Oria Shipwreck

by Abigail Pfeiffer on February 11, 2011

Damiano De Virgilio, Photo courtesy of Damian De Virgilio

War is more than weapons and tactics and strategy. War is also a loss of humanity, a showcase of the dark side of the human condition, regardless of the necessity in some circumstances.

All war touches its participants in different ways. Indeed, it can continue to make its mark on the subsequent generations to follow. The story of the Oria shipwreck is an example of how war can have indelible effects on people even sixty years after hostilities have ceased. The Oria shipwrecked near the Greek island of Patroklos on February 12, 1944, in inclement weather, and along with it went the lives of approximately 4200 Italian POWs and 60 German guards and crew. Less than 100 people survived the wreck. The great loss of life on the Oria makes this one of the worst naval disasters in history. Yet little is known about it. In fact, many families have only learned of the fate of their loved ones within the last year.

For example, I was contacted recently by the grandson of Damiano De Virgilio, an Italian POW held by the Germans on the ship Oria. Only vague information about Damiano’s fate was available to his family for decades.   His grandson and namesake, Damian, began a concerted effort to learn more several years ago.  Leveraging internet search and social networking tools, he learned about the Oria and banded together with others seeking similar closure.  With the help of the International Red Cross, official documents pertaining to the Oria were ultimately unearthed.  The family members of the lost POWs were finally able to confirm the circumstances of the deaths of their loved ones.  In Damian’s case, he also learned of another contributing factor to his family mystery, his grandfather’s name was slightly misspelled on the official list.  A mere misspelling compounded a family’s pain, and this was only one family out of thousands that lost loved ones in this tragedy.  As the 67th anniversary of the Oria shipwreck approaches, awareness is being raised by various groups, such as this Facebook group.

The Oria, photo courtesy of Aristotelis Zervoudis

When WWII broke out in Europe in 1939, Italy was initially on the side of the Axis powers.  On July 25th, 1943, Benito Mussolini was overthrown and replaced with a new Italian government. The new Italian leadership signed a secret armistice with the Allied powers in Sicily on September 3rd, 1943. Once German forces learned of the armistice they began disarming Italian units, taking Italian soldiers prisoner, and deporting Italian Jews to concentration camps. I suspect that the Italian POWs that perished on the Oria were a part of the Dodecanese Campaign, as the Oria departed the island of Rhodes the morning of February 11, with the goal of transporting the POWs to the Greek port city of Piraeus. Although I am unclear as to where the POW’s on the Oria came from, there is a good chance they came from this campaign, as Rhodes was an important island due to its three airfields and as the administrative center of the Dodecanese. After the Italian armistice in September 1943, the Allies launched this campaign in an attempt to seize the Italian Dodecanese islands in the Aegean Sea.  These islands would have been used as a base against the Balkans, which were controlled by the Germans.  On November 22, 1943 the Italian stronghold on the island of Samos surrendered to the Germans resulting in 2500 Italian soldiers becoming POWs. The Dodecanese campaign was a victory for the Germans and they controlled the islands for the duration of the war.

Damiano De Virgilio, photo courtesy of Damian De Virgilio.

Unfortunately, like many tragedies of war, the Oria shipwreck has been lost to the pages of history. However, staunch efforts are underway to counter this outcome.  Family members of victims have been petitioning the Italian government for proper coordination with Greek authorities in recovering personal remains at the shipwreck site.  In addition, local Greek citizens and officials have proposed the construction of a fitting monument. Though faced with numerous obstacles, the group is determined to ensure that the victims are properly remembered and that all remains are treated with the appropriate respect.  Therefore, they keep an open mind towards any suggestions on ways to accomplish their goals, and they will be eternally grateful to all those who have helped thus far or will assist in the future.

Further Reading:

This link will take you to an Italian site about the Oria. It is in Italian but has an English translation near the end. You can view a video of the shipwreck by clicking here. To view a map of the site of the Oria shipwreck click here. To learn more about the role of Italy in WWII click here, and to learn more about the Dodecanese campaign click here.

*A special thanks to Damian De Virgilio for his assistance.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Guy Nasuti September 13, 2011 at 6:48 am

Hi, really enjoyed the article. I had heard of the Oria before, but was wondering if any of the Italian POWs could possibly have been those made up of the garrisons that were stationed on the various Greek islands? I subscribe more to your theory about them being from the Dodecanese Campaign, but am also curious as to why the Germans were taking the Italians to Piraeus? Very tragic story.

Damian De Virgilio September 13, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Thanks for your comments, George. In fact, there is evidence that the Oria stopped in Leros before arriving at Rhodes to pick up the bulk of the POWs, including my grandfather. As far as we can tell, they were being taken to Piraeus in order to transport them to prisons camps on the European mainland.

tiziana massa January 18, 2012 at 12:39 pm

sono la nipote di Donato Cosenza, caporalmaggiore , morto sulla nave Oria. Solo di recente, dopo ricerche effettuate su internet, sono venuta a conoscenza del destino di mio nonno che sapevo essere stato catturato a Rodi dai tedeschi perchè si era rifiutato di abbandonare il suo posto di sorvegliante dei depositi di armi e di scappare con i suoi commilitoni.purtroppo sono pochissime le informazioni che ho su di lui se non che era alto e aveva i capelli rossi( possiedo alcune foto).Sono felice di aver appreso notizie sulla nave affondata e su ciò che si sta facendo per rendere noto ciò che è successo quel 12 febbraio.distinti saluti

antigoni kamberou February 7, 2014 at 6:26 am

I just read the article and congratulations for it and your efforts to restore the memory of those people who lost their lives under such tragic circumstances! You brought tears in my eyes because war is a horrific event and to die in such unfair way… What can I say! Well done! It is honourable and shows true respect to your ancestors.
We Greeks always felt closer to Italians due to our similar mentality and culture. We have adopted the saying “Una faccia, una razza” when we refer to Italians.
I know how you feel because I am about to publish a book I wrote (it took me 4 years to write) on the first military airman in Greece Demetrios Kamberos who fought during the Balkan Wars, converted the aircraft into a hydroplane and held the world record for two months. ( Incidentally the Italians were the first in the world who used the airplane as a military means). He was a relative of mine and I believe we should cherish these people for their courage and ethos! May our efforts be a beacon for future generations since in our era we lack people of such integrity and stature!

Keep up the good work!! Distinti saluti e grazie mille per il vostro lavoro!!

Antigoni

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