India: Free Italy Movement

Italia Redenta

A special thank you to Francesca Moltedo. In a conversation I had with her about Bardia, she told me about the Italian Redenta Unit in India. Her father, Luigi Moltedo, was the Assistant Adjutant of Italia Redenta.  Francesca continues to work through her father’s papers to elicit more information about this interesting ‘forgotten’ history.

Italian Redenta’:  I was unfamiliar with this term.  I did a few google searches and came up blank. I tried the British Archives, British Library, the Imperial War Museum and still there was no information to be found.  What was this army unit of Italian prisoners of war under British command in India?  What was its purpose?

Hopefully more information will be shared by Italian families whose fathers and grandfathers who were also in the Italia Redenta.

Information for this article has been taken from The British Empire and its Italian Prisoners of War, 1940-1947 by Bob Moore and Kent Fedorowich.

The Italia Redenta was developed as part of the Allies’ “Free Italy Movement” plan. Its aim was to enlist the support of anti-fascist Italian prisoners of war in India.  Two years of planning and preparation by the Political Warfare Executive Mission to India (PWE***) saw the establishment of Italia Redenta [Italy Redeemed] in Jaipur January 1943.

The PWE was responsible for the propaganda war against the Axis and had direct influence in India to gauge the political persuasions of the Italian prisoners of war and enlist the support of non-fascists in the POW camps. By February 1943, there were 68,000 Italian prisoners of war in India.

The long term plan of the PWE was to enlist co-operative Italian POWs in turning the tide of the war against the Germans in Italy.  Segregating fascists (black) POWs  from non-fascists (white) POWs was the first move and then a special camp at Jaipur in Rajasthan would be established for this ‘pioneer corps’ under British command.  Eventually, from this pioneer corps, Italians would be recruited to a Free Italian Force.

A list of 3,000 anti-fascist Italian POWs was to be compiled with the first group of 1,000 to be sent to Jaipur to a special complex.  Construction which began in August 1942 was slow and by the end of January 1943, accommodation for 200 officers and 1,000 other ranks was completed. The plan was to transfer another 3,000 anti-fascist POWs once further building was completed and ultimately the camp would house 10,000 within a five month time frame.

The Italia Redenta was named and the POWs were to be involved in providing technical support in India or to assist as guides for the upcoming invasions of Sicily and mainland Italy.  The volunteers were led by their own officers and wore a uniform similar to that of the British with an Italia Redenta emblem embroidered onto their left sleeve.

The exact time of the demise of the Italia Redenta is difficult to pinpoint.  Australia’s application in May 1943 for 10,000 anti-fascists from India for farm work in Australia is given as one contributing factor. Around this time,  the PWE mission to India was withdrawn to UK or Middle East.  Events in Europe such as the Allies’ invasion of Sicily in July 1943, Mussolini’s resignation on 25th July 1943 and Italy’s declaration of war on Germany on 13th October 1943 also contributed to a slow death of the Italia Redenta as there was no longer a need for a Free Italy movement.

Some of the men from Italia Redenta made their way to Australia and farm work.  Others were sent to UK and Middle East. For those who remained in India, a plan was devised for these prisoners to form their own small units of 250 men each to be deployed in India on vital military projects such infrastructure building, but this was short lived.  India was in famine; military food supplies were being rerouted for civilian use and the War Department in India preferred all Italian POWs to be removed from India.

Whites vs Blacks

In the POW camps in India, fascist activity whereby threats to Italian soldiers and their families in Italy was rife. Moore and Fedorowich state, “At one POW facility, Fascist membership cards had been fashioned from cigarette cartons, and a nominal roll of all members and their activities within the camp was kept, as well as the record of the movements of Fascists between camps.  The Fascists have made it know that they are keeping a tally of each prisoner for report back to Rome.” Conversely, anti-fascist Italian POWs feared retributions to their families in Italy as fascist cells kept lists of names of collaborators.  Threats to send this information to Italy and to fascist members in villages weighed heavily on those ‘captives’ in India. Moore and Fedorowich state, “…those POWs who had openly declared their support for the Allied cause who would suffer the bitterest disappointment. They and their families had taken great risks in wholeheartedly assisting the PWE in the formation of the Italia Redenta.  Men had been intimidated and beaten up by ‘blacks’ in the camps, and there were several unconfirmed cases where the families of several co-operators had been made to suffer as well.”

Political Warfare Executive

*** During World War II, the Political Warfare Executive was a British clandestine body created to produce and disseminate both white and black propaganda, with the aim of damaging enemy morale and sustaining the morale of the Occupied countries. The Executive was formed in August 1941, reporting to the Foreign Office. Wikipedia

Last two groups of Italian prisoners of war  sent to Australia

Melon (arrived Melbourne 29.12.44) and General William Mitchell (arrived Melbourne 13.2.45) brought the last 3067 Italian prisoners of war to Australia from India.  These Italians were given an Australia prisoner of war number prefaced by PWIX = Prisoner of War Italian Fascist.  Possibly these men were segregated in 1943 from the rest of the Italian POWs in India, as part of the Political Warfare Executive’s Italia Redenta plan.

Origin of PWIX - Copy.jpg

16 January 1945 War Diary Entry for General William Mitchell Italian POWs

AWM 52 1/1/14 War Diary Headquarters Unit January to April 1945

Some of these men have only the word Blackshirt  recorded on their documents.  Others have general words like Army or Navy. And others give specific details eg 154 Leg. C.C.N.N. Blackshirt; 129 Btn BS; 360 Antoreparto (motor transport); G. Pai Questura Dello Scioa; M.V.S.N. (Blackshirt); 211th Inf.; Navy-Radio; 4th Div. 3rd Gennaro 170 Bat. B/S; 203rd Machine Gun Unit; 2nd Btn Engineer; 158 Reg. Infantry; 132 Batt C.C.N.N. Div 28 Ottobro; Sussistenza; 61 Batt. Mitraglieri.

Men from these two transport ships, went to work on farms without breach of discipline incidents.

NAA MP1103 1 PWIX67417

NAA: MP1103/1, PWIX67417 Di Vivo, Michele

Reference

Moore, B and Fedorowich, K The British Empire and its Italian Prisoners of War, 1940-1947, Palgrave, Hampshire, 2002.

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