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The Forgotten Tragedy of 4,100 Italian Prisoners Who Drowned off Athens

The vessel “ORIA.” Photo credit: AMNA

This Sunday, Greece will honor the memory of the 4,100 Italian prisoners of war who perished in the Saronic Gulf in 1944 while aboard the Norwegian steamship “ORIA.”
This monumental human tragedy, which took place during the horrific years of World War II, is one of humanity’s worst naval accidents, but is sadly still relatively unknown to the wider public.
An event commemorating the deaths of 4,100 captive Italian WWII soldiers will take place this Sunday morning, February 9 at a spot marking the 60th kilometer of the Athens-Sounio coastal road.
The commemoration is jointly organized by the municipalities of the Saronic Gulf and Lavreotiki, the “Chryssi Tomi” association of the town of Keratea, and the Italian Embassy in Athens.
The event will be held under the auspices of Prokopios Pavlopoulos, the President of the Hellenic Republic.
Sevastianos Rossolatos, the Catholic Archbishop of Athens, will officiate at a memorial service for the prisoners, which will be followed by the laying of memorial wreaths in the sea.
This nearly-forgotten tragedy took place on the night of February 12, 1944 near the islet of Patroklos in the Saronic Gulf, during the Nazi occupation of Greece. The catastrophe claimed nearly three times as many victims as the Titanic tragedy had, decades before.
What happened that night
In the fall of 1943, after the German invasion of the Dodecanese, the Germans transferred tens of thousands of Italian prisoners of war over the sea, since Italy had surrendered to the Allies and the Italians were no longer fighting alongside the Germans.
These transfers were often carried out haphazardly and in unseaworthy vessels, with prisoners crammed into the hulls of the ships, without any safety equipment whatsoever.
Several ships sank, either by Allied attacks or by accident, causing the death of thousands of prisoners.
The ”Oria” ship, however, was a tragedy that remains unparalleled in modern times.
On February 11, 1944, the vessel sailed from Rhodes bound for the port of Piraeus, carrying 4,116 Italian prisoners, among which were 43 officers, 118 non-commissioned officers and 3,955 soldiers.
The ship also carried 21 German soldiers and a crew of 22 Greek nationals.
Few people know that more than 4,000 Italian prisoners were tragically drowned during their perilous sea journey to Piraeus, somewhere in the Saronic Gulf, very close to Athens.
The huge vessel sank when the steamer, which had been requisitioned by the Germans, rammed into the islet of Patroklos (Patroclus), also known as Gaidouronisi, due to a combination of poor seamanship and bad weather conditions, near Cape Sounion in southeast Attica.
Wreckage from the Oria as seen today on the sea bottom near Piraeus.

According to Italian sources from that time, a total of twenty-one prisoners, six German soldiers, the Norwegian captain and one Greek sailor were the only people who survived this horrific accident.
People still remember that the bodies of drowned Italian soldiers would wash up on the nearby shores of Attica and the Peloponnese for months afterward.
The remains of the wreck were discovered in 1999 by Greek diver Aristoteles Zervoudis, who was awarded a Knight of the Order of the Star of Italy (Cavaliere del’ Ordine della Stella d’ Italia) medal for his services by Sergio Mattarella, the President of Italy.

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