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PRISONER EXCHANGE MERSIN, TURKEY 1943

   

The prisoner exchange in Mersin, Turkey involved the crews of Italian warships Battisti, Pantera and Tiger, these three vessels had scuttled themselves on the Saudi Arabian coast of the Red Sea in the April 1941 and the crews were interned by the neutral Saudis.

At the time, Saudi Arabia was a backwater desert kingdom, largely cut off from the outside world and neutral in the war. The arrival of around 600 Italian sailors represented a major source of embarrassment, of course they had to be interned but were definitely not prisoners of war. Unfortunately for the Saudis, that meant that they had to be housed, fed, and provided medical services, all of which created a serious administrative burden.

H.M.T Talma
Hospital ship Gradisca

As a result the Saudi government repeatedly turned to the British government in an attempt to find some way to get rid of these unwanted guests.  They could not simply hand them over to the British as they would then become prisoners of war, by the same token they could not send them back to Italy as that would have been aiding and abetting the axis powers.

The British also had a dilemma, they wanted to prevent the return of so many fit sailors to the still active Italian fleet. However, at the same time there was also concern about the presence of such a large group of potentially hostile seamen in the vicinity of Britain's vital communication lines between the Middle East and India.

The solution was finally provided by the Turkish government, which in June 1942 suggested that the Italian internees be exchanged for an equivalent number of detained British

sailors in Italy . The initiative was welcomed by the Saudi and Italian governments, and in October '42 Turkey submitted the proposal to the British.  The British Government jumped at the chance, suggesting that they could arrange to exchange some other prisoners of war currently in their hands.

Events moved fairly quickly  from that point, the British government accepted the proposal on October 11, 1942, the Italians confirmed their acceptance on January 22, 1943, and the exchange took place in the port of Mersin Turkey March 20, 1943. In that port the British liner H.M.T. Talma and the Italian hospital ship Gradisca met and made the exchange. It was an interesting exchange, because both ships were at anchor in the harbour and prisoners were exchanged by means of barges from one ship to another, at no time did any of them touch Turkish soil. This exchange was unusual in several other respects too, not the least of which was this was totally organised between the respective governments with no involvement from the Red Cross at all.

One problem solved, but as is often the case another one was created. Article 74 of the Geneva Convention of 1929 says that when wounded or sick prisoners of war are repatriated they can not later return to the field of battle, to send these servicemen back to war is considered a war crime. The problem here is those that drafted the convention had not foreseen a situation like there was in Mersin in 1943. From the Italian side of things, their people had not been prisoners of war, were not injured or sick. While the British had been P.O.W's they were not injured or sick either so the big question was did Article 74 apply?

In early August 1943 one of the repatriated British sailors requested to see the commodore in command of the Royal Navy depot in Devonport to get a clarification on his status . He informed the commodore that before his release from the P.O.W camp in Italy he had signed a number of documents, one of which, according to him, said he agreed that he would not take up arms against any of the Axis powers. Another document given to the sailor by the Italians was effectively a ' certificate of demobilization ' !

The British authorities thought on this long and hard before finally coming to the following conclusion:- no one questions the validity of Article. 74 of the Geneva Convention of 1929, however, the exchange of Anglo - Italian personnel in Mersin was held outside of the Convention , because the Italians were not repatriated prisoners of war but interned in a neutral country; and that although the British sailors were undoubtedly prisoners of war , were neither sick nor wounded, therefore not covered by the Geneva Convention . Especially since neither the Red Cross or other similar body had been in any way involved .

 

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