By Pierre Kosmidis
Photos by Panagiotis Brokos
Following the Italian capitulation in September 1943, the Dodecanese (a word deriving from Greek, meaning “twelve islands”) became a highly contested area, which was strategically important for both the Germans and the Allies.
The biggest island in the Dodecanese is Rodos, which was an important Italian naval base and had airfields which allowed control of the eastern Mediterranean, as the island is located on the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa.
The German presence on Rodos had begun in January 1943. The Germans had eventually reached an agreement with the Italian Air Force to place two 88 mm Flak batteries on the island to strengthen the anti-aircraft defense of the air bases.
German personnel were to train Italians in using the Flak batteries and then depart, but their stay was prolonged on the pretext of the planned shipment of more batteries.
Towards the end of January 1943, four German officers, experts in coastal fortifications, visited the island, and in April a panzergrenadier battalion was landed in Rodos; during the following month, two more panzergrenadier battalions were sent.
At the end of June 1943, the German general Ulrich Kleemann was sent to Rhodes, where he formed the Sturm-Division Rhodos, which began military drills near the Italian defenses about 11 km from the city of Rodos.
With a strength of between 6,000 and 8,000 men, and a communication network separate from the Italian system, its command was established in Campochiaro (today Eleousa).
The Division included four panzergrenadier battalions with about a hundred cannons, anti-tank guns, and 60-70 mortars; a reconnaissance unit with 1,500 men equipped with armed sidecars and nearly 60 armoured cars; a tank battalion with over 25 Panzer IVs.
Four batteries of self-propelled guns, two of them equipped with Wespes and two with Hummels; five 8,8 cm Flak batteries placed near the air bases.
Overall, the German forces had about 150 armoured fighting vehicles, including Panzer IIs, Panzer IVs, StuG IIIs and fifteen 150 mm self-propelled guns.
Panagiotis Brokos, a researcher from Rodos is scouring the island on a regular basis and has documented the events that unfolded on those fateful days of September 1943, including battlefield relics that testify the ferocity of the skirmishes that took place on the island between the German and the Italian garrisons stationed there.
The Battle for Rodos, 9-11 September 1943
The announcement of the Italian capitulation and armistice on September 8, 1943 took the Italian leadership and soldiers in Rodos completely by surprise. Following some hours of uncertainty, the first German attacks began at around noon on September 9 and the Italians returned fire.
By September 11, 1943, the Germans taking advantage of the chaotic instructions given by the Italians, asked for the unconditional surrender of the Italian forces.
On 19 September 1943, between 1,584 and 1,835 Italian prisoners, all Navy and Air Force personnel, were herded onto the captured Italian motorship Donizetti, which then sailed for mainland Greece. During the voyage the ship was intercepted and sunk by HMS Eclipse, unaware of her human cargo, with no survivors.
On 12 February 1944 the old steamer Oria, crammed with over 4,000 prisoners from Rodos, ran aground during a storm and sank off Cape Sounion; only 21 prisoners were rescued, while at least 4,062 were lost in the sinking. (CLICK TO READ THE FULL STORY)
Overall, about 1,580 Italian soldiers managed to escape from Rodos after the surrender; 6,520 were declared missing after the war. Most of them had died in the sinking of the ships that carried them to mainland Greece, some others starved to death in German prison camps on the island (the famine severely affected also the civilian population of Rodos between 1944 and 1945).
Ninety were executed after the surrender, forty of them without trial.
Admiral Campioni, initially imprisoned in a prisoner-of-war camp in Poland, was later tried and executed for having defended Rodos against the German attack.