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LEROS IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR

26 SEPTEMPER 1943 The first Attack Bombarding of Scumbarda hill Bombs in Patela hill Patela hill

 

THE BATTLE OF LEROS

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.

 

The following account is taken from "The King's Own -- The Story of a Royal

Regiment" by Col Cowper

At 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.

On 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.

It 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.

The 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.

In 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 .

November 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 post.

In 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.

'C' 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.

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.

The 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 and Austria 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.

These 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

520 GERMANS
187 ALLIES,
164 ITALIANS,
68 GREEK OFFICERS & SAILORS FROM the Greek Battle ship QUEEN OLGA
20 CIVILIANS
1948 LEROS AND THE DODECANESE ARE UNITED WITH GREECE

THE BATTLE OF LEROS IN GREEK LANGUAGE

PICTURES FROM THE BATTLE OF LEROS Leros alberghi

LEROS