H.M.T. Talma shown in peace time colours

In March 1943 an historic exchange of British and Italian naval personnel was underway in Mersin, Turkey. 862 British, Australian and South African Naval personnel were being transferred from the Italian Hospital Ship Gradisca to His Majesty's Transport Talma while 787 Italian Naval personnel were being transferred from Talma to Gradisca.

This was not the first time in the history of war there had been an exchange of combatants and was also not the only time in the Second World War that Mersin was used for a prisoner exchange. So why was this an historic event? To fully understand this “first” in the history of warfare we need to go back to the Red Sea in 1941.

Prior to WWII Italy like many European "powers" had colonial interests in Africa. The countries of Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia comprised Italian East Africa. The Eritrean port of Massawa on the Red Sea was the home of the Italian Red Sea Flotilla under the command of Admiral Mario Bonetti, who by 1941, was making plans for his fleet of ships and the merchant men in Massawa as the allies raced across Africa right to his door step.

Bonetti decided to disperse his fleet as best he could by sending his submarines to the Italian Submarine base in Bordeaux in German-occupied France. A few surface ships at the same time, set sail for Japan. But for most of the ships in Massawa, whose range and/or seaworthiness were judged as inadequate for such a long and perilous voyage, there would be no such escape.

The “Wild Beasts” class Italian destroyer Tigre

The “Patriots” class class Italian destroyer Nazario Sauro

Massawa was home to two ageing Destroyer squadrons, the 5th Destroyer Squadron under the command of Captain Andrea Gasparini, consisted of the heavy Destroyers (eight 120-millimeter (4.7 in) guns in four twin-gun turrets) Leone (Lion), Tigre (Tiger), Pantera (Panther)(Flag), known as the “Wild Beasts” class due to them all being named after big cats. The 3rd Destroyer Squadron under the command of Commander Araldo Fadin, consisted of the lighter Destroyers(four 120-millimeter (4.7 in) guns in two twin-gun turrets) Daniele Manin (Flag), Francesco Nullo, Nazario Sauro and Cesare Battisti, known as the “Patriots” class due to them all being named after Italian Heroes.

Bonetti's plan was for one last no-return mission, no matter what the outsome there would be no return as the vessels only had enough fuel for a one way voyage. There was to be two targets which would be hit simultaneously at dawn, the 5th Squadron would make the 500 mile journey to Suez at the top of the Red Sea and the smaller (and slower) 3rd Squadron would make the 265 mile journey to Port Sudan.

Their orders were to shell the port facilities and attack any enemy ships they could find, causing as much damage as possible. Arrangements were made with the Luftwaffe for an air raid to be carried out against Suez, by Heinkel He 111 bombers, at the same time as destroyer’s attacked. The balance of the Ships at Massawa were to be scuttled to prevent the port being used by the allies or at least delay it.

The operation began on March 3, 1941, when the three ships of the 5th Destroyer Squadron, under the command of Captain Gasparini, sailed from Massawa for their raid against Suez. Normally the squadron Commander would have been leading the formation in his flagship (Pantera), however, these aging destroyers had been badly maintained at Massawa and the only ship that still had a working echo sounder and gyro compass was Leone, so, under the command of Commander Uguccione Scroffa, she lead the Squadron out into the Red Sea.

Some of the sunken ships in Massawa Harbour

The “Wild Beasts” class Italian destroyer Leone

At 00.30 on April 1, 1941,while steaming at 24 knots, Leone was shaken by a sudden jolt and stopped. She had struck an uncharted reef, 45 miles north of Massawa. The impact tore a hole in the destroyer’s hull, and simultaneously a fire broke out in one of the forward boiler rooms. Despite the efforts of the crew, the fire was soon out of control and it was decided to abandon her. Leone's crew were rescued by the other two destroyers and then she was scuttled with gunfire.

Too many hours had now been lost because of this unfortunate incident, so it was no longer be possible to approach Suez under the cover of darkness as had been the plan. Tigre and Pantera returned to Massawa. To rub salt into their wounds, the Luftwaffe announced that all raids on Suez had been cancelled. One can only wonder what the crews of these Italian destroyers thought about "April fools day" 1941.

The raid against Suez was cancelled; so it was decided that all the five remaining destroyers would attack Port Sudan. The ships sailed from Massawa in the early afternoon of April 2 with Captain Gasparini in command of the entire flotilla.

A couple of hours after sailing, the destroyers were spotted by Fairey Swordfish's of the Fleet Air Arm, although no damage was done, the element of surprise had gone seriously limiting their chance of success.

That night, Battisti’s worn-out boilers started causing issues for the flotilla. With her top speed limited to fifteen knots, she had become a burden, threatening to delay the group even more. Her commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Riccardo Papino, was authorized to leave formation and sail straight towards Arabia, where the ship would be scuttled.

The “Patriots” class class Italian destroyer Cesare Battisti

Fairey Swordfish of the Fleet Air Arm

At 09:00 on April 3, about a hundred kilometres south of Jeddah, the seacocks were opened and Battistia started to sink, though it took five hours to go down. The 182 members of the crew then reached the shore, some on rafts and boats, some swimming, one crew member was lost.

Meanwhile, Tigre, Pantera, Sauro and Manin had covered 235 of the 265 miles journey when, at 06:55 on April 3, and only 19 miles from their target, Fairey Swordfish of the Fleet Air Arm and Bristol Blenheims of the RAF appeard on the horizon.

The destroyers opened up with AA fire, but were unable to deter the attackers, the fire slowly decreased in intensity as their ammunition was depleted. Sauro, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Enrico Moretti degli Adimari, was the first to go. Having sustained several direct hits by bombs from the the Swordfish, she capsized and sank in less than a minute, taking 78 of her 173 crew down with her.

The last survivor, of the 3rd Destroyer Squadron, Manin, was next. First hit by a bomb near the bridge, killing several men and badly wounding Commander Fadin. This was then struck by another two 500 lb bombs which hit her amidships and on the stern, she was now dead in the water. Fadin gave orders for the ship to be scuttled. The crew took to the boats then the scuttling charges were detonated. As Manin was slowly sinking, Blenehims Bombers finished her off with several more strikes breaking her in two.

Bristol Blenheim Bombers of the RAF

The “Patriots” class class Italian destroyer Daniele Manin

With both Tigre and Pantera short of fuel, Gasparini headed towards Saudi Arabia, with the intent of taking temporary shelter in neutral Arabian waters, hoping that the British aircraft would not follow him there. Commander Gaetano Tortora , the Commander of Tigre was to transfer all her fuel to Pantera, then scuttle herself. Pantera would thus obtain enough fuel for her to try a last attack against another Red Sea port in British hands. The idea of seeking the protection of neutral waters to perform this evolution was to say the least, legally very dodgy!

As the two destroyers prepared to transfer the fuel, 14 miles south of Jeddah, they were spotted by Vickers Vincent and Vickers Wellesley light bombers of the RAF which commenced an attack.

Gasparini, realising that his ships were sitting ducks and the fuel transfer was not going to happen, ordered the ships to be abandoned and scuttled. The crews of the two destroyers made landfall not far from Jeddah.

The crew of the two destroyers reached Jeddah on foot on that same day. There they were later joined by the crew of Battisti and 42 survivors from Manin, The rest of Manin’s survivors, as well as all survivors from Sauro, were picked up by British ships. The men who landed in Saudi Arabia was around 700.

As a neutral country, Saudi Arabia had to provide for the internment of all those military personnel from a belligerent country who had ended up in their territory; they would have to house them, feed them, and guard them for an undetermined amount of time at the countries own cost. At first, the Italians were housed in an unfinished Saudi Army barracks in Jeddah. After spending a month there, they were transferred to two small islands located off Jeddah, Abu Saad and El Wasta, previously used as a quarantine station for Mecca pilgrims.

The “Wild Beasts” class Italian destroyer Pantera

Italian Naval officers in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi government, burdened with the care of so many men, repeatedly pressured the United Kingdom to find some agreement so that the Italians could be repatriated, the Saudi's could not just return them to Italy as that would be seen as a neutral aiding the axis powers.

The British also had a dilemma, there was 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 .

It was agreed that the United Kingdom would allow the internees to be repatriated to Italy, in exchange for the release of an equal number of Commonwealth prisoners by Italy.

In the end, the number did not exactly match; 787 internees (mostly Italian but also including a small number of Germans, who had likewise escaped to Arabia after the fall of Eritrea) were exchanged for 838 British, Australian and South African POWs (mostly coming from Italian camps, but a few also released by Germany, in exchange for its own internees).

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, with the exchange set for March of that year.

The British India Liner Talma under the command of Captain H.M. Macdonald, was dispatched from Suez to Jeddah, sailing on the 10th of March 1943. On arrival at Jeddah she embarked the Italian internees and started her return journey to Suez on the 14th of March. After making her way through the canal Talma left Port Said on the 18th of March bound for Mersin, Turkey, her 787 passengers undoubtedly looking forward to going home.

Survivors of the Italian destroyer Daniele Manin

Hospital ship Gradisca

Due to their current status as "mercy ships" both Talma and Gradisca had been guaranteed safe passage, both to Mersin and on their return journeys. To ensure this Talma had a large Union Flag painted on her hull with the name TALMA above it, the same was done on her hatch covers so it could be seen from the air as well.

However, on the 19th of March, when aproximately half way across the Mediterranean, Talma was attacked by a Rhodes based Italian bomber, who dropped a stick of bombs alongside the ship. Fortunately they missed and Captain Macdonald radioed the Italian Authorities demanding they cease the attack. The bomber withdrew and Talma continued on her way, fortunately undamaged and with no casualties. Later one of the Italian officers on board (though an interpreter) apologised to Captain Macdonald for the conduct of the airmen.

While this was happening the Italian hospital ship Gradisca was also making her way to Mersin from Bari.

With both ships now in Turkish waters, the transfer was to take place on the 20th of March but the weather was too rough to make the exchange. The next day the weather had abated a little and while conditions were still fairly rough the exchange finally took place.

It was an interesting exchange, because both ships were at anchor in the harbour and prisoners were exchanged by means of lighters from one ship to another, at no time did any of them touch Turkish soil as Turkey was also neutral at the time.

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 , Red Crescent or any other organisation.

Admiral Sir Walter Cowan, KCB, DSO, MVO

Repatriated sailors in TALMA (note the hatch cover on the left)

With the exchange completed, Talma sailed for Port Said on the 21st of March with her passengers that included survivors from the Destroyers Sikh and Hereward and the submarine cashalot, and, the quite amazing retired Admiral Sir Walter Cowan. Sir Walter had retired in 1931 with the rank of Full Admiral, however, with the outbtreak of the Second World War he voluntarily took the lower rank of commander and started training commandos in small boat handling. He somehow managed to get himself sent to the North African theatre of operations with the Commandos and shortly after arrival he saw action at the second Battle of Mechili in April 1941.

Sir Walter also saw action subsequently at the Battle of Bir Hakeim, where, having attached himself to the Indian 18th King Edward VII's Own Cavalry, he was captured on 27th of May 1942, having fought an Italian tank crew single-handedly armed only with a revolver! It should be noted that this gent was in his early 70's.

Talma arrived in Port Said on the 23rd of March 1943 under the protection of the Greek destroyer Miaoulis.

The first of the P.O.W's ashore was Admiral (Ret) Cowan, followed by another 861 seamen who were obviously happy to be back on friendly soil.

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 on this matter which was also raised in the houses of parliment as recorded in Hansard. They finally came 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 .

The Italians too decided that since the exchange had been carried out outside of the rules of the Geneva convention, as an independent initiative by the two involved countries, the former internees were not covered by the Geneva rules that stated that exchanged prisoners were not to return to active service; therefore, the survivors of the Red Sea destroyers soon went back to fighting, now in the Mediterranean, through the last few months of Italy’s war on the Axis side.

One final word on Admiral Sir Walter Cowan, KCB, DSO, MVO, he too continued to fight on (despite his advanced age). Cowan rejoined the commandos and saw action again in Italy during 1944. He was awarded a Bar to his Distinguished Service Order for "gallantry, determination and undaunted devotion to duty as Liaison Officer with Commandos in the attack and capture of Mount Ornito, Italy and during attacks on the islands of Solta, Mljet and Brac in the Adriatic, all of which operations were carried out under very heavy fire from the enemy". Cowan retired once more in 1945. After the war he was invited to become the honorary colonel of the 18th King Edward's Own Cavalry, and visited India to receive the post, which he considered the greatest he had attained in his extensive military career.

Ironically, considering the areas mentioned in the action of 1941, Talma's next voyage took her through the canal to Suez, Port Sudan and on to Massawa!


More photos of the British P.O.W.'s returning to Port Said can be seen here.


ALL RIGHTS RESERVED - All material used on this site is copyright - No photographs or other material may be used without the express written permission of the web master - 2014