The tragedy of the POWs killed at sea

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.