the words of an Italian soldier

Paolo Reginato was a soldier with the 202 Regg. Artiglieria Division XXVIII Ottobre when he was captured at Sidi el Barrani 11 December 1940.

A special thank you to Daniel Reginato and his family for sharing the details of his father’s libretto.  Paolo’s record of his days as a soldier and a prisoner of war is adding a personal perspective to this history; written at the time his comments are brief but poignant.

libretanono1Libretto di Paolo Reginato

(photo courtesy of Daniel Reginato)

Paolo writes: On 8th December (in the afternoon) we suffered a heavy naval bombardment and on the 9th we were attached by a strong artillery fire throughout the day, the same afternoon when the fire ceased the order came to retreat to Sidi el Barrani. Our subcommander takes a bottle of anise and makes us all dring, one by one with his own hands on his knees around him, at night we follow the retreat and on the morning of 10th we are located 10 km from Sidi el Barrani where we went again. We attacked with batteries and armed cars throughout the day, at night the fight continued until day 11, at hour 9 I was taken prisoner with almost the entire divison.

Newsreel: Fall of Sidi Barrani

From Second World War Official Histories, Volume 1 – to Benghazi (AWM):

Sidi El Barrani from Chapter Six Victory at Barrani AWM

Naval ships were to shell the Maktila positions on the night before the attack, [8] air support was to be given by No. 202 Group which included three squadrons and one flight of fighters, three squadrons and two flights of day bombers and three squadrons of night bombers… [9th] Frightened, dazed or desperate Italians erupted from tents and slit trenches, some to surrender supinely, others to leap gallantly into battle, hurling frenades or blasing machine guns in futile belavour of the impregnable intruders… On the morning of the 10th the 4th Armoured Brigade was lying on an arrowhead between Sidi Barrani and Buq Buq, facing on the west a series of Italian camps…the 7th Hussars attacked the enemy’s posts but they were too strong to take withouth costly losses and by early afternoon the main strength of the brigade had been sent eastwards… 6th Royal Tanks and the 2nd Royal Tanks attacking…  the 16th Brigade had attacked at dawn on the 10th..Advancing over open country in a dense dust storm it was met by effective artillery fire and was held… Finally a concerted attack late in the afternoon broke the enemy’s reisatance and by 4.40 Sidi Barrani had fallen.

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12th December 1940 SOME OF LATEST BATCH OF 4000 PRISONERS FROM AREA BETWEEN BARRANI AND Buq Buq. ALL ITALIAN TROOPS WERE WELL-CLOTHED & ARMED & IN GOOD PHYSICAL CONDITION BUT SEEMED IN NO MOOD FOR FIGHTING AFTER THE FIRST FEW HOURS OF THE ENCOUNTER. (AWM Image 004431 PHOTOGRAPHED BY F. HURLEY).

Long columns of dejected prisoners in drab oive-green and khaki streamed eastwards.  In the whole battle 38,300 prisoners, 237 guns and 73 tanks were captured. Four generals were taken: Gallina of the Group of Libyan Divisions,  Chario of the 1st Libyan Divison,  Piscatori of the 2nd Libyan,  Merzari of the 4th Blackshirt.

Sidi el Barrani Italian dispositions

Sidi El Barrani

 

 

 

 

 

 

Libretto Personale

Libretto Personale : In their Own Words

The personal memories of the Italian soldiers were recorded in their libretto or diario.  How many have survived the passage of time is anyone’s guess.  These books are valuable as they have been written ‘at the time’ and so as a primary source reference they are precious.

Davide Dander in his journey to find out more about his grandfather’s time as a prisoner of war in Australia has ‘found’ two such books.  His grandfather Antonio ARICI kept a number of books from his time as a POW but it is only now that their historical importance is being respected. Antonio’s ‘Libretto personale’ might be yellowed by age, but his words tell of his experiences and his reflections.

Libretto Personale ARICI Antonio

Additionally, is a notebook belonging to Giovanni AMBROSI.  Written while in India, it appears that either Giovanni Ambrosi left his book behind in India or gave it to Antonio Arici.   The book contains a register of notices received and sent.

Libretto Personale AMBROSI Giovanni

Some other examples of diaries written by Italian POWs are:

Umberto Cofrancesco’s biography covers fighting in North Africa, capture and treatment, life in POW Camp India, transfer to Australia, working in Victoria and repatriation.

From Tobruk to Clare  is the story of Luigi Bortolotti as recorded in this diary manuscript.

 

Operatic Prisoners

This article, Operatic Prisoners was published and republished in Australian newspapers from 1943 to 1945. It describes a concert given by operatic Italian prisoners of war in North Africa.

It’s not every batch of prisoners that includes a great operatic singer! When does, he must be a great asset on the entertainment side, and is probably hotly compete for among rival camps.

A member of the BBC’s staff now in the R.A.F. and serving in North Africa has written home his impressions of opera, at first hand, in the desert. He and an R.A.F. colleague set off at eight o’clock one evening to try and contact a certain American unit.  When it proved difficult, they decided to seek assistance from their army counterparts.  At about 9 p.m. they went to call on them.  They halted involuntarily in the drive about 50 yards from the house, and listened spellbound to a superb tenor voice singing what seemed to be an Italian folk song to violin accompaniment.  They took it to be a star radio programme.  Then the applause ‘thundered out’ and they realised that the singer must be present in the flesh.  So they went in to find four Italians being shaken by the hand by British forces and joined in the congratulations.  This is how our correspondent describes the scene:- these four were part of an Italian party of thirty who were captured en bloc.  They were acknowledged to be the ‘finest collection of stars ever assembled for entertaining the Italian troops in the battle area.”  (a sort of ENSA counterpart).  And these four prisoners had volunteered to come along to this small ‘at home’.  The audience consisted of about fifty N.C.O.’s The singer was the principal tenor of La Scala, Milan, Scipa [Tito Schipa]: he looked as he stood there anything but one of the world’s great operatic stars.  His uniform – jacket and shorts – stained and patched, his legs sockless and in army boots. Yet, when he sang, … no one noticed his appearance; all one was aware of was the magnificent voice and the grand accompaniment on violin and piano.  He sang to us Gounod’s “Ave Maria”, “O’Paradisa” “Your Tiny Hand is Frozen” (from Boheme) and the famous aria from Tosca.  Right at the end he gave us Toselli’s Serenade.  Singing and accompaniment were equally amazing since none of them had any music – it had all been lost.  Both violinist and pianist were also from La Scala – their leading violinist, Vasco Passarella.  Just in case we should arrive in Milan before him, he gave us his address that we might call on his parents.”

1945 ‘Operatic Prisoners’, The Beverley Times (WA : 1905 – 1977), 13 April, p. 6. , viewed 11 May 2018, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article202750221

Listen to Ave Maria

 

Italian Army ID Tags

an important relic of war

 piastrina di riconoscimento

***********UPDATE******READ MORE BELOW***********

Craig Douglas from Regio Esercito History Group has a specific interest in the history of the WW2 Italian armed forces.  Craig is my go-to-man when I need clarification about a particular battle in North Africa or unit in the Italian armed forces.

An item that found its way to the Regio Esercito’s collection is an  ID Tag. Interesting is the information on this tag: Number, Name, Name of Parents including maiden name of mother, Year of Birth, Home Town and Province.

The ID tag also brought up a number of questions.  Did the Italian POWs wear their tags in Australia or did they keep them in their kit?  Do Italian families still have their father’s or grandfather’s ID tags? I wonder if any farming children in Australia, who had Italian POWs on their farms, have memories of an ID tag?

Army Tags Luigi Moltedo

Italian ID Tag for Luigi Moltedo

(photo courtesy of Regio Esercito History Group)

Belonging to Luigi Moltedo, the details regarding how the ID Tag came to Australia emerge.  A major in the Italian army and a lawyer in Italy, Luigi Moltedo was taken prisoner of war in Libya.  He was sent to India as a POW in November 1940. He married a British national in India and in March 1951 together with their two children arrived in South Australia.  You can read more of Luigi’s story at Immigration Place 

Moltedo

Luigi Moltedo

(NAA:D4878)

The Regio Esercito History Group is based in Brisbane and is an historical research group which attempts to bring alive the Italian forces of 1940-45.

***********UPDATE***********

Luigi Moltedo’s family has been found.  They are most grateful to Craig Douglas for keeping safe this important item belonging to their dad.  The impossible has been made possible.

*************************************************************************************

Italian Sailors at Ross Creek

 

A photo, a banana farm, two names and a story of Italian Sailor POWs at Ross Creek via Gympie.

Knowles.Irace.Franco

Tony Franco and Giovanni Irace at Ross Creek via Gympie

(from the collection of Kathy Worth (nee Knowles))

Kathy Worth (nee Knowles) is the keeper of a framed photo of two men standing beside a bunch of bananas.  Her mother, Ellen Knowles, carefully noted the names of the men on the reverse side of the photo and 72 years later this photo tells a story.

Clarrie and Ellen Knowles of Ross Creek Gympie grew bananas during World War 2.  At some stage, they also grew beans between the runs. On 14th May 1945, two Italian POWs were sent to the Knowles farm and took up residence in the workers’ shack on the farm.

Both from the Amalfi Coast of Italy, Antonio Franco was from Maiori Salerno and Giovanni Irace was from Praiano Salerno.  Kathy remembers Tony and Giovanni from the stories her parents told her and she says, “Dad loved fishing and would take them to Tin Can Bay fishing with him but apparently they were not to leave the farm.  The ‘Ities’ as Dad called them ran out of milk one day so he went and milked the draught horse and they commented how sweet it was and he told them it was mare’s milk which caused a laugh.  They were frightened of fire flies as well.  Dad said that when they saw fire flies for the first time they were scared.  They told Dad how they called into the night, ‘boss, boss, is that you boss’.  Mum remembers that they didn’t want to go back to Italy”.

Delving further, the back story to Giovanni Irace and Antonio Franco coming to Australia is noteworthy. The last transport of Italian POWs to Australia was the General William Mitchell arriving in Melbourne; the 2076 Italians on board disembarked on 13th February 1945.  Two hundred and fifty were sent to Gaythorne in Queensland arriving on 13th March 1945 for onward placement on farms.  Irace and Franco were placed on Clarrie Knowles’ Gympie farm within two months.  Other Italians were encamped at Gaythorne for five months before placements were arranged to work on farms.

Another interesting point of history is the place and date of capture for Irace and Franco.  Both sailors in the Italian Navy, they were captured at Massaua (Massawa) on 8th April 1941.

The Red Sea Flotilla was a unit of the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina Italia) based in MassawaEritrea, when Massawa was part of Italian East Africa. In World War II, the Red Sea Flotilla was active against the British Royal Navy East Indies Station from Italy’s declaration of war on 10 June 1940 until the fall of Massawa on 8 April 1941.

The location of the squadron meant it was isolated from the main Italian bases in the Mediterranean by distance and British dispositions. The British capture of Massawa and other Italian ports in the region ended the Italian naval presence in the region in April 1941.”

(Wikipedia: Red Sea Flotilla)

 

The Desert War

Stories from the Desert

Queensland families remember their Italian POW workers telling little of the fighting, but many a comment was made about one aspect of their capture.  While they tolerated the Australian and British soldiers confiscating their watches, they were resentful that the Allies took their personal photographs from them.

Captured at Tobruk 22nd January 1941, Antonino Lumia reflected, “When the English and the Australians arrived… to our captain… they confiscated the watch, his binoculars… his belt and his weapon.  All our watches were confiscated.  To some soldiers their wallets, personal photographs.  We walked towards their lines.”

Fighting in the desert was never a picnic.  Soldiers were parched, water and food scare, they battled sandstorms which blocked their vision and suffered extreme cold at night.

Newspapers of the day offer an insight into this desert war and souveniring:

“One batch of prisoners rounded up in a wire enclosure must have numbered about 3,000.  Here I spoke with a 24 year old infantryman who was a waiter in Rome until conscripted for the army six months ago.  He told me, “I did not want to fight but had no choice.  None of the men you see here have had enough to eat in the last fortnight.  The daily ration is a tin of bully beef to each two men, soup and a loaf of bread.  We are glad it is over.”

“Lots of us are wearing new Italian boots and they are very comfortable.  Some boys are wearing captured socks and black shirts – in fact, by the time it is finished we will be a motley crew all right.”

boots and pants

6th January 1941 BARDIA, LIBYA. Driver Morrison of the Photographic Unit rummages around the Italian Infantry positions and finds a new pair of pants.  Discarded boots, weapons and personal papers are strewn over the area.  (AWM Image 005316 photography Frank Hurley)

“It was funny a couple of days ago; we were resting beside our gun when we saw a half dozen blue-clad figures strolling over the horizon toward us.  When they reached us they made us understand that they were lost, having become separated from the rest of the herd.  [POWs] We promptly directed them on the right track and after giving us a decent Fascist salute they proceed on their way – unescorted.”

“Wine and cigars were among the luxuries the Australians captured from the Italians at Bardia.” 

quartermaster stores

Bardia. 1941-01-03. Pile of provisions and clothing on the ground after an Italian Quartermaster Store was destroyed by the Allies. Note the soldier in the background, possibly from 2/2nd Battalion, with a large cloth, possibly a captured banner. (Original housed in AWM Archive Store)

“We went into action singing Waltzing Matilda and The Wizard of Oz.  The Italians just couldn’t understand the mentality of soldiers marching into battle against a numerically superior foe with a song on their lips.  They were completely demoralised.”

“As soon as we got within 50 to 100 yards from the Italians with our bayonets glistening in the sun, they threw down their rifles and raised their hands. Some of the prisoners said afterwards that the surprise that they felt when they heard us singing was heightened by the grim look on our faces.  They told us, ‘We Italians sing when we are happy: never before have we heard men singing and looking so serious!’ ”

“The Italian officers did themselves well… dugouts furnished with chests of drawers containing full dress uniforms, silk dressing gowns, and colourful pyjamas.  There were bathrooms with full sized baths.  There were bottles of wine, embossed stationery, cameras, quantities of patent medicines and crockery in addition to uncounted quantities of valuable technical equipment such as wireless sets and replacements, field telephones and Breda automatic guns and rifles.  Today there is probably no single Italian tunic in a Bardia dugout which still has a badge or shoulder strap.  Men are wearing Italian boots and breeches and using Italian blankets. Souveniring has been carried to such an extent that much of the booty must be abandoned because it will overload the battalion transports.”

004906 Liquor and cigareets

5th January 1941 BARDIA, LIBYA. The boys of the 2/2nd Battalion, now in occupation of Bardia, celebrate their entry into the Italian strong hold with a feast of captured food, wine and cigars.  (AWM Image 004906, photographer Frank Hurley)

Looting or Larrikinism

Craig Stockings wrote in detail about the revelry of Australia soldiers after the Battle of Bardia.  Bardia Captured illustrates the surrender of Bardia. The following is an extract from his book, Bardia.

“After the guns fell silent the dusty yellow landscape in and around Bardia was littered with the remnants of the defeated Italian force. Papers blowing on the wind caught on broken vehicles, scaterred weapons, abandoned guns, piles of stores, and long columns of prisoners heading south.” Litter in Libya films these images.

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27th December 1940 NEAR BARDIA – More of the many thousands of Italian prisoners captured during the Battle of Bardia. (AWM Image 004911 NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).

“Much of the spontaneous Australian carousing was innocent enough.  Many soldiers who found themselves close to Bardia’s beaches, for example, stripped their grimy clothes and dashed into the Mediterranean to wash clean the filth of combat.  A severe flea infestation …to sup baths, shave and establish their own hairdressing salon.  Where caches were discovered Australian troops feasted on Italian rations and smoked Italian cigarettes.  Many platoon vehicles were soon weight down with cases of tuna, preserves and a variety of tinned veal and pasta meals.  In some areas the nature of the boot surprised those who stumbled upon it… ‘all sorts of queer clothing ,silk underwear both male and female, lots of scents and hair pomades. Eau-de-cologne… was a great favourite….

004913 Knights of Bardia

5th January 1941 BARDIA. “The Knights of Bardia” – Colonels for the Day. Dressed in captured Italian finery, men of the A.I.F. react to their sweeping victory.  (AWM Image 004913 NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).

Not all celebratory activities were as innocent… particularly drunkenness, looting and dangerous larrikinism.. A barrel of captured wine was placed on a nearby truck and competitors drank mug for mug until only one man was left standing.  As one witness recounted, the ‘camp was a mess with three parts of the platoon lying drunk in heaps of spew and vomit’.  .. too much Italian cognac…

3999636

Bardia, Libya. 1941-01-04. An Italian prisoner of war (POW) is watched by some of his friends as he siphons wine from a barrel into his mouth while lying beside the barrel. Note the Italian camouflaged ground sheet rigged as a shelter on the left. The prisoners of war were under the supervision of members of 2/2nd Battalion. (AWM Image P02038.083 Original housed in AWM Archive Store)

Another distasteful post-battle pastime was the systematic robbery of Italian prisoners. As its most innocent this manifested as an informal type of resupply.  Almost every member… acquired at least one Italian pistol, officers helped themselves to Italian binoculars, which were superior to their British equivalents.  More concerning was the illegal theft of personal items… Shortly after the battle, he [one soldier] had ‘pockets full of money, wedding rings, some mother of pearl inlaid pistols and some flash fountain pens’, as well ‘had watches up both arms’… The same man later reminisced that for many Australians guarding prisoner columns, ‘it was like having an open go in a jewellery shop.’…

In one particularly atrocious incident, a soldier was tried at court martial (and found guilty) for tossing an Italian grenade into a prisoner cage, seriously wounding five unarmed Italians.

Tobruk POW CAge

23rd April 1941 TOBRUK. Birds of a feather stuck together in a common cage, German and Italian prisoners captured round about Tobruk by the Australian forces holding the town and surrounding country. (AWM Image 007482, Negative by F Hurley) 

A Recipe for Finistrone Soup

 

Operation Compass – Summary of Battles

Map Western Desert Campaign

Map of Western Desert Campaign 1941/42

(from Operation Sonnerblume, Wikipedia)

Sidi el Barrani was the first battle of Operation Compass. It was the first British attack in the Western Desert Campaign 10th – 11th December 1940 with the capture of supplies and 20,000 Italian troops. Sidi el Barrani had been taken by the Italians three months before and was a vital rail connection on the border between Libya and Egypt.

Italian troops were forced to retreat suffering defeats at Sollum, Buq Buq, Fort Capuzzo, Halfaya Pass, Sidi Omar as the allies forced the Italian line to Bardia. While some 40,000 Italian soliders were taken prisoner at Bardia, some of these soldiers had been in battle at Sollum or Fort Capuzzo or Buq Buq before arriving at Bardia.

The attack on Tobruk took place 21st to 22nd January 1941.

The British took Derna on the 31st January 1941.

Late on 5 February, Combeforce arrived at the Via Balbia south of Benghazi and set up road blocks near Sidi Saleh, about 30 mi (48 km) south-west of Antelat and 20 mi (32 km) north of Ajedabia. The leading elements of the 10th Army arrived thirty minutes after the British who sprung the ambush. Next day the Italians attacked to break through and continued their attacks into 7 February. With British reinforcements arriving and the Australians pressing down the road from Benghazi, the 10th Army surrendered later that day. Between Benghazi to Agedabia, the British took 25,000 prisoners, captured 107 tanks and 93 guns of the Operation Compass totals of 133,298 men, 420 tanks and 845 guns. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Beda_Fomm)

Operation Compass – A light hearted summary

Recipe for Finistrone

A RECIPE FOR: FINISTRONE SOUP (1941, March 8). The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic. : 1864 – 1946), p. 31. Retrieved August 14, 2019, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article142428590

The Axis Retaliation

Little did the Allies know what lay ahead for them.  Operation Sonnenblume  was the Axis offenive against the Allied forces 1941-1943. Siege of Tobruk which lasted 241 days from April to December 1941 is one of Australia’s most notable Desert War milestone.