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Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume II

The Decision to hold Leros and Samos

The Decision to hold Leros and Samos

German sensitiveness to events in the Aegean was made abundantly clear by the strength of their reaction to our operations in this area; at considerable sacrifice to their affairs in Italy, Russia, and France they had accumulated air and land strength to eject us from Cos. page 317 Cos contained the only airfield so Cos was attacked first; having gained control there they were in a greatly improved position to force the surrender of the other islands.

It became clear that the fall of Cos was intended to be followed immediately by an assault on Leros and Samos. Bombing attacks began on 4 October, but on 7 October naval forces found and destroyed six landing craft and two merchant vessels off Stampalia.1 The Commanders in the Middle East had now to decide whether or not to continue their precarious tenure in Leros and Samos.

The loss of Cos not only provided the enemy with a useful landing ground within thirty miles of Leros, but excluded our short-range fighters from the Aegean area—our nearest remaining airfield to Leros being some 350 miles away at Cyprus. If we had evacuated the islands we were still holding—at the best an extremely hazardous operation—we could still have continued our harassing attacks on the enemy's communications with light, highly mobile naval forces and with air forces, since neither our naval nor our air forces were able to use Leros or Samos as bases. The enemy, however, would have felt that our threat to the Aegean and the Balkans was removed and could have accordingly reduced—at this critical period in Italy and Russia—the concentration of air and land forces which we had forced him to make in Greece and the Aegean. Finally, if the assault on Leros could be delayed by interfering with the enemy's preparations, and if we could use the interval for strengthening the garrison, we had good hopes that the attack could be beaten off. The Germans have found it difficult to mount a second assault without a considerable period of preparation, during which the situation in the theatre as a whole might have changed to our further advantage. Taking into account all these factors and with full knowledge of the hazards involved, the Commanders-in-Chief, Middle East, decided we should hold on to the islands we had occupied. In this they had the full support and approval of the United Kingdom Government.

A naval striking force was maintained in the South Aegean. At the same time it became possible to direct bombers from the North-West African Air Force, together with others based in the Middle East, to attack airfields in Greece and the Aegean.