LOOK. This is what the trial of a lifetime looked like to 2,100 men-those who lived to clamber ashore. Hard still to imagine that the enemy photographer and a victim, Infantryman Spence Edge, were less than 100 yards apart 40 years ago.
"No doubt about when they were taken," he says, "since the storm died away overnight."
Here we publish for the first time extraordinary pictures,
just obtained by an almost equally extraordinary coincidence, of a terrible event on the bitter coast of Greece, December 9, 1941, when in a torpedoing 44 NZ POWs, desert captured, lost their lives among 500 dead desert soldiers. This was abroad the Italian POW ship Sebastoian Venier on her doomed trip from North Africa to Italy.
She is known incorrectly in NZ official war history books and elsewhere, as Jantzen,
but for the sake of fellow POWs, our unofficial historian uses the latter name for his account.
Another torpedoing tragedy followed near Greece in mid-August 1942, when POW ship Nino Bixio, torpedoed by the submarine Turbulent, killed an estimated 400 desert soldiers including 118 NZers. These two ships account for more than one-third of the Kiwi POWs who died "from sickness, accident, and other causes"....torpedoing not specified.
Cameraman watched as Jantzen grounded
ON THE night of December 8, 1941, an Italian cargo ship Sebastiano Vanier, left Benghazi for Italy with 2000 Commonwealth POWs battened down in her five holds. At 1435 hours the following day the Jantzen- as she was remembered by many who sailed in her - was torpedoed by HM Submarine Porpoise (Lt Cdr E.F. Pizey) four miles west of Point Methoni which lies on the south-western tip of the Greek Peloponnese. Five hundred men, 44 of them New Zealanders, died in the bloody shambles of the ship's two forward holds.Jantzen did not sink. but she was promptly deserted by her Italian Captain and all but a few crew members who were not fast enough to keep up with their fleet-footed skipper.
The 1500 men who survived the torpedo's blast would almost certainly have drowned but for an unknown German marine engineer who remained aboard to take command of the crippled ship.Two hours later, in a gathering storm, the gallant German ran the Jantzen hard aground and beam on to a narrow beach which lay below the high seawalls of a ruined Venetian castle.The ships plight had been observed by Italian occupation forces stationed in the area, the survivors will remember that
100 or more of these men were waiting on the beach and along the seawalls to greet the first prisoners who struggled ashore before an ill-fated life-line had been rigged. One of these men was a young officer, a keen photographer who had gone down to the Venetian castle earlier in the afternoon to photograph the high seas which were bursting into inverted Niagras of foaming water against the seawalls. he had seen the Jantzen vaguely in the distance but, unaware that disaster had overtaken her, took no further notice of the ship until he realised that she was slowly heading for the coast stern first. Then, as the ship drew closer, he saw with astonishment that she was well down by the head and obviously in serious trouble.Only when the Jantzen swung slowly to the north before beginning her final run for the shore did the Italian notice that hundreds of men were jammed tightly together on the deck over her stern. He watched in awe as the ship came steadily on to finally run hard aground at his feet. Since there was very little else he cothe young officer began to photograph the stranded ship. Few men have ever been better placed to film the death throes of a gallant vessel.uld do
The war dragged on and the Jantzen was forgotten by
nearly all but the men who survived her tragedy.
Italy capitulated and Germany finally went down in total defeat. The young Italian officer returned safely to his home in Genoa with his much prized photographs of a stranded ship. And there but for one chance in a million, the photographs would have remained unseen by any prisoner who sailed in Jantzen on her last voyage. Before he left Greece the Italian fell in love with and eventually married a young Greek girl from Methoni.Thirty seven years later a Jantzen survivor who had never lost his interest in a remarkable experience wrote to the New Zealand Embassy in Athens asking if it would be possible to obtain a recent photograph of the beach over which 1500 men scrambled to safety so long ago. By great good fortune his letter was handed to Mr. Percy Holdaway, the embassy's marketing officer and himself an ex-serviceman who had served in Greece. Through the local Methonian Society Mr Holdaway met a young lawyer named Mr Kostakis who had been born in Methoni after the Jantzen incident. He knew her story from his parents.Mr Kostakis could remember seeing Jantzen cut up for scrap in the early fifties but he promised to contact a client and
a close family friend whom he was sure would have some interesting information for Mr Holdaway. This promise must rank as a great understatement, since the friend of Mr Kostakis spent much of his time in Methoni visiting relatives. He was, incredibly, the son of our Italian officer and his Greek wife. He had seen his father's photographs of Jantzen and, when contacted, promised to obtain them for Mr Holdaway to copy. I am deeply indebted to all these gentlemen, and the still unnamed Italian officer, for all their assistance.
This astonishing information reached me in New Zealand in due course with an assurance that the photographs would be copied and sent on. An agonising 18 months went by with no further word from the embasy in Athens, and assuming that something had gone wrong I gave up hope of receiving copies of the Italian's photographs. Then out of the blue came another letter from Mr Holdaway. He regretted the delay but was pleased to say that he had the photos, which were being copied. They arrived a month later-40 years after a young Italian officer took them from the seawalls at Methoni.
Spence Edge, ex POW Whangarei.
In 1941 the Sebastian Venier was a relatively new vessel having been renamed from Jason, a six-thousand-tonn cargo ship. Built in1939 for Merchant trading by N.V. Nederland Stoomvaart Maatschappij Oceaan of Amsterdam. The Italian Navy requisitioned and renamed Sebastian Venier for service in the fleet of fast merchant ships needed to supply the Italian armies in North Africa. It was her final voyage that would prove to be the most remarkable.
On the 8th December 1941, in Benghazi Harbour 2000 men, POWs were to board the Jason.
The fact that the guards boots had been removed and were carried with their laces knotted around their necks, did nothing for the moral of those prisoners being boarded.
Jason was built to a simple design used in most cargo ships of the times.
Three holds forward of her engine room and two aft.
Each hold was 12 meters deep and had an upper section 3 meters below the main deck. Access and protection against the sea was provided by a 10 meter square hatchway. Constructed by raising a steel coaming well above the deck level and capping it with heavy timber planks supported by rolled-steel joists.
Heavy tarpaulins over the hatch timber helped to make somewhat waterproof.
These batterned down hatchways were to prove to be a terrible danger to many sitting/laying on them.
Some 20 hours later some six kilometers from Methoni Point the crew and guards were to be proved right not to put on their boots. The Jason was to be sighted by the Submarine Porpoise, is interesting to note the Jason was not flying a POW flag. The Porpoise fired four torpedoes, the third making a hit. The order to abandon ship, was made at least two minutes before the third torpedo fired hit the slowing ship. The ship being slowed in order to lower the life boats.
The torpedo struck between number one and two hold on the starboard side with enough force to lift Jason bodily in the water, blasting the two hatchway covers wide open, taking the men laying on them.
Water foamed into the depths of the hold where those who survived were struggling to escape. The hatch covers, hurled by the blast to mast-head height, then huge timbers rained back down on the deck and into the hold, to maim and kill yet again. For those able to scramble out of the hold it was obvious that the bridge was deserted and the two lifeboats gone.
In their haste to leave the ship the engineers had failed to fully shut down the engine, and the ship was executing a slow continuous turn and propeller partly exposed, this made it a very effective guillotine for those who were overboard, and those who chose to jump.
Those sound of limb ( and some not so sound) helped those still in the holds to get out. Many and varied are the stories of those who were still alive in those holds. Number one hold was to give up only five survivors.
It appeared that there was a German aboard who took command in an effort to save those aboard, ordered all able to the stern in order to reduce the strain from the forward bulkhead. The same man made sure the wounded had what blankets and field dressings available. He gathered through the N.C.O. the remaining 1300 men at the stern, then with the help of his Luger and a spanner, convinced some of the ships engineers, that did not make the life boats in time, to put the engine in reverse and head slowly for the shore stern first.
It was on the shore of Methoni just before dark that the German was able to beach Jason, as luck would have it at the last moment a huge wave lifted the Jason over the reef. It was on the rocks that she grated, 6000 traveling at four knots, the sound for those inside was horrendous, just as those aboard heaved a sigh of relief they were made aware of the storm that was about to hit the ship.
As darkness was closing in, one Royal Navy seaman volunteered to swim the last 50 meters ashore with a line tied to his waist. A number of men were to use this life line, that was made slack and taught by every roll of the ship, catapulting many into the sea, many were to die so close to shore. The storm was to pass after midnight. in the morning some POWs were to be ferried ashore by boats that could only carry 12 men at a time, for the wounded the lifeline had been made taught in now calm waters, with a stretcher and pulleys, the aim was to lower the wounded to the beach by this manner. Less than 30 wounded were to survive to go ashore in this manner.
Here I quote from Spence Edges book the first wounded to be lifted out on the stretcher:- "From head to toe his body was one great multicolored bruse. Beneath virtually unbroken skin, the quivering flesh was a patchwork of blending colours that ranged through every shade from dirty yellow to purple so deep it was almost black. His arms, feet, genitals, even toes, displayed the marks of a cruel battering." The force of the blast had blown all this mans clothes off.
Another piece from the same Spence" By yet another astonishing twist of fate, this letter came from a survivor who heard me speak of our ship on a radio program.
He obtained my address from our local Returned Servicemen' club.
Peter Malins now lives only 80 kilometers from my home, but he was born in England. (not actually correct, born in India)
He became a POW when his armored regiment of the 7th Queens Own Hussars was severely mauled by Erwin Rommel's Africa Korps, early in the Crusader campaign. I give Peter's story below.
' I was lying on the mid-deck hatchway when the torpedo struck. I remember only a terrific noise and then nothing until I recovered consciousness. I found myself
under water, being bumped by debris and other men's bodies. Then someone grabbed my arm and hauled me across a piece of hatchway timber. My rescuer was a Cape Coloured South African who had a terrible chest wound. He no sooner pulled me from the water when he slipped from the timber and sank. I tried to grab him but the poor fellow was gone. I owe my life to this Cape Coloured man. God rest his soul.
My leg was badly injured. I could feel nothing except a bit of bone below the knee. Then I heard a voice shouting and saw a face of a bearded Royal Navy sailor above me. He and his mate pulled many of us from the water using a rope. Several of my comrades who had been with me on the edge of the hatchway were rescued in this way. I must have been semi-conscious and raving about having lost my leg, because the bearded sailor reached behind me and grabbed my foot, the heel of which had been partly driven into my behind by the explosion. With a yank he straightened the limb and said, "There's your leg mate." For five years that leg remained rigid but I still have it.
Things became hazy from then on, but I can vividly remember seeing many dead bodies in the clear water below me when the stretcher was lowered.
An Italian doctor examined us as we came ashore, and then we were carried into what might have been a small school or nursery where the beds were far too small for men. We spent two nights there before being moved to a big harbour-Pilos- where the Italian orderlies strapped me to a stretcher. As they began to carry me towards the wharf, a flight of Blenheims came over to bomb the harbour. The Italians dropped me like a hot potatoe and fled, but some Greeks quickly appeared and carried me into a shop. There they gave me brandy and a lovely piece for cake, the first food I'd eaten for four days. After the planes left we were put aboard a Hospital ship, the name of which I never learned (*Arno-Author)
She was crammed with Italian, German and British wounded, many were lying in the alleyways and even some in the surgery. We landed in Naples and went on to Caserta Hospital, a terrible place that stank of gangrene, wounds and dysentery. An Italian doctor, known with good reason as the butcher, operated on my leg. He made such a poor job of it that my knee had to be drained every week for a full year before another doctor operated with far better results. Operations were done under local anesthetics, but draining the knee only rated a nip of brandy.
in Caserta I met and became a great friend of Jack Simenson, a
New Zealand prisoner.
Further links regarding the Jason/ Janzten