Gradisca: The “Odyssey” of the Italian hospital ship in Greece during WW2

Shipwrecks, WW2 in Greece

By Pierre Kosmidis

The Hospital Ship “Gradisca” at the Port of Patras, Greece
GRADISCA and AQUILEA: Two large hospital ships operating on the Mediterranean under Italian and German flag from 1939-45
In 1935, Italy bought two pre-World-War-I steamships built in England and the Netherlands and originally used as passenger ships – the GRADISCA (13,879 G.R.T.) and the AQUILEA (9,448 G.R.T.). Following their requisition and re-equipment in 1940, they were put into operation as Italian hospital ships.
Gradisca at the Port of Barcelona, Spain
Along with altogether seventeen other Italian hospital ships they ran their beneficial service on the Mediterranean during the initial phase of World War II.
On several perilous trips, occasionally hindered by mines and aerial attacks, they transported wounded and sick soldiers to Italy, primarily from the Albanian ports of Durëss and Vlorë, the Greek city of Thessaloniki and the Libyan cities of Benghazi and Tripoli.
The GRADISCA also rescued a large number of persons shipwrecked during the naval battle off Cape Matapan in March 1941.
Whereas the AQUILEA later distinguished herself by bringing home wounded members of the German Africa Corps within the framework of the evacuation of Tunisia in May 1943, the GRADISCA undertook several expeditions to Turkish Smyrna at the instigation of the International Red Cross for the purpose of exchanging wounded prisoners and medical personnel.
Following the surrender of the Italian forces in September 1943, both ships passed into German hands under circumstances still not completely clarified, and were later put into service as German military hospital ships.
Under German flag the AQUILEA carried out only one more exchange of wounded soldiers on the western Mediterranean before burning out in Marseilles in December 1943, after which she never again operated.
The GRADISCA was likewise employed for a major exchange undertaking in the spring of 1944, but served the navy primarily in the transport of the wounded and sick from the Aegean region. During the first half of 1944 she travelled the Adriatic Sea frequently between Venice and Porto d’Ascoli in Central Italy, transporting soldiers wounded at the Cassino front.
In the period that followed, the GRADISCA’s missions were often affected by the lack of clarity in the status of a hospital ship with regard to international law.
In as early as December 1943 British units captured her on the Adriatic Sea and forced her to enter the Allied-occupied port of Brindisi, where they liberated the wounded English and Italians as well as interned medical personnel who had been on board.
Within the context of the evacuation of Thessaloniki in October 1944 the GRADISCA was once again stopped by British warships and escorted to Alexandria.
There a British control commission searched the entire ship, inspected the German medical personnel and the nearly 2,000 wounded persons on board, approximately half of whom were subsequently taken prisoner of war.
Upon leaving Alexandria the GRADISCA was ordered to head for Algiers, where the remainder of the wounded were taken from board and placed in British military hospitals, despite strong protest on the part of the ship’s commanders and attempted intervention by the International Red Cross.
On her final trip in January of 1945, she was captured by British naval forces in the Dodecanese, taken to Alexandria and searched. Before her release, numerous wounded and sick Germans were forced to leave the ship and go to British prisoner-of-war hospitals in Egypt.
The GRADISCA spent the majority of the final weeks of the war laid up in Trieste or Venice.
Fuel had become so scarce that the coal supply on board hardly sufficed even for port operation, and a further undertaking to the Aegean islands still occupied by German troops was out of the question.
When the last of the 328-man medical crew had gone from board, the hospital ship GRADISCA was officially decommissioned and retransferred to Lloyd Trestino.
Between October 1943 and March 1945 – i.e. during her period of operation under German flag – the ship is estimated to have transported altogether approximately 12,700 wounded and sick soldiers to medial facilities behind the lines.