Italian Interpreters

A 3rd June 1941 article reported that with the impending arrival of Italian prisoners of war to Australia, there was an urgent need for more interpreters.  The prerequisites for the job: a thorough knowledge of Italian; British-born with a preference given to those outside the AIF age limit.

It is interesting that on 27th May 1941, over 2000 Italian prisoners of war had already landed in Sydney and been transferred to Hay PW Camp.

On 23th June 1941 a newspaper report told the story of a 28 year old Maltese cook. The Maltese cook was the first to apply for an interpreter job, being fluent in English, Italian, Arabic and Latin.

In a July 1941 report, two months after the arrival of the Italian prisoners of war at Hay, there were no Australian army interpreters on site. “There are no interpreters in this Camp and not one of the P.O.W.s can speak English… The need for interpreters was obvious from every angle of administration, discipline, medical, dental, control of working parties, etc. This lack of interpreters places a great strain on the effective administration and is one that calls for immediate adjustment.” In quick response to this report,two sergeant interpreters had been dispatched to Hay, but “the appointees are not Italians”.

By 13th June 1942, it is reported that Sapper W.M. Crichton had been appointed as an interpreter to Italian prisoners of war.  Sapper Crichton had entered Tobruk on the day of its capture 22nd January 1941; acted as interpreter for Italian civilian engineers who helped repair water pipes carrying water to a prisoner of war camp housing 80,000 prisoners; on the ship from Middle East to India, acted as interpreter for 1000 Italian prisoners who were landed at Bombay.  He also spoke French and Arabic.

A December 1942 report for Cowra Camp indicates that the official allocation for Cowra Camp was eight Lieutenants and eight sergeants: two officers and two N.C.O.s per compound.  The reality was that the deficiency of staff was six officers and 2 sergeants.  Cowra Camp accommodated: 12A Italian prisoners of war, 12B Javanese Civilians, 12C Italian civilian internees, 12D Italian prisoners of war and Japanese prisoners of war.

The interpreters were as follows:

Camps 12A and 12B:

Lieutenant with Italian, German and French. Fair linguist and helpful type.

Sergeant with Italian, Maltese, Latin, French. Maltese and very good linguist. Hates Italians.

Sergeant with Italian, German, French, Spanish, Arabic and Latin. Egyptian born. Good Italian linguist. Suspected of fraternising with PW.

Camps 12C and 12D:

Lieutenant with Italian, Japanese, German, Malay, French, Hebrew, Russian, Spanish. A Russian Jew who is prone to fraternisation. Useful with Japanese in the absence of other Japanese interpreters.

Sergeant with Spanish, Italian, French, Maltese, Greek, Arabic, Latin. Maltese with poor English but a good Italian linguist. Does not fraternise with PW.

Sergeant with Italian, French, Spanish. Frenchman. Honest and trustworthy. Fair linguist.

Sergeant with Italian, French, Maltese.  Maltese. Good linguist. Believed not to fraternise.

Sergeant with Italian, Arabic. Maltese. Fair linguist but unreliable.  A non-fraterniser with PW.

By 18th April 1944, there was further need for Italian interpreters as was advertised in the newspapers:

1944 ‘Italian Interpreters Needed’, Daily Examiner (Grafton, NSW : 1915 – 1954), 18 April, p. 2. , viewed 11 Mar 2022,

With the transfer of Italian PWs from camps to control centres and farming communities there was an increased need for interpreters. Across Australia, there were 96 control centres.

Notice that by 1944, instead of ‘British subjects’ only being accepted, applications would also be taken from ‘naturalised Italians’.

Unfortunately, this is a topic for which very little has been documented.

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