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Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume II

23 November 1943

23 November 1943

The following is the substance of the appreciation by the Chiefs of Staff referred to in my immediately preceding telegram:

Our two main objects in shaping our plans for operations in the Eastern Mediterranean concurrent with the assault on the mainland of Italy at Salerno were: (a) To assist the main operation against Italy; (b) to exploit in the Aegean the general weakness of the German position likely to result from the Italian collapse.

As it was realised that amphibious operations against the mainland of Italy conducted in the face of a determined and formidable enemy would be extremely hazardous, it became a cardinal point in our Mediterranean strategy to seek to divert the enemy's strength or, failing that, to confront him elsewhere with commitments sufficiently serious to prevent the movement of reinforcements into the main page 315 theatre of Italy. In particular, any diversion of the enemy's air strength during our assault would be of very material assistance while our protective fighters were operating at extreme range.

In an appreciation made in early September we considered that the position in the Aegean Islands was as follows: Of the outer ring, Crete was held by 55,000 troops, the western half of the island, containing the important airfields, by 30,000 Germans, with the Italians east of Candia; Rhodes—which is the key to the Dodecanese group—by 9000 Germans and 40,000 Italians. There were 1000 Germans in Scarpanto, lying between Rhodes and Crete, forming one-quarter of the total garrison. There were also Germans in the larger islands of the North Aegean in Lemnos, Mitylene, and Chios, but in the Dodecanese, other than Rhodes, there were only Italians—some 14,000. We hoped to obtain the assistance of these Italians in the seizure and organisation of bases from which we might harass the sorely extended Germans and obtain strategic gains of great value, especially the diversion of the enemy's air strength at a critical period in the Salerno landings. We realised that risks were involved—we would be acting inside the enemy's ‘fortress’, with tenuous lines of supply open to enemy air reconnaissance and the virtual certainty of air attack, against which our defence would be seriously handicapped—but the Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East considered that the risks were legitimate risks. With this His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom agreed.