Research and photo documentation by George Karelas
The depths of the Aegean Sea in Greece hide some great tragedies that occurred during World War 2.
One such disaster is the torpedoing of the German steamship Petrella, formerly named Capo Pino, a cargo steamship of 4785 grt, 114.9 meters long, with a maximum speed of 12 knots, by the British submarine HMS Sportsman, on February 8, 1944, with the loss of at least 2670 men, according to estimates, mostly Italian prisoners of war, just a few days before the largest ever naval tragedy in terms of human losses in the Greek waters, the sinking of Oria on February 13, 1944, with the loss of over 4,000 Italians.
Italy had capitulated in September 1943, changing sides in the process and the Germans swiftly mopped up and rounded all Italian garrisons in Greece. Thousands of Italian prisoners were evacuated from the Greek islands to the mainland, but few made it ashore, as most of the ships used for their transportation were either sunk by the British or due to navigational errors. The loss of life was enormous and thousands of Italians drowned in these shipwrecks, during those chaotic days.
Respected researcher and technical scuba diver George Karelas made a startling discovery, shifting through the archives of ECPAD. A series of photos under the generic description “A Greek or English ship is sinking off Crete” was actually the documentation of the sinking of Petrella, out of which just a few hundred people survived.
www.ww2wrecks.com asked George Karelas to present his findings to a worldwide audience, as a tribute to this forgotten tragedy and the thousands of souls that perished in the depths of the Mediterranean, which bring this chilling disaster back to life, through the powerful images that have, at last, been identified properly.
“While researching some photos from the French archives of the Ministry of Defense, I came across some photos that depict the bow of a sinking ship.
The description said “Souda Bay, Crete: British or Greek ship sinking”, but since the photos fell into the hands of the French after the end of the war and are related to the period of the Axis occupation of Greece, the ship could not be British or Greek, but German or Italian.
The Petrella tragedy immediately came to my mind, I found a photo of the ship in Messolonghi six months earlier and after comparing the photos the bow of the sinking ship is the same as Petrella. But the rest of the photos in the same file seem to show the last dramatic moments before the sinking of the ship on February 8, 1944.
On September 8, 1943, the day of the Italian capitulation, the Italian cargo ship Capo Pino, which was launched in France in February 1923, fell into the hands of the Germans. It was renamed Petrella and served under the command of the Aegean Naval Command of the German Navy (Kriegsmarine).
On February 8, 1944, Petrella sailed from Crete to Piraeus, transporting about 3,200 Italian prisoners of the Siena division.
In late September 1941 Siena division was transferred to the eastern part of the island of Crete, where it assumed the title of Italian Troops in Crete Command (Italian: Comando Truppe Italiane in Creta).
On 1 March 1942 the division was reinforced by the LI Special Brigade.
The division, together with the LI Special Brigade remained in Crete until September 1943, when Italy signed the Armistice of Cassibile with the Allies.
The German forces of the Fortress Crete disarmed the Siena and LI Special Brigade on 9 September 1943.
In October 1943 about 2,000 Italian POWs from Crete drowned, when the ship MS Sinfra that transported them to mainland Greece was sunk by US and British planes.
Another 2,670 Italian POWs from Crete drowned in February 1944, when the ship SS Petrella was torpedoed by the British submarine HMS Sportsman.
But outside Souda Bay in Crete, the British submarine HMS Sportsman was waiting.
The submarine fired four torpedoes from a distance of about 2700 meters at around 8.30 in the morning. Although the ship was painted with a clear POW (prisoners of war) on her side, HMS Sportsman initiated a torpedo attack, resulting in the ship being hit by two torpedoes amidships.
Panic ensued as the Italians tried to get on deck to abandon the ship.
According to reports from Italian survivors of the disaster, the Germans hit them with rifle butts, shot at them with rifles and machine guns and threw hand grenades in the cargo holds where the Italian prisoners were, not letting them abandon ship before them.
Those who tried to approach the boats and rafts that were launched, were also shot.
At 11 o’clock several small boats arrived from Souda to take part in the rescue operation, while Arado Ar196 seaplanes flew over the shipwreck area and shot these dramatic photos
Of the 3173 Italian prisoners of war, 527 were recovered, of whom 24 died later.
An Italian researcher Lorenzo Colombo has done an extensive research on Petrella.