GY_mine_Corfu_Channel_1946_IWM_A_31242 (1)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. During the first incident, Royal Navy ships came under fire from Albanian fortifications. 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, and Albania complained about them to the United Nations.
This series of incidents led to the Corfu Channel Case, where the United Kingdom brought a case against the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania to the International Court of Justice. The Court rendered a decision under which Albania was to pay £844,000 to Great Britain, the equivalent of £20 million in 2006. 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.
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. While crossing they came under fire from fortifications situated on the Albanian coast. 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”.Such apology was not forthcoming, however, and the Albanian Government claimed that the British ships had trespassed in Albanian territorial waters.
The second incident was by far the more serious. 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. The crews were instructed to respond if attacked. 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. Near the bay of Saranda, just prior to 3 p.m., the destroyer Saumarez struck a mine and was heavily damaged. The destroyer Volage was ordered to tow the Saumarez south to Corfu harbour.
Light cruiser HMS Leander was present during the second incident
At approximately 4:16 p.m., while towing, Volage struck a mine also and sustained heavy damage. 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, 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.
Between thirty-two and forty-three of the dead are estimated to have belonged to the crew of Saumarez. The Saumarez was damaged beyond repair while the damage to Volage was repairable. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
Light cruiser HMS Mauritius was present during the second incident
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.
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.

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