The forgotten tragedies of the Aegean and the Ionian during WW2

Shipwrecks, WW2, WW2 in Greece

By Pierre Kosmidis

Italian POWs in Corfu Island, Greece, 1943. Unfortunately, most of the soldiers on this photo most probably drowned during their transportation to mainland Greece (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

A series of forgotten tragedies claimed the lives of more than 13,000 Italian Prisoners of War during their transportation from the Greek islands of the Aegean and the Ionian to the mainland.
A prewar advertisement for ARDENA, which sank with 779 Italian POW’s drowned
Thousands of helpless souls drowned in shipwrecks in the Greek Seas, while the nazi Germans treated their former allies as traitors.

Among those shipwrecks, the Oria wreck (READ HERE THE SAD STORY OF ORIA and see my video of what remains of the wreck today) in Gaidouronissi Island (also known as Patroklos Island), close to Sounio, where the Ancient Temple of Poseidon is located, claimed the lives of over 4,000 Italians, making it the single deadliest shipwreck in the Mediterranean and among the worst maritime disasters of all time worldwide.

A series of shipwrecks accounted for the vast majority of drowned Italians, while the Germans summarily executed thousands more in Kefalonia Island (Acqui Division, their fate was portrayed in the Hollywood movie “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”) and in the islands of the Dodecanese in the Aegean (mainly in Kos, Rodos and Leros).
Indicative list of Italian POW’s shipwrecks in Greece
Donizetti, Sep. 23 1943, Rhodes, 1,796 killed.
Ardena, Sep. 27 1943, Kefalonia, 779 killed.
Marguerite, Oct. 13 1943, Kefalonia, 550 killed.
Mario Roselli, Oct. 11 1943, Corfu, 1,302 killed.
Sinfra, Oct. 20 1943, Crete, 2,098 killed.
Petrella, Feb. 8 1944, Crete, 2,670 killed.
Oria, Feb. 12 1944, Cape Sounion, 4,074 killed.
Mr. George Karelas, a Greek researcher and scuba diver from Patras, Greece, dived at the wreck of the Marguerite and vividly describes his experience:
The wreck lies at a depth of 85 meters. The fact that this ship was lost with over 500 souls intensified the tightness I felt while I was descending to the wreck.
The wreck is situated in the middle of the sea. However, during my dive in August the visibility conditions were ideal. 
The wreck was beautiful and bright despite the depth of 85 meters and it is hard to imagine  the gloomy night of October 13, 1943 when the sinking took the lives of 549 people”. 
Mr. Karelas researched the fate of the Italian POW’s and highlighted the following two stories:
The lucky one:Giovanni Braganza 
Giovanni had boarded the Ardena which sank shortly after its departure from the port of Argostoli in Kefalonia on September 27, 1943 with approximately 1,000 Italian prisoners, out of which over 770 drowned.
Having survived this tragedy Giovanni boarded the Marguerite. He described the dramatic moments when the prisoners fell into the sea after the explosion and the gradual sinking of the ship.
I was in the water for 10 to 12 hours and  I saw groups of Italians, some trying to hang on to others and eventually disappearing under water. I felt despair, that my fate was to follow theirs, one by one lost beneath the terrible waves …”. 
Giovanni was lucky, he survived to tell the terrible tale of the Ardena and Marguerite shipwrecks.
Memorial for the drowned and executed Italians in Kefalonia Island, Ionian Sea, Greece
The unlucky one: Pascale Vito
Mr. Karelas says: “I chose to mention this unknown Italian who died in the sinking of Marguerite and I learned about him by coincidence. 
Pascale, son of Pascale Giuseppe and Sollitti Angela was born in the village of Saint Archangelo on 10/13/1923 and on the day of the shipwreck, he would have celebrated his 20th birthday. 
The war was over for him and his mind was at home and the girl that was probably waiting for him. The fate played a very bad game. Pascale drowned on his birthday and his friend and compatriot Francesco De Luca, who survived the wreck, took on the difficult role to convey the bad news to the unlucky Pascale’s family.”
Italian Military Internees (Italienische MilitärInternierte, IMI)
Italian Military Internees (Italienische MilitärInternierte, IMI) was the official name given by the nazis to the Italian soldiers captured, rounded up and deported in the territories of Nazi Germany in Operation Achse in the days immediately following the Armistice between Italy and Allied armed forces (September 8, 1943).
After disarmament by the Germans, the Italian soldiers and officers were confronted with the choice to continue fighting as allies of the German army (either in the armed forces of the Italian Social Republic, the German puppet regime in northern Italy, or in Italian “volunteer” units in the German armed forces) or, otherwise, be sent to detention camps in Germany.
Only 10 percent of the Italians agreed to enroll. The others were considered “prisoners of war”.
Later they were re-designated “military internees” by the Germans, so as to not recognize the rights granted prisoners of war by the Third Geneva Convention, and finally, in the autumn of 1944 until the end of the war, “civilian workers”, so they could be subjected to hard labor without protection of the Red Cross.
The Nazis considered the Italians as traitors and not as prisoners of war. The former Italian soldiers were sent into forced labor in war industries (35.6%), heavy industry (7.1%), mining (28.5%), construction (5.9%) and agriculture (14.3%).
The working conditions were very bad. The Italians were inadequately fed or clothed for the German winter. Many became sick.
Italians waving white flags and surrendering in 1943
Numbers of Italian prisoners and casualties
The Germans disarmed and captured 1,007,000 Italian soldiers, out of a total of approximately 2,000,000 actually in the army.
Of these, 196,000 fled during the deportation. Of the remaining approximately 810,000 (of which 58,000 were caught in France, 321,000 in Italy and 430,000 in the Balkans),  and 94,000, including almost all of the Blackshirts of the MVSN, decided immediately to accept the offer to fight alongside the Germans.
This left a total of approximately 710,000 Italian soldiers deported into German prison camps with the status of IMI.
By the spring of 1944, some 103,000 had declared themselves ready to serve in Germany or the Italian Social Republic, as combatants or as auxiliary workers. In total, therefore, between 600,000 and 650,000 soldiers refused to continue the war alongside the Germans.