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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

The Battle of Leros

The Battle of Leros

Only part of A Squadron was withdrawn from, Leros before the invasion began. Lieutenant Aitken and twenty men from R1 patrol and squadron headquarters left for Palestine by destroyer on 7 November. R2 patrol, reconstituted with eight New Zealanders and two Englishmen under Second-Lieutenant R. F. White,54 relieved T1 at the Scumbardo coastal-defence battery position on 8 November, and T1 moved to an olive grove on the northern side of Alinda Bay, where they were joined by T2 when they returned from Seriphos next day.

Despite the delays imposed by the Navy and the Allied Air Force, the enemy succeeded in assembling an invasion flotilla at Cos and Calino for the assault on Leros, which he began at dawn on 12 November after two days’ intensified bombing. The Scumbardo coastal-defence battery shelled a convoy at maximum range, but the batteries in the north, which allowed the invasion force to get closer than the minimum range of their guns before opening fire, were unable to prevent the enemy from landing. Five hundred Germans were disembarked on the north-east coast of the island, where they gained possession of the high ground between Palma and Grifo Bays, including Mount Vedetta, but were held throughout the day by the Buffs and patrols of B Squadron. Another 150 troops who were landed at Pandeli Bay, to the south-east of Leros town, after making some progress were counter-attacked by a company of the Royal Irish Fusiliers and were pinned down on the lower slopes of Mount Appetici.

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A warning had been received the previous day that German airborne troops were assembling at Athens. In anticipation of a parachute attack, Captain Saxton’s T1 patrol and Lieutenant Cross’s T2 patrol moved inland from Alinda Bay, and were joined by a British patrol and some SBS troops to make a force thirty-odd strong. Early in the afternoon of 12 November, thirty-five Junkers transport planes, escorted by Stukas, seaplanes, and other types of aircraft, approached at a low altitude from the west and dropped 500 paratroops on the narrow strip of land between Gurna and Alinda Bays, where they were engaged immediately by the troops in the area, including the composite LRDG-SBS group. Major Redfern, who led the LRDG in this action, was killed by a parachutist. Fierce fighting developed around the Rachi ridge, but although temporary successes were gained the paratroops could not be dislodged.

Throughout the battle perfect co-operation existed between the enemy air and ground forces. Except for a brief period during the airborne invasion, the German Air Force, which flew more than 500 sorties in the day, met no anti-aircraft opposition because of the lack of ammunition.

By occupying the Gurna-Alinda isthmus, the enemy could isolate the northern sector from the rest of the island. He reinforced the Pandeli landing during the night and had possession of Mount Appetici by midday on 13 November. A strong counter-attack in the centre of the island drove the enemy into a pocket between Rachi ridge and Alinda Bay, a gain that might have had a decisive effect on the battle had not the arrival of fresh paratroops caused an unexpected reverse. Two of the fifteen Junkers transports were shot down and a third released the troops from such a low altitude that their parachutes could not open, but those who landed safely were able to restore the position. Meanwhile, in the north-east, the enemy occupied Mount Clidi, where the LRDG blew up the Italian coastal-defence guns, and Captain Olivey sent his last message at 3 p.m., saying ‘Germans here’.

After the failure of a night counter-attack against Appetici by a company of the King’s Own, supported by a naval bombardment, the enemy drove southwards from that feature towards Charing Cross. Although this thrust was held on 14 November, the Germans secured a foothold on Meraviglia, at the top of which Fortress Headquarters was located in tunnels. The Buffs and the LRDG patrols in the north recaptured Clidi, but the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the King’s Own, although they took 200 prisoners and inflicted fairly heavy casualties, still were unable to drive the enemy from Rachi ridge. The German Air Force flew more than 400 sorties, mostly against Clidi, the positions south of Rachi, Meraviglia, and Windmill ridge (between Meraviglia and Mount Giovanni), where the 25-pounders and Bofors guns were located. Most of the guns were knocked out, together with their meagre supplies of ammunition.

Lieutenant White’s R2 patrol on Scumbardo directed the Italian coastal-defence battery to shoot landwards against targets to the north of Rachi and on Appetici. The shells passed over a ridge on Meraviglia with only about ten feet to spare, but some accurate shooting was reported at a jetty in Alinda Bay. The battery engaged enemy positions, including a castle near Leros town, until all its ammunition was spent on the last day of the battle.

At daybreak on 15 November the enemy forces were confined to the Rachi and Appetici areas, except for a few men cut off on the cliffs of Clidi. Further efforts were made to capture Rachi, but despite the help of reinforcements from the Royal West Kents, brought by the Navy from Samos Island, little headway could be made. Undoubtedly the relentless onslaught of the enemy air force contributed to this failure. Communications were disrupted, making control page 31 and movement difficult, the fighting deteriorated into small skirmishes, and the troops were showing signs of fatigue.

Lieutenant-Colonel Easonsmith, with two or three men, reconnoitred Leros town to see whether the enemy was infiltrating around that side of Meraviglia. He found no enemy, but when he returned to make a second reconnaissance his party was ambushed and he was killed.

The Germans launched a heavy attack on Meraviglia at first light on 16 November. All types of aircraft, including Stukas and outmoded seaplanes, flew more than 600 sorties against the British positions and strafed anything that moved, without a shot being fired in return except by small arms. The ground assault, which came from the east, met stubborn resistance and seemed to have spent itself before midday. This would have been the time to counter-attack, but the troops at Fortress Headquarters were too few, and the disruption of communications prevented other forces being moved up for the purpose. No doubt appreciating the helplessness of the British situation, the enemy renewed the attack with great vigour and overran Meraviglia.

Fortress Headquarters and Headquarters LRDG destroyed their documents and wireless equipment before withdrawing to Portolago. An attempt was made to rally all the troops in the south of the island for a counter-attack but morale by this time was very low and the result was a dismal failure. Organised resistance collapsed and silence descended on the island later in the afternoon. The fortress commander ordered the surrender of Leros about 6 p.m. Troops wandered around without knowing what to do, and the Germans made no attempt at that late hour to round up the stragglers.

The LRDG patrols in the north were cut off from their headquarters in the south. Major the Earl Jellicoe55 had taken command of the composite LRDG-SBS group, which was manning machine-gun posts on the northern coast, in case the enemy should land further reinforcements there. When news of the capitulation was received about midnight, the men in the vicinity were rounded up with the aid of two jeeps. A party of about twenty-five, including T1 and T2 patrols, took possession of an Italian caique and small motor boat in Parteni Bay, persuaded the Italians to open the harbour boom, and sailed to a small island north of Leros, where they hid during daylight. They reached Bodrum next night and joined an old minesweeper, in which they made a three-day voyage down the Turkish coast and across to Haifa.

After the surrender, most of Headquarters LRDG dispersed in the south near Mount Patella. Colonel Prendergast, Captain Croucher, Captain Tinker, and several others, including two men from R2 patrol, hid on Mount Tortore. The remainder of R2 escaped that night in two parties. Lieutenant White and four men baled out a little rowing boat that had been sunk at Serocampo Bay and made a perilous journey to join other escapees near Bodrum. Colonel Prendergast’s party remained hidden on Leros until 22 November, when they were evacuated by an RAF air-sea rescue launch. Small groups continued to escape up to a fortnight after the surrender.

The LRDG did everything that could be expected of it during the fighting on Leros, often setting an example to the other troops, and when the island fell the men endured many hardships in order to escape. In the end, only two men of A Squadron were captured on Leros. This was the last operation in which the New Zealand Squadron participated. It was disbanded on 31 December 1943 and most of its members, after a spell at the New Zealand Armoured Corps Training Depot in Egypt, were posted as reinforcements to the Divisional Cavalry with the 2nd New Zealand Division in Italy.