Not many American World War II history books cover the Nazi German massacre of nearly an entire Italian infantry division that took place on the Greek island of Kefalonia.
But in September of 1943, over approximately a two-week period, the German 1st Mountain Division would execute more than 5,000 Italian prisoners from the 33rd Infantry Division “Acqui,” led by General Antonio Gardin.
The massacre took place from September 21-26 and marked one of the German’s bloodiest massacres of Italian soldiers — whom they considered traitors after Italy surrendered to the Allies on September 8.
Because the Acqui Division had been placed under German command after Italy surrendered, its soldiers were tried as Germans and treated as war deserters — an offense punishable by death.
On September 18, Hitler ordered that all Italian officers who resisted German forces be executed for treason. Thereafter, the German High Command issued an order stating that “because of the perfidious and treacherous behavior [of the Italians] on Kefalonia, no prisoners are to be taken.”
German soldiers began executing Italian prisoners in groups of four to 10 — killing first the surrendering Italians with machine guns where they stood. A group of Nazi soldiers reportedly objected but received threats of execution themselves.
After this period on September 24, the Germans marched the remaining soldiers to San Teodoro town hall and executed prisoners eight-at-a-time. General Gardin and 136 other officers were executed by firing squad, their bodies later discarded at sea.
But the massacres did not take place without Italian resistance upfront.
Starting on September 13, the Acqui Division had initially tried to resist Nazi aggression over the course of a 10-day battle, but it had slim hopes of survival. On September 22, the resistance fighters had no choice but to surrender after running out of ammunition.
Whichever Italian the Germans did not kill immediately, they executed later after arresting him.
By September 26, approximately 1,315 Italians had died in battle; 5,155 were executed; and 3,000 drowned after Allied forces sunk German ships transporting survivors to concentration camps.
The German slaughter of the Acqui Division was one of WWII’s worst prisoner of war massacres — and one of many atrocities committed by the aforementioned 1st Mountain Division.
The incident features in Louis de Bernieres’s novel, “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” which was later adapted into a film starring Penelope Cruz and Nicolas Cage. The hero, Captain Antonio Corelli, is an officer in the Acqui Division who narrowly escapes death during the massacre.
Today outside of Argostoli, the main city of Kefalonia, the Monument of the Fallen Italian soldiers sits at the top of a hill in memory of those massacred. Constructed in 1978, the monument includes a white cross accompanied by Greek and Italian inscriptions informing visitors of what transpired near the site many decades ago.
The inscriptions read:
IN MEMORY OF THE SOLDIERS OF THE ACQUI DIVISION MARINE GARRISON
LED BY OFFICERS ON THE ISLAND WHO HAVE FALLEN VOLUNTARILY DURING THE FIGHT AGAINST THE NAZI INVADERS FROM SEPTEMBER 15-26, 1943.
DIED IN BATTLE: 65 OFFICERS, 1250 SOLDIERS
EXECUTED: 155 OFFICERS, 5000 SOLDIERS
MISSING AT SEA: 3000 SOLDIERS
ITALY HONORS ITS VICTIMS
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