The Corfu Incident

In October 1946 four British ships were sailing north through the Corfu Channel when one of them, the destroyer HMS Saumarez, struck a mine and suffered a loss of 36 men. In an attempt to tow her to safety, HMS Volage, another destroyer in the same fleet, herself struck a mine and lost eight crewmen. The Corfu Incident by Eric Leggett was an account of the events, the trial and aftermath up to 1974, the year of publication. I have a large Albanian book collection, most of which focusses on the regime of Enver Hoxha. I acquired this book as an unwanted library donation. Since I already knew about this notorious incident I didn’t feel the need to read more about it when I got the book, and it was typical of me to let it sit on my shelves for years. As I continue to assess my book collection I turn to the subject of communism and have decided finally to read some books that I have had safely for well over twenty years. And so I reacquainted myself with this peacetime act of Stalinist paranoia perpetrated against innocent men by Hoxha. 

Under Hoxha Albania functioned as a xenophobic police state, like a European version of North Korea. It was a poor isolated country whose list of capital offences grew daily. Life was not easy within the People’s Republic of Albania and foreigners were kept out. Thus the official policy was to keep the borders sealed from pernicious outside influences. The narrow Corfu Channel–less than 4 km separated Albania from Greek Corfu–irritated Albania since international ships needed to navigate close to the mainland because the Greek side was too shallow and rocky. To Albania, the Corfu Channel was not an international zone and they regarded this passage as their own territorial waters. Hence the reason for the mining of this channel during peacetime. 

Leggett, who was aboard one of the other ships in the convoy, did not witness the moment when each ship struck the mines but he was literally on deck during the mayhem and rescue. He wrote with the suspense of a war story and I was gripped from the first page till the end. Military talk and legalese did not permeate this book and Leggett used witness testimonials that he had the advantage of finding easy access to. He took us moment by moment as each destroyer navigated the channel and covered the damage suffered by each ship. With his sailor cap in place he took the reader aboard each vessel and described it from bow to stern. I winced as he described hearing screams from compartments that were unreachable because of the fires on board. His description below was rich in simile:

“The explosion had blown rivets from the ship’s side and, through the rivet holes, thin pencils of light pointed into the compartment like accusing fingers.”

The International Court of Justice heard the case brought by the UK against Albania and Leggett wrote about it with all the twists and surprises of a TV courtroom drama. That there was even a surprise defector witness for the prosecution made the case seem all the more suspenseful. The case dragged through the courts for years and Albania being as belligerent and isolationist as it was conveniently ignored or massively delayed legal process such that by the year of publication, 1974, the UK still had not seen any justice despite the Court’s ruling in its favour. It wasn’t until after the fall of the Communist regime that the two nations finally settled the case (in 1996). 

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