THE BATTLE OF LEROS
September 26 - November 16 , 1943
With the surrender of Italy 3/09/1943 the islands of the eastern Mediterranean were of vital strategic importance to the Allies, the Axis and neutral Turkey. Although Churchill recognised this, the Americans did not and refused to help. Thus once more the British went into battle against the Stuka dive bombers and crack parachutists of the German Luftwaffe and suffered a heavy defeat despite some spectacular sea and land battles.On the 26 0f September 1943 the Germans attacking the Naval base of Laki with 25 airplanes JU88 and sank the Greek battle ship QUEEN OLGA causing also great damages to the British HMS INTREPID.After almost 50 days of continuous air strikes they attempt the first landing on Leros on the 11 of November 1943.The island finally surrenders to the Germans on the 16 of November 1943.
The following account is taken from "The King's Own -- The Story of a Royal
Regiment" by Col Cowper
At the conclusion of its course of combined operations 1/King's Own had returned to Syria, no more than twenty-five miles from Beirut, where Brigadier Barraclough was commanding. Here, on November 1 1943,the battalion received orders to go to an unknown destination which later turned out to be Leros, considered by H.M. Government to be of paramount importance. All ranks embarked in destroyers at Alexandria on November 3 and arrived at Leros at 2 a.m. on the 5th. On that day, when 8/King's Own left Malta for Egypt, the garrison of Leros consisted of 4/Buffs, 2/Royal Irish Fusiliers and 1/King's Own, with some light A.A. gunners and Indian engineers. The Italians were manning coast defence guns, reinforced by four eighteen- pounders. As nothing bigger could use the narrow roads the transport consisted of a few jeeps with trailers. Deep bays broke up the island into a shape not unlike a butterfly flying northeast with a varying span of some eight miles and a body two miles long. 4/Buffs held the northern wing with 'C' Company, 1/King's Own, under Major W. P. T. Tilly, located as "Fortress Reserve" just north of Gurna Bay. 2/Royal Irish Fusiliers with a company of Royal West Kent defended the centre portion, which included the neck of land between Gurna and Alinda Bays and Leros town. 1/King's Own was responsible for the southern area.
On the day that Cos fell the Admiralty had ordered strong naval reinforcements, including five cruisers, to the Aegean from Malta, and General Eisenhower sent two groups of long-range fighters to the Middle East as a temporary measure, but they had been withdrawn on October 11 and throughout the week in which the Regiment was preparing to resist the impending attack there was no air support of any kind. 1t was therefore only by night that Allied ships could operate without crippling kits. By day, in spite of continuous air attacks, there were remarkably few casualties, but the effect on morale was considerable. Telephone wires were constantly cut and this, together with the unreliability of the wireless, made control difficult. The main air attack was directed against the Italian gun positions which were effectively silenced. Captain H. P. J. M. Burke was on a course in the Middle East when he heard that the battalion was going into action, and he applied for and obtained permission to rejoin. He had to make his own way in a minesweeper and succeeded in reaching the Regiment a few hours before the action began.
It was about 4.30 a.m, on the morning of November 12, when the light was beginning to grow in the east, that the German invasion fleet was sighted. The Italian coastal guns were powerless to prevent the German troops from being put ashore in Palma Bay and near Pasta di Sopra on the north-east coast of the Buff's' sector, also in Tangeli Bay near Leros town, This last landing was staunchly resisted by the Royal Irish Fusiliers, but although they prevented the capture of the two features of Castle Hill and Mount Appetici, they were not strong enough to drive the enemy back into the sea.
The Buffs had insufficient troops to cover the whole of their area and during the morning the enemy secured a footing on Mount Clidi. Major Tilly's company of King's Own was hurried to the scene in jeeps. When it deployed to attack, the fire of its machine guns was smothered by that of the German mortars and the first effort was checked. The men rallied and gained a little ground, but in the confused fighting which followed they were slowly forced back westward. They were struggling, not only against numerical superiority on the ground, but also against persistent and almost unhindered air attack. In the early afternoon Major Tilly sent a platoon to his right to occupy a small ridge running towards Alinda Bay and so to join up with the Roya1 Irish Fusiliers, No sooner was this move completed at about 2 p.m. than fighter-bombers swept over the island from the south- west. They sprayed fire from the machine guns in their wings and pounded the rugged slopes with high explosive. Behind them flew the slower Ju.52's and from these bellied out mushroom-like puffs. Some five hundred parachutists descended on the neck of land between Gurna and Alinda Bays which had so recently been vacated by Major Tilly's company. A few German parachutists were shot down by small-arms fire and a Bren gunner of 'C' Company claimed a spectacular hit when his victim fell like a driven partridge into the sea, but in spite of a stiff breeze the majority dropped successfully from a low height. In this position they effectively divided the island in two and isolated the Buffs and 'C' Company King's Own from the rest of the garrison. While a fight ensued in the centre with the Royal Irish Fusiliers, Major Tilly launched a counter-attack on Mount Clidi with the survivors of his company. In hand-to-hand fighting the enemy was pushed down the forward slope and in the course of the advance Major Tilly was wounded. With the arrival of enemy reinforcements the company was forced back thirty yards before it could consolidate and hold on. Lance Corporal J, Hall noticed that Major Tilly was not there so he went back under fire from close range and within throwing distance of hand grenades. He found his company commander and brought him back to safety. In its new position the company was reinforced next day by a platoon of Buffs.
In order to dislodge the enemy paratroops train their position on the neck, it was the brigadier's intention to counter-attack with two companies of Fusiliers and 'B' Company, King's Own. The two companies of Fusiliers had already been fighting hard and to reorganise them and ensure their concentration in the darkness proved difficult indeed. Of the three companies only one arrived at the rendezvous, so the operation had perforce to be postponed. During the night more German troops were landed to strengthen the forces attacking Mount Appetici.
November 13 dawned with cloudy skies, high wind and heavy seas, but this did not prevent the enemy from landing more parachutists to reinforce the others. The resistance on Clidi that day was overcome and the Germans were able to concentrate on the built-up area along Alinda Bay. The paratroops attacked from the north east while those in Tangeli Bay took Mount Appetici and Castle Hill at about noon. For the rest of the day the heavy attacks or the Luftwaffe prevented further action, but at 2 a.m. on November 14 a counter-attack was delivered. In spite of every effort only one company of Fusiliers and 'A' and 'D' Companies King's Own, could be collected for it. 'A' Company, commanded by Captain D. J. P. Thirkell-White of the Suffolks with Captain C. J. Blyth as his second-in-command. was directed on to the searchlight and gun position at the top of the hill. 'D' Company had to cover dark ground which abounded in caves, each one of which had to be assaulted separately, and platoons therefore were forced to act independently. Touch between the companies was soon lost. 'A' Company reached the first gun position, after which it came under heavy fire from the flanks, the company commander and two of the platoon commanders were killed. Blyth also was wounded and in great pain, but he continued to lead the company into the attack until he was again wounded in the neck and died on his way back to the regimental aid post.
In spite of heavy machine-gun fire from the left flank, 'D', Company was able to gain ground and eventually, step by step, forced its way to the top of the slope where the situation was much confused. Here Major M. R. Lonsdale was wounded, Burke and Mathieson killed. Meanwhile the Germans launched an attack under cover of the fire of their mortars which threatened the safety of Fortress headquarters. 'A' Company was withdrawn from Mount Appetici. 'D' Company, with the Fusiliers, continued to hold the crest until well after dawn when, after heavy mortar fire, the Germans, "every man a Tommy gunner,'' attacked in their turn. They could not be held and the King's Own and Fusiliers were forced back down the hill amid showers of grenades.