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SS Scillin
Career (Italy) Civil Ensign of Italy.svg
Name: SS Scillin
Owner: Fratelli Bianchi Soc Di Nav, Genoa
Builder: Russell and Company, Greenock
Completed: 1903
Acquired: 1940
Fate: sunk 14 November 1942
General characteristics
Displacement: 1591 grt
Length: 75.59 m (248.00 ft)
Beam: 11.19 m (36.71 ft)
Draught: 6.58 m (21.59 ft)
Propulsion: Triple expansion engine
Speed: 11 knots

The SS Scillin was an Italian cargo ship of approximately 1,600 tons that was sunk in the Mediterranean Sea while transporting 814 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) from North Africa to Italy. Nearly all of the POWs died. The sinking of the Scillin is the subject of much interest on the internet and some conspiracy theories have arisen from the circumstances and aftermath.

History of the Scillin

The Scillin had been built in 1903 as the SS H M Pellatt. She was operated by British and Canadian companies until 1920, including war service in World War I, after which she was operated by Belgian, French and Italian companies and successively known as the SS Memling, SS Nicole Le Borgne, SS Giuliana Pagan, SS Scillin Secondo and finally as SS Scillin.[1]

Final voyage

At Tripoli, 814 Allied POWs were ordered into the Scillin's cargo hold, which, reportedly, was only suitable for around 300. The result was severe overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. More prisoners would have been loaded, but the British military doctor (Capt. Gilbert, RAMC) made vehement and repeated protests. Some reports state that a further 195 POWs were disembarked before Scillin sailed and that there were some 200 Italian troops on board; others dispute these points saying that the only Italian troops on board were guards and gun crews and the surplus POWs were never actually boarded. She sailed on 13 November 1942.[2]

HMS Sahib

Scillin was intercepted on the night of 14 November off the Tunisian coast by the British submarine HMS Sahib, shelled and sunk by a single torpedo. Those in the hold had little chance of survival as the torpedo had hit the hold itself and the ship sank rapidly. Sahib was able to rescue 27 POWs (26 British and one South African), the Scillin's captain and 45 Italian crew members, before the arrival of an Italian warship obliged her to leave. Only when survivors were heard speaking English, was the ship's purpose realised.[3]

Official reaction

British submarine commanders had been instructed not to attack enemy civilian ships that were en route from North Africa to Italy. In an inquiry, Sahib's commander (Lt. John Bromage) was cleared of culpability, since he claimed that Scillin had born no lights, he had believed that Scillin was carrying Italian troops, had appeared to be en route to Africa and had not responded to the initial shelling (two rounds), intended to halt her.[3] On reading Lt Bromage's log he never claimed to have fired any warning shots. "Fired 12 rounds with the 3" gun and registered with 10". The ship was brought to. Closed to 750yds and fired one Torpedo into the engine room. Sgt W D Heath R.T.R. (survivor) mistook the missed rounds as warning shots.

The details of Scillin's loss and the circumstances of the death of the Allied POWs were kept secret for more than 50 years, until persistent enquiries by relations and historians prompted - or forced - a more open response. The reasons for such official reticence for such a long period are unclear, although there are claims that it was deemed necessary so as not to jeopardise intelligence sources.[2] The first time information was made public was in 1996 when the M.O.D. records department put an account of the sinking and a list of POWs into an existing file at Kew.(WO311/304) Both the account of the sinking and the list of casualties were factually flawed. When the mistakes were pointed out the M.O.D. accepted the errors. No alterations have been made though.

Consideration was given to the prosecution of Italians for war crimes, that is, the murder of 783 prisoners. This arose from the lack of life-saving equipment and attempts by Italians to "batten-down" (i.e. close) the hatches where the POWs were kept, thus preventing their escape. Prosecution was abandoned due to lack of evidence.[3] 787 - 788 POWs died on the Scillin.

I have yet to find official evidence that submarine commanders were instructed not to attack northbound enemy shipping whether it be Merchant Navy or not. The patrol report clearly indicates that the P212 was put on a course to intercept the Scillin. The change in course came from Malta and was received during a radio listening watch as recorded in Lt Brommage's log.

Conspiracy theories

It has been suggested that it was deemed important to conceal the source of the intelligence (Ultra) that so accurately predicted the Scillin's position and schedule and thus enabled Sahib to intercept her and also that POWs were on board.[3] It should be remembered that Ultra was highly secret and great efforts were made to prevent the Axis discovering or disclosing that their signals were being read; Ultra's existence was only publicly disclosed in the 1970s.

Many steps were put in place to protect Ultra intelligence. One was to overfly any intended shipping target before directing any interception and attack. The Scillin's crew were interrogated when they were landed at Malta and disclosed that the ship had been sighted by aerial reconnaissance. The P212 was then given an interception course. This was standard practice when attacking shipping whose movements had been revealed by Ultra whether they had POW aboard or not. So if transports that carried POW had not been attacked at all it would have been obvious that the Allies had prior knowledge of the ships' cargo. The most complete account of the sinking and the role Ultra played was told in the Royal Artillery Journal of September 2006.

Further losses

The Scillin was only one example of the loss of Allied POWs, five more ships had been attacked in the preceding year with 2,000 casualties; Ultra had predicted each of the POW transportations.[2] There is a memorial plaque at the National Memorial Arboretum to the POWs lost at sea on Sebastiano Venier (9 December 1941), Ariosto (15 February 1942), Tembien (27 February 42), Nino Bixio (17 August 1942), Loreto(13 October 1942) and Scillin (14 November 1942).[2]

External links


  1. "SS Scillin". Wrecksite. 11 July 2011. Retrieved 11 September 2011. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 "SS Scillin". WW2 People's War. BBC. Retrieved 11 September 2011. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 "Sahib and Scillin". Sheerness Heritage Centre. Retrieved 11 September 2011. 

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