Sunday, 29 May 2022

BATAILLES AÉRIENNES No. 100 - Last victory of the Luftwaffe in the Med, September- November 1943


Issue No. 100 of the French quarterly "Air Battles" (Lela Presse) covers the combats over Kos and Leros in the eastern Aegean (Dodecanese) during September-November 1943 following the Italian change-of-sides, 100 A-4 glossy pages, 190 photos, 20 artworks, 13 euros.

"...September 1943. As the fate of the war increasingly turned against the Axis, the Italian government made a secret agreement with the Allies to exit the conflict. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw this as the perfect opportunity to trigger the 'Accolade' Plan, the capture of the Dodecanese islands. By doing so, he hoped to bring neutral Turkey into the Allied camp while launching a major offensive through the Balkans, the 'soft underbelly of Europe'. But Churchill was not followed in this by his American ally and, contrary to his hopes, the Wehrmacht quickly took control of Rhodes, the most important island in the eastern Dodecanese. Despite this setback, British units were committed to an offensive that was badly launched from the start (some authors have spoken of 'Churchill's folly'). Although caught unprepared, the Wehrmacht scraped together various adhoc units, rushing a number of Luftwaffe Gruppen and an airborne regiment to the Aegean to effectively 'replay' the 'Merkur' operation of May 1941 (the capture of Crete): the Germans dominated the skies while the British were the masters of the sea. During October-November 1943 in two quick but costly landings, the islands of Kos and Leros were taken back from the British. This was the last great victory of the Wehrmacht with the surrender in the field of a British army and the capture of its general. A military episode too often ignored by historians and chroniclers despite its important underlying political aspects...."

The Allied 'invasion' of Italy had led to this country dropping out of the war during September 1943. On the mainland the Germans were simply able to 'occupy' the country with the large numbers of German troops already present. Elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean Italian possessions garrisoned by the Italian army were at risk of seizure by Allied troops. In the race to occupy the Dodecanese and neighbouring islands, the Wehrmacht undertook a series of 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 heavy losses in Crete. The Luftwaffe had airfields on Rhodes and Crete but the only Allied-occupied territory with a suitable landing ground was Kos, defended in the air by SAAF Spitfires. On October 3, 1943 the Germans opened a direct assault on the islands of Kos and Leros; operations 'Polar Bear' and 'Typhoon'. Luftwaffe bombers - Ju 88s of ZG 26 and Stukas of Kuhlmey's St.G 3- and the Bf 109s of III and IV./JG 27 inflicted heavy casualties. This was arguably the last effective offensive mounted by the Luftwaffe and the full story is related by Jean-Louis Roba in the 100th issue of the Lela Presse Batailles Aeriennes. 

As M.Roba told Pierre Komidis he has been researching this little-known area of the war in Europe and the Mediterranean for over forty years - his self-published "The Germans in the Aegean 1941-45" (Vol I) was written and researched during the late 1970s-1980s and inspired after viewing the classic Werner Herzog film 'Lebenszeichen' ('Signs of Life'). 'Lebenszeichen' described the lives of three German soldiers after a paratrooper wounded on Crete is evacuated to Kos. Herzog filmed on the island of Kos before the era of mass-tourism.

".. A brief search made me realize that no one had written a book on the everyday life in the Aegean during the German occupation 1941-45. After the conquest of Crete by German airborne forces - none were landed by sea - this sector of the Mediterranean fell into the most complete oblivion. During a period of ten years I gathered a lot of information on Greece during the Second World War and I had to restrict this study to the islands of the Aegean Sea occupied by German troops. The title is indeed the perfect summary of the contents of the book..."

Dornier Do 24 T (WNr. 071) VH+SK on the strength of 7. Seenotstaffel during October 1943

Uffz. Karl-Heinz Lüdtke of 7. Seenotstaffel;

"...after Italy had deserted the Axis, the Greek islands held by the Italian army, supported by British soldiers, had to be reconquered. 7. Seenotstaffel from Athens was ordered to provide Dornier 24s to transport infantrymen to these islands. One morning, we (Ofw. Lange's crew) were woken up with an order to go directly to Staffel HQ. We were not staying in the barracks but in a small villa in the vicinity. So we had a short walk to cover. We set off as quickly as possible without knowing what was expected of us. Certainly an alert that was obviously urgent. When we arrived at the seaplane base, we noticed the presence of infantrymen sitting all over the central square. We were to learn later that these were the famous Brandenbürger, the "Reich Commandos". Our curiosity was totally aroused. We were soon to be told by the StaKa that our good friends, the Italians, were tired of the war and had gone over to the enemy. We were going to have to reconquer the islands occupied by the 'Macaroni'. Hence the soldiers in front of the buildings. Everything happened very quickly, no time to procrastinate! Lightly  equipped and with their weapons, the Brandenbürger boarded our Do 24. They were given life jackets (we did not fly without them). Our chief cook also wanted to come along, because he was desperate to bring back a pig to improve our rations! The island we were assigned did not have an important garrison and the twenty to twenty-five men on board would be sufficient to retake it. We landed very close to the shore. Was the enemy still sleeping? In any case, we disembarked the soldiers without being fired on and then set off again back to Phaleros. There, as soon as we arrived, we received orders to leave immediately for the island.  Amazingly the operation had taken only a short time. By noon, we were already in the air, all surprised by this unexpected speed. When we landed and approached the beach, we discovered about twenty British soldiers flanked by Brandenbürger. And our head cook? He was very disappointed not to have found a pig on the island and, instead of bringing back the extra food, we carried the twenty enemy soldiers who were sent to a prison camp. Most of the Italian POWs sided with us and became Hiwis (Hilfswillige or auxiliaries). The islands were then to be held by the soldiers of the disciplinary battalion N° 999...."

As in Norway and around Crete at the end of May 1941, the Ju 87s of St.G 3 had a field day attacking ships or ground positions on the islands of Cos and Leros. The 22-year old Friedrich Eisenbach of I. Gruppe made eleven war flights over Kos, attacking a convoy of cruisers and two RN destroyers on October 7 west of Rhodes  - HMS Penelope was seriously damaged by a force of 39 Stukas and 35 Ju 88s (II./KG 6, II./KG 51 and LG 1 along with He 111s of KG 100). Over the following days XIIth AF B-24s and B-25s escorted by P-38s bombed Rhodes, Eleusis and Crete and were caught up in combat with III. and IV./JG 27. Eight P-38s were claimed on October 8, including three by Fw. Bartels, while on October 9, I./St.G 3 sunk HMS Panther and inflicted heavy damage on HMS Carlisle..

After Kos had fallen to the Germans on 4 October, the Luftwaffe concentrated on the fortified island of Leros, the 'Malta of the Aegean'. Eisenbach flew eight sorties against this island in support of German airborne forces - some of the Stuka sorties flown from Megara were up to four hours long. The British and their new Italian allies fought desperately but this last allied bridgehead had to capitulate on 16 November after five days of fierce fighting. Late in the day, the USAAF supported its British 'ally' by bombing airfields on the mainland. P-38 Lightnings (with sufficient range) of the 37th FS (14 FG) from Africa had even surprised a Ju 87 formation on a mission over the Aegean on 9 October - Major William Leverette claimed seven St.G 3 Ju 87 Doras downed - among those KIA was the StaKa of 5./St.G 3 Hptm. Peter van Heydebrandt. But this limited support could not prevent disaster, the fighting in the Dodecanese constituting one of the last victories of the Wehrmacht. Having championed an invasion of southern Europe through the Balkans as a means of shortening the war, the loss of the Dodecanese was a defeat for Churchill. While even British authors consider the Aegean adventure as 'Churchill's folly', it is quite possible that his vision of an assault through Europe's 'soft underbelly' could have enjoyed more success than the 'American' invasion of mainland Italy - a country with a mountainous spine that was easy to defend and which the Allies only took at tremendous cost....

More details and a pdf extract on the Lela Presse site here