LEROS IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR
September 26 - November 16 , 1943
With the surrender of Italy 3/09/1943 the Greek islands of the eastern Mediterranean (see map of Greece) were of vital strategic importance to the Allies, the Axis and neutral Turkey. Although Churchill recognised this, the Americans did not and refused to help. Thus once more the British went into battle against the Stuka dive bombers and crack parachutists of the German Luftwaffe and suffered a heavy defeat despite some spectacular sea and land battles. On the 26 0f September 1943 the Germans attacking the Naval base of Laki in Leros with 25 airplanes JU88 and sank the Greek battle ship QUEEN OLGA causing also great damages to the British HMS INTREPID.After almost 50 days of continuous air strikes they attempt the first landing on Leros on the 11 of November 1943.The island finally surrenders to the Germans on the 16 of November 1943. Leros located in the south of Samos and Patmos and in the north of Kos Symi and Kalymnos about 180 n. miles from Athens in Greece.
following account is taken from "The King's Own -- The Story of a Royal
by Col Cowper
the conclusion of its course of combined operations 1/King's Own had returned to
Syria, no more than twenty-five miles from Beirut, where Brigadier Barraclough
was commanding. Here, on November 1 1943,the battalion received orders to go to
an unknown destination which later turned out to be Leros, considered by H.M.
Government to be of paramount importance. All ranks embarked in destroyers at
Alexandria on November 3 and arrived at Leros at 2 a.m. on the 5th. On that day,
when 8/King's Own left Malta for Egypt, the garrison of Leros consisted of
4/Buffs, 2/Royal Irish Fusiliers and 1/King's Own, with some light A.A. gunners
and Indian engineers. The Italians were manning coast defence guns, reinforced
by four eighteen- pounders. As nothing bigger could use the narrow roads the
transport consisted of a few jeeps with trailers. Deep bays broke up the island
into a shape not unlike a butterfly flying northeast with a varying span of some
eight miles and a body two miles long. 4/Buffs held the northern wing with 'C'
Company, 1/King's Own, under Major W. P. T. Tilly, located as "Fortress
Reserve" just north of Gurna Bay. 2/Royal Irish Fusiliers with a company of
Royal West Kent defended the centre portion, which included the neck of land
between Gurna and Alinda Bays and Leros town. 1/King's Own was responsible for
the southern area.
the day that Cos fell the Admiralty had ordered strong naval reinforcements,
including five cruisers, to the Aegean from Malta, and General Eisenhower sent
two groups of long-range fighters to the Middle East as a temporary measure, but
they had been withdrawn on October 11 and throughout the week in which the
Regiment was preparing to resist the impending attack there was no air support
of any kind. 1t was therefore only by night that Allied ships could operate
without crippling kits. By day, in spite of continuous air attacks, there were
remarkably few casualties, but the effect on morale was considerable. Telephone
wires were constantly cut and this, together with the unreliability of the
wireless, made control difficult. The main air attack was directed against the
Italian gun positions which were effectively silenced. Captain H. P. J. M. Burke
was on a course in the Middle East when he heard that the battalion was going
into action, and he applied for and obtained permission to rejoin. He had to
make his own way in a minesweeper and succeeded in reaching the Regiment a few
hours before the action began.
was about 4.30 a.m, on the morning of November 12, when the light was beginning
to grow in the east, that the German invasion fleet was sighted. The Italian
coastal guns were powerless to prevent the German troops from being put ashore
in Palma Bay and near Pasta di Sopra on the north-east coast of the Buff's'
sector, also in Tangeli Bay near Leros town, This last landing was staunchly
resisted by the Royal Irish Fusiliers, but although they prevented the capture
of the two features of Castle Hill and Mount Appetici, they were not strong
enough to drive the enemy back into the sea.
Buffs had insufficient troops to cover the whole of their area and during the
morning the enemy secured a footing on Mount Clidi. Major Tilly's company of
King's Own was hurried to the scene in jeeps. When it deployed to attack, the
fire of its machine guns was smothered by that of the German mortars and the
first effort was checked. The men rallied and gained a little ground, but in the
confused fighting which followed they were slowly forced back westward. They
were struggling, not only against numerical superiority on the ground, but also
against persistent and almost unhindered air attack. In the early afternoon
Major Tilly sent a platoon to his right to occupy a small ridge running towards
Alinda Bay and so to join up with the Roya1 Irish Fusiliers, No sooner was this
move completed at about 2 p.m. than fighter-bombers swept over the island from
the south- west. They sprayed fire from the machine guns in their wings and
pounded the rugged slopes with high explosive. Behind them flew the slower
Ju.52's and from these bellied out mushroom-like puffs. Some five hundred
parachutists descended on the neck of land between Gurna and Alinda Bays which
had so recently been vacated by Major Tilly's company. A few German parachutists
were shot down by small-arms fire and a Bren gunner of 'C' Company claimed a
spectacular hit when his victim fell like a driven partridge into the sea, but
in spite of a stiff breeze the majority dropped successfully from a low height.
In this position they effectively divided the island in two and isolated the
Buffs and 'C' Company King's Own from the rest of the garrison. While a fight
ensued in the centre with the Royal Irish Fusiliers, Major Tilly launched a
counter-attack on Mount Clidi with the survivors of his company. In hand-to-hand
fighting the enemy was pushed down the forward slope and in the course of the
advance Major Tilly was wounded. With the arrival of enemy reinforcements the
company was forced back thirty yards before it could consolidate and hold on.
Lance Corporal J, Hall noticed that Major Tilly was not there so he went back
under fire from close range and within throwing distance of hand grenades. He
found his company commander and brought him back to safety. In its new position
the company was reinforced next day by a platoon of Buffs.
order to dislodge the enemy paratroops train their position on the neck, it was
the brigadier's intention to counter-attack with two companies of Fusiliers and
'B' Company, King's Own. The two companies of Fusiliers had already been
fighting hard and to reorganise them and ensure their concentration in the
darkness proved difficult indeed. Of the three companies only one arrived at the
rendezvous, so the operation had perforce to be postponed. During the night more
German troops were landed to strengthen the forces attacking Mount Appetici .
13 dawned with cloudy skies, high wind and heavy seas, but this did not prevent
the enemy from landing more parachutists to reinforce the others. The resistance
on Clidi that day was overcome and the Germans were able to concentrate on the
built-up area along Alinda Bay. The paratroops attacked from the north east
while those in Tangeli Bay took Mount Appetici and Castle Hill at about noon.
For the rest of the day the heavy attacks or the Luftwaffe prevented further
action, but at 2 a.m. on November 14 a counter-attack was delivered. In spite of
every effort only one company of Fusiliers and 'A' and 'D' Companies King's Own,
could be collected for it. 'A' Company, commanded by Captain D. J. P. Thirkell-White
of the Suffolks with Captain C. J. Blyth as his second-in-command. was directed
on to the searchlight and gun position at the top of the hill. 'D' Company had
to cover dark ground which abounded in caves, each one of which had to be
assaulted separately, and platoons therefore were forced to act independently.
Touch between the companies was soon lost. 'A' Company reached the first gun
position, after which it came under heavy fire from the flanks, the company
commander and two of the platoon commanders were killed. Blyth also was wounded
and in great pain, but he continued to lead the company into the attack until he
was again wounded in the neck and died on his way back to the regimental aid
spite of heavy machine-gun fire from the left flank, 'D', Company was able to
gain ground and eventually, step by step, forced its way to the top of the slope
where the situation was much confused. Here Major M. R. Lonsdale was wounded,
Burke and Mathieson killed. Meanwhile the Germans launched an attack under cover
of the fire of their mortars which threatened the safety of Fortress
headquarters. 'A' Company was withdrawn from Mount Appetici. 'D' Company, with
the Fusiliers, continued to hold the crest until well after dawn when, after
heavy mortar fire, the Germans, "every man a Tommy gunner,'' attacked in
their turn. They could not be held and the King's Own and Fusiliers were forced
back down the hill amid showers of grenades.
Company and the Buffs retook Clidi and, after capturing a hundred and thirty
prisoners, re-established control of their part of the island. 'B' and H.Q.
Companies attacked the German paratroopers from the south-west. O.C. 'B'
Company, Major G. H. Duxbury, went forward alone at one point, bombed two enemy
rnachine-gun posts and was mortally wounded while going on to deal with a third.
This made it possible for the two companies to gain ground and take prisoners
When all other officers of his company were killed, Captain R. L. P. Maxwell, on
being ordered to send out a patrol, led it himself and was also killed. Many of
these casualties were caused by accurate bombing and machine-gunning by the
German aircraft. Confused fighting continued in many quarters after dark when
two more companies of the Royal West Kent Regiment were put ashore in Portolago
Bay from Samos. On the 15th there was more fighting on Clidi during which the
hill was once more lost, but elsewhere the Germans were kept in check. The
fourth company of Royal West Kents landed that night. A hundred and seventy
German prisoners were sent to Samos; but the Germans were, at the same time,
bringing in important reinforcements at Alinda Bay. They were estimated at a
thousand fighting troops and certainly had 88-mm. guns, tractors and other heavy
equipment, On the 16th, 'A', 'B' and 'D' Companies having re-formed, the
battalion concentrated for a final attack on the area occupied by brigade
headquarters near Appetici Hill, but before it could be launched news was
received of the island's surrender. The total number of casualties is not known.
Fifteen officers were killed; of those wounded, five were evacuated and three
were included among the fifteen taken prisoner.* Some sixty other ranks were
killed and an unknown number wounded and prisoner.
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.
evacuation of the Dodecanese came as a shock to public opinion at home. It was
the first reverse since the summer of 1942 and it came at a time when
differences between the Allies were becoming apparent. There were many of the
enemy who hoped that these differences were sufficiently serious to prevent
effective co-operation. Although the Allied leaders had agreed that the war
against Japan was to take second place until Germany
was defeated, it was
inevitable that American public opinion should be largely focused on events
nearer home. They saw their way clearly in the Pacific and were confident in
their strategy of advancing by bounds under cover of their predominant aircraft,
seizing one valuable island base after another until they should be able to
invade the mainland of Japan. For the British, on the other hand, it was not a
matter of policy but of hard necessity that Germany should be defeated first.
The submarine war was still going well for her; it still seemed possible that
the aggressive power of Russia might be seriously curtailed; it was moreover
known that the enemy was developing a number of long-range weapons which might
pound London and other British cities into ashes. The Burmese war had long been
fought by men who could ill be spared from the Middle East, but the Japanese
fleet, strong in capital ships, constituted an ever-present danger. In order
that the British Empire should play a sufficient part in the
war in the Far
East, some new divisions were formed in India in 1943 and the air arm there was
reinforced. But Japanese naval power was still such that there was no hope of
recovering Burma by the obvious method of first taking Rangoon.
points were discussed in December, 1943, when the Prime Minister of Great
Britain and the President of the United States met in Cairo. Even after it had
been confirmed that the prosecution of the war against Germany should be the
first object of Allied strategy it was not easy to settle differences about the
relative value of the campaign in Italy and the invasion of north- west Europe.
Eventually it was agreed that a successful landing upon the coast of Normandy
should take priority over all other plans; this was to be supported by an
invasion of the French southern coast at the expense of the Italian campaign;
the Burma project should go ahead with the troops already allotted to it.
At this time 83/Anti-Tank Regiment was still carrying out garrison duties and continued to do so in Syria, Iraq and Egypt until it was disbanded at the end of 1944. Neither 224 Battery nor 262 saw any further active operations. When the news of Italy's surrender reached 8/King's Own in Egypt a joint celebration took place with the neighbouring unit, a battalion of the Royal Yugoslav Guard. The King's Own was under six hours' notice for a destination which was afterwards discovered to have been Leros. With the capitulation of that island the orders were changed to Palestine where, appropriately enough, the battalion replaced 1/King's Own in 25th Indian Infantry Brigade of 10th Indian Division. When it reached Innasariye in northern Palestine it found that the brigade was standing by in case of disturbances in Beirut, but this danger passed by early December and the King's Own moved south to Beit Juja Camp near Gaza, which was to be its home.There are items to see in Leros museum and in Kalymnos museum
On this small Greek island of the South East Aegean Sea fought English Scottish Irish Indians South Africans Australians Canadians New Zealanders Italians Germans and Greeks
VICTIMS : APPROXIMATELY
68 GREEK OFFICERS & SAILORS FROM the Greek Battle ship QUEEN OLGA
1948 LEROS AND THE DODECANESE ARE UNITED WITH GREECE
THE BATTLE OF LEROS IN GREEK LANGUAGE
PICTURES FROM THE BATTLE OF LEROS Leros alberghi