The controversial sinking of S.S. Scillin

The hold of the Italian vessel S.S. Scillin could hold around 300 prisoners but more than 800 were on board when it departed from Tripoli in November 1942.

S.S. Scillin was a cargo vessel in Italian ownership by 1942. Adept at carrying various cargoes throughout its seafaring life, Italian authorities sought to use Scillin as a transport for Allied prisoners of war. Reports suggest the hold was large enough to comfortably accommodate 300 prisoners.

On 13th November 1942, 814 prisoners embarked S.S. Scillin in Tripoli, Libya – almost three times the recommended total of men. The prisoners of war were bound for Sicily in cramped and unsanitary conditions. Protests from a British military doctor Captain Gilbert (Royal Army Medical Corps) put a stop to more prisoners being forced on board.

Reports of the numbers on board Scillin vary. Some say a further 195 prisoners embarked. Others claim there were up to 200 Italian soldiers on board. Some figures dispute these claims, stating that the only Italians on Scillin were crew, guards, and gunners.

H.M. Submarine Sahib Attacks

On 14th November, the unmarked S.S. Scillin was en-route in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the coast of Tunisia when intercepted by the Royal Navy’s H.M. Submarine Sahib. Commander Lieutenant John Bromage on Sahib gave the order and the crew fired two shells. With no response from the Italian vessel, Sahib fired a single torpedo. The missile struck the hold of the prisoner transport and Scillin went down rapidly.

Prisoners in the hold had little chance of survival. There were no lifeboats or survival equipment on board and records suggest the Italian crew had battened the hatches, locking the Allied prisoners in the hold. A total of 26 British and one South African prisoner of war, the Italian Captain, and 34 crew and soldiers were rescued by the submarine crew. Only when those rescued were heard speaking English, did the crew of Sahib realise they were prisoners of war rather than Italian troops.

A later inquiry cleared the Commander of H.M. Submarine Sahib of any wrongdoing. Lieutenant Bromage had thought the unmarked and blacked-out vessel was en route to North Africa carrying Italian troops.

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