Torpedoing of M/N Nino Bixio, 17 August 1942

Torpedoing of M/N Nino Bixio, 17 August 1942


While this is not related to CRUSADER, as a public service below is the translation from Aldo Cocchia‘s memoir Convogli (Convoys)[1]. Thanks to Lorenzo Colombo for providing the text.

Loss of Prisoners of War on North-Bound Merchants

This post follows on from an earlier post on the same topic at this link, and provides some insight into the brutality of the war at sea. Nino Bixio was unmarked, and the attack was carried out by HM/Sub Turbulent, which was herself lost with all hands in March 1943. You can read a first-hand account of the attack from a surviving Australian POW at this link.


[…]At Benghazi a convoy was formed with the MVs Bixio and Sestriere[2], the destroyers Da Recco and Saetta[3], and the torpedo boats Orione and Castore[4]. On the large motor vessel Bixio 3,000 British POWs destined for Italy were embarked. While sailing just south of Navarino, my sonar[5] picked up a submarine. I give chase while the convoy proceeds, but have barely begun the maneuvers when I see two enormous water columns rise on the side of Bixio. I interrupt the chase and move towards the convoy to carry out the necessary measures, luckily evading a torpedo aimed at Da Recco. Bixio has been hit by two torpedoes, but is keeping well afloat, and I do not dispair regarding being able to salvage her. Some POWs have ended up in the sea, and for them swimming wests and rafts are being thrown from the vessel, while Saetta, under the command of Lt.Cdr. Picchio[6], without even waiting for my orders, is getting ready to take her in tow. I order Orione to stay with Saetta and, together with Castore and Sestriere proceed to Brindisi.


Nino Bixio.
Image is from the collections of the State Library of NSW. Used by permission.

Saetta, in a masterly executed operation, succeeds to tow the stricken vessel to Navarino, despite the enormous difference in displacement between the towing vessel, which is exacerbated by the towed vessel having taken onboard water in two holds. It is necessary to state that Lt. Cdr. Enea Picchio shows, on this occasion, proof of naval competence that is well above expectations. He really was one of the bravest, most intelligent and intrepid destroyer commanders who I have ever known. It was never necessary to give him orders or explanations, he always knew what he had to do, which position he had to take, where to move to, and the maneuver he had to execute. It was with a lot of pain that I heard the news, while recovering in hospital in Trapani, that he was lost at sea with his Saetta after having carried out numerous convoy escort missions.


Saetta. Official picture, taken pre-war I suspect. From Wikipedia.

How many brave and valorous commanders and officers of the navy were lost in that sea which they all profoundly loved and which they fought the enemy for with all their vigour! Your memory will always be honoured, dear comrades fallen while carrying out your duties earnestly, without hesitation, like heroes!

The Bixio, towed to Navarino by Saetta with a lot of care, was left for a month on the lightly defended Navarino roads, but finally she was sunk by an enemy bombing attack. Orione and other destroyers from Navarino recovered most of the men who had ended up in the sea, but some of them who had ended up on raftsescaped, who knows how, detection. By a strange combination they were later found, in circumstances I will briefly outline, by Da Recco, 15 days later at a point 150 miles from the zone where Bixio was torpedoed.

[…]Description of the action during which merchant vessel Camperio was lost.[…]

Just before sunset, when I had almost reunited with my convoy, the escorting airplanes started to signal an abnormality about 7-8 miles ahead of us: they dive down on the sea, fire flares, and continously rotate around the same point[7]. Evidently there was something to see or do. I send Climene[8] towards the location indicated by the planes and, shortly after, there is a signal that they have rafts with shipwrecked in sight. Moving ahead at faster speed, I also discover the rafts, and while Climene closes in on one, I move towards the other. On both of them two shipwrecked were still alive.  Only skin and bones, burnt by the August sun, shattered to the point that they could not rise to their feet, but alive. We take them on board. Two more inflatables of the same group are empty.


Climene with her wartime dazzle camouflage.
Picture from Wikipedia.

My two shipwrecked were a New Zealander and a South African; those of Climene two Indians, all British POWs who had fallen or thrown themselves into the sea from the Bixio 15 days before, when our vessel was torpedoed outside Navarino. It had been 15 days that they found themselves at sea, without food, and what is worse, anything to drink. They asked for nothing but water. We administer it to them drop by drop with some sugar, and during the whole night seek to bring some life back into those who had been reduced to extremes. The next day it is possible for me to get some words out of one of them. Originally there were about 25 men on each of the rafts, about 100 all told; they did not manage to make themselves known to the escorts which after the sinking [sic!] of the Bixio did search the zone, and by and by the currents pushed them further out to sea from the coast, from which they originally were only twenty miles away. Every day that passed the number of shipwrecked reduced, every day someone died of starvation, others went mad and threw themselves into the sea; which teemed with sharks. One day the man I talked to managed to kill a fish with a blow by an oar, he drank its blood, ate it like that, and this gave him a certain strength. The strange thing is that in an area intensely traversed by planes, merchants, naval escorts, and submarines, nobody in those 15 days came across these four drifting rafts.

At Bengasi I received the report from Climene. The account by the two Indians which she took on board coincided with that I had received. One of the two Indians however could not eat swallow anything because on the raft, taken by despair, he had eaten the kapok lining of this swimming vest. He died a few hours after our arrival in port. The others recovered in the hospital of Benghazi.


Below is the excerpt on HM/Sub Turbulent’s patrol, presumably from the staff history. Many thanks to Peter Clare on ww2talk for providing this:

ATTACKS ON AXIS SUPPLY LINES (HM Submarine Turbulent August 1942)
To the eastward of Malta both the 1st and 10th Flotillas kept up their pressure on the North African convoys running down from the west coast of Greece to Benghazi. Turbulent (Commander J. W. Linton)[9] left Beirut on 5th August, recovered an agent from the south-west corner of Crete on the 8th and landed two others near Navarin on the night of the 1lth/12th. After operating off Argostoli and Zante, Turbulent proceeded to the Anti-Kithera channel on the 16th, but turned back on receipt of intelligence that a convoy was expected off the Greek coast[10]. The following day the northbound convoy of two large ships with destroyer and air escort was successfully intercepted and attacked, the 7,000-ton ship Nino Bixio being hit with two torpedoes; in spite of this the vessel was successfully towed into Navarin. Patrol off the south-west corner of Crete from the 19th to the 27th yielded no targets, Turbulent leaving patrol on the latter date to arrive at Beirut on 1st September.

German Report Part 1 – Sinking of Nino Bixio


Captain H. Wilhelm

Duty Station, 21 September 1942

Fla-Komp (2cm Quad) 501

Office of Fieldpost No. 29369


on the torpedoing of the Nino Bixio on 17th August 1942 and the nine day journey of the 1st  Platoon on the Carley float.

On 16th of August at 1400 hours Nino Bixio in convoy with Sestriere left Benghazi to return to Italy. The convoy was formed of four, later 5 destroyers[11] and as air escort two Dornier 215, three Junkers 88, one Heinkel 111, one CANT Z501 and a Macchi C200. From the German side two quadruple AA guns were installed on Nino Bixio both placed on the main deck just behind the centre superstructure and on Sestriere one quadruple AA gun at the prow. Each of the ships had 3,000 prisoners on board (Indians, English, Free French, foreign legionnaires). On Nino Bixio were present, apart from the ship’s captain: one captain as military commander, one captain as police commissary, one Lieutenant and 40 soldiers two guard the prisoners, and one Lieutenant for the Italian anti air contingent.

On 17 August at 0500 hours Crete was passed, and at 1200 hours Cape Matapan, without any incident. At 1400 hours the western coast of the Peloponnes was in clear view. The air escort at this time consisted of three Junkers 88, one Heinkel 111 and two Macchi C200. The planes flew at a considerable distance from the convoy. At 1500 hours submarine alarm was raised, one destroyer remained behind and stopped[12]. The convoy continued for a short time zig-zagging, and then continued straight ahead on the old course. At 1530 hours Sestriere, which ran 6-700 metres to the right of us at the same level, began to blow her fog horn continuously, and turned hard to starboard. Nino Bixio continued, without any maneuvering, to move straight ahead. About four minutes later a torpedo exploded in hold one forward, which contained only English prisoners. Only 30 seconds later the ship was shaken so hard by a second torpedo hit in the engine room that the loading gear clattered from the cargo masts, and all deck cargo was thrown over. A launch was thrown from her holdings onto the starboard gun placement, killing Sergeant Lukaschick. Both torpedoes had been fired from landward and hit the Nino Bixio starboard. The ship started a heavy list to larboard. From the ruptured fog barrels[13] fog escaped everywhere and made it impossible to see how far the deck remained above water. The main deck, on which we were standing, was suddenly under water, up to our feet. The prisoners, some of whom had already been on deck, with permission of the guard, in a short time surged over the whole ship up into the superstructure. They occupied all the launches and Carley floats. The Italian officers and guards had disappeared. A complete panic had broken out. All were running and shouting in chaos between the wreckage. Many of those who had been wounded by the loading gear were lying around. Together with Lt. Imsiepen I called our gunners and concentrated them around the larboard gun position. As the ship was obviously continuing to settle and since all means of rescue were either destroyed or occupied by Indians, we decided to get into the water. Lt. Imsiepen’s attempt to create space in a launch ended with the crash of the launch into the water. Below in the water, where many Italians and prisoners were swimming, we gathered around a small float and then swam away from the ship. The north-easterly wind quickly pushed us away. We reached a larger jury-rigged float which was occupied by Italians and some prisoner. We gathered by-and-by all those swimming in the vicinity., assuming that the destroyers operating around us would soon take us off. The float was, after two hours, so heavily occupied with eight Germans, five Italians, ten legionnaires and 10 Indians that it barely swam above water. An Italian destroyer with three stacks[14] closed at 1800 hours in very slow movement. I stood up, shouted and waved. The Italian crew waved back and the destroyer moved ahead, without taking regard of us, towards the coast. Even though half a dozen floats and many individual swimmers, holding on to wreckage, were in the water around us, the destroyers did not undertake any actions to rescue us. Instead a Heinkel 111, which had escorted the convoy until now, circled above us until dusk, and dipped its wings when we waved. During dusk all ships went out of sight. When it was dark, the north-easterly wind increased to a strength of 7-8. The float capsized three times during the night and pushed us all under water. Us Germans succeeded every time to come back up and climb back on the float.[15]


[1]Captain (D) Aldo Cocchia served in convoy duty during the war, commanding a destroyer flottilla with his flag in da Recco, and as such was severely injured in the Battle of Skerki Bank. After the war he rose to Admiral and became Head of the Historical Office of the Italian navy. Under his authority the multi-volume history of the Italian navy’s war was written.
[2]Both of recent construction. These were fast vessels (15 knots) with about 6,000 tons displacement. Pictures of Sestriere can be found at this link. Pictures of all vessels engaged here can be found at this link.
[3]Navigatori and Freccia class, respectively.
[4]Orsa and Spica class, respectively. Orione was again part of the escort in the attack which sank HM/Sub Turbulent on 6 March 1943, although the actual sinking appears to have been carried out by the Ciclone-class Destroyer Escort Ardito.


Ardito at launch.
From Wikipedia.

[5]This was German S-Gerät sonar, which had been installed on Da Recco earlier in 1942 – see this older post.
[6]Lt.Cdr. Picchio was highly decorated, receiving the Gold and two Bronze medals for valour. He died on 3 February 1943, 36 years old, when Saetta hit a mine on an escort mission from Bizerte to Naples. She broke in two and sank in less than a minute.
[7]This would indicate that there was still no radio contact between planes and vessels even when they were on the same escort mission.
[8]Spica class, Climene sub-class destroyer escort.
[9]Cdr. Linton was a highly decorated officer already, and would receive the Victoria Cross after his death.
[10]This would indicate that depending on the content of the intercepted messages, this might have been a preventable tragedy, since the intelligence could have included information that this was a POW transport.
[11]Destroyers da Recco (Navigatori-class), Saetta (Dardoclass) and Spica-class torpedo boats Castore  and Orione, later also Polluce.
[12]Likely to be able to get a more reliable sonar echo and utilise the hydrophones without interference.
[13]Chemical fog to conceal the ship in case of air or surface attack.
[14]One of the old, WW1 types which continued to operate as escorts – there is however no record of one of these types being present during the operations.
[15]This is a five page report, with the remainder covering the harrowing saga of the shipwrecked. This will be translated later.

Further Reading

See also at this link.