New Light on Leros

Oral history breathes fresh life into a deadly battle of the Second World War.

Oral history can help reveal the human side of war. It gives voice to the soldiers themselves alongside the military reports of operations, which often prove sterile for historians. Interviews with soldiers who fought in the Battle of Leros in 1943, conducted in the intervening years, have meant that their stories, which would have otherwise been lost, can be told.

Sitting in the Aegean, the small Greek island of Leros (about eight miles by four) was at the centre of a ferocious battle, which has been largely overlooked in the broader theatre of operations known as the Dodecanese Campaign. Thanks to these interviews, disastrous military operations and the experiences of the soldiers who fought in the Battle of Leros can be better understood.

For 21-year-old Private Paddy McCrystal the war ended when he was surrounded by the Germans on top of a mountain in Leros on 16 November 1943. He recalled the swiftness of the operation: ‘The Jerries came behind us, where they dropped the paratroops. We didn’t know that. In no time at all, we were surrounded.’

Though the battle took place between 12th and 16th November, there had been a build up of forces since the beginning of September, when the Italian armistice took place. From that date, there was a race against time between the Germans and the British to gain possession of the hitherto Italian-held islands in the Dodecanese. Major George Jellicoe, heading the newly formed Special Boat Squadron, was among the first to land on Kos and Leros, assisted by men from the Long Range Desert Group. He remembered: ‘We were very well received by the Italians there [in Kos].’ The officers were offered free haircuts and shaves. ‘I went on with just with two of my people to Leros that afternoon, in this motor torpedo boat.’ Once the Italians had handed over the island to the Allies, British infantry were quickly sent out to join them. McCrystal was one of the first soldiers with the Royal Irish Fusiliers, who landed in force on the island, carried in by destroyers. They were soon joined by the King’s Own, the Queens Own Royal East Kents (the Buffs) and the Royal West Kents.

The battle began with an attempted German invasion of landing crafts at four specific points around the island. Corporal Vic Kenchington was with a group of men trying to ward off an invasion of the west side of the island. ‘The first lot tried to come in at Gourna Bay and got a terrible beating. An hour later they came back. We had no air force. We couldn’t move without getting bombed.’

That same day German paratroopers were dropped over the island and joined up with those in the landing craft, effectively splitting the island in half. As the battle intensified, sleep deprivation became a big problem for the British, who had been fighting non-stop. Most of them were experiencing battle fatigue. McCrystal recalled: ‘Lucky if you got a day’s rest. I didn’t get any sleep for a month in Leros.’

As their physical condition declined, men’s concerns about their survival grew. A number of them developed ‘battle neurosis’, a state of fear and exhaustion that became known as being ‘bomb-happy’; the repeated German dive-bombing of the past weeks had unnerved them. The worst cases were shipped back to the Middle East for medical treatment. McCrystal recalled: ‘There was a lot of them that lost their heads when they came over, with the constant bombing. Shell shock. I couldn’t tell you what happened. Most of them, they sent home.’

Once the action started, the soldiers started their fighting in earnest. Richard James, a lieutenant in the Royal West Kents, was thrown straight into combat, having been sent from the neighbouring island of Samos as back-up: ‘Fighting began pretty furiously for about five days … It hasn’t got very good memories for me. There was an attack launched along Alinda Bay. It was a very fierce and costly attack in terms of men. Every officer in the companies attacking was either hit or killed, except yours truly who was not hit.’  

There were also insights about the more leisurely pursuits which took place before the battle began and which provide a more complete picture of an otherwise potentially one-dimensional story. Lt James recalled one man, ‘Drummer’ Brown, who managed to get drunk every time he was out of sight of an officer. ‘Three times when we were at the docks, he managed to get drink. Once I got him onto the ship sober, but then he got in with the sailors and got drunk with them.’ Nonetheless, Brown went on to excel in action. ‘He and I set off to eliminate these snipers. We managed to achieve that and I am glad to say he got a military medal for it and that’s why I won my Military Cross. It was a hell of a battle, we retreated up [Mount] Meraviglia.’

Another Fusilier, Jack Harte, also surrendered after being surrounded by the enemy halfway up a mountain. His realisation of the extent of the devastation now had time to sink in. ‘For the rest of us, what followed was a harrowing experience. As we marched along somewhere in the vicinity of [Mount] Appetici, the sight of dozens of Allied and Germans soldiers lying dead on the road and hillside was a stark reminder of the ferocity of the battle … at least I was alive. Absolutely sick with my lot, weary and worn out, I was pressed into handling the mutilated corpses that were strewn along the way.’

For Churchill, Leros was a devastating loss. He wrote to Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary, on 21 November: ‘No attempts should be made to minimise the poignancy of the loss of the Dodecanese, which we had a chance of getting so easily and at so little cost, and which we now lost after heavy expenditure.’ He reckoned that the Germans had probably suffered 2,000 losses, but they now had 3,000 Allied PoWs. He estimated the total British losses to be about 5,000 men.

The addition of oral history alongside a more traditional narrative of events reveals the human angle of war behind such figures of ‘loss’ and ‘heavy expenditure’. The story of the Battle of Leros from the soldiers’ point of view ensures that the details of these men’s experiences are exposed in all their desperation.

Julie Peakman’s latest book is Hitler’s Island War: The Men Who Fought for Leros, published by I.B. Tauris in November 2017.