September 14, 2021

September 14, 1943: The German Bombardment of Kerkyra and Kefallonia (Events Which Inspired the Book and Film "Captain Corelli's Mandolin")

One of the worst moments in the history of Kerkyra (Corfu) was the day of the feast of the Holy Cross on September 14, 1943.

Through various sources we made a historical and emotional effort to present the tragic events of that night (13th-14th) but also of the next day.

In early September, Italians and the people of Kerkyra struck a German ship which was going to disembark soldiers in Benitses. There were dozens dead.

The order of the Headquarters of the Italian Forces stated that the Italian soldiers, after the capitulation of Italy with the Allied Forces, must keep Kerkyra and Kefalonia under Italian occupation.

The people of Kerkyra had a feeling of anxiety on the morning of September 13th. They felt the threat of disaster hovering over the city and helpless to prevent it.

Early in the morning of September 13th, German planes began to fly at low altitude over Kerkyra. At first there was no reaction from the air defense. But when one of them tried to land at Garitsa airport, the Italians hit it and shot it down. At the same time, all the anti-aircraft artillery and anti-aircraft machine guns started firing. This active defense of the Italians resulted in the downing of another German plane.

The rest, noticing the decision of the Italians to defend themselves, returned to Ioannina, after previously dropping bombs in various parts of the city.

Events now began to evolve rapidly. The Italians, now sure that the Germans would sooner or later attack, began to feverishly organize the defense and strengthen the possible landing points.

On the night of September 13, the Germans responded in the worst and most horrible way. This night can be described as the worst night in the history of Kerkyra. The German bombers within a few hours spread terror and death. The planes did not drop bombs, but incendiary sheets, which lit on fire anyone who came in contact with them. The attack was carried out by only ten Heinkel type aircraft of the 10th Air Force. The frightened people left their burning houses heading towards the countryside, while the whole city was burning. Others ran crying towards the Church of Saint Spyridon, with children and icons in their arms. "Save us, my Saint Spyridon ..." "Stop this evil ...," they cried.

The people of Kerkyra watched with a sigh as their historic city burned, one could say that they mourned more for the monuments and the burned public buildings than for their own houses.

A sad spectacle was also the helpless patrons of the Nursing Home and the Psychiatric Hospital, while the children of the Orphanage were able to be taken to the villages of Kerkyra.

The final blow came when the most beautiful building in the city, the famous Municipal Theater, was engulfed in flames. The Theater, which was a miniature of La Scala in Milan, reflected the culture of Kerkyra and its inhabitants and was considered one of the best theaters of Europe, was burning in front of the eyes of the people of Kerkyra. The velvet seats, the heavy crystal chandeliers, the elegant statuettes and the famous foyer, where the Venetian carnival was celebrated, had been set on fire. In its place was erected a few years later a monster, deprived of all elegance and art, and without the unique nobility of the old Municipal Theater.

The theater, however, was not the only victim of the barbarity of the conquerors. The same fate befell the famous Annunciata, the most imposing Catholic church of Kerkyra, in the courtyard of which the dead of the Battle of Nafpaktos (1571) were buried. After the bombing, the bones came to the surface, but were collected a little later, and now they are in a grave in the Catholic Cemetery of Kerkyra. The destroyed church was also demolished by the Municipal Authorities, despite all the strong protests, and today the half-ruined bell tower stands at the entrance of the Old Town.

The Jewish Quarter was almost completely destroyed, while one of the two Synagogues was completely burnt down. The Germans insisted on bombing the area, and shortly afterwards, about 4,000 Jews were driven to their deaths in concentration camps. After the war, only about 150 of them managed to return and go on with their lives.

Lemonias Square in Kampielos was bombed mercilessly. The building of the first Greek University, the Ionian Academy, which then housed the Public Library of Kerkyra, had the same fate. The archive of the Academy, as well as rare editions of the Library were destroyed and lost forever. The building remained burned and abandoned until the mid-1980s, but was rebuilt and today houses the Rectorate of the Ionian University, fortunately keeping its old architecture intact. The Ionian Parliament was another victim of the horror of the bombings, but it was also rebuilt and today is a museum.

While most of the ornaments of the city were destroyed in the bombardment, the most important, the Church of Saint Spyridon, escaped destruction. Thousands of Greeks had taken refuge in this church of their patron saint, and their lives were spared because of it.

However, the churches of Panagia Odegetria, Holy Trinity, and the Archangels were lost forever, while the Church of the Holy Fathers (now a museum of ecclesiastical art) was restored, together with the churches of Pantokratos Kampielos and Saint Eleftherios (church located a few meters from Agios Spyridon).

It is worth noting that the destroyed buildings and churches mentioned above were located at a distance of 1-1.5 km from the Church of Saint Spyridon.

The dawn of September 14th found Kerkyra in flames and the people buried in shelters. It was fortunate that the Italian food depots had not burned down, but in order to solve the problem of the homeless for the proper distribution of food, there had to be a central body. In addition, too many citizens had fled to the nearby villages and each Community in those villages would have to register the refugees and receive the flour and other items that belonged to them, along with their own. In addition, overcrowding in some villages had resulted in water shortages and primitive living conditions created acute health problems. But for all this someone had to bring order. But who? Eventually the command of the whole situation in the city was assigned by the Italians to a rebel from Northern Epirus, Spyros Pappas.

After the occupation of Kerkyra by the Germans, the Italian troops were led to annihilation. Their corpses were washed onto many beaches of the island. The Greek resistance press, due to censorship and the impossibility of having correspondents, made only brief reports of the events.

In Kefallonia, the 12,000-strong Italian Acqui Division was attacked by the Germans on 13 September by elements of 1. Gebirgs-Division with support from Stukas, and forced to surrender on 21 September after suffering some 1,300 casualties. The next day, the Germans began executing their prisoners and did not stop until more than 4,500 Italians had been shot. The 4,000 or so survivors were put aboard ships for the mainland, but some of them sank after hitting mines in the Ionian Sea, where another 3,000 were lost.

The 2001 film Captain Corelli's Mandolin pays homage to the thousands of Italian soldiers executed at the Massacre of the Acqui Division by German forces in Kefallonia in September 1943, and to the people of Kefallonia who were killed in the post-war earthquake. The novel's protagonists are portrayed by actors Nicolas Cage and Penélope Cruz.