Episodes & Studies Volume 1
WITH THE OBJECT of containing German forces in the eastern Mediterranean and diverting part of the enemy’s air force during the Allied invasion of Italy, and also of taking advantage of any weakness in the enemy defences that might follow the Italian capitulation, British forces from the Middle East occupied the Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean Sea in September 1943. The enemy’s command of the air, however, enabled him to counter-attack and regain possession of these islands during the next two months. In the course of these operations, patrols of the LRDG were employed as raiding and reconnaissance parties in the enemy-held islands, and as garrison troops.
When Italy collapsed, the Germans assumed control of Crete, Rhodes, and Scarpanto. As a preliminary step to an assault on Rhodes and to harass the extended German garrisons, the British secured the islands of Cos, which had the only airfield, Leros, where there was a naval base, and Samos, which would be an advanced base in the north, as well as other small islands. Reinforcements were taken without opposition by air to Cos, by destroyer to Leros, and by small local craft to Samos and other islands.page 24
Before going to this new theatre of war, the LRDG spent the summer of 1943 at The Cedars of Lebanon, where the men were trained in mountain warfare. The patrols travelled long distances as self-contained units, and received supplies dropped by the RAF under wireless direction. B (British and Rhodesian) Squadron also trained on the Levant coast to operate from submarines, but A Squadron, which included approximately 110 New Zealanders under the command of Major Guild, had no opportunity for amphibious training.
A Squadron, leaving Haifa ten days after B Squadron, sailed on the Greek destroyer Queen Olga on 21 September in convoy with three other destroyers and reached Portolago, Leros, during an air raid the following day. Little damage was done to the port, so work was begun immediately unloading stores and making camp at Alinda Bay, on the eastern side of the island. A few days later the Queen Olga and HMS Intrepid were sunk at Portolago and the naval barracks were damaged in heavy air raids.
Two A Squadron patrols were despatched from Leros on 25 September for the Cyclades, a chain of islands off the south-east coast of the Greek mainland, to watch and report on the movements of enemy shipping and aircraft. A party from T1 patrol went to Kithnos and M1* patrol to Giaros. In addition, a Rhodesian patrol (S1) was sent to Simi, a small island off the coast of Turkey and about fifteen miles to the north of Rhodes, and M2 patrol to Stampalia. The remainder of the LRDG, together with the Special Boat Squadron and some commandos, were concentrated on the island of Calino, two or three miles to the south of Leros. On their arrival on 25 September they received a tumultuous welcome from the Greeks, who had been oppressed by the Italian garrison.
The enemy already had begun his air attacks on Cos, the only island from which fighter aircraft could operate to protect the sea and land forces in the Aegean. The number of fighters that could be based on the Cos airfield was not sufficient to ward off for long the determined attacks of a strongly reinforced German Air Force. The enemy invaded Cos by sea and air on 3 October and, despite the stubborn resistance of a battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, overwhelmed the garrison next day.
The troops on Calino, six miles away, were given no warning of the invasion, and as a result the LRDG narrowly escaped losing a patrol. Captain Tinker had set out on 28 September with a composite patrol of twelve men to investigate some mysterious signalling to Turkey from Pserimo, a small island midway between Calino and Cos. The signaller, who was sent back to Calino for interrogation, was found to be a Greek in British pay as an agent.
The invasion fleet bound for Cos, including merchant ships and landing craft, escorted by flak ships and three destroyers, arrived in a cove on the south coast of Pserimo before dawn on 3 October and began the assault on Cos half an hour later. The enemy put eighty troops ashore at Pserimo to establish headquarters and dressing stations. They quite unexpectedly encountered Tinker’s men, who left hurriedly for the high ground, hustled on by heavy volleys of fire from the escort ships. Enemy patrols searched the island that day and the next, but Tinker’s party was taken off in the late afternoon of 4 October and returned to Calino with the loss of only one man captured.
The LRDG had been ordered to counter-attack Cos the previous night—an impossible task— but this order was cancelled and all the troops on Calino, which was now considered untenable, were instructed to return to Leros. Stores and troops were loaded into every available craft and a strange fleet of little ships struggled out from Calino in the evening. They reached Leros at various times throughout the night and, in anticipation of air attacks, unloaded and moved the stores away from the wharves before daylight. A dive-bombing raid by fifty-five aircraft began at 5.30 a.m. and lasted four hours. An Italian gunboat and several small craft were sunk and buildings and installations destroyed.
The garrison on Leros comprised Headquarters 234 Brigade, a battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, a company of the Royal West Kents, and the Raiding Forces (about 200 men of the LRDG, 150 men of the SBS, and thirty commandos). The only anti-aircraft defences, 40-millimetre Breda guns, and the five coastal-defence batteries, each of four 6-inch naval guns (off British ships), were Italian. Five LRDG patrols were despatched to the battery positions to stiffen the morale of the Italian allies and if necessary prevent them from turning their guns against brigade headquarters. The task of seeing that the gun crews were at their posts, and that they manned their guns, called for tact, patience, and even force. The Italian communication system, inefficient in any case because of the demoralisation of the signalmen, was damaged by bombing, and in the later stages before the invasion the only communications were the LRDG wireless links.
The bombing attacks were continued every day, often by sixty or more aircraft, and the coastal batteries were among the targets selected. The battery on Mount Marcello, in the north-west, where Y2 patrol was stationed, was put out of action on 8 October, and the battery on Mount Zuncona, to the east of Portolago Bay, where R1 (under Lieutenant D. J. Aitken40) was stationed, was put out of action next day. Aitken’s patrol was then withdrawn to A Squadron headquarters.
German landing craft were seen entering the bays of Calino on 10 October, and next day the coastal batteries shelled the enemy from Leros. The LRDG sent parties of two or three men to Calino to gather information about enemy activity there. On one occasion a New Zealander (Sergeant R. D. Tant41) failed to return to the rendezvous. Captured by the enemy, he was taken from Calino to Cos, but escaped to Turkey and arrived back at Leros after being missing for a fortnight. He was again taken prisoner, however, during the invasion of that island, by the same company of German paratroops.
The loss of the Cos airfield was a major setback, for without air cover merchant shipping could not enter the Aegean with the anti-aircraft guns, transport, and stores needed for the defence of Leros and Samos, and the Navy could avoid unacceptable losses only by operating at night. It was doubtful whether Leros and Samos could be held indefinitely without the capture of Rhodes, a major operation for which the resources were not available in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the Commanders-in-Chief of the three services decided to hold Leros and Samos as long as supplies could be maintained.
Destroyers, submarines, and smaller craft brought troops, supplies, six 25-pounder guns, twelve Bofors guns (which were strapped on submarines), jeeps and trailers. Mortars, machine guns, ammunition, wireless equipment, and other stores were dropped by parachute. The garrison was reinforced by 400 men of the Buffs, who were the survivors of the troops on three destroyers sunk by mines off Calino on 24 October, and by a battalion of the King’s Own.*
* The King’s Own Royal Regiment