By Pierre Kosmidis
Photos and research: Andreas Galanos
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Autumn 1943: Operation “Taifun”, the Battle for Leros, the tragic end of the LRDG and the defeat of the British
Few WW2 units reached the legendary status of the Long Range Desert Group, known as LRDG or “Desert Scorpions”. This outfit, the predecessor of the modern special forces, after its successful operations in the African desert, met its tragic fate in the Greek islands in 1943.
The failed operations in the Dodecanese, following the capitulation of Italy in September 1943, resulted in a resounding and bitter defeat for the British and the last victory of strategic importance for the Germans.
One incident which is largely forgotten, but played a major part in the destruction of the LRDG, was the disastrous operation to secure Levitha, an uninhabited islet 25 nautical miles southwest of Leros island.
Only a handful of LRDG operatives escaped the ordeal, prompting the then prime minister of New Zealand to protest to the British and demand the immediate withdrawal of Kiwis from the LRDG.
Staffed essentially by volunteers, the LRDG had a unique ability: To infiltrate enemy lines in an extremely hostile environment, to perform reconnaissance and gather intelligence, to sabotage Axis airfields and fuel dumps.
With retrofitted vehicles, heavily equipped and self-sufficient for several weeks away from their base, the LRDG reached an iconic status within the Allied forces.
This legendary force was called to play a completely different role in 1943 and act as regular foot soldiers, which essentially meant that their importance was diminished by their own brass.
Simply put, a commando unit was used as infantry in an unfamiliar environment, such as the Greek Islands, and eventually was needlessly destroyed.
The capitulation of Italy in September of 1943 created a new military reality in the Dodecanese islands. The Germans had already prepared the recapture of the islands and under no circumstances would they allow the development of a painful “thorn in their backside” with the presence of British and Greek forces in a politically and strategically sensitive area.
While the British had superiority at sea, the Germans controlled the skies over the islands. The Germans managed in a very short period of time to mobilize their Special Forces, the “Brandenburgers” from Yugoslavia.
Experienced, tough and properly trained, these men proved ideal for the demanding island environment. They were the spearhead of the Wehrmacht in Operation “Taifun”, during the Battles for the Dodecanese in Kos, Rodos, Astypalaia, Levitha and Leros.
Along with the fallschirmjager, the German elite paratroopers, the Brandenburgers conquered the islands one by one. The British, in a rather hastily planned campaign pressed by political opportunism, mobilised a variety of Commonwealth troops, based mainly in Africa and Malta.
The remains of the Italian lighthouse today
This is how the LRDG found themselves in a totally unfamiliar environment, from the vast desert of Africa to the tiny Greek islands of the Dodecanese, assuming completely unknown roles.
Stripped of their main “weapons”, constant movement and concealment, they found themselves in the same position their enemies were in Africa.
After the fall of the “big” islands, Rodos and Kos, the Germans prepared for the last phase of the Operation, making their way towards the “Malta of the Aegean Sea”, Leros island.
They first secured the sea lanes to Leros, in particular the advanced outposts of Astypalaia and Levitha, as these bridgeheads were necessary to the High German Military Administration, in order to avoid the deadly embrace with the British Navy.
Astypalaia fell on 22 October, while Levitha was conquered by the Germans earlier, on the 18th, with the Brandenburgs transported by seaplanes, disembarking on the steep shores of the rocky island and surprise the Italian garrison of the two meteorological stations and the lighthouse.
In the afternoon of the 18th, after successfully completing their operation, the Brandenburgers withdrew, leaving the island at the hands of a Luftwaffe detachment.
Major-General Brittorus, commander of the British forces on Leros island, immediately saw the threat. Levitha gained strategic importance and should be immediately recaptured.
He hastily organised a plan to recapture Levitha and chose the LRDG, as assault infantry, being experienced in swift commando operations. The glory days of “hit and run” operations in the desert now seemed very distant.
The Operation and disaster unfolding
On Saturday night, October 23 1943, 49 LRDG men board the Italian speedboats ML 579 and ML 836 to recapture Levitha. This rocky island has just one fairly deep cove where vessels can safely anchor. The LRDG force was divided into two groups of 24 and 25 men respectively.
Commander of the first group was the Rhodesian Captain John Olivey and of the second one the New Zealander James Sutherland.
According to plan, the first team approached the island from the south and the second from the southeast. The commandos hid their inflatable boats on rocky beaches nearby, along with ammunition and supplies as well as a 2″ mortar.
It may sound strange for a covert operation, but the motor boats were ordered to shoot at “potential” targets, despite the fact that there was no accurate information on the strength of the Germans or their positions.
The result was evidently disastrous. The Germans were alerted by the bombardment and immediately took cover and got ready for battle.
The objective of the operation was the occupation of the “Castello” hill, a vintage point which dominated the bay of Levitha.
The first group advanced towards “Vardia” hill, knowing that the Italian Meteorological Station was there. While they expected German troops to be stationed there, apparently due to lack of forces and of the greater importance of the central hill of the island, the Station was deserted.
Olivey set his command post without being noticed, while the second group had already been in contact with the enemy sustained its first casualty, the serious injury of a New Zealander.
Olivey decided to move quickly and to the next target, taking advantage of the confusion that prevailed. Two patrols, under Sergeant Harris and Corporal Bradfield moved to capture the nearby hills, thus encircling “Castello” hill.
A new day was rising and darkness, which was important for the attacking force, was swiftly giving its place to the glorious Aegean sun . Soon, another disaster followed:
At least one man was captured while Corporal Bradfield was seriously injured. The Germans tried to fool Olivey into surrender, with a soldier dressed in British uniform asking them with hand signals to lay down their arms. The LRDG responded with gunfire.
Meanwhile Sutherland’s group was engaged in a bitter struggle with the Germans. They captured 35 prisoners, to the loss of yet another New Zealand soldier.
Olivey could not establish radio contact with the second battle group. While the LRDG were equipped with radio sets, it was not until the fight was well under way that they saw that they were not properly tuned.
As the skies were now bright with sunshine, the Luftwaffe started their attacks. Olivey’s force managed to shoot at an Arado Ar196 seaplane and force it to ditch at sea.
Olivey quickly realised that having lost the element of surprise, an essential and crucial part of the operation, he had to take action:
He sent out two new patrols in order to bring from the coast the mortar and ammunition. His men returned with the mortar and ammo, along with three prisoners.
Captain Olivey decided to make a last effort to reverse the situation According to descriptions of survivors, they were at a very exposed environment, trying to approach the enemy who was in well concealed positions.
Losses began mounting.
It was now late afternoon when Captain Olivey returned to his command post, only to find it overrun by Germans waiting for him.
The Germans had already taken Lt. Francis Kay prisoner and asked Olivey to surrender. After a brief firefight Olivey’s team dispersed and only himself and a Rhodesian gunner managed to escape.
The second patrol group, unsuspecting that their post was ambushed, was swiftly taken prisoners too.
The situation was equally dramatic for Lieutenant Sutherland’s group. After a hard-fought battle, they were pinned to the ground by heavy fire. Their ammunition had nearly been exhausted, even the German arms taken from the 35 German POWs.
The situation was hopeless and Sutherland decided to surrender and raised a white flag, along with one of the prisoners. Any further bloodshed was unnecessary.
The operation ended in utter disaster. Out of a force of 49 men, just seven managed to escape to Leros, five were KIA, out of which the 4 were from New Zealand, while the rest (37 men) were taken as POWs.
The LRDG lost in a two-day operation more men than it had lost during three years in the desert!
Olivey, who managed to escape, returned the next night to Levitha, but failed to locate and recover any other LRDG members. The German losses were two KIA and two MIA, while an Arado Ar196 seaplane was put out of action.
The Levitha debacle proved that using trained commandos as infantry attacking fortified positions, without previous reconnaissance or even the appropriate equipment was the perfect recipe for disaster.
With no accurate information on the number and positions of the enemy the LRDG faced an opponent without its main “weapon”, the element of surprise
The heavy defeat of the LRDG in Levitha was a turning point in its history, as it never fully recovered. In fact, this disaster for the LRDG proved to be the turning point in the strained relations between New Zealand and Britain because of the mindless sacrifice of New Zealand troops in Greece, after the Battle of Crete.
The New Zealand government officially complained and finally withdrew the New Zealanders from the LRDG.
Elements of the LRDG after the liberation of Athens in October 1944, served as a reconnaissance unit in the rearguard of the German occupation troops retreating from Patra to Florina.
In an ironic twist of fate, Rhodesian Captain Olivey, who led the failed operation in Levitha, was seriously wounded and his driver killed in Athens in December 1944.