Tuesday, 13 November 2007

A richer dust concealed

22 Oct 1946. Photo: T A Russell D/KX100469
I received this e-mail yesterday from Frank Carrick, a veteran of the Royal Navy living in Ayrshire:
The British Cemetery and The Corfu Channel Incident*
As a regular visitor to Corfu I thought I had seen most of the island and places of interest. However about three years ago one of my Greek friends asked if I had ever paid a visit to the British Cemetery in Corfu Town. To my shame I had never even heard of it! The very next morning I set off for the Town and the Cemetery thinking it would be difficult to find as I had never seen it in all my visits to Corfu, but my fears were unfounded; just crossed San Rocco Square to the Airport Road, walked about a hundred yards and there it was, the gate to the British Cemetery. As I opened the gate it was like entering another world, it was so quiet, tranquil, and after the traffic noise and the hustle and bustle of the dusty town centre it was like heaven, unbelievably peaceful and quiet. A little bell disturbs the peace for a second as the gate is opened, and almost instantly the figure of the caretaker appears before you. He enquires as to your preferred language, introduces himself and then proceeds to give the visitor the history of the cemetery, locations of certain memorials and a bit of his own life story, and offers a guided tour. The caretaker is called George Psaila and he was born in 1927 in the Cemetery. He was married in the Cemetery and he will show you where he will be buried when his time comes. George took over the duties of caretaker in 1944 on the death of his father, who had looked after the Cemetery since 1924. The British Cemetery in Corfu town is also famous worldwide for the orchids that grow in the gardens. Some, so I've been told, grow nowhere else. Visitors from all around the world come to see them bloom in I believe March/April/May. In addition to the supervision of the cemetery, George is also responsible for the orchids and is a bit of an expert. On my first visit George accompanied me around the cemetery gardens pointing out interesting monuments and telling me of some of the people buried there. In the main the cemetery is the last resting place for British soldiers, sailors and members of their families since 1814 when Corfu was under British Protection (1814-1864). However there is a section dedicated to Germans killed during their occupation of the island (1943-44) and even some from the Kaiser's time (his personal boat crew). Most of the German remains have been returned to Germany although the monuments remain. One interesting German grave is of Erich Kerizen (09.10.1944), murdered by his own men after he prevented the destruction of the harbour in Corfu by cutting connections to the explosives as the Germans were leaving at the end of the occupation. The cemetery also contains the remains and memorial to British VC holder John Conners (1830-1857). He was about 24 years old, and a private in the 3rd Regiment, (later The East Kent Regiment - The Buffs), in the British Army during the Crimean War when the following deed took place for which he was awarded the VC.
On 8 September 1855 at Sebastopol in the Crimea, Private Connors showed conspicuous gallantry at the assault on the Redan in personal conflict with the enemy. He rescued an officer of the 30th Regiment who was surrounded by Russians, by shooting one and bayoneting another and then for some time carried on a hand-to-hand encounter against great odds until support arrived.
He survived the war and died in Corfu 29th Jan 1857. There are a few more interesting monuments all around these quiet gardens, with their own captivating tales, but the area I personally found to be most intriguing was the memorial and graves of British sailors killed during what became known as 'The Corfu Incident'. In the far left hand side of the cemetery, deep in the shade stands a large white stone, with the names of 32 Royal Navy personnel from the ships HMS Volage and HMS Saumarez, killed by Albanian mines in 1946, and whose bodies were never recovered. In a neat line leading away from the main memorial lie another 13 smaller white stones. These mark the remains of those 12 sailors recovered from the ships, plus the remains of a young midshipman (18 years old) from HMS Forth who died in Gibraltar in 1951 and was transferred to Corfu. Being ex-RN I became intrigued by these graves and the story surrounding them. I had never heard of the 'Corfu Incident', and yet here lay the remains of 44 British Seaman killed by mines one year after the war had ended. Why and how? I decided to find out not only for myself, but to keep the story alive in the hope that these sailors would not be forgotten. Here is what I've found out so far. In May of 1946 Albanian shore batteries fired upon two British cruisers, HMS Orion and HMS Superb. As Britain had just won the war and supposedly ruled the seas, they could not ignore this episode had to make the point that the straits between Corfu and Albania could and should be used freely by ships going about their lawful and peaceful business. In a show of force designed to demonstrate who was boss (my opinion), in October 1946, four British ships led by the cruiser HMS Mauritius sailed through the narrow channel, which were at the time recognised International Waters. HMS Saumarez, a destroyer, was in second in line, with the cruiser HMS Leander and destroyer, HMS Volage, following behind. Just off Saranda, HMS Saumarez struck a mine. It was a massive explosion just below her bridge on the starboard side. HMS Volage was ordered to aid the crippled ship and if possible take her under tow. The Volage managed to secure a tow rope, (despite the surrounding sea burning with oil) and start the tow. Tragically as she moved off, she herself hit a mine which blew off her bow, the tow and instantly killed eight men. Despite the damage and loss of life to HMS Volage her crew courageously manoeuvred her back to a position where she could recover the tow. She accomplished this but had to tow the Saumarez astern; that is both ships sailing stern first. What a feat of seamanship and real bravery. It took thirteen hours to travel the sixteen miles to Corfu, it must have been a terrifying experience for all the surviving seamen, living through the horror of the explosion and the loss of their shipmates and friends and for every minute that passed of those long hours at sea, the thought in the back of their own minds must have been are there any more mines? Thirteen hours of expecting another explosion, of 'is this my last moment?' The channel had been swept clear of mines after the war. The straits had also been used recently without incident. so there was no way of knowing if the rest of the passage through the straits would be safe. Terrifying indeed. They must also have been very brave. A total of 44 men were killed. There were also another 50 men who suffered serious injuries. Albania denied laying the mines and any knowledge of them. However the Royal Navy swept the Straits and found that, in all, there had been a total of 25 brand new mines in the channel. This proved they were not rogue mines left over from the war. The League of Nations proved that the mines could not have been put in position without the knowledge of Albania, who had manned look-out points and shore batteries all along the coast. Albania counter-charged Britain for trespassing in Albanian waters without permission and sweeping for mines. Britain was found guilty of this charge! Albania was found guilty of laying the mines or having knowledge of them and fined about £830,000. The fine was never paid nor an apology ever received for the murder of those sailors, for that was what it was. Murder!! In June of this year 2007, I returned to Corfu with a wreath from the RBLS Irvine Branch and placed it at the memorial to the men killed in the Corfu Incident. I was accompanied by a friend Dave Hughes (ex-Para). It was his first visit and he was quite moved by, not only the incident, but the British Cemetery and the dedication of George Psailas to his task of looking after the gardens. I say 'gardens', for that is what they are. Every grave has wild flowers growing on them, and although it is a cemetery it is still a delightful place to have a stroll or even spend some time watching the resident tortoises wander around (George also puts out fresh fruit and veg for them) in the shade. It must be really beautiful when the orchids are in bloom. On leaving the cemetery there is a visitors' book and many messages in many languages appear here. You can also leave a small donation to help with the upkeep. You don't have to and no offence taken if you refrain. The wreath laid this year was dedicated not only to those men lost during 'The Incident' but to the Late Peter Smith who served on HMS Saumarez and survived the mine. He died on the 28th April this year. Peter's best friend or 'Oppoe' was AB Vernon Francis who was killed by the mine and his body never recovered. Peter named his son after his pal, and that son, Vernon Smith, asked me to say a few words on his behalf at the memorial. Vernon also told me his father was always troubled by the fact that he never knew if his friend Vernon's body was ever recovered. It is to my regret that I could not give a definite answer to him before he passed away. I have included some pictures with these notes, most are my own. Two B/W of the funeral in the British Cemetery are by kind permission of George Psaila the caretaker of the British Cemetery Corfu and are featured in a little booklet he wrote 'The Orchid House' in 1984 Martin Richards for the B&W pictures of HMS Saumarez and HMS Volage. I don't know him personally, but the pictures came to me via a very long route.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them.
The words written in the previous pages are my own, as are the opinions. The whole incident has been covered by better and more informed people than me. There has been a book written on the subject, which I have been unable to acquire at this time. The title is 'The Corfu Incident" by Eric Leggett. New English Library: 1976 ISBN-13: 9780450024740 ISBN: 0450024741 George Psailas attended the funerals of the sailors killed by the mines in his second year as Supervisor. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission awarded him a prize of honour in 1977. It reads:
Certificate Presented by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to George Psailas In Recognition of Long and Devoted Service


[Directions: From Corfu seafront to south of the old town and turn inland onto Alexandras Avenue, which is a big tree lined avenue. At the top of this is Place George Theotoki which contains a roundabout. From this roundabout follow the signs for the hospital and the British Cemetery down Polichronis Konstanta. The cemetery is to the left and very close to the prison.] Further accounts by Thomas Arthur Russell gathered on the BBC People's War site (he is the source of the photo at the top of this entry. It cannot he by him as he was on HMS Saumarez.
* * * * *An earlier 'Corfu Incident' occurred after four Italians, including General Enrico Tellini, were stopped on 23 Aug 1927 on a road between Greece and Albania by a fallen tree. They were shot and killed on the Greek side of the border. Mussolini sent an ultimatum demanding 50 million lire reparation and the execution of those involved. [see Corfiot Italians used as a pretext by Mussolini for Italian expansionism] Greece was unable to identify them. Italy bombarded and occupied Corfu on 31 August, killing at least fifteen civilians. Greece appealed to the League of Nations, which handed the issue to the Conference of Ambassadors - set up by the allies to deal with problems arising out of treaties following WW1. Italy and Greece agreed to be bound by its decision. The Conference ordered Greece to apologise and pay reparations. Italy left Corfu on 27 September 1923 after Greece accepted the Ambassadors' decision. This incident enabled Mussolini to use Tellini's murder as a pretext for seizing a strategic foothold on Corfu and, even more important in terms of his reputation, to show that he could use force majeure to achieve his ambitions. The 'Corfu Incident' of 1927 comes up on Google before the one in 1946. It is far better known among Greeks. It was the first and highly public failure by the fledgling League of Nations' to resolve an international dispute. The incident of 1946 is a vicious footnote to history. The incident of 1927, or how it was handled by the democracies of Europe, helped to make history by sending a message to the world that might makes right. A picture I requested from Frank Carrick, which captures the serenity of the British Cemetery in Corfu. Thanks to George Psailas for his stewardship of 'our people' in this green plot under a Greek sun:
If I should die, think only this of me; That there's some corner of a foreign field That is for ever England. There shall be In that rich earth a richer dust concealed; A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware, Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam, A body of England's breathing English air, Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home. And think, this heart, all evil shed away, A pulse in the eternal mind, no less Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given; Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness, In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
[My Iraqi friend said: 'A smile starts on the lips, A grin spreads to the eyes. A chuckle comes from the belly. But a good laugh bursts forth from the soul, overflows, and bubbles all around' Rupert Brooke, poet and officer of the Royal Navy who died on a transporter off Lemnos departing for the fighting at Gallipoli, is buried on Skyros in the Northern Sporades. I've added for pleasure and joy another English thing (er - actually - a German born composer sung by a New Zealander), Teddy Tahu Rhodes, on the edge of triumphant laughter, singing Handel's 'The Trumpet Shall Sound' to a fine trumpeter. Were I to name a British Zorba , T T Rhodes would be he. Note to perceptive Greeks: I use 'English' in its archaic sense to mean 'British'. Now we are becoming four nations again, I refer to those from England, Wales, Scotland and N.Ireland as 'British' but I'm 80% Scots. Linda is all English, Frank Carrick is surely Scottish, and no doubt all these, and probably more, are to be found among the men of Saumarez and Volage who lie in the cemetery near San Rocco Square.]

The Corfu Channel. Saranda in the distance - September 2006
[Back to the future: My visit with Frank Carrick, writer of most above's post, to the British Cemetery this September 2009]
[Back to the future 3 Nov 2009: I've just seen a story by Malcolm Brabant reporting the discovery of remains on a stern portion of HMS Volage. ... 12/11/16 The link to this story no longer exists. Try HMS Volage - see final paragraphs]

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