It literally is! or at least was – Leros was heavily attacked and defended during WWII. This is a fact that neither of us knew until we arrived here. The Battle of Leros in 1943 was one of great significance in the war and there is so much evidence right in front of our eyes. Chris is really good at all the details, and spends a lot of time researching. What he is finding is there are details of battles and fortifications, but they talk about locations which must have been locally named at the time as it is almost impossible to find the places on our modern day maps. Everywhere you go though, there is something. There is hardly anywhere on this island that is untouched. This is the second most bombed island of the Greek Islands after Crete.
The Battle of Leros was a bit of a disaster, just like Crete. The Italians occupied Leros from 1912 and surrendered in September 1943 to the British. Between September – November, 190 German air raids took place and caused major destruction. The British and Italian defended but had no air support so were bombed to smithereens. Between our place at Gourna Bay and Alinda, in the small gap of 1.5km, is where, we believe, the German paratroopers landed, and with their sea support, effectively cut the island in half. Six days later the British surrender.
Up in the North there is a site where you can easily see the trenches as well as the bunkers. It is so rocky and harsh, I try to imagine what it was like back then when they were under attack. Its hard going walking over the rough ground and I imagine the soldiers, fully kitted up, diving for cover. This area probably looked the same back then and I feel that what I see, they must have seen, its very airy. But now, you can see the bomb craters, evidence of how it was, it must have been so terrifying.
On the West past Lakki there are many many tunnels still accessible. A lot are shelters for the goats now. They all link up and are part of a huge bunker system. There are still ruins of barracks and warehouses. Up there is the remains of one the last 2 parabolic listening walls in Europe.
Right in the middle of the island there is a site with abandoned buildings and you can clearly see the mess room, bunk rooms with lockers. There are basketball courts and social areas. We think it was occupied by Italians, it must have been like a whole town up there!
On every high point there are more bunkers and gun emplacements/batteries. If the concrete housing has gone, you can still see the circle of bolts which held the gun down. Some are completely smashed up and others are very well preserved. Even in the towns, just along the normal everyday road, there are bunkers. We are always amazed when we see another one, we have lost count of how many we have seen!
Lakki harbour is the deepest in southern Europe and this is where Mussolini set up the Italian Royal Navy base. The harbour was heavily fortified with double booms across the narrow entrance and batteries defending it on each side. I have read about submarine nets around too. The sea all around the island is littered with wrecks of ships and airplanes, it really is a living museum. So many lost their lives here. We believe there were over 80 Kiwi special forces deployed here but only half have been accounted for. We have been to the war graves cemetery but no sign of our brave Kiwi boys.
We spend a lot of time wandering around these sites. The Italians were building these bunkers for many years before the war even started, they had occupied Leros for 30 years and knew that someone would be along at some point to try to take it off them – and they did. Quite often there will be a chapel built near where bunkers are, it is nice to be able to go in and light a candle for the fallen soldiers. There are many war relics still to be found all over this island. We are finding various pieces of metal and wonder what they are from, most likely shrapnel. Chris is doing a bit of snorkelling and comes up with bits a pieces most dives. A lot of bullets, some have been fired, some not. The whole of Leros was bombed to bits. Its fascinating and very tragic.
Leros has a very long and complicated history, an incredibly interesting place. Nowadays she is a sleepy, peaceful island with beautiful people. Today, 8000 permanent residents, 1943 there were 25000 people on the island, it’s hard to imagine what it was like.
Did you know
The story of the famous novel “Guns of Navarone” is based on the Battle of Leros, and Leros island’s coastal artillery guns — among the largest naval artillery guns used during World War II — that were built and used by the Italians until Italy capitulated in 1943 and subsequently used by the Germans until their defeat.