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

353 — General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

page 320

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

26 November 1943

In reply to the telegram of 18 November (No. 348) asking for the fullest information on the operations at Leros under the following headings:


The nature and object of the operations;


the part played by the New Zealand Squadron;


the fate of the New Zealand Squadron, Long Range Desert Group,

I beg to state that when the LRDG were committed to an operational role on Cos and Leros I reported the matter at once to the New Zealand Government, vide my telegram of 19 September (No. 339), and also brought to the notice of the Chief of the General Staff the fact that the normal procedure when fresh operational commitments of New Zealand troops were made had been departed from, and that the New Zealand Government had not been notified beforehand. I discussed at once the situation with the Chief of the General Staff and understood that they had landed without opposition on Leros and Cos, and that this was only part of a larger plan as further large-scale operations in the Dodecanese were pending. As is usual where future operations are concerned, I asked no specific questions as to their nature, but understood that Rhodes was the objective and that the operations were undertaken with the object of interfering with the enemy's sea communications in the Aegean Sea.

When the enemy counter-attacked and Cos was retaken, it was obvious that we had missed what slender chance existed and there appeared no reason to continue the commitment a day longer than was necessary to effect their evacuation. I therefore cabled the New Zealand Government from Italy on 12 October (No. 340) saying that I was out of touch with the Middle East situation and the LRDG, and suggested that in view of the unsatisfactory nature of the commitment the New Zealand Government should now recall the LRDG on the earliest possible opportunity and disband them. When General Wilson's SOS, contained in my cable of 7 November (No. 346), which I forwarded to the New Zealand Government, arrived, I must admit I felt that the situation would not allow of their withdrawal, and in any case a hasty withdrawal of the New Zealand Squadron at the last moment before the attack would leave New Zealand open to the possible charge of deserting our British comrades on the eve of battle. I therefore felt that we must page 321 leave the question of their early replacement to General Wilson's discretion. When your cable of 18 November (No. 348) arrived I repeated the relevant part to General Wilson, asking him for information upon which to base my reply to you, and I forward his answer:

The outcome of the operations in the Aegean has been a serious blow to all of us, as you will imagine. It was touch and go on Leros but in the end air supremacy won. We took the risk when we went in in September but we had then hoped to follow up with an attack on Rhodes.

Unfortunately, conditions at the other end of the Mediterranean and in the Pacific did not allow the allocation of the necessary craft and air support and this had temporarily to be abandoned. In the meantime, every effort was made to strengthen our position in the Aegean and it was decided to try and hold on in view of the very valuable diversion it caused to the main effort in Italy and Russia. The force diverted included up to 400 aircraft, also 6000 highly trained troops for the assault, and others for garrisoning the islands he was forced to occupy by our raiding. The assault force for Leros was drawn from five different formations, demonstrating thereby the extent to which he was stretched. One-third of the enemy shipping in the Aegean was sunk and the Axis supply line to Rhodes interrupted for two months.

The LRDG were used as outposts and for raiding and patrolling in enemy-held islands, a task for which they are ideally suited. Their operations were of the greatest value, and all the evidence proves that they were a serious thorn in the enemy's side, whilst the information given by their outposts proved invaluable to all Services.

As far as we know at present the situation of the New Zealand LRDG squadron is as follows:

Now in the Middle East: 5 officers, 58 other ranks.
Missing at Levita: 1 officer, 22 other ranks.
Missing at Leros: 2 officers, 21 other ranks.

Of those missing at Leros, I am glad to say about half are believed to be safe and on their way back. This will be confirmed shortly. All the LRDG are now being withdrawn from the Aegean.

The Levita operation referred to in the above paragraph was a raid on that island by the LRDG with the object of clearing it of a small party of the enemy whose occupation interfered with our naval action. Our force was unable to contact the enemy until dawn and thereafter was heavily dive-bombed, pinned, and split into small groups which were later overcome by a reinforced page 322 enemy. Details are lacking, but the majority of the one officer and 22 other ranks are thought to be prisoners.

Please convey to the New Zealand Government my fullest sympathy in their loss. These men were of the finest type and did invaluable work. We are more than grateful for the assistance and I can assure you their efforts were not in vain.

I do not know all the facts, neither do I wish to criticise, but for the private information of the New Zealand War Cabinet I can say that I never liked the plan, which broke the first principle of modern warfare ‘that you must win the air battle before you embark on the land or sea battle.’ Even at the beginning of the operation we failed to establish air cover over Leros or Cos. Later, when the Germans concentrated fighters and dive-bombers in Rhodes and Crete, they isolated our garrisons and mopped them up at will. I am told that two Indian brigades were lost but I cannot vouch for this. From the New Zealand point of view, out of 1081 we appear to have saved 63, and some more may still turn up. That is better than I had hoped. I am glad that the LRDG will now be recalled. Small detached operational units or formations require careful watching.

1 The figures in General Wilson's report total 109.