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A critical view of Ian Gooderson’s, ‘Shoestring Strategy: The British Campaign in the Aegean, 1943’, Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3 (2002).

09/04/2017

The author’s argument

In his introductory summary Gooderson says he will examine the British “offensive return” in the Aegean during 1943 as an example of the British “peripheral strategy”. He explains that its British characteristic to warfare in attempting to grab any given opportunity to strike at where the enemy seems vulnerable, especially in peripheral fronts by concentrating and using limited resources against a point where the enemy is considered weak. He states that while audacity can bring rewards it can also fail badly if the enemy reacts in a determined manner. Gooderson says that he will examine the British aggressive actions in the Aegean as a combination of efforts by various military branches and assistance from other allies or even potential allies. (Joint operation)

The author says that the British who used their naval and amphibious “finite resources” against “major continental powers possessing superior armies” developed large scale aggressive raiding[1]. That means that they had the “know how” for this operation and cannot be blamed for failing because they lacked knowledge or experience on this type of warfare. Gooderson wrote that this operation was the “brain child” of the British Prime Minister, “for whom the Aegean held a powerful, but fatal, fascination”[2]. He says that his aim is to explain why at a time where things were favorable for the Allies in the Mediterranean; the British suffered such a catastrophic defeat.

The British had attempted to engage the Italians in the Dodecanese islands from November 1940 but they failed. Churchill had to secure Turkey allying itself with Britain against Germany in order to achieve proximity to Balkan targets and military bases for assaults against the Axis occupied Aegean islands. The Turks were positive to the idea but very slow moving in its activation. Another positive factor for the Allies was that their assault in Sicily had brought about the collapse of Mussolini’s regime. This fuelled Churchill’s optimism and gave solid ground to the possibility of acquiring the Dodecanese islands without a fight if the Italians surrendered them to the British and turned against the Germans. The capture of the islands would offer both military and political chips to the British[3]. Yet the allied coordination was not good as the Americans were focused on assaulting Europe through the English Channel and viewed the Mediterranean simply as a sideshow.

The main Allied effort in the Mediterranean focused on the Italian front and the resources available for other operations were very limited. The attempt to secure the Dodecanese islands through the diplomatic way and hold them with the support of the existing Italian garrisons stiffened by the limited available British troops failed because of the quick and brutal reaction of the Germans and the overestimation of the Italian resources and abilities by British Intelligence Services[4].

The Germans decided to crush the British forces in the Aegean in order to prevent the Turks siding with the Allies. The British lacked adequate supplies and heavy weapons. The RAF support was limited and the allied ships were at the mercy of the Luftwaffe during daytime and suffered terribly. The Americans did not divert resources from their main efforts described above and the British were trapped on the islands for even their evacuation would cause heavy loses. When the Germans attacked, enjoying full air support, they captured the islands despite the defenders efforts. The author concludes that the British plans failed for lack of allied coordination and insufficient resources in the face of determined enemy opposition.

The article in historiography

Gooderson fails to mention that Rhodes was lost (to a large extent) because of Allied diplomacy shortcomings and not only by German determination and quick reaction. Ehrman points out that the way the negotiations to make Italy defect from the Axis were handled improperly and the delays caused, simply favored the Germans who made short work of the confused Italian forces in the Balkans[5]. Ehrman also points out that the Allies who considered the Balkans a sideshow had managed to persuade Hitler that they would strike their main blow there[6]. A savage German reaction was to be expected in every allied effort in the area but this factor was ignored.

American sources are very critical of the British adventure in the Aegean and usually very harsh on their criticism of Churchill’s policy. For example David T. Zabecki in says that Roosevelt suspected that Churchill wanted to drag him in a Balkan adventure and says that the Italian garrisons were untrained and under-equipped[7] confirming Italian sources who claim that Italian Navy had failed to properly support the islands during the war. So Italians would be of limited value. D. J. Zimmerman in his work “Churchill’s Folly and the Dodecanese Campaign” claims that the British PM did all this rather to secure postwar British interests in the area rather than to aid the Allied war effort. According to Zimmerman the whole affair simply provided Hitler with a much-needed triumph and secured Turkish neutrality instead of Turkish support for the Allies.

Greek sources are largely not translated and focus on the their forces involved and the positive reception and support that the Greek islanders gave to the Allied soldiers. They criticize British policies in the contact of the operation. One of the few Greek works in English namely Panagiotis Gartzonikas “Amphibious and Special Operations in the Aegean Sea” says that the real reason for the Dodecanese Campaign was Churchill’s fear of Britain becoming lesser partner in the Alliance[8] and wanted to prove British strength with an “independent” military action. The British PM’s objective was to “shore up Britain’s post-war position.[9]” and “wanted to prolong operations in a theater where he thought he had leverage.[10]” The fact that Aegean was (and is) a point of friction between Greeks and Turks[11], and this would affect the operation’s execution and outcome was waved away by Churchill[12] and Gooderson is also ignoring it.

The article’s weaknesses

Gooderson mentioned Churchill’s fascination with the Aegean. He could have elaborated on that and mentioned that he had been disappointed very much from his achievements there during his career. He had failed to secure a British naval base in Greece after the Balkan wars[13] and had suffered defeat in the Dardanelles during WWI. His insistence on aggressive policy cost the Royal Navy a defeat in Castelrosso[14]. It would be worth commenting if it was Churchill’s wish to “conquer the Aegean” rather than his strategic judgment the real cause of the British over optimism about this operation. It is my opinion that the author leaves Churchill very easily “of the hook” on that matter.

Gooderson has drawn on John Ehrman’s work, Grand Strategy, and this raises the following questions: Why in the article is not also mentioning that one of the reasons that Turkish support was not secured was their unwillingness to fight the Germans? They wanted: “immunity from German attack” Ehrman writes[15]. Why article’s author fails to mention the eight thousand battle hardened men of Greek brigade who had performed well in El Alamein? They were written off for this operation because they got caught in Greek political factionalism and mutinied two times in spring and summer 1943[16]. This setback added to the shortage of troops available for the operation. Another question is the performance of the British intelligence service in assessing both the true German strength and the real state of the Italian defenses on the islands. In my opinion the author did not want to be very critical towards anyone in this article.

The article’s strength

As Gooderson says in his introduction there is very little examination by historians of the British involvement in the Aegean during 1943, which is true. His attempt to tackle the subject and present it to the English speaking reader is on its own a positive thing. He stresses that harsh negative criticism against the British handling of the affair should take in to account the “fog of war” and the fact that the decisions were made with what information were best available and in many cases taken under the pressure of events and that orders or instructions were subject to communications break downs. Yet the author’s note that the British overestimated their resources and the willingness of the new would be allies (Italians/Turks) to support British efforts is valid. The author justly points out that the lack of British air support was a crucial factor of the German success. He also explains the drawbacks of the allied ships and airplanes without going into much technical detail that could make reading difficult. The argument that a “piratical war” was preferable to holding ground is also justified by the final outcome of the whole affair. He writes in a manner, that if the reader does not want to go into deep detail about what happened, then the article is a well-written peace giving the general description of the events not only to the historian but to the general audience too.

Sources:

Jeffrey Holland The Aegean Mission: Allied Operations in the Dodecanese, 1943 (Contributions in Military Studies) Praeger 1988

David T. Zabecki Germany at War: 400 Years of Military History, ABC-CLIO 2014

Robert Holland Blue-Water Empire: The British in the Mediterranean since 1800 Penguin UK, 2012

A quick summary by D.J. Ζimerman as seen on 11th March 2016

http://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/operation-accolade-churchills-folly-and-the-dodecanese-campaign/

Panagiotis Gartzonikas, AMPHIBIOUS AND SPECIAL OPERATIONS IN THE AEGEAN SEA 1943-1945. OPERATIONAL EFFECTIVENESS AND STRATEGIC IMPLICATIONS from US Naval Post graduate College website as seen on 11th March 2016

http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a420541.pdf

[1] Ian Gooderson (2002) Shoestring strategy page 1

[2] Ibid page 2

[3] ibid page 4

[4] Ian Gooderson (2002) Shoestring strategy pp 7,8,9

[5] John Ehrman, Grand Strategy, Vol.5 (London: HMSO 1956 p 65

[6] ibid p 62

[7] David T. Zabecki Germany at War p 351

[8] Panagiotis Gartzonikas “Amphibious and Special Operations in the Aegean Sea” Executive summary ix

[9] ibid p.1

[10] ibid p.2

[11] Ibid pp 6.7

[12] Robert Holland Blue-Water Empire p 275

[13] Zisis Fotakis Greek Naval Strategy and Policy 1910-1919 Routledge, 2008 pp 51-60

[14] Footnote 3 on Ian Gooderson (2002) Shoestring strategy page 31

[15] John Ehrman, Grand Strategy, Vol.5 (London: HMSO 1956) p.102

[16] ibid p.85

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