“At the moment of the Italian armistice, the British had decided to seize the Dodecanese and especially Rhodes and Kos that disposed the best airports. The operation was however abandoned because of lack of available forces. To encourage the Italian garrisons that had already joined the side of the allied forces to resist against the Germans, small British military commando units and the Greek Sacred Company were sent to many islands.
These operations in which the Greek ships participated very actively, took place between September 8 and 16 1943. Allied forces were sent to the islands of Kastellorizo, Kos, Leros, Ikaria, Astypalaia and Samos.
These allied operations gave to the Germans the impression that they constituted the preamble of a large scale attack against the Balkans. The German military leadership was of the opinion that the defense of the islands was hard, because of the supply difficulties, and that it was necessary for the German forces to withdraw from there. Hitler however did not agree with this point of view and considered that withdrawing from the Dodecanese would have had serious consequences, especially for Turkey. Thus, the Germans decided not only to keep the islands already occupied by them but also seize again those that the Allies were holding.
The Germans having at their disposal the airports of Rhodes and Crete disposed absolute local supremacy in the air and succeeded sending military units by sea. The allied naval forces could not stop these transports, while the enemy had supremacy in the air. With night attacks they however succeeded to cause several losses to the enemy transport means.
On October 3, the Germans re-seized Kos and the Allies lost the only airport in the area at their disposal. The British decided then to keep, if possible, the islands of Leros and Samos.
The events that followed right after the Italian armistice in Rhodes are not totally verified. Admiral Campioni, Commander of the Dodecanese, was disposed to cooperate with the Allies and for this reason he was later executed by Mussolini in Northern Italy. The Germans disposed a division in the island and some anti aircraft batteries, but the Italian garrison was much more powerful; almost six fold as it is reported.
In spite of their power supremacy, the Italians surrendered to the Germans that thus became the absolute masters of the island. To explain this phenomenon, the Italians report that “with a series of deceptive military and political negotiations the Germans succeeded breaking every possibility of resistance of the Italian garrison and finally succeeded its surrender.” The fact that the Admiral Commander of the Dodecanese suffered such cruel prosecution by the German-friendly Italians for the friendly position he initially showed towards the Allies, persuades that he wouldn’t have taken the armistice decision if the troops serving under his command were not willing to continue fighting at the side of the Allies.
On the other hand, fierce resistance met the German operation to seize Leros. The Germans inflicted serious damages to the British and Italian troops on the island, as well as to the British and Greek naval forces used for the defense of the island.
The description of the events that follows is given by the Italian side and doesn’t agree to Admiral Cunningham’s report, that the Italian garrison and the anti aircraft military installations didn’t offer any serious contribution to the island’ defense. From the examination of what is reported here below, one can deduct that the Admiral was not completely right and it is quite probable that when he was writing his memoirs he was not aware of what the Italians have later published.
Bragadin’s “The Italian Navy in World War II”, is the source of what the Italian side is reporting. Since it is a book published under the auspices of the Historical Service of the Italian Navy, the precise events that are reported are possibly presented more favourably for the Italians, but are probably not completely contrary to reality. If such was the case, the American Admiral Carney wouldn’t have accepted to preface that book. Besides, there were several British witnesses who wouldn’t have omitted denying the Italian version events.
The naval base that the Italians had installed on Leros was protected by 24 naval gun batteries that included about 100 guns of various types and calibres, from anti aircraft of 76mm to coast artillery of 152 mm. These batteries were kept in good condition by the Italians, but were of an old type and were situated in completely open sites. The naval personnel on the island were around 5,000 men, half of which were serving in the defense installations and the rest were working in the administrative services of the base. The mobile military forces of the island consisted of an army battalion of 1,000 men.
Because of the land configuration the base did not dispose any air ports and the only airport not under German control in the area was on the island of Kos, where 3 to 4 usable air planes were based. At the time of the German attack, the Italian naval forces based at the island consisted of 1 destroyer, some torpedo boats and coast guard boats.
The British sent to the island about 1,000 soldiers, between September 16 and 20, 1943, equipped only with portable guns and a few machine guns. Later, some more small units were sent. The British General Brittorious took over the command, while the Italian Naval Commander Admiral Maschera kept the command of the Italian forces and the civil population.
The base was especially exposed to air attacks from the German Air force, which was based in the Aegean. The Allies needed a powerful air coverage, which they couldn’t dispose. On the other hand, to repel any attempt of invasion from the sea there was need for permanent presence of sufficient naval forces at the island.
On September 13, the Germans proposed to the Italian Admiral to accept their representatives to negotiate with them the terms of an honourable surrender. He however refused to meet them.
The German attack started on September 26, 1943, with fierce air bombings, with which the Germans attempted on the one hand to destroy the defence installations of the island and to undermine the personnel’s moral, on the other.
The bombings continued for 52 days with ever increasing intensity. In one instance they lasted 3 days without interruption and the British said that they were “much worse than Malta’s bombings”. During these attacks, the only anti aircraft means available were the Italian gun batteries, the British not disposing any anti aircraft guns. 150,000 shells were fired from these installations. The Italians had stocked since peace time 200,000 anti aircraft shells in underground magazines, but consumption was such that after a few week actions some ammunition types started to become scarce. In addition, some guns were not usable anymore because of wear from the intensive fire. The Italians report that a large number of air planes, estimated at about 200, were shot down by their gun batteries.
The air bombings also caused serious destructions to the ships executing missions in the area. On September 26, on the day the attack started, the Germans sunk in Leros the Greek destroyer RHN VASILISSA OLGA that went down with many human losses including her commander, thus ending her glorious career. The British destroyer HMS INTREPID was also lost. According to the information provided by the survivors of VASILISSA OLGA, the Italians did not sound the alarm for the German air attack and then their fire was scarce and poor. As these happened on the day the attacks started, it is possible that they were surprised.
Later, in the effort to retain Leros 4 British cruisers and 2 destroyers were damaged from air attacks and 1 destroyer was sunk.
On October 22, 1943, the Greek destroyer RHN ADRIAS hits a mine and its bow is cut off. After some rough repairs and a dramatic sail that provoked the congratulations of the British Admiralty, the ship succeeds reaching Alexandria. Soon after ADRIAS, the British destroyer HMS HURWORTH that was escorting her also hit a mine.
During that same period, on September 14, the Greek submarine RHN KATSONIS was meeting a heroic end in the North Aegean. Thus, from the 6 submarines that the Greek Navy disposed at the beginning of the war, 4 were sacrificed for the Homeland.
Facing these great dangers, the allied naval forces succeeded reinforcing the British forces on Leros with 2 more battalions and with supplies, in spite the serious losses.
The Germans in the meantime had completed by October 22, 1943, the seizure of al the islands around Leros, where they concentrated troops, landing crafts and parachutists for the final attack against Leros. Although the allied air force succeeded destroying a German convoy and the allied ships ececuting night attacks sunk some enemy transport means, the Allies did not have the possibility to stop the German sea transports. The few British and Greek ships that were patrolling in the Aegean Sea had no air coverage, were operating from Alexandria – a far away base- and couldn’t therefore remain continuously in the area around Leros.
On November 1, 1943, the General commanding the British forces of Leros was replaced by General Tinley, who immediately dealt with the drafting of defence plans against landings.
Starting November 7, air bombings were intensified and till the night of November 11, most of the guns and anti-landing works had been rendered useless. There was no gun battery available any more in the North and Northeast sector.
On the night of November 11-12, 3 German landing forces approached Leros without meeting any resistance. Those heading towards the southern coast were repelled by the coast gun batteries and were forced to withdraw. At the other two sectors, on the other hand, where the defence installations had been destroyed, the Germans succeeded landing. The Italians serving in the defence stations of these sectors counterattacked, many were killed and those who surrendered were executed on the spot by the Germans. It is worth noting that since the first days of the attack the Germans had warned the Italian military personnel of the island that, if they didn’t surrender, they would be considered as irregulars and treated accordingly.
The German forces that initially landed were few and eventually, if the mobile forces were sent to confront them, could have been thrown to the sea. The British General however who was commanding these forces considered preferable to wait till the next morning. By then the Germans had thrown on the centre of the island a powerful team of parachutists and by that action had cut off the defenders of the island in two sectors. Towards the night of that same day General Tinley considered that the situation was becoming very serious, ordered the destruction of secret documents and convened a war council. At that council, the Italian Admiral proposed immediate counterattack with all the mobile forces, but the General postponed again taking any decision. He even refused approving the demand to counterattack with his men, formulated later by the commander of the Italian mobile battalion. It seems that there was an order from the Headquarters of the Middle East, not to use Italian troops in mobile forces. Gunder, a British correspondent that was in Leros those days, wrote in his book “Long Road to Leros” that “Anyway, this counterattack was never executed and ample time was given to the Germans to transport reinforcements. The cause of this confusion is not clear, but fatefully put at stake the probabilities of defence”.
On the whole day of November 13, the Germans attempted to clear the gun batteries and the defence installations and thus the weight of the battle fell on the Italian seamen that served them. Finally, the night of that same day, General Tinley ordered the British troops to fiercely attack one of the German bridgeheads. The British fighting bravely succeeded repelling the Germans. It was vain, as the Germans were continuously receiving without obstruction reinforcements from the sea. The next morning, November 14, they regained the lost ground and advanced even more.
The battle went on for 2 more days, in the form of many local clashes, British soldiers and Italian seamen fighting side by side. General Tinley and a few officers were surrounded in his underground Headquarters, resisted but were finally arrested. Before that the Germans had proposed by representative to the Italian Admiral the immediate surrender of the Italian forces, promising to spare the life of those that would surrender; they received a negative reply. Next, the Germans put into contact Admiral Luigi Mascherpa and the British General that had been arrested in the mean time, who informed him that he had signed the surrender of the British forces. It was only then that the Admiral was persuaded to order the surrender of the Italian forces.
General Tinley thanked the Italian Admiral for the support he offered with his forces and promised him that he would do anything in his power to save the life of the living Italians. That promise was kept and proved very beneficial. Admiral Mascherpa, however, was prosecuted for high treason in April 1944 in Northern Italy by the Mussolini Government and was executed together with Admiral Campioni, the Commander of the Dodecanese. The Italians serving in far away positions of the island, where the order to surrender was late to arrive, kept on fighting until the next morning. When they finally surrendered they were immediately executed by the Germans.”