Photo credit: Renzo Appollonio Institute (Italian skeletons, Dilinata)
There are many reasons that I return to the Greek island of Kefalonia year after year. Not just because of its beauty, beaches and delicious food culture, but also because of its rich and brutal history - namely that of the second world war, and in particular, one week in September 1943 in which 5,000 surrendered Italian soldiers were rounded up and made to disarm, being told they were going home - before being violently executed without cause, without excuse, and without apology.
The Kefalonia Massacre as it has become known, was made internationally famous by Louis de Bernieres in his incredible novel Captain Corelli's Mandolin. The film is so-so, the book much better. I am in touch with Mr de Bernieres, have been since 2016, for it is because of him, his writing, and because of my addiction to Kefalonia, that I met my now husband Jack, in the summer of 2010 in the harbour of Sami - where much of the movie was made.
The massacre (actually massacres, for there were many) has now been recognised as being the second most atrocious of the war, second only to the horror of the death camps. What happened on this beauty of a Greek island seems almost too vile to have happened. Her beaches, pine forests, sleepy dusty villages and vast mountainous scapes roamed only by hardy gold-toothed goats and lizards, seem to belie all knowledge of what happened here. But it did - and every year that I visit (I have been going yearly since 2002) I make a point of visiting the sites of the massacres. These boys, for that's exactly what many of them were, need to be heard, need to have their stories told, and must not, MUST NOT, be forgotten.
The execution sites are many. If you didn't know where they were, you'd have no hope - for there are no plaques, nothing to say how many men were slain under this tree, or in the cave beneath the hillside here. How do I know? Because I have been lucky enough to become friends with not one, two, but three authors who are experts on the subject of the massacre of the Acqui Division, 33rd regiment of artillery.
My wonderful Itailian friend Pietro Giovanni Liuzzi wrote the book, 'Lost Sons of the Mediterranean, Kefalonia September 1943'.
In it, he details of his journey around Kefalonia to seek out the places of the Acqui's demise, and speaks to the locals who then, still remembered what occurred where. There are still even to this day, elderly islanders who recall the sights sounds and indeed smells of the invasion and of the horrific slaughter of the Italians. Bear in mind that it was not just the Italians who died, but Greeks too, fighting for their island. The Germans took a hit too, but not like their 'allies'. Eventually the Greeks sided for the most part, on the side of their invaders the Italians, and joined forces to protect the persecuted Itailians from their former war-mates, their once-allies.
Survivors were often hidden by the Greeks, fed and watered, saved from butchery by the hunting German army who patrolled non-stop to seek out and destroy their prey. It was horrendous - and if you are vaguely interested in this black moment of history, I suggest that Pietro's book is a tremendous starting point.
Of course, you must also read Captain Corelli's Mandolin, and see the film - Nic' Cage is not great but Penelope Cruz is fantastic, and as for John Hurt, well..... what a treasure of a man.
Bruna de Paula is also a friend of mine, and part of the Mediteranee Society, a group dedicated to the memory of the fallen on Kefalonia. Bruna has written a book entitled ITINERARO DELLA MEMORIA (Journey of memory).
Like Lost Sons, it gives detailed accounts of what happened where, with more photographs and hints of how to reach these almost forgotten places. The catch though, is that it is in Italian, and has not yet been translated into English. I suppose that I am in the minority being so interested, mainly it is Italians and probably the odd German who wants to seek out their history or to follow in the footsteps of a grand or great grandfather perhaps. I don’t know, but it’s rather awkward yet incredibly rewarding to actually find places using this book. You sort of feel like you’ve decoded something secret, which I suppose I have.
Of course there will be many more that aren’t listed as they’re not known, or not verified. The authorities are even as recently as 2017 finding human remains from this period. As well as the execution sites there are hundreds of bunkers, tunnels, and areas of German inhabitation. Add to these the killings in villages of not only Italians but Greek civilians too, revenge killings made by the Germans upon the families of Greek villagers who aided the ailing Italians, and what we have is utter revolting, and utterly unnecessary carnage.
Photo credit: Renzo Appollonio Institute (Italian skeletons nr Argostoli)
So, the listed sites of execution are as follows, with the number of Italians killed:
ST BARBARA: 36
CAPE THEODORO 170
Every year I visit each place, and most I found years ago. This year 2022 I managed to track down one of the last and most awkward to find sites, that at Frankata. I attempted unsuccessfully to find it once before, thought I knew where it was but… after parking up and walking in the intense August heat, had to call it a day. I got in touch with Bruna who laughed a little at my mistake, for I had basically walked three sides of a triangle in the wilderness, when all I had to to was park up in Valsamata by the last house, and walk up a slope and along a dirt track for 500 yards. The cave, as I easily recognised from studying countless photos, was set up back on the right – typically Kefalonian in colour, hued deep amber and peach, there it was. I was humbled.
Being the weirdo that I am, I took along my recorder. Something told me that I’d be lucky in my quest this time – typically I have had little luck recording in Greece, although I did manage to capture a German voice deep in the Battaria tunnels at the north of the island in 2018. What with being outside, with the noise of the cicadas practically smashing the sound barrier (noisy little critters but it wouldn’t be Greece without them!)
I knew that a cross had been placed there by Father Formato in latter years upon exhumation of the corpses, or what was left of them. Just by the entrance to the cave – but it has gone. There has been some sort of anti-Italian group moving around the island, not exactly desecrating the areas but removing any small nods to what happened, left by tender souls expressing their recognition. The brass lions on the monument on Mount Telegraph for example. Disgusting behaviour…
So Jack moved off to let me do my ‘thing’ and I got on with it. I went inside the small cave and stood, trying to feel what happened here. What did happen here? I’ll tell you…
Frankata is a tiny village, and right next to it is Valsamata. It was in Valsamata that the Italians had set up a field hospital, where rather generously, they treated any Germans who needed help. But the Germans did not recognise this generosity after the Italian surrender, and thus rounded up the Italians in the area and marched them up the hill and along the lane, the very same dusty stony track that Jack and I walked along this year, until reaching the natural cavity of the cave. There 461 soldiers were shot and left to the elements.
I did not record for long, it was intensely hot for one. I remained in the cave for four or five minutes then stepped out into the area where it was more likely that the slaughter took place. 461 men. 461! It defies belief. To imagine the fear, the emotion expelled at this place, and indeed on the way to it. My legs felt like jelly. To hear the crack of machine guns, to witness the murder of your comrades in cold blood… it is unimaginable. I believe, or rather Jack told me, that it is more likely that they were in the field opposite the lane en-masse, then brought over in batches of say 12 to be killed. Then the bodies were piled up, and left. Some sites the corpses were half-set alight, but more often than not they were left to the elements, and any attempts by the locals to bury or cover in lime, resulted in severe punishment if not death. Kefalonia became a stinking place of death that summer and well into autumn.
After the war what remains could be salvaged were taken back to Italy for proper burial. But the majority were lost forever, either as you have heard or at sea, where another favourite tactic was to send the bodies out on rafts attended by a few survivors, only to blast them with grenades just off shore.
You see, Kefalonia for me will never be ‘just a beach holiday’. How could it? People who sprawl upon those sands are unaware of the blood that seeped deep into it not that long ago, how the German boats pulled into the little beach near the lighthouse at Lassi (a tourist photo favourite) and loaded the hundreds of bodies aboard.. How can people be unaware of the pit (this actually DOES have a plaque) where 136 men were shot, standing on wooden crosses balanced over the cavity, lay piled up upon each other and left for three days? There is a piece of one of the crosses in the tiny museum dedicated to the Acqui Division in Argostoli, and you can see where the Germans shot a cross shape with bullets into the wood.
The same at the quiet beauty of a spot beneath a giant pine tree at Prokopata. We discovered it by accident, looking for the site but stopped to study the map when I looked up and got chills. We’d parked right by it. Different site same story, hundreds shot here and burnt. A farmer, wanting to contribute to the memory of the fallen nailed both a soldier’s shoe and a human shin bone to this tree, but they have both since been stolen by trophy hunters or fallen foul to the elements.
Anyway, I could go on and on, for this is a subject close to my heart – but if you too are interested in preserving the memory of these men, please do read Corelli and Lost Sons. You won’t be disappointed. Lost Sons is available as paperback and as an Ebook.
So, my recordings.. Did I capture anything? Of course I did.
I can’t be sure of what is said, aside from one that is clearer than the rest. It sounds like a man in English but with a German accent saying, "Put your hands in the air". This one in particular gave me goosebumps, for obvious reasons.
The rest are more gruff-sounding. But I’ll leave them here, and you can listen and hear for yourself. The first one is from some German tunnels in Foki bay, but the rest are Frankata. Headphones a must…
There are SO many stories I could tell. So much to divulge, to help others remember these men, but I don't have the time right this second, and you're probably bored with me yarping on anyway.
But for now, thanks for reading. And to the lost sons of the Acqui Divison, I shall say..."Arrividercci".
All for now.