The tragedy of the POWs killed at sea

Operation CRUSADER saw about 8,500 Commonwealth soldiers become prisoners of the Axis forces, in the fighting around Tobruk and during the counter offensive in January. See this older post for a discussion of losses suffered by each side. This post here is based on research around the internet.

In general, as the old line goes, ‘For you [insert nickname here], the war is over!’. In the case of North Africa, this was however not the case for the Commonwealth POW. In order to secure them and relieve the supply situation in North Africa, beginning in December 41 they were shipped off to Italian-controlled territory, either to Italy or to Greece (and thence to Italy, I guess), either on naval units or on homeward bound merchants (the New Zealand Official History has a good account of the situation of the POW at this link – note that Sebastiano Venier is called Jantzen in this account).  This could be dangerous, since POW transports were not marked, and since even when ULTRA had given warning to the Royal Navy that a particular transport carried POW, it was likely impossible to warn the submarine commander without risking a breach in the ULTRA secret (e.g. if the submarine commander were to be taken POW himself, and informed his captors about the warning he was given about leaving a particular transport alone).

In consequence, several hundred Commonwealth POW lost their lives during or shortly after the end of Operation CRUSADER and the counter-offensive.

On 9 December, the large mine-laying submarine HM S/M Porpoise (Lt.Cdr. Pizey DSC) attacked Sebastiano Venier, ex-Jason, off Cape Methone. She is so badly damaged she has to be beached and is written off. Around 300 Commonwealth POW died in the attack.

Entry in Log of HMSub Porpoise describing the attack on Sebastiano Venier

On 14 February 1942 the brand-new HM S/M P.38 (Lt. Hemingway) attacked a small convoy consisting of Italian steamer Ariosto, German Atlas, and escorts Ct Premuda (ex-Yugoslav Dubrovnik) and Tp Polluce. Ariosto was sunk, hit by two torpedoes, and going down after a few hours in the early hours of 15 February, with 138 Commonwealth POW are lost, almost half the contingent.

On 27 February 1942 the most famous of the Malta submarines, HM S/M Upholder (Lt.Cdr. Wanklyn, VC) sinks the old SS Tembien, launched in 1914.  390 out of 468 Commonwealth POW on board died.

In total therefore, over 800 POW are killed in these attacks, or around 10% of the number of POW taken during CRUSADER and the counter-offensive.

All three submarines undertaking the attack were to be lost with all hands during the war. HM S/M Porpoise was to become the last Royal Navy sub to be sunk by the enemy in the Malacca Straits in 1945. HM S/M P.38 was lost on 23 February on the patrol after she sank Ariosto in a counter-attack by Tp Circe.  HM S/M Upholder was sunk on 14 April 1942, possibly by Tp Pegaso.

It is of note that Tp Circe, a Spica-class escort destroyer, was already fitted with German S-Geraet active sonar and depth charges (see this older post). She was on a roll in February 1942, sinking HM S/SM Tempest on 13 February, and HM S/M P.38 on 23 February (misidentified as a ‘Unity-class’, presumably U-class), showing quite well the capability of the new equipment.  I have reports by the captain of Circe and a member of the German sonar crew, which I have posted at this link.

Many thanks go to Brian who has researched this topic exhaustively, and to Barb Edy, whose father Don of No. 33 Squadron RAF was on the Ariosto as a POW, and suvrived the sinking. An account of her sinking by Don can be found in Don’s book ‘Goon in the Block’, which I would highly recommend.

22 thoughts on “The tragedy of the POWs killed at sea

  1. The loss of Tembien is the best documented by Ultra.
    All her sailing details and the fact she was carrying P.O.W. was known at 13:10hrs on the 25th.
    Although the number was wrongly transmitted as 5,000.

    ZTPI/6875 of 19:27hrs/28th states Tembien was hit with 2 Torpedoes and sank immediately.
    She had onboard 137 Italians of whom 69 were saved and included the C

  2. Of the 3 ships Torpedoed whilst carrying P.O.W.from Dec 1941 to Feb 1942 ULTRA documents the Tembien casualty’s most precisely.

    ZTPI/6689 of 13:10hrs 25/2/42 gives the course,speed and timings at different points en-route. Although this signal eroneously gives the No. of P.O.W. as 5,000 this was corrected in ZTPI/6875.
    This signal also states that of 137 Italians onboard 69 were saved and included the Captain and Purser. Of the 20 Germans 10 were saved.
    Of the 468 P.O.W. aboard only 78 were saved. The search was hindered by Heavy Seas and a strong Ghibli Wind.

    Brian

  3. I recall that the British have sunk a dozen Italian’s hospital ships in World War II.

    Italian Hospital ship sunk by the Royal Navy in the WW2:

    “Arno”, “California” “Citta di Trapani”, “Po”, “San Giusto”, “Sicilia”, “Tevere”.

    Italian Hospital ships damaged by shelling, machine guns, torpedoed by the Royal Navy durring the WW2:

    “Capri”, “Laurana”, “Meta”, “Princesss Giovanna “, “Rombo N”, “Toscana”, “Virgilio.”

    All these were white painted with the big Red Crosses like the Geneva Conventions.

    The same hospital ship Arno, who was on board the survivors of Jason, was also struck by allied aircraft.

    • This discussion indicates it was not quite as bad as that:

      http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?t=15688

      This link, based on Santoni, indicates that at least some of the attacks happened because ULTRA indicated that the hospital ships were used for supply runs (although I guess if those were medical supplies, it would have been alright, legally, and in any case, the volumes we talk about are tiny):

      http://www.wlb-stuttgart.de/seekrieg/kriegsrecht/lazarett.htm#A

      Some good information is here:

      http://www.regiamarina.net/detail_text_with_list.asp?nid=53&lid=1&cid=2

      All the best

      Andreas

      • As far as I know, the sinkings of the “Po” and “California” were “justified” because, due to the obscuration rules, they were moored with their lights turned off, so they were not recognizable (both were sunk during nocturnal raids). The sinkings of the “San Giusto” and “Tevere” were nobody’s fault, they were sunk on mines and mines do not make distinction between friends, enemies, allies and protected ships. For the “Città di Trapani” there is uncertainty because one source I have found say she struck a mine (so, same case as “Tevere” and “San Giusto”), another that she was torpedoed by the HMS Unrivalled. Uncertain also the case of the “Sicilia”, she was bombed and sunk in Naples harbor when recognizable (it was day), but that happened during an indiscriminate bombing on Naples, so the bomb were probably just dropped over the harbour and hit the ship. No hospital ship named “Rombo N” ever existed: somebody has misread and copied the name of the “RAMB IV”. The “RAMB IV”, and the “Laurana”, were not damaged, but captured by British ships (and this, too, goes against Geneva conventions). These latter two episodes, together with the sinking of the “Arno” and the damaging of the “Principessa Giovanna” (bombed with 54 killed and 52 wounded while carrying 800 wounded), “Virgilio” (twice attacked while loading wounded, in Tripoli in 1941 and in Tunisi in 1943, while in full daylight) and some others are not this justifiable. I too have read about Ultra reports about hospital ships carrying a few tons of medical equipment, but in the book “Le navi ospedale italiane 1935-1945” it is said that this (carrying a few medical supplies) is allowed by the Geneve Convention.

        (However, what has all this to do with a post about British prisoners killed on Italian ships?)

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  5. Thank you to Brian Sims for information regarding British policy on marking or not of POW ships (on Ahoy website). I am reading the Balestracci book on the sinking of the Andorra Star on 2 July 1940 off Ireland while carrying foreign civilian (mostly Italian) internees being deported to Canada.

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  7. Hello, in the book “La guerra italiana sul mare” by Giorgio Giorgerini I found the number of prisoners who died on the Tembien as 419 out of 498, instead of 390. The POWs who died on the Venier were precisely 309, out of ca. 2100, plus eleven Italians (some were killed by the explosion of the torpedoes, but others were killed by the ship’s running propeller, which had come out of the water, when they jumpet into the sea, others simply threw themselves overboard and drowned). The Ariosto was carrying 294 POWs, 138 of whom died, and 116 Italians, 20 of whom died. They were not the only cases: on 27 August 1942 the motor vessel Nino Bixio was torpedoed and damaged by the HMS Turbulent and 336 prisoners (out of around 3,000), along with 98 Italians, were killed. (Around one hundred of them jumped overboard, were not found by rescue ships and drifted on four floats for more than a week until only four were left alive, and one died after being rescued). On 13 october 1942 the small and old steamer Loreto, carrying 400 prisoners (many from India), was torpedoed and sunk by the HMS Unruffled just off the Sicilian coast and 123 prisoners were killed. On 14 november 1942 the steamer Scillin, with 814 prisoners on board, was gunned, torpedoed and sunk by the HMS Sahib and 787 prisoners were killed, while only 27, together with 46 Italian crew, were saved.

    • Thanks a lot for that information Lorenzo. It was a very tragic occurance, and the loss of life in these situations was severe, compared to the losses in actual combat on land.

      All the best

      Andreas

    • Hi Lorenzo
      My Step Grandfather was on the Nino Bixio and ended up in the water after the ship was hit by torpedo’s and i’m trying to get a POW on board record or any information about the POW’s that ended up in the water.
      Where did you find this information about the Nino Bixio?

      “They were not the only cases: on 27 August 1942 the motor vessel Nino Bixio was torpedoed and damaged by the HMS Turbulent and 336 prisoners (out of around 3,000), along with 98 Italians, were killed. (Around one hundred of them jumped overboard, were not found by rescue ships and drifted on four floats for more than a week until only four were left alive, and one died after being rescued).”

      Thanks Ty

      • Hello Ty, do you mean the part about the survivors who were not found for two weeks? It is told in the book “Convogli” by Captain Aldo Cocchia, who was the escort leader of the Bixio convoy, and whose ship (destroyer Nicoloso Da Recco) was also one of the two that casually found, two weeks later, the rafts with the four survivors. If you want I can send you the full account (in Italian), but I would need a e-mail address. Notice, more POWs jumped overboard, but the majority were picked up by ships sent to their rescue during the following hours; this group somehow was not noticed.

      • Hi Lorenzo
        my email is tyspncr@yahoo.com.au
        My Step grandfather told his son that he was in the water for a long time after the ship was hit but his memory of it all is poor due to many reasons. He recalls the date he left the Patras hospital in greece after the incident and was sent to another hospital in Italy on the 27th of August 1942 which is ten days after the attack. He later ends up at camps 57 and 106/1.
        I know he was on a ship on the 17th of august and that the ship was hit but I can’t find his name on any of the lists. Due to his last name being Park, he should of been on the Nino Bixio due to the alphabetical system. Out of all the information I’ve read this is the first time someone else has the same story as what happened to him.
        When he eventually returned to Australia 1945 he would never go near the ocean or rivers as he was petrified of it. His children never learnt to swim because over his fear for water.

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  9. Dear Lorenzo,

    Your mention of the Loreto’s sinking on 13-Oct-1942 touches a personal chord.

    My father was in the British Indian Army and was taken POW near El-Daba airfield (DLG) on 29-June-1942. Subsequently, while being transferred to Italy aboard a POW troop ship, the ship was torpedoed by a British Submarine on, as per his recollection, on 10-Oct-29142. He survived the incident and was picked later that evening by Italian patrol boats and taken to St. Helena.

    He has written a book on his life and I was trying to corroborate this incident. I have some initial research but could not find anything till I read your account of the Loreto, which leads me to think my father may have been mistaken about the date (his memoirs were written in the when was past 80 years old).

    Reading your text has spurred me on to find the truth.

    Thank you.

    Yours,
    Gurbinder Singh Dhillon
    India

  10. Sorry, I am still checking on the St. Helena bit. I may be wrong on the name.

    My apologies for quoting without checking.

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