Battle of Leros
|Battle of Leros|
|Part of the Dodecanese Campaign of World War II|
German paratroopers prepare to be flown to Leros.
|Commanders and leaders|
| Luigi Mascherpa (POW)
Robert Tilney (POW)
|Italian: 8,320 soldiers and sailors
British: 3,500+ soldiers
74 Squadron, RAF
7 Squadron, RSAAF
|2,800 German soldiers|
|Casualties and losses|
254 killed or missing
1 destroyer sunk
5 auxiliary and merchant ships sunk
5 MAS and MTBs sunk
115 RAF aircraft lost
3 destroyers sunk
1 destroyer sunk
at least five MFPs
|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.
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.
- 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 merchant ships, two minelayers (Azio and Legnano) and three Italian-built 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 sceptical 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
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.
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. The Germans captured 1388 British and 3145 Italian prisoners. 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.
The Italian garrison of Leros numbered about 7,602 men, under the command of Captain Luigi Mascherpa. The rest of the Italian forces consisted in an infantry battalion, and two heavy MG companies and 20 air force reservists. The vast majority of these men – 6,065, plus an additional 697 militarized personnel – belonged to the Royal Italian Navy, as Leros was mainly a naval base. Only about one thousand of them were first-line troops, while the others mainly belonged to technical and service units and to the anti-aircraft defence. The island's defenses included thirteen coastal batteries, armed with nineteen 152 mm guns, five 102 mm guns, and twenty 76 mm guns, and twelve anti-aircraft and dual purpose batteries armed with fourteen 102 mm guns, six 90 mm guns, and twenty-eight 76 mm guns, plus three 37 mm machine guns, fifteen 20 mm machine guns and thirty-one 13,2 mm machine guns. Most of these, however, were badly protected from air assaults and, accordingly, would suffer badly from Luftwaffe attacks. As for the ships, the clauses of the armistice determined that all Italian ships were to reach Malta or other Allied-controlled bases, but Mascherpa persuaded the British commands to allow his ships to stay in Leros, since they would be of more use there, in case of likely German attack. The only aircraft available were seven CANT Z. 501, which however were soon destroyed by the Luftwaffe or transferred to Leipsoi.
Following the fall of Rhodes, some men from that island reached Leros, and Mascherpa assumed command of all Italian naval forces in the Aegean Sea. Mascherpa meanwhile re-organized the anti-aircraft defense. On 12 September, a delegation of British officers met Mascherpa to verify the island's defenses and to inquire about what relations would be established between Italian and British troops; Mascherpa did not go too far in his replies, since the terms of the armistice were still rather vague. On the following day, more British officers arrived, including Major George Jellicoe and colonel Turbull, who was disappointed by the state of the defences, especially the anti-aircraft ones. Meanwhile, it had been decided to shoot at any German plane that would fly over Leros. On 13 September, the Germans offered Mascherpa to surrender with "honourable conditions", but he refused.
On 17 September the small Italian garrison of Alimia, after leaving their island on board two fishing boats, reached Leros with their weapons (the influx of soldiers from Rhodes and Alimia brought the total Italian troops to 8,320), and on the same day the first 400 British reinforcements landed on Leros. On 20 September Captain Mascherpa, upon hearing that British Major-General Frank G. R. Brittorous was coming to Leros, asked Supermarina (the command of the Royal Italian Navy) for an advancement to the rank of Rear Admiral (so that he would not be junior in rank to Brittorous), which was granted. On the same day, Brittorous reached Leros with 600 more men, food and equipment (carried by a steamer, two destroyers and smaller vessels). Brittorous published a proclamation where he stated that he was in command, and all Italian commands were subordinated to him; this immediately created frictions with Mascherpa, who was confirmed in command of all Italian forces in Leros as well as of the civilian population, but subordinated to Brittorous. Both officers asked their commands for reinforcements, food and ammunitions, but little arrived.
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. 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 defensive force were two Spitfire squadron No.7 SAAF and No.74 RAF. 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.
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.
On the night between 6 and 7 October, the Royal Navy cruisers Sirius and Penelope and two destroyers attacked and destroyed a German troop convoy in the Astypalaia channel; these troops were meant as a reinforcement to the force tasked with Operation Leopard, so the destruction of the convoy caused the operation to be delayed.
Bombing and preparations
Starting on 26 September, after days of dropping threatening leaflets, the Luftwaffe unleashed continuous attacks on Leros, enjoying complete air superiority. On that day, Ju 88 bombers sank the Greek destroyer Vasilissa Olga, the British destroyer Intrepid, and the Italian MAS 534 inside the harbour of Lakki. The submarine base, the barracks of the naval base, the workshops, and four of the five fuel depots (but not the one which actually contained fuel) were destroyed; seven German bombers were shot down.
Between 26 September and 11 November Leros was continuously subjected to heavy bombings (an average of four air strikes and 41 bombers per day between 26 and 30 September, and eight air strikes and 37 bombers daily between 7 October and 11 November). In addition to military objectives, also the villages and towns, especially Leros and Lakki, suffered heavy damage. 10% of coastal batteries, 30% of anti-torpedo boat batteries and 20% of anti-aircraft guns were destroyed; hospitals had to be transferred in caves. The air base was bombed and rendered useless on 27 September. On 3 October, the Italian destroyer Euro was sunk in Partheni bay; on 5 October the minelayer Legnano, the auxiliary landing ship Porto di Roma, the steamer Prode and one Italian MFP were sunk in Lakki harbour, followed on 7 October by the Italian steamer Ivorea. On 12 October the Italian steamer Bucintoro was sunk inside a floating dry dock. The Italian motor torpedo boat MS 15 was sunk by an air strike on Leros on 22 October, while MS 26 had been lost to grounding on 9 October The anti-aircraft batteries were prime targets for the bombings; they often ran out of ammunition or became fatigued from continuous firing, but the dive bombing technique used by the Stukas allowed the AA crews to foresee where bombs would fall, and to shoot at the bombers during the manoeuvre which followed the dive, when they were particularly vulnerable. The Italian battery on Mt. Patella was able to shoot down eight bombers by taking advantage of this weak point.
Kalimnos had fallen to the Germans on 7 September, and three days later the batteries of Leros had started firing on that island. This continuous firing, along with the constant air strikes, wore the guns, and seriously depleted the ammunition reserves; the local command asked for more ammunitions, and the destroyer Artigliere and Velite were sent from Taranto, but most of their cargo of ammunition was unloaded during their stop in Alexandria, so only a minimal part of them was eventually delivered to Leros. In the last part of October, Italian and British submarines made several supply runs to Leros: HMS Rorqual (three), HMS Severn (three), the Italian submarines Zoea (two), Atropo (one), Filippo Corridoni (one) and Ciro Menotti (one); overall, the submarines brought to Leros 17 men, 225 tons of supplies, twelve 40 mm Bofors guns, and one jeep. Aircraft were also used for transport of supplies. Despite all efforts, ammunitions were still scarce, whereas food and medicines would last for many months. On the night between 24 and 25 October, HMS Eclipse, while carrying part of 4th Battalion, Royal East Kents, Buffs, along with HMS Petard, struck a mine and sank with the loss of 253 men; about 300 survivors of the battalion reached Leros on 30 October. On 29 October, HMS Unsparing sank the German steamer Ingeborg S. off Astypalaia.
Between 1 and 6 November, while German forces were being concentrated for the attack, the German air offensive was temporarily halted. During the same period, ships and submarines brought to Leros another 1,280 men and 213 tons of supplies, including ammunition. On 3 November, German landing craft were concentrated in Laurium, and between 6 and 10 November they were transferred to Kos and Kalimnos. On 5 November, Brigadier Robert Tilney arrived in Leros and assumed command; also Major-General H. R. Hall arrived, and replaced Brittorous, who left for Alexandria (Hall would leave for Samos on the night between 11 and 12 November). Mascherpa was not forewarned of the substitution; he was asked to go to Cairo to discuss the situation on the island, but he refused, fearing that he would not be allowed to go back to Leros to lead the defense. Relations between Mascherpa and Tilney were tense from the beginning; upon arrival, Tilney stated that the Italian forces would not take part in any counterattack or have any initiative, relegating them to tasks of fixed coastal defense (with order not to abandon their positions for any reason), and put each sector of the defense under a British colonel. The British commando even asked for Mascherpa to be substituted, and Supermarina decided to replace him with Captain Dairetti, but this was never carried out due to subsequent events.
On 7 November, the Luftwaffe bombings started again; over the next five days, a total of 187 German bombers carried out 40 raids over the islands, especially targeting the batteries located on the eastern part of the island (the area designated for the main landing) and those in the central and southern part (so that they would stop firing against Kalimnos), as well as the Anti-Aircraft and Coastal Defense Command (aiming to destroy coordination between the batteries) and the area of Lakki and Mt. Maraviglia, where British troops were concentrated. These last raids worsened the wear of the guns, disrupted communication routes and caused further consumption of ammunition. A British ammunition depot near Lakki was hit and blew up, causing more damage.
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. British motor torpedo boats and the Italian MAS 555 spotted the German ships between 3:00 and 3:30, but the reaction was delayed by communication problems and by uncertainty whether they were German or more British ships with reinforcements. German troops were thus able to land, and only at dawn did the situation become clear. The Italian batteries Ducci and San Giorgio opened fire and drove off a convoy of six Marinefährprahme escorted by two Torpedoboote Ausland (Italian ships captured in Greece), heading for Gurna Bay.
There were other landings at Pandeli Bay (where the Italian Lago battery fired on the landing convoys), 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. In the northeastern sector, a German force of six auxiliary gunboats, two armed trawlers, three MFPs, 25 landing crafts, one steamer and five miscellaneous units, escorted by two captured Italian destroyers and two ex-Italian torpedo boats, as well as by minesweepers and motor torpedo boats. The Italian 888 battery in Blefuti sank two MFPs and damaged others, forcing them to stop the landing; the few German soldiers who had already landed were left without supportd and defeated, 85 of them being taken prisoner.
In the central part of the island the Germans, despite counter-action, managed to create small bridgeheads and in the afternoon, after heavy fighting, they captured the Italian Ciano battery on Mount Clido. The Italian MAS 555 and 559 were also captured in Grifo Bay; MAS 555 was fired upon and destroyed by Italian batteries to prevent its use by the Germans, whereas MAS 559 was sabotaged by her crew on the following day. Heavy fighting developed around the Lago battery (commanded by Sub-Lt. Corrado Spagnolo, who was killed in action), defended by its gunners and by an Italian Navy platoon sent as a reinforcement in a hand-to-hand combat. A British company was also sent to help, but had to withdraw after suffering heavy losses.
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 local 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 at 13:27 dropped some 600 parachutists from the Brandenburg Division over Mount Rachi. Some German aircraft were shot down by the batteries and about half of the paratroopers were killed, but the rest of them landed safely and attacked the nearby batteries, meeting stiff resistance and suffering heavy losses. One of them, no. 211, was captured before dark, and its commander, Lt. Antonino Lo Presti, was executed. 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 same day, the two sections of the no. 763 battery were captured by the paratroopers; another Italian officer (Lt. Fedele Atella), in charge of the Alinda area, was executed after capture. Italian 47/32 mm guns were captured in the same area. The Ciano battery, attacked by German forces supported by Luftwaffe planes, resisted until all the guns were put out of action; after capture, its officers were executed. In the morning of 13 November, following a new launch of parachutists, the Lago battery was also captured. Mascherpa asked general Mario Soldarelli in Samos for reinforcements and air cover, but in vain.
On the night of 14 November, British forces recaptured some batteries and positions and, supported by Italian artillery, prevented the Fallschirmjägers from rejoining the German landing troops; new German attacks later in the day, however, led to the capture of Alinda Bay, Grifo Bay, Mount Clidi, Mount Vedetta and Mout Appetici. On the night between 14 and 15 November the German forces invaded the town of Leros and the villages of Alinda and Santa Marina, while the destroyers Echo and HMS Belvoir landed 500 more men at Lakki, and Penn, Blencathra and Aldenham shelled German positions and sank some German landing crafts. On the same day, HMS Dulverton was sunk by the Luftwaffe while trying to bring supplies to the garrison of Leros, with the loss of 78 men. 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. British counterattacks on that day were sporadic and carried out by fragmented forces, thus resulting ineffective and weakening the central sector of the island; however, with the help of two Royal Navy destroyers, it was possible to recapture the Ciano battery, taking over 230 prisoners.
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. German forces attacked the castle; the commander of the local British platoon ordered it to be abandoned, but Italian Navy personnel instead kept defending it.
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. The defenders were left with only one tenth of their light weapons, and the German troops had reached the town of Leros and kept attacking the castle. Italian commanders asked Tilney to be allowed to have a more active part in the defense, but they were not listened.
By the evening of 15 November, the island was cut in two, and the situation hopeless. During the night Lt. Col. John Richard Easonsmith, commander of the Long Range Desert Group, was killed in action while fighting inside the town of Leros. At dawn on 16 November, the no. 306 battery was destroyed by German airstrikes; the no. 127 battery on Mt. Maraviglia was attacked by German forces but stiffly defended by its garrison, commanded by Captain Werther Cacciatori, who lost an arm. At 12:30 the German command commanded Rear Admiral Mascherpa to surrender with his Italian forces, but he refused.
Surrender and aftermath
On the morning of 16 November it became apparent to the British commander, Brigadier Tilney, that his situation was untenable; at 17:30, when German forces had nearly reached his headquarters, he decided to surrender. Mascherpa surrendered at 22:00, after reiterated requests by the Germans and even by Tilney. Some Italian units, not informed of the surrender due to problems in communications, kept fighting till 17 November.
Overall, 3,200 British (201 officers and 3,000 soldiers) and 5,350 Italians (351 officers and 5,000 soldiers) were taken prisoner by the Germans. 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. As with the Buffs, only ninety men from the West Kents managed to escape from the island. The few Italian ships that were still serviceable left for Turkey or British-controlled ports. Some Italian officers were executed after the surrender; among them Cdr. Vittorio Meneghini, the commanding officer of Euro. On 17 November, 30 officers and 40 wounded prisoners were sent to Piraeus on board the destroyer TA 15. On 21 November 2,700 prisoners, including Rear Admiral Mascherpa, were sent to Piraeus on board the steamer Schiaffino. On 7 December 3,000 Italian prisoners were transferred to Piraeus on board the ship Leda. Rear Admiral Mascherpa would be later handed over by the Germans to the Italian Social Republic; he was subjected to a kangaroo court for having defended Leros against the Germans, sentenced to death, and executed by firing squad.
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 (C-in-C) of the British Ninth Army, General Sir Henry Maitland 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 1st Battalion, King's Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster) rejoined the details in Palestine.
After the fall of Leros, which was received with shock by the British public, 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 conquest 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.
Casualties of the Battle of Leros were as follows:
- Germans – 520 killed or missing
- Italians – 254 killed or missing
- British – 600 killed or missing, of whom 187 died in the fighting on Leros (the rest being lost at sea)
- Hellenic Royal Navy – 68 killed or missing
- Civilians – 20 killed
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