My dad joined his local regiment in Lancaster. Then did some travelling;
Regiment Movements in WWII: 1st Battalion (around 800 men) King’s Own Royal Regiment, Lancaster
From its peace-time base in Karachi, India, the 1st Battalion was airlifted to Habbaniya – to the West of Baghdad, Iraq, the first tactical movement of troops by air. At Habbaniya the battalion took part in the defence of the RAF airfield – vital for communications. From here it was posted to the Western Desert in May 1942. The next year saw the battalion almost wiped out in the action on the Greek island of Leros.
Egypt & Western Desert
-27 August 1942
-14 May 1943
Almost totally wiped out, or taken into POW camp, at Leros. The few survivors joined the 8th Battalion which was redesignated 1st Battalion.
In the Second World War German forces invaded Leros, one of the Greek Dodecanese Islands, and comprehensively defeated the British and Italian defenders. This resulted in many thousands of Allied combatants being taken into prisoner of war camps in Germany, and held there for the last 18 months of the war. Why did this happen at this, a late stage of the war when Germany was on the retreat in Italy and Russia and had been expelled from North Africa? What went wrong? Why was it known as the Last Great Defeat of WWII?
Let’s Set the Scene
German and Italian (Axis) forces invaded Greece (including the largest island, Crete) in 1941. By May 1941 Crete was in Axis hands and the rest of Greece soon followed, including the Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean Sea.
Around two and a half years later, on 8 September 1943, Italy surrendered to the Allies following the successful campaign through Sicily and mainland Italy. This left thousands of Italian troops, scattered throughout the Mediterranean, wanting to return home or support the Allied cause against Germany. (The war in Italy however was not yet over, and was the main focus of the Allies. The US in particular, saw any action in the Dodecanese as a distraction and refused to allocate any resources to it. The US did temporarily deploy some fighter squadrons, but they were withdrawn in October 1943). Despite this the British, seeing an opportunity to take advantage of Italian forces in-being, decided to go ahead, albeit with much reduced resources.
The centre for German power in the Dodecanese was Rhodes. This housed the 7,500 strong Rhodes Assault Division and also three military airfields. The Italians surrendered it in September 1943, along with 40,000 personnel.
Despite this the British, with Greek support and Italian cooperation, occupied several smaller islands (including Kos, Samos and Leros) alongside their new Italian allies. These were secured using units from special forces (the LRDG and SBS), naval units from Greece and Britain and air cover from the RAF. Kos had a military airfield with two squadrons of Spitfires to provide the air cover. However, this didn’t last long as the Germans invaded and recaptured Kos in early October 1943, executing over 100 Italian officers on Hitler’s orders. More than 1,300 British and 3,100 Italian personnel were captured.
This left the Allies without close air cover for the rest of the campaign.
The Preparations for Leros
British forces initially occupied Leros on 15 September 1943 with a small number of personnel. The Italian garrison had agreed to this, after the armistice with Italy on 8 September.
By early November 1943 the occupying British forces had grown to include elements of 4 Regiments with around 3,000 men and officers. The Italians had around 8,000, mainly naval personnel. The island was defended by pre war coastal batteries and anti aircraft guns, a small collection of naval vessels and around 250 aircraft, which were based in Cyprus and North Africa, over 200 miles away. These were mainly obsolescent bombers supported by two Spitfire squadrons. (Over 150 of these were subsequently lost in the battle as they were slow, and vulnerable to German fighters based a few miles away on Kos and Rhodes).
Brigadier Robert Tilney, who took command on 5 November 1943, led the British forces. Rear Admiral Liugi Mascherpa led the Italian garrison.
The Germans assembled an invasion force, which was supported by virtually unchallenged air superiority. During daylight hours they commanded the skies and could strike at will, as well as protecting their supply lines. The Allies could only re supply at night and would not be able to evacuate its forces before 28 November during a moonlit period. (Air strikes, begun on September 26, caused casualties among the defenders and sunk an Italian, British and Greek destroyer. These air strikes also affected morale as well as repeatedly destroying telephone landlines between the defenders.)
The air strikes culminated in a German invasion on 12 November 1943 at 4.30 a.m., just as it began to grow light. (Interestingly the invasion force had set off on 11 November, the anniversary of Armistice Day).
The battle was over in four days. German paratroopers landed in the middle of the island and separated it into two uncoordinated defensive units. Supported by air attacks, further reinforcements pushed the defenders back, and Brigadier Tilney surrendered on 16 November 1943 calculating that he could neither be re supplied with sufficient munitions or reinforcements. (He had been re supplied twice). A total of 3,200 British and 5,300 Italians were sent to prisoner of war camps. (Many could have escaped but communications were so poor they did not know what was happening. Meanwhile elements of the SAS did escape to Turkey, only 20 miles away, and neutral, because they knew what was happening).
The remaining occupied Dodecanese islands were evacuated by the Allies and the campaign ended on 18 November 1943 when German forces occupied them, going on to hold them until the end of the war.
Capturing and holding the Dodecanese islands was never going to end the war sooner. It was, at best, an opportunist adventure, potentially to bring Turkey into the war on the Allied side. The Germans foresaw this and were ready to halt it. The US also thought it was a distraction from the main military focus in Italy and declined to support it. The loss, early on, of Kos with its military airfield denied the Allies of close air support and with that any hope of re supply and protection from German air power. Poor communications between the Allies and amongst the ground forces reduced the effectiveness of the Allied response and led directly to the capture of so many of the defenders.
It was an object lesson in how, and why not to fight, when you cannot win.
My dad, as far as I know, was in the King’s Own Royal Regiment which fought on Leros. He never spoke about it.
Thanks to Geoffrey for the following:
Army Number: 3712951
Regiment: King’s Own Royal Regiment
POW Number: 141568
Camp Type: Stalag
Camp Number: XI-A Camp Location: Altengrabow, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany
Record Office: Infantry Record Office, The Public Hall, Lune Street, Preston, Lancashire Record Office Number: 18
Stalag XI-A was liberated by the US Army in May 1945 by agreement with the German Army, which was still at war. The Allied POWs were released and repatriated before being overrun by the Red Army or disease, as the prison camp was in what became East Germany and was suffering from an outbreak of Typhus.
He was a despatch rider, responsible for carrying messages between the fighting groups.