Cephalonia, Greece (also known as Kefalonia, Kefallonia, Cefalonia and more) is a picturesque island, located in the Ionian Sea. Cephalonia has an area of 301.54 square miles and has 157.82 miles of coastline. The island is rich in history, scenery and wildlife. It is, simply put, a tourist’s paradise. However, in 1943, Cephalonia became hell for one division of Italian soldiers-the Acqui Division.
In September of 1943, the Italian Acqui Division was stationed on Cephalonia. There were roughly 12,000 men in the division, including more than 500 officers. On September 8, 1943, it was announced that Italian troops should stop engaging Allied troops. The Italian soldiers of the Acqui Division rejoiced, believing that they would not have to fight anymore. They did not realize that this was not going to mean an end to their fighting. German soldiers quickly began thinking of Italian soldiers as traitors, an affront that was punishable by death in their eyes.
Not long after the announcement was made, the German 11th Battalion of the Jager Regiment98 of the 1st Gebirgs was sent to the island. They were under the command of Major Harald van Hirschfeld. On September 13, the Germans began engaging the Italian troops on the island and bombing their positions. The fighting between the Germans and the Acqui Division continued until September 21. By that time, roughly 1,300 Italian soldiers were dead. The Italians had no hope of winning. The Acqui Division was forced to surrender and the Germans began taking prisoners.
The day after the Aqui Division surrendered to the German troops on Cephalonia, most of the men that had survived the fighting were massacred. The Germans began taking their prisoners and shooting them in groups. One of the first men to die was the leader of the Acqui Division, General Gandin. Over the course of four hours, roughly 4,750 Italian soldiers had been massacred. When the massacre was over (or so it seemed), some 4,000 members of the Acqui Division remained. They were loaded into ships to be sent to German labor camps. Nearly all of them were killed when the ships they were imprisoned in hit mines in the Ionian Sea. In total, roughly 9,500 men of the Acqui Division were killed on Cephalonia in September of 1943.
As if this unbelievable war crime were not enough, the Cephalonian Massacre or the Massacre of the Acqui Division is only one of the massacres perpetrated by German soldiers in Greece during World War II. In recent years, it has gained attention through the novel and subsequent film, “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.” Nonetheless, it was overshadowed for some time by the atrocities that were inflicted on Greek civilians during several other massacres that took place in Greece that year. Not to mention other massacres on soldiers that took place.
Two years after the Massacre of the Acqui Division took place; Major Harald van Hirschfeld was killed in action. Therefore, he never stood trial for the orders he gave at Cephalonia. Nevertheless, several of the men who perpetrated the massacre have stood trial, been convicted and have served jail time for their deeds. To this day, the Italian government is seeking to persecute the men involved and rightly so. Some of the men they are seeking are in their in their 80’s and 90’s. However, there is no statute of limitations for murder. These men may still be tried and convicted for their crimes.
During the 1950s (while some men were being tried for the massacre), the corpses of some 3,000 Italian soldiers of the Acqui Division were removed from Cephalonia. Their bodies were taken to be buried in the National War Cemetery in Italy. This is a small comfort to the families of the dead. Unfortunately, nothing will ever change the war crimes committed by the Germans during World War II. All we can do is try to remember what happened and hope that history is not doomed to repeat itself.
Duncan, George, Massacres and Atrocities of World War II, retrieved 4/5/10, members.iinet.au/~gduncan/massacres.html
Axis Occupation of Greece During World War II, retrieved 4/5/10, mlahanas.de/Greece/History/AxisOccupationonWorldWarII.html
About Cephalonia Island, retrieved 4/5/10, greekhotel.com/greekislands/cephalonia/home.htm