Uncovered! Air attacks against hospital ships: War crimes of Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica in Greece, 1941

Shipwrecks, WW2 in Greece

By Pierre Kosmidis

The hospital ship “Socrates” at the port of Piraeus, while stretcher bearers wait 

Photos and Research by George Karelas

Text by Pierre Kosmidis

A series of deadly air attacks by the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica against Greek hospital ships in 1941 have remained largely forgotten for decades.

Thanks to the efforts of researcher George Karelas, these war crimes are now uncovered and demonstrate that both the Italian fascist regime and the nazi Germans did not respect the Hague Convention of 1907, attacking unarned ships that were clearly marked as hospital ships.

A report that appeared at the Greek newspaper “Neologos” on March 13, 1941, mentioning the unprovoked air attack of an italian aircraft against the hospital ship “Socrates” 

Despite the fact that both Italy and Germany had signed and ratified the Hague Convention, air attacks against clearly recognizable hospital ships were conducted both by the nazi Luftwaffe, as well as the fascist Regia Aeronautica.

These war crimes, since the hospital ships were clearly marked, unarmed and the attackers had been notified in advance of their role are yet another example of the ruthlessness of the Italian and German air forces.

The air attacks were premeditated and conducted in cold blood, against defenseless vessels that were clearly identified as hospital ships.

The Hague Convention on Hospital Ships, a 1904 multilateral treaty, supplemented the 1899 Hague Convention for the adaptation to Maritime Warfare of the Principles of the Geneva Convention.

An aerial reconnaissance photo shot on April 22nd, 1941, showing “Socrates” (far right) and other Greek shipping (Thedol, Theodora and Vary) at the bay of Antikyra  

The convention established that during times of war, hospital ships would be protected from attacks of any kind.

The air attacks
The first recorded air attack was conducted on 12 March 1941 by an Italian bomber, most probably a CANT, which bombed the Greek hospital ship “Socrates” carrying wounded soldiers from the front, in the Ionian Sea offLefkada island.

A report that appeared on March 13, 1941 on the Australian newspaper “Telegraph” regarding the bombing of “Socrates” by the Italian Air Force

The Italian bomber dropped its bombs from a height of approximately 200 to 300 metres, as evidenced by reports of the time in newspapers of Greece, England, Australia and Canada. Fortunately though, the Italian bombs missed the hospital ship and only caused minimal damage and no casualties and “Socrates” continued its voyage.

Photo shot right after the Lufwaffe air attack in Antikyra bay

In April 1941, while the nazi invasion of Greece codenamed“Operation Marita” was in full swing, the German air force bombed Greek and Allied shipping, including hospital ships, with devastating effect.

The Hospital ship “Ellinis” was attacked near the island of Oxia, while approaching the port of Patras and was beached by her captain, in order to save the injured soldiers and crew.

The hospital steamer “Polikos” was bombed and sunk on April 24, 1941, at a short distance from the shores of the spa town of Methana.

The hospital ship “Esperos” was bombed and sunk, while at anchor in Messolonghi.

Report that appeared on “Ottawa Citizen”, March 13, 1941

The hospital ship “Attiki” was attacked during the night of 11 to 12 April 1941 and cost the lives of 28 people while sailing with her lights fully lit, in order to demonstrate her hospital ship colours near Cavo Doro.

Another hospital ship, “Andros”, was bombed by the Italian Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) while anchored in Loutraki, according to eyewitness accounts.

CANT Z 1007 Italian bomber aircraft
Antikyra, April 22, 1941
According to the War Diary of Captain Arvanitis who was commanding “Socrates”, three ships were anchored at the southern end of Antikyra Gulf.

The hospital ship “Socrates” reached Antikyra Gulf on 16 April 1941 and was performing minor repairs.

A small tanker, the “Thedol” was anchored at a distance of 300 meters to the east of “Socrates”.

Further east a larger tanker, the “Theodora”, anchored on April 17.

“Socrates” being bombed by the Luftwaffe, while “Thedol” is sinking

The Luftwaffe air attacks

On April 22 at 9:20 a.m. 24 Junkers 87 Stuka dive bombers were observed at a height of about 3000 meters.
While the Luftwaffe aircraft performed reconnaissance flights and circled the bay, with the hospital ship clearly marked, the Stuka dive bombers launched their attacks.
Despite the fact that the initial attacks were not successful because the bombs missed, the German pilots identified the hospital ship but nevertheless continued their violent attacks.
In the second wave, during which approximately 50 bombs were dropped, one of them hit “Socrates” between the funnel and the stern. The hospital ship immediately started listing.
During the third wave attack, the Stuka bombers attacked once again the hospital ship.

Three more bombs hit “Socrates”, one in the aft winch and two between the funnel and the aft mast.

Excerpt from the War Diary of the Hellenic Navy, regarding the air attack of the hopital ship “Socrates” 

The hospital ship started to sink swiftly stern first, while both tankers (“Thedol” and “Theodora”) had the same fate.

Research: George Karelas in German and Italian archives and the History Museum of the Hellenic Navy.
George Karelas wishes to thank Nikos Karatzas for the “Der Adler” magazine photos and Byron Tezapsides for the photos of the Luftwaffe 8th Air Fleet.
In this photo, the Germans deliberately show the ships with a much larger tonnage, in order to magnify their successes. The fact that the nazis used those photos for propaganda purposes, is a further proof of their attacks against hospital ships.