Battle of Leros

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Battle of Leros
Part of the Dodecanese Campaign of World War II
Date 26 September–16 November 1943
Location Leros Island, Aegean Sea
Result German victory
Belligerents
Italy Italy
 United Kingdom
Greece Greece
Nazi Germany Nazi Germany
Commanders and leaders
Italy Luigi Mascherpa
United Kingdom Robert Tilney
Nazi Germany Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller
Strength
~8,000 Italian soldiers and sailors
British 234 Infantry Brigade, ~3,000 men
74 Squadron, RAF
7 Squadron, RSAAF
2,800 German soldiers
Casualties and losses
419 dead,
4,800 wounded,
8,500 captured
115 RAF aircraft lost
512 killed,
900 wounded
20 civilians killed (Leros Islanders)

The Battle of Leros (Greek: Μάχη της Λέρου) was the central event of the Dodecanese Campaign of the Second World War, and is widely used as an alternate name for the whole campaign. The Italian garrison in Leros was strengthened by British forces on 15 September 1943. The battle began with German air attacks on 26 September, continued with the landings on 12 November, and ended with the capitulation of the Allied forces four days later.

Background[edit]

The island of Leros is part of the Dodecanese island group in the south-eastern Aegean Sea, which had been under Italian occupation since the Italo-Turkish War. During Italian rule, Leros, with its excellent deep-water port of Lakki (Portolago), was transformed into a heavily fortified aeronautical and naval base, "the Corregidor of the Mediterranean", as Mussolini boasted.

The island was base for some Italian naval units, specifically:[1]

  • 4ª squadriglia cacciatorpediniere (4th destroyer flotilla) with the sole destroyer Euro;
  • III Flottiglia Mas (third MAS Flotilla) with two motor torpedo boats and six MAS;
  • XXXIX Minesweeper Flotilla with eleven boats;
  • nine minor units, seven steamships, two minelayers and three Marinefährprahm of German project.

After the fall of Greece in April 1941 and the Allied loss of the island of Crete in May, Greece and its many islands were occupied by German and Italian forces. With the surrender of Italy on 8 September 1943 however, the Greek islands, which were seen as strategically vital by Churchill, became reachable for the first time since the loss of Crete.

The United States was skeptical about the operation, which it saw as an unnecessary diversion from the main front in Italy. This was confirmed at the Quebec Conference, where it was decided to divert all available shipping from the Eastern Mediterranean. Nonetheless, the British went ahead, albeit with a severely scaled-down force. In addition to that, air cover was minimal, with the U.S. and British aircraft based in Cyprus and the Middle East, a situation which was to be exacerbated by the withdrawal of the American units in late October in order to support operations in Italy.

Initial Allied and German moves[edit]

Main article: Dodecanese Campaign

After the Italian government had signed an armistice, the Italian garrisons on most of the Dodecanese either wanted to change sides and fight alongside the Allies or just return to their homes. The Allies attempted to take advantage of the situation, but the Germans were ready. As the Italian surrender became apparent, German forces, based largely in mainland Greece, were rushed to many of the major islands to gain control. The most important such force, the Sturm-Division Rhodos swiftly neutralised the garrison of Rhodes, denying the island's three airfields to the Allies.

By mid-September, however, the British 234th Infantry Brigade under Major General F. G. R. Brittorous, coming from Malta, and SBS and LRDG detachments had secured the islands of Kos, Kalymnos, Samos, Leros, Symi, and Astypalaia, supported by ships of the British and Greek navies and two RAF Spitfire squadrons on Kos. The Germans quickly mobilised in response. Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, the commander of the 22nd Infantry Division at Crete, was ordered to take Kos and Leros on 23 September.

Main article: Battle of Kos

The British forces on Kos, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel L.R.F. Kenyon, numbered about 1,500 men, 680 of whom were from the 1st Bn Durham Light Infantry, 120 men from 11th Parachute Battalion, a number of men from the SBS and the rest being mainly RAF personnel, and ca. 3,500 Italians. On 3 October, the Germans effected amphibious and airborne landings (Unternehmen Eisbär, "Operation Polar Bear"), reaching the outskirts of the island's capital later that day. The British withdrew under cover of night, and surrendered the next day. The fall of Kos was a major blow to the Allies, since it deprived them of vital air cover.[2] The Germans captured 1388 British and 3145 Italian prisoners.[3] On 3 October, German troops executed the captured Italian commander of the island, Col. Felice Leggio, and 101 of his officers, according to Hitler's 11 September order to execute captured Italian officers.[4]

Allied forces and preparations[edit]

By October, the British forces on the island of Leros numbered ca. 3,000 men of the 2nd Bn The Royal Irish Fusiliers, (under Lt Col Maurice French), the 4th Bn The Buffs (The Royal East Kent Regiment) (Lt Col Douglas Iggulden), the 1st Bn The King's Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster), and a company of the 2nd Bn Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment, the whole force under Brigadier Robert Tilney, who assumed command on 5 November. There were also 7,602 regular Italian (mostly Navy) troops, plus 697 naval reservists and 20 air force reservists, including an infantry battalion and two heavy MG companies, under the island's military commander, Rear Admiral Luigi Mascherpa. The island's pre-war fortifications also included 26 artillery batteries with 115 guns, 52 of which were AA guns. Most of these, however, were badly protected from air assaults and, accordingly, suffered badly from Luftwaffe attacks. Of the Italian naval vessels stationed in the island, there were the Turbine class destroyer Euro, six MAS torpedo boats and several other auxiliary ships.[5] Initially, the British had planned to secure the high ground of the island's interior, but Brig Tilney insisted on a forward defence on the coastline, which had the effect of spreading his forces too thinly.

The air force units detailed for this operation were not large. Apart from the troop-carrying and transport Dakotas, there were two day and two night Beaufighter squadrons, a Wellington torpedo bomber squadron, three Baltimore and one Hudson General Reconnaissance squadrons and a detachment of Photographic Reconnaissance Spitfires. This force was based on the mainland of Africa and in Cyprus. In addition, two heavy bomber squadrons, No. 178 Squadron RAF and No. 462 Squadron RAAF of No. 240 Wing RAF equipped with a mix of Liberators and Halifaxes, and a Wing of IX United States Bomber Command took part at a later stage. The only real offensive force were just the two squadrons No.7 SAAF and No.74 RAF both equipped with Spitfires. In all, the number of aircraft used amounted to 144 fighters (single and twin-engined) and 116 heavy, medium and torpedo bombers. Of this total of 260 aircraft, 115 were to be lost.

German forces[edit]

Paratroopers being prepared to be flown to Leros.

The German forces assembling for Unternehmen Leopard ("Operation Leopard") under the command of Generalleutnant Müller, comprised III./Infanterie-Regiment 440, II./IR 16 and II./IR 65 of the 22nd Infantry Division, the parachutists of I./FJR 2, and an amphibious commando company of the Brandenburg Division (1./Küstenjägerabteilung). The invasion force assembled in harbours in Kos and Kalymnos, with reserves and heavy equipment waiting to be airlifted around Athens. Two groups with Ju 87 D3 dive-bombers were available for close air support. I. Group of Schlachtgeschwader 3 flew from their base in Megara and II. Group from Argos and later Rhodos. II. Group of Kampfgeschwader 51 with Ju 88 were available for air strikes. The Luftwaffe unleashed continuous attacks on Leros, enjoying complete air superiority, and caused many casualties among the ground forces and sank the British destroyer HMS Intrepid, the Greek destroyer Vasilissa Olga on 26 September, and the Italian destroyer Euro on 1 October.[6]

The battle[edit]

The landings[edit]

On 12 November 1943 at 4.30 am, after almost fifty days of air strikes, an invasion fleet landed troops at Palma Bay and Pasta di Sopra on the north-east coast. The Italian coastal gunners were not able to prevent these landings. There were other landings at Pandeli Bay, near Leros town, that were heavily contested by the Royal Irish Fusiliers. The Fusiliers stopped the capture of some key defensive positions but were unable to stop the landings.

German consolidation[edit]

Wreck of a Junkers Ju 52 shot down over Leros on 13 November and salvaged by the Hellenic Air Force in 2003. Now at the Hellenic Air Force Museum

The positions of the British units were spread around the island with poor communication between them. The attacking German forces had the twin advantages of numerical superiority and air control. In the early afternoon Luftwaffe fighter-bombers machine-gunned and bombed the area between the Gurna and Alinda Bays, followed by Junkers 52s which dropped some 500 parachutists from the Brandenburg Division, most of whom landed safely despite British efforts. The position of these landings effectively divided the island in two, separating the Buffs and a company of the King's Own on the south side of the island from the rest of the garrison. Counterattacks during the rest of that day failed. During the night of 12/13 November more German reinforcements arrived. Counterattacks by the King's Own and the Fusiliers failed during the 13th with heavy casualties, but the Buffs on the south side of the island managed to capture 130 prisoners and reclaim some control of their area.

On the night of 14 November two more companies of the Royal West Kent Regiment and their commanding officer, Lt Col Ben Tarleton, from Samos landed at Portolago Bay. The fighting on the 14th and 15th was mostly inconclusive with more casualties on both sides, although a counter-attack by two companies of the King's Own succeeded in recapturing part of Apetiki. Lt Col French was killed in this attack. On the night of the 15th the fourth company from the West Kents was landed and 170 German prisoners were taken to Samos. The Germans, on the other hand, landed an estimated 1,000 troops and artillery during that night.

Surrender and aftermath[edit]

View from the rear of Leros CWGC cemetery

On the morning of 16 November it became apparent to the British commander, Brigadier Tilney, that his situation was untenable and he surrendered; 3,200 British and 5,350 Italian soldiers went with him into captivity.[7] The 4th Bn, The Buffs, in their isolated position, were unaware of the surrender so did not attempt to escape; consequently nearly the whole unit was captured.[8] As with the Buffs, only ninety men from the West Kents managed to escape from the island.

The withdrawal of the American fighters had sealed the fate of Leros. With no air support and heavily attacked by enemy aircraft, the three battalions had fought for five days until they were exhausted and could fight no more. The Commander-in-Chief, Ninth Army, General Wilson, reported to the Prime Minister: "Leros has fallen, after a very gallant struggle against overwhelming air attack. It was a near thing between success and failure. Very little was needed to turn the scale in our favour and to bring off a triumph." Everything was done to evacuate the garrisons of the other Aegean islands and to rescue survivors from Leros, and eventually an officer and fifty-seven other ranks of the King's Own rejoined the details in Palestine.[9]

After the fall of Leros, which was received with shock by the British public,[citation needed] Samos and the other smaller islands were evacuated. The Germans bombed Samos with Stukas, prompting the 2,500-strong Italian garrison to surrender on 22 November. Along with the occupation of the smaller islands of Patmos, Fournoi and Ikaria on 18 November, the Germans thus completed their reconquest of the Dodecanese, which they were to continue to hold until the end of the war. The Battle of Leros was considered by some to be the last great defeat of the British Army in the Second World War and one of the last German victories. The German victory was predominantly due to their possession of complete air superiority, which caused great losses to the Allies, especially in ships, and enabled the Germans to supply and support their own forces effectively. Brigadier Tilney's scrapping of the original defensive plan, the work of Lt Col Maurice French, aided the Germans whose tactics, including scramble landings and an audacious air assault, further confused Tilney. The whole operation was criticised by many at the time as another useless "Gallipoli"-like disaster, and the blame was laid at Churchill's door.

The story formed the basis for the 1957 novel The Guns of Navarone and the successful film of the same name.

Casualties of the Battle of Leros[edit]

  • Germans - 520
  • British - 187
  • Italians - 164
  • Hellenic Royal Navy - 68
  • Civilians - 20

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Antony Beevor (1991). Crete, The Battle and the Resistance. United Kingdom: John Murray (Publishers). ISBN 0-7195-6831-5. 
  • Hans Peter Eisenbach (2009) Fronteinsätze eines Stuka-Fliegers, Mittelmeer und Ostfront 1943-1944. Germany Helios Verlag ISBN 978-3-938208-96-0. 18,50 €uro. The book describes exactly the Stuka missions of I. StG 3 against Leros and Samos and against the Royal Navy in 1943. The book is based on the flight log book of a stuka pilot.
  • Jeffrey Holland (1988). The Aegean Mission: Allied Operations in the Dodecanese, 1943. United Kingdom: Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0-313-26283-8. 
  • Aldo Levi (1993). Avvenimenti in Egeo dopo l'armistizio (Rodi, Lero e isole minori). Roma: Ufficio storico della Marina Militare. No ISBN. 
  • Anthony Rogers (2003). Churchill's Folly: Leros and the Aegean — The Last Great British Defeat of World War II. United Kingdom: Cassell Publications. ISBN 978-0-304-36151-9. 
  • Peter Schenk (2000). Kampf um die Ägäis. Die Kriegsmarine in den griechischen Gewässern 1941-1945. Germany: Mittler & Sohn. ISBN 978-3813206999. 
  • Giuseppe Teatini, Diario dall'Egeo. Rodi-Lero: agosto-novembre 1943, Mursia, 1990, ISBN 88-425-0665-6

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 37°7′55″N 26°51′10″E / 37.13194°N 26.85278°E / 37.13194; 26.85278