There have been many books written about the war in the Aegean, including some recent ones like Julie Peakman’s ‘Hitler’s Island War’, which focuses on the stories of those who lived and fought on the island of Leros. I have recently returned to an older book (2008) by Peter Smith and Edwin Walker on the subject.
In this book, the authors give the reader a decent narrative of the campaign, but also a careful analysis. The appendices alone are very instructive.
The key strategic arguments, for and against the campaign, are well-argued. At the highest strategic level, it was another example of Churchill’s ‘soft underbelly’ as against the direct approach favoured by the USA. This campaign also had more grand tactical implications. Hitler was always going to want to defend the islands for fear of allied bombing on his crucial Romanian oil supplies. An economic aspect of Hitler’s strategy that is often understated.
The author’s sum up the USA position well:
“The United States never had the slightest interest in either the Balkans or the Aegean area, and it saw any attempts by Britain to take the war into this area as mere stalling for time from an ally that was reluctant to face the cost in the final reckoning, which it knew must be decided in Europe. “On to Berlin” was the only strategy the Americans were interested in. They were not interested in the Dodecanese, except for a strong inclination to try to keep Britain out.”
The authors don’t hide their own view:
“In examining the final assessments of the value of the Aegean Sea area to the future prosecution of the war, one is struck by the clarity and similarity of foresight expressed by both Churchill for Britain and Hitler for Germany, as well as the almost naive truculence of the American Chiefs of Staff and the shortsightedness of their policy.”
In the context of 1942-3, I think Churchill had a point. However, in the longer term, as Michael Howard and others have pointed out, the ‘soft-underbelly’ isn’t quite so soft when you get nearer to Germany.
When it comes to the Aegean, I’m afraid the description of the Kos and Leros campaigns as ‘Churchill’s folly’ seems pretty accurate. The key was Rhodes, and it wouldn’t have taken huge resources to capture it. General Wilson reckoned it was doable with the 10th Indian Division and an armoured brigade. What was lacking was naval and air support. However, to plough on without it was outright folly.
There is an interesting sub-plot, touched on in this book, that Churchill believed that Turkey would agree to air cover from Turkish bases. We now understand that this was unlikely. In any case, expecting a handful of troops to hold isolated islands without being certain of air support, remains a folly.
As a wargamer, I have played a number of tactical games based on these campaigns. However, I remembered that I had a board game, ‘War in the Aegean’ (Against the Odds 2005) which represents the grand tactical level campaign.
When you play this game, it becomes immediately apparent how important Rhodes was. Admittedly, in my case not helped when Tilney’s task force was sunk by Stukas before it even got to Leros!
I usually find board games overly complex, but this game gives a very different perspective of the campaign and is well worth the effort.