Wirksworth Letters remember a forgotten Cold War incident.

The early years of the Cold War saw several flash points in the conflict that are largely forgotten today. One of these occurred in the narrow body of water separating Albania from the Greek Island of Corfu. 1946 saw Greece in the grip of a bloody civil war with royalist forces, supported by Britain, and later the USA, fighting guerrillas backed by communist Albania, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.  On 15th May 1946 the cruisers HMS Orion and HMS Superb were fired upon by Albanian coastal defence guns as they passed through the straight. Both ships were undamaged, but the British government demanded an apology from Albania over the incident as the ships had been sailing through a recognised shipping lane. The Albanian Government claimed the ships had entered their territorial waters. One the 22nd October a second group of Royal Navy ships comprising two cruisers, HMS Leander and HMS Mauritius and the destroyers HMS Volarge and HMS Saumarez were ordered to transit the straight to assert the right of innocent passage through a recognised international shipping lane.

HMS Saumarez By Royal Navy official photographer

This is photograph FL 18712 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 8308-29)

Saumarez under tow – By Royal Navy official photographer

This is photograph A 31207 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 4700-01)

Aboard HMS Saumarez was Peter Marsden, who parents operated Marsden’s shop in Wirksworth Market place. He was at his action station on the bridge of the destroyer, where the ship was commanded from.  The journey was mostly uneventful until the ships were close to the Bay of Sarandra. Saumarez was rocked by a huge explosion. The ship had struck an underwater mine which caused extensive damage. Peter describes the chaos of the lights going out, plunging the room he was in into darkness, as he was launched into the air. 30 men were killed, only through the exceptional efforts of the crew did Saumarez remain afloat and the ship was taken in tow by HMS Volarge. Shortly afterwards disaster struck again when HMS Volarge was also rocked by a massive explosion caused by it also hitting a mine. The ship’s bow was blown off, but the damage was less severe than that caused to Saumarez and the Volarge was again able to get underway reversing stern first, while still towing Saumarez to a harbour in Corfu were emergency repairs were carried out on both ships.

A larger taskforce, including an aircraft carrier, was sent by the Royal Navy to conduct a mine sweeping operation off the coast of Albania on the 12th and 13th November 1946. 22 mines were found and removed. Later investigations revealed that mines, although of a World War Two German design, they had been recently serviced and thus had been laid far too recently to have been left undiscovered since the end of war. Britain brought a case against Albania to the newly established International Court of Justice to claim for damages to both ships and the loss of life. This was the first case brought before the court. The court found in favour of Britain for the damaged caused to the ships and he loss of lives, awarding £843,947 for damages as evening though the mines were laid in Albanian territorial waters they should have informed the British of their presence due to hazard they posed to shipping in the area. However, the court also accepted Albania’s claim the mine clearing operation undertaken by the Royal Navy on the 12th and 13th November was illegal due to it violating Albanian territorial waters. The Albanian government refused to pay the damages and the British government responded by not returning Albanian gold that had been looted by the Nazis and, after being recovered, was stored in the vaults of the Bank of England. The deadlock was only ended with the conclusion of the Cold War. In 1992 both governments came to an agreement with Albania agreeing to pay $2,000,000 in compensation and Britain releasing the gold. 

A mine float on the surface after being cut from its mooring cable by the minesweeper in the background. Some of the mines swept from the channel were taken ashore for analysis to discover their origins while most were destroyed at sea.

This is photograph A 31243 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums

Two letters Peter wrote to his parents after Samarez hit the mine survive in the collection of Wirksworth Heritage Centre. The first written just two days after the event and it gives an account event and their original mission. They were there to bait the Albanians into firing upon them and then use the big guns of the cruiser to ‘blow them out to hell’. This is in direct contradiction to the official British Government position on why the ships were there. Things didn’t quite go to plan due to the presence of the mines which the British ships were not expecting to have been laid. After overcoming the shock of the mine explosion the surviving crew tended to the injured, manned the pumps fight fires and tried to prevent the ship from sinking. Peter describes the injured being taken off and then finally being able to also get off the ship himself to get a hot meal, a wash and some sleep. Peter also notes that no photograph or reporters had been allowed on the ship, possibly to try and prevent the true intentions of the ships being there from being released.  In the second letter written on November 7th 1946 he tells of what happened once the surviving crew were taken to Malta including visiting the injured in hospital and what happened to some of his friend on board who were badly injured.

Overall the letters give a very personal insight into what happened aboard HMS Samaurez and the aftermath of the event on the lives of the crew. Its frank account of the events is sometimes at odds with the official British government’s position on the incident at the time. Only when the files were declassified was the true intention of the ships being their revealed. They found their way into the collection of Wirksworth Heritage Centre as part of our collection of items from the former Marsden’s shop. They serve as a reminder of the human cost of war, the failure to plan for the unexpected and maybe to not always trust the official motives for events.

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