Food… finally

Food… water… the most basic of necessities was in short supply for the Italians after capture.  Providing food and water to 40,000 prisoners of war after the capture of Bardia or to 28,000 after the surrender of Tobruk was a logistical nightmare for the Allied forces.

At the Tobruk [prisoner of war]Cage it was reported that, “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… 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.

(From AUSTRALIA IN THE WAR OF 1939-1945 SERIES ONE ARMY

VOLUME I TO BENGHAZI AUSTRALIA IN THE WAR OF 1939-1945

SERIES 1 (ARMY ) I . To Benghazi. By Gavin Long. *

Volume 1 Chapter 9 Capture of Tobruk)

The featured photo is dated 22 January 1943: COME AND GET IT. HUNGRY GERMAN AND ITALIAN PRISONERS TAKEN BY THE 8TH ARMY RECEIVE A RATION OF BULLY BEEF AND BISCUITS. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY). It illustrates the distribution of food as reported above: tinned meat and biscuits.

The hunger pains and the lack of food security contributed to fear of starvation and dehydration. Thirst was more pressing, made worse by the fact that the tinned meat was highly salted.

In the camps of Egypt, one would either smoke or eat. Cigarettes were currency and would be exchanged for bread. Italians took up the offer to work outside the camps or within the British Officers’ compounds. Any opportunity which offered a chance to scrounge found was taken.

Secret Document: “Ration scale to be applied in respect of prisoners of war, all ranks, from Middle East in Troop Transports” indicates that the Italians on the ships, at least for the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth voyages of 1941 were well fed.

This view is supported by written testimonies of Italians on two separate voyages of the Queen Mary

steaming food… hot tea… bread… butter… jam

breakfast…lunch…dinner

dream or reality

(AWM2021.8.387)

Suspicious that the first meals were a ruse, minds turned to thoughts that soon, life would return to days of hunger.

Will tomorrow be the day that the food rations are reduced?

Will tomorrow be the day that hunger returns?

Italians took opportunities to volunteer to work in the kitchens or galleys to ensure food security.  In time, the Italians realised that they would always have enough food and they drifted away from ‘work’.

Kindness was shown to the Italians by the British ship’s crew: a box of capstan cigarette and matches, being taken to a crew’s cabin for a shower, a bowl of plum-pudding, slices of ham, delicious apricot tart, issue of white clothing and apron for kitchen work; and the Australian soldiers: cigarettes, pressed tobacco and papers.

For c. three weeks from Suez to Sydney with three meals a day, the daunting concerns were now:

will we have enough food in the camps in Australia?

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