Gunboat Diplomacy Disaster—the Corfu Incident
Albania and England Square Off
In 1946, Albania, led by the quixotic and belligerent Communist Colonel-General Enver Hoxha, provoked a naval world-power into a show-down and won. The world today little remembers this incident of gunboat diplomacy gone wrong. Yet it's a lesson that should be instructed repeatedly to nations intending to rattle sabers as a substitute for polite but determined diplomacy. In the end, the price for this disaster was paid by forty-four young men who had their lives cut short in a time of peace at the average age of twenty.
The scene: Corfu, 1946, just one of the many idyllic islands that form the nation of Greece. Fought over throughout the ages by former empires and steeped in history, there is little to distinguish this Greek isle from the many others like it except perhaps that it was the summer residence of the erstwhile Greek royal family; Prince Philip, consort of Queen Elizabeth II, was born there. After the Italians, and then the Germans abandoned it late in WWII, Corfu was also home to a small British naval base which gave harbor to ships engaged in defeating the Axis navies. In addition, Corfu is unfortunately placed within a few miles of a border to the most baffling of nations of the era - Albania. Half the eastern side of the island faces the western coast of Albania. Between the two, and then north runs the only navigable waters, recognized as international for centuries, the Medri Channel, referred to here as the Corfu Channel.
The passage runs ominously close to Albania for a dozen miles or so. Ships that wish to proceed north must sail through it or risk running aground on shoals. Albania at this time claimed it was inside her territorial waters and that passers-through should seek her permission. One of the world's foremost naval powers ignored them, considering the country to be insignificant in world affairs. Albania was without a navy and could do little to stop ships passing close to her shores - or so they thought.
The First Incident: Warning Shots
May 5, 1946, a full year since the war had ended in Europe, two British cruisers, H.M.S. Orion and H.M.S. Superb were sailing through a one mile wide channel that had been previously swept of German contact mines. All marine charts indicated it was clear. The course from North to South would take them within a mile of the Albanian coast. The officers of the small flotilla studied through binoculars with intense curiosity the barren hills of Europe's latest communist dictatorship. Under Enver Hoxha, Albania had become a recluse with her only friends being Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, and he would soon sever those ties. The Colonel-General forbade any national loans for aid, nationalized all industry, what little there was (ie: tobacco factories, a few dairies & breweries, 1 cement factory) and erected a booby-trapped perimeter surrounding the country 600 yards inside the actual border in order to give armed guards enough time to detect and shoot anyone trying to leave. Hoxha prevented travel into Albania as well, ejecting all Westerners, so journalists knew it only as a dark enigma. He rejected any post-war foreign aid, calling it 'Wall Street hand-outs with strings attached'.
As the two British naval vessels passed between Corfu and Albania, the channel was a mere three miles wide. A deckhand on the trailing ship, the Superb, noticed a puff of white smoke in the Albanian hills. Not long after, he heard a loud bang and saw a 20 foot spout of water 200 yards astern. Within a minute, he and the officers of the deck witnessed several repeats. "The bloody idiots are firing at us." From an emplaced cannon in the hills, the Albanians fired at least twelve shots at the fleeing British cruisers. They quickly reported the incident to the Admiralty in London.
To return fire would be to acknowledge that a state of war existed between the U.K. and Albania. Instead they would fire diplomatic Notes at each other, the Brits demanding an explanation and an apology, the Albanians making excuses and claiming sovereignty over the international channel. In future, Comrade Hoxha said, ships wishing to use the channel should ask Albania for permission.
The British haughtily warned the Albanians that England, with nearly 3000 warships, would sail the Corfu Channel anytime she wished, and that any repeats of this belligerence would be met with return fire.
The Gunboat Reaction
The Admiralty advised the Mediterranean Fleet to discontinue using the channel until the diplomacy had taken its course. When diplomacy failed they advised the fleet to sail again through the channel in an obvious show of force, returning fire if fired upon. One of these messages between the Admiralty and the Fleet contained the unfortunate patrician phrase 'to see if the Albanians have learned to behave themselves'. This would surface later in court to the dismay of the British. At the very least, it exemplified a paternalistic, imperious attitude toward a nation that few could take seriously.
Two British cruisers (about 8,000 tons each) and two destroyers (about 2,000 tons each) would sail from Corfu harbor, run north through the channel, guns manned and ready to respond to any provocation by the Albanian shore batteries. The naval cannons would point fore and aft in the neutral position. Normal diplomacy had failed, now the gunboat diplomacy would take over to get those Albanians 'to behave themselves'.
The Show of Force
The naval task force turned to port (left) from Corfu harbor on October 22, 1946, passed northward alongside Albania's coastline without incident until they approached the Albanian port of Saranda. In the lead, H.M.S. Mauritius (cruiser & flagship), followed by the Saumarez (destroyer) followed by Leander (cruiser) and then Volage (destroyer), all steamed 'line ahead' with safe distances between. The narrow swept channel didn't permit any other formation. The captains of each ship called the crews to Action Stations, warning them over the Tannay that earlier in the year two ships of the fleet had been shot at and they intended to be ready to return fire if called upon. Shells were readied in their hoists but guns remained in their 'fore and aft' positions common to peacetime travel. In the air, spotter planes from the aircraft carrier H.M.S. Ocean were flying over known Albanian gun positions in the event they were needed. Britain didn't want to hit civilian populations, lest the incident take on more sinister proportions.
The course took them close to Saranda, Albania, and turned to port again. After the lead ship turned, the Saumarez followed. A few minutes passed along this new course before a huge explosion erupted under the forward section of the Saumarez, lifting the bow 20 feet into the air. The officers on the bridge were sent skyward, slamming their heads into the steel ceilings and slamming them back in a heap on steel decks. Some did not get up, their skulls were caved in. Those on the decks below, in the direct path of the blast were turned into vapor, never to be seen again. It would be a mercy compared to the suffering of those burned and trapped in flooding compartments. Their screams took an eternity to cease. The decks and water-tight doors were buckled and seawater rushed in. Oil from storage tanks leaked into the sea around them. The engines sputtered to a stop. A lone siren wailed, jammed in the 'On' position by a blast fragment. The captain got up from the heap of moaning bodies on the floor and began to assess the damage.
The ship was crippled by an explosion most likely from a contact mine, 30 or more men were dead and many more wounded, some of them seriously, all in need of medical attention. They would need to be towed. The bow section, about 40 feet of it, was merely hanging on to the ship by steel threads, water rushed into forward compartments since bulkheads were breached or water-tight hatches had been deformed by the explosion. She was as good as sunk if a fire broke out from the leaking fuel oil. A fire did start. Wounded parties of men trained their puny fire hoses on the oil fires. The deck plates glowed red. Men had to pump water by hand since the generators wouldn't run. They only managed to keep the fire from spreading, but never succeeded in putting it out. The severely wounded were laid out on the aft quarter decks, waiting for rescue or death. A few succumbed to their injuries.
The flagship tasked the last ship of the line, H.M.S. Volage with putting Saumarez under tow and bringing her thirteen miles back to Corfu. A few hours later, while towing the stricken Saumarez, the Volage, too, had 40 feet of her bow blasted by another contact mine. This time the blast severed the Volage's bow clean off which sank, causing another dozen or so deaths. Fortunately for the remainder of the vessel, the water-tight compartments and hatches (doors) held and the Volage managed to tow the Saumarez back to Corfu. The Mediterranean Fleet sent a hospital ship and an aircraft carrier to render assistance and support. The wounded were evacuated, the dead buried and the ships damages evaluated. Forty-four dead, one ship beyond repair, one ship repairable with considerable damage. The verdict was that contact mines were probably the cause.
England dispatched minesweepers from Malta to the scene. When they arrived they conducted methodical sweeps of the Corfu Channel and discovered twenty-four German contact mines anchored twelve feet below the surface, in such a pattern as to make them unavoidable to shipping. They brought two of them back to Malta to examine as evidence. They were clean, freshly painted and free of barnacles or other marine growth, telltale signs for the investigators. But who planted them? Albania didn't have even the smallest naval vessel and was incapable of laying mines. It was known from surrendered Nazi files that the Yugoslavs had recovered German mines from storage after the war. The Yugoslavs had painted each with a white Swastika to indicate their origin. It would be proven later that Hoxha had Comrade Tito of Yugoslavia render assistance in the mining of the Corfu Channel. The mines were very clean, still free of barnacles or rust, indicating that they had been placed in the water a mere few weeks before the incident.
It was clear to the investigators that Albania, with assistance, had mined an international waterway in secret and was criminally culpable for the tragedy that took place. Britain took her case to the UN Security Council wanting satisfaction, meaning an admission of guilt and compensation. The Western nations on the council agreed with Britain, but two Communist entities voted against any resolutions; the Soviet Union and Poland were opposed to any declaration that Albania was criminally responsible for the deaths of 44 British sailors, but against that opposition the resolution passed with a majority. Then, using the veto clause to thwart the majority decision, Mr. Gromyko, Soviet Ambassador to the UN, denied the British any satisfaction. No longer, it would seem, were the Soviets our allies shaking hands and exchanging hugs on the banks of the Elba after defeating the Nazis only months earlier. The Soviets had fired the first salvo in the Cold War.
The Security Council voted eight to two (not subject to veto) that Britain could take her case to the International Court in The Hague. And so would play out the final scenes of the United Kingdom's embarrassing gunboat diplomacy disaster. She'd have been better off to leave it at that.
The Legal Battle
The UK proceeded to meticulously build its case in the vain hope that a legal victory at The Hague would produce the satisfaction they desired. The complete opposite would be the case. During the trial a surprise witness came out in favor of the Brits. A Yugoslavian defector in fear of his life, navy Lieutenant Karel Kovacic, had sailed from the Dalmatian coast to freedom in Italy one year after the mining incident. He related a story to the British Embassy, and several times afterward before appearing in court in The Hague to testify against Albania. A reliable witness, he stated under oath that he had seen two Yugoslavian minesweepers he had worked on days before the mining, each load up with about 40 German GY mines and return days later completely empty. This testimony decided the case after three years of legal wrangling in England's favor over Albania. Britain was awarded full damages sought after - £847,000 Pounds Sterling, to pay for ship repairs, as well as compensation to families of the deceased.
But the cheers of victory would soon turn to groans of frustration once again. The International Court did not have the power to enforce its ruling. It would be left up to the UK and Albania to sort out how to arrange collection of the judgment. Britain girded her loins for yet another battle, this one of never ending discussions of repayment. The Albanians constant and unwavering reply was 'sorry, we haven't got any money to pay you.'
It was eventually discovered in 1951 that Italy had loaned Albania about US$2,000,000 in gold. This gold had been looted by the Nazis, stored in abandoned mines and recovered after the war. It was not until 1991, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, that England's claim was finally settled. In the end, due to the friction of government, they probably spent more in legal fees and overhead to recover this sum than they got in compensation. Forty-five years after the incident, it's doubtful that anyone involved in receiving payment had any recollection of the event. Absent would be the feeling that justice had been served. On the Albanian side, it might have felt as though they were settling a long-deceased batty uncle's bar tab.
The United Kingdom chose to redress the actions of a lunatic regime with gunboat diplomacy, to teach them 'to behave themselves'. When the show of force failed miserably, they decided to take the matter to the gentleman's club, which in turn failed. The tragedy was that 44 young men died needlessly in a time of peace, and an equal number wounded had their lives forever changed by poorly thought out diplomacy. It also demonstrated to the Soviets that the West was prepared to blast with cannon to resolve international disputes, and may have triggered the frosty relations to follow. It showed terrible arrogance because the same approach wouldn't have been contemplated against a more powerful and belligerent nation, the Soviet Union for instance.
The Moral of the Story
What did Britain hope to accomplish by blasting a few shore batteries in Albania? Would the channel then be safe for travel? Would Albania not respond with some other violent act? There was very little coverage of this incident in the British press and it's easy to see why: it wasn't their finest thinking. The only follow up to a small act of war is a larger one.
National defense is the same as personal defense. Be prepared to defend yourself but avoid confrontations. Don't go into bad neighborhoods provoking a quarrel, you'll get one. Be prepared to run, but also be prepared to poke someone's eyes out or use deadly force if justified, but never precipitate a situation where you have to! It would seem England overlooked all these simple rules. She deliberately sought an armed confrontation with what she knew to be an inferior power.
The United Kingdom judged that Albania was not a match for them and could easily be intimidated by saber rattling. In an international dispute, the threat of force was met with real force by a nation not even possessing a navy, proving once again, that to underestimate one's adversaries based upon what you see is to succumb to that timeless self-deception; over-confidence and arrogance leads to the defeat of a larger force by a weaker one. The stated aim of the gunboat cruise was to provoke a reaction from Albania. In that goal it succeeded. Current and future empires wishing to flex military muscle take note: Good old Teddy Roosevelt said it best, "Walk softly, carry a big stick."
© 2017 Ed Schofield