With little to offer the average holidaymaker Leros has escaped the ravages of mass tourism that is evident elsewhere in the Mediterranean. The coastline is mainly rocky with few sandy beaches. Much of the rugged hilly terrain remains unspoilt. Inevitably, there has been some expansion of residential areas but there are still only a handful of small hotels. It is enough to cater for the few visitors. They include a dwindling number of returning war veterans who come to pay tribute to fallen comrades, most of whom were killed in five days of fighting in November 1943.
Leros and the Greek Dodecanese islands had been under Italian rule since 1912. The decision by Italy to unite with Germany in 1940 would change everything. By autumn 1943, Hitler’s Wehrmacht was faltering as it fought a war on too many fronts. In Russia, the Soviets had finally halted the German advance; Axis forces had surrendered in North Africa; the Allies had landed in Sicily and Italy and American-led forces were pushing north towards Nazi-occupied Europe. In July, he Italians turned against Il Duce Benito Mussolini replacing him with Maresciallo Pietro Badoglio. The Italian armistice followed in September.
In the First World War Winston Churchill had been forced to resign as First Sea Lord as a consequence of his role in the disastrous Allied effort in the Dardanelles. It fostered in him a dangerous obsession with the region. Now, as Britain’s Prime Minister, Churchill seized upon the opportunity to open a new front in the eastern Mediterranean. It was felt that such a move could only add to the pressure being applied against Germany; furthermore it might provide encouragement for Turkey to join the Alliance. Rejected by the Americans, it was a strategy fraught with difficulties.
Soldiers belonging to the 22. Infanterie-Division before landing in Kos, October 1943.
For the operation to have any chance of success it was imperative that Rhodes be seized together with the island’s all-important airfields. Italian co-operation was essential. Accordingly, a military mission was tasked with preparing the way for the main assault. Raiders of the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) would spearhead the occupation of other islands. Churchill approved the plan on 9 September: “This is a time to play high. Improvise and dare.”
Before the British could act, however, the German Sturmdivision Rhodos, numbering approximately 7,500 men, seized control of Rhodes. Up to 40,000 Italians were taken prisoner thus ending British hopes of an assisted take-over. Nevertheless, there was hope in the British camp that even without Rhodes some islands might be occupied. Kos, Samos and Leros were duly secured and garrisoned primarily by troops of 234 Brigade, whose line regiments had recently arrived in the Middle East after enduring the siege of Malta. Island outposts were also manned by detachments of the SBS and the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG). There were already on Kos 3,5004,000 Italians including the majority of two infantry battalions. The air defence consisted of a handful of operational Spitfires provided by two squadrons and around 500 officers and men. There were also about 680 British Army personnel on the island, consisting mainly of 1st Battalion The Durham Light Infantry. Plans were afoot to improve the island’s defences but any proposals were purely academic, for events were taking place that would soon place Kos firmly under German control.
In mid-September the Germans in central Italy were forced to pull back in the wake of the successful Allied landing at Salerno. In the eastern Mediterranean it was altogether different. On 23 September Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller commanding 22. Infanteriedivision was ordered to make preparations for the seizure of Kos and Leros. Müller intended to make Kos his first objective in a combined amphibious and airborne assault. Accordingly, the first wave of Kampfgruppe von Saldern landed at Marmari on the north coast at 0500 hours on 3 October. Further landings took place along the rugged south coast. Soon after 0700, paratroopers of the élite Division Brandenburg were dropped. The Germans pushed towards their objectives overrunning each in turn until arriving on the outskirts of Kos town later the same day. That night, the demoralised remnants of the British defence withdrew into the hills. The battle was concluded the next day. For the Italians, Kos was the latest in a series of defeats. For the British, it was a disaster. Without Kos there was no longer any possibility of providing air support for the remaining islands in British hands.
Obergefreiter Walter Keller of 3./Fallschirmjäger-Rgt.2 immediately after the British surrender on Leros.
The enemy’s main efforts now turned to Leros with the Luftwaffe concentrating on targeting key installation and shipping. It was Malta all over again, or so it must have seemed to many including the commander of 234 Brigade Major General F. G. R. Brittorous. He had arrived to take charge after commanding 8th (Ardwick) Battalion The Manchester Regiment (TA) in Malta. If he had then been a popular and well respected figure, on Leros Brittorous was almost universally loathed by officers and men alike. Unable to cope with the increasing air raids, he disappeared for hours at a time. But it was his punctilious observance of parade ground discipline that most remember. While taking a break during training, a number of LRDG troops were harangued for failing to salute Brittorous as he drove past in his jeep. The General was apoplectic: “So you think yourselves tough, do you? I’ll bloody well give you something to be tough about.” One assumes that the threat had nothing to do with the decision shortly afterwards to send nearly fifty officers and men thirty miles by sea to occupy the little island of Levitha. The ill-conceived operation went ahead without prior reconnaissance or preparation. It was a disaster that cost the lives of at least five of these skilled specialists. Most of the remainder were captured. Only two officers and five ORs managed to return to Leros.Eventually, a senior officer was sent on a pretext to Cairo to report on the relationship between Brittorous and his subordinates. On 5 November Brigadier Robert Tilney arrived and was appointed as the new Fortress Commander. Originally, Lieutenant Colonel Maurice French commanding 2nd Battalion The Royal Irish Fusiliers (the Faughs) had deployed his troops on the dominating high ground. Historians have criticised Brigadier Tilney for ordering a drastic reorganisation of the established defensive system. In fact Tilney was only acting on the instructions of his superior, Major General H. R. Hall. The revised strategy was designed to deny the beaches to the enemy. It was a plan flawed in design and, ultimately, in practice. Troops were deployed on a dangerously wide front thereby aggravating the already poor line of communications.
By this time there was on Leros a substantial British presence including the Faughs; ‘B’ Company of 2nd Battalion The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment; 4th Battalion The Royal East Kent Regiment (the Buffs) and 1st Battalion The King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster), plus artillery and supporting sub-units and detachments of the LRDG and SBS; all in all some 3,000 officers and men.The Italian garrison numbered approximately 5,500 personnel and included an infantry battalion; two machine-gun companies and part of a maritime reconnaissance squadron equipped with Cant seaplanes. The Italians occupied positions overlooking likely landing areas and also manned hilltop gun sites.
On the eve of Operation ‘Taifun’ (‘Typhoon’) the German codename for the capture of Leros Generalleutnant Müller had at his disposal a force of experienced and motivated combat troops. They were divided into three sub-divisions: the initial wave comprising four seaborne Kampfgruppen (combat groups) and a Luftwaffe parachute battalion. A second wave stood by with anti-aircraft and artillery units, as well as heavy weapons for the infantry and infantry and paratroopers of Division Brandenburg were held in reserve near Athens. In the early hours of 12 November Allied air reconnaissance reported two groups of ‘barges’ inside a minefield east of Kalymnos. It was assumed that the enemy was assembling in preparation for a daylight assault on Leros. However, the threat posed by mines precluded a pre-emptive strike by the Royal Navy. Only later was it realised that this was the main (eastern) force en route to Leros. It has been since argued that even if the Navy had reacted, the enemy would have received sufficient warning to avoid an attack and to respond with retaliatory action. The only certainty is that the last real chance of halting the invasion was now irrevocably lost. It had been the intention of Generalleutnant Müller to land each group simultaneously and to seize control of central Leros before the garrison could react. Unforeseen circumstances and a determined resistance ensured that on the first day only part of the invasion force reached shore and not all at the designated points. At about 1430 hours the air armada with Kampfgruppe Kühne began its final approach: some three dozen Junkers Ju 52 transports in line ahead escorted by bombers and cannon-armed floatplanes. There can be no doubt that the decision by the Germans to deploy paratroopers decisively affected the outcome of the battle. By the end of the first day units under Major Sylvester von Saldern had achieved its objectives and held, albeit temporarily, the high ground on and around the dominating Clidi feature to within 500 metres of the coast at Alinda Bay. With Hauptmann Martin Kühne’s paratroopers in control of most of the key points south of Clidi, the Germans had effectively divided the island in two. Fighting continued for five days as both sides lost and re-took ground in a series of see-saw actions. German and British reinforcements were ferried to Leros until the very end, but the latter were greatly disadvantaged by not having air support. The Germans, on the other hand, had Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers on call from dawn till dusk.
The castle on Point 189 seen from a gun position on Meraviglia just after the battle
Both sides suffered from problems with inadequate signalling equipment. The Germans attempted to overcome this by adhering to their original plan of attack, whereas the British had to constantly adapt to the changing situation using runners to try to maintain contact. Invariably, messages got through too late, if at all. Officers received conflicting and confusing orders and men were flung into the attack sometimes with little or no idea of their objectives. Communications eventually broke down altogether and, with it, command and control.
On the morning of 16 November it seemed that the Germans were on the verge of overrunning Brigade Headquarters on Mount Meraviglia. Signallers were ordered to destroy secret ciphers to prevent their being captured and compromised and Tilney withdrew with his staff hoping to relocate his command post at Lakki in the south. At 0825 the enemy intercepted a signal sent in clear advising British General Headquarters in Cairo that German reinforcements had landed; that Stukas had neutralised Meraviglia’s defences and that troops were demoralised and facing a hopeless situation. When the message was translated and relayed to Kampfgruppe Müller it was duplicated in leaflet form with an added word of encouragement from the German commander: “Now let’s finish them off!”. Copies were then dropped by aircraft over German positions. When it became clear that Meraviglia’s defending troops had stemmed the German advance Tilney returned to his headquarters and attempted to restore order out of the chaos. It was hopeless. That afternoon a renewed effort by the Germans resulted in the capture of Tilney and his staff. Elsewhere, British troops still felt that they retained the upper hand. The Brigadier, however, quickly concluded that further resistance was futile and in a highly controversial move agreed to end the fighting. In the wake of events in the Aegean, New Zealand was quick to make known her anger. Remembering, perhaps, the losses suffered in the Dardanelles by the Dominions nearly twenty-eight years before, the New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser wrote to the High Commissioner in London on 27 November 1943: when it becomes known that a number of New Zealanders were stupidly sacrificed without even consent for their inclusion in the task force being asked from our Government, the disappointment and bitterness here will be intensified many times over
End of the line for most of the Leros defenders: Lieutenant Ted Johnson of the Faughs as a prisoner of war at Oflag VIIIF near Märisch Trübau in Sudentenland (present-day Czech Republic).
Only too aware of the backlash to be expected from his critics, a few days after the fall of Leros Winston Churchill recommended that the Foreign Secretary adopt an evasive policy when the issue was raised in Parliament: Not advisable to answer in detail such questions as to why lessons of Crete were not learned. Samos, the final obstacle to Germany’s conquest of the Aegean, was abandoned by the British and fell without a fight on 22 November 1943. German forces had unknowingly undertaken their last successful operation to seize and occupy foreign soil. The struggle for the Aegean was a costly yet unnecessary sideshow. Before long, events were overshadowed by the situation on other fronts, not least in Italy. Attention turned to fighting at the Anzio beachhead and along the German Gustav line especially in and around Cassino. Then, as now, Leros was all but forgotten.
Copyright © Anthony Rogers 2006
About the author
Anthony Rogers is the author of Churchill’s Folly published by Cassell.