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

352 — The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs to the Prime Minister of New Zealand

The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs to the Prime Minister of New Zealand

23 November 1943

The following is the substance of the appreciation by the Chiefs of Staff referred to in my immediately preceding telegram:

Our two main objects in shaping our plans for operations in the Eastern Mediterranean concurrent with the assault on the mainland of Italy at Salerno were: (a) To assist the main operation against Italy; (b) to exploit in the Aegean the general weakness of the German position likely to result from the Italian collapse.

As it was realised that amphibious operations against the mainland of Italy conducted in the face of a determined and formidable enemy would be extremely hazardous, it became a cardinal point in our Mediterranean strategy to seek to divert the enemy's strength or, failing that, to confront him elsewhere with commitments sufficiently serious to prevent the movement of reinforcements into the main page 315 theatre of Italy. In particular, any diversion of the enemy's air strength during our assault would be of very material assistance while our protective fighters were operating at extreme range.

In an appreciation made in early September we considered that the position in the Aegean Islands was as follows: Of the outer ring, Crete was held by 55,000 troops, the western half of the island, containing the important airfields, by 30,000 Germans, with the Italians east of Candia; Rhodes—which is the key to the Dodecanese group—by 9000 Germans and 40,000 Italians. There were 1000 Germans in Scarpanto, lying between Rhodes and Crete, forming one-quarter of the total garrison. There were also Germans in the larger islands of the North Aegean in Lemnos, Mitylene, and Chios, but in the Dodecanese, other than Rhodes, there were only Italians—some 14,000. We hoped to obtain the assistance of these Italians in the seizure and organisation of bases from which we might harass the sorely extended Germans and obtain strategic gains of great value, especially the diversion of the enemy's air strength at a critical period in the Salerno landings. We realised that risks were involved—we would be acting inside the enemy's ‘fortress’, with tenuous lines of supply open to enemy air reconnaissance and the virtual certainty of air attack, against which our defence would be seriously handicapped—but the Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East considered that the risks were legitimate risks. With this His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom agreed.

Action after the Fall of Italy

General Alexander's Fifth Army landed in Salerno Bay on 9 September, and Italy made unconditional surrender to the Allies. General Wilson despatched a small party for Rhodes on the same day, but the overwhelming strength of the Italians, though numerical, was illusory for they evinced no desire to turn against the Germans and our party was refused permission to land. It was clear that without mounting a major expedition nothing was to be achieved in Rhodes and attention was turned to the smaller islands. By virtue of its airfield at Antimachia—the only airfield in these smaller islands—Cos was much the most important, and in one week 400 troops were ferried in. At the same time smaller contingents were introduced into Leros and Castelrosso.

The task of reinforcement went on steadily.

The Significance of Cos

We occupied the airfield on Cos on 15 September, and it thus became the key to the whole situation in the Aegean. The continued possession of Cos would have enabled us to provide effective page 316 short-range fighter cover in the Aegean within a radius of about 100 miles of Cos, including the sea approaches from the Eastern Mediterranean and to Leros and Samos. A reasonable degree of security against air attacks for our shipping and naval forces could be provided under this fighter cover. There was, however, only one good airfield—Antimachia—at Cos, and though preparation and improvement of two additional strips was immediately undertaken, General Headquarters, Middle East were, owing to restricted space and shortage of supplies in Cos, able to base only one and a half squadrons of Spitfires there before the enemy assault began; and apart from Cos, our nearest airfield was in Cyprus, about 350 miles away.

Besides, the requirements of the vital assault on Italy prohibited the diversion of any considerable part of the North-West African Air Force's striking power and thus prevented during this phase of the Aegean operations the use of the North African Air Force's heavy and medium bombers against the enemy's Greek and Aegean airfields. It is in this and all other respects essential, if the Aegean operations are to be fairly and impartially judged, that the Mediterranean should be seen as one closely interwoven strategic theatre.

The Attack on Cos

Immediately the threat in the Aegean was perceived, the enemy transferred more squadrons, of which some came from the Russian and Western fronts, to the Eastern Mediterranean, bringing the total to about 35 per cent of the air strength in the whole theatre. With these reinforcements he was able to neutralise our airfield at Cos with heavy air attacks escorted by short-range fighters and, after a short struggle, to render our air defence inoperative. He was then able to assault and overwhelm the land garrison on 3 October.

The opposing British and German forces were about equal in numbers, but the enemy had effective air superiority over its sea and air communications. After the airfield at Cos had been neutralised this local superiority could only be challenged by long-range Beaufighters which had to fly from our nearest base at Cyprus, some 350 miles away, and were of a type unable to influence the situation much in the face of the enemy short-range fighters. The 4000 Italian troops offered no assistance to our troops.

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.

The Threat to Leros

After the fall of Cos the enemy proceeded to occupy the small islands round Leros and to increase the scale of air bombardment. Our air forces made frequent reconnaissance reports of the movements of landing craft among these islands, which they attacked on page 318 every opportunity. Attacks on the airfields in Rhodes and Greece were also made. Unfortunately, the weather interfered greatly with these attacks and we were unable to pin down the air forces as we should have wished. Every opportunity was taken to put more defenders into Leros. This, however, was not effected without casualties.

The Attack on Leros

At 6.30 a.m. on 12 November the long-awaited assault came. The British garrison amounted to nearly 4000, the Italians to about 6000. The enemy succeeded that day in establishing bridgeheads on the east coast, in the north, and in the centre of the island.

Leros falls geographically into three sectors, the centre sector being a narrow waist in which is Leros town. Parachute troops, were dropped on Rachi Ridge, in the waist between the northern and central sectors, on the first afternoon. Throughout the day bombing was severe, and our long-range fighters were unable appreciably to interrupt it as they suffered heavily under the attack of enemy short-range fighter cover. More parachute troops were dropped on Rachi during the night of 12–13 November, and the garrison was severed, with its main strength to the south. The following day the enemy reinforced his lodgements, but by night the defenders in the north counter-attacked and pushed them back towards the sea.

Early on the morning of Sunday, 14 November, a portion of the parachute troops from Rachi Ridge launched an attack to the south against our troops in the central sector of the island. This attack was resisted and beaten off and, profiting from the new situation and supported by an attack against Rachi Ridge by the troops in the northern sector, our troops counter-attacked towards the same objective. The enemy was driven from the high ground, enabling our communications to be re-established. The enemy in the area was now confined to the area south of Quaranta, at the head of Alinda Bay. On Monday our attack was renewed but, in the face of relentless and unceasing attack from the air, it was unsuccessful. That night reinforcements were landed by the enemy.


On Tuesday, 16 November, Fortress Headquarters, just south of Leros town at Meraviglia, was heavily bombed, and attacks developed against it from the German forces which had been on the Rachi Ridge and from the original bridgehead on the east coast of page 319 the central sector. However, the situation was sufficiently restored for the Commander to wireless that given further reinforcements to his exhausted troops and more air cover he could hold out. Affairs deteriorated rapidly in the evening and the island fell.

The garrison was for five days at the mercy of the enemy's concentrated bombing attacks, for which it is estimated that he had now concentrated in Greece and the Aegean some 400 aircraft. In the end this produced a weariness too great to be resisted. From sheer exhaustion the end became inevitable. Moreover, enemy air superiority had cut air and sea communications with Leros, except for such supplies and reinforcements as could be got in at night by sea and by dropping from aircraft. Our troops had fought throughout with the utmost courage and gallantry. The losses were not all ours; throughout the fighting very severe casualties were inflicted and the Navy took full toll of enemy efforts to bring in reinforcements, in spite of the increasing difficulties of operating surface forces in the face of heavy air attack in the bright moonlight: on 14 November alone three landing craft with German reinforcements were sunk, and in the early stages of the battle others were destroyed by accurate artillery fire from the island. German casualties, although not accurately known, were such that for some time the fate of the island hung in the balance; the victory might well have been ours had the conditions been only a little less in the enemy's favour. The enemy has announced that he captured on Leros 200 British officers and 3000 other ranks. If these figures can be taken as correct our casualties will have been in the neighbourhood of 500.


We went into the Aegean with our eyes open and with the following objects:


to contain the German forces;


to gather what we might from the fall of Italy; and


to retain the islands if possible and to harass the German communications.

In the event the enemy reacted very strongly to the threat, and thus we were unable to hold the islands, though we succeeded in containing superior forces at what was a critical time in Italy and Russia.

From 9 September to 19 November the known enemy naval losses in the Aegean alone amount to at least 30,000 tons. He has lost a substantial part of the shipping available to him in the Mediterranean, and it is estimated that 4000 of his troops must have been drowned.

1 An island approximately 30 miles west of Cos.