In May 1943, the Italian Acqui 33rd Infantry Division arrived on Cephalonia. Its commander, Division General Antonio Gandin, was fluent in German, a veteran of the Soviet Front (1941–1942), known to a number of German generals, and a recipient of the Iron Cross. The 33rd Division was composed of about 11,500 enlisted men and officers and was centered on two infantry regiments (the 17th and 317th), an artillery regiment (the 33rd), the 27th Blackshirt Legion and the 19th Blackshirt Battalion, and various support units. In addition, the Italians had some naval coastal batteries, a few torpedo boats, and two aircraft.
Allied gains in 1943 led the Germans to consider the possibility that the Italians would opt out of the war, whereon the Germans decided to reinforce their token garrison on Cephalonia. Between 5 and 6 July, Lieutenant Colonel Hans Barge's 966th Grenadier Regiment arrived, along with a battery of self-propelled guns and nine tanks. This addition brought the German strength to a total of 1,800 men. Shortly thereafter, on 25 July, Mussolini's government collapsed. The Italians on Cephalonia, however, were ignorant of the plans of the Italian War Office and of the possibility of conflict with the Germans.
On the evening of 8 September 1943, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, with the agreement of King Victor Emmanuel, ordered Italian troops to cease all hostilities against Anglo-American forces. Badoglio also ordered that Italian forces should respond with "maximum decision" to any offensive action from "[any] direction whatsoever." The Germans, meanwhile, chose to treat Italians who resisted their authority as mutineers, or francs-tireurs.
On 11 September, the Germans on Cephalonia gave Gandin an ultimatum to surrender his weapons. While he was attempting to delay a decision, word came that Italian forces on Corfu were fighting the Germans and that, elsewhere, the Germans were sending the Italians who surrendered to internment camps, despite promises they would be repatriated. On 13 September, the Germans attempted to reinforce their garrison on Cephalonia, but the Italians opened fire on the two barges carrying troops and supplies and sank both. The next day, Colonel Barge hand-delivered to Gandin an order demanding the Italians turn over their weapons, issued by Lieutenant General Hubert Lanz, commanding the German XXII Mountain Corps. That same day, troops of the 1st Alpine Division under the command of Major von Hirschfeld landed on the island.
Meanwhile, the Italian War Office, now located at Brindisi, ordered the 33rd Division to fight the Germans. Gandin then issued orders to attack the German positions on the island on 15 September if they did not surrender. On that day, German aircraft attacked the Italian positions, and the Italians in turn took 400 German troops as prisoners. Intense fighting continued until 22 September. During that time, the British and Americans, whether from ignorance or from distrust of the Italians, had forbidden the Italian navy or air force to aid Italian troops fighting in Greece. With their ammunition exhausted and having sustained some 1,300 casualties, the Italians surrendered. Almost simultaneously, the Italian War Office announced that help was on the way, but it was too late.
Men of the German XXII Mountain Corps had received a special Führer Order to execute all the Italian soldiers who had fought on Cephalonia. Many who surrendered were shot in their positions, and a group of Bavarian soldiers who protested this action were threatened with summary execution themselves. Large numbers of Italian troops were slain where they were taken; the remainder were transported to the town of San Teodoro and held in the town hall. General Gandin was shot first, but before the bullets hit his body, he threw his Iron Cross into the dirt. His staff and then all the officers were executed, followed by the noncommissioned officers, the enlisted men, and even the medical personnel. The officers' bodies were then weighted and dumped into the sea by navy men who were, in turn, shot. In all, about 4,750 Italians were summarily executed. The only ones spared were the military chaplains, who would later provide many of the details of the massacre. About 1,200 Italians, led by Captain Renzo Appollonio, joined with some Greek partisans and escaped to the mainland.
A group of about 4,000 who had surrendered their arms without fighting were imprisoned in barracks on the island. In October, they were put onto three ships sailing for Greece, but the ships hit mines shortly out of port. Those who did not drown were machine-gunned by the Germans. In all, 390 Italian officers and 9,640 enlisted men perished at the hands of the Germans. In 1948, the Military Tribunal at Nuremberg sentenced General Lanz to 12 years of imprisonment. He was released in 1954.
In the year 2000, Universal Studios released Captain Corelli's Mandolin, a romantic story of the Italian occupation and the 33rd Division's destruction. The film was based on Louis de Berni?res's novel of the same name.
A. J. L. Waskey
D'Angelo, Rudy. "Cefalonia—1943: Massacre of the Royal Italian ACQUI Division." Military Advisor 8, no. 2 (Spring 1997): 14–17.; Formato, Romualdo. L'eccidio Cefalonia. Milan, Italy: U. Mursia, 1968.; Harris, Andy. Captain Corelli's Island: Cephallonia. London: Pavillion Books, 2000.; Lamb, Richard. War in Italy, 1943–1945: A Brutal Story. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.