Leros Island, a unique monument of World War II

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Leros (Λέρος)  is a wonderful and usually overlooked island in the Dodecanese (Δωδεκάνησα) in Greece. It has a long history that starts in prehistoric times and played an important role during World War II (WWII / WW2 / Second World War). The islands of Dodecanese, apart from Kastellorizo, were occupied by Italy during the Italo-Turkish War of 1912. Italian interest in the islands was rooted in strategic purposes and the intention to expand Italy’s long-range policy. The islands of Leros and Patmos were used as bases for the Royal Italian Navy. Especially during the 31 years that the Italians remained in Leros, they set up a great plan to transform the island into a fortified military and naval base because of its strategic position and its large natural harbours – the largest of which, Lakki (Λακκί), is one of the largest deepwater harbours in the Mediterranean Sea. The creation of a major base in Leros ensured that the Italians had control over an area of vital interest to the Allies that included the Aegean, the Dardanelles, and the Near East. Mussolini called Leros the “Corregidor of the Mediterranean” and considered the island a crucial aspect of the Italian domination.

The German assault on Leros: paratroops at an assembly point, 17 November 1943 – © Imperial War Museum

Leros suffered bombing raids by the British air force from 1940 after Italy entered World War II on the side of Germany. On September 8, 1943, Italy signed an armistice and came over to the Allied side. After the armistice, British troops arrived on Leros, and the island suffered continuous German aerial bombings. One of the largest attacks was on the Greek Navy’s flagship, the Vasilissa Olga, which was sunk by German bombers on the 26th of September, 1943, along with the British HMS Intrepid, while they were anchored in Lakki Bay. The island of Leros was finally captured by German troops during Operation Taifun between November 12 and 16, 1943. The incident became known as the Battle of Leros. It was a harsh battle and the last victory of the Germans against the Allies. The island remained under German occupation until the end of the war.

The presence of the Italians as well as the legacy of World War II in Leros is evident in an extensive number of buildings, sites, and monuments that are scattered throughout the island. Unfortunately, most of them are not maintained and have been given over to the wear and tear of time. Also, the seabed around the island is scattered with shipwrecks and aeroplanes from the Battle of Leros. Excluding Lakki, which is a special attraction in itself and was built entirely by the Italians as a model city according to the philosophy and aesthetic rules of rationalism (you can read here our article about Lakki), in this article we will focus on 6 easily accessible locations that can constitute a complete introduction for the visitor to the importance of Leros as a monument of World War II.


WAR MUSEUM (ΜΟΥΣΕΙΟ ΠΟΛΕΜΟΥ)

The War Museum of Leros is an excellent way for the visitor to get to know the important war history of the island. It is housed in a restored war tunnel that was built by the Italians. It was part of an extensive network of tunnels and overland defensive positions that had been constructed in the Merikia (Μερικιά) area for the storage of munitions. In the tunnel fort, a large number of exhibits from World War II are displayed, such as weapons, maps, photographs, army uniforms, and various other war memorabilia.

The surrounding area has been transformed into a military park, in which decommissioned military vehicles and a fighter aircraft are exhibited. Also inside the museum, visitors can watch an informative video about the Battle of Leros. In general, the space and the exhibits, combined with the sounds from the video of the battle that reverberate inside the tunnel, create an evocative atmosphere and transport the visitor to the war zone of that time.

PARABOLIC ACOUSTIC mirror (ΠΑΡΑΒΟΛΙΚΟΣ ΑΚΟΥΣΤΙΚΟΣ ΚΑΘΡΕΠΤΗΣ)
Photo by Athina-Dimitra Damiralis

At the top of the Patella Hill (Λόφος Πατέλλα), just 5,5 km from the War Museum, of which only the last 1,5 km requires attention as it can be done either by 4X4 vehicle, by bicycle or on foot, are the ruins of the buildings of the command of the Italian Air Defense. The special position of the hill in relation to Lakki Bay, the altitude and the morphology of the terrain were the main characteristics for it to be chosen as the central point of operations of the Italian Air Defense. The purpose of the command was to collect information from the observatories, verify them, and give the order to the gunnery to fire.

Photo by Athina-Dimitra Damiralis

At the centre of the facility is the unique architectural building of the Parabolic Acoustic Mirror. It is a rare example of a structural aerophone with 360-degree reception, consisting of three parabolic sectors, functionally independent and equipped with an associated listening notch, focused on the sector where the operator entered in order to hear any approaching enemy aircraft. The building was restored in 2016 by the Association Italienne Amis de Leros in collaboration with the Municipality of Leros.

Photo by Athina-Dimitra Damiralis

AGIOS NIKOLAOS RADIO (ΑΓΙΟΣ ΝΙΚΟΛΑΟΣ ΡΑΔΙΟ)

The Italians had built their Telecommunications Centre in the centre of the island, specifically in the area of Agios Nikolaos (Άγιος Νικόλαος), which had earned the nickname Radio (Ράδιο). It consisted of a central building and three large antennas. The building, although without any maintenance, still stands in place (although entering it requires attention), as do the three antennas.

It is noteworthy that the frequencies used in the centre were such that they had communication with Cairo, Italy, and Rhodes, but had no contact with the other end of the island. So, during the Battle of Leros, the 5 artillery regiments of the island used messengers and cannons to communicate. An interesting detail inside the building is the symbol and inscription placed on a wall by the German victors. The atmosphere of the building is so evocative that you think that at any moment you will see in front of you an Italian radio operator or a soldier.

APITIKI HILL (ΛΟΦΟΣ ΑΠΙΤΙΚΙ)

During the German invasion, perhaps the most difficult battle was fought on the Apitiki Hill (Λόφος Απιτίκι), which is located above the settlements of Platanos (Πλάτανος), Panteli (Παντέλι) and Agia Marina (Αγία Μαρίνα). On one of its two peaks is the Byzantine castle of Leros, while on the other top, toward Panteli and close to the Windmills, was built during the Italian Occupation a heavy artillery unit named Lago.

During the Battle of Leros, on the morning of November 12, the German company of amphibious commandos Brandenburg managed to occupy half of the heavy artillery installations after a fierce battle. The next day, the amphibious commandos were reinforced by an infantry company and managed to capture the entire artillery. On November 14, around two in the morning, a British counter-attack was launched to recapture Apitiki, but it did not work as the Germans put up a strong defence and eventually the British were forced to retreat, having suffered heavy losses. The ruins of the Italian installations, as well as the observatory at the top of the hill, were repaired and later used by the Greek Army, but today they have been abandoned by them as well. You can easily reach the abandoned buildings via a dirt road that starts from the Windmills (there is also a relevant sign).

SHIPWRECK OF GERMAN LANDING CRAFT (ΝΑΥΑΓΙΟ ΓΕΡΜΑΝΙΚΟΥ ΑΠΟΒΑΤΙΚΟΥ)

Leros is not unfairly considered the Μecca of shipwrecks due to the numerous shipwrecks from World War II hidden on its seabed. What in previous decades was a secret among the residents of the island has now attracted the international interest of those involved in diving. As a result of the international interest, a German Junker aircraft was recovered in 2003 and is now on display at the Air Force Museum in Athens.

Today, local divers organise diving trips on the island, but an easily accessible shipwreck at a depth of only 2 to 3 metres can be found in the area of Koulouki (Κουλούκι) in Lakki, specifically on the beach of the Naftikos Omilos Lerou (Ναυτικός Όμιλος Λέρου). At a distance of a few metres from the coast (the location is marked with an arrow in the above photo and you can also spot it on Google Maps) and with a simple sea mask, anyone can visit the wreck of a small German landing craft, which was used and probably destroyed during the landing of the Germans on the island.

DESTROYER vasilissa olga (Α/Τ ΒΑΣΙΛΙΣΣΑ ΟΛΓΑ)
Destroyer Vasilissa Olga (D-15) – © Hellenic Navy

The destroyer Vasilissa Olga was one of the most glorious warships of the Greek Navy. It took part in the Greco-Italian War of 1940–1941, and after the German invasion of Greece, Vasilissa Olga served with the British forces for the rest of its career. The ship moved back to the Eastern Mediterranean in September 1943 to take part in the Dodecanese Campaign. Along with two British destroyers, it helped destroy a small German convoy in the islands before beginning to transport troops and supplies to the small British garrison on the island of Leros. After completing one such mission, it was sunk by German bombers in Lakki harbour on September 26, 1943, with a loss of 72 men.

On the island, there are two places where the visitor can learn about the sinking of the ship, the wreck of which still exists in the centre of Lakki Bay. One point is the monument to Vasilissa Olga in the centre of Lakki, and the other is one of the rooms of the Leros Museum housed in BelenisTower (Πύργος Μπελένη) in Alinda (Άλιντα). This room exhibits findings from the wreck, personal belongings of sailors, photographs, and other items related to the ship.


The traces of World War II are still visible on the island, as is the legacy of the Italian conquerors who significantly shaped the island’s physiognomy. However, the island also hides other cultural and natural treasures worth discovering. Byzantine churches, picturesque chapels, beautiful beaches, unique hiking routes, and traditional settlements are just some of the many facets that Leros has to offer.

*Photo at the top is from Leros Museum in Belenis Tower.

*We would like to thank Athina-Dimitra Damiralis for kindly providing the Parabolic Acoustic Mirror photos.