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The WWII heritage in the Seas of Kefalonia

It is well known and obvious for anyone looking at a map, that Kefalonia had a pivotal location and role on the marine traffic in antiquity, from early Greek to late Roman and Byzantine times. However, this same location of Kefalonia at the exit of Gulf of Corinth and in proximity with Patras created the setting of many less or well-known wartime tragedies during both World Wars, not only in land but also in the seas around the island. And whilst for stories like the Massacre of the Acqui Division there are books, documentaries and films, there are many maritime war tragedies yet to be told, and sea graves to be discovered. The material could already fill books and much more valuable information from surveys and archives fills gaps and expands our knowledge, and hopefully will find its way to the public soon. But for now, the focus will be on WWII wrecks that lay in depths accessible by divers.

WWII wrecks of Kefalonia

Two of them are closely related to the Massacre of the Acqui Division, also known as the Cephalonia Massacre. That was the mass execution of the men of the Italian 33rd Infantry Division Acqui by the Germans on the island of Kefalonia, Greece, in September 1943, following the Italian armistice with the Allies during WWII. More than 9000 Italian soldiers were killed in action, massacred or drowned when the commandeered ships taking the survivors to concentration camps were sunk. The story takes place in 1943.

Following the decision of the Italian government to negotiate a surrender to the Allies, the armistice went public on September 8, 1943 and there was a thin and fragile balance between peace and war on Kefalonia. The Acqui Division had been the Italian garrison of Kefalonia since May 1943 and consisted of 11,500 soldiers and 525 officersunder General Antonio Gadin. However German forces had a 2000 men strong presence on the island, mainly in Lixouri area under Lt Colonel Johannes Barge. In the days between 8-13 of September, Gadin had nothing but controversial orders and directions by his senior commander in Greece, General Vecchiarelli and the Italian government under General Badoglio on what to do, either surrendering to the German former allies or fighting back if attacked. To make things worse, on September 11, Colonel Barge handed Gandin an ultimatumto either fight alongside with the Germans, or hand over arms peacefully.

General Gadin was facing this dilemma until the early hours of September 13 when a German convoy including two landing crafts carrying vehicles, spare parts and fuel, attempted to enter the harbor of Lixouri. Italian artillery officers, on their own initiative, ordered the batteries on the hills around Argostoli to open fire, scoring direct hits on F494 “Tinos” and F495 “Naxos”, resulting the sinking of F495. F494 was apparently heavily damaged and almost sunk but salvaged and repaired.

Motorcycle and barrels at F495 wreck

In the incident five German soldiers were killed and General Gadin came under pressure to take a decision and presented his troops the options presented to him by Barge. Italian troops were in favour of resisting the German forces so on September 14, Gadin refused to surrender. As a result, in the morning of 15 September, the German Luftwaffe began bombarding the Italian positionsand the hostilities resulted in the Italian defeat. On September 22 the last Italians surrendered, and the events of the Massacre of Acqui Division followed.

So, hostilities of this chapter of WWII started with the sinking of F495 “Naxos” Landing Craft. Little was known about this until was discovered and identified by local divers in 2007. It is severely damaged and rests in shallow waters of 9-15 m. The seabed composition is sea grass and sand with wreck debris scattered over a huge area approximately 250 long and 40 m wide, with fuel barrels, jerry cans, few motorcycles, vehicle spare parts, antisubmarine nets, artillery parts, ammunition and other cargo.

Antisubmarine net at F495 wreck

Whilst most of the surrendered Italians were executed, an estimated 2-3000 according to  some sources, were to embarke in ships and taken in concentration camps. Some of them made it to their destinations and others drowned when the ships were sunk in various locations in the Adriatic, by the Allies. But the tragedy of the prisoners onboard SS Ardena was to take place before the eyes of the locals.

SS Ardena (HMS Peony)

Originally built for British Royal Navy in 1915 as HMS Peony, the vessel was a sloop minesweeper of Azalea-class. After WW I was acquired by London & South West Railway and later by Southern Railway, renamed SS Ardena and used on the routes of Southampton and Cherbourg/Caen until sold to on 1934 to Toyias Shipping Company in Piraeus, Greece.

During the days of German invasion in Greece, on April 6, 1941, was sunk by Luftwaffe in Piraeus on but later raised and used by the German Navy. The final act came on September 28, 1943, when SS Ardena was sailing from the island of Kefalonia to the mainland Greece with some 840 Italian prisoners. At the exit of the bay of Argostoli probably hit an unmarked sea-mine of the minefield Italians have laid earlier and sank with great loss of life.

The vessel was in the middle of the shipping lanes and in water shallow enough for the masts to reaching the surface. Although being a war grave, in the grim years after the war, the top deck parts and superstructure were salvaged and what remains today is the bottom part of the keel, still keeping its ship line, along with scattered debris around at the seafloor, and at a depth of 29 m. The visibility on the site is often limited by currents stirring the sediment. However, divers visiting the site with the outmost respect, can see personal items such as boots, shaving razors, tin plates and flasks and sometimes even human remains. Every year on the day of the sinking, a ceremony is held by Italian and Greek officials. On 2009, Italian Navy divers laid on the site a commemorative plaque to the memory of the souls lost.

Divers bringing the commemorative plaque at SS Ardena

Roughly at the same time another boat was lost to enemy action just off the coast of Poros. On May 23, 1943, Captain Miltiadis Houmas, agent of the Greek branch of MI9, arrived in Poros, Kefalonia, with orders by Major Michael W.Parish to help John Capes, the sole survivor of HMS Perseus to escape, after spending 18 months in Axis occupied Kefalonia, hidden by the heroic locals. The above information as well as the following abstract is by Kostas Thoctarides book, who discovered the submarine wreck in 1997:
“At 13:30 in the afternoon, five English planes and one American, flying low, almost at sea level, made their appearance. A caique had left Zakynthos. Strafed from above, the caique caught fire. The Italians immediately came on board our caique and asked us to head for the wreck in order to collect the shipwreck survivor”.

150mm shells at the WWII wreck

As indicated by the recent research, this same caique wreck lies off shore Kapros Cape in Skala at a depth of 40 m. Divers approaching the wreck encounter a pile of war supplies in the shape of a vessel that its wooden parts have long rotted away, in a dive into history for WWII enthusiasts. A worth-reading extensive article with all recent findings and historical research can be found here:

http://www.bluemantadiving.gr/the-extraordinary-wwii-shipwreck-of-cape-kapros-in-kefalonia/

As Kefalonia was occupied by Axis forces during WWII providing harbour for their ships, there is no surprise that there were many Allied air raids around the island. Many Allied airplanes have shot and crashed around Kefalonia, some laying in extremely  deep waters and some awaiting to be discovered. One of them is rumored to lay in the bottom of Argostoli bay but has not been found yet.

On the north of the island, near Fiskardo, there is a known airplane crash site. A SAAF Bristol Beaufighter raiding Fiskardo harbour was shot by German anti-aircraft defences and crashed at Kimilia bay, having its navigator killed and the pilot surviving to be captured. After the war the plane was towed closer to the shore and salvaged due to its precious metals and nowadays few pieces remain scattered on the seabed and can be seen by divers, along with a commemorative plaque, at a depth of 8-10m.

A Bristol Beaufighter

Very little, if at all, is known for the wreckage of a Luftwaffe Ju 88 at the southeastern tip of Ithaca on the crest of a sloping reef that shortly reaches the contour line of 100 meters.

Ju 88 tail part

The aircraft met its fate as it ditched a short distance offshore reportedly hit by allied fire. It is shocking to imagine the force of the crash as the two engines can be found far apart at 22 and 28 meters of depth and the tail sits at 36m much further away. Probably parts of fuselage have rolled deep down the slope, off limits for recreational divers but pieces of the wings are found and positively identified around the top of the reef.

Luftwaffe Ju88 engine

Beyond any doubt, the most known WWII wreck in Kefalonia and probably among the most known in the world is the British Overseas Patrol submarine HMS/M Perseus, (N36) that lies virtually intact on the sandy bottom, at 52 meters depth, about a mile off the south coast of Kefalonia. HMS Perseus was a Parthian class submarine built by Vickers-Armstrongs at Barrow in Furness in 1929.

HMS Perseus (N36)

Perseus submarine is perhaps the the top WW II wreck dive in Mediterraneanand probably the best submarine dive in the world but beyond being among the most impressive wreck dives a diver can experience, also has an amazing history as well. The vessel was on combat patrol in December 1941, and while cruising at the surface at night hit an Italian naval mine and sunk. From the crew of 59 only one, the Royal Navy leading stoker John Capes managed a daredevil escape from a depth no one has attempted before. In fact, during the whole of the war there were only four escapes from stricken British submarines. Capes swam his way to Katelios and with the aid of locals escaped capture from Italian and German occupation forces and finally transferred in Turkey. While legendary in Royal Navy, almost nobody believed his adventure until in 1997 the team of Greek diver and u/w explorer Kostas Thoctarides located the submarine and verified details of his described escape.

The divers approaching the submarine encounter a magnificent vessel 88 meters long, with a large conning tower, the ship’s gun and the rear hutch still open indicating the escape route of John Capes, while a look in the interior is possible. Among other things, the torpedo tubes and the ship’s propellers and rudder are visible, as well as the damage caused by the sea mine. The anchor of the mine still can be seen few meters from the aft of the submarine. Much is said about this magnificent wreck and its tragic story and more details on the story of John Capes can be found here:

https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-15959067

These wrecks are just the few that lay in depths that can be accessed by divers and can fill many WWII history pages. But as monuments of wartime tragedies and war graves, should be treated with outmost respect. Just like the many more around Kefalonia, from both World Wars that lay in deep waters or still waiting to be discovered.

 

This article couldn’t be written without the research of

Kostas Thoctarides, Tilemanchos Beriatos and Steve Worthington

 

 

Parrotfish: The pirates of the reef!

Mediterranean Parrotfish ((Sparisoma cretense) loves the shallow reefs and rocky shores with warm waters. Therefore is quite rare or absent in the northwestern Mediterranean and in the Adriatic Sea, but probably due to global warming there is an ongoing northward range expansion. In the Aegean Sea was even pictured in wall paintings since ancient years. And nowadays is joyful and abundant inhabitant oft the Ionian Sea. Their primary habitat is rocky reefs,  but they may visit adjacent Posidonia oceania  seagrass patches. Parrotfish feeding on epilithic and coralline algae and also on epiphytic algae, growing on seagrass. Constantly they chew the algae off  the rocks with their sharp teeth that look like a parrot’s beak and in a manner they shape the Mediterranean rocky reefs, like their tropical cousins do with the coral reefs. So  not just a nice face but also among the  most important species on the Mediterranean reef, as they are the “doctors” eating expanding and dead epilithic algae and dead and keeping the reef healthy, constantly creating new inhabitant for all species to play their role and complete their life circle in the bottom of our seas.

Because of the their mouth and teeth parrotfish is funny looking but also is a graceful, constantly moving swimmer  at the same time, one very challenging to capture on a photo, unless the perfect focus is not an issue.. And while the bright and colorful females are  red with a yellow-edged grey saddle shape on the back and a yellow spot at the base of the tail, males are overall grey with paler underparts and no distinctive markings. It is quite easy for the divers to distinguish them, especially as they form small or large groups, where one large male dominates the females. The same male was a female earlier in its life that, as in many fish species and as growing bigger changed into a male.

A huge school of male Parrotfish (Sparisoma cretense)

Probably not all females grow into males but there should be many. Otherwise how one can explain the u/w marvel experienced for few weeks roughly the same time every year, in the heart of the summer-usually in August- at the shallow reefs around Skala Kefalonia? Divers may experience schools of male parrotfish more than 300 strong, foraging the reef and making mad the local males that are trying to defend their territory in their pale-grey war colors! These schools are totally focused on plundering the reef and ignore the divers allowing them to come close to observe or take u/w photos.

Diver among parrotfish

This is a unique behavior that hasn’t been officially recorded and studied yet. But still there for lucky divers to experience the u/w wonder of the “buccaneer” parrotfish!

The misundestood Fangtooth Moray

 

 

One could claim that Fangtooth Moray (scientific name: “Enchelycore anatina”) is among the most terrifying looking marine animals in the Mediterranean . That is probably due to its elongated jaws and especially the teeth, which have a crystal, glasslike appearance and are visible through the curved jaws even when the mouth is closed. The black and yellow stripes and dots on its body add to the impression and is also known as Tiger Moray – although its basic color pattern mostly resembles a leopard!

Morays are infamous for having strong jaws and powerful bite. However, this fella attacks only when feeling threatened, so unless divers put hands in cavities in or between the rocks while exploring the bottom, they are safe. Generally, it does not behave aggressive at all (and definitely not to u/w photographers!).

Fangtooth Moray is a migrant species into the Mediterranean from the Atlantic Ocean , and here found a supplementary role to the more common Moray Eel in the ecosystem. Most people cannot even distinguish it is a different species. It is a solitary creature and usually spends the day between the rocks of the bottom while hunting mostly at night. It feeds on small fish, crustaceans, cephalopods (especially favors octopus!), and dead animals.

As not a significant commercial species, Fangtooth Moray is not targeted or threatened by overfishing. However, it is a usual by-catch to long fishing lines, nets and trawlers. It also suffers to the loss of habitant, the decrease in populations of species that is preying on and also to general deterioration of u/w environment. Fangtooth Moray is not abundant and is not studied enough but as predator is playing a key role in the fragile marine ecosystem. Not many, not even most divers are aware of its presence in the Mediterranean. Raising awareness for this colorful creature may grant it an opportunity to stay safe in Mediterranean Sea for the future.

 

Cape Kapros German Wreck

 

“At 13:30 in the afternoon, five English planes and one American, flying low, almost at sea level, made their appearance. A caique had left Zakynthos. Strafed from above, the caique caught fire. The Italians immediately came on board our caique and asked us to head for the wreck in order to collect the shipwreck survivors”.

This is what Captain Houmas, an agent of the Greek branch of MI9 that helped the sole survivor or HMS Perseus John Capes in his escape from Kefalonia, logged on May 23, 1943, referring to the commandeered by Germans vessel that lies at -39 m just off Cape Kapros in Skala, south-east Kefalonia.

Divers approaching the wreck encounter a pile of war supplies in the shape of a vessel that its wooden parts have long rotted away, in a dive into history for WWII enthusiasts. The main cargo of artillery shells (apart from the ammunition and medical equipment) was most probably destined for the coastal defense batteries of cape Mounda. Among the 150mm cells, the cordite propellant, bullets and fuses boxes, barrels and metal parts of the boat, numerous small crustaceans, fish and other creatures, such as hermit crabs, shrimps, morays, saddled seabreams, gobbies, tube worms and more, making the wreck a heaven for macro u/w photographers. A large white grouper usually dominates the wreck whilst red snappers often are preying in the cloud of damselfish inhabiting this artificial reef.

The average depth or the dive is 38 m, while the max is 42 m, for experienced and deep divers. The usual visibility is 20 m and temperature ranges between 19-25 C in summer months. Occasionally there might be medium currents. Boat ride duration 6’.

Antisamos Roman Wreck

Some 2000 years ago, the journey of a Roman ship seeking shelter in picturesque Antisamos Bay ended tragically with a crash at the sharp rocks at the north of the bay. Since then, all kinds of gobies, scorpionfish, moray eels, parrot fish, octopus, nudibranch and many more marine species have claimed the cargo’s hundreds of amphorae as a habitant. Where the boat crushed, the rubble of the amphora form blocks starting at a depth of few meters with individual pieces scattered down to the slope to the depth of around 35 meters where also the massive anchor of the boat can be seen. Behind the schools of two-banded seabreams, large dusky groupers observe the divers and red snappers are common visitors from the deeper zone.

The average depth of the dive is 15 m, while the max is 35 m, appropriate for advanced level divers. The visibility is usually greater than 20 m and temperature ranges between 18-25 °C in summer months, depending on depth. Occasionally a weak current may be encountered at the surface. Boat ride duration 30′.

Mazi Wall

Located at Ithaca’s southwestern coast, there is the protected inlet of Mazi, that since ancient times gives shelter to sailors from the prevailing NW wind. An evidence for this is the scuttered ancient amphora in the inlet. The vivid coastal reef is full of all kinds of small fishvivid coastal reef is full of all kinds of small fish, nudibranch, crustaceans and moray eels for divers and underwater photographers to discover. Suddenly divers discover that there is drop forming a steep wall. Around the depth of 35 meters, large tube worms taking advantage of the currents as do huge schools of damselfish. Behind the clouds of the small fish, divers can spot Goldblotch groupers larking to prey on the schools of damselfish. Depending on the season, large groups of amberjacks or bonitos flashing like silver arrows through the blue to attack the defend less damselfish.

The average depth of the dive is 15 m, while the max is 35 m, appropriate for advanced level divers. The visibility is usually greater than 30 m and temperature ranges between 17-25 °C in summer months, depending on depth. Occasionally a mild current may be encountered at the tip of the wall. Boat ride duration 25′.