Operation Leopard (iii)

This was the German seizure of the island of Léros in the Aegean Sea in the immediate aftermath of the Italian armistice with the Allies as the central event of the Dodecanese islands campaign (13/17 November 1943).

The island of 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 (1911/12). During Italian rule, Léros, with its excellent deep-water port of Lakki (Portolago), was transformed into a heavily protected air and naval fortress. The island was base for several Italian naval units, specifically the 4a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere (4th Destroyer Flotilla) with the sole destroyer Euro; the 3a Flottiglia MAS (3rd Torpedo Boat Flotilla) with two motor torpedo boats and six smaller craft; the 39a Flottiglia Dragamine (39th Minesweeper Flotilla) with 11 boats; nine minor units; seven steamships; two minelayers; and three German Marinefährprahme.

After the fall of Greece to the Axis powers in April 1941 and the Allied loss of the island of Crete to 'Merkur' during May of the same year, 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 Prime Minister Winston Churchill, became reachable by the Allies for the first time since the loss of Crete.

The USA was sceptical about the operation, which it saw as an unnecessary diversion from the main Mediterranean front in Italy and an affirmation of a British desire to enlarge its sphere of influence in the Balkans. This US antipathy was confirmed at the 'Quadrant' first inter-Allied conference in Quebec during August 1943, at which it was decided to divert all available shipping from the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. The British went ahead nonetheless, albeit with severely downsized forces. In addition to that, air cover was minimal, and had to use 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 1943 in order to support operations in Italy.

The islands of Léros and Kos, lying to the north of Rhodes and Kárpathos (Scarpanto), provided an excellent back-up to the more southerly islands in providing bases from which the Germans could based naval and air forces to bar Allied access to the Aegean as a means of inducing Turkey to enter the war on the side of the Allies, for while Léros had a good harbour for the basing of light naval forces and seaplanes, Kos could offer a base for landplanes. The islands also formed an admirable offensive base for aircraft and U-boats attacking Allied shipping in the eastern end of the Mediterranean.

General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, the commander-in-chief in the Middle East, had long favoured a descent on the Aegean islands, and had the full support of Churchill in this enthusiasm. However, the Germans had substantial garrison forces on Rhodes, Scarpanto and the other islands, and though British landing forces were available, the Middle East command lacked the landing craft and long-range fighters to make possible a full-scale assault on Rhodes and Scarpanto.

After the Italian government had ended hostilities with the signature of the armistice with the Allies, the Italian garrisons on most of the Dodecanese islands either wished 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. 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, Generalmajor Ulrich Kleemann’s Sturmdivision 'Rhodos', swiftly neutralised the Italian garrison of Rhodes, denying the island’s three airfields to the Allies.

Nevertheless, on 10/17 September 1943 the islands running between Kastelorizo in the south and Sámos in the north were all occupied in the aftermath of the armistice with Italy, the only available British force being Brigadier F. G. R. Brittorous’s 234th Brigade from Malta but placed under the command of Force 292 for the Dodecanese operation. Also involved were Special Boat Squadron and Long Range Desert Group elements. Some 4,000 men were allocated to the undertaking, and comprised one infantry battalion delivered to Kos by air, three (later four) infantry battalions delivered to Léros by sea, and one infantry battalion delivered to Sámos from Léros in small craft, with smaller garrisons to bolster the Italian forces on the lesser islands. In strategic terms the islands were next to useless, however, so long as the German garrison on Rhodes remained intact to block access to the Aegean, and this garrison was never eliminated as a result of the non-implementation of 'Accolade', which vindicated Adolf Hitler’s refusal to permit the evacuation of the Aegean islands and Crete suggested by Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs, the Oberbefehlshaber 'Südost' and commander of Heeresgruppe 'F', and Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz, commanding the German navy.

The Germans now planned a counter-offensive, and by the beginning of November had retaken Kos and most of the smaller islands. On 5 November Léros saw the arrival of Major General H. R. Hall as British commander in the Aegean and of Brigadier R. A. G. Tilney as fortress commander for the three British infantry battalions on Léros, which Churchill had decided should be held at all costs despite its isolated position. Totalling about 3,000 men, the garrison comprised Lieutenant Colonel M. French’s 2/Royal Irish Fusiliers, Lieutenant Colonel D. Iggulden’s 4/The Buffs (The Royal East Kent Regiment), the 1/The King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster), and one company of the 2/Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment. There were also 7,602 regular (mostly naval) Italian troops, 697 naval reservists and 20 air force reservists, including one infantry battalion and two heavy machine gun companies, under the island’s military commander, Contrammiraglio Luigi Mascherpa. Build in the inter-war period, the island’s defences also included 26 batteries of artillery with 115 guns, of which 52 were anti-aircraft weapons. Most of the artillery was only poorly protected against attack from the air, however, and therefore suffered badly from Luftwaffe attacks. Of the Italian naval vessels stationed in the island, there were the destroyer Euro, six MAS torpedo boats and several other auxiliary ships.

Initially, the British had planned to secure the high ground of the island’s interior, but Tilney insisted on a forward defence on the coast, which had the effect of spreading his forces very thinly.

The air units allocated to the Dodecanese campaign were very modest. Apart from Douglas Dakota twin-engined troop-carrying and transport aircraft, there were four squadrons of Bristol Beaufighter heavy fighters (two each in the day and night fighter roles), one Vickers Wellington torpedo bomber squadron, three Martin Baltimore and one Lockheed Hudson general reconnaissance squadrons and a detachment of photo-reconnaissance Supermarine Spitfire machines. This force was based on the mainland of Africa and in Cyprus. In addition, two heavy bomber squadrons (No. 178 Squadron of the RAF and No. 462 Squadron of the RAAF of the RAF’s No. 240 Wing), equipped with a mix of Consolidated Liberator and Handley Page Halifax four-engined aircraft, and one wing of the US IX Bomber Command took part at a later stage. The only real offensive force comprised a mere two squadrons (No. 7 of the SAAF and No. 74 of the RAF) equipped with Spitfire fighter-bombers. In all, the number of aircraft used amounted to 144 single- and twin-engined fighters, and 116 heavy, medium and torpedo bombers. Of this total of 260 aircraft, 115 were to be lost.

Kos had fallen to a Kampfgruppe of Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller’s 22nd Luftlande-Division reinforced by paratroops, and this formation was further augmented to 2,730 men for the 'Leopard' (iii) descent on Léros, which was to be a combined amphibious and airborne operation as ordered on 23 September.

The German force assembling for 'Leopard' (iii) under Müller’s command comprised the infantrymen of the 3/440th Grenadierregiment, 2/16th Grenadierregiment and 2/65th Grenadierregiment of the 22nd Luftlande-Division, 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 German invasion force assembled in the harbours in Kos and Kálymnos, with reserves and heavy equipment to be air-lifted from the area of Athens on the Greek mainland. Two groups of Ju 87D-3 dive-bombers were available for close air support; the ground-attack aircraft of the I/Schlachtgeschwader 3 flew from their base at Megara and those of the II/SG 3 from Argos and later Rhodes; and the Junkers Ju 88 medium bombers of the II/Kampfgeschwader 51 were available for bombing.

The Luftwaffe unleashed continuous attacks on Léros, over which it rapidly gained total air superiority, causing many casualties among the ground forces and sinking the British destroyer Intrepid and Free Greek destroyer Vasilissa Olga on 26 September, and the Italian destroyer Euro on 1 October.

During the night of 10/11 November the destroyers Petard, Rockwood and Free Polish Krakowiak shelled Kálimnos, and the destroyer Faulknor shelled Kos, and in the morning of 11 November Rockwood was severely damaged by a Henschel Hs 293 guided missile during an attack by the 5./Kampfgeschwader 100.

On 12 November, after almost 50 days of air attacks on the island, the Kampfgruppe 'Müller' arrived to land on Léros after movement by freighters, coastal craft and ferry barges. Escort for the assault force was provided by dived by Fregattenkapitän Walter Riede’s 9th Torpedoboots-Flottille using TA 14, TA 15, TA 17 and TA 19, the Schnellboot S 55, Korvettenkapitän Dr Günther Brandt’s 21st Unterseebootsjägd-Flottille with five or six large and eight to 10 small boats, and Kapitänleutnant Mallmann’s 12th Räumsboots-Flottille with 10 to 12 motor minesweepers.

Air support was provided by General Martin Fiebig’s Luftwaffenkommando 'Südost' using Fiebig’s own X Fliegerkorps, which launched 206 aircraft on the first day.

At 04.30 on 12 November, the invasion fleet landed German troops at Palma Bay and Pasta di Sopra on the north-east coast of Léros. The Italian coastal artillery was unable to prevent these primary landings. There were other landings at Pandeli Bay, near the town Léros: these were strongly opposed by the Royal Irish Fusiliers, who prevented the capture of some key defensive positions but were unable to stop the landings.

The British units were spread around the island in small groups with poor communication between them, and faced attack by German forces possessing the double advantages of local superiority of numbers and air control. In the early afternoon Luftwaffe fighter-bombers machine gunned and bombed the area between Gurna and Alinda Bays, and there followed by Junkers 52/3m transport aircraft which dropped some 500 paratroopers, most of landed safely despite British efforts. The position of this airborne landing 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. British counterattacks during the rest of that day all failed. During the night of 12/13 November more German reinforcements arrived.

During the nights of 12/13 and 13/14 November two British destroyer forces, comprising Faulknor, Beaufort and the Free Greek Pindos, and Dulverton, Echo and Belvoir respectively, searched without success for the German transports. The Faulknor group twice shelled targets on Léros. On 13 November Dornier Do 217 bombers of 5./KG 100 attacked the second group with Hs 293 guided missiles and sank Dulverton. On 14 November Echo and Belvoir attempted to bring troop reinforcements from Sámos to Léros. During the night 14/15 November a new British destroyer group, consisting of Penn, Aldenham and Blencathra, shelled Léros.

Counterattacks by the King’s Own and the Fusiliers failed on 13 November with heavy casualties, but the Buffs on the southern side of the island managed to take 130 men prisoner and reclaim some control of their area.

On the night of 13/14 November two more companies of the Royal West Kent Regiment and their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel B. Tarleton, arrived from Sámos and landed at Portolago Bay. The fighting on 14 and 15 November was mostly inconclusive, resulting in more casualties fore each side, although a counterattack by two companies of the King’s Own succeeded in recapturing part of Apetiki, though their commanding officer was killed in the attack. On the night of 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 artillery during that night.

On 15 and 16 November the ex-Italian torpedo boats TA 14, TA 15 and TA 16 were used to deliver additional German troops from Piraeus to Kálimnos.

During the night of 15/16 November the destroyers Fury, Exmoor and Krakowiak shelled Léros, and on the following night Penn and Aldenham shelled Kos, and Exmoor and Krakowiak shelled Sámos.

Thus the initial German assault force on Léros had been rapidly reinforced by the paratroops and the coastal landings of further troops. The British were too widely dispersed and too poorly equipped to check the Germans, who were in full control of the island by 16 November after some of the last British troops had been evacuated in 'Fixture'. It was now decided to abandon all of the Aegean islands, Sámos being evacuated on 19/20 November and Kastelorizo on 28 November.

On the morning of 16 November it became clear to Tilney, the British commander, that his command’s position was untenable and he surrendered 3,200 British and 5,350 Italian soldiers. In its isolated position, the 4/Buffs was unaware of the surrender, and so made no attempt to escape, and consequently nearly the entire unit was captured. As with the Buffs, only 90 men of the West Kents managed to escape from the island.

On 17 November TA 15 arrived once again at Léros with supplies, returning again on 19 November together with TA 14 and TA 19.

The fate of Léros had been sealed by the withdrawal of the US Lockheed P-38 Lightning long-range fighters. Without air support and under heavy German air attack, the British battalions had fought for five days until they were exhausted and could fight no more. A major effort was made to evacuate the British garrisons of the other Aegean islands and to rescue survivors from Léros, and eventually one officer and 57 men of the King’s Own rejoined the colours in Palestine.

As noted above, the fall of Léros was followed by the evacuation of the garrisons of Sámos and the other smaller islands were evacuated. The Germans dive-bombed Sámos, prompting the 2,500-man Italian garrison to surrender on 22 November. By occupying the smaller islands of Lipso, Pátmos, Fournoi Korseon and Ikaría, taking prisoner some 310 Italian troops, during 18 November, the Germans thus completed their reconquest of the Dodecanese islands group, which they held until the end of the war.

The German victory was the result largely 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 decision to scrap the original defensive plan, the work of Colonel French, aided the Germans, whose tactics, including scramble landings and an audacious air assault, further confused Tilney.

The whole Aegean campaign had cost the British army some 4,800 men, the RAF about 115 aircraft and the Royal Navy (including Allied ships under command) four cruisers damaged (one irreparably), six destroyers sunk and four more damaged, two submarines sunk, and 10 coastal craft/minesweepers sunk. The German casualties were some 4,000 men in all.