Saturday 11 August 2018

The Battle of Rhodes

While I was on Holiday I saw relatively little evidence of Rhodes wartime experience. Inside the old city there are a few parks that mark the location of allied bombing and some of the Italian buildings around the harbour still show the scars of shrapnel damage in their stonework, but other than these marks there is relatively little evidence of the second world war to be seen.

Following the Italo-Turkish War of 1912 Rhodes and the other islands of the Dodecanese were ruled by the Kingdom of Italy until 1943. Initially the islands were under a Military control but from 1923 power transferred to a civilian Governor. The first Governor favoured a liberal policy of peaceful coexistence between the various ethnic and religious groups but later governors took a more 'colonial' stance, giving land to Italian settlers and promoting Italian language and culture. However the impression I got from talking to guides and locals was that the period is looked on relatively favourably as it saw inward investment and building, especially in Rhodes town where many of the main buildings that exist today are Italian. Everything changed in 1943 following the Italian capitulation to the Allies in September of that year.

German tanks in Rhodes
German Tanks in Rhodes (Public Domain)
The Germans already had a military presence on the island consisting of AA batteries and several battalions of Panzergrenadiers, built up over proceeding months to provide 'support' to Italian forces on the island. By September 1943 the German had about 150 armoured fighting vehicles available, including Panzer IIs, Panzer IVs, StuG IIIs and fifteen 150 mm self-propelled guns. Facing them was a much larger Italian force of 34,000 infantry, with a superiority in artillery but relatively few vehicles and no tanks. In addition the Italian Navy commanded several important coastal batteries, three motor torpedo boats, a minesweeper and a Gunboat mustering in total about 2100 personnel. Finally the Italian Royal Air Force had about 65 aircraft on the island, 40 of these being fighters. Unfortunately 10 of these were non operational and in any case they could only muster 20 pilots for the remaining mix of  Fiat CR.42, Fiat G.50 and Macchi C.202.

The actual 'Battle' for Rhodes only lasted three days and began after the Germans attacked and took the Maritsa air base on the 9th September 1943. Italian artillery fired on the base destroying several German tanks and captured aircraft but was in turn targeted by German Artillery suffering heavy losses. The following day fighting continued with more artillery duels resulting in losses to both sides. However German ground troops continued to advance and captured key positions on Mount Paradiso and Mount Fileremo. News of the fall of Greece and nearby Crete began to undermine Italian confidence and this was compounded by the news that it would take at least a week before any British reinforcements could arrive. The following day, 11th September 1943, continued to see heavy fighting but the military situation was by now critical. Faced with an ultimatum of unconditional surrender or have Rhodes city bombed - and without any prospect of reinforcement for at least a week - the Italian command felt they had little option but to surrender.

Aside from a handful of possible (but not certain) WWII pillboxes and gun positions I didn't see much evidence of the battle or the occupation of the island. I saw and photographed a couple of items but I haven't been able to identify them so I'm not even sure if they are of WWII origin. Can anyone help with the identification?

This gun barrel was seen on the island of Symi. I think these are items recovered by local divers but there was no sign or other information with this eclectic collection of rusty ironmongery. 

It had a distinctive muzzle break but was so rusty I couldn't make out any identifying marks.

The breach of the gun. I suspect this is an AA gun barrel (there were lots of AA batteries across the islands, both German and Italian) but I can't be sure. 

Another view showing the whole barrel. Pity is was so heavy or I could have slipped it in my rucksack...

A presumably Italian artillery piece inside the Fort of St Nicolas overlooking the harbour entrance. Can anyone identify it?  

A rather sobering postscript to the Battle of Rhodes is that of the 6500 Italian POW's captured in the Italian surrender, most were killed on their way to camps in Greece. As many as 1800 prisoners died when their ship the Donizetti was sunk by the HMS Eclipse (which wasn't aware the ship was transporting prisoners) and another 4000 we lost at sea when the Oria ran aground during a storm and sank off Cape Sounion. Such tragedies in peacetime would ordinarily be remembered as terrible disasters but were sadly an all too often occurrence during the war years.  The memorial to those lost in the defence and liberation of the Dodecanese sadly does not mention these men. 

So that's it. Despite looking for a local war museum I couldn't find any and there was relatively little (read 'none') in any of the small museums that we did visit. I'd be happy to be corrected but maybe the islanders are happy to keep the past in the past and put this period behind them. 


  1. I'd say that was the muzzle brake from a German 75mm according to Mr Google.. possibly an L/48 type as found on PzIV/Stug?? Not sure AA guns would have a muzzle break?? There's a fascinating WWII scenario/campaign to be had in the Italian vs German conflict if it wasn't so damned sad...

    1. I have been trawling through my reference books but it's very hard to identify the gun barrel. It could be a PAK of some kind but the muzzel break looks different to the examples in my books. I should have taken sone rough measurements when I saw it but my wife was already rolling her eyes in exasperation (it was hellishly hot and we were supposed to be looking for a taverna to get a cold drink).

  2. ....I've seen that look before - not from yours, from mine.. :o)) have a look here.. the muzzle brake in your picture has that same double scallop look...


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