Operation Battle of Léros

The 'Battle of Léros' was fought between German and Allied forces for the island of Léros as the central event of the Dodecanese islands campaign (26 September/16 November 1943).

After the Armistice of Cassibile of September 1943, when Italy ended its relationship with Germany, the Italian garrison on the island of Léros was strengthened by British forces on 15 September 1943. The 'Battle of Léros' began with German air attacks on 26 September, continued with German landings on 12 November, and ended with the capitulation of the Allied forces four days later.

Léros is part of the Dodecanese islands group in the south-eastern part of the Aegean Sea, which had been under Italian occupation since the Italo-Turkish War of 1911/12. During its period of Italian rule, as a result of its excellent deep-water port of Lakki (Porolago), Léros was transformed into a heavily fortified air and naval base, 'the Corregidor of the Mediterranean' as Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, boasted.

The island became the base for a number of Italian naval units, and in September 1943 was home to the 4a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere (4th Destroyer Flotilla) with the destroyer Euro, the 3a Flottiglia MAS (3rd Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla) with two motor torpedo boats and six MAS toredo-armed motor boats, the 39a Flottiglia Dragaminas with 11 minesweeping boats, and nine minor units, seven merchant ships, two minelayers (Azio and Legnano) and three Italian-built Marinefährprahme landing craft of German design.

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, Italian and Bulgarian forces. With the armistice of 8 September 1943, however, the Greek islands, which were seen as strategically vital by Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, became reachable for the first time since the loss of Crete. The USA was skeptical about the British concept, which it saw as an unnecessary diversion from the main Mediterranean front in Italy. This was confirmed at the 'Quadrant' first conference in Quebec, 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 US and British aircraft based in Cyprus and the Middle East, a situation which was to be exacerbated by the withdrawal of the US units late in October in order to support operations in Italy.

After the Italian government had signed an armistice, the Italian garrisons on most of the Dodecanese islands either wanted to change sides and fight alongside the Allies or just to return to their homes. The Allies attempted to take advantage of the situation, but the Germans were ready for such an eventuality. 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, Generalleutnant Ulrich Kleemann’s Sturmdivision 'Rhodos' swiftly neutralised the garrison of Rhodes, denying the island’s three airfields to the Allies.

By the middle of September, however, Brigadier (Major General from 30 September) F. G. R. Brittorous’s British 234th Brigade from Malta, and Special Boat Service and Long-Range Desert Group detachments had secured the islands of Kos, Kálymnos, Sámos, Léros, Symi, and Astypalaia, supported by ships of the British and Greek navies and two squadrons of Supermarine Spitfire single-engined fighters on Kos. The Germans quickly mobilised in response. Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, commander of the 22nd Division (Luftlande) on Crete, was ordered to take Kos and Léros 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 of the 1/Durham Light Infantry, 120 of the 11/Parachute Regiment, a number of SBS men and the rest mainly RAF personnel, and about 3,500 Italians. On 3 October, the Germans effected their 'Polarbär' airborne and amphibious assault, reaching the outskirts of the island’s capital later in the same day. The British withdrew under cover of night and surrendered on the following day. The fall of Kos was a major blow to the Allies, since it deprived them of vital air cover. The Germans took 1,388 British and 3,145 Italian prisoners. On 4 October, German troops executed the island’s captured Italian commander, Colonnello Felice Leggio, and 101 of his officers, according to the 11 September order by Adolf Hitler that captured Italian officers were to be executed.

The Italian garrison of Léros numbered about 7,600 men under the command of Capitano di Vascello Luigi Mascherpa. Some 6,065 of these men, as well as an additional 697 militarised personnel, belonged to the Italian navy as Léros was primarily a naval base. The rest of the Italian force comprised one infantry battalion and two heavy machine gun companies of the Italian army, and 20 Italian air force reservists. Only about 1,000 of the Italians were first-line troops, most of the others belonging to technical and service units, or to anti-aircraft detachments. The island’s defences included 13 coastal artillery batteries (armed with 19 152-mm/6-in guns, five 102-mm/4-in guns, and 20 76-mm/3-in guns), 12 anti-aircraft and dual-purpose batteries (armed with fourteen 102-mm guns, six 90-mm guns, and twenty-eight 76-mm guns), and several machine guns (three 37-mm, 16 20-mm, and 31 13.2-mm weapons). Most of these, however, were poorly protected from air assault and, accordingly, would suffer badly from Luftwaffe attacks. Insofar as the Italian ships were concerned, the clauses of the armistice ordained that all Italian naval vessels were to head for Malta or other Allied-controlled bases, but Mascherpa had persuaded the British command to allow his ships to remain in Léros as they would be of more use there in the event of a German attack. The only aircraft available were seven outmoded Cant Z.501 single-engined floatplanes, which would soon be destroyed by the Luftwaffe or transferred to Leipsoi, the latter an island farther to the north neat the island of Samos.

After the fall of Rhodes, some of its garrison’s men reached Leros, and Mascherpa assumed command of all Italian naval forces in the Aegean Sea. He also reorganised Léros’s anti-aircraft defences. On 12 September, a delegation of British officers met Mascherpa to assess the island’s defences and to inquire about what relations could 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 the Lord Jellicoe and Colonel Turbull, who was disappointed by the state of the defences, particularly the anti-aircraft preparations. Meanwhile, the Italians made the decision to fire on any German aircraft which overflew Léros. On 13 September, the Germans made an offer the allow the Italians to surrender with 'honourable conditions', which Mascherpa refused.

On 17 September the small Italian garrison of Alimia island, after leaving their island on board two fishing boats, reached Léros with their weapons. The influx of soldiers from Rhodes and Alimia brought the Italian troop strength to 8,320 men, and on the same day the first 400 British reinforcements arrived. On 20 September, Mascherpa, on hearing that Brittorous was coming to Léros, asked the Supermarina for promotion to contrammiraglio (rear admiral) so that he would not be junior in rank to Brittorous. This was granted. On the same day, Brittorous reached Léros with 600 more men, food and equipment delivered in one steamer, two destroyers and smaller vessels. Brittorous published a proclamation in which he stated that he was in command, and all Italian commands were subordinated to him; this immediately created friction with Mascherpa, who had been confirmed in command of all Italian forces on Léros, as well as the civilian population, but was now subordinated to Brittorous. Both officers asked their commands for reinforcements, food and ammunitions, but little arrived.

By October, the British forces on Léros numbered about 3,000 men of the 2/Royal Irish Fusiliers under Lieutenant Colonel Maurice French), the 4/The Buffs (The Royal East Kent Regiment) under Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Iggulden, the 1/The King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster), and one company of the 2/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 Tilney insisted on a forward defence along the coast, which had the effect of spreading the British forces too thinly.

The air force units detailed for this operation were not large. Apart from the troop-carrying Douglas Dakota twin-engined transports, there were two day and two night Bristol Beaufighter twin-engined heavy fighter squadrons, one Vickers Wellington twin-engined torpedo bomber squadron, three Martin Baltimore twin-engined and one Lockheed Hudson twin-engined general reconnaissance squadrons, and one detachment of Spitfire photo-reconnaissance aircraft. This force was based on the mainland of Africa and in Cyprus. In addition, two heavy bomber squadrons, the RAF’s No. 178 Squadron and the RAAF’s No. 462 Squadron of the RAF’s No. 240 Wing, equipped with a mix of Consolidated Liberators and Handley Page Halifax four-engined heavy bombers, and one wing of the US IX Bomber Command took part at a later stage. The only real defensive force were two Spitfire units, the South African Air Force’s No.7 Squadron and the RAF’s No.74 Squadron. In all, the number of aircraft was 144 single- and twin-engined fighters, and 116 heavy, medium and torpedo bombers. Of this total of 260 aircraft, 115 were to be lost.

The German forces assembling for 'Leopard' (iii) under the command of Müller comprised the infantrymen of the 3/440th Infanterieregiment, the 2/16th Infanterieregiment and the 2/65th Infanterieregiment of the 22nd Division (Luftlande), the paratroopers of the 1/2nd Fallschirmjägerregiment, and one amphibious commando company of the 1/Küstenjägerabteilung of Generalmajor Alexander von Pfuhlstein’s Division 'Brandenburg'. The invasion force assembled at harbours in Kos and Kalymnos, with reserves and heavy equipment waiting in the Athens area for airlift. Two groups of Junkers Ju 87D-3 single-engined dive-bombers were available for close air support: the I/Schlachtgeschwader 3 operated from the base at Megara and the II/Schlachtgeschwader 3 from the base at Argos and later from Rhodes. The Junkers Ju 88 twin-engined medium bombers of the II/Kampfgeschwader 51 were available for heavier bombing support.

On the night of 6/7 October, in the Astypalaia channel, the British light cruisers Sirius and Penelope and the destroyers Faulknor and Fury attacked a German troop convoy comprising the auxiliary submarine chaser UJ-2111 (former Italian gunboat Tramaglio), the cargo ship Olympus and seven Marinefährprahme, sinking all but one MFP. These troops were meant as a reinforcement for the force tasked with 'Leopard' (iii), and the destruction of the convoy caused the operation to be delayed.

From 26 September, after days of dropping threatening leaflets, the Luftwaffe had unleashed continuous attacks on Léros, enjoying complete air superiority. On that day, Ju 88 bombers sank the Free Greek destroyer Vasilissa Olga, the British destroyer Intrepid and the Italian MAS-534 inside Portolago harbour. The base’s submarine depot, barracks, workshops, and four of the five fuel tanks (but not that which actually contained fuel) were destroyed; seven German bombers were shot down.

Between 26 September and 11 November, Léros was subjected to continuous bombings at an average of four attacks and 41 bombers per day between 26 and 30 September, and eight air attacks and 37 bombers per day between 7 October and 11 November). In addition to military objectives, the island’s villages and towns, especially Léros and Lakki, suffered heavy damage. About 10% of coastal batteries, 30% of the anti-torpedo boat batteries and 20% of the anti-aircraft guns were destroyed. The damage was also so great that hospitals had to be transferred into caves.

The airfield 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 Portolago, 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 on 22 October, while MS-26 had been been run aground and lost on 9 October.

The anti-aircraft batteries were also prime targets for the bombings, and often ran out of ammunition or became heavily worn from continuous firing, but the German dive-bombing technique allowed theanti-aircraft crews to anticipate where bombs would fall, and to shoot at the bombers during their pull-out manoeuvres, when they were particularly vulnerable. The Italian battery on Mt Patella was able to bring down eight bombers by taking advantage of this tactical and technical weak point.

Kalimnos had fallen to the Germans on 7 September, and three days later the batteries of Léros had started to fire on that island. This continuous firing, along with the constant air attacks, imposed considerable wear on the guns, and seriously depleted the ammunition reserves, so the local command asked for more ammunitions, and the destroyers Artigliere and Velite were despatched from Taranto, but most of their cargo of ammunition was unloaded during their stop in Alexandria, so only a minimal part of the ammunition was eventually delivered to Léros. In the last part of October, Italian and British submarines made several supply runs to Léros: the British Rorqual made three, the British Severn three, the Italian Zoea two, the Italian Atropo one, the Italian Filippo Corridoni one and the Italian Ciro Menotti one such runs. In overall terms, therefore, the submarines delivered to Léros 17 men, 225 tons of supplies, 12 40-mm Bofors guns, and one Jeep. Aircraft were also used for the transport of supplies. Despite all efforts, however, ammunition was still scarce, whereas food and medicines would last for many months.

On the night of 24/25 October, the British destroyer Eclipse, while carrying part of 4/Royal East Kents (Buffs) in concert with the destroyer Petard, struck a mine and sank with the loss of 253 men; about 300 of the battalion’s survivors reached Léros on 30 October. On 29 October, the British submarine Unsparing sank the German steamer Ingeborg S. off Astypalaia.

Between 1 and 6 November, while the Germans were concentrating their forces for the attack, the German air offensive was temporarily halted. During the same period, Allied ships and submarines brought to Léros 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 these were transferred to Kos and Kalimnos.

On 5 November, Tilney arrived on Léros and assumed command. Another arrival was Major General H. R. Hall as replacement for Brittorous, who left for Alexandria. (Hall would leave for Samos on the night on 11/12 November.) Mascherpa was not forewarned of the change, and was asked to go to Cairo to discuss the situation on the island but refused, fearing that he would not be allowed to go back to Léros to lead the defence. Relations between Mascherpa and Tilney had been tense from the beginning: upon arrival, Tilney had stated that the Italian forces would not take part in any counterattack or have any initiative, relegating them to tasks of fixed coastal defence and with orders not to abandon their positions for any reason, and put each sector of the defence under the command of a British colonel. The British command even asked for Mascherpa to be replaced, and the Supermarina decided to replace him with Capitano di Vascello Dairetti, but this change was not made as a result of subsequent events.

On 7 November, the Luftwaffe resumed its programme of bombing, and over the course of the next five days 187 German bombers carried out 40 raids over the islands, concentrating their efforts against the batteries located on the eastern part of the island, which was 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 defence command with the object of destroying co-ordination between their various batteries, and the area of Portolago and Mt Maraviglia, where British troops were concentrated. The Allied response to these last raids worsened the wear of the guns, disrupted communication routes and caused further consumption of ammunition. A British ammunition depot near Portolagi was hit and blew up, causing more damage.

At 04.30 on 12 November, after almost 50 days of air attacks, a German invasion fleet landed troops at Palma Bay and Pasta di Sopra on the north-eastern coast. British motor torpedo boats and the Italian MAS-555 spotted the German ships between 03.00 and 03.30, but the reaction was delayed by communication problems and by uncertainty whether the vessels which had been seen 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 Ducci and San Giorgio batteries opened fire and drove off a convoy of six Marinefährprahmen escorted by two Italian torpedo boats seized by the Germans in Greece as the convoy headed toward Gurna Bay.

There were other landings at Pandeli Bay, where the Italian Lago battery fired on the landing convoys, near Léros town, that were heavily contested by the Royal Irish Fusiliers. The fusiliers prevented the German capture of some key defensive positions but were unable to stop the landings. In the north-eastern sector, a German force of six auxiliary gunboats, two armed trawlers, three Marinefährprahmen, 25 landing craft, one steamer and five miscellaneous units, escorted by two captured Italian destroyers and two captured Italian torpedo boats as well as by minesweepers and motor torpedo boats, was engaged by the Italian No. 888 battery in Blefuti, whose fire sank two Marinefährprahmen and damaged others, forcing them to stop the landing. The few German soldiers who had already landed were left without support and defeated, 85 of them being taken prisoner.

In the central part of the island the Germans, despite counteraction, managed to create small bridgeheads, and during the afternoon, after heavy fighting, the Germans captured the Italian Ciano battery on Mt Clido. The Italian MAS-555 and MAS-559 were also captured in Grifo Bay: MAS-555 was taken under fire and destroyed by Italian batteries to prevent its use by the Germans, and MAS-559 was sabotaged by its crew on the following day. Heavy fighting developed around the Lago battery, which was defended by its gunners and by an Italian naval 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 and beset by poor communication. The German attackers had the twin advantages of local superiority in numbers and control of the air. Early in the afternoon, Luftwaffe fighter-bombers strafed and bombed the area between Gurna and Alinda Bays, this being followed by the arrival of Junkers 52/3m three-engined transport aircraft which at 13.27 dropped some 600 paratroopers of the Division 'Brandenburg' over Mt Rachi. Some German aircraft were shot down by the anti-aircraft 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 the batteries, No. 211, was captured before dark, and its commander, Tenente Antonino Lo Presti, was executed. The position of these landings effectively divided the island in two, separating the Buffs and one company of the King’s Own on the southern 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 13 November with heavy casualties, but the Buffs on the southern 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, and another Italian officer, Tenente Fedele Atella in charge of the Alinda area, was executed after capture. Italian 47-mm light guns were captured in the same area. The Ciano battery, attacked by German forces supported by Luftwaffe aircraft, resisted until all the guns had been put out of action, and after capture its officers were executed. In the morning of 13 November, following a new paratrooper drop, the Lago battery was also captured. Mascherpa asked Generale di Divisione Mario Soldarelli, commanding he 6a Divisione fanteria 'Cuneo' on Sámos for reinforcements and air cover, but to no avail.

On the night of 14 November, British forces recaptured some batteries and positions and, supported by Italian artillery, prevented the paratroopers from linking with the German landing troops. Later in the day, however, new German attacks led to the capture of Alinda Bay, Grifo Bay, Mt Clidi, Mt Vedetta and Mt Appetici. On the night of 14/15 November the German forces advanced into the town of Léros and the villages of Alinda and Santa Marina, while the destroyers Echo and Belvoir landed 500 more men at Portolago, and Penn, Blencathra and Aldenham shelled German positions and sank some German landing craft. On the same day, Dulverton was sunk by German air attack while trying to deliver supplies to the garrison of Léros, 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, Lieutenant Colonel Ben Tarleton, from Samos landed at Portolago Bay. British counterattacks on that day were sporadic, carried out by fragmented forces, and thus proved ineffective as well as
weakening the defences of the island’s central sector. However, with the help of two British destroyers, it was possible to recapture the Ciano battery, where more than 230 prisoners were taken.

The fighting on 14 and 15 November was mostly inconclusive with more casualties on both sides, although a counterattack by two companies of the King’s Own retook part of Apetiki. French was killed in this attack. German forces attacked the castle. and although the commander of the local British platoon ordered its abandonment, Italian naval personnel continued to defend it.

On the night of the 15 November, the fourth company of the West Kents was landed and 170 German prisoners were taken to Sámos. The Germans, on the other hand, landed an estimated 1,000 troops and more 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 Léros and kept attacking the castle. The Italian commanders asked Tilney to be allowed to play a more active part in the defence, but their pleas found no acceptance.

By the evening of 15 November, the island had been cut into two parts, and the Allied situation was now hopeless. During the night Lieutenant Colonel John Richard Easonsmith, commander of the Long Range Desert Group, was killed in action while fighting in the town of Léros. At dawn on 16 November, the No. 306 battery was destroyed by German air attacks, while the No. 127 battery on Mt Maraviglia was attacked by German forces but defended strongly by its garrison, commanded by Capitano Werther Cacciatori, who lost an arm. At 12.30 the German command ordered Mascherpa to surrender with his Italian forces, but this was refused.

By the morning of 16 November it became fully clear to Tilney, the British commander, that his situation was untenable, and at 17.30, when German forces had almost reached his headquarters, he decided to surrender. Mascherpa surrendered at 22.00, after repeated demands by the Germans and even by Tilney. Some Italian units, not informed of the surrender as a result of communications problems, kept fighting until 17 November.

Overall, 3,200 British (201 officers and 3,000 other ranks) and 5,350 Italians (351 officers and 5,000 other ranks) were taken prisoner. In its isolated position, the 4/Buffs was unaware of the surrender and so did not attempt to escape; consequently nearly the whole unit was captured. As with the Buffs, only 90 men of 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 Capitano di Corvetta 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 Mascherpa, were sent to Piraeus on the steamer Schiaffino. On 7 December 3,000 Italian prisoners were transferred to Piraeus on board the ship Leda. The Germans later gave Mascherpa to the Social Republic Fascist rump of Italy, which placed him before a kangaroo court, sentenced him to death, and executed him by firing squad.

The withdrawal of Allied air support, particularly that of fighters, had sealed the fate of Léros. Lacking air support and heavily attacked by German aircraft, the three battalions had fought for five days until they were exhausted and could fight no more. The commander of the British 9th Army, General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, reported to the prime minister that '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 islands of the Aegean Sea and to rescue survivors from Léros, and eventually one officer and 57 other ranks of the 1/King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster) rejoined the rest of the battalion in Palestine. General Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, wrote that the Chief-of-Staff meeting on 28 October 'discussed the desirability or otherwise of vacating Leros. A very nasty problem, Middle East [Command] have not been either wise or cunning and have now got themselves into the difficult situation that they can neither hold nor evacuate Leros. Our only hope would be assistance from Turkey, the provision of airfields from which the required air cover could be provided.'

After the fall of Léros, which was received with some shock by the British public, Sámos and the other smaller islands were evacuated. The Germans dive-bombed Sámos, 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 had thus completed their conquest of the Dodecanese islands group, which they were to continue to hold until the end of the war. The 'Battle of Léros' was considered by some to be the last great defeat of the British army in World War II and conversely one of the last German victories. This latter was due to a majore extent on the German 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. Tilney’s scrapping of the original defensive plan, the work of 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 again laid at Churchill’s door.

The casualties of the 'Battle of Léros' were 520 men killed or missing for the Germans, 254 men killed or missing for the Italians, 600 men killed or missing, of whom 187 died in the fighting on Leros and the rest at sea, for the British, and 68 men killed or missing for the Greek navy. Some 20 civilians were also killed.