The extraordinary WWII shipwreck of Cape Kapros in Kefalonia!
An unnoticed episode in the story of HMS Perseus British submarine
25 December 1997, Christmas Day. Under dusk, a boat silhouette begins to appear on the screen with the shape, length and volume of the boat that the team was looking for four three weeks in the heart of winter. The search of the seabed with a geophysical survey sounding system (SONAR) and an underwater camera had yielded the much expected results. The next day, the Greek explorer of the seas and experienced diver Kostas Thoctarides makes the first dive in the British submarine lost in World War II, forgotten for 56 years. The Royal Navy “HMS Perseus” was launched in 1929 and initially served in the Far East, but as Italy declared war in 1940, the submarine was transferred to Alexandria, Egypt, to reinforce the British fleet in the Mediterranean. After several patrols in the eastern Mediterranean, in November 1941 it left Malta for an offensive patrol in the Ionian Sea and on December 6 it crashed into a naval mine and sank just 2.5 nautical miles off the coast of Kefalonia. The story is well known from now on thanks to the team that located and identified the shipwreck and conducted an excellent historical research.
However, a small episode in the history of Perseus has gone unnoticed.
According to the historical information gathered by the team of Kostas Thoctarides, on Sunday 23 May 1943 at noon, the small fishing vessel “Evangelistria” with Captain Houmas from Samos island, member of the British organization MI9 operating in occupied Greece, Giannis Katsoulakis mechanic, Nikos Anagnostou sailor and Antonis Evangelatos liaison with the local resistance, arrives in Poros, Kefalonia, in order to evacuatethe only survivor of HMS Perseus submarine, John Capes. After a trip of about 450 nautical miles (800 Km) from Chios island, Captain Houmas records in his diary that about an hour and a half after their arrival, six allied warplanes strafed a boat that had departed from Zakynthos carrying oil and gasoline, which caught fire. The Italians ordered “Evangelistria” (which for this mission had been renamed “St. Nicholas”) to take them to the site, but after a deliberate delay a passing tug picked up the shipwrecked crew. And here begins the story of the findings of another shipwreck of World War II, which is probably the boat whose sinking is narrated by Captain Houmas and is so tragically connected to the “Perseus” as the two boats found their way to the seabed at the same turbulent period of history in the sea area southeast of Kefalonia.
The shipwreck of a small boat off Cape Kapros, near Skala town
At a distance of about 2 nautical miles south of Poros port on the route to Zakynthos, lies the wreck that has been known to local fishermen for years, but until now has not been identified and researched in detail (although included as a monument in the list compiled for the Ionian Aquarium-Museum set up in Kefalonia during the INTERREG IV Greece-Italy Program, 2007-2013).
Today, the timber hull parts with a complete lack of metal parts found at the site, suggests that it had been a small boat with wooden hull with a length of about 15 m and a width of about 4 m (since only).
More importantly, the vessel carried several dozen 0.70m long artillery projectiles caliber 150mm, one that according to available information, was appropriate only to the 3 (according to other sources 4) German coastal defense guns (in concrete cast emplacements along with underground tunnels for storage and barracks). These had been set up by the German command at Cape Dhafnoudhi in Erissos peninsula (northern Kefalonia), after the armistice of Italy and the local dominance over the Italian forces in Kefalonia in September 1943. It is noted that this coastal artillery position was covering the strait between Kefalonia and Lefkas islands (the coastal battery at Cape Munda covered the strait of Kefalonia-Zakynthos likewise).
Regarding the identification of the wreck, although a time mismatch is observed as the installation of the 150mm guns (it took place between September and October 1943) post-dates the sinking of the ship reported by Captain Houmas (May 1943), it is possible and very likely for the German command to have foreseen the collapse of the Italian ally and thus to provide for the transfer of the necessary materials, components and ammunition so that it is ready to take over the defense of the areas at both Capes (and other positions on the island) previously held by the Italians, without significant interruption. After all these bigger guns were simply an upgrade of the Italian 105 and 75 mm ones that were previously installed and perhaps this was a long-planned move to improve the island’s defenses.
The extraordinary boat’s cargo now lying on the seabed
It is established that many large or small vessels belonging to the local population were temporarily (or in other cases throughout the war) commandeered by the occupying forces to carry out various secondary missions, mainly in supporting roles (due to their insufficient capacity for warfarefront roles). One of these missions was to transport military supplies and troops. It is clear that the particular ship that sank off Cape Kapros was such a small boat that carried German-made ammunition and some medical supplies.
Apart from artillery projectiles, other components to this day lying on the seabed, although covered with marine growth, are artillery projectile fuses, mechanisms with a timer for controlled firing of explosive missiles either above the target or after penetrating inside the target ship.
As for portable firearms, there are 7.92 mm cartridges (known as the “8mm Mauser training round”) used for MG34 or MG42 machine guns, since cycling the weapon required a specific minimum gas compression inside the barrel). Another possible use was launching rifle-grenades. Interestingly, their use against humans was prohibited by the Geneva Convention as it would lead to the penetration of wood fragments into the body.
A very interesting finding is a small tube that according to the inscription “Körper-schuß-salbe” (in the Old High German language), which were quite difficult to read after decades of staying on the bottom of the sea, it contained a wound treatment ointment, possibly sulfanamide, which was used extensively until the middle of the Second World War, being the first effective antibiotic before penicillin which was used at the end of the war. Thanks to the rest of the inscription “Wehrkreissanitätspack VII” we know from what military district (support command) during the war, the specific object was distributed, with the one being “number 7” based in Munich.
Another finding is a small bakelite box containing 10 “Losantin” tablets (active ingredient Calcium Dihypochlorite) for skin disinfection to protect against mustard gas poisoning (after the experience of using gases in the First World War). Soldiers were instructed to keep these tablets (4 boxes) in their pockets at chest height, apparently to accommodate immediate access.
This particular shipwreck is very interesting, since it is probably connected with the escape story of the only survivor of submarine “HMS Perseus”, but also due to almost certainly being connected with the coastal defense battery installed on the island to defend not only the island itself but also the marine passages towards the mainland. Perhaps even more important is the fact that it highlights the coexistence of inhumane weapons of destruction, with humanitarian tools to care for the wounded, at the same historic site where now lies a small undisturbed time capsule, another monument to the greatest war Humanity ever witnessed. The same human hands that operated the guns that were taking lives, at the same time applied the medicines that saved them, much like two opposite views that are expressed in the same common dialogue of human history.
To this day, the monuments of this turbulent period of the war around our islands, are submerged in the deep waters of the Ionian Sea, keeping alive historical memory. They act as artificial reefs on the seabed – small cradles of life for marine species, but also exhibits of the unexplored vast museum of the ocean, the last great unknown on our planet.
CMAS 3-star diver
PSS Technical Diver