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E - 111 : Cephalonia - A Name That Lives in Infamy

Updated: Apr 16, 2021


Cephalonia is today well known for its spectacular beaches on its West Coast


On our way to Ithaca during the last week of sailing, we pass north of Cephalonia, one of the Ionian Islands in the Gulf of Corinth. We visited it in 2017. The islands was once a strategic harbour for the Byzantine fleet and then governed by Venice for more than 600 years. Today, it is famous for its beautiful beaches and two Venetian Fortresses. But in the memory of many Italians, the name lives forever in infamy. My friend David, who was Switzerland's General Consul in Milan for several years, wrote this guest contribution:


"WW II saw many atrocities. But most of the countless tourists that visit this island every year are probably not aware that one of the most shameful episodes happened right here, in September 1943. Fascist Italy had been a faithful albeit not very successful military ally of Nazi Germany since 1939. But after the American and British landing in Sicily in July 1943, the leaders of the fascist party and King Vittorio Emmanuele III had enough. Benito Mussolini was overthrown, arrested and replaced as Prime Minister by Marshal Badoglio who established contact with the Allies and surrendered all Italian forces on 8 September. The final armistice was signed in Malta two weeks later.

Italian Officers taken Prisoners by German Paratroopers in Rome in 1943


The Germans reacted by occupying most of Italy. SS commandos freed Mussolini. He was established on Lake Garda as the head of a puppet government under German control. Badoglio and the king fled to the safety of Brindisi, about to be taken by General Bernard Montgomery’s British forces.


Considerable Italian forces had remained in the occupied Balkans and on a number of Greek islands. Some of them surrendered to the Germans, others remained faithful to their king and resisted. A particularly important garrison of 12’000 men was stationed on Cephalonia. Most of them were Alpini of the 33 Mountain Infantry Division “Acqui”, commanded by General Antonio Gandin who, on 11 September, had received orders from the Italian High Command to resist any German attempt to disarm his troops. Simultaneously, the Germans presented him with an ultimatum to either fight the Allies on their side or surrender. Gandin now did something very unusual for a military commander. He asked his troops what to do: join the Germans, surrender or resist. A large majority, particularly led by junior officers, wanted to resist.

A Detachment of Italian Soldiers in Greece - the Photo is said to be from Cephalonia


On 15 September, the Germans attacked with Stuka dive bombers and elite mountain troops. Hundreds of Italian aircraft and some torpedo boats stationed in nearby Brindisi and Lecce were prevented by the British to intervene who feared their defection to the German side. After a week of heavy fighting, the Italians had to surrender on 22 September. 1300 Italians and only 300 Germans were dead.

Executed by German Mountain Troops - Italian Soldiers in Cephalonia in 1943


During the terrible week that followed, 5’155 Italian military prisoners were executed by the fanatical Nazi troops, most of them Austrians. Among the victims were Gandin himself and 137 of his senior officers. Another 3’000 Italian soldiers died on their way to German concentration camps when the three ships transporting them were sunk either by sea mines or by allied aircraft. On Corfu, the Germans executed all 280 officers of the 8’000 strong Italian garrison and another 100 Italian officers on the Greek island of Kos on the Turkish coast.

The Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and many Italian Officials during a Remembrance Ceremony on Cephalonia


Only one single German officer, General Hubert Lanz, was tried for the atrocities in the Nuremberg trials of 1947. He received a relatively light sentence of twelve years imprisonement and was already released in 1951. He lived for over another thirty years and was even able to become active in West German politics."

The event on Cephalonia form the background to the Hollywood Movie "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" which was released in 1994. The relations between Italian occupiers and local Greek population were not as amicable as portrayed in the movie but pretty hostile.

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