The Greek maritime tragedy of the sinking of the “Oria” in the Saronic Gulf in February of 1944 is one of the worst maritime tragedies in history. It cost almost four times as many lives as those taken in the Titanic disaster.
The background story of the Oria begins in September 1943, two years before the end of World War II.
Italy had capitulated on September 8, 1943, and the Germans held the Dodecanese. The Italian garrison had surrendered and was in German custody.
In the afternoon of February 11, 1944, a total of 4,046 Italian soldiers were piled into the holds of the Norwegian ship which was in Rhodes after it had been requisitioned by the German authorities.
The Oria was a 2,127-ton ship built in England in 1920.
The ship departed in the early evening hours from Rhodes under unfavorable weather conditions with its destination the port of Piraeus.
During the journey, the Oria was attacked by English ships and a Dutch submarine, but managed to escape with the help of three light destroyers that accompanied it.
Collision with rocks off Cape Sounio
The ship began to sink, and before long, almost all the Italian prisoners who were crammed in the holds drowned.
In total, 4,074 people lost their lives in the shipwreck (4,025 Italians, 44 Germans and five crew members). Only 28 people survived, including 21 Italians, six Germans and the Greek engineer of the ship).
The sinking of the Oria was not only due to bad weather and the mismanagement of the Norwegian shipmaster, but was mainly because of the overcrowded, overfilled hold and the age of the ship.
However, this tragic shipwreck with 4,074 fatalities, which far exceeds that of the Titanic (1,523 dead), was not recorded anywhere at the time — because it was wartime.
Neither the Greek port authorities, the Merchant Marine Ministry nor Athens newspapers reported the wreck of the Oria.
Nazi censorship banned any kind of publicity of the catastrophe. The ship’s remains lie at a depth of 28-42 meters.
In the years that followed, many divers explored the shipwreck and gave shocking descriptions of what had taken place that dreadful day.
One of the first to do so was Greek diver Aristotelis Zervoudis.
For his services during the diving expeditions on the Oria and to the Italian State, he was appointed Knight of the Order of the Star of Italy (Cavaliere del’ Ordine della Stella d’ Italia) by Sergio Mattarella, the President of Italy, in December of 2017.
He also received the insignia of the Order in June 2018 in a special ceremony officiated by the Italian ambassador to Greece.