Was a British Royal Navy flotilla making an ‘innocent passage’ or provoking a paranoid Albanian dictator in late October 1946.
The waters of the world are perhaps its greatest museum, their depths concealing drowned cities, submerged ancient harbors and fleets of lost ships. For more than half a century maritime archaeologists have explored the depths, making discoveries that add to— and occasionally correct—the history books. While many of the headline-grabbing finds are ancient in origin, others are relatively recent. In 2009 one such discovery added fresh revelations to an October 1946 incident off the Albanian coast, when naval mines badly damaged two British Royal Navy warships and killed 44 sailors.
Coming scarcely a year after the end of World War II, it was one of the earliest maritime incidents of the Cold War.
Precipitating the long-ago fatal incident was Britain’s push for un- fettered naval access to the Royal Navy fleet anchorage on the Greek island of Corfu, wrested from Axis control in October 1944. To hold Corfu, specifically the Corfu Channel, is to control a strategic waterway that for millennia has served as a route for local shipping entering and leaving the Adriatic via the Ionian Sea. The narrow strait between the island and the Greek mainland widens at its northeastern mouth, which opens off the Albanian coast.
Despite British support for the Albanian partisans who resisted Axis occupation forces during the war, Enver Hoxha—head of the Communist Party of Albania (CPA)—viewed the British and their Allies (except Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union) with suspicion. Following the liberation of Albania on Nov. 29, 1944, a rigged election in December 1945 gave Hoxha and the CPA a reported 92 percent mandate to form a government. Hoxha and the party deposed Albania’s exiled prewar ruler King Zog, confiscated large estates, grasped to control every aspect of Albanian life and took an increasing number of anti-Western actions. In February 1946 the 5th Plenum of the Central Committee of the CPA deemed Britain and the United States the main dangers to Albania’s independence. Accusations of espionage and economic sabotage, as well as a trial of pro-Western Albanian parliamentarians, led Britain to withdraw its military mission in April 1946, followed by the cancellation of an exchange of diplomats.
While Hoxha was paranoid about the West, he was even more anxious of his Greek neighbors. Years of conflict over the boundaries of northwestern Greece and southern Albania led to the Greek occupation of the southern end of Albania near Corfu during World War I and just before World War II. These tensions erupted into a Greek-Albanian conflict after 1940 that only ended with the Axis occupation. The end of World War II did not alleviate Hoxha’s concerns either, especially since Greece remained allied with Britain. The Albanian dictator began a program of fortification that by the end of his four-decade reign had built some 700,000 bunkers and pillboxes, many along his nation’s shores. Hoxha, worried that Greek and British warships were sailing too close to Albania’s shores, kept Albanian military forces on high alert and the coastal batteries overlooking the Corfu manned around the clock. Defenses were especially bristly around the port city of Sarandë, several miles north of the Corfu.
Hoxha’s paranoia notwithstanding, the narrowness of the Corfu Channel and rocky shallows north of the island effectively pushed ships to the edge of Albania’s maritime border, occasionally over the line, sometimes to within a mile of shore. Given the Albanian defenses, the tensions prompted by their increasingly anti-Western ruler and a British government eager to reassert a strong naval role in the region, a clash was perhaps inevitable. The Corfu Channel Incident—actually a series of three incidents—touched off on May 15, 1946, just a month after Britain and Albania had severed relations.
The Royal Navy sent the cruisers Orion and Superb south from Trieste to transit the channel and anchor at Corfu. They were the first British warships to use the channel since the end of the war a year earlier. As the vessels passed Sarandë and turned to starboard on a dogleg run toward Corfu, Albanian coastal guns unleashed a salvo of some dozen rounds astern of the ships. While there were no hits, the gunfire was an affront to British honor and to London’s firm belief the channel remained an international waterway. In reply to Britain’s diplomatic protest and demand for an official apology, Albania demurred, insisting the cruisers had entered its territorial waters without authorization.
While British diplomats pressed their point with Albanian officials, the Admiralty back in London ordered all Royal Navy vessels to refrain from using the channel. The British sought Hoxha’s explicit acknowledgement of the right of innocent passage—that all ships, even Royal Navy warships, using the channel could skirt the Albanian coast without being seen as intruders. With no response forthcoming, in the fall of 1946 the Admiralty decided to again send warships through the Corfu. The commander in chief of British naval forces at Corfu received a cable that implicitly laid out the mission:
Establishment of diplomatic relations with Albania is again under consideration by His Majesty’s Government, who wish to know whether the Albanian Government have learnt to behave themselves. Information is requested whether any ships under your command have passed through the North Corfu Strait since August and, if not, whether you intend them to do so shortly.
The British cruisers Mauritius and Leander would make the next move, accompanied by the destroyers Saumarez and Volage. The Admiralty ordered the four vessels to leave the port of Corfu and steam north through the channel past the Albanian coast. It directed the warships to make the passage with crews at their action stations but all turrets trained fore and aft. Should trouble come, they would be ready to respond.
The British cruisers and their destroyer escorts steamed from Corfu at 1:30 in the afternoon on Oct. 22, 1946, on a course for Denta Point, at the southern edge of the Bay of Sarandë. At 2:47 Mauritius, as the lead vessel, signaled a port turn and a new heading of 310 degrees. British records state the cruiser made its turn outside the bay, while Albanian accounts insist the turn came inside the bay, just off the city of Sarandë. Six minutes later Saumarez hit a submerged mine. The blast ripped through the destroyer’s starboard hull, from keel to main deck, just forward of the bridge. Thirty-six men were killed, 25 never to be accounted for; they had simply vanished in the explosion.
The weapon that nearly broke Saumarez’s back was a German EMC (known as a GY to the British) moored contact mine. The device’s 661-pound explosive charge detonated when the British destroyer hit one or more of its seven Hertz horns. The explosion did not sink Saumarez outright, but the vessel was badly damaged, dead in the water and drifting toward shore as its burning fuel spilled into the sea. Commander Reginald Paul of Volage moved his ship in close to the burning hulk, and his sailors threw a line to Saumarez. As Volage began to tow the damaged destroyer, the line parted.
At 3:30, after rigging a second towline, Volage once again took up the slack and began towing Saumarez toward Corfu. Forty-six minutes later Volage too struck a mine head-on. Historian Eric Leggett, himself a veteran of the action and an eyewitness, later wrote that “in a split second 40 feet of the destroyer, from the fore peak to just in front of ‘A’ gun turret, had vanished. Mess decks, storerooms, the paint shop, the cable locker containing tons of anchor cable, the anchors themselves, literally dissolved in the air.” Eight of its crew died in the blast, seven never to be accounted for.
With his ship’s mangled bow submerged and barely attached to the rest of the ship, Paul ordered his crew to toss shells, depth charges and deck equipment into the sea to lighten the strain on the vessel. When the bow tore free and sank, Volage settled back into a more or less even keel. Amazingly, the destroyer remained afloat and was even able to raise steam. Paul again ordered a towline passed to Saumarez. Knowing his ship’s blast-damaged bulkheads would likely buckle if he steamed forward, Paul backed Volage and Saumarez to Corfu. The battered, tethered destroyers finally reached safe harbor at 3 o’clock the following morning, nearly 12 hours after departing on the ill-fated cruise.
Within weeks the Royal Navy, overriding Hoxha’s objections, sent minesweepers into Albanian waters to clear them of any remaining warera German mines. The British found that the mines they recovered, though German in origin, had been recently laid—they were freshly painted and had no rust or fouling. Britain submitted the matter to the United Nations Security Council for adjudication as a clear violation of international law, arguing that the warships’ presence off the Albanian coast was an “exercise of the right of innocent passage” and that Albania was liable because it had either laid the mines or knew that another state—possibly communist Yugoslavia—had.
Albania pointed a finger back at Britain, arguing that the Royal Navy’s actions in October and November were clear violations of Albanian sovereignty. Albania’s key reasoning—which ultimately prompted legal proceedings at the International Court of Justice at The Hague—was that Albania, as a “coastal State is entitled, in exceptional circumstances, to regulate the passage of foreign warships through its territorial waters. This rule is applicable to the North Corfu Channel.” Albania also argued that the action of the four British warships had not been an innocent passage but an armed show of force to test Albanian resolve.
After three years of litigation the International Court decided for Britain, with the caveat that the minesweeping operation in November had violated Albanian sovereignty. The court awarded the British a judgment of £843,947 in restitution. When Hoxha refused to pay, Britain froze Albanian gold assets then held in London banks. Diplomatic relations between the two nations remained frosty and weren’t normalized until after the 1991 revolution that toppled Albania’s communist government. The Corfu Channel ruling still informs modern maritime law—there is, indeed, a legal right of passage, even of warships, through straits or channels arguably international in nature.
Nearly seven decades later the Corfu Channel Incident remains a subject of distress both for survivors and for the families of the lost and wounded. Unanswered questions linger. Albanian navy Captain Artur Meçollari, present-day commander of his nation’s naval flotilla in the channel region and a historian of the events of 1946, has carefully analyzed the case. He argued in a 2009 book that the British ships had come much closer to shore than London ever admitted in court, entering the Bay of Sarandë before turning. If true, this would mean the Royal Navy vessels charted a deliberately provocative course, one that arguably took them out of the channel into Albania’s territorial waters. The mines laid as a result of Hoxha’s paranoid response to the earlier “incursion” were essentially a picket fence that had been crossed.
Published in Albanian and never translated, Meçollari’s study might have gone unnoticed except for a recent discovery. In July 2007 the RPM Nautical Foundation, a U.S.- and Malta-based nonprofit, initiated a comprehensive archaeological survey of the coast of Albania in cooperation with the Albanian Institute of Archaeology and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology. Using sonar to map the seafloor in depths from a few hundred to 1,000 feet and a sophisticated remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to then examine each target, the survey team mapped natural seafloor features and identified 15 shipwrecks, one a Roman wreck dating from the 3rd century BC. The team classified the 14 other wrecks as modern, briefly examining but not mapping them.
One of the finds drew our attention in 2009, when I joined the survey and asked if any of the targets might be the bow of Volage. With permission from the Albanian government, we returned to that site, close to Sarandë’s shore. The team included George Robb Jr., the founder and president of RPMNF, fellow archaeologist Jeffrey Royal and ROV operator Kim Wilson. We watched carefully as the robot descended into the darkness and moved across a muddy seabed to a mounded mass of twisted steel and scattered wreckage.
Shrouded in mud, the site covers a 50-by-30-foot area. We could discern the frames, or ribs and steel plate, of a ship’s hull, buckled and torn by explosive force, as well as electrical wiring, a small ready-ammunition locker, white ceramic dishes, clips of .303-caliber rounds, boots, a British military canteen and what appeared to be a human bone. It was a sad and poignant hour-long dive with the ROV. We disturbed nothing, taking only photographs to document the site for the British and Albanian governments. It was clear we had found the bow of Volage, the section torn from the British destroyer and sent to the bottom with destructive force. The ammunition, dishes and other finds spoke of a space where stores were kept and where men had lived and died.
The site is not only a tangible reminder of an early maritime incident of the Cold War but also a trove of forensic evidence: The bow rests where Meçollari’s study said it might and not where the official accounts of 1946–49 suggested.
What happened that day in October 1946, and why, remains the subject of debate. Some argue that the British government or the officers in command of the four-ship Royal Navy flotilla took undue risks and assumed too much in provoking Enver Hoxha. Others insist that Hoxha or his military commanders went too far in protecting Albanian sovereignty, and that the principle of innocent passage contested that day was in the best interests of the freedom of the seas. What is undeniably true, however, is that the discovery made in 2009 gives a new generation the opportunity to learn the story of the men of Volage and Saumarez and to honor their memory as this special place on the ocean’s floor is marked and protected as a war grave.
For further reading James Delgado recommends Leslie Gardiner’s The Eagle Spreads His Claws: A History of the Corfu Channel Dispute and of Albania’s Relations With the West, 1945-1965, and Eric Leggett’s The Corfu Incident.
Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.