Not CRUSADER – The day they captured the Italian Army’s Comedian

Every so often the dreariness of the records and looking at industrialized slaughter is broken up by some levity. This one I came across yesterday, it is from the Alamein period. I think the intelligence officer in 30 Corps is a bit unkind, putting this down to the prisoner in question not being the brightest light in the attic. I recognize the humour quite well.

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Torpedoing of M/N Nino Bixio, 17 August 1942

Torpedoing of M/N Nino Bixio, 17 August 1942

Background

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.

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[…]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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
 

Notes

[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.

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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.

Further Reading

See also at this link.

The tragedy of the POWs killed at sea

The tragedy of the POWs killed at sea

Introduction

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 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.

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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.

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

Other Incidents

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, 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 (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 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.

Pizey

 

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.