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George N Leontsinis

The Sinking of the Warship HMS Gloucester (22 May 1941): Kythera, Antikythera, and the Battle of Crete

Paper delivered at the Delivered at the 11th Biennial Conference of the Modern Greek Studies Association of Australia and New Zealand .


My aim in this paper is to investigate aspects of the political, social, and military conditions that developed during the Battle of Crete, at the crucial, from a geostrategic perspective, Sea Channel between Crete, Antikythera, Kythera and Southern Peloponnese, focusing on the following military event: On the afternoon of May 22nd, 1941, the warship HMS Gloucester was sunk to the west of Kythera (15 miles from Antikythera) by a German fighter plane, leading to the loss of 722 lives (officers and sailors). Of a total of 808 people who were serving on the ship, eighty-six sailors and officers survived, to be taken from the sea in a lifeboat by German troops, and disembarked at the port of Kapsali in Kythera. The eighty-six prisoners of war came under the responsibility of the German garrison on occupied Kythera. The conditions during the War and the ramifications of this event were narrated sixty years later by surviving British sailors and officers during a visit to Kythera, bringing to life the memories of war.
This visit took place on the programmed day of the anniversary (May 22nd 1941) when a group of Britons and other nationalities (39 individuals in total), with six survivors among them, travelled to Kythera as representatives of the British Royal Navy, the British government, the mayor of the city of Gloucester and other military survivors, in order to meet and, primarily, thank three residents in particular and, along with them, all the Kytherians, for the hospitality and care they gave them during this crucial moment in their lives. During their visit, and in a symbolic gesture, it was requested of the Municipality of Kythera that it grant a licence for a commemorative plaque to be set in the wall of the then abandoned old residence, today renovated, where, in difficult conditions, the sailors, now hostages of the local German garrison, had been imprisoned under a strict regime, with no efforts at feeding and healthcare. A programme of events in memory of the anniversary event was held, organised by the Municipality of Kythera and held under its auspices.
Through the investigation of these events my aim in this paper is: (a) To highlight the diachronic geostrategic importance of the geographical position of the channel between Crete, Antikythera, Kythera, and Peloponnese. The focus of attention lies with the Battle of Crete, highlighting the resistance activity of the Cretans and Kytherians during World War II. This resistance was especially important on a local level as the ramifications of these national and local conditions and actions was of decisive importance for Greece and Europe; (b) To enrich the study of the sinking of the warship HMS Gloucester with new data from the oral histories of the surviving soldiers, many of which were documented at a special public meeting of the residents of Kythera in the presence of representatives of the political, municipal, and military authorities of the Island. It should be noted that these survivors and other survivors from this period visit Kythera, Antikythera and Crete privately each year, in memory of this event; (c) To increase the level of information on the Battle of Crete and on the fate of other warships and their crews in this broader geographical region, within the context of the fighting between the two rival European alliances. In addition, my aim is to enrich our knowledge of these historical events through the expression of the emotions, views, and assessments of the survivors, who lived through those tragic moments of World War II in the region.

The paper will be divided into four sections, entitled:

• The importance of the geographical location – from a geostrategic point of view – of the channel between Southern Peloponnese and Crete, Antikythera and Kythera. Two key historical events of the first half of the 20th century.

• Chronicle of the sinking of HMS Gloucester (22 May 1941) and the anniversary commemoration event on Kythera, on an initiative taken by the surviving officers and soldiers of World War II (22 May 2001).

• Involvement of Kytherians in the events of 22 May 1941 and live reconstructions (22 May 2001) – emotions, views and expression of ideological positions by the war survivors and their escorts about the island of Kythera and the broader geographical context of the naval battle.

• Questions around the conditions of the shipwreck in the region and the final phase of World War II in Greece (Battle of Crete).

The methodology used in this study is based on field research along with archive and bibliographical sources. It is reinforced by oral history interviews and open conversations with individuals who lived through these tragic events at a decisive moment in World War II within Greek territory. The research focuses on personal experience, the geographical factor and the local social environment in relation to political, social and military events that occurred in the region during the international military conflict of the World War II.
At the end of the paper, an Appendix is included with the official documentation between the Council of the Municipality of Kythera and the Gloucester City Council in the United Kingdom. This is representative correspondence exchanged in 2001 in view of the official visit, between the British representation at Kythera and the City of Gloucester, the Mayor of Gloucester, sailors and officers still living in 2001, the Mayor of Kythera and individual residents of Kythera as well as original correspondence exchanged between British soldiers and officers in both past and presence with individuals from the local community and Municipal Authority of Kythera. In addition, extracts from the speeches by the representatives of these bodies are included in the Appendix, delivered at Kapsali in Kythera, outside the coastal residence where the soldiers who had been taken hostage were detained and kept under armed guard by the Germans. A commemorative plaque was set into the wall of their residence, in memory of this tragic event.

11th Biennial Conference of the Modern Greek Studies Association of Australia and New Zealand,
Department of Modern Greek Studies,
University of Sydney,
7-9 December 2012

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