Corfu Channel Incident

Corfu Channel Incident
Corfu Channel Incident
Corfu topographic map-en.svg
Corfu Channel Incident
Date 1946-1948
Location Corfu Channel
Result British loss of ships
Albania Albania  United Kingdom
Casualties and losses
none 44 killed
42 wounded
2 destroyers damaged

The Corfu Channel Incident refers to three separate events involving Royal Navy ships in the Channel of Corfu which took place in 1946, and it is considered an early episode of the Cold War.[1][2][3][4] During the first incident, Royal Navy ships came under fire from Albanian fortifications.[2] The second incident involved Royal Navy ships striking mines and the third incident occurred when the Royal Navy conducted mine-clearing operations in the Corfu Channel, but in Albanian territorial waters,[1] and Albania complained about them to the United Nations.[2] This series of incidents led to the Corfu Channel Case, where the United Kingdom brought a case against the People's Republic of Albania to the International Court of Justice.[5] The Court rendered a decision under which Albania was to pay £844,000 to Great Britain, the equivalent of £20 Million in 2006.[4][6] Because of the incidents, Britain, in 1946, broke off talks with Albania aimed at establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. Diplomatic relations were only restored in 1991.[7]



HMS Orion was one of the ships fired on in the first incident
Light Cruiser HMS Mauritius was present during the second incident
Light Cruiser HMS Leander was present during the second incident

The incidents started on 15 May 1946 when two Royal Navy ships, HMS Orion and HMS Superb, crossed the Corfu Channel following a prior inspection and clearing of the strait.[2][8] While crossing they came under fire from fortifications situated on the Albanian coast.[2][3] Although the ships suffered no material damage and no human casualties occurred, Britain issued a formal demand for "an immediate and public apology from the Albanian Government".[2] Such apology was not forthcoming, however, and the Albanian Government claimed that the British ships had trespassed in Albanian waters.[2][9]

Saumarez under tow by Volage after being mined, October 1946
Volage after being mined, October 1946
One of the mines being inspected after being swept, 12 December 1946

The second incident was by far the most serious.[2] On 22 October 1946, a Royal Navy flotilla composed of the cruisers HMS Mauritius and HMS Leander, and the destroyers HMS Saumarez and HMS Volage, was ordered northward through the Corfu Channel with the express orders to test the Albanian reaction to their right of innocent passage.[1][8][10] The crews were instructed to respond if attacked.[1]

They were passing close to the Albanian coast in what they considered to be a mine-free zone with Mauritius leading and Saumarez following closely. Leander was about one and two thirds of a nautical mile or three kilometres away accompanied by Volage.[1] Near the bay of Saranda, just prior to 3 p.m., the destroyer Saumarez struck a mine and was heavily damaged.[1][2][11] The destroyer Volage was ordered to tow the Saumarez south to Corfu harbour.[1][2]

At approximately 4:16 p.m., while towing, Volage struck a mine also and sustained heavy damage.[1][2] Both ships' bows were completely blown off and adverse weather conditions in the straits made the towing effort exceedingly difficult with both ships sailing stern-first,[3][12] but after twelve hours of effort both ships managed to reach the Corfu harbour.[1] Forty-four men died and forty-two were injured in the incident.[1][2]

Between thirty-two to forty-three of the dead are estimated to have belonged to the crew of Saumarez.[3][11][13] The Saumarez was damaged beyond repair while the damage to Volage was repairable.[2][8][14] The Albanian coastal batteries did not fire during this incident and an Albanian Navy vessel approached the scene flying the Albanian flag and a white flag.[2] Since Albania had no appropriate vessels at that time, the mines were probably laid by Yugoslavian minelayers Mljet and Meljine on Albanian request, around 20 October 1946.[15][16]

The British Minister of Pensions at the time of the incident awarded full military pensions to the disabled and to the widows of the dead.[17]

The third and final incident occurred on 12 November – 13 November 1946 when the Royal Navy carried out an additional mine sweeping operation in the Corfu channel, codenamed Operation Retail.[2][8][18] Under the direction of the Allied Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean the mine-sweeping operation took place within Albanian territorial waters, but without authorisation by the Albanian government, and had the additional purpose of using the mines as corpora delicti to prove that the British were acting in self defence by attempting to clear hazards to navigation.[1][18]

There was also present a French naval officer who, at the invitation of the Mediterranean Zone Board, acted as an observer. An aircraft carrier, cruisers and other warships provided cover. Twenty-two contact mines were discovered and cut from their undersea moorings. The placement of the mines was such that the minefield was deemed to have been deliberately designed and not simply a random aggregation of isolated mines. Two of the cut mines were sent to Malta for further examination. It was then discovered that the mines were of German origin but they were free of rust and marine growth. They were also freshly painted and their mooring cables were recently lubricated. It was concluded that the minefield was laid shortly before the incident involving Saumarez and Volage. Mine fragment analysis from the Volage confirmed the mines were similar to the ones at Malta.[1]

Following the third incident, Albania, under prime minister Enver Hoxha, dispatched a telegram to the United Nations complaining about an incursion by the Royal Navy into Albanian coastal waters.[2][19]


On 9 December 1946 Britain sent a note to the Albanian government accusing Albania of laying the mines and demanding reparations for the May and October incidents. Britain demanded a reply within fourteen days, mentioning that in the event of a negative Albanian response the matter would be referred to the UN Security Council. The Albanian government in its reply, which was received by the British on 21 December 1946, denied the British allegations and went on to elaborate that the whole affair was the work of countries which did not wish to see a normalisation of relations between Albania and Britain, and in fact vessels from Greece and other countries had trespassed recently in the area where the mines were discovered.[1]

The British government did not find this response satisfactory and it eventually brought its case to the International Court of Justice, having failed in its attempt to involve the Security Council in the matter.[1][2][20] It was the first case adjudicated by the ICJ,[21] and in December 1949 the court awarded the British the sum of £843,947 or US $2,009,437 having found that,[22] irrespectively of who laid the mines, the Albanians ought to have observed any such action,[8] since the minefield was so close to their coast, and thus they failed to inform the British of the danger.[1][2][8][10][23][24] The Court also rejected the self-defence argument advanced by the United Kingdom and found that the mine-clearing operations undertaken by the British during Operation Retail, in the absence of prior Albanian consent, were illegal.[8][18]

The Albanian Government refused to pay the reparations ordered by the Court and in retaliation the British held 1574 kilograms of gold belonging to Albania.[1][2][7][20] The gold, looted by the Axis powers from Albania during World War II, was stored in the vaults of the Bank of England and was awarded to the Albanians by the US-UK-France tripartite commission in 1948 after it was retrieved by the Allies.[2]

With the end of the Cold War, the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania ceased to exist in 1991.[1] Diplomatic relations between the two countries were established on 29 May 1991.[7] Soon after, on 8 May 1992, Britain and Albania announced that they had come to an agreement over the Corfu Channel case, jointly announcing that "Both sides expressed their regret at the Corfu Channel Incident of 22 October 1946".[1][7] Only in 1996 following lengthy negotiations was the gold finally returned to Albania after it agreed to pay US $2,000,000 in delayed reparations.[1][2][8]

Enver Hoxha, in his memoirs about his first meeting with Joseph Stalin, wrote that the whole affair was concocted by the British as an excuse for military intervention at the town of Saranda.[25] Hoxha also described the events as "an unprecedented provocation toward our country".[4]

On 2 November 2009 a team of US and Albanian researchers announced that they found what they believe to be the bow segments of HMS Volage in the Corfu Channel under approximately fifty meters of water.[26] Dishes, shoes and ammunition found in the area surrounding the wreckage are further evidence that fits, according to the researchers.[26]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u Europe since 1945 The Corfu Channel Incident Europe since 1945: An encyclopedia By Bernard A Cook, Inc NetLibrary Published by Taylor & Francis, 2001 ISBN 0815340575,ISBN 9780815340577 1464 pages by Google Books Retrieved 31-07-2008
  2. ^ a b c d Times Online Obituary: Lieutenant-Commander Hugh Knollys Navigator who won a DSC on D-Day and survived when his destroyer hit a mine in the postwar Corfu Channel incident.
  3. ^ a b c Roselli, Alessandro (2006). Italy and Albania: financial relations in the Fascist period. I.B. Tauris. pp. 136–137. Retrieved 2010-05-30. 
  4. ^ JSTOR The Corfu Channel Case Quincy Wright The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 43, No. 3 (July 1949), pp. 491–494 (article consists of 4 pages) Published by: American Society of International Law Retrieved 31-07-08
  5. ^ "Corfu Channel (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland v. Albania)". International Court of Justice. 30 September 1947 – 15 December 1949. Retrieved 18 August 2010. 
  6. ^ a b c d UK in Albania (British Embassy in Albania) Quote: "Discussions on the re-establishment of diplomatic relations were finally broken off as a result of the Corfu Channel incidents. In May 1946 the Albanians fired on two Royal Navy Cruisers and in October 1946 two Royal Navy destroyers were damaged by mines with the loss of 44 men. Britain was awarded damages at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Albania refused to recognise the judgement. In retaliation, Britain refused to permit the release of Albanian gold held since the War by the Tripartite Gold Commission." and "Post-War diplomatic relations were finally established on 29 May 1991"
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h ABC CLIO Schools Corfu Channel Incident (1946) Quote: "Corfu Channel Incident (1946) Incident marking the escalation of a dispute between Albania and the United Kingdom over rights of passage through the channel that separates the Greek island of Corfu from the Albanian mainland when two British warships struck sea mines in October 1946" and "In the court's verdict of 9 April 1949, its first ever, the judges saw no sufficient evidence for the British claim that Albania was responsible for the laying of the mines, but held that because of its intensive monitoring of the channel, Albania must have been aware of the minefield and had a legal obligation to warn passing ships. Furthermore, the court ruled that the British ships had exercised their right of innocent passage, while a subsequent British mine-clearing action on 13 November 1946 (Operation Retail) required Albanian permission and was therefore illegal."
  8. ^ Digest of International Cases on the Law of the Sea By Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, United Nations Office of Legal Affairs Published by United Nations Publications, 2007 ISBN 9211337593, 9789211337594 272 pages
  9. ^ a b Institute for International Law and Justice: CORFU CHANNEL CASE (MERITS) [ICJ] Judgment of 9 April 1949 Quote: "An incident had already occurred in these waters on May 15, 1946: an Albanian battery had fired in the direction of two British cruisers. The United Kingdom Government had protested, stating that innocent passage through straits is a right recognized by international law; the Albanian Government had replied that foreign warships and merchant vessels had no right to pass through Albanian territorial waters without prior authorization;" and "From all the facts and observations mentioned above, the Court draws the conclusion that the laying of the minefield could not have been accomplished without the knowledge of Albania. As regards the obligations resulting for her from this knowledge, they are not disputed. It was her duty to notify shipping and especially to warn the ships proceeding through the Strait on October 22nd of the danger to which they were exposed. In fact, nothing was attempted by Albania to prevent the disaster, and these grave omissions involve her international responsibility."
  10. ^ a b People's war on BBC Picture of the moment of impact and estimate of men lost
  11. ^ HMS Cardigan Bay Association
  12. ^ Battleships UK Photo of HMS Saumarez after hitting a mine during the Corfu Channel Incident and estimate of men lost. Retrieved 31 July 2008
  13. ^ The Threat of Force in International Law: the open framework The menu choice : a guide to interpretation Precedents of the International Court of Justice Deciphering post-Charter practice: means and limits Open threats to extract concessions Demonstrations of force Countervailing threats or ...By Nikolas Stürchler Published by Cambridge University Press, 2007 ISBN 0521873886, 9780521873888 358 pages
  14. ^ (Polish) Joseph Caruana, Pole minowe! Incydent w Kanale Korfu, in: Okręty Wojenne nr. 2(30)/1999
  15. ^ Owen Pearson.Albania as dictatorship and democracy: from isolation to the Kosovo War, p. 154.
  16. ^ Hansard on the Corfu Channel Incident
  17. ^ a b c The Law and Organisation of International Commodity Agreements By Kabir-ur-Rahman Khan Published by BRILL, 1982 ISBN 9024725542, ISBN 9789024725540 416 pages By Google Books Quote: "In the Corfu Channel Case the World Court had to decide whether the "Operation Retail" launched by the United Kingdom was compatible with the right of innocent passage in the International strait of Corfu Channel" and "The operation was launched with the object of securing corpora delicti, namely the mines, and was justified as an act of self-help or self-protection"
  18. ^ Straits Used for International Navigation: A Spanish Perspective By José Antonio de Yturriaga Published by Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1991 ISBN 0792311418, 9780792311416 372 pages
  20. ^ Nations Encyclopedia Disputes Relating to the Law of the Sea Quote: "The Corfu Channel Case (UK v. Albania), the first case decided by the court"
  21. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Corfu Channel. Retrieved 24 October 2009
  22. ^ "Why Australia needs a mine warfare capability". Semaphore. Sea Power Centre Australia. July 2004. Retrieved 2008-09-16. ""Since the Corfu Channel incident in 1946 (footnote 1) the threat of naval mines has been a regular feature of international conflict and crisis. In recent decades the use of naval mines has increased, and their potential use by terrorist and criminal organisations has added another dimension to the threat. Incidents in the Arabian and Persian Gulfs since the 1980s have reinforced the need to be able to combat both low and high technology mines." and "The International Court later ordered Albania to pay Britain £843,947 in damages."" 
  23. ^ Fjalori Enciklopedik Shqiptar. (1985); page 399.
  24. ^ Enver Hoxha Memoirs from my Meetings with Stalin First Meeting July 1947
  25. ^ a b Pieces of WWII-Era UK Warship Apparently Found Pieces of British destroyer mined in 1946 apparently found near Greece The Associated Press By LLAZAR SEMINI Associated Press Writer TIRANA, Albania 2 November 2009 (AP) from ABC

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