SS Gaetano Donizetti

The SS Gaetano Donizetti was an Italian merchant ship, captured by Nazi Germany, which sank on September 23, 1943 in the Aegean Sea, killing some 1,800 people on board, 1,576 Italian prisoners of war and 220 German guards and crew.


On September 8, 1943 the Armistice between Italy and Allied armed forces was signed. The Germans had expected and anticipated the Italian surrender, and immediately launched Operation Achse to disarm the Italian Army and take over control of the territories they occupied. The Dodecanese island group had been under Italian occupation since the Italo-Turkish War of 1912. German forces under Generalleutnant Ulrich Kleemann rushed to the central island of Rhodes, and attacked the 40,000-strong Italian garrison on 9 September, and forced it to surrender by 11 September. In doing so, they outmaneuvered the British, which had hoped by their Dodecanese Campaign to conquer the islands and use them as bases against the German-controlled Balkans.

The Germans had to hold off the British and wanted to get rid of the numerous Italian prisoners as soon as possible. The Nazis considered the Italians who chose not to fight further alongside them (the majority), not as prisoners of war, but as traitors to be sent to the Germany to do forced labor.

The disaster

The Italian steamer Gaetano Donizetti of 3428 tons, had been confiscated by the Germans to bring arms to Rhodes, where she arrived on 19 September. The Germans then stowed some 1,600 prisoners in the cargo hold, where there was reasonably only room for 700.
The Gaetano Donizetti set sail on September 22. It sailed along the east coast of Rhodes, and headed southwest, passing Lindos to the south. The Gaetano Donizetti was escorted by the German torpedo boat TA10 under Oberleutnant Jobst Hahndorff. This was the former French torpedo boat La Pomone and later the Italian FR 42.

Around 01:10 am of September 23, the convoy was detected by HMS Eclipse under Commander E. Mack, who immediately opened fire. The overcrowded Gaetano Donizetti went down in seconds, taking with her the entire German crew and all Italian prisoners. The German torpedo boat TA10 was heavily damaged and later towed back to Rhodes, where it was scuttled a few days later. HMS Eclipse left the scene, not realising the extent of the tragedy that had just happened.

Almost all sources agreed that Gaetano Donizetti sank with all hands, though there is an Italian report claiming that at least 32 survivors were rescued by a British destroyer. No official British records confirm this story.[1]

On February 12, 1944, another transport ship leaving from Rhodes, the SS Oria, sank in a storm, causing the death of some 4,000 Italian prisoners of war.


  1. "Donizetti". The Invisible Graves. Retrieved 2016-08-23.


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