Castelrossa L’Egeo

Emanuele Nicosia gave me a challenge.  His record documents that he was captured on 25th February 1941. Place of capture: Libya (Castelrossa (egeo)). Emanuale served in the Italian navy.

Castelrossa, I think is Kastellorizo, a Greek Island lying off a southern tip of Turkey in the east Mediterranean Sea. ‘Egeo’ is the Aegean Sea – il mar Egeo or L’Egeo.

Kastellorizo has a complicated history but it had been occupied by the Italians since 1921. It was home to an Italian military garrison of 40-50 soldiers, Italian navy, custom officials and Carbinieri.

The British attack on Kastellorizo 25th – 28th February 1941 was strategic. The code name for the operation was ABSTENTION.  The British were assisted by the Australian naval forces of the HMAS Perth.

The newspapers reported the ‘Capture of Italian Seaplane Base’ describing the four hour bombardment by British destroyers before British troops landed and took possession of the island.

British forces consisting of 200 commandos landed before dawn on the 25th February 1941 and took control of  the Italian garrison in the castle and the Paliokastro fortress.

Its capture was welcomed news for Australia’s Dodecanese migrant community from the (migrants from the islands in the Aegean Sea and Sea of Crete in the Mediterranean).

Victory was short lived. Despite naval support, the British forces did not have air support.  The Italian forces counter attacked with aerial bombings and troop landings.  The British withdrew from the island on 28th February 1941.

The only source I can find for number of Italians taken prisoner is from Wikipedia: 12 Italian prisoners of war taken during Operation Abstention.  The reference given for this statistic is: Smith, Peter; Walker, Edwin (1974). War in the Aegean. London: Kimber. 

For more information: The Battle for Kastellorizo by Dr George Stabelos

I now wonder if Emanuele Nicosia was the only Castellorizo prisoner to be sent to Australia. He is photographed below at Cowra 16th September 1943.

Cowra, NSW. 16 September 1943. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POW) interned at No. 12 POW Group. Back row, left to right: 49937 R. Villani; 46151 G? Mauro; 49470 P. Fiore; 49469 S. Franco; 49474 P. Giaquinto; 48071 P. Falzarano. Front row: 45633 G. Falzarano; 49501 E. Nicosia; 45938 S. Lanni; 49425 R. De Masi. Note: The number is an assigned POW number.

Tobruk POW Cage Jan – March 1941

23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – MORE ITALIAN PRISONERS TAKEN AFTER THE ADVANCE INTO TOBRUK. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).

One of the incoming force’s greatest embarrassments was the number of prisoners.  More than 20,000 of them were soon herded into a fenced enclosure measuring about 800 yards by 400 yards which the Italians had erected near the junction of the El Adem and Bardia roads to house their own prisoners.  Here during more than six weeks never fewer than 7,000 and sometimes 20,000 prisoners were crowded like sheep in a dusty pen.  Many of the men lacked blankets, and the nights were bitterly cold.

To give them adequate medical care was far beyond the resources of their captors.  There was no sanitation; and, at first, it took one of the two infantry companies posted at the cage seven hours to distribute the day’s rations: one tin of veal, two biscuits and a bottle of water to each man, though few prisoners had even a bottle to receive their water in.

From the 23rd to the 26th the 2/7the Battalion was on guard and strove unceasingly to feed and water the prisoners.  The 2/2nd Battalion which relieved the 2/7th reduced the time spent feeding the prisoners to five hours by installing water tubs and employing Italian N.C.O.s to organise the lines.

Eventually the guards from this battalion made sure that every prisoner had at elast a greatcoat or blanket and his own water bottle… Gradually the numbers were reduced by sending them eastwards to Egypt in empty trucks that had come forward carrying supplies and after the harbour was opened 1,500 to 2,000 were shipped away every second or third day.  By the middle of February the number of prisoners had been reduced to about 10,000 and by the end of the month to 7,000, but on 28th February convoys, each containing 800 to 1,000 prisoners began to arrive from Benghazi and, in a few days the cage contained 11,000. The Tobruk cage was finally emptied in March. 

From AUSTRALIA IN THE WAR OF 1939-1945 Series One Army, Volume 1 To Benghazi by Gavin Long. Chapter 9 Capture of Tobruk

 NEAR TOBRUK – A CROSS SECTION OF MUSSOLINI’S MIGHTY ARMY. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).

Click on the link below to see more photos taken by Frank Hurley and further information about the Tobruk Prisoner of War Cage.

 

 

 

 

Memories from Tobruk

Antonino Lumia

Antonino was captured at Tobruk 22nd January 1941. His grandson Damiano Lumia recorded his nonno’s memories. Listen to Antonino as he tells us his story: A Voice from the Past

Emanuele Favoloro

In 1940, Emanuele was sent to Tobruk. “I was a sailor on a small boat that was used to ferry goods between ships on the harbour… I recall as soon as we reached the harbour, one midnight, the bombing began.  This bombing was to last nine months… The constant booms of the bombs drove us half crazy.

23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – THESE AUSTRALIANS ARE TAKEN BESIDE A WALL WHICH SHOWS DAMAGE CAUSED BY THE INTENSE BARRAGE FROM BRITISH FORCES PENETRATING THE ITALIAN DEFENCES. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).

There were six ships in the harbour that night… the Liguria (passenger ship), the Serenitas (carrying cement), the Manzoni (carrying mechanics) and the Serenco (carrying wood). I’ve forgotten the other two.

23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – THE “SERENTATIS” ANOTHER ITALIAN SHIP SCUPPERED, A TRICK THAT THE ITALIANS SEEM TO HAVE LEARNT FROM THEIR AXIS FRIENDS. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).

… Our role in Tobruk Harbour was to supply goods to all the Italian soldiers, Navy and Air Force…

My worst memory is the night before I was taken P.O.W. by the Australian soldiers. Our Commanders ordered us to destroy everything in Tobruk Harbour… The generals took the attitude, ‘The enemy must not have any of our goods,’ but in doing this they condemned their own men to death by starvation.

Tobruk was captured the next day. We had to destroy even the ships that were half sunk. Even the Italian cruiser, the San Giorgio was destroyed by us.

23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – ITALIAN PRISONERS LEAVING THE TOWN ON FOOT. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).

That evening we found the Aussies waiting.  They greeted us with ‘hands up! Come down to the wharf!’.  They took us to an open area and we were surrounded.  They put us in a line and made us walk twelve kilometres to the operation field.  We had no food or drink…

23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – MOST OF THE ITALIANS CARRY POCKETSFUL OF GRENADES AND IT IS THEREFORE NECESSARY TO SEARCH PRISONERS FOR THESE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. NOT ONLY BECAUSE OF POSSIBLE TREACHERY BUT THEY FORGET THEY ARE CARRYING THEM ABOUT AND SOMETIMES THIS FORGETFULNESS IS DANGEROUS. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).

I remember one night they [Germans] bombed us.  The Germans our friends, thought we were the enemy.  About two hundred and eighty-one Italians died that night.

After one week, the Aussie solders took about one thousand people and took us to the harbour of Tobruk again.  There was an Egyptian ship called Solum, and we went on board.  The ship sailed us to Egypt…Alexandria… when we neared Bardia, we saw three planes.. and they threw bombs at us. When the ship was hit by a bomb, the Captain tried to take the ship to shore. Being a fisherman, I knew how to swim. Many men drowned…. The trucks came to rescue us and took us to Alexandria in Egypt. My biggest horror from the war is the starvation and lack of water plus the horror of the deaths.  Here we were given a loaf of bread for tomorrow…. We had plenty of water. We got given five cigarettes and I sold my cigarettes for more bread. From Alessandria I was taken to Quassassin Camp.  We worked carrying light poles and then we were shipped to Suez… I was sent to Zonderwater (near a mining town). I worked as a kitchen hand for two years.” (from Boccia Cesarin-An Historial Link – Italy – Australia by Cesare Romane Stefanate)

Manlio Sulis

Manlio Sulis was at Tobruk and his son Giovanni Sulis provides insightful details about Tobruk and the journey: Tobruk -Sollum – Alexandria – Geneifia Camp 306 – Zonderwater

Battaglia di Tobruk

Tobruk-Zonderwater

Luigi Bortolotti

Luigi Bortolotti was an infantry sergeant who was captured on 21st January 1941 at Tobruk. His diary of 300 pages details his journey from ‘the sad day of my capture to that longed-for day of my release.’

Desmond O’Connor used Luigi’s diary to write: From Tobruk to Clare: the experiences of the Italian prisoners of war Luigi Bortolotti 1941-1946.

Luigi’s journey: Tobruk–Alessandria-Ismailia-Suez-Hay includes detailed sketches of Campo 9 Ismalia, Campo 2 Suez and Campo 7 Hay.

Naval Command Surrenders Tobruk

Click to watch images of Tobruk: British Pathe film footage

On 22nd January 1941, Tobruk capitulated to the Allies.

22nd January 1941 AN AERIAL VIEW OF TOBRUK, AFTER THE ITALIAN GARRISON HAD SURRENDERED. SHOWN, BLACK SMOKE ROLLING FROM BURNING OIL TANKS BEYOND WHICH, IN THE HARBOUR, THE ITALIAN CRUISER SAN GIORGIO IS ON FIRE.

General Enrico Pitassi Manella: Commander of Tobruk; General Umberto Barberis: Commander of Easter Section; General Vincenzo della Mura: Commander of Western Sector and General Adolfo de Leone: Chief of Staff XXII Corps surrendered in the field.

Commander of the Navy at Tobruk Garrison, Rear Admiral Massimillian Vietina surrendered his 1500 strong naval contingent to General Robertson and Lieutenant Hennessy. Through an interpreter, Vietina was asked where the Commander of the Army at the Tobruk Garrison was. It was reported  ‘the military commander of Toburk fortress had escaped by schooner.’

The town of Tobruk and naval headquarters was surrendered by Vietina.

22nd January 1941 View across the harbour of the town. Note the clouds of smoke from the bombed oil tankers and the cruiser San Giorgio. Members of 2/2nd Battalion camped later just past the area of bombardment. `B’ Company guarded the wharf with the crane and were bombed every night and morning. The Hotel Tobruk can be seen on the left.

22nd January 1941 A motor cyclist rides along the exit road of the wharf area beside the harbour where members of 2/2nd Battalion were stationed. Note the remains of the destroyed jetties and sunken Italian shipping in the background.

Below Navy Headquarters was a complex of deep underground shelters and passageways which had been concreted and fitted with electricity. Stairs descended about 60 – 70 feet underground.

About 500 marines appeared from these mazes of corridors and spilled out into the courtyard.

31st January 1941 TOBRUK – FOUR NAVAL RATINGS FROM THE ITALIAN SHIP SAN GIORGIO, CAPTURED DURING THE ACTION. (Photographer: James Francis Hurley)

The township of Tobruk was said to be a pleasant place of white brick and plaster buildings with services to accommodate a garrison of 10,000 or more men. After the surrender of Tobruk, the church was said to be the only building to escape major damage.  The church can be seen in the photo below.

23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – VIEW FROM THE VERANDAH OF A HOUSE IN TOBRUK SHOWING THE CHURCH – THE ONLY UNDAMAGED BUILDING IN THE TOWN AFTER THE BRITISH ATTACK. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).

23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – AUSTRALIANS TEAR DOWN THE ITALIAN FLAG AFTER THEY HAVE PENETRATED THE ITALIAN DEFENCES AND ENTERED THE TOWN. Notice the fasces: symbols of fascism adorning the columns. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).

The harbour had been damaged, but the Allied forces had it in running order within three days. One jetty was largely undamaged, and the flotilla of schooners, pontoons and launches were also in good order.

23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – ITALIAN MERCHANT SHIPS CAUGHT IN TOBRUK HARBOUR. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).

TOBRUK – ITALIAN AIRCRAFT FLEW OVER THE ITALIAN CAMPS & DROPPED LEAFLETS EXHORTING THE BESIEGED TROOPS TO HANG ON FOR THE ASSISTANCE THAT WAS SURELY COMING. HERE AN ITALIAN OFFICER TRANSLATES THE LEAFLET FOR ALLEN ANDERSON OF THE PHOTOGRAPHIC UNIT. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).

The Merchant ships Marco Polo and Liguria had been rendered worthless.

23rd January 1941 Tobruk Harbour, Libya. The Italian Merchant vessel Marco scuppered before the Italians surrounded the town. (Photographer: Frank Hurley)

5th September 1941 Two of the wrecks in Tobruk Harbour. The larger vessel is the Italian troopship “Liguria” and the smaller is the “Bankura” a Navy Army Air Force Institute (NAAFI) supply ship. (Photographer: Thomas Fisher)

The old cruiser, San Giorgio was seaworthy and had been used since June 1940 to supplement the anti-aircraft defences of Tobruk claiming 47 enemy aircraft. In January 1941 the San Giorgio was used as off-shore artillery with its guns pounding the Tobruk attackers.  At 4.15 am on the 22nd January 1941, the San Giorgio was scuttled by her captain Stefano Pugliese.

c. 22nd January 1941 The Italian Coast Defence Ship (former armoured cruiser), San Giorgio, scuttled and burning after attacks by Naval Aircraft and RAF bombers at Tobruk, June – January 1941. Note the anti-torpedo nets around the wreck.

Inspection of the San Giorgio’s torpedo nets after the fall of Tobruk, revealed that as many as 39 torpedoes had become stuck in the nets during her service in Tobruk.

Another ship in Tobruk harbour was RN Alberga/Albernga. Both Francesco Riva from Galbiate Como and Renzo Menicucci from Livorno served on this boat. Possibly the ship’s name has been misspelt. [There were light cruisers in service: Alberico de Barbiano and Alberto Da Giussano.]

January 1941 Italian prisoners of war (POWs) are marched along the harbour wharf prior to embarkation on the ship in the foreground. Note the destroyed Italian ships in the background. The view is as seen looking up towards the cage where the prisoners of war were housed. (Original housed in AWM Archive Store)

23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – HIGH OFFICERS OF THE ITALIAN NAVY & ARMY LED THEIR MEN OUT OF TOBRUK TO SURRENDER TO BRITISH FORCES. ALTHOUGH WITHOUT GUARDS, THIS COLUMN OF PRISONERS MARCHED WITH PERFECT DISCIPLINE TO THE PRISONERS CAMP WHERE THEY WERE HANDED OVER BY THEIR OWN OFFICERS. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).

Tobruk (Libia) 21 gennaio 1941 Part 3

Feature photo above:

Above Featured Photo: Gianni Senici Durante il servizio militare in Libia (1936-1938) Lui è quello coi calzoni bianchi. Era addetto alla mensa ufficiali (photo courtesy of Fabrizio Senici)

Below is an extract from the book P.O.W. No. 48664 Prisoner of War written by Fabrizio Senici. Disponible su / Available on: AMAZON  and IBS LIBRI

Part 3…

Guerre1939-1945. Prisonniers de guerre italiens conduits à Tobrouk par une escorte anglaise. War 1939-1945. Italians prisonners of war conducted to Tobrouk by British escort. Les prisonniers secouent des mouchoirs blancs. L’escorte anglaise préfère marcher à reculons afin de mieux surveiller les prisonniers.

Usciamo in fila indiana con le mani sopra la testa e gli occhi accecati dal sole.

Tengo lo sguardo basso e ancora una volta mi viene da ghignare per quei miei calzoni bianchi che abbagliano nel sole di mezzogiorno.

Non facciamo che pochi passi. Di fronte ci troviamo i fucili automatici dei soldati australiani. Tengo bassa la testa, ma alzo lo sguardo per vedere che cosa succede. Il sergente si fa avanti per primo tenendo le mani bene alzate sopra la testa e dichiara la volontà di arrendersi. Parla in italiano, ma lo capiscono ugualmente, come lui capisce i gesti che gli fa il suo parigrado. Il sottufficiale australiano tiene il suo fucile ad altezza d’uomo e con quello indica la via.

Il sergente si incammina per primo e ci parla a bassa voce: «State calmi e non fate monate» ma un colpo nel costato gli fa capire che deve stare zitto. Per un piccoletto tutto scuro di carnagione le parole del sergente non servono: esce dalla fila e inizia a scappare. Ci giriamo tutti giusto in tempo per vedere un australiano che prende la mira e lo centra in testa. Credo che morirò anch’io. Anzi ne sono sicuro. Mi vengono in mente le parole del colonnello: “Pensa a portare a casa la pelle, giovanotto, che qui siamo tutti come morti che camminano” e in effetti sembriamo una fila di morti viventi.

Ci spingono con le canne dei fucili verso un primo concentramento, in uno slargo dove mi rendo conto che siamo migliaia. Non ho mai visto tanta gente insieme così sporca e cenciosa, stremata, e soprattutto triste. Intorno a me ci sono feriti leggeri e gravi. Tutti abbiamo lo sguardo perso nel niente, incapaci di reazione. Ma quello che mi fa ancora più paura è non capire una parola di quello che dicono. Gli australiani non parlano, non ordinano. Urlano.

Mi metto in coda al sergente e dietro di me si mette il bresciano. «Come ti chiami?» riesco a dirgli a quello dietro, e poi ancora: «Sèt de Brésa?».[sei di Brescia?]

«Mi chiamo Rossetti Angelo» mi risponde lui «bresciano di Castelmella».

Mi vien da piangere dalla gioia. Poi tiro la giacca al sergente: «Sergente, come vi chiamate?» gli do del voi per rispetto al grado. Lui si gira appena un po’: «Bortolotti Luigi* e sono friulano, e tu?».

«Senici Giovanni della sessantasettesima, ma voi mi potete chiamare Gianni».

Allora anche lui mi dice: «E tu chiamami Luigi e smettila di darmi del voi. Da adesso in poi siamo tutti uguali».

23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – ITALIAN PRISONERS LEAVING THE TOWN ON FOOT. (AWM Image 005604 NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).

*Fabrizio uses the name of Luigi Bortolotti as he also was captured at Tobruk 21 January 1941. Fabrizio would like to think that Luigi and Giovanni’s paths crossed during the chaos of Tobruk. Click below to read the experiences of Luigi Bortolotti: From Tobruk to Clare.

Tobruk (Libia) 21 gennaio 1941 Part 2

Feature Photo Above: Gianni Senici, Durante il servizio militare in Libia (1936-1938) (photo courtesy of Fabrizio Senici)

Below is an extract from the book P.O.W. No. 48664 Prisoner of War written by Fabrizio Senici. Disponible su / Available on: AMAZON  and IBS LIBRI

Part 2…

Italian Prisoners of War at Tobruk (AWM Image P10989.002 Photographer: Cartledge, Bryan Hammersley)

Siamo dentro, al riparo. Buio, paura e silenzio: penso a come devono essere spessi questi muri per chiudere fuori tutto quel casino.

Paura, buio, silenzio: nessuno di noi ha il coraggio di parlare. Anche il sergente sta zitto. Qualche colpo di tosse, qualcuno tira su con il naso, ognuno ascolta solo il bum-bum del suo cuore. Silenzio, paura e buio: piano piano i miei occhi si abituano alla poca luce che filtra dalle feritoie.

Faccio la conta di quanti siamo, cerco qualcuno che conosco, ma non conosco proprio nessuno. Solo che mi è sembrato che uno parlasse bresciano e almeno questo mi fa sentire meno solo.

Il sergente sa che tutti ci aspettiamo da lui una decisione. Siamo tagliati fuori da qualsiasi contatto e spetta a lui decidere della nostra sorte. Mi guardo intorno mentre la polvere gioca e balla nei fasci di luce delle feritoie e nella nostra puzza di paura. Il mio sguardo incontra gli occhi del sergente che sembrano non vedermi, mi passano oltre. Ostia. Siamo tutti gnari [ragazzi] di poco più di vent’anni, spauriti, gente che fino all’anno prima faceva il contadino, l’operaio, il magüt [il carpentiere] e ora è solo carne da macello. Quando inizia a parlare capisco che il sergente è un uomo buono.

«Ragazzi, qui è finita, non c’è più niente da fare» dice e la sua voce mi fa capire tutta la sua stanchezza.

«Che cosa facciamo, sergente?» chiede una voce.

«Non lo so, sacramento, non lo so proprio» risponde il sergente. E poi continuando: «In quanti siamo qui dentro? Dài fioi, contiamoci».

Allora mi faccio forza e inizio io: «Uno» dico, e poi altre voci: «due, tre, quattro, cinque, sei, sette. Dov’è il bambino? Dov’è Mario?» chiede

qualcuno in veneto. Non so chi sia questo “bambino”, questo Mario, ma posso immaginare che sia il più giovane di quel gruppo.

«Non l’ho più visto da un po’» dice un altro veneto, da questo capisco che sono tre che si conoscono, magari dei compaesani.

«Allora in quanti semo?» continua il sergente.

«In sette, sergente, qui dentro siamo in sette» risponde pronto il caporale.

«Chi cazzo è che sta piangendo?» la voce del sergente adesso non è più così buona: «Dài che siamo uomini del Duce, ostia!».

Sono stanco morto. Da tre giorni scappo come un topo da un rifugio all’altro e mangiare non se ne parla, figurarsi il bere. Mi lascio scivolare lungo il muro e quando il mio sedere tocca terra mi sento come un sacco svuotato e penso che potrei anche morire così.

Guardo il sergente. Tutti guardiamo il sergente. C’è più luce adesso che gli occhi si sono abituati. Lui si toglie l’elmetto, si asciuga il sudore con il dorso della mano lasciandosi una striscia nera sulla fronte. Ci squadra a uno a uno. Poi parla. Con voce forte e chiara, an che lui è veneto, o trentino: «Ascoltatemi bene tutti, qui non c’è più un cazzo da fare. Da ieri gli ufficiali non rispondono e secondo me se la sono già svignata perciò se non vogliamo crepare, e io non vi voglio sulla coscienza, non ci resta che arrenderci».

Silenzio.

«Però, quando usciamo da qui, che nessuno si metta in testa di fare l’eroe».

«Che cosa dobbiamo fare sergente?» chiede il bresciano.

«Usciamo da qui con le mani sopra la testa. Lasciate qui le armi» risponde lui.

«Qualcuno sa l’inglese?» chiede una voce.

«Che cosa ci faranno, sergente?» chiede un’altra.

Adesso tutti prendiamo il coraggio di parlare e sembra un pollaio.

«State zitti tutti» urla il sergente, ma poi si calma.

«Non lo so» dice sconsolato «non lo so!».

Detto questo, si fa largo nello spazio angusto del bunker, mette mano alla pesante maniglia in ferro e si decide a uscire.

«Dài andiamo fora dai cojon, stiamo uniti, proviamo a stare tutti insieme».

«Padre nostro che sei nei cieli…» qualcuno sta pregando a mezza voce.

«Chi cazzo è che prega, ostia, non è il momento di pregare» urla di nuovo il sergente e aggiunge: «Dài fuori di qui. FUORI!».

23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – THE DEFENCE POSITION ON THE ROAD APPROACHING TOBRUK. NOTE WIRE, CONCRETE PILLBOX & THE ANTI TANK GUN THAT WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DESTRUCTION OF THE Y.M.C.A. CAR. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).

Tobruk (Libia) 21 gennaio 1941 Part 1

Above Featured Photo: Gianni Senici 1985. Aged 69 years.

It is a privilege to honour the journey of Giovanni Senici, as recreated by his son Fabrizio Senici in his book P.O.W. No. 48664 Prisoner of War. Fabrizio has researched extensively his father’s story which included a visit to Australia in 2017, to walk in his father’s footsteps. Disponible su / Available on: AMAZON  and IBS LIBRI

Part 1…

Non riesco a credere che sono ancora vivo. Mi appoggio al muro, chiudo gli occhi e cerco con la mano la mia piastrina di riconoscimento. Mi dà sicurezza quel pezzo di ferro con su il mio nome. Se dovessi morire, penso, almeno sanno chi sono.

Sì, perché qui si aspetta solo di morire. Certo, se mi avessero detto che la guerra era questa, mica sarei partito fischiettando da Concesio quando mi hanno richiamato il 1° maggio.

Ho in mente questa cosa da stamattina, quando per un momento le bombe hanno smesso di fischiarmi sopra la testa. È stata dura perché sono due notti che ci bombardano. Da terra, dal mare e dal cielo. Sembra la grandinata del 1936. Una grandine così a Brescia non l’avevano mai vista. I chicchi erano grossi come uova e hanno spaccato su tutto: tetti, carri, le automobili, i vetri delle case. Ecco, le bombe degli inglesi oggi hanno fatto quella stessa roba lì, solo che i buchi sono molto più grandi.

Sono due giorni che me ne sto rintanato nella mensa ufficiali. E chi ha più avuto il coraggio di mettere fuori il naso! Sono un cameriere io, mica uno che spara. E per fortuna che non mi sono più mosso da qui, se no addio Gianni, e chissà perché rido mentre sento gli areoplani che volano bassi su Tobruk. Sarà la paura.

È mattino presto, quasi l’alba. Spio fuori dai sacchi che abbiamo messo da dieci giorni fuori dalle finestre della sala mensa. I caporioni lo sapevano da un bel po’ che saremmo stati attaccati, ma si sono guardati bene dal dircelo.

E gli ufficiali allora? Ah, quelli poi sono tutti impazziti. Qui non si capisce più niente di chi comanda e di chi non comanda. Prima ti danno un ordine, poi te ne danno un altro e intanto giù bombe. Non ho ancora finito di pensare a questa cosa che entra di corsa un alto ufficiale. Riconosco che è un colonnello dalla torretta con le tre stelle d’oro che porta sulla divisa. È tutto impolverato e perde sangue da un braccio.

Sono da solo qui dentro, e non ci dovrei stare. Che faccio? Lo saluto o non lo saluto? Poi scatto sull’attenti: «Soldato semplice addetto alla mensa ufficiali Senici Giovanni, 67a divisione Sirte» dico, e resto lì aspettando un ordine di “riposo”, ma quello passa fuori che sembra non vedermi nemmeno, allora mi rilasso e gli dico: «Sta bene, signor colonnello?».

Lui si gira, si tocca il braccio e sorridendo senza guardarmi mi dice: «Stavo meglio prima. Comunque non è niente, soldato. Grazie».

Ostia! Mi sorprende di più quel “grazie” che non trovare un po’ di acqua qui a Tobruk, e allora gli rispondo: «Prego, signor colonnello» ma in verità avrei voluto chiedergli «Che facciamo?».

E lui fa una cosa che non dimenticherò. Mi mette il braccio sano sulla spalla e mi dice: «Pensa a portare a casa la pelle, giovanotto, che qui siamo tutti come morti che camminano» e così dicendo se ne va: apre la porta delle cucine ed esce come se niente fosse, aggiustandosi l’elmetto sulla testa.

Volevo dirgli di stare attento, ma mi rimetto dietro i sacchi e lo vedo, testa alta e petto in fuori, attraversare la piazza dove ancora resiste il monumento di Mussolini con la scritta VINCERE.

Guardo quel colonnello gentile che mi ha detto “grazie” e un momento dopo non c’è più. Una granata li ha disintegrati insieme, lui e il monumento di Mussolini.

D’istinto mi tiro indietro. Ho le orecchie che fischiano per il gran botto e il cuore che batte forte in gola. Mi viene da piangere tanta è la paura. Me lo diceva sempre mio padre che noi soldati siamo solo carne da macello e che i governi sono i macellai. Non gli volevo credere, l’era semper cioc. [era sempre unbriaco]

Mi siedo su una seggiola e accendo una Milit. Tiro lunghe boccate che sentono proprio di merda e bruciano la gola e mi ricordo che ho sete.

Acqua dai rubinetti non ne viene, gli inglesi hanno bombardato per prima cosa i nostri pozzi. Allora mi attacco a una bottiglia di vino spumante mezza vuota, lì da chissà quanto.  

Adesso qui dentro, in questa cucina, è tutto calmo. Fuori c’è la guerra: scoppi, boati, urla, i cingolati che fanno un fracasso della madonna, ma qui dentro c’è una pace che si sta quasi bene. Mi fumo la mia sigaretta fino a scottarmi le dita e finalmente mi decido ad alzare il culo dalla seggiola.

Dài, forza, mi dico che l’ultima sigaretta l’ho fumata e poi penso che morirò come quel colonnello. Torno a guardare fuori dai sacchi e vedo un gruppo che corre rasente il muro del palazzo ad angolo e allora vado: mi affaccio fuori dalle cucine e prendo tutto il coraggio che ho per uscire fuori allo scoperto.

Davanti a tutti c’è un sergente che grida forte per farsi sentire sopra gli scoppi, la polvere e la gran confusione. Corro con loro con le mie braghe bianche da cameriere. Capisco che faccio anche un po’ ridere.

Tutti gridano tutto:

«Corri, corri!».

«Non fermarti!».

«Caporale, raduna i tuoi!».

«Dài, dài veloci, veloci, madonna!».

«Tenete giù la testa, tenete giù la testa!».

«Oh sergente, sono da tutte le parti questi inglesi di merda!».

Ci fermiamo un momento. Al riparo di una casa sventrata. Giro lo sguardo sui miei compagni, ma non ne conosco nessuno. Per forza mi dico, a Tobruk saremo in ventimila.

«Telefonista, chiama il comando, chiedi rinforzi!».

«Comando, comando, qui è la sessantasettesima… comando, comando… non rispondono, sergente!».

«Ma dov’è il 6° con i 50 millimetri, dove cazzo sono?».

«Dài, via di qui, non c’è più niente da fare!».

«Dài via di lì, venite via!».

«State giù, state giù!».

«Dài tutti dentro qui, al riparo, al riparo!».

Sapevo che la città era piena di bunker che sarebbero serviti proprio in caso di ultima, estrema difesa. Quelli davanti aprono con fatica la pesante porta in metallo che non vuole saperne di cedere sotto le spallate disperate dei primi della fila. Finalmente entriamo. C’è puzza di cantina ammuffita.

«Sergente, non si vede una madonna qui dentro».

«Caporale mettiti allo spioncino».

«Oh sergente fuori è pieno di inglesi».

«Caporale, non sono inglesi sono australiani».

«Peggio ancora, al corso ci hanno spiegato che questi sono come delle bestie!».

23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – LOOKING ALONG THE PIAZZA BENITO MUSSOLINI, AFTER THE ENTRANCE OF THE BRITISH FORCES. (AWM Image 005416 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.

 

Captured…On the Move

NorthAfrica.India.Australia

Once captured, Italian prisoners of war were impounded in temporary caged compounds in the deserts of North Africa.  They were then taken to Egypt and processed.  Each prisoner of war was given a M/E number (Middle East) and a card was sent to the families notifying them that their son or husband or father was a prisoner of war. From Egypt they were sent around the world: South Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, England, Canada and USA.

Costanzo Melino’s journey took him to India and then to Australia.  He worked on a farm in the Gympie district before being repatriated to Italy.  He returned to Australia post-war, sponsored by his Gympie employer,  his family joined him  and eventually they settled in northern NSW.

Costanzo Melino was captured at Bardia on 4th January 1941.

Costanzo Melino remembers:

Forty-seven thousand Italians were taken prisoner of war by the 8th Battalion of English under General Wavell. Our General at that time was Annibale Bergonzoli. My captain was Alberto Agostinelli.  We were taken to internment camps by foot.  We were given little to eat or drink.

Water 4159600

Italian prisoners Mersa Matruh getting their water tank filled. They were allowed half a gallon per man per day.” Image from a large album of 86 pages containing 1858 photographs associated with the service of Lieutenant Robert Otto Boese

(Australian War Memorial, Image P05182.012)

In February 1941, we were sent to Port Said in the Suez Canal and the following month to Bombay where the heat was unbearable and many Italians died of heat exhaustion.

These camps were well run by the English.  We were given baths and we had Indian cooks.  There were toilets and we were fed well although we all got sick as we were not used to the English diet.  After this the English asked us to cook our own meals which we did gladly, making our own tagliatelle and gnocchi from the flour.  There were at least three thousand prisoners divided ingroups of one hundred. We were counted twice a day. We were fenced in and surrounded by armed guards so that we could not escape.

V-P-HIST-03469-24

Original tent camp 1941 Bangalore Italian Prisoners of War

(Maddy’s Ramblings maddy06.blogspot.com.au )

Having nothing else to do, a lot of prisoners devoted their time to study.  I studied Italian and English.  We didn’t stay in the one place for long in India.  We were constantly moved and constantly guarded by Indian soldiers.  The German prisoners were kept separate to us.  When the Italians surrendered to General Dwight David Eisenhower we were sent to Australia to work on farms. It appeared that the two million U.S. servicemen in Australia needed food.  The U.S. headquarters was in Brisbane commanded by General Douglas MacArthur.  It was the U.S. who commanded us in Australian as they had civil and military control.

The English in India said to us: “Now you’ve surrendered we are allies so now you’ll have to go to work to feed yourselves.  You’ll be free in Australia and they’ll even pay you for your work”. Of course we were all happy, leaving the camps singing.  However, as soon as we boarded the train we found the Indian soldiers hidden in the train and at the next stop we got off in our usual manner as prisoners of war.  We were really only free when we got to Naples in 1947.

Capture.Surrender.Imprisonment

North Africa.QueenMary.Australia

The North African Campaign began in June 1940. The Italian soldiers were in the main conscripted who had undergone the most basic of training.  Not only were food and water in short supply by weaponry was inferior to that of the  Allies, tactical attacks not supported by aerial and navy divisions and provision of armaments was slow to appear.

Antonino Lumia has had his memories of being a soldier in the Italian army and prisoner of war in Australia recorded for posterity.   Lumia’s words were recorded by his grandson Damiano and can be heard via YouTube,  Antonino Lumia POW in Australia 1941-1946.

This recording is an invaluable insight into the personal experiences of the ordinary men who were caught up in the politics of war.  Lumia had his 28th birthday in the north African desert and was captured at Tobruk.

Special acknowledgement to Damiano Lumia for allowing for his work and the words of  Antonino to be reproduced here as part of this project.  His  assistance is invaluable as these memories provide depth and perspective for this history.

Antonino Lumia was captured at Tobruk 22nd January 1941

Antonino Lumia reminsices :

We took a white sheet. Sign of surrender. We hijacked our guns. Unlike the enemy.

Very soon after the tanks …… we could hear: “come! Come! Come! We are there, prisoners!

Everyone took his things. One can. A piece of bread. The captain shared the stocks.

They surrounded us like sheep. A tank in front of us … another behind. And we all, prisoners, in column. When the English and the Australians arrived … … to our captain … … they confiscated the watch, its binoculars …… his belt, his weapon. All our watches were confiscated.

To some soldiers their wallets, personal photographs. We walked towards their lines.

We were locked up in an airport. Not food. No water.

POW cage 3955959

Tobruk, Libya. 1941-03 to 1941-06. Originally an Italian ammunition storage area this section was converted into a prisoner of war cage after the first battle.  It held as many as 15,000 prisoners at a time.  Litter in the picture includes cast-off clothing and empty ‘bully-beef’ tins.  Two members of the ‘Olds and Bolds’, 1st Australian Corps Guard Battalion, in their temporary camp in the area.

(Australia War Memorial, Image 020079)

Encircled by tanks …

… if one of our soldiers approached the barriers he risked being killed. When we walked … dead on the side of the road. Close to me a corpse. Lying on the side of the road. Forbidden to approach it.

If we dared to do it, from the top of their tanks … a shot …… our turn to be killed.

They shut us in at this airport. 140000 men. No place to sleep. 140000 men … 140000 men …

No food. No water. The next day, some cried. Others said, “I shall never see my wife again.”

“I will never see my daughter again.” Discouraged. One of our Sergeant Major …… only son …

… born in Vittoria …… his mother treated him like a young lady. He was crying. “If my mother knew it.”

“In what condition I am”. He was wearing a scarf. Sand everywhere on him.

There the sand flew very high. When some of us started dying … … the British collected seawater in petrol cans. The drinking-water cisterns had been destroyed by us, Italian.

They were all made to explode, so as not to give them to the enemy. They brought sea water.

They lined the barrels of oil, full of sea water. A hundred barrels. Threatened by their weapons, they were grouped together. “First line, kneeling!” We walked on our knees.

“Line number two, on your knees!” They formed about fifty lines. I did not have a container.

I got near the barrels. In my throat bits of sand. I began to drink despite the oil that floated on the sea water. An armed Australian was looking at me. “No good! No good!”

Not good … I just stood up. Regardless of oil, sea water … … I had a saucepan … … I fill it and go back to those who had drunk. I detached my military insignia. Two green and red bands.

I made a cross on my clothes with the insignia. I wanted to make them believe I was a nurse.

“This one can pass …” “He will help us, transport the sick …”

POW medical station6053463

Bardia, Libya. 1941-01-04. An Italian prisoner of war (POW) posing with a stretcher bearer at a dressing station operated by the 6th Division. (Original housed in AWM Archive Store)

(Australian War Memorial, Image P02038.080)

I crossed their lines thanks to the badge of the red cross. Again I approach the barrels. I take an Italian soldier over me. “Pretend to be dead”

We’ll drink again! I lifted this stranger on my shoulders. With this stratagem, I made several round trips. I drank and gave drink to the “sick”. I made three trips.

I’ve never had so much water. I was overjoyed. Despite the traces of oil.

At night we lay down on the ground. If it was raining or cold … … with a blanket we gathered to four …

… our breaths warmed us. Eight days of this life. Bitter as the poison. Lice … … our clothes were filled …… our flesh were bloody … scratching lesions.

One morning, very early, they woke us up with their weapons. I said to my cousin, “Standing, let’s see where they take us.” A group of 2,000 soldiers came out. Again a march, framed by soldiers.

Head towards the port of Tobruk. In the port there were their kitchens. On the ground there were orange peel. Lemon peel.I fill my pockets.It’s always there to feed me. From time to time I ate a peel.

I ate everything. The sand, the bark of fruit. On a boat, we joined the ship, 20 soldiers at a time.

It was a food transport ship. They grouped us in 3 holds. No water. No toilets.

Everyone went to the toilet in front of the others. Luckily they kept the light. The ship went away.

arrival in Egypt. Ready to disembark.

We were on deck. The Egyptians insult us: “Mussolini … Mussolini .. to death!” The English intervened. They beat them with their truncheons. “Leave them alone … they are hungry, are full of lice …”. We got off the ship.On trucks, we traveled inside the country. They grouped us in tents.

Near the sea. Meat arrived in their kitchen. Their military doctor said: “This meat is infected …

… forbidden to share with the prisoners “.They buried everything. I and my cousin have observed everything. A semi-raw meat, potatoes … That night, cousin … At nightfall, kneeling, in the sand, …

A potato was found. It’s here, cousin. We filled our towels, headed for the tent.

The next day, it was washed 20 times. Sand …It was cooked with a little water …

We mixed everything with our daily pasta. That was delicious.

I had received 35 cigarettes for a week. I am not a smoker. You smoke? Here’s this. Give me your bread.

After 8 days, in Egypt, passage to the baths.The goal was to decontaminate us. We changed clothes.

We went back to the canal. Mussolini paid very dearly for the passing of his people. Indian soldiers arrived.

Indian soldiers

An Indian soldier guards a group of Italian prisoners near El Adem aerodrome, during the pursuit of Axis forces westwards after the relief of Tobruk.

(Imperial War Museum, Image E7180)

8 of us had been designated to clean up their garrison. Clean the toilet, pass the brush, collect garbage …I say to my cousin: “Let’s go …… maybe we could eat. I took a big wipe. Around my belt. Cousin, let’s see if there is food.

When we had finished cleaning, the guard gave us a cigarette each. As I did not smoke, I gave it to my cousin. We observed that they threw their waste into a barrel. I stretched my wipe.

I plunge my hands into their trash. I plunge my hands, and lifts this mud. Very acid.

He was warmed up between soldiers. We were hungry. Each day eight pasta and a piece of bread were received. I ran away with the towel. The guard said, “That’s not good!” … Shut up.

For you it is not good. For me it is excellent. In the tent I cut this mud with my knife.

I stirred up all this with our meal.

After eight days. Head towards the Suez Canal. We embarked (Queen Mary)

I asked, “Where are we going?” … “we do not know, perhaps in the United States, or in India …”.

I’ll see where we’ll end up. On this ship they ate.

A ship carrying 15,000 men. Each had his bed.I got on deck. I was walking. When my cousin came. He wore a towel filled with bread.He had cleaned the beautiful walls of the boat. He took all the loaves. I saw him on the deck of the boat: “come cousin …”We sat on the floor. And we ate.

Order was given to walk barefoot on the boat.The shoes damaged the floor.

It was a luxury ship. A captain came to meet us. “Come, come.” What does this man want? Lets go see… We needed follow-up. We went down the stairs. A commander was waiting for us, as well as an Italian interpreter.

The commander tells us: “I have ordered you to walk barefoot, and you, abusively, wear your shoes!”

But I can not walk barefoot. Give us sandals … The sergeant major thought I was standing up to the interpreter. He shouted, “Shut up!”

 

Queen Mary

In the main mess hall on board the SS QUEEN MARY (formerly the First Class dining saloon) where more than 2,000 troops can be fed at one sitting. In peacetime it used to take 800 First Class passengers but now sittings go on from 6 am till 9 pm.

(Imperial War Museum, Coote, R.G.G. (Lt) Image A25924)

Give us our sanction. If it’s impossible to express why we drove here? We were following the sentinel. They gave us white blankets. Beautiful covers with silk edges. He leads us to the front of the ship, where the chimney is. He locked us in a room full of soot. We lay down on our blankets.

We’ll see tomorrow morning … The next morning they brought us a half bucket of coffee.

No bread, nothing else.We split the bucket.

After 24 hours of confinement … … we went out …

My cousin looked at me and said, “you are blackened from head to toe”

My dear cousin, if I am blackened, you are in a totally indescribable state!

We slept in the soot.The blankets had become black …We went back to our beds.

One day a prisoner died on board. They packed it in a bag and thrown it into the water.The priest took his papers. Queen Mary.

We arrived in Australia.

POW boat

Italian Prisoners of War – Italian prisoners of war bound for a prisoner-of-war camp, disembarking following their arrival in Australia.

(National Archives of Australia, NAA: A11663, PA 189)