Lazarettschiff Brigitte and Torpedo Boat Lira in Thessaloniki, by Vincenzo Giacomo ToccafondiPhoto gallery, Shipwrecks, WW2, WW2 in Greece, WW2 Wrecks
By Vincenzo Giacomo Toccafondi
I recently found on a well-known online auction website a very interesting image of the port of Thessaloniki 1.
It shows the French ocean liner Theophile Gautier in the background, and two units that were directly involved in Operation Merkur:
The small hospital ship Brigitte and the Regia Marina Torpedo Boat Lira.
Photos of Brigitte are quite rare due to her short operational life.
Commonwealth and Greek soldiers had withdrawn to Crete, by the lightning fast German advance. A massive German airborne operation aimed at capturing the island was unleashed on May 20, 1941.
The Luftwaffe paratroopers launched their airborne assault on Crete, and faced fierce resistance by the soldiers and the people of Crete.
It was decided to bring reinforcements to the fallschirmjäger engaged on the territory by deploying a large number of Greek caiques loaded with supplies and troops and escorted by a handful of Italian torpedo boats, hoping that the British Royal Navy would not interfere with the operation, given the complete German air superiority.
Reinforcement Convoys from Piraeus
The Kapt.z.S. Heinrich Bartels organized a group of 21 motorboats and steamboats in the port of Piraeus to transport 2,300 soldiers of the "Maleme" group and other 38 small units from the cities of Lavrion and Chalkis for the 4,000 men of the Iraklion group.
The Maleme group left Piraeus harbour on May 19, 1941 under the command of Oblt.z.S. Albert Österlein; the escort was provided by the Torpedo Boat Sirio and the medical assistance was provided by the Hospital Ship Ares. RN Sirio, some of the fishing boats and the Ares, complained of trouble with the engines and returned to Piraeus, then the old Torpedo Boat Curtatone (Capitano di Corvetta Serafino Tassara) was left as an escort but, in the Gulf of Athens hit a mine breaking in two and sinking very quickly causing the loss of 94 men.
Only 34 (27 according to other sources) survived, saved by the Torpedo Boat Sagittario (Tenente di Vascello Giuseppe Cigala Fulgosi) who followed the Curtatone. The Torpedo Boat Lupo (Capitano di Fregata Francesco Mimbelli) joined the convoy from Milos as an escort for the Maleme group. The Iraklion group was accompanied by the small Hospital Ship Brigitte and defended by the Torpedo Boat Sagittario on which got on board the Freg.Kapt. Von Lipinski who was in charge of the detachment.
The commander of the first Group Oblt.z.S. Albert Osterlin embarked on the RN Lupo.
Over 6,300 soldiers, largely belonging to mountain troops, would have greatly facilitated the task for paratroopers engaged in furious fighting on Crete, but the Royal Navy ventured a strong backbone of ships to counter both German convoys. Both RN Lupo and RN Sagittario tenaciously defended the convoys assigned to them, without being able to prevent the loss of numerous caiques full of men.
The Axis air force imposed considerable losses on the Royal Navy such as to make the British units abandon the disputed stretch of sea.
Brigitte Hospital Ship
The small passenger motor ship Lefki, weighing only 75 tons with a weak 80 horsepower engine operated coastal connections in the Gulf of Thessaloniki.
The small boat was seized by the Germans who thought they could use it as a Rescue Ship for the fleets of fishing boats and steamers leaving for Crete with reinforcements for the invading troops. In May 1941 the ship underwent urgent work in Volos to adapt it to the function of a hospital ship, a role with which it had been registered in the Kriegsmarine. Dr. Robert Sohnius suggested the name of his daughter Brigitte for the rescue ship, for which he was responsible for setting up and equipment as well as becoming its first Medical Director.
Regularly painted according to the rules of the Red Cross, the ship was subjected to works that led to extremely scarce sanitary arrangements. Greek shipyard personnel installed eight double beds in an infirmary and a field operating table in the front. In addition, six crew berths and 16 stretchers for the wounded were available if needed. The ship’s equipment was totally inadequate starting with life-saving devices: there were only 2 regular life jackets and 27 cork life jackets; an inflatable boat was recovered to improve the situation.
There were no nautical charts and an adequate radiotelegraphic apparatus. The medical staff consisted of a medical sergeant, two health care aide, two German doctors and a Greek doctor, who served primarily as an interpreter for the five-member Greek crew. Health supplies consisted of medication materials and emergency medicines provided by the German military health facilities in Volos. The Brigitte was the first hospital ship put into operation in Greek waters, in addition to this the small size of the hull, the concern to get it into service contributed to making it a scarce ship of dubious utility.
According to Hartmann and Nöldeke in their excellent book Verwundetentransport über See Deutsche Lazarett und Verwundetentransportschiffe im Zweiten Weltkrieg, Brigitte was put into service on May 20, 1941 and the following day set sail at dawn to reach Chalkis and continue to Milos to join to the Von Lipinski group.
On the night between the 21st and the 22nd, RN Lira participated in the rescue of the shipwrecked convoy Maleme, escorted by the RN Lupo ship which had suffered the loss of 10 out of 16 caiques sunk by a British naval formation, the Force D of Rear Admiral I. G. Glennie composed of the light cruisers HMS Orion, HMS Ajax and HMS Dido and the destroyers HMS Hasty, HMS Hereward, HMS Janus and HMS Kimberley.
RN Lira (Tenente di Vascello Agostino Caletti) and RN Lupo, back in operations even if damaged in the clash, saved 1650 shipwrecked people. Thanks to the presence of Italian torpedo boats and the intervention of the German Air Rescue, the death toll was limited to 297 soldiers.
We believe Brigitte is unlikely to have participated in this operation having left Volos the previous day. In the following days he operated from Milos and collected 5 mountain troops and 6 Luftwaffe aviators: the crew of two 3 m Ju 52 three engined plane. After rescuing other injured and shipwrecked people, including four Danish sailors from a sunken steamer, the Brigitte had reached its maximum capacity and returned to Piraeus on 27 May.
The aforementioned German book refers to the death of Dr.Sohnius returning to port. In reality, as ascertained by German scholars who contacted the doctor, he returned to his original occupation in Volos and was replaced by Dr. Klaus Harms, a naval doctor later assigned to the hospital ship Aries / Graz. Dr. Heinz Heidenreich took over the medical direction of Brigitte and made some trips to the Greek islands, without however embarking on injuries, but limited himself to the transport of medical supplies. After a few trips to Thessaloniki, Lemnos and Volos the ship was deemed unsuitable for its tasks and on 20 August 1941 it was disbarred.
As can be seen from information found at the Register Office of Thessaloniki, the ship was in operation in the 1960s as a coastal passenger transport.
Built in 1936 by I. Kalpegiatzides for the owners N. & D. Arapis & K. Tsotsopoulos, it was demolished in 1972.
According to other sources, the ship was transformed into a submarine fighter with the pennant number UJ 2102 and sunk on 13 October 1944 in Volos. In reality, this version appears incorrect because the small Brigitte is confused with the relatively larger (437tonn.) Birgitta owned by the shipowner M. Eugenides actually used as submarine chaser. There are some pictures that clearly show the difference in size.
Torpedo Boat Lira
Spica class Torpedo Boat Alcione type, the ship was a good escort unit with a fairly balanced armament. Built at the Quarnaro shipyards – Fiume, joined, at the beginning of the war the VIII Torpedo Boat Squadron based in Rhodes (Lira, Lupo, Libra and Lince).
During 1941 the Anti Aircraft components were powered: AA Machine Guns 13,2 mm were replaced by the effective and powerfull Breda 20 mm. During the battle of Crete she participated with Lupo in the rescue of the survivors of the Maleme group and on May 28 he escorted, together with the twins Libra and Lince and the destroyer Crispi (Capitano di Fregata Ugo Ferruta) to the escort of a convoy of small steamers carrying about 2500 Italian soldiers who will disembark in Sitia on the island of Crete. Lira took parts in many convoy escort operations.
The proclamation of the armistice surprised the ship in La Spezia where it was under repair due to damages reported in action. The Lira was scuttled on 9 September 1943 to avoid capture. Re-afloat by the Germans on May 15, 1944, the torpedo boat was incorporated into the Kriegsmarine as TA 49, but the repairs never ended. In fact, on November 4, 1944, during a US air raid, the TA 49 was hit and sunk in the port of La Spezia.
I want to thank my son Gianluca for proofreading my articles, for his valuable advice and his encouragement to publish in English
Ufficio Storico Marina Militare -Le Torpediniere Italiane 1881-1964 – Roma 1964
Hartmann Nöldeke – Verwundetentransportüber See Deutsche Lazarett und
Verwundetentransportschiffeim Zweiten Weltkrieg – Verlag
Peter Schenk – Kampf um die Ägäis: Die Kriegsmarine in den griechischen Gewässern 1941 bis 1945