Today was not a day of war for the Greek cruiser Elli. August 15, 1940 was a day of celebration. Anchored in Tinos Harbor in the Cyclades (a chain of islands southeast of mainland Greece), she was arrayed for a party rather than geared up for battle. In his book on the sea battles around Crete, David Thomas describes the scene when he writes, “The 2,083 ton cruiser, barely larger than a destroyer flotilla leader, presented a gay scene, the bright summer sunshine adding to the colour of the bunting and flags which decorated her overall. She – and the estimated 40,000 people ashore – were there to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, to the Greeks second only to Easter Sunday as a sacred day.”
Also in Tinos Harbor was the Delfino. She was not there to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The Italian submarine was submerged and outfitted for war, and she had the Elli in her sights. And at half past 8 in the morning, the Delfino made her move, launching 3 torpedoes at the her target…a sitting duck.
In recent months, the Mediterranean had seen an increase in conflicts between the Italians and the British. The British were very interested in keeping the Italian Navy out of the eastern part of the region, particularly the Aegean and Ionian Seas. For their part, the Italians were seeking an expanded empire (not unlike their Axis partners Germany and Japan). Italian strong-man Benito Mussolini had set his sights on Romania, but Adolf Hitler got there first. So Italy turned to Greece, which had pro-British leanings. And nothing says “you’re in the crosshairs” like a submarine attack on an idle pip-squeak cruiser during peacetime in front of 40,000 people at a religious celebration.
Two of the torpedoes missed the Elli, but did damage some of the docks. The third struck home, hitting the ship in the boiler room, dropping her to the harbor floor, and killing nine sailors.
Greece’s Prime Minister, Ioannis Metaxas, told the public that the attacker was unknown. Problem was, his government was the only group of people that “didn’t know”. The public knew it was the Italians, and the military knew it was the Italians. Even when investigators recovered fragments of Italian torpedoes from the waterlogged Elli, the government (in its efforts to avoid a military confrontation with Italy) squelched the findings and maintained that the attackers were unknown.
And as we know, Greece’s attempts to prevent war with Italy were ultimately pointless, as Mussolini’s forces attacked Greece two months later.
Recommended Reading: Crete 1941