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

New Zealand Squadron, Long Range Desert Group, in the Dodecanese Operations

page 308

New Zealand Squadron, Long Range Desert Group, in the Dodecanese Operations

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

19 September 1943

I have just been advised that the New Zealand Squadron of the Long Range Desert Group and other British troops have been landed on a Greek island without opposition. The new Chief of the General Staff1 now realises that the practice is to refer the matter to the New Zealand Government before committing any New Zealand troops to a theatre of war, and that the principle has been infringed in this case. The reason was that after discussion with War Cabinet in New Zealand I had informed [General Headquarters] Middle East that the New Zealand Government agreed in principle to the employment of the LRDG in Greece, and this was taken as authority. The mistake is regretted.

1 Lieutenant-General Sir Ronald MacKenzie Scobie, KBE, CB, MC (then Lt-Gen R. M. Scobie); GOC Tobruk Fortress, 1941; GOC Malta, 1942; Chief of the General Staff, Middle East, 1943; GOC Greece, 1944–46.

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

12 October 1943

Although the LRDG are General Headquarters troops not under my control in any way, I try, as you know, to keep touch. I asked for a report on the New Zealand Squadron before leaving Egypt and have received the following:

The New Zealand Squadron is based on Calino with two patrols on islands farther west. Casualties believed nil.

I am not entirely happy about the LRDG now that we are moving to a different theatre. It may not be practicable to withdraw the page 309 New Zealand Squadron, but I feel, if and when it can be relieved, that the time has come when it should be recalled and our commitment with the LRDG should cease.

I have asked Middle East for a further report and will keep you in touch.

The Minister of Defence to General Freyberg

20 October 1943

Your telegram of 12 October.

Your views as to the future use of the LRDG impress us as being thoroughly sound, and we will await a further report and your advice as to the appropriate time and manner in which representations might be made.

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

23 October 1943

Reference your telegram of 20 October, I have now received the following from the Chief of the General Staff, Middle East:

The New Zealand Squadron is now concentrated on Leros with the whole of the LRDG and has been doing excellent work.

Intelligence reports indicate that attack on Leros is imminent. I am out of touch and do not know future plans. I feel, however, that the situation is unsound as there is no air cover on Leros and, for your personal information, to the best of my knowledge there are no suitable troops to reinforce the islands. This, of course, is criticism of higher policy without full knowledge of the facts. I feel that it may be difficult to extricate them at the moment, but feel that you should now raise the matter of asking for the return of the New Zealand Squadron as soon as the tactical situation permits. This would be consistent with your general manpower policy. Further, there is no scope now for the employment of the LRDG. The number of New Zealand personnel involved is three officers and approximately seventy men.

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General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

29 October 1943

Further to my telegram of 23 October.

I have just been advised that the LRDG squadron requires 25 reinforcements urgently. This raises the whole question. As I am not in the picture I will cable you again after obtaining further particulars.

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

1 November 1943

Reference my telegram of 29 October. The only information available from Middle East is that one officer and 24 other ranks of the New Zealand Squadron, LRDG, are missing as the result of recent amphibious operations. This represents approximately one-third of the New Zealand Squadron.

The Prime Minister to the High Commissioner for New Zealand (London)1

2 November 1943

The New Zealand Government have had under further consideration the question of their non-divisional units serving in the Mediterranean area, both in relation to existing manpower difficulties and to control by the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. It is felt that the time has come to raise the question of the withdrawal of the New Zealand Squadron known as the Long Range Desert Group. This unit is at present concentrated at Leros, and it is desired that as soon as convenient it should be detached from its present role and placed under the direct control of the GOC 2nd NZEF. The number of New Zealand personnel involved is now two officers and approximately 46 men, there having been 25 casualties in the past few days. It would be appreciated if this matter could be represented to the urgent attention of the appropriate United Kingdom authorities.

1 This telegram was repeated to General Freyberg.

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General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

7 November 1943

Reference the question of the withdrawal of the New Zealand Squadron of the LRDG.

I am 1800 miles away and out of contact with Middle East1 and realise that relief will not be easy. I have just received the following telegram from General Wilson:

While fully appreciating the manpower difficulties necessitating the proposal, I must point out that the Squadron is now engaged in important operations and is doing most valuable work for which it is specially trained. It would be impossible to replace it at such short notice. I suggest for your consideration that the Squadron remains with the LRDG for the time being until we can train a replacement, on condition that we replace other rank casualties with British personnel or replace New Zealand sub-units with complete British sub-units according to the circumstances. This will ensure that command of New Zealand personnel remains under New Zealand officers. If you agree, I would be most grateful if you would take the matter up with the New Zealand Government on the above lines.

I feel that in view of General Wilson's cable you should agree to his proposal to return the New Zealand Squadron as soon as the tactical situation allows him to do so. I feel you should also agree to his proposal to replace other rank casualties as he may deem fit.

The High Commissioner for New Zealand (London) to the Prime Minister

16 November 1943

Your telegram of 2 November (No. 345).

The Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, states in reply to an enquiry by War Office as to the earliest possible date on which the New Zealand Squadron could be released, that the Squadron is at present employed in operations in the Aegean and cannot be immediately replaced owing to the cessation of New Zealand reinforcements. The present policy is to replace detachments of the Squadron which have become non-operational on account of casualties by complete page 312 United Kingdom sub-units raised for the purpose. The Commander-in-Chief estimates that the time required to replace the Squadron in this way would be about three months. I gather this policy has been agreed to by Freyberg, who has explained the procedure to you, but it is not clear whether his report had been considered by you when you telegraphed me. I shall be glad to learn whether this procedure will meet your wishes. If so, War Office will issue the necessary instructions.

The Prime Minister to General Freyberg

18 November 1943

My telegram of 2 November.1

We have followed with considerable concern the events leading up to the deterioration of the situation on Leros and its final capitulation,2 and we are most anxious to obtain as soon as possible the fullest available information as to the fate of the Long Range Desert Group.

The use of the New Zealand Squadron and the part played by our men in this undertaking, the nature and object of which we are ignorant and indeed are at a loss to understand, are matters upon which a full report is urgently desired, and it would be appreciated if this could be obtained and made available to the New Zealand Government at the earliest possible moment.

2 The forces on Leros surrendered on 16 Nov.

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

20 November 1943

I have to acknowledge your telegram of 18 November concerning the New Zealand Squadron, LRDG. I am not able to give the facts as to the nature or object of the undertaking in the Dodecanese Islands, neither do I know the part played by the New Zealand Squadron. I have therefore cabled the Chief of the General Staff, Middle East, and have asked him to supply the facts to me as soon as possible, when I will cable details to you in New Zealand. This page 313 may take some days. I had, however, previously ascertained from Middle East the casualties incurred, and for the guidance of the Government, as far as could be estimated at 4.30 p.m. on 17 November, they are as follows: Missing from Levita, 1 officer and 22 other ranks; missing from Leros, 4 officers and 21 other ranks; now in the Middle East at Haifa, 5 officers and 57 other ranks, making a total of 48 missing and 62 safe in the Middle East.

These figures may alter as other men may turn up in the next day or two. You will be kept posted and full details of names will be sent through 2nd Echelon to Army Headquarters in the usual way.

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

22 November 1943

Events in the Dodecanese Islands have greatly disturbed the New Zealand Government. They have throughout been at a loss to understand the objective of these operations which, without full information as to the facts, they cannot help regarding as ill-advised in their nature and most unfortunate in their consequences. They would also appreciate information as to the manner and scope in which it was anticipated this operation was to have been carried out.

Owing to the participation of the New Zealand commando unit known as the Long Range Desert Patrol Group,1 the deterioration in the situation has naturally been watched with particular concern.

His Majesty's Government in New Zealand wish to observe that they were never consulted as to the use of their troops in this connection nor, they are advised, was their Commanding Officer in the Middle East advised until the men had actually landed.

The reversion of this unit to the control of the GOC 2nd NZEF had already been discussed with the United Kingdom authorities, and it would seem appropriate at this stage to make it clear that His Majesty's Government in New Zealand desire that this unit should cease to be under the control of General Headquarters, Middle East, and that any survivors, about whom early information is requested, should be made available for service with the 2nd New Zealand Division.

1 When the unit was formed in July 1940, it was first known as the Long Range Desert Patrol. With the expansion of the unit into several squadrons the title was changed to Long Range Desert Group. Besides New Zealanders, British and Rhodesian patrols of the Long Range Desert Group also took part in the Dodecanese operations.

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

23 November 1943

The substance of an appreciation by the Chiefs of Staff Committee on the recent operations in the Dodecanese, which it is thought will supply the answer to the points raised in the first paragraph of your telegram of 22 November, is contained in my immediately following telegram. It may be observed, with reference to the first paragraph of this appreciation, that risks somewhat similar to those accepted in the Dodecanese had been taken in the capture of Sardinia and Corsica with successful results. One further point which has not been covered by this appreciation, and to which attention should be called, is that if the Turkish Government had acceded to the request made to them by the Foreign Secretary1 for the grant of air bases, the necessary air support would have been available for operations in the islands (see my telegrams of 6 and 7 November).2 A further telegram regarding the points raised in later paragraphs of your telegram will be sent.

1 Rt. Hon. R. A. Eden, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, 23 Dec 1940–26 Jul 1945.

2 Not published. A brief report of Mr. Eden's discussions with the Turkish Foreign Minister (M. Numan Menemenjoglu) on 5–7 Nov 1943 was given in these telegrams.

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.

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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.

The Prime Minister of New Zealand to the High Commissioner for New Zealand (London)

27 November 1943

I am still not able to participate actively in the work of the Government although I am consulted on important matters. However, in spite of my compulsory inactivity,2 there are two recent matters about which I feel so keenly as being most detrimental to New Zealand's war effort that I must ask you to place my own views personally before the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, Lord Cranborne, and Mr. Attlee.3 The first deplorable event is the fall of Leros; the second, the release of Sir Oswald Mosley.4

In regard to the capture of Leros, New Zealand is directly concerned. Without either the knowledge or consent of the New page 323 Zealand Government or, apparently, of General Freyberg, who would have immediately consulted us, a number of our Long Range Desert Group troops were ordered to take part in the attack on and occupation of some of the Dodecanese Islands. This was a breach of our agreement with the British Government and Army authorities. The circumstances surrounding the loss of Leros have already largely destroyed my own faith in the present Middle East Command, if it was responsible, and when it becomes known that a number of New Zealanders were stupidly sacrificed without even consent for their inclusion in the task force being asked from our Government, the disappointment and bitterness here will be intensified many times over. General Wilson's statement regarding the capture of Leros, with its out-dated, unhappy, and totally irrelevant references to Greece and Crete, was rejected unanimously, even contemptuously.1 It is felt that to have 1944 war problems dealt with by Commanders with 1941 minds is most dangerous and may be disastrous. The sooner the excuses given by General Wilson, who is a man generally admired by New Zealand soldiers, are forgotten the better.

In the meantime, we have the rehabilitation of the sense of the great power of Germany re-established in the Eastern Mediterranean, as witness the attitude of Turkey. I am very glad that as a set-off there we have the heightened prestige of Britain over the Lebanon trouble. Nothing could be better or more creditable than the attitude in that affair of the British Government.

Since writing the foregoing I have read the cabled press report of Mr. Attlee's statement in the House of Commons2 and the telegram from the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, dated 23 November (No. 352), containing the substance of the appreciation by the Chiefs of Staff. These statements have not enabled me to modify in the least my opinion of the whole unhappy blunder, except that they made it clear that the responsibility in the first place rested with the Chiefs of Staff, not with the Middle East Command, but apparently the latter acquiesced. Apart from all the other mistakes and miscalculations, the decision to leave the force on Leros to become the easy prey of the German air and land forces combined was wrong and, indeed, most reprehensible. The useless sacrifice of fine men in such a fashion is proof that the tragic lesson of Greece and Crete has not been fully assimilated and understood by some of those in the High Command, or else they are prepared not so much to take page 324 a risk, as stated by Mr. Attlee, as to gamble on a poor chance with men's lives. I strongly protest against any of our men being sacrificed in such a fashion.

….1 In New Zealand we are approaching a very difficult time. The Government won the election with a reduced majority, declaring for a continued war effort to the limit of our resources and against the Opposition claims that we had done too much and were over-committed. There is a good deal of criticism at present, even inside the Labour Party, at New Zealand having fighting forces in both Italy and the South Pacific, and the feeling is growing that one of our forces should be withdrawn. Our position has been weakened by the Mosley release, which has aroused opposition to and distrust in the responsible British authorities. The mistake should be rectified at once so that the confusion caused can be cleared away as soon as possible and the harmful situation, with its bad effects in the Dominions as well as in Britain, ended completely….

1The text omitted refers to the release of Sir Oswald Mosley.

2 Mr. Fraser had recently left hospital and was then convalescent.

3 The Rt. Hon. C. R. Attlee had been Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs (21 Feb 1942–28 Sep 1943) at the time the islands were occupied. At this date he was also acting Prime Minister during the absence of Mr. Churchill at the Cairo and Teheran conferences.

4 Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, was imprisoned from May 1940 until 20 Nov 1943, when he was released on medical grounds.

1 In a statement which was published in the New Zealand press on 19–20 Nov, General Wilson said that he considered Leros was worth while as a diversionary operation alone. He recalled the British withdrawal from Greece—a campaign that history had proved worth while—and added that he thought the same thing would be said about Leros and Cos.

2 Published in the New Zealand press on 26 Nov 1943.

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

3 December 1943

Further to my report of 26 November on the LRDG. The Officer Commanding the New Zealand Squadron2 has come to see me here in Italy. New Zealand casualties for the Leros operation are further reduced, only seven other ranks now being missing. The total casualties, therefore, are one officer, 29 other ranks.

2Major A. I. Guild, CO A (NZ) Squadron, LRDG, 1942–43.

With reference to the last paragraph of the report, the information regarding the loss of two Indian brigades was incorrect. The garrison of the islands comprised four British battalions and some anti-aircraft and 25-pounder artillery. The statement of the Officer Commanding the New Zealand Squadron confirms the opinions expressed in my cables and reports. I am arranging that the personnel of the New Zealand Squadron now in Haifa should be recalled to Maadi for employment as reinforcements to the New Zealand Division.

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The High Commissioner for New Zealand (London) to the Prime Minister of New Zealand

6 December 1943

I have been asked by the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs to transmit to you personally and informally the following expression of his views on Leros with which Mr. Attlee also associates himself:

It seems to me essential that we should go back to the position as it was when the decision to enter upon these operations was taken. At that time the surrender of Italy and the apparent willingness of the Italians to co-operate with us against the Germans offered a prospect of gaining immediate and substantial advantages which we certainly would have been wrong to neglect. With this in mind it was clearly proper to take some risks—risks which were successfully taken in the case of Sardinia and Corsica, with the result that the Allies are now in secure and effective possession of those great islands. If we had not also tested out the position in the Aegean to see whether similar advantages could be secured there we should surely have been open to blame. In this our hopes were disappointed: first on Rhodes, where a large Italian garrison surrendered without a blow and the Germans were able to prevent our forces landing at all; and next in Cos, where the lack of effective Italian support made it possible for the Germans to seize the island before our forces had had time to establish themselves. It was then necessary to decide whether to try to retain our foothold in Leros. The arguments in favour were that we were successfully diverting a considerable portion of the German air effort from Italy and to a lesser degree from Russia, that as a result of the forthcoming discussions with the Turkish representatives there appeared to be a fair chance of obtaining air facilities in Turkey, and, lastly, that even apart from this it was thought there was a good chance of our being able to hold the island in any case. In fact this nearly succeeded, and it was only by a narrow margin that the final German assault was not beaten off by our troops.

It is impossible to conduct a war without taking risks, and looking back over the whole story I think that we should have been far more to blame if we had not taken the risk which, had it succeeded, would have given us great advantages and made a contribution to shortening the war.

Secondly, on the question of the employment of New Zealand personnel of the Long Range Desert Group in these operations, page 326 full inquiry has been made and the following is the position: For some three years the Group—a British unit under the direct command of General Headquarters, Middle East—has included New Zealand personnel. The group has operated throughout North Africa during this period without comment or question from the New Zealand Government. The Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, has reported that General Freyberg was kept in the picture and agreed to the use of the New Zealand Squadron in the Aegean operations before it was actually involved in fighting there. It is understood that General Freyberg informed the New Zealand Government at the time that he had given his approval. The number of New Zealand personnel employed was seven officers and 73 other ranks, of which, unfortunately, one officer and 29 other ranks are missing as a result of the Aegean operations.

As regards the replacement of this personnel, it was agreed with General Freyberg that they should be gradually replaced. However, in view of the further wishes now expressed by the New Zealand Government in their telegram of 22 November (No. 350), and as the Squadron has now been withdrawn from the Aegean, the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, has been instructed to send the remaining personnel to the New Zealand Depot, where they will be available as required for the New Zealand Division.

The above information constitutes the reply promised in the Secretary of State's telegram of 23 November (No. 351).

The Prime Minister of New Zealand to the High Commissioner for New Zealand (London)

21 December 1943

I would like you to accept my thanks for the close personal attention you gave to my telegram of 27 November (No. 354). Owing to my second period in hospital this acknowledgment has been delayed. However, I am back at work again, although just getting into second gear.

You will not be surprised to learn from me that I do not consider the explanations of the Leros collapse by the Secretary of State for the Dominions to be satisfactory. I do not wish to drag out the discussion of the matter, but at your convenience you can indicate this fact to both Lord Cranborne and Mr. Attlee.

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With reference to the statement in the message of the Secretary of State for the Dominions that ‘It is impossible to conduct a war without taking risks’, I have to state in reply that I agree, but in my opinion the position at Leros, which should have been apparent to anyone with a knowledge of what happened in Greece and Crete, was not that a reasonable risk was taken but that the men concerned were sent to certain defeat—they were foredoomed. Corsica and Sardinia cannot be accepted as parallel instances. In my opinion, the falling back on Leros without adequate air cover, because Rhodes was a disappointment, showed unrealistic and inefficient thinking and planning.