Since 1943, Leros island in the eastern Aegean has been the world’s second biggest “museum” of WWII shipwrecks after Normandy. During the past five years, the island has been turned into a go-to destination for diving tourism.
The Eastern Aegean was the setting for a series of German air/amphibious landings, something not normally associated with the Wehrmacht. German infantry carried out a number of beach assaults more than two years after sustaining frightful losses on Crete.
Unusually, it wasn’t the Wehrmacht but German Fallschirmjäger paratroopers who were deployed on the island. They were the first German paratroopers to be committed in large-scale airborne operations, such as the one on Crete.
In September 1943, 8,320 Italian and 2,800 German soldiers attacked over 3,500 British and allied soldiers on Leros. The battle continued with German landings on November 12th and ended with the capitulation of the Allied forces four days later.
The island of Leros is part of the Dodecanese archipelago in the southeastern Aegean Sea, which had been under Italian occupation since the Italian-Turkish War. Leros’ Italian forces learned of Italy’s armistice with the Allies in September and decided to join them rather than the Germans.
After the battle was won by the German side in mid-November, several ships laid at the bottom of the sea around the island. Among the first to be sent to their doom were the Greek destroyer “Vasilissa Olga,” the British destroyer “Intrepid,” and Italian “MAS 534” inside the harbor of Lakki.
On October 3rd, the Italian destroyer “Euro” was sunk in Partheni Nay. Two days later, the mine-layer “Legnano,” the auxiliary landing ship “Porto di Roma,” the steamer “Prode,” and one Italian MFP were sunk in Lakki harbor.
On October 7th, the Italian steamer “Ivorea” was also sunk. On October 12th, the Italian steamer “Bucintoro” was sunk inside a floating dry dock. The Italian motor torpedo boat “MS 15” was sunk by an air strike on Leros on October 22nd while “MS 26” had been lost to grounding on October 9th.
All these sunken WWII ships have turned Leros into the Mecca of shipwreck diving. It is second only to Normandy, where the massive Allied landing took place. One submarine was listed as missing although, in fact, three were lost; fifteen ships and various other craft were sunk or remained unaccounted for in the fighting around Leros.
Two memorial monuments have been erected in the port of Lakki in honor of the crews aboard the ships “Queen Olga” and “HMS Intrepid.” The Battle of Leros lasted for an incredible 52 days.
On November 15, 1943 there were approximately 25,479 people living on Leros. There were 8,000 Italians, about 3,800 British, and 2,500 Germans while the normal population of Leros was 10,979. The British suffered 250 casualties while 3,300 men were captured and 250 escaped.
The Italians reported that 400 of their men had been killed, twelve officers were executed, 5,351 men were taken prisoner and some 2,000 managed to escape. The local Leros population suffered fifteen casualties, with 164 reported missing; the Greek Navy suffered 71 casualties. The Germans lost a total of 520 men in the conflict at Leros.
Due to the importance of the battle that took place on the island during the Second World War, the sea around the island and the island itself is full of remains and shipwrecks. They make the island of Leros a unique museum and an attraction for divers and history buffs alike.