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19 September 2014
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WW2 - People's War

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User ID: U234164

My name is Gerry Mulligan my father George Mulligan was a Sgt in the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers during the war. He served from 1937 to 1946. During this time he was on Malta for the duration of the siege and later was involved in the landings and battle on the Aegean island of Leros. I have met some of his old comrades but as time passes they grow fewer. He died in 1972 so I did not have much time to discuss anything with him. However, I have been lucky enough to me with some of those who served on Malta and fought on Leros. It was a grim affair. Having visited the Island and the Commonwealth Grave Commission Cemetery there I have always felt the need to learn more about this episode. The cemetery is located below Raachi Ridge the area of the island where my father's D Company were based for the initial landings by German paratroopers. If you can imagine the island as being shaped like two frying pans with the handles joined together, then you have an idea of the strategic importance of Raachi Ridge. This narrow, craggy, ridge saw a good deal of action as the German paratroopers began there initial assault. To walk up through the steeply, sloping olive groves you get an idea of just how difficult it was for the defenders to dig-in. There are still some of the relatively shallow slit trenches to be seen, indeed you can scramble into them and get a good idea of what it might have been like trying to shelter from the daily visits by the Stuka dive bombers.
This was one of the key problems for the force of up to 10,000 men from a variety of different regiments and outfits on Leros. The RAF could not provide the air cover and the Americans apparently felt the entire endeavour was so misguided that they were not prepared apparently to risk their air force. This meant the force on Leros was daily exposed to relentless and contested bombing raids by the German air arm. Indeed the Germans were to quickly realise and capitalise on this fact by bringing out of mothballs some of their older troop transporters so confident were they of the value of air supremacy over the island. This Autumn, 2003, a German troop plane was recovered from the sea and will be preserved on the island as part of its monument to the battle. Leros was a side show to the Italian campaign. Those who served there were awarded the Italy Star, as the main allied push was going on up through Italy these you men were a diversionary force. Churchill's hope was that the German high command would take the bait and divert vitally needed troops from the Eastern front to deal with what might have been assumed as an allied attempt to open another front through the Balkans.
The ruse didn't quite work out as planned, crucially RAF cover was not available and the general planning, distribution of forces, defences etc left a lot to be desired. However there is evidence that some of the German forces on the Eastern front were gearing up for the counter attack to retake the islands. The other element of the operation was to bring pressure on the Turkish Government to (a) join the war on the allied side or (b) atleast allow the RAF to operate some airfields from there. Anyway the greater scheme of things always escapes the squaddies on the ground. They tried to stay warm, dry and fed as the tension mounted with the increasing air activity over the island. After more than three years of sustained bombing on Malta the conditions on Leros must of seems vaguely familiar to many of the troops.

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