Costanzo Melino: Italian Soldier: 20 years old
(from Anzaro: The Home of my Ancestors)
Costanzo Melino’s memoirs are part of ANZANO – The Home of my Ancestors, written by his daughter Rosa Melino. From Anzano he was conscripted and sent to Libya to fight Mussolini’s war. His recollections are invaluable in providing the personal experiences of a shepherd who was captured at the Battle of Bardia and shipped to Australia as a prisoner of war.
Special thanks to Rosa Melino for allowing for her work and the words of Costanzo to be reproduced here as part of this project. Her assistance is invaluable as these memories provide depth and perspective for this history.
Costanzo Melino was captured at Bardia 4th January 1941
I didn’t want to fight. I always wondered ‘Why me?’ We were rounded up and taken to army barracks where we were given our uniforms…. I was appointed to the 21st Artillery Regiment of the Army Corps and then we were sent to the front. You can imagine the effect upon a young man who had never seen or learnt much. I was taken out of school aged seven and sent to look after the sheep with my grandfather. My grandfather died in March 1935, but in 1921 Mussolini had made a law that all children had to go to school until the age of 15, (that’s one good thing the dictator did), but it was too late for me.
We were sent along with other boys from my class in Anzano on the Julius Caesar to Bengazi in Libya. This took us two days at sea. Bengazi was an Italian colony in those days. We had to drink sterilized sea water which was salty and hot. I was very sick. I was called up on 2nd February 1940 and sent to fight in Benghazi in Libya. Our Commander was Annibalo Bergonsoli. He used to have a long beard and we nicknamed him ‘Barba Elettrica’. We certainly met war and we did not recover from the shock.
We ate bread and water and were covered in fleas and sand from the Sahara Desert. I had to learn to wash my own clothes once a week. We were woken and were marched and exercised and then we were lined up and given coffee at 7 a.m. in the morning. We were instructed until lunch time and then we were line up for lunch at 1 p.m. Then we were instructed again until 4 p.m. and again we were lined up and given our meal of ‘pasta asciutta’ or ‘minestrone’ or ‘risotto’. We were also given some meat, half a litre of wine and two rolls of bread per day. We had to be respectful to our superiors, and if we weren’t we were placed in confinement by our Colonel Commander. Water was rationed. From 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. we were free and we could go to the city of Bengazi. We would go and look at the shops and if any soldier had some money he would buy what he needed. We were always watched by other soldiers doing the rounds – usually in groups of three. We could not speak with the Arabs and we had to return at the right time. We had to salute our officials. Italo Balbi was the Italian Governor at the time.
North Africa: Western Desert. Developed from a film taken from captured Italian prisoners at Bardia. c. 1940
(Australian War Memorial, Robert Otto Boese, Image P05182.051)
When the war broke we were commanded by Colonel Mario Bombagli to go to the Egyptian border between Bardia and Tobruk. One hundred thousand Italian soldiers of the various Infantry, Bersaglieri, Engineering and Artillery were killed there. It was called the ‘Front Cerinaico’. There were so many men and so little equipment. It was a desert with no water. It was hot during the day and freezing at night. Bombs fell frequently upon us from overhead planes. We were given orders to attack only when the enemy fired first.
In August 1940, we were given the order to advance into Egyptian territory. The Italian forces won ‘Siti Barrani’ in Egypt, but that too was a desert. The desert winds would blow the sand and we could not even see. We had to stay until the tempest passed. At night we slept in the ‘trincee’ or tunnels that we built ourselves to protect us from the enemy bombardments. We were given two litres of water and little food.
In October 1940, we were surrounded by the English and we lost ground and had to return to Bardia where after many battles we were defeated.