Πέμπτη 25 Φεβρουαρίου 2016

Leros Island, 1943: The underwater museum of WW2 aircraft wrecks and shipwrecks

The Eastern Aegean was the setting for a series of German air-sea landings, something not normally associated with the Wehrmacht. 

German infantry carried out beach assaults and, unusually, Fallschirmjäger were deployed in their intended role as paratroopers, more than two years after sustaining frightful losses in Crete. 

Both sides relied on air and naval forces, as well as conventional and unconventional ground forces. 

German paratroopers were drawn from the Luftwaffe and Division Brandenburg; the latter also fielded coastal raiders and assault troops. 

READ MORE HERE: Autumn 1943: Operation "Taifun", the Battle for Leros, the tragic end of the LRDG and the defeat of the British

Further reading and sources

Leros has so far escaped the mass tourism that typifies much of the Mediterranean. 

One reason, perhaps, is the island terrain. 

The landscape is rugged and hilly with an indented mainly rocky coastline and few sandy beaches. 

Hotels are limited and fairly small but sufficient to cater for the few summer visitors. 

In 1912 Leros and the Greek Dodecanese came under Italian rule. 

The decision by Italy to unite with Germany in 1940 would change everything. 

By summer 1943, Hitler’s Wehrmacht was faltering as it fought a war on too many fronts. 

In Russia the Soviets had finally halted the German advance; Axis forces had surrendered in North Africa; the Allies had landed in Sicily and Italy and American-led forces were pushing north towards occupied Europe. 

In July the Italians turned against Il Duce Benito Mussolini, replacing him with Maresciallo Pietro Badoglio. The Italian armistice followed in September. 

In the First World War Winston Churchill had been obliged to resign as First Sea Lord as a consequence of his role in the disastrous Allied effort in the Dardanelles. 

It fostered in him a dangerous obsession with the region. Now, as Britain’s Prime Minister, Churchill seized upon the opportunity to open a new front in the eastern Mediterranean. 
It was felt that such a move could only add to the pressure being applied against Germany; furthermore it might provide encouragement for Turkey to join the Alliance. 

It was a strategy fraught with difficulties and considered by the Americans in particular as a waste of time and resources. Churchill was undeterred.

For the operation to have any chance of success it was imperative that Rhodes be seized together with the island’s all-important airfields. 

Italian co-operation was essential. Accordingly, a military mission was tasked with preparing the way for the main assault. 

Raiders of the Special Boat Squadron (S.B.S.) would spearhead the occupation of other islands. 

Churchill approved the plan on 9 September

Before the British could act, however, the German Sturmdivision Rhodos, with around 7,500 officers and men, seized control of Rhodes. 

Up to 40,000 Italians were taken prisoner, thus ending British hopes of an assisted take-over. 

Nevertheless, there was hope in the British camp that even without Rhodes some islands might be occupied. 

Kos, Samos and Leros were duly secured and garrisoned primarily by troops of 234 Infantry Brigade, the battalions of which had recently arrived in the Middle East after enduring the siege of Malta. 

Island outposts were also manned by detachments of the S.B.S. and the Long Range Desert Group (L.R.D.G.). 

There were already on Kos 3,500–4,000 Italians including the majority of two infantry battalions. 

As air defence there were Spitfire Vs of 7 South African Air Force Squadron and 74 Squadron with approximately 500 ground support personnel. 

There were also about 680 British soldiers on the island, consisting mainly of 1st Battalion The Durham Light Infantry. 

On 23 September Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller commanding 22. Infanteriedivision was ordered to make preparations for the seizure of Kos and Leros. 

Müller intended to make Kos his first objective in a combined sea and airborne assault. Accordingly, the first wave landed at Marmari on the north coast at 05:00 hours on 3 October. 

Further landings took place along the rugged south coast. Soon after 07:00, paratroopers of the Division Brandenburg were dropped. 

The Germans pushed towards their objectives overrunning each in turn until arriving on the outskirts of Kos town later the same day. 

That night, the demoralised remnants of the British defence withdrew into the hills. The battle was concluded the next day. 

For the Italians, Kos was the latest in a series of defeats. For the British, it was a disaster. Without Kos there was no longer any possibility of providing air support for the remaining islands in British hands.

The main efforts of the Germans now turned to Leros, with the Luftwaffe concentrating on targeting key installation and shipping. 

On the eve of Operation ‘Taifun’ (‘Typhoon’), the German codename for the capture of Leros, Generalleutnant Müller had at his disposal a force of experienced and motivated combat troops. 

They were divided into three sub-divisions: the initial wave comprised four seaborne Kampfgruppen (combat groups) and a Luftwaffe parachute battalion. 

A second wave stood by with anti-aircraft and artillery units, as well as heavy weapons for the infantry. Assault troops and paratroopers of Division Brandenburg were held in reserve near Athens (on 13 November the Fallschirmjägerkompanie would conduct its third operational jump within six weeks). 

In the early hours of 12 November, Allied air reconnaissance reported two groups of ‘barges’ inside a minefield east of Kalymnos. 

It was assumed that the enemy was assembling in preparation for a daylight assault on Leros. However, the threat posed by mines precluded a pre-emptive strike by the Royal Navy. 

Only later was it realised that this was the main (eastern) force en route to Leros.

At about 14:30 hours the air armada with Kampfgruppe Kühne began its final approach: some three-dozen Junkers Ju 52 transports in line ahead escorted by bombers and cannon-armed floatplanes. 

There can be no doubt that the decision by the Germans to deploy paratroopers decisively affected the outcome of the battle. 

By the end of the first day, units under Major Sylvester von Saldern had achieved its objectives and held, albeit temporarily, the high ground on and around the dominating Clidi feature to within 500 metres of the coast at Alinda Bay. 

With Hauptmann Martin Kühne’s paratroopers in control of most of the key points south of Clidi, the Germans had effectively divided the island in two.

Fighting continued for five days as both sides lost and re-took ground in a series of seesaw actions. German and British reinforcements were ferried to Leros until the very end, but the latter were greatly disadvantaged by not having air support. 

The Germans, on the other hand, had Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers on call from dawn till dusk.

On the morning of 16 November it seemed that the Germans were on the verge of overrunning Brigade Headquarters on Mount Meraviglia. 

Signallers were ordered to destroy secret ciphers to prevent their being captured and compromised. Tilney withdrew with his staff, hoping to relocate his command post at Lakki in the south.

At 08:25 the Germans intercepted a signal from Fortress Headquarters to General Headquarters (GHQ) in Cairo. It advised that the situation was critical; 

German forces supported by Stukas and machine gun fire were reinforcing the Leros peninsula, and defensive positions on Meraviglia had been neutralised leaving troops demoralised and facing a hopeless situation.  

When the message was translated and relayed to Kampfgruppe Müller it was duplicated in leaflet form and airdropped over German positions, with a few words of encouragement from the German commander.

But Meraviglia’s defending troops managed to stem the German advance. Tilney returned to his headquarters and attempted to restore order out of the chaos. It was hopeless. 

That afternoon a renewed effort by the Germans resulted in the capture of Tilney and his staff. Elsewhere, British troops still felt they retained the upper hand. 

The Brigadier, however, concluded that further resistance was futile and in a controversial move agreed to end the fighting.


Generalleutnant Müller recorded German casualties during the battles for Kos and Leros as 260 killed, 746 wounded and 162 missing. Actual figures are probably higher. 

The Italians suffered most of all. According to German Naval sources, of nearly 4,000 mainly Italian prisoners of war on board the transports Donizetti and Sinfra, close on 3,400 went down when both ships were sunk in Allied actions. 

Many more men were lost while in transit outside Aegean waters. 

A report by M.O.1 for the period 11 September to 17 November 1943 puts Allied casualties at more than 5,000 Army personnel; another 500 Naval personnel were reported killed or missing. 

One submarine was listed as missing (in fact three were lost), fifteen ships and various other craft had been sunk or remained unaccounted for; ten vessels were damaged (the latter figure does not appear to include submarines); 100 aircraft, including eleven American machines, were written off and twenty-eight more were damaged. 

Aircrew casualties were not mentioned.

Τετάρτη 24 Φεβρουαρίου 2016

WW2 bunkers in Greece: Lt. Colonel (ret.) Ilias Kotridis and the "Metaxas line" that stopped the nazis in 1941

Blown up corridor of a bunker at the Karatas fortress - the Bulgarian occupation forces blew the surface bunkers and the corridors collapsed. The Bulgarians, allies of the nazis, tried to destroy the bunkers, after the battle was over, by blowing them up.

Lt. Colonel (ret.) Ilias Kotridis has dedicated his life and efforts unearthing the lost secrets of the "Metaxas Line", a complex of concrete bunkers and fortresses that withstood the German invasion.

The Germans launched their attack on April 6, 1941 and the Greek army stationed at the bunkers caused a significant number of casualties to the invading forces that stormed Greece from the northern borders with Bulgaria, a country that had sided with nazi Germany.

Paliouriones bunker complex
The number of casualties, including, dead, injured and missing in action, according to a variety of sources, is over 2,500 Germans and approximately 1,000 Greeks. 

XVIII Corps reported 555 killed, 2,134 wounded and 170 missing (without the officers).

XXX Corps' total casualties are not known, but the 164th Infantry Division suffered 18 killed and 92 wounded and the 50th Infantry Division 26 killed, 22 missing and 177 wounded (plus 4 drowned on 14 April in an accident).

Lt. Colonel (ret.) Ilias Kotridis is credited with locating an artillery piece of a battery which played a significant role during the Battle: 

"Back in 2002, after consulting with WW2 veterans who served at Roupel bunker complex, I managed to locate and unearth one of the four artillery pieces belonging to the "Kyriakidis Battery".

It was a very emotional moment for me, after 61 years we found the gun, along with the remains of the Greek soldiers that fought and died there".

Blown up door to a machine gun emplacement, on Hill 224, close to Paliouriones fortress
Lt. Colonel (ret.) Ilias Kotridis vividly remembers an incident that happened back in 1995, when he was the Commander of Roupel fortress, which is now a Museum.

"In May 1995, a group of visitors came to Roupel. Among them was an old man on a wheelchair. After listening to the order of battle and other details related to the struggle, he came closer and asked me to take him to "Molon Lave" hill. [Molon labe (Greek: μολὼν λαβέ molṑn labé), meaning "come and take them" , is a classical expression of defiance. According to Herodotus, when the Persian armies demanded that the Greeks surrender their weapons at the Battle of Thermopylae, King Leonidas responded with this phrase.]

Lt. Colonel (ret.) Ilias Kotridis continues: "At first, I was at a loss as to why he asked me to take him there. Once we got at "Molon Lave" hill, he asked us to leave him on the ground. He sat on the soil, he started weeping and kissed the ground. 

"It's OK" I heard him say. I still wasn't sure why he got so emotional. The old man looked at me and said: 

"Can you see that old fortifications over there? This is were my two legs are, I lost them during the fighting with the Germans. But it's OK, what I did was for my country and family."  

The Battle of the Metaxas Line (Kampf um die Metaxas-Linie), also known in Greece as the "Battle of the Forts"  was the first battle during the German invasion of Greece in April 1941, during World War II. 

Following the stalemate of their Italian allies in the Albanian front and the victories of the Greeks in the mountainous regions of northern Greece and Albania against the Italian army, since the unprovoked attack of fascist Italy on October 28th, 1940, which signaled the entry of Greece in World War Two, the paranoid German dictator Hitler initiated the preparation for Operation "Marita".

Steel ladder leading to an observation post, "Delta" Company, Paliouriones fortress

General Ioannis Metaxas, the Greek dictator-prime minister who died shortly before the German invasion of his country, had initiated this construction project in the summer of 1936. 

View from Hill 224, in the distance Strymon river and Bulgaria 
Its strongest part extended over a distance of  200 kilometres (125 miles) from the mouth of the Nestos River to the point where the Yugoslav, Bulgarian, and Greek borders meet. 

An inside view of the fortifications of Hill 224
The fortresses within this defense system blocked the road that led through the basin of Nevrokop and across the Rupel Gorge to eastern Macedonia. 

Personal effects of KIA Greek soldiers, belonging to the "Kyriakidis Battery"
The strength of the Metaxas Line resided not so much in its fortifications proper as in the inaccessibility of the intermediate terrain leading up to the defense positions.

Gas mask part, from the relics unearthed at the specific spot where the KIA Greek soldiers were found
The Greek fortifications along the border had been skillfully adapted to these terrain features and a defense system in depth covered the few available roads. No continuous fortifications had been erected along the Yugoslav-Bulgarian border, but road blocks, demolitions, and extensive mine fields had been prepared at all border points. 

Bullets belonging to the KIA Greek soldiers
The German plan of attack was based on the premise that, because of the diversion created by the campaign in Albania, the Greeks would lack sufficient manpower to defend their borders with Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. 

A 152mm gun, blown up by the Greek soldiers, to render them useless (WW2 period photo from the personal collection of Lt. Colonel Kotridis)
The full frontal attack on the Metaxas Line, undertaken by one German infantry and two reinforced mountain divisions of the XVIII Mountain Corps, met with extremely tough resistance from the Greek defenders. 

The 152mm gun found by Lt. Colonel Kotridis

The Metaxas Line was a chain of fortifications constructed along the line of the Greco-Bulgarian border, designed to protect Greece in case of a Bulgarian invasion after the rearmament of Bulgaria. 

It was named after Ioannis Metaxas, dictator and Prime Minister of Greece, and chiefly consists of tunnels that led to observatories, emplacements and machine-gun nests. 

The constructions are so sturdy that they survive to this day, some of which are still in active service. Some of them are open to the public.

The 152mm gun found by Lt. Colonel Kotridis

Some of the fortresses of the line held out for days after the German attack divisions had bypassed them and could not be reduced until heavy guns were brought up.

The 152mm gun found by Lt. Colonel Kotridis
List of Fortification Complexes

The following 21 forts make up the Metaxas Line, ordered from West to East along the Greco-Bulgarian border.

Popotlivitsa (Ποποτλίβιτσα)
Istibey (Ιστίμπεη)
Kelkagia (Κελκαγιά)
Arpalouki (Αρπαλούκι)
Paliouriones (Παληουριώνες)
Roupel (Ρούπελ)
Karatas (Καρατάς)
Kali (Κάλη)
Persek (Περσέκ)
Babazora (Μπαμπαζώρα)
Partalouska (Παρταλούσκα)
Ntasavli (Ντάσαβλη)
Lisse (Λίσσε)
Pyramidoeides (Πυραμιδοειδές)
Kastilo (Καστίλο)
Agios Nikolaos (Αγιος Νικόλαος)
Bartiseva (Μπαρτίσεβα)
Echinos (Εχίνος)
Nymfaia (Νυμφαία)
An emplacement for a 152mm gun
German General Wilhelm List, who led the attack against the Metaxas Line, admired the bravery and courage of these soldiers. 

He refrained from taking the Greek soldiers prisoner and declared that the army was free to leave with their war flags, on condition that they surrender their arms and supplies. 

He also ordered his soldiers and officers to salute the Greek soldiers (Beevor 2005, p. 20). 

The line was also poorly manned as most of the Greek Army was fighting against the Italians, on the Albanian frontier.
Researching the remains of the KIA Greek soldiers
The Metaxas Line consists of 21 independent fortification complexes, the largest of which is Fort Roupel as it covers 6.1 out of the 155 km of the full line and had been constructed at a height of 322 m. 

Illumination was initially mostly provided by oil-lamps, although generators were also installed. 

(Currently, the fortifications are supplied with public electricity, but they are also equipped with generators). 

Ventilation was achieved both naturally and artificially. Water was supplied via water-mains. 

The fortification works lasted four years and their cost at the time reached 100,400,000 drachmas.
Lt. Colonel Kotridis while researching for the remains of the KIA Greek soldiers
Paliouriones fortress bunker complex

Lt. Colonel Kotridis examines a newly discovered bunker, with a ventilation mechanism at Karatas fortress 

A minefield sign

75mm shell case in one of the bunkers 

Ventilation shaft at Karatas fortress

Staircase at Hill 224

Corridors at "Delta" Company, Paliouriones fortress bunker complex

Blown up entrance to the Karatas bunker complex, featuring a mortar shooting position

Dragons teeth at Ousita, Roupel fortress 

Antitank steel girders at Ousita, Roupel fortress 

Unfinished bunker at Ousita, Roupel fortress

A/A position at Ousita, Roupel fortress 

A partially exploded round with remains of the explosive charge 

The red covers the line of fire of Roupel fortress

Close to the entrance of Ousita

A machine gun emplacement

A blown up bunker at Arpalouki fortress bunker complex 

The "hidden" entrance at Arpalouki fortress. Note the bullet holes on the walls, a vivid reminder of the fierce battles that took place exactly here in April 1941. 

"Delta" Company, Paliouriones fortress, Hill 224