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.

An article on the sinking of MV Sebastiano Vernier has now been published in the Australian Naval Historical Review. It can be downloaded at this link.

This post here is based on research around the internet and archival research.

The POW Dilemma in North Africa

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 if 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 in three separate sinkings. The casualty figures were high because of overcrowding on the vessels.

Screenshot 2019 10 12 16 15 44

HMS Porpoise in harbour, from Ebay.


The loss of Venier

At 1435 hours on 9 December 1941, 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 of the 2,000 Commonwealth POW estimated to be on board died in the attack, most of them when the torpedo struck the forward hold of the Venier.

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

The fact that Venier had POWs on board was known in London since at least 1100 GMT on 8 December, the day before, and probably earlier than that. The document below is a compilation of intercepts that was passed on to Downing Street. This would indicate that there would have been some time to alert submarines to not attack merchants moving north, albeit of course with the risk that this would lead to compromising the secrecy around the radio interception. Furthermore, a later intercept indicated that Venier would only leave Benghazi at 1600 on 9 December, a time at which she was well aground off Cape Methone.

Naval Headlines

Naval Headlines 159, 1100 GMT, 8 December 1941. UK National Archives, HW1/308

Nevertheless, it is clear that in other circumstances, the Middle East command did play fast and loose with the protection of this secret (see this older post).

The incident is well described in the New Zealand Official History ‘Prisoners of War’:

On 8 December a large draft of 2100 had left on the Jantzen , an 8000-ton cargo vessel, with rations sufficient for the 36-hour dash across to Italy . In the middle of the next afternoon, just off Cape Methoni, near Pilos on the south-west coast of the Greek Peloponnese, she was struck by a torpedo in one of the forward holds. Five hundred or more of the prisoners packed there were killed, and the hatchboards falling in with men lying on them killed others as they crashed below. As soon as they had recovered from the shock of the explosion, men rushed to the decks up ropes or still usable ladders. The rugged coastline of Greece could be seen a mile or two away with heavy seas breaking on it, lashed by a bitterly cold wind.

The Italian captain and crew had taken themselves off in two of the three lifeboats, the other having capsized in launching, and some of the men jumped overboard in an attempt to swim to the shore. Nine New Zealanders reached one of the boats, which eventually made a nearby uninhabited island where they spent the night, and they were taken over to the mainland next day. Fifteen got away on a raft they had managed to launch, but more than half of these died of exposure. Meanwhile a German naval engineer had taken control of the ship, explaining to those on board that the engines would still go and that there was a good chance of reaching safety. He ordered everybody aft in order to keep the weight off the damaged bow and organised rescue parties to bring up to the officers’ quarters the injured from the lower decks. Although the wind and sea were still strong, the ship was brought in stern first and beached about 5 p.m. broadside on to an open piece of coast. In spite of the bitter cold many now swam the remaining fifty yards to the shore, and when darkness fell many others made their way to safety along ropes secured to the rocks.

Next day dawned fine, and those still on board came off in the remaining lifeboat or on stretchers slung to the ropes. A check made later showed that a little over two-thirds of the British prisoners had survived, the remainder (including 44 New Zealanders) having perished either in the explosion or in the events which followed.


Ship Sebastiano Venier aground at Point Methoni, Greece, New Zealand Archives PAColl-2242-1-2

Loss of Ariosto

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. Don Edy, Pilot Officer in No. 33 Squadron, who had been shot down during a road strafe two weeks before, survived the sinking. He wrote about it at this link.

Loss of Tembien

On 27 February 1942 the most famous of the Malta submarines, HM S/M Upholder (Lt.Cdr. Wanklyn, VC) sinks the old steamer SS Tembien, launched in 1914. At least 390 out of 468 Commonwealth POW on board died, together with 41 Italians and 10 Germans. A report on her sinking is found in the records of the German naval command Italy, translated below.

Bordflakkompanie Süd B. No. G382 or 2/3 March 1942


Office of the Field Post No. 41949 H

Duty Station, 5 March 1942

Report on the sinking
of the transport ship

“T E M B I E N”

On 27 February 1942 the merchant Tembien was loaded in the
port of TRIPOLI for the return voyage to Naples with luggage of evacuated
civilians, empty gasoline barrels and empty transport materials. Furthermore 500
English prisoners, mainly Indian soldiers, were taken on board.

I would like to note immediately that the Italian accompanying
guard for the prisoners was in no way up to the task of supervising them. The
prisoners walked freely on deck without wearing swimming vests even though they
had been issued. The accompanying guard did not issue any orders in this regard
and I do not believe that it was instructed to do so.

We left port with an escorting destroyer[1] in a hurry at 1600
hours. We had passed the mine barrier and were about 40 miles northwest of
Tripoli. Our destroyer had carried out some anti-submarine passes while the Tembien
continuously steered a straight course at full speed ahead (12 miles). The
weather and the time were very favorable for a submarine attack. Tembien should
have constantly changed course until full darkness fell.

It was 1915 hours when the ship received the first submarine
torpedo and two seconds later the second. Both times the ship was lifted
considerably due to the heavy explosions. The Tembien had such a strong list that
it was almost flat in the water on its larboard side. The fog barrels[1] and
pipes had ruptured and the content flowed across the ship. Most people received
burns from this. I must assume that the fog was too heavily concentrated.

When the torpedoes hit, many men fell overboard, the quad AA
broke off their stands, and according to reports by comrades, one man was killed
by this. Due to the fog, the heavy list of the ship and the rapid sinking of
the same any organisation on board was impossible. According to reports by
comrades the prisoners attemped to take the swimming vests and the Carley
floats of our men. I presume that this succeeded and that our men were killed in
this event.

The escorting destroyer at first left the site and began
with rescue operations after about one hour, but these were made very difficult
due to the heavy seas and the darkness which had fallen. Unfortunately only
very few could be rescued due to this.

  • of 20 German NCOs and soldiers: 10 rescued    
  • of 42 Italian officers NCOs and soldiers: 16 rescued
  • about 30 men ships crew: 15 rescued
  • of 500 prisoners: 80 rescued

[Handwritten notation] Total 121 rescued of 642 on board.

signed: signature


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.

The Fate of the Attackers

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, or she may have run on a mine.

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 (correctly identified 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 Sims 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.



Captain G B H Fawkes with Commander (S) E F Pizey, DSC, RN. IWM16004 – Picture is part of a series showing the men and boats of the Submarine Flotilla in Algiers, February 1943, during their operations against Axis supply traffic to Tunisia.



[1] Destroyer Strale – a Dardo I class destroyer
[2] Artificial fog to help prevent air attack.

36 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


    • Hi, how would I find out if my relative was abord either the Ariosto (15 February 1942) or the Tembien (27 February 42)? The information given about his death tallies with the dates (Albert Smith died Apr 42 as a POW on in the Mediterranean)
      Richard Davis


    • Hi, how would I find out if my relative was abord either the Ariosto (15 February 1942) or the Tembien (27 February 42)? The information given about his death tallies with the dates (Albert Smith died Apr 42 as a POW on in the Mediterranean)
      Richard Davis


  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.



  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:

      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):

      Some good information is here:

      All the best



      • 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



    • 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
        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.

    Gurbinder Singh Dhillon


  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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  12. I have received the service records for my grandfather (William Lawson) from the British MOD. He was captured on 27/11/1941 in Libya and they state that he was on an Italian ship containing Allied POWs that was sunk in December 1941.
    I know that the SEBASTIANO VENIERO was torpedoed on 9.12.1941. Were any other Italian transport ships containing Allied POWs sunk during December 1941? I am trying to confirm that he was on the SEBASTIANO VENIERO by a process of elimination.
    Thank you so much for your help in this matter.
    Dylan Murphy


      • Hi Andreas, He was a gunner with the 3rd Royal Horse Artillery Regiment and had the rank of bombardier.
        Many thanks
        Dylan Murphy


      • Hi Andreas, thank you for your reply. I read your account of the sinking of the Veniero it was very informative, thank you.
        The archivist for the Royal Artillery archives also says he was captured during the battle of Sidi Rezegh.
        What does Sidi Rezegh on Totensonntag mean?
        I do recall my grandfather talking about being at the siege of Tobruk.
        From your reading of the war diary of 3RHA on what date do you believe my grandfather was captured?
        Once he was back in Italian custody, after the POWs from the Veniero reached the Greek shore, do you know of any way of finding out where he was taken?
        Thank you once again, it means alot to my family/
        Kind Regards


      • Hi Dylan, the battle for Sidi Rezegh airfield was one of the pivotal events of the campaign in North Africa. The Germans refer to it as the battle of Totensonntag (Sunday of the dead – our Rememberance Day) as it happened on that day in 1941. It was part of the campaign to relieve the siege of Tobruk in November/December 1941.

        Based on the war diary my assumption would be that he was captured on 23 November, as many men were captured that day. I will send you the relevant pages when I am back from my trip.

        I will have a look for the trail of the survivors from Veniero. They were stuck in Greece for a while that I know.

        All the best



  13. Hi Andreas, I do have his casualty card (from the MOD) which has various entries on it, which I find confusing in places, regarding his capture and when he was ‘shipwrecked’.
    I could send you this via email if it would be helpful.
    Thank you
    Dylan Murphy


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