What is the role of Patroclus in The Iliad? Why and when does Achilles return to battle?

Patroclus is a close friend of Achilles. This relationship is critical because when Patroclus dies, Achilles returns to the battle and fights for vengeance for his friend.

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Patroclus is a very close friend to Achilles. Their relationship plays a critical role in shaping how The Iliad plays out.

In the beginning of this epic poem, Achilles falls into a dispute with Agamemnon, who commands the Greeks during the Trojan War. With his pride injured, Achilles responds by removing himself from the war entirely. Greek overtures to Achilles, attempting to bring him back into the fight, are met with refusal.

The situation changes when Patroclus, adorned in Achilles' armor, dies on the battlefield, slain by the Trojan hero Hector. After Achilles learns what has befallen his friend, he falls into a deep grief, and determines to pursue vengeance, accepting the death that has been fated to him. He reconciles with Agamemnon and rejoins the war.

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Patroclus is Achilles's closest friend during the Trojan war. Some readers speculate that the pair were either related in some way or that they had a romantic relationship as well as a fraternal one; either way, it is undeniable that they shared a deep bond.

Achilles withdraws from battle when Agamemnon takes his concubine away from him for no reason. He does not fight again until after Patroclus is killed. Patroclus takes Achilles' armor because he believes that the Trojans will be too afraid to fight if they see that the great Greek warrior Achilles has returned to the war.

Hector slays Patroclus believing that he was fighting Achilles. After this, Hector's fate is pretty much sealed, because Achilles's only goal will be to kill him. Achilles even has prophetic knowledge that his death will follow Hector's, but Achilles decides to make it his mission to kill him anyway. He returns to the battle in book 20 to avenge his friend's death.

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I suppose you would say that the role of Patroclus is to be a sacrificial lamb in order to get Achilles to come back to the battle.

Achilles has been sulking in his tend because he was forced to give Briseis (the woman he had been given as a prize of war) up.  But then Patroclus gets killed by Hector.  Patroclus is Achilles's closest friend and Achilles is absolutely engraged by his death.  So that is when and why.  Achilles returns to battle when Patroclus is killed because he is so angry at his best friend's death.

If, by "when" you mean where in the book, it's in Books 18 through 20.

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