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. 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.

p.262ff

[…]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 ReccoBixio 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.

a638755h

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.

rct_saetta_usmm

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_mimetica

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.
 

[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.

rn_ardito

Ardito at launch.
From Wikipedia.

[5]This was German S-Geraet 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.

See also:

http://ww2talk.com/forums/topic/7831-nino-bixio/?hl=bixio

5th Panzer arrives: D.A.K. war diary entry for 21 February 1941

21 February 1941

Arrival and Departure of Subordinated Troops

Arrived in Tripoli:

Divisional Command of 5.leichte Division[1]

English plane accidentally drops message on our most forward patrol, which is 20km west of el Agheila[2]. Content unfortunately meaningless.

Commanding General explores possibilities for disembarkation on the open sea with lighters or ferries. Naval offices have concerns about this. Organisation of this is ordered nevertheless.[3]

Around 18.00 hours General Streich[4], Commander of 5.lei.Div. arrives with his close staff members. He is informed about the current situation. Intent: Commander 5th Light Division to take over command of German troops east of Sirt, probably after the arrival of the first M.G. battalion.

Around evening arrival of the Commanding General of X.Fliegerkorps, General Geissler.

Content: Tasks of Air Forces in Libya, specifically:

a) airfields to be placed as close as possible to the front,
b) most important task in the near term is close and long-range reconnaissance to gain a picture of the dislocation of enemy forces in Cyrenaica,
c) prevent build-up of enemy supply base on the coast close to the frontline, mainly attack against sea-borne supplies,
d) destruction of the enemy air force present in Cyrenaica,
e) preparation of defense against the expected enemy attack on land and sea,
f) close co-operation with the Italian air force, through close placement of similar units.

Furthermore the possibility of rapidly gathering 200 lorries in Tripoli is being explored to have them available for fast troop and supply transports in case that the enemy should attack in the nearest future.

During the evening Fuehrer decision arrives that the troop formation in Libya should as of now carry the name Deutsches Afrikakorps.

I./Flak 33 has reached Sirt at 17.30 hours.

Steamer Menes with the convoy that left for Italy in the morning was damaged by a torpedo hit from an enemy submarine, and towed back into the harbour of Tripoli.

Major Schraepler (Corps Aide-de-Camp) arrived by plane.

[1]Originally Sperrverband Libyen (Blocking Formation Libya), then 5th Light Division. This was later to become the 21st Panzer Division.
[2]The first of many identification errors to come.
[3]Another first in Africa, Rommel ignoring the opinion of the experts.
[4]General Streich succeeded General Funck, who had been in command of the Sperrverband for a few weeks only, but was very negative about its prospects. His rank was Generalmajor, a One Star general rank, equivalent to the US Brigadier-General. Streich was sacked by Rommel in mid-May, being blamed for the failure of the initial attack on Tobruk in April 1941 (see this link). Even though his report on returning from Africa led to a sharp reprimand for Rommel, Streich’s career as a field commander was pretty much over.

First ground contact: D.A.K. war diary for 20 February 1941

20 February 1941

During the morning arrival of a convoy with four transports (I./Flak 33[1] and supply goods). The convoy was attacked by an enemy submarine a few hours prior to arrival in Tripoli, but the torpedoes missed their mark. Troops were disembarked as quickly as possible and moved off during the afternoon, initially up to Homs.

Commanding General during the afternoon had a conference with General Gariboldi who agreed to the proposal to push forward the Brescia division, as soon as sufficient means of transport are available. Purpose: release of Armoured Division Ariete to free it for mobile combat.

Evening conference with the Italian Air Force General Ajmone Cat[1], to ensure close co-operation between German and Italian air forces. Italian air force offices constantly feel compelled to point out the lack of ground personnel.

Forward move of the command staff to Misurata is being prepared by sending an officer.

Air force: in general recovery day.

During the afternoon hours Forward Detachment Wechmar had first contact of an armoured car patrol without visible success and without suffering losses. Armour-piercing ammunition not yet available on the frontline.

[1]General Cat was a highly regarded and decorated air force officer, who had just been sent out to take command of the 5a Squadra Aerea, the Italian air force command covering Libya. He was recalled to Italy in November 1941.

D.A.K. war diary entry for 19 February 1941

19 February 1941

Forward Detachment Wechmar with subordinated Italian reconnaissance company Santa Maria and one Italian machine gun company moves off on en Nofilia as ordered at 06.45 hours and reaches it at 14.00 hours. Armoured car patrols pushed ahead don’t have contact with the enemy.

23 Stukas of II./Stuka 2[1] attack vehicles at el Brega with good success, dropping 21 500kg bombs. 1 Ju 87 force landed at en Nofilia on return flight, crew recovered. The escort of 7 Me 110 shot down 4 Hurricanes in air combat. 1 Me 110 ditched into sea. Crew rescued by sea rescue plane on 20 February.

X.Fliegerkorps attacks port of Benghazi during the afternoon, damaging two merchant vessels.

[1]2nd Group of 2nd Dive Bomber Wing. A full group would consist of 36 planes organised in three squadrons. Only II./Stuka 2 was present in North Africa, not the whole 2nd Wing.