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The Massacre of the Acqui Division

Antonio Gandin

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.

Sources
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

Comments

  1. Andrea Riccio says:

    My 91 year old father (who is still alive) is a survivor of this massacre. The events did occur as Shelly Barclay described them.

  2. A police captain in Portland, Oregon was recently disciplined for putting up a shrine to WWII German soldiers in a public park. Can you guess who one of these men being honored was?

    Harald von Hirschfeld. That’s right – the same person responsible for this massacre. You can read about it here:

    http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2010/10/portland_police_panel_finds_ca.html

  3. What a horrible chapter in Italy’s sorrowful participation in WWII.

    The on going denial by many 1 Div 98 Regt. Gebirgsj├Ągers that anything ever occurred is shameful. They have brought eternal shame on the edelweiss.

    Just as Italy’s failure to prosecute properly those responsible is a disgrace to the men who perished.

    If any division of Italy in WWII can hold it’s head up and say they fought for a moral and just cause then the men of the Acqui Division most certainly would have the ‘Right of the line’.

  4. Shelly Barclay says:

    Michael,

    “These Italian troops were required to hand over their weapons to the German forces upon their Governments indication that they were nolonger in conflict.”

    That is simply untrue. Their government signed an armistice with the Allies. They were required to cease fighting with the Allies. They were not given orders to hand over their weapons to the Germans, at least not by their government. By governments (plural), I assume you mean that Germany and Italy had indicated they were no longer in conflict, which is simply not the case. There was no cease fire agreement between the two countries. Furthermore, why would the Italians surrender to the allies, but hand over their weapons to Germany. That makes absolutely no sense.

    “They did not”

    Because they were not required to.

    “and without provocation, instead acted in consort with Greek Partisans to initiate aggressive actions against German forces.”

    Let’s for a minute imagine that the Italians had indeed initiated aggressive actions. Even then, the event was a massacre. The massacre does not refer to men who died fighting.

    “Their action negated any rights to their protection under the Geneva Conventions.”

    How so? Prisoners of War are protected under the Geneva Convention. How you come to be a POW is not taken into account. Once you are no longer armed and combatant and you are in the hands of the enemy, you are protected under the Geneva Convention.

    “The action was a disgraceful act carried out against former comrades in arms.”

    Really? It was not disgraceful. Their country’s loyalties had shifted. Soldiers fight for their country, not for their former comrades. There is nothing disgraceful about changing loyalties when you just so happened to be a member of the Axis. Surrendering to the Allies would have been the smartest thing the government could have done, had it not been for the subsequent wrath of the truly disgraceful German soldiers. You see, German soldiers were murdering civilians and POWs and you are calling the Italians disgraceful for engaging armed combatants? That’s just silly.

    “Perhaps in future, it might be best to tell the whole story and keep the whitewashed propagandistic version of history for another more simple venue”

    You mean you want me to lie in the future? You want me to use false logic and obviously false “facts” to better fit your idea of what happened? Maybe I should become a Holocaust Revisionist too.

  5. Michael O'Brien says:

    These Italian troops were required to hand over their weapons to the German forces upon their Governments indication that they were nolonger in conflict. They did not and without provocation, instead acted in consort with Greek Partisans to initiate aggressive actions against German forces. Their action negated any rights to their protection under the Geneva Conventions. The action was a disgraceful act carried out against former comrades in arms. Perhaps in future, it might be best to tell the whole story and keep the whitewashed propagandistic version of history for another more simple venue

  6. Phil Gough says:

    This is shocking, even by Nazi standards. The gravity of it makes me wonder why the surviving perpetrators are only now being sought for prosecution. A possibility is that there was a reluctance to do so when there might have been demands in the post-War period for putting on trial war criminals from the Fascist Italian forces who carried out their crimes from Ethiopia to the Balkans.

    • Shelly Barclay says:

      It is shocking. However, it does seem like it was the Nazi standard. You would be surprised how many incidents very similar to the Acqui Division massacre took place during World War II.

      I believe that the reasoning behind the delay is political, of course. I guess there is a lot of red tape involved with extraditing and trying war criminals. Thankfully, there is no statute of limitations on murder, so those that can be tried for murder, and are still alive, can be extradited and charged, if the ‘political red tape’ can be bypassed.