A Rescue Mission Gone Awry


Giovanni Nebbia with the football team he organized at his Marine School (Scuola di Avviamento Marinaro). The photo was taken in the year they won a championship. December 3, 1940.

In 2005, at a ceremony in Monte Urano, Italy, to honour Ken de Souza—a former POW and author of Escape from Ascoli, which Annelisa Nebbia translated from English into Italian—Annelisa shared an account of a rescue mission her father experienced that nearly ended in tragedy.

Annelisa’s speech is here translated into English:

“Missions to rescue escaping POWs from the Adriactic coast frequently failed due to the Italian captains’ lack of local knowledge, resulting in their being unable to find the exact point of the coastline where escapers were to be picked up.

“Allied Headquarters in Termoli asked Elio Tremaroli—who worked for them and crossed the lines [into enemy-occupied territory] continuously—if he knew somebody who was truly an expert on the Adriatic coast.

“Elio said, ‘I have the very man! No one knows the coast from Bari to Trieste better than Captain Giovanni Nebbia.’ Therefore Captain Lewis asked signor Tremaroli to bring the captain down to Termoli straightaway.

“Elio returned to San Benedetto del Tronto, collected Captain Nebbia, then took him back to Allied Headquarters in Termoli in a motorboat belonging to the Mascaretti family (Elio Tremaroli’s relatives); this boat had been requisitioned for war purposes. Once in Termoli they were given orders to sail up the coast towards Porto San Giorgio (to the mouth of the river Tenna) where a small party of people were to gather on the beach by midnight and signal their position with torches as soon as they saw the boat.

“Elio, Mr. Antinori, a boat engine expert, and Captain Nebbia went aboard the motorboat. A Greek captain called Vlasto was also asked to embark, together with four or five American sailors.

“When they were ready to set sail Captain Nebbia, who was able to detect weather changes by smelling the sea air, told Elio that in his opinion a terrible storm was imminent. The rough sea at Termoli would be very much worse in the middle of the Adriatic. He then asked Elio to inform Captain Vlasto that it would be better to postpone their departure. However, the Greek captain would not accept this advice and said, in no uncertain terms, that they had to sail.

“Captain Nebbia said to Elio, ‘He will see what sort of jig he will have to dance!’ And they set off.

“One hour later the vessel was being tossed about by the waves, with Captain Vlasto and the American sailors vomiting over both sides of the boat. Notwithstanding this, the stubborn man still insisted that they continue. Captain Nebbia said to Elio, ‘Go downstairs, take some grease, and spread it over your chest and shoulders!’

“Elio didn’t understand what he meant by this, so Captain Nebbia told him, ‘The grease will not save us but it will certainly prolong our lives for some hours. You see, the sea water is coming into the boat everywhere and in a few minutes will stop the engine. The boat will be uncontrollable and we will be thrown into the sea. So go downstairs and do what I suggest.’

“Elio went downstairs and when he came up on deck he brought some grease for the Captain to smear on.

“However due to Captain Nebbia’s great experience as a sailor they were saved; he managed to master the big waves until dead of night so they didn’t have ‘to swim.’ At dawn, when the sea was calmer, Elio asked the captain where he thought they were. He scanned the horizon and replied, ‘Can you see that small town in front of us? That’s Campomarino!’ which meant that after many hours of sailing they were still close to Termoli. They had lost their anchor because of the violent movement of the boat and the sea had nearly returned them to Termoli.

“Some years ago, agreeing with Elio’s wish to see Termoli again, I went there with him, his wife, and Professor Ruggero Ranieri. Walking along the quay and raising our eyes up to the hill above, we saw a big arch beyond which the Allied Headquarters used to be. Moved by the sight, Elio remarked that he had passed through it many times.

“As we walked through the town I noticed a club where sailors gather every afternoon to play cards and chat. I entered and made friends with some of them. When I spoke to them about the rescue mission which failed, two of them replied, ‘We were there on that morning and seeing those wrecked sailors coming to port we thought: These can’t be them, they must be their ghosts. They would have never been able to make it back!’

“And then they added that the lost anchor was still in the sea at the mouth of the river Biferno!”

See also “Captain L. C. Giovanni Nebbia” and “Operazione Nebbia.”

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