indeed, when the forces from Alexandria came in on the 28th, the company’s commander, Major Cooper, after conferencing with the other chiefs responsible for the operation, realized that without sustained naval and air support, the withdrawal was unavoidable. The bulk of the land forces was therefore reembarked, with about 30 left behind, surrounded and later taken prisoner by the Italians. While providing protection to the retreat, HMS Jaguar was targeted by two torpedoes fired by the Crispi, which failed to hit her. The Jaguar responded with her 4.7in guns, but the jamming of a searchlight prevented her from striking home. After this last fruitless action, the British force sailed back to Alexandria. British destroyers HMS Nubian, Hasty and Jaguar, in a further sweep between Rhodes and Kastelorizo, were unable to intercept the returning Italian warships.
The operation was described by Admiral Cunningham as a rotten business and reflected little credit to everyone. A Board of Inquiry found that Hereward's commander misjudgement of rejoining Decoy, instead of making contact with the enemy force without delay, was key to the failure of the main landing and the isolation of the commandos. The British commanders were also surprised by the strong reaction of the Italians.
The Italian military remained in control of the Dodecanese until the capitulation of its country in September 1943.