On this Day August 12, 1953: The Great Ionian Earthquake Strikes, Devastating Western Greece


The worst earthquake in modern Greek history— known as the Great Ionian Earthquake of 1953 was actually a series of hundreds of tremors, shocks and aftershocks that began on August 12, 1953, striking the region between the islands of Kefalonia and Zakynthos.

The most destructive of the quakes measured 7.2 on the richter scale and actually raised the whole island of Kefalonia 60 centimeters— or almost two feet.

Devastation in Kefalonia, August 1953.

Devastation in Kefalonia, August 1953.

Three buildings survived the devastation in Zakynthos’ main town and most of Kefalonia was destroyed, except for the far northern town of Fiscardo. The island of Ithaki also sustained heavy damage during the quakes.

Numerous foreign ships arrived at the Ionian islands to assist in disaster relief efforts but only the Israeli fleet could actually access the shallow waters. A naval officer’s son provides a story of how the Israeli Navy’s first humanitarian efforts in history took place around the Greek islands.

According to the Law of the Sea of that time, the first rescue force to arrive on the scene takes command of the operation, and since the Israeli navy was the first to land on the shores of Kefalonia it took charge and also directed the rescue operations of the American and British fleets.

For three days and nights the 450 Israeli naval men struggled side by side with members of the American and British navies to provide relief to the residents of the Greek islands, saving hundreds from death, transporting 400 seriously wounded people to mainland hospitals, and providing medical assistance to 16,000 local residents.

In his blog “Seven Seas – notes from the Great Blue”, Yiftach Kozik vividly describes the sights encountered by the Israeli naval personnel arriving at the devastated islands:

“huge clods of earth were falling into the water at tremendous speeds, the summit of Mount Ainos on the island of Kefalonia looks as though it were split in two, pillars of smoke rising from cracks could be seen throughout the town, and fierce fires had broken out in the olive oils storerooms and were burning all that remained…in most of the island’s village not a building remained standing, and thousands were wounded in critical condition, among them pregnant women, old and young, people with amputated and crushed limbs, and all were in need of immediate help….the casualty clearing station was located on a wharf of the island’s central port, the flotilla’s senior physician, Dr. Ashkenazi, along with his younger colleague, Dr. Seelenfreud, were in charge of medical treatment, distributing the limited medical resources, and performing triage. The Israeli teams performed emergency surgeries: a broken pelvis, skull fractures, premature births, complex fractures, hemorrhages, panic attacks, despair, and havoc everywhere…”

In addition to the physical damage, the economic impact was far greater with billions of dollars in damage and thousands of people fleeing the region for Athens— with a majority emigrating as refugees to Canada, the United States and the UK.

The New York Times reported about the quake and the Allied ships that sped to support relief efforts

The New York Times reported about the quake and the Allied ships that sped to support relief efforts

This wasn’t the first major earthquake to hit the region. Only a half century earlier on April 17, 1893, Zakynthos was hit with a massive quake which destroyed much of the main city. See the original Chicago Tribune coverage of the 1898 Zakynthos earthquake here.


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