Corfu Channel Incidents - 1946
On 15th May 1946, two Royal Navy ships HMS Orion (85 - leander class destroyer) and HMS Superb (25 - Minotaur class light cruiser) crossed the Corfu channel following a previous inspection and the clearing of the strait. Albanian fortifications opened fire on both shiips as they transited the channel, although no damage or casulaties were inflicted.
The British government issued a formal demand for "an immediate and public apology from the Albanian Government". The apology was not forthcoming, with the Albanian government claiming that the British ships had trespassed in Albanian waters.
A second incident occurred on 22nd October 1946 when the RN ships HMS Mauritius (80- crown class light cruiser), HMZNS Leander (Leander class light cruiser), HMS Saumarez (G12 - S class destroyer, Captain W.H. Selby) and HMS Volage (R41 - V class destroyer, Commander R.T. Paul1) were ordered north through the Corfu channel with orders to test the Albanian reaction to their right of innocent passage with instructions to respond if attacked en route to joining H.M.S. Ocean for exercises2.
The ships passed into what was considered a mine free zone close to the Albanian coast, HMS Mauritius leading with Saumarez close behind, with Leander and Volage trailing by about three kilometres. As they enared the bay of Saranda, the Saumarez struck a mineand was heavily damaged. The Volage was ordered to tow the Saumarez to safety in Corfu harbour.
During the tow, at about 4.16pm the Volage struck a mine and sustained heavy damage, leaving both ships' bows blown off and the towing effort by volage was made more difficult by adverse weather conditions as both ships were sialing stern first due to their damage, after twelve hours effort the ships reached the safety of Corfu harbour. During the voyage, an Albian ship bearing the Albanian flag and a white flag came alongside to enquire what the two ships were doing2.
Upto forty-three of the Saumarez's crew were lost in the incident. Saumarez was found to be beyond repair, whilst HMS Volage was repairable.
Twenty-three casulaties on stretchers and sixteen walking wounded from the two destroyers were landed in Malta on 4th November from the British hoospital ship Maine4.
The third incident occurred when a mine-clearance operation was conducted by the British Fleet with unanimous support of the Mediterreanean Zonel Mine Clearance Board on which certain mediterreanean powers are represented. The decision to resweep the Corfu channel followed the mining of HMS Saumarez and HMS VOlage depsite the channel having been swept as recently as August 1946 by Greek ships5. During the sweep twenty-two moored mines were recovered, two were examined. The Albanian government protested the action of the British Fleet to the United Nations 6. The condition of the mines was found to indicate that the mines had been laid recently and of German manufacture 7. due to the presence of the Albanian shore batteries which keep a close eye on the channel, such mines could not have been laid without the Albanian Authorities knowledge9. The minesweeping opration, known as Operation Retail, was subseuqently deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice.
The British Government demanded repatriations following the mining of the two ships and threatened to take Albania to the Security Council, the Albanian government denied the allegations. The case was eventually brought to the International Court of Justice, and Britain was awarded £843,947 or US $2,009,437 but Albania refused to pay and a sum of gold assigned to Albania following recovery of loot from the Axis powers was withheld. Dilpomatic relations between the UK and Albania did not resume until 199111, with a final settlment on the Cofru Channel incident being reached in 1996 when Albanian agreed to pay $2,000,000 in delayed repatrations12, the UK then returned the 12 million in gold that had been withheld to Albania10.Roll of Honour
The following names are taken from an image of the memorial erected at Corfu Town Cemetry, Corfu, Greece. The memorial was erected to mark the 40th anniverary of the incident.
Although only 32 names are shown for both ships on the Corfu memorial, various sources list upto 44 dead on Saumarez and Volage. If anyone has further detais, I would be happy to hear from them.Photos from the incident have been recently added to our Museum section, Corfu Channel Incidents - 1946
1; The Times, Wednesday, Oct 23, 1946; pg. 4; Issue 50589; col E
2; The Times, Monday, Oct 28, 1946; pg. 4; Issue 50593; col G
3; The Times, Saturday, Nov 02, 1946; pg. 3; Issue 50598; col D
4; The Times, Tuesday, Nov 05, 1946; pg. 3; Issue 50600; col D
5; The Times, Wednesday, Nov 13, 1946; pg. 6; Issue 50607; col F
6; The Times, Thursday, Nov 14, 1946; pg. 4; Issue 50608; col B
7; The Times, Saturday, Nov 23, 1946; pg. 3; Issue 50616; col C
8; The Times, Friday, Nov 22, 1946; pg. 4; Issue 50615; col B
9; The Times, Tuesday, Dec 10, 1946; pg. 4; Issue 50630; col F
10; The Times, Friday, Dec 16, 1949; pg. 3; Issue 51566; col C
11; Times, The (London, England) - Friday, May 24, 1991
12; Financial Times (London, England) - Wednesday, October 30, 1996