Attack on the Nino Bixio

17 August 1942

Nino Bixio at Napier, circa 1947-1964 (Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/4-026135-F)

118 New Zealand prisoners of war died when the Italian transport ship Nino Bixio was torpedoed by a British submarine in the Mediterranean.

Their deaths, combined with the 44 men lost on the Jantzen in December 1941, amounted to nearly a third of New Zealand's POW fatalities during the Second World War.

The Nino Bixio was hit while transporting Allied POWs from Libya to Italy. With another unmarked prison ship, the Sestriere, it had left Benghazi for Brindisi on 16 August, escorted by two destroyers and two torpedo boats. Crammed aboard the Nino Bixio were almost 3000 POWs captured in North Africa, including more than 160 New Zealanders.

The day after it left Benghazi the convoy was attacked by the British submarine HMS Turbulent. The Nino Bixio was hit by two torpedoes: one exploded in the tightly packed forward hold, killing an estimated 200 men and wounding another 60. In the ensuing panic and confusion many men jumped overboard. Some drowned immediately; others reached makeshift rafts and drifted around the Mediterranean for weeks without food or water. Those on board who had survived the carnage were hauled up on deck by rope. The injured were treated by medical officers.

Despite extensive damage, the Nino Bixio did not sink. The ship was towed by an escorting destroyer to Navarino in southern Greece, where the dead were buried. The surviving POWs were transferred ashore, and those fit enough were shipped, after a short stay in Corinth, to Bari in Italy.

The Nino Bixio survived the war and visited several New Zealand ports during its post-war career as a freighter. Its attacker did not fare so well: HMS Turbulent was lost with all hands off the coast of Sardinia in March 1943.

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For a good account of the Jantzen and Nino Bixio attacks, see Spence Edge and Jim Henderson, No honour, no glory, Collins, Auckland, 1983

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